US Army Home Page""
""Main MenuIndex of PublicationsResourcesArchives""
The U.S. Army Professional Writing Collection
"" Featured Article ""

Featured Articles

Doctrine for Asymmetric Warfare


The Small Change of Soldiering and American Military Experience

Conquering the Elements: Thoughts on Joint Force (Re)Organization

"" ""
Roger Spiller, Ph.D.

Paper Presented at "Armed Diplomacy: Two Centuries of American Campaigning" held at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., August 5-7, 2003

Dr. Spiller is employed at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. No other biographical information is currently available.

Printer-Friendly Version


The Small Change of Soldiering and American Military Experience

"Armed diplomacy," the term used by this conference as an organizing theme, defines a class of military operations with certain characteristics. Roughly speaking, these fall under the heading of "the small change of soldiering," to use John Keegan's now-famous phrase.1 Finer-gauged definitions are unnecessary. No doubt soldiers have always understood: when they were charged with a mission that did not look familiar, that diverged from the agreed upon business of fighting wars, they entered this unorthodox realm of soldiering. This might include interventions and invasions, punitive expeditions, constabulary operations, occupations, peacekeeping, or even colonial or imperial warfare. The first of the case studies presented here, by Irving Levinson, considers America's occupation of Mexico as a classic "stability operation." Next, J. G. Dawson considers the US Army's role in the Reconstruction of the South after the Civil War as an important early case of "nation-building." For Robert Wooster, the Army's operations on the frontier after the Civil War amounted to a very different sort of occupation, and in many ways one of the most complex in American history. The volume concludes with surveys of recent American operations in Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq. The scope of these and other cases collected here is vast, reaching across the past century and a half of the American military experience up to the present campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. Seen together, these studies contribute to the body of professional knowledge American soldiers are most likely to require in the foreseeable future.

Apart from their unorthodox nature, what all the campaigns considered in this volume have in common is that they were in some way limited. None approached, nor was intended to approach, the intensity of total war seen in the two world wars of the 20th century. Something a good deal less than the national survival of the United States was at stake. Instead, their limitations determined their fundamental character. In each of these cases, America's aims and methods were bounded in some way by the immediate situation, usually by the immediate cause that gave rise to the operation. These less than vital circumstances in turn framed the mission of the forces deployed; although hard--and repeated--experience has shown how missions often take on an elastic quality as the shapes and purposes of these struggles evolve. American operations in Somalia, UNISOM II, described here, is a case in point. What began as a humanitarian relief mission metastasized over time into an altogether different kind of operation with a tragic result for American policy, American forces, and not least, the people of Somalia.2

Such operations are limited in other respects too; for instance, they are always confined geographically. A limited mission and a limited operational area both require a fine sense of discrimination about the number and kind of troops that should be employed. Having too many troops, or having the wrong kind of troops could be just as bad as not having enough. Too, no matter how small a given area of operations, expeditionary forces are never strong enough to cover it entirely, even if it were desirable to do so. The Army's pacification campaigns in the Philippines were typical in this respect. The Army put its formations and detachments where they would challenge the most intractable problems. Troublesome provinces such as Batangas received a large share of attention while others were left to their own devices. Unable to dominate an entire territory or region by physical means, statesmen and commanders are always forced to discriminate, to decide where limited assets could advance their mission, to calculate where politics might substitute for combat power, or risk dissipating their power and failing altogether.

And American statesmen and commanders did fail. One might be misled to think that because vital national interests are not immediately in danger the failure of a limited operation may be of only limited importance. But the military dimensions of an operation may not be a mirror image of its larger, long-term political importance. The United States'relatively small-scale intervention in the Russian Civil War did much to poison American relations with the USSR during its formative history and for most of the century thereafter. History does not obey a rule of proportionality. Small events may produce great effects. As colonial soldiers have long understood, a politically charged tactical defeat can have strategic consequences.

Next, limited operations do not conduce to a leisurely pace. American political and military authorities have usually set these campaigns in motion with one eye on the clock. The role of the United States is usually reactive, and this suffuses the campaign with the sense that American forces must move quickly if they hope to take the initiative and take control of the situation. Very seldom is the American public consulted beforehand. Provided the cost in lives, treasure and time does not outrun the American government's justifications, the sufferance of the public can be assumed, but warily, not for too long. So, forces engaged in limited operations almost always feel undermanned and out of time. And for troops trained only in orthodox soldiering, METT-T3 always feels out of whack in these operations. As one soldier said of his role in stability operations in Panama, "I didn't sign up for this bullshit."4

Nowhere is the departure from "real soldiering" more keenly felt than in the imbalance of combat power between the forces engaged. In limited operations, American forces have rarely faced opponents whose orders of battle approached their own, even--with notable exceptions--in a momentary, tactical sense. The lack of parity between forces works its own important influence on the greater character of the operation. An abundance of combat power on the part of the Americans has naturally led to frustration over policies that prevent its whole-hearted use. Often, on the other side, the very lack of combat power will drive opponents toward the more inventive, less orthodox methods that have become so familiar in 20th century warfare. From time to time, in cases of what one might term the "Custer Syndrome," the overconfidence bred by such abundant combat power, has been met with very dramatic and wholly unexpected American defeats.

It is no wonder, then, that soldiers throughout history have never been particularly fond of limited warfare. Given a choice in theory that is never available in practice, soldiers would prefer to meet their own kind in battles where there was no ambiguity about ends, ways and means. Perhaps it is this preference--or prejudice--that has worked against the advancement of military theories of unorthodox operations, a deficiency that has extended even to simple doctrines and methods until quite recently. While modern orthodox warfare has given rise to a vast professional literature to guide every facet of strategic planning, campaign design and operational execution, the same cannot be said of more limited operations. 5

Perhaps that is because these operations are seen as too much affairs of the moment, too much accidents of history than any well planned, deliberate orthodox operation could be. Thus--so the argument runs--it is impossible for military theory and doctrine to anticipate these operations in any useful way. We must concede the initiative to reality and realize that improvisation is more important than knowledge in such operations.6 Of course, this is an argument for ignoring experience, one's own as well as others'.

One might expect such opinions from armies with no experience, seeking to rationalize their ignorance. But on the contrary, officers in mature armies with long experience of colonial and expeditionary warfare such as the French were quick to say "adaptability in the face of each new situation, not the application of some pat formula of the Ecole de Guerre, made for success in the colonies."7 The ambiguous character of these operations was supposed to create bold, innovative military leaders who could reinvigorate the staid practices of the orthodox army when they finally returned home. The common view among expeditionary soldiers that this kind of soldiering was beyond the reach of codification certainly worked against any but the most informal, ass-in-the-saddle doctrines.8 Indeed, only a very forgiving definition of doctrine could be applied to the nostrums that were handed down like saddle blankets from soldier to soldier on the American frontier after the Civil War.9 And while it is certainly true, as Andrew Birtle has observed, that doctrine in the modern sense did not exist in the 19th century Army,10 the differences between the state of the military art as it existed for orthodox operations and the state of the art for unorthodox operations were difficult to ignore. The difference in the two bodies of knowledge was the sign of a preference being enacted by an increasingly professional officer corps. Choices were being made about what was most important to learn and what could be dealt with informally. The distance between these two bodies of corporate knowledge has persisted throughout the 20th century and into the 21st. As a consequence, the US Army still greets unorthodox campaigning as if it were a new day, where improvisation and hoping for the best overrules experience.

Yet there is no intrinsic reason why this should be so. The US Army's experience alone is sufficient to inform the creation of an "American school" of limited warfare.11 Hardly a year has passed in the last two centuries in which American soldiers have not been engaged in such missions, with very little time out for the world wars. And with the advent of the Cold War, not only the frequency of contingencies intensified, so did their scope of consequence. Between 1945 and 1976, arguably the most dangerous period of the Cold War, the United States employed its armed forces in support of its foreign policy 215 times.12 Behind every one of these operations lay the possibility that it might escape its limitations, and spin toward a confrontation between the Superpowers. After a period of relative quiescence during the 1980s, the pace of American contingency operations surged again. During the dozen years of the Bush and Clinton administrations, the United States employed its armed forces in contingency operations grand and small on more than a thousand occasions.13 What have we learned from all this experience?

A collective look at the military operations discussed in this volume suggests we still have much to learn about unorthodox conflict--if only because we have forgotten so much. Notwithstanding their wide variety of intent, type, scope and result, certain shortcomings still seem to appear with depressing regularity.

These shortcomings are evident from the very beginning of such operations and do much to set the course for how they will play out. In no case cited in this volume will one see an instance in which the principal actors took heed of the nation's hard-won experience, studied the problem at hand with any discipline, or allowed their actions to shaped in any way by the body of knowledge available to them. How American policy is framed, and how the Army's mission is defined exercise a critical influence over all subsequent action. But the translation of policy into a military mission has always been fraught with difficulty. It has been so difficult that Army leaders often relented in the face of presidential insistence, as Secretary of War Newton Baker did when he received President Wilson's less than exact guidance for intervening in the Russian Civil War.14 All too often, Army generals have adopted a dog-in-the-manger attitude when confronted by a willful President, preferring to comfort themselves with the illusion that their role is only to follow orders, so they can be held blameless if the mission goes awry.

The traditional lack of collaboration between American policymakers and soldiers tends to create a false picture of what might be expected from the mission about to be launched. All parties, civil and military, have tended to overestimate how much of any given problem military force can solve. One repeatedly sees the assumption made by policymakers and soldiers alike that the exercise of sufficient force alone would obviate the need for an expert understanding of the problem before them. Experience indicates quite the opposite. If anything, it is possible to hypothesize that the political dimension of these operations is always miscalculated. From the Mexican War to the Philippines, to Russia, Germany, Vietnam, Panama, Bosnia and beyond, missions guiding American action have fallen short on this very score. A misshapen strategy thus passes its deficiency of vision down the echelons until the price is paid in the field.

Yet, armed with even the best-framed mission, one that provides expert, professional guidance for execution, soldiers will be forced to improvise. Missions always change simply because the situations that gave rise to them change. Furthermore, as a kind of military codicil to Heisenberg's Principle of Uncertainty, one may assume that as soon as American soldiers enter the operational environment, the character of the experiment is unavoidably altered.15 This may be the reason another rule seems appropriate for these kinds of operation: missions never contract.16

Uncertain policies, inadequately framed missions, a long-standing professional bias against unconventional operations, all these virtually guarantee that the soldiers will be assigned to execute these missions with little doctrine to guide them and less training to protect them. The usual disparity of force evident at the onset of a mission naturally breeds confidence, but the opposition is not required to comply with expectations. In several of the cases discussed here, planning assumed-wrongly--a compliant noncombatant population. A wrong-headed assumption on such a question spells the distance between a short uneventful operation and an all out resistance movement.17

The haste to respond and the focus on immediate action militate against "what happens next" planning. As if the presence of combat power alone will render all other questions moot, intervening forces are usually caught off guard as the operation changes shape and gradually de-militarizes (or re-militarizes) itself. This is usually the phase when the occupying power learns that the noncombatant population's initial reaction was less approval than grudging acquiescence. Depending on the depth of popular resistance, the opposition to the intervening power may reconstitute itself, as indeed it did during the Philippine War.18 If modern military planners are unable to look beyond the first shots, the old problem of enemy reconstitution will seem wholly new. At that point, execution defaults to improvisation, which in fact is not so much a plan as the absence of a plan.

Ten of the twelve cases collected in this volume show unprepared American soldiers confronted by the complex challenges of occupation duty. Faced with this unattractive prospect, American political and military leaders rarely took their thinking beyond the point of settling old scores and stabilizing the country long enough to depart. Yet, the American experience with occupation operations is so extensive that one can easily discern recurring themes-temporary government, population control in general, suppression of residual resistance, resettlement of displaced noncombatants, rejuvenation of supply and distribution systems, infrastructure repair and instititutional reform. With the one exception of the American occupation of Germany after the Second World War, in preparation for which the Army had very wisely established a School of Military Government two years earlier, American soldiers have suffered the disadvantages of ignorance time and again, plunging into operations where they were forced to learn as they ran.19 Abundant knowledge offers no guidance simply by existing. Ideas are like orphans: unless adopted, they will not serve their rightful function.

If the Army will not consult the wisdom of its own experience, the question is why not? If actions are not informed by fact, what remains other than passion, prejudice or wishful thinking? During the conference's session on irregular warfare, one of the participants spoke with some heat of "an incredible resistance to lessons learned" after the Vietnam War, and reminded everyone of the old saying that the war did not really last eight years, but one year eight times. The late Douglas Pike, an eminent scholar of the Vietnam War, believed that this resistance to knowledge permeated every level of the American politico-military system. To describe this phenomenon, Pike used a term coined by Aldus Huxley-vincible ignorance: a state of mind in which one does not know, and understands he does not know, and does not believe it makes any difference. Pike's characterization of how vincible ignorance works in action is worth recounting:

. . . we first committed ourselves to the war and then began to think about it comprehensively. The highest level leadership did not initially sit down and address in detailed and extended fashion its strategic position, did not discuss and analyze enemy strengths, weaknesses, and probable strategies, did not wrangle and argue and finally hammer out a fully articulated strategy. There was in this behavior a sense of enormous self-confidence, indeed a kind of unconscious arrogance on the part of the Americans.20

As Pike goes on to explain, this is not to say that no one in the system understood the situation and what answers were required. On the contrary, the United States had experts aplenty, willing put their knowledge to work. "The villain in the piece," he writes, was not so much particular people but the system itself.21 The system somehow arrested the necessary translation of knowledge into action.

Certain institutions seem to be especially susceptible to these misfires, as if the institution subordinates all its functions to its own survival. Where an organizational hierarchy manages knowledge by subordinating it to process, the potency of the knowledge the institution does possess is inevitably dissipated. With all operations reduced to routine, knowledge counts for less and less until its acuity--its capacity for affecting change-- simply disappears. We have in two recent tragedies a nonmilitary variant of Pike's vincible ignorance. A comparison of the United States' two Space Shuttle disasters reveals virtually identical institutional shortcomings. In both cases, NASA's "institutional culture" was assigned a greater weight of responsibility by accident investigators than the immediate technical reasons for the crashes. The management of expert knowledge, which existed in abundance at all organizational levels, nevertheless worked against its critical influence over the larger, policy-level decisions made within the agency.22 After the Challenger disaster in 1983, both a Presidential Commission and a Congressional Investigation recommended corrective reforms in how NASA managed critical knowledge. The recently released Columbia Accident Investigation Board report identifies the same deficiencies in the agency's organizational culture--seventeen years later.23

In 1944, the British military historian and theorist B. H. Liddell Hart published a brief meditation on his professional life entitled, Why Don't We Learn From History? Considering the experience he and his countrymen were living through at the moment, Liddell Hart's answer was quite optimistic. The Second World War had reached its apogee when he was writing. The war had grown to truly global proportions. To many at the time, the war seemed the tragic result of civilization's failure to heed the lessons of the First World War.

Liddell Hart's optimism was all the more remarkable because he had personal reasons for doubting the value of knowledge as a guiding force in contemporary public action. He had been intimately involved in his nation's debates over foreign and military policy for nearly two decades. Immediately before the war he had served as an advisor to the Secretary of State for War in the ill-fated Chamberlain government, which had added the word "appeasement" to every politician's lexicon of nightmares. His reputation suffered when the government fell, and he spent the war in a kind of intellectual exile. He claimed his faith in the power of experience to inform reason was undeterred. Liddell Hart was putting on a brave face, however; he surely knew better by then, if not long before. And he seemed to admit as much later, wondering whether there was "a practical way of combining progress toward the attainment of truth [that is, knowledge] with progress toward its acceptance."24 In some modern armies, this process might be manifested as doctrine.

For those who have direct experience of military planning and active service in limited operations-as quite a few of those attending this conference did-Liddell Hart's optimism seems closer to denial than reality. Very likely, every one of them could recount an episode in their own experience in which "prerational" thinking suppressed informed professional judgment.25 In my own experience, the answer to Liddell Hart's question comes down to two reasons: ignorance and the kind of arrogance Douglas Pike described so well. The first of these is certainly correctable. The second is, finally and regrettably, as close to an historical constant as anyone is ever likely to isolate. For a modern army with much to do, the only possible corrective is to learn how to learn from itself. But learning is never automatic, and history makes no guarantees in any case.


1 John Keegan, The Face of Battle (New York: Viking Press, 1976): 16. "For there is a fundamental difference between the sort of sporadic, small-scale fighting which is the small change of soldiering and the sort we characterize as battle."

2 See [citation for final author and title of LTG Montgomery's presentation on UNISOM II for Conference Session 3].

3 "Mission, Enemy, Terrain, Troops and Time Available" reduces to this acronym.

4 Author's conference notes, Oral interview cited by Dr. Lawrence Yates during general discussion on "Intervention and Peacekeeping in Panama and Bosnia."

5 The exceptions are few and important. The classic study of these forms of operation is Colonel C. E. Callwell's Small Wars: A Tactical Textbook for Imperial Soldiers (London: Grenhill Books, 1990; orig. London: Her Majesty's Stationery Office, 1899); and Frank Kitson's Low Intensity Operations: Subversion, Insurgency, Peace-Keeping (Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1971;orig. London: Faber and Faber Ltd., 1971), to name two.

6 This was exactly the argument posed by France's leading colonial soldiers of the 19th century and no small number of American soldiers. See Douglas Porch's discussion of France's "colonial school" of soldiering in "Bugeaud, Galliene, Lyautey: The Development of French Colonial Warfare," in The Makers of Modern Strategy from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age, edited by Peter Paret (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1986): esp. pp. 403-404. See also Perry Jamieson, Crossing the Deadly Ground: U. S. Army Tactics, 1865-1899 (Tuscaloosa, Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 1994), esp. pp. 36-53; and Robert Wooster, The Military and United States Indian Policy, 1865-1903 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988): 136-141.

7 Ibid.; the phrase is Porch's.

8 Jamieson, Crossing the Deadly Ground, p. 37.

9 Attack Indian villages in winter, kill the ponies and the buffalo, use converging columns, use Indian auxiliaries but don't ever trust them, use firepower as a substitute for ingenuity, and so on. See ibid., p. 36 et seq.

10 See Andrew Birtle, US Army Counterinsurgency and Contingency Operations, 1860-1941(Washington, D. C.: US Army Center of Military History, 1998): vii.

11 Add to the American experience that of the French, British and Russian armies, to name only three of the most prominent modern expeditionary armies, and there is no reason for military theory and doctrine in this field to remain dormant.

12 Barry M. Blechman and Stephen S. Kaplan, Force without War: U. S. Armed Forces as a Political Instrument (Washington, D. C.: Brookings Institution, 1978): 16.

13 Barry M. Blechman and Tamara Cofman Wittes, "Defining Moment: The Threat and Use of Force in American Foreign Policy," Political Science Quarterly, vol. 114, issue 1 (Spring, 1999), page 2 of 21. Accessed at, September 2, 2003. The criteria used in this count appear to have been a good deal less rigorous than Blechman and Kaplan's earlier accounting. Here, Blechman would include very small scale missions such as the Army's relatively well known 55 man "mission training team" deployed to El Salvador in the 1980s.

14 See Major Jeffrey Stamp's essay, "Lost in the Snow: The U. S. Intervention in Siberia during the Russian Revolution."

15 One may see this phenomenon in virtually every intervention mentioned in this volume.

16 The removal of US forces following the "Black Hawk Down" disaster in Mogadishu may be taken as a case of mission contraction, but this instance is more correctly seen as mission failure. The same may be said of another case not discussed in this volume, the bombing of the Marine Barracks in Beirut in 1983. But, again, this tragedy seems to have come about because the Marines' mission expanded in the eyes of their enemies. The Marines' subsequent withdrawal from Lebanon, therefore, could also be seen as the result of mission expansion.

17 In this volume, see especially Irving Levinson, "Occupation and Stability Dilemmas of the Mexico War: Origins and Solutions;" J. G. Dawson, "Reconstruction as Nation Building: The U. S. Army in the South;" Robert Wooster, "The Frontier Army and the Occupation of the West;" Robert S. Cameron, "U. S. Constabulary Activities in Postwar Germany;" and Lawrence Yates, "The Transition from Combat to Nation Building in Panama."

18 See Brian Linn, "The U. S. Army, Nation-Building and Pacification in the Philippines." The reconstitution of the German army into pockets of guerrilla resistance was an important early concern in planning for the Allied Occupation of Germany. See Robert S. Cameron, "U. S. Constabulary Activities in Postwar Germany."

19 The occupation of both Germany and Japan are important exceptions. However, these occupations accomplished something less than their promoters claimed at the time, and a distinct line was drawn between military government and "nation-building" as the term is used presently.

20 Douglas Pike, "Conduct of the Vietnam War: Strategic Factors, 1965-1968," in The Second Indochina War: Proceedings of a Symposium held at Arlie, Virginia, 7-9 November 1984 (Washington, D. C.: Center of Military History, U. S. Army, 1986): 99-116; see esp. p. 110-111.

21 Ibid. Two classic works offer the depth and texture of modern organizational theory to Pike and Huxley's interpretation of "vincible ignorance." See Graham T. Allison, The Essence of Decision: Explaining the Cuban Missile Crisis (Boston: Little Brown, 1971), and Irving L. Janis, Victims of Groupthink (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1982).

22 Diane Vaughan's study of the Challenger disaster is more forthright: "routine and taken-for-granted aspects of organizational life . . created a way of seeing that was simultaneously a way of not seeing." See Vaughan's The Challenger Launch Decision: Risky Technology, Culture, and Deviance at NASA (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997): 394.

23 Vaughan, The Challenger Launch Decision, p. 389, et seq.; and Columbia Accident Investigation Board Report, Volume 1 (Washington, D. C. : Columbia Accident Investigation Board Limited First Printing, August 2003): esp. pp. 121-170 (accessed at www:, August 26, 2003).

24 B. H. Liddell Hart, Why Don't We Learn From History? (New York: Hawthorne Books, Inc., 1971; orig. London: Allen & Unwin, 1944): 70.

25 The term is Diane Vaughan's.

U.S. Army Home Page