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The War of New Words
Why Military History Trumps Buzzwords

by William F. Owen [Armed Forces Journal (November 2009)]

War isn’t just transforming — it’s ushering in a whole new language to describe conflict, and this language is used in a way that pays little attention to logic or military history. Thus the forces we used to call guerrillas are now “hybrid threats.” Insurgencies are now “complex” and require “complex and adaptive” solutions. Jungles and cities are now “complex terrain.” Put simply, the discussion about future conflict is being conducted using buzzwords and bumper stickers.

The evidence that the threats of the 21st century are going to be that much different from the threats of the 20th is lacking. Likewise, there is no evidence that a “new way of war” is evolving or that we somehow had a previously flawed understanding. In fact, the use of the new words strongly indicates that those using them do not wish to be encumbered by a generally useful and coherent set of terms that military history had previously used. As war and warfare are not changing in ways that demand new words, it is odd that people keep inventing them.

Hybrid threats have always existed, but previously we called them “irregulars” or “guerrillas”; both words, in this context, are more than 180 years old. The definition of hybrid threats as “a combination of traditional warfare mixed with terrorism and insurgency” accurately describes irregulars and guerrillas, both of which can be part of either an insurgency or a wider conflict. Yes, guerrillas have changed over time. So have regular forces. Armies of 1825 looked very different from those of 1925 or 1975, yet all were regular forces. Do we need a new word for regular or “conventional” forces? “Hermaphrodite” perhaps?

The most common attempt to redefine the activities of irregular forces and guerrillas has been the using the word “asymmetric,” predicated on trying to describe a dissimilar employment of ways and means that was apparently new. Yet history does not support this thesis, nor does it usefully inform thinking about the future.

The use of the word “hybrid” implies that there is some new phenomenon that requires new codification. If you want to testify before Congress that the U.S. armed forces must have the ability to confront and defeat guerrillas and irregulars, then that advice has been valid for 200 years. Why is it different today?

Those who use the word “hybrid” also tend to use the word “complex” when describing contemporary warfare. This raises the question: When was warfare ever simple? Contemporary warfare is no more complex than historical warfare.

It may be that there is a generation of serving soldiers who do not understand war and warfare as well as past generations, but that is not to say that war today is more complex. The Internet does not make warfare more complex. TV coverage does not make war more complex. Public opinion does not make war more complex. If the root of the argument is that society is becoming more complex, therefore warfare will be more complex, then 20 years from now it will become supercomplex or hypercomplex. Obviously, this is rubbish.

To say “warfare is changing” is banal, obvious and thus irrelevant. When did warfare ever not evolve? The acts of Sept. 11 changed nothing in the Thucydidean and Clausewitzian nature of war, or even its modern practice. America’s choice of response did change U.S. foreign policy and defense planning, but the attacks themselves were in no way indicative of any change in the aims and purposes, or even methods, of political violence.

To add to the idea of complex warfare you have the use of the word “adaptive,” as in “adaptive systems.” In relation to military history and thought, adaptation is a normal and enduring phenomenon of armies and participants in war. If you want to see true adaptation, or even “a complex adaptive system,” then look at the British Army from 1914 to 1918.

Complex warfare will take place in complex terrain, which is essentially terrain that restricts the use of weapons and sensors. Arguably, these are the same restrictions such terrain has always imposed, when it was usefully called “close terrain.” Within complex terrains, there will be civilian populations, now called the “human terrain,” and these will further restrict the use of weapons. Future wars will be conducted around and within populations, because wars are and always have been about people. The highly variable intolerance or acceptance of intentional or accidental killing of civilians has been an enduring aspect of warfare. To suggest that this is new is wholly false. British public opinion cared very little about the civilian casualties of the Boer War, but was extremely moved by Belgian and French civilian casualties at the beginning of the First World War. They were also angered by the death of British schoolchildren killed by zeppelin raids. The Western Front of World War I was played out across a highly populated area of Europe. U.S. public opinion cared little about Afghan civilian casualties or human rights in the wake of Sept. 11. Moreover, the history of warfare suggests that unintentional civilian casualties are far more a political problem than a moral one, because war is a political instrument and public opinion has always played its part.

Historically, armies have always gathered information about the ethnicity, tribal makeup and opinions of civilian populations. The argument that this was done in a “colonial” context is correct, but this is no different from doing the same thing in a “nation-building” context.

Rather than adapt to this obvious and enduring circumstance, the new vocabulary has perhaps found its first physical expression in the form of human terrain teams. There is no doubt that these teams are manned by good, brave and hardworking men and women, but that in no way justifies their existence. The British Empire answered all the same questions, without human terrain teams.

The use of the new words arguably puts good old wine in shabby new bottles. Most of this new vocabulary has been spawned by the insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan. But despite the large amount that has been written about counterinsurgency, very little, if any of it, contains new insights or thinking that was not already part of the vast collection of English-language counterinsurgency writing. For whatever reason, the new words frame obvious and enduring observations about insurgency in a new light, creating an aura of discovery rather than simple relearning. The riposte that every insurgency is unique and requires unique solutions is true, but this is generally true for every war and every form of warfare. What worked for the German Army in France in 1940 failed in Russia in 1942.

Yes, the U.S. Army needs restructuring, but the demise of the Warsaw Pact in 1991 provided a far greater strategic justification for change — and still does — than fighting insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan ever could.

U.S. forces are drifting toward viewing counterinsurgency and war-fighting as distinct forms of activity. They are not. They are inextricably linked, in terms of equipment, training, doctrine and education. Thus the Victorian expression of “big wars and small wars.”

War is not changing. The aims and purpose of organized violence for political gain are enduring and unchanging. Insurgencies are war, and most if not all of the observations made in the Army’s new FM 3-24 “Counterinsurgency” manual could have been written in 1991 or earlier. Future wars will be born of future politics, not “globalization” or the Internet. Yes, there will be “unknown unknowns,” but they are just that: unknowable. New words won’t change that.

Even warfare is not changing at the speed or in the ways some assume. For example, very little about improvised explosive devices is new. IEDs have been initiated using cell phones since cell phones became common, and conceptually they are no different from any wirelessly initiated device. Prior to 2001, there was a vast body of relevant IED and suicide bomber data available, had anyone bothered to look for it. IEDs were not unknown unknowns: They were an ignored known, as were the vast majority of current threats, such as insurgents and pirates. Ignorance of warfare does not make it complex. Even a simple study would have concluded that IEDs were a common and enduring aspect of wars involving guerrillas or irregulars. The vast majority of the weapons the Taliban are using are more than 40 years old, in terms of design and application. The tactics to employ those weapons cannot evolve in any way that we cannot comprehend, and the same is true for the vast majority of armed threats on the planet. Indeed, if you want insights into how the Taliban, or any insurgent force, fights, history is your only guide.

The only thing that can obscure that obvious truth is the application of new words and altered meanings to bend the problem to fit the writer’s purpose — or to pretend that military history is less useful than the insights of those incapable of expressing themselves in plain English.