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Irregular Enemies and the Essence of Strategy: Can the American Way of War Adapt?

Authored by Dr. Colin S. Gray. | March 2006

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Can the traditional American way of war adapt so as to be effective against irregular enemies? An endeavor to answer that question shapes and drives this inquiry. In order to address the question constructively, the author is obliged to explore and explain the nature and relations among three elements fundamental to our problem. Those elements are strategy, irregular enemies, and the American way of war. Carl von Clausewitz offered his theory of war in terms of a ?remarkable trinity composed of primordial violence, hatred, and enmity . . . the play of chance and probability . . . and subordination, as an instrument of policy, which makes it subject to reason alone.? He defined his task as a need ?to develop a theory that maintains a balance between these three tendencies, like an object suspended between three magnets.? The theoretical analogy may be imperfect, but still it is useful. Just as Clausewitz sought to explain war, and wars, as the product of inherently unstable relations among passion, chance, and reason, so this monograph has at its core the unstable interactions among irregular enemies, strategy, and the American way of war. Unlike Clausewitz, however, our purpose is not to develop or improve on general theory. Instead, the intention is to confront and try to answer the very specific question with which this summary began. To that end, strategic theory is deployed here pragmatically, as an aid to soldiers and officials who face challenges of a most pressing and serious character.

This inquiry defines and explains the essence of strategy. Next, it identifies what is distinctive about irregular enemies and the kinds of warfare they wage. Then the analysis proceeds to outline the fairly long-enduring traditional American way of war, and considers critically the fit between the many separate elements of that ?way? and the requirements of sound practice in the conduct of warfare against irregulars. It concludes with a three-point argument which binds together the otherwise somewhat disparate topics and material.

The purpose of this monograph, beyond the commitment to offer some useful education, includes a desire to help explain better to the defense community both what it ought to know already, and?most especially?how the separate pieces of the trinitarian puzzle relate to each other. Much, probably most, of the content of the monograph is already familiar to many people, but it is not really familiar enough. Everyone interested in security affairs, surely, believes he/she understands strategy, irregular warfare, and the American way in war, but just how well are these elements comprehended, and are the consequences of their unstable interaction grasped securely? We think not. The monograph should make it difficult, not impossible, of course, for its readers to remain confused about the basics. These pages lay out in explicit detail the nature of strategy, irregular warfare, and?last, but not least?the long-preferred American way. But what does it all mean?

Both explicitly and implicitly, the monograph asks questions of the American defense community at all levels of behavior: strategic, operational, and tactical. The three conclusions explain the essential unity of the consequences of performance at these levels. We find that:

  1. War is war and strategy is strategy. Strategically approached, there is only war and warfare. It does not matter whether a conflict is largely of a regular or an irregular character; Clausewitz?s general theory of war and strategy applies equally to both. The threat or use of force is instrumental for political purposes. The kinds of warfare are of no relevance whatever to the authority of the general theory of strategy. In short, irregular warfare, waged by a range of irregular enemies, is governed by exactly the same lore as is regular warfare, viewed strategically.
  2. The United States has a persisting strategy deficit. Americans are very competent at fighting, but they are much less successful in fighting in such a way that they secure the strategic and, hence, political, rewards they seek. The United States continues to have difficulty regarding war and politics as a unity, with war needing to be permeated by political considerations.
  3. American public, strategic, and military culture is not friendly >to the means and methods necessary for the waging of warfare against irregular enemies. The traditional American way of war was developed to defeat regular enemies. It reflects many of the strengths of American society and culture. Alas, one military style does not suit all kinds of warfare equally well. The fit between the traditional ?American way,? and the requirements of counterinsurgency and counterterrorism, for example, falls far short of perfect. The pertinent question, therefore, is ?Can that traditional way of war adapt so as to be effective against irregular enemies?? The answer of this monograph is ?perhaps, but only with difficulty.? The analysis and arguments presented here should help reduce the difficulty.


Today the armed forces of the United States are struggling to contain and defeat an insurgency on the continent of Asia. Does that sound familiar? Strategic history is truly cyclical, a judgment resisted weakly and unsuccessfully by those who believe in progress in strategic affairs.4 This monograph attempts what its title flags: to consider irregular warfare in the light of strategy, and?no less important?to examine the strengths and weaknesses of the historically dominant American way in warfare with reference to their consequences for the conduct of war against irregular enemies. The less challenging and controversial part of the monograph explains the relationship between irregular enemies and warfare on one hand, and the essence of strategy on the other. That essence is as certain and enduring a composite of ingredients as irregular enemies are disparate and, to a degree, unpredictable. By far the most difficult task undertaken here is the effort to answer the question in the subtitle: ?Can the American way of war adapt?? Is the United States, and not only its military tool, able to perform effectively, which is to say (grand) strategically, against irregular enemies? The principal mission of this inquiry is to probe systematically the elements of the American way of war in the light of what Americans have to be able to do, and the way they need to behave, in order to succeed in warfare against irregulars. Clausewitz is essential for our education, but as he insisted, though his general theory can help prepare us for the specific challenges we actually face, it can never ?construct an algebraic formula for use on the battlefield.?5

After a decade wandering in the policy and strategy wilderness, we strategists, in common with our politicians, have returned to a security context marked by a clear definition of era-defining threat. Strategists thrive on bad news. When it does not really exist, we do our best to invent it. Any strategic theorist worthy of the title can put together a menacing-looking threat briefing at the hint of a contract. The difficulty was that for a decade, from 1991 to 2001, few people believed our professional pessimism. In January 1994 I gave my inaugural lecture at the University of Hull in which I described the 1990s as an interwar period.6 Some people found this to be shockingly atavistic. Surely, peace had broken out and, despite the host of more or less irregular wars underway at the time, large-scale war between states was now obsolete, or at least obsolescent. To talk of the 1990s as an interwar period seemed to some to be almost criminally backward-looking.

Well, here we are in 2006, and the Department of Defense (DoD) has issued a document with the imposing title, National Defense Strategy of the United States of America. The first sentence on page one of this august offering states without qualification, ?America is a nation at war.?7 I hesitate to say, ?I told you so,? but I will say it anyway. Bad times always return in world politics. I do not know how many Americans feel as if they are at war, since not too many of war?s characteristic hardships are being suffered by most people. I can assure you, though, that America?s allies in Europe certainly do not feel themselves to be countries at war. One of the burdens of greatness is that the sheriff of world order is obliged to undertake, quite disproportionately, the heavy lifting for security on behalf of what we term, not without some irony, the international community.8

The no-name post-Cold War era is well and truly over: it detonated on September 11, 2001 (9/11). For a decade, the threat board had been misleadingly naked of major strategic menace. Without the True North of the Soviet threat by which to set a reliable guiding vector, the American defense community did not really know what it was about or, more important, why it might be about it. For the better part of 10 years, we debated the idea and meaning of a Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA). This exciting concept appealed to historians and to the many technophiles among us. But the debate was not exactly overburdened with strategic argument. Historically viewed, strategic thought, as a practical subject, tends to slumber between episodes of security alarm. The French philosopher Raymond Aron made this point exactly, when he wrote in 1968 that ?Strategic thought draws its inspiration each century, or rather at each moment of history, from the problems which events themselves pose.?9 This is the reason why bookshop shelves today are groaning under the burden of good, bad, and ugly works on terrorism and insurgency. Only 5 or 6 years ago, it was a struggle to find anything on irregular unpleasantness. Those of us with gray hair will recall that Nikita Khrushchev?s general declaration of support for wars of national liberation, and the enthusiastic response of the Kennedy administration to that challenge, sparked a similar flurry of studies of guerrilla warfare and related topics. No doubt some 30 or 40 years from now, in best or worst cyclical fashion, a new wave of irregular strategic happenings will trigger yet another burst of writing on ?small wars? (wars between regulars and irregulars).10 Another generation of strategic thinkers will rediscover the obvious, or at least they will rediscover what we know today. They will invent an impressive-sounding concept, some equivalent to Fourth Generation Warfare, and give dazzling briefings to credulous officials in need of an icon of strategic assuredness.11

The idea that strategy has an essence is deeply attractive. It sounds like something incredibly rare and valuable which could be bottled and sold. Perhaps, belatedly, I can make my fortune selling Gray?s ?essence of strategy.? Unfortunately, American understanding of strategy, and sound practice of it, is almost desperately rare. Strategic thinking and behavior worthy of the name are endangered activities in this country. This is hardly a stunningly original insight. But familiar though the criticism should be, it loses none of its bite for its longevity. Much as the U.S. defense community periodically is prodded by irregularist anxiety to worry about insurgency and terrorism, so from time to time it remembers the value of strategy. Many American defense professionals do not really know what strategy is or how it works.12 After all, responsibility for it is well above their pay grades, but they know that it is a Very Big and Very Important Matter. The pattern has been one wherein a politician or two, or a senior official, with a personal interest, has lit the fire of genuinely strategic discussion. The fire flares brightly for a brief spell, but then dies away for want of fuel. The fire is not fed because there is not much demand for the heat and light of truly strategic argument in the United States. Ours is not quite a strategy-free environment, but such a characterization errs less than we would like to admit.

Now that I have somewhat prepared the battlespace, it is high time to declare the plot of this inquiry.


4 The cyclical view of strategic history is presented and defended in Colin S. Gray, Another Bloody Century: Future Warfare, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2005.

5. Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Michael Howard and Peter Paret, trans., Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976, pp. 141, 578 (hereafter cited as Clausewitz).

6.Colin S. Gray, Villains, Victims and Sheriffs: Strategic Studies for an Inter-War Period, An inaugural lecture at the University of Hull, January 12, 1994, Hull, UK: University of Hull Press, 1994. Reprinted in Comparative Strategy, Vol. 13, No. 4, October-December 1994, pp. 353-369.

7.Donald H. Rumsfeld, The National Defense Strategy of the United States of America, Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Defense, March 2005, p. 1.

8.See Colin S. Gray, The Sheriff: America?s Defense of the New World Order, Lexington, KY: University Press of Kentucky, 2004. I seem to specialize in controversial concepts and metaphors. My characterization of the United States as the contemporary global sheriff is about as popular as was my description of the 1990s as an interwar period.

9.Raymond Aron, ?The Evolution of Modern Strategic Thought,? in Alastair Buchan, ed., Problems of Modern Strategy, London: ISS, 1970, p. 25.

10.Callwell, Small Wars, p. 21.

11.Thomas X. Hammes, The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century, St. Paul, MN: Zenith Press, 2004.

12.For some basic education, see Clausewitz, esp. Book 3, ch. 1. Also see Colin S. Gray, Modern Strategy, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999, ch. 1; Richard K. Betts, ?Is Strategy an Illusion?? International Security, Vol. 25, No. 2, Fall 2000, pp. 5-50; and Hew Strachan, ?The Lost Meaning of Strategy,? Survival, Vol. 47, No. 3, Autumn 2005, pp. 33-54.