Threats and the Words We Use: A Thought Experiment


All forms of warfare: nuclear, conventional, and unconventional are complex and the US must adequately prepare for them all, balancing the training and resourcing for each. Perhaps most important policy makers and strategists must possess the intellectual rigor to understand, explain and address these threats with policies and strategies that will serve US interests. To illustrate this I offer this thought experiment.

Pull out a pad of paper or open a blank word document.

Now, choose any threat in the world that the United States or its allies face, from Al Qaeda to Iran to drug cartels to North Korea to Syria, to Boko Haram or Al Shabaab or any other threat of interest and importance.

Once you’ve chosen your threat, list American interests vis-à-vis that state or movement and then list the strategic aim(s) that will support those interests. Next, determine the end state required to achieve the strategic aim. Third, identify the operational objectives that will produce the end state. Then determine the sequence of actions most likely to achieve the operational objectives. Finally, organize and apply the resources of the government agencies to include the military to accomplish the sequence of actions.

Now, go back and see if you used any military doctrinal terms or defense-speak buzzwords. If you have, go back and start over. You can only use common English words that people outside of the defense community will be able to understand.

If you manage this, your strategy will be understood by military and civilian officials, by friends, partners, or allies, but also, and perhaps most importantly, by the American press and public. You will likely have described elements of insurgency and counterinsurgency (COIN), stability operations, and unconventional warfare, among others – without actually using those terms, which are too often deployed as shortcuts that allow us to circumvent deep and clear thinking. And you will have thought more deeply about the strategy necessary to address the threat.

You might now be thinking, why do we use these terms at all?

Carl von Clausewitz, the Prussian philosopher of war so often cited here at War on the Rocks, wisely counseled that before you embark on war you must first understand it. In American military circles, we have flipped that on its head and instead first rush to brand it with an acronym-friendly term to fight it before we truly grasp the characteristics of the conflict. The great strategic thinker, Colin Gray once wrote “The American defense community is especially prone to capture by the latest catchphrase, the new-sounding spin on an ancient idea which as jargon separates those who are truly expert from the lesser breeds without the jargon.” Thus were born (or actually reborn in the case of COIN) such terms as Irregular Warfare, Insurgency and COIN, Nation-Building, Stability Operations; Stability, Security, Transition, Reconstruction Operations (SSTRO); Military Operations Other Than War (MOOTW); Capacity Building; Organization, Training Equipping, Rebuilding and Advising (OTERO); Security Force Assistance (SFA), Building Partner Capacity (BPC), Train, Advise, and Assist (TAA), and the Direct and Indirect. All of the above new sounding catchphrases are grounded in ancient human ideas and activities.

This brings us to what I like to call the “COIN pendulum,” which I believe is about to swing again. Consider the ends of the pendulum swing since 1975. Two anecdotes will illustrate the distance between the two.

In the 1980’s one of my mentors was asked to resurrect a COIN course at Fort Leavenworth. He contacted various Army schools and talked to doctrine writers and librarians and was told that after 1975 they were directed by “higher authority” to remove all COIN materials from their files, thanks to Vietnam’s supposed discrediting of COIN doctrine. The only school that maintained some form of COIN doctrine was the US Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School. However, it was no longer referred to as COIN, but rather as Foreign Internal Defense (FID). Some prescient action officer at Fort Bragg helped to protect COIN theory and doctrine by renaming it and putting it in the proper perspective:

Participation by civilian and military agencies of a government in any of the action programs taken by another government or other designated organization to free and protect its society from subversion, lawlessness, insurgency, terrorism, and other threats to its security. (Joint Publication 1-02)

FID turned out to be a very useful doctrinal concept that has major advantages when compared to the “third-party” counterinsurgency campaigns of Iraq and Afghanistan. The FID approach is focused on providing external support to the host nation government counter its own insurgency rather than external forces conducting COIN themselves. It provides an option for policy makers and strategists to employ Ameircan military forces (both conventional and special operations) in ways that do not require a large footprint or the “expeditionary COIN” conducted in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Swing forward to the post-9-11 era. In 2010, during my last assignment on active duty, I was an instructor at one of our professional military education institutions. I was part of a committee tasked with designing a simulation exercise to address future US policy in Mexico. One of the action officers asked how we wanted them to incorporate Field Manual (FM) 3-24, the COIN manual, into the simulation event. I was perplexed and asked why he thought we should use FM 3-24 in a strategic policy exercise. He replied that he understood that FM 3-24 was the foundation for U.S. strategy and policy for to address any irregular warfare situation. Given the security situation, in Mexico, with narco-terrorists and drug cartels threatening the Mexican government and people, he assumed that we should be planning an intervention by US forces using the “blueprint” (his words) of FM 3-24. Needless to say we did not use FM 3-24.

The farthest swing of the COIN pendulum has probably occurred with the possible decision to withdraw troops from Afghanistan in 2014. Over the past decade, we invaded Afghanistan and Iraq, deposed regimes, and then found ourselves facing complex irregular threats that evolved into resistance against the American occupation. While the United States was trying to understand and address the threats it faced there was a strong push to try to both name these threats and name the concepts being developed to address them.

The question now is: will it swing back to 1975 and post-Vietnam? While I do not want COIN to remain at the 2010 level, I also believe it would be a mistake to again purge the U.S. military of COIN doctrine and thinking.

The pendulum should swing back a little ways toward 1975. I would like to see the services take a scalpel to the list of terms above (and the many more). What is needed is a new way to look at not only the COIN and terrorism problems but also the complex threats that we and our friends, partners, and allies are likely to face for decades to come. Few of these threats will be existential ones to the US, but many are likely to be to some of our allies.

As I noted in a recent essay for Small Wars Journal, some of the most challenging threats of the past decade have come in the form of unconventional warfare (UW). While we have focused since 9-11 on insurgency and terrorist threats and thus the need to conduct COIN, FID and counterterrorism (CT), when examined closely Al Qaeda and the Iran Action Network, the FARC in Colombia, and Boko Haram and Al Shabaab in Africa all employ unconventional warfare as their predominant form of war fighting.

Clearly, terrorism (as well as subversion and sabotage and other elements of psychological and political warfare) is an integral part of UW. But rather than myopically focusing on terrorism, as we have over the past decade, we should look at the larger strategy of terrorist organizations. We will find that these groups are in fact conducting UW: supporting resistances or insurgencies, exploiting undergrounds and auxiliary infrastructure, and seeking to coerce, disrupt, or overthrow governments.

Therefore, we need to be able to counter unconventional warfare that is conducted directly against the US or its allies. In short, we need to focus as much on unconventional warfare and the ability to conduct counter-unconventional warfare as we spend on preparing for nuclear and conventional warfare.

The immediate criticism will be that unconventional warfare and counter-unconventional warfare are simply two buzzwords and catchphrases to add to the list above and are no better than the list above that includes irregular warfare and insurgency or counterinsurgency. Such criticism is of course very valid and I accept it.

Unconventional warfare and thus the requirement to conduct counter-unconventional warfare are of value and best describe the non-nuclear and non-conventional threats we are likely to face for the next millennia. But thetruth is that we do not really even need those terms. In fact, if we are honest with ourselves and assess the little thought experiment above we will find that by not using so many doctrinal terms or jargon and rely clear language and a select few fundamental terms to understand the character of warfare in which we are engaged, we actually bring more intellectual rigor to the process. We should keep that in mind as we make policy and “do”* strategy in the future. I am not arguing that we eliminate doctrine, only to streamline it so that it is no longer a distraction and will instead foster critical thinking about the problem vice controversy over what doctrine to employ.

With a more sophisticated understanding. perhaps policymakers and strategists, can focus on understanding the problems we face and crafting effective policies, strategies and campaign plans without resorting to jargon and catchphrases and arguing whether we should be conducting Counterinsurgency, Foreign Internal Defense or Security Force Assistance.

It is time for the pendulum to swing, but not all the way back to 1975. We need to achieve the proper balance to address the threats we face in the future: nuclear, conventional, and unconventional. We need to purge only the distracting, redundant and controversial jargon, and jettison the baggage that prevents us from conducting the intellectually demanding and rigorous strategic thinking required to make policy, “do strategy,” and develop and execute campaign plans to achieve US national security objectives. In sum, we need to learn to understand and solve our problems in plain language.


* Although perhaps grammatically incorrect the phrase “do strategy” is used to remind us that strategy is more than theoretical, it has to be practical as well. But more importantly it is one thing to craft and write a strategy but it is quite difficult to execute it or “do strategy.” Credit for “doing strategy” goes to the faculty at the National War College where they emphasize the practical along with the theoretical and historical.


David S. Maxwell is the Associate Director of the Center for Security Studies and the Security Studies Program in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service of Georgetown University. He is a retired US Army Special Forces Colonel with 30 years of service.

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