The Small Change of Soldiering and American
"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
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
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.
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
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
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
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,
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 http://web8.epnet.com, 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
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
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
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,
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: caib.us/news/report/default.html, 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.