Book Review: Insurgents, Terrorists, And Militias: The Warriors of Contemporary Combat

Insurgents, Terrorists, And Militias: The Warriors of Contemporary Combat is a very useful contribution to the growing body of literature of modern conflict. While the subtitle of the book suggests a tempo-centric view of the Now, the book’s purpose is really to demonstrate the value of anthropological analysis of the irregular warriors we are facing today. Unlike “modern” states who might employ irregular tactics, the authors look at the societal and cultural interactions specific in warrior societies, or “martial races” (a term indifferent to ethnicity), and their resulting organizing principles. This is done to satisfy Sun Tzu’s admonition to “Know the enemy” which we do not. The absence of this knowledge, in simple terms, means we not only don’t know or understand why or how the enemy fights but we don’t even know how defeat or subordination, perhaps a better word, is defined by the enemy or conforms to their belief system. Afterall, both victory and defeat must be acknowledged by all sides.

In 2004, Major General Robert Scales went before the House Armed Services committee and recounted a conversation he had with a commander from the Third Infantry Division (then) recently returned from Iraq. Scales had asked about the improved situational awareness worked during the march to Baghdad. The response foretold the future, as well as described the past: “I knew where every enemy tank was dug in on the outskirts of Tallil. Only problem was my soldiers had to fight fanatics charging on foot or in pickups and firing AK 47s and RPGs. I had perfect situational awareness. What I lacked was cultural awareness. Great technical intelligence….wrong enemy.” This book not only helps lay the ground work to identify the enemy, but also makes us look at their motivation from a different angle.

The authors, Richard H. Shultz and Andrea J. Dew, lay out the framework and goals of the book at the very beginning. This book is not out tactics or even strategy, but “operational art“, the middle ground between Strategy (big “S”) and Tactics (big “T”). Using case studies of Somali, Chechnya, Afghanistan, and Iraq, the authors demonstrate their theories through both recent and historical encounters. Some of their analysis is interesting as elements of previous success were clearly not understood and led to later failures.

The authors submit the following framework, all explicitly or implicitly found in Sun Tzu’s 33 paragraphs on Offensive Strategy (which includes the advice to Know the Enemy and Know Yourself), as a means of better understanding the questions how and why that are critical to success.

  1. What is the concept of warfare?
  2. What is the Organization and Command and Control?
  3. What are the Areas of Operations?
  4. What are the Types and Targets of Operations?
  5. Are there any Constraints and Limitations to the use of force?
  6. Do they receive support and assistance from Outside Actors? If so, who are these Actors and in what form does the help come?

These are seemingly basic questions that go unasked, let alone answered.

In addressing American operational art, the combination of time and tempo (popular example: “Shock and Awe”), the authors don’t make specific prescriptives but suggest incorporating new (to us) understandings of how the enemy organizes and operates. Shultz and Dew show that OODA loops don’t matter when the invaded don’t see war as “organized violence” requiring “paper, forms, and documents”, don’t mirror our hierarchy, and have different priorities. The behavior of the enemy is far different from modern Western principles and thus has different levers and pressures points for manipulation. Our focus on whether or not the engine of insurgency is religious or socio-political may ignore the underlying realities of the why and how in specific instances. Like in the West, religion may be a Gramscian distraction and our focus on it blinds us to the levers and pressure points necessary for successful operations.

The case studies note strong martial traditions and historical features that checked internecine violence. In Somali, for example, the authors show how these mechanisms were purposely broken to intentionally foster internal conflict, leading the path to disintegration of the state. They also show how our tactics empowered our target instead of breaking his support system. The enemy in Afghanistan and elsewhere know how their people organize and exploit it while we doom ourselves by imposing our own organizing and motivating principles on them. With parallels to the motivators of modern suicide terrorism, the authors look at warrior traditions and legacies, as opposed to cultural and social structures to reframe the perception of our Other.

Modern, West-centric theories such as “Fourth Generation Warfare” look at conflict with the “Gap” countries as a new way of warfare when the reality is quite the opposite. Likewise, simplifying insurgencies as monolithic or based in religion potentially blind us from opportunities to co-op and disaggregate and even to know how to define victory.

The authors are critical of both the US intelligence services and its endemic mirroring and of the shortcomings or military analysis. A case in point on the latter is the example of the USMC case study of Chechnya that looks at Russian failures in the 1994-1996 war and the study’s absence of any analysis of the Chechens themselves.

Insurgents, Terrorists, And Militias does a good job demonstrating the value of knowing the enemy and showing how we don’t. More importantly, it shows that our lack of understanding is counterproductive and fuels the engine of opposition. This should be on any counterinsurgency and irregular warfare reading list, as well as readings on the Gap. Be prepared to scribble in the margins as you read.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: Insurgents, Terrorists, And Militias: The Warriors of Contemporary Combat

  1. Excellent book that was eye-opening for me in beginning to understand the role of tribes (and more broadly, ethnic clans/groups) and culture in warfare. I think it will be key in understanding current and future problems in Africa, Latin America & India. Great review that shows why reading the book benefits anyone trying to get a handle on why we fail in these conflicts.

  2. I’ll pick that up. I’m reading the Bard O’Neil book at the moment, but it definitely sounds fascinating.Shultz and Dew show that OODA loops don’t matter when the invaded don’t see war as “organized violence” requiring “paper, forms, and documents”, don’t mirror our hierarchy, and have different priorities.
    That is a good point. Western communication systems are complex and hierarchal, but yet in Somalia Aidid merely saw fit to have runners deliver information to him. We lose out by failing to examine the enemy from his point of view.

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