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"Making Riflemen from Mud: Restoring the Army's Culture of Irregular Warfare

Authored by Lieutenant Colonel James D. Campbell. | October 2007

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Prior to World War II, the Army had a deeply ingrained facility with and acceptance of what we now term unconventional warfare?raising, training, advising, and cooperating with tribal militias, local paramilitaries, and other nonstate armed groups. This culture of irregular warfare was attributable to nearly 300 years of American military tradition from the colonial period until 1941, including extensive experience in cooperating with Native American tribes and individual scouts during the expansion of the western frontier. These traditions of unconventional war reached maturity in the years of fighting on the western plains after the Civil War, and were given ultimate expression in the creation of the Philippine Scouts at the beginning of the 20th century. Since World War II, the wider military has lost this expertise in and comfortable familiarity with unconventional operations, with the Special Operations community taking on the sole proprietorship of this role. Given the variety of political environments in which today?s conventional soldiers may find themselves and the current nature of conflicts ongoing and likely to occur in the world, the Army culture as a whole can and must readapt itself to the new old realities of irregular war.


The leaders of regular units engaged in guerrilla operations must be extremely adaptable. They must study the methods of guerrilla war. They must understand that initiative, discipline, and the employment of stratagems are all of the utmost importance. As the guerrilla status of regular units is but temporary, their leaders must lend all possible support to the organization of guerrilla units from among the people.
? Mao Tse Tung, On Guerrilla Warfare2

In the summer of 1899, Lieutenant Matthew Batson was commanding L Troop, 4th U.S. Cavalry, during operations in the Philippines. Already recognized as an energetic and courageous officer during the war in Cuba, Batson gained further note after being awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for actions in combat with his troop in July.3 At the request of his superiors, in late summer Batson submitted a formal proposal for raising a scout company for the First Division?s Provisional Cavalry Brigade. The plan called for this company to be recruited from the Macabebes, an ethnic tribal group in Southern Luzon that had long opposed domination by the majority Tagalogs. The Tagalogs formed the backbone and provided most of the leadership for the Army of the Philippine Republic, fighting against U.S. rule in the archipelago. The Macabebes? military usefulness had been previously recognized by the Spanish as they faced revolt and unrest prior to the war with the United States; large numbers of Macabebes had been recruited and served with the Spanish forces until their defeat and cession of the Philippines to the United States in 1898.4

The scout company proposed by Lieutenant Batson would consist of 100 soldiers, and would be trained and led by officers and noncommissioned officers (NCOs) from among the units of the Cavalry brigade and the First Division. On September 1, 1899, Batson received a memorandum from the division headquarters approving his plan, and he began immediately to raise his scouts, leading them in combat and working to gain approval to raise still more scout companies.5

From this small beginning, Batson?s Macabebe Scouts and other similar units raised elsewhere in the Philippines would eventually evolve into the Philippine Scouts, forming several infantry, cavalry, and artillery regiments composed of Philippine soldiers and fully incorporated into the U.S. Regular Army.6 The Philippine Scouts are unique in the American military experience, as they are the only large-scale ?native? or colonial units to ever serve as a conventional part of the U.S. armed forces. What is not unique about the Scouts, however, is that the motives, rationale, and manner for which they were originally raised was an accepted, matter-of-fact technique employed by Army leaders for virtually the entire previous history of American armed conflict. This traditional practice of raising, training, and working closely with indigenous groups to assist in the prosecution of what we now term ?low-intensity? military operations began in the colonial period, reached a level of doctrinal maturity during the fighting on the Western plains and in the Southwest after the Civil War, and achieved its ultimate expression in the incorporation of the Philippine Scouts into the Regular Army in 1920.7

What happened to this traditional practice, which was at one time so implicitly accepted by the Army at large? The practice was once so ingrained in our military culture that the creation of the Philippine Scouts?and their largely civilian counterpart, the Philippine Constabulary?incited hardly more debate in Army circles than the adoption of the Lyster Bag for cool, purefied water in 1910.8 Raising local troops and working closely with the local and tribal leadership to suppress insurgency and lawlessness in loosely governed or newly conquered areas were not carried out by special troops or elite units, but rather were the norm throughout the Army. Any officer could be expected to either raise local scouts or work with existing tribal organizations to accomplish his unit?s goals. Yet since World War II, a connection to indigenous or tribal soldiers has increasingly become the sole province of the Special Forces (SF), and until quite recently the conventional Army had almost totally shunned the idea of such affiliation or cooperation; the exigencies of war in Afghanistan and Iraq have only just begun to break down the barriers. Aside from the relatively brief periods of large-scale high-intensity operations during the periods 1917-18, 1941-45, 1950-54, and the Gulf War of 1991, these developments have occurred in spite of the fact that the Army since 1900 has been operating and will continue to operate more and more in areas and situations where the ability to raise, train, and cooperate with local, tribal, and other nonstate armed groups is, if not a prerequisite, certainly a central factor for military and political success.

The literature on the new nature of warfare since the end of the Cold War is vast and growing. Authors have stressed that large-scale, ?symmetrical? combat operations are a thing of the past, while ?asymmetrical? warfare is the new paradigm militaries will face in the 21st century. This new paradigm of combat or stability operations applies to what author Thomas Barnett calls the ?nonintegrating gap?9 areas of ungoverned or poorly governed space. These are places where poverty, crime, and the challenges posed by modernization of traditional societies result in endemic conflict. Here, new strategies and techniques are required for a western military like ours to be successful. As described by Richard Shultz and Andrea Dew in their recent book on terrorists, insurgencies, and nonstate militias,

war since 1990 has, with the exception of Desert Storm and the first phase of Operation Iraqi Freedom, been different from the modern Western understanding of armed combat. But the policymakers and military commanders of modern states?including the United States?have often failed to grasp this new battlefield. Indeed, for the policymakers the perception is the reverse?that conventional warfare prevails and thus the United States is more than adequately prepared to dominate the future face of war.10

This thoughtful statement, and others like it, should be familiar to any reader of recent literature dealing with security studies, military science, or international politics.

The ideas encapsulated there are clearly backed up by the realities in these troubled places, but in their stress on the ?new? nature of conflict since the end of the Cold War, they tend to obscure much of what is not new. Viewed in the context of the almost 400 years of American military history and tradition, asymmetrical conflict, insurgency, stability operations, and constabulary operations in ungoverned or poorly governed space are not new at all?in fact, they are the norm, while the high-intensity conflicts of the mid-20th century are the truly atypical episodes that diverge from the most common experiences of American warfare.

In the ongoing effort both to succeed in our current fights in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Philippines, East Africa, and elsewhere, and to continue the evolution of our doctrine and tactics to address upcoming threats, the Army must certainly look to the future. The Army must also, however, look to the past to recapture some of those organizational strengths that have led to success in our long history of low-level conflict. One of these strengths was the institutionalized practice of working with and through local irregular military forces. This practice and the comfort and ease with which the Army at large followed it in the period prior to the Cold War need to be reclaimed Army-wide. The culture of irregular warfare?advising, liaison, training, leading, and operating closely with local tribal levies, militias, and other nonstate forces?must be embraced enthusiastically by every part of the Army, as opposed to retaining current sole proprietorship in the Special Operations Command. Such a reform is imperative now more than ever, given the limited number of SF units and the demands currently being placed upon them. Conventional units must be able to conduct irregular operations wherever they are deployed.

This paper will examine both the Army?s historical practice of working with indigenous forces and auxiliaries, and the institutional training programs formerly in place designed to prepare officers and soldiers for roles as advisors, working with irregular as well as regular forces. Using these examples while discussing current operations and the debates surrounding incorporation of local irregular troops into those operations, I shall propose measures that, if implemented by the Army, will restore the culture of capitalizing on indigenous forces in low-intensity conflicts.

This paper is not, let it be emphasized, a call for establishment of an American ?foreign legion? or units of ?native? or ?colonial? troops. It is, rather, an argument for the restoration of one of our Army?s historic strengths. It is a truism that the best means of fighting an insurgency is to persuade the local population to do it themselves. Additionally, the human intelligence potentially derived from close contact and cooperation with irregulars can be invaluable for the successful prosecution of counterinsurgency, counterterrorism, and other low-level operations. Proven in the wars during the establishment of Western empires and solidified in successful post-colonial counterinsurgencies, these dictums can continue to be ignored only at considerable risk of disaster. In seeking that which is new in the post-Cold War operating environment, we would do well to seek as well those parallels to our own heritage, and apply those strengths which have underlain much of our previous military success.


1. The title of this paper is from a line in Rudyard Kipling?s 1897 poem, ?Pharaoh and the Sergeant,? concerning the British NCOs attached to the Egyptian Army who created the force that conducted the reconquest of the Sudan, culminated at the Battle of Omdurman in 1898. The applicable stanza from the poem reads as follows:

Said England unto Pharaoh, ?You?ve had miracles before, When Aaron struck your rivers into blood;
But if you watch the Sergeant, he can show you something more. He?s a charm from making riflemen from mud.?
- See Rudyard Kipling, The Five Nations, London: Methuen & Co., 1903.

2. Mao Tse Tung, On Guerrilla Warfare, Chapter 5, 1937, accessed February 3, 2007, available from www. bellum.nu/literature/mao001.html.

3. Letter from Lieutenant Matthew Batson to his wife, dated September 24, 1899, Matthew Batson Papers, 1898-1900, Carlisle Barracks, PA: U.S. Army Military History Institute, OCLC 46910883.

4. Ibid. See also The Philippine Scouts, Daly City, CA: Philippine Scouts Heritage Society, 1996, p. 5.

5. Extract copy of memorandum dated September 1, 1899, Matthew Batson Papers, 1898-1900.

6. The Philippine Scouts, pp. 17-22.

7. Ibid., p. 17.

8. See Infantry Journal, Vol. 7, No. 1., July 1910, for the article introducing the Lyster Bag? a canvas bag used to dispense purified water. The indices of this journal and the Journal of the Military Services Institution of the United States show relatively few articles concerned with either the Philippine Scouts or the Constabulary?the vast majority of articles cover technological innovations, discussions of conventional operations, and lessons from European Armies.

9. See Thomas P. M. Barnett, The Pentagon?s New Map, New York: G. P. Putnam?s Sons, 2004.

10. Richard H. Shultz, Jr., and Andrea J. Dew, Insurgents, Terrorists, and Militias, New York: Columbia University Press, 2006, p. 11.