5 Questions with Dave Dilegge on Small Wars and COIN Cocktails


This is the latest installment of our 5 Questions series, in which we feature an expert, practitioner, or leader answering — you guessed it — five questions on a topic of current relevance in the world of defense, security, and foreign policy. Well, four of the questions are topical.  The fifth is about booze. We are War on the Rocks, after all.

This week I spoke with Dave Dilegge, the founder and Editor-in-Chief of Small Wars Journal. Dave also serves as a Director at Small Wars Foundation. He is a retired USMCR Intelligence and Counterintelligence/HUMINT officer, and former USMC civilian intelligence analyst, as well as a defense consultant in the private sector.


1.  Dave, thanks so much for doing this. Could you tell us about the origins of Small Wars Journal? Did you ever anticipate it would grow to become one of the more influential online forums in the defense world?

It’s my pleasure to be interviewed by War on the Rocks. You have a great site with outstanding contributors. It is most certainly a must read.

As for SWJ’s origins, here is the Reader’s Digest version: In the mid and late ‘90s I was working urban operations issues for the Marine Corps to include supporting concept development, experimentation, and development of tactics, techniques and procedures. Most of what we required had to be open source (unclassified). I did a lot of online research and began to get numerous requests for what I found. In 1998, tired of sending out laundry lists of web addresses, I created what I called my electronic file cabinet — The MOUT (Military Operations on Urban Terrain) Homepage on Geocities and it quickly became a must-read site for Joint, Marine and Army personnel working urban operations issues. This effort morphed into the Urban Operations Journal, my private open-to-anyone site and an official-use-only version funded by the Office of the Secretary of Defense.

In 2003, I became a project officer for the Marine Corps-Joint Forces Command’s Joint Urban Warrior program that included seminars, workshops and an annual war-game and was lucky enough to be assigned an office that I shared with then Marine Major Bill Nagle. Bill and I often chewed the fat over the terms MOUT and urban operations — on how they had a “last 300 yards” kicking down doors and clearing rooms feel about them thus diverting attention away from the larger issues associated with why we were in cities and villages in the first place and what we needed to be seriously thinking about. We thought “Small Wars” or “Irregular Warfare” was more inclusive in describing what we were then doing in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as a likely future operating environment. Being Marines, and in deference to the USMC’s 1940 Small Wars Manual, we decided to rebrand the Urban Operations Journal as the Small Wars Journal. SWJ was launched in February of 2005.

As far as Small Wars Journal’s influence, no, I did not fully anticipate how influential we would become — only that we might influence those “niche” groups working or participating in Small Wars-related issues and operations. That said, if I had to define one event that exposed us to a much larger and wider audience it would be when, in 2007 and 2008, Dr. David Kilcullen in his role as the Senior Counterinsurgency Adviser, Multi-National Force-Iraq (MNF-I) blogged for SWJ concerning counterinsurgency and “The Surge.”  His participation in an open forum — and most importantly, one that allowed for reader participation — provided an “insider account” of what MNF-I was doing and intended to do during a critical period of the war.

But I think, for the most part, our influence and popularity was incremental over time and due, for the most part, to our dedication in maintaining a clearinghouse of resources and a springboard for discussion and collaboration across traditional boundaries.  In short — a serious, professional, open source, unclassified, inclusive, unofficial community of interest and practice.

There are two SWJ-related issues that keep me awake at night.  The first is keeping Small Wars Journal relevant and responsive. It’s been a long and sometimes grueling haul, both professionally and personally (and not just for me — for all our volunteers and contributors). Right now I’m the only one running the day-to-day operations for the site, excluding our Council moderators, and there are certain things I need to improve on now that I’ve got my second wind. My first order of business is to be timelier in responding to all the article contributors and to back away from publishing the longer thesis and thesis-like contributions — while good, not an easy edit or read. There is more, but I’ll leave it at that.

2.  What role has SWJ served as a forum for the development of and debate over counterinsurgency and how has that changed over the years? What made SWJ the go-to forum for key thinkers and practitioners alike?

I think our biggest role here was, and is, SWJ’s big tent philosophy and our official neutral position on COIN issues (though I have chimed in here and there with my personal views). This has not really changed over the years.

In keeping with the centrality and importance of the whole of government (interagency) aspect of Small Wars our community of interest and practice includes U.S. and international military, government civilians and contractors, non-governmental organizations, academia, and the news media. This is critically important as we don’t often get this right in Washington or in the field.

Our Journal articles and Blog posts represent a range of professional “levels” — from senior civil servants and generals to junior officers, civilians, and non-commissioned officers. General officers and senior civilians have remarked that they use SWJ as a way to stay abreast of what junior personnel think is important and care enough to write about it. (As an aside, there are at least 10 new “must read” sites recently launched, many by junior officers. War on the Rocks is one of these and it’s great to see so many SWJ alumni keeping the intellectual and innovation flame lit.)

Concerning SWJ’s neutral position, at the height of the Iraq counterinsurgency debate we were called Attila the Hun warmongers one day and counterinsurgency-loving tree-huggers the next. So I guess we were doing something right.

3.  To what degree as counterinsurgency over-dominated our discussion and understanding of small wars, which encompass more than just counterinsurgency?

The second SWJ-related concern that keeps me up at night is this issue. Frankly, I believe the over-domination was a good thing — COIN was the issue of the day. What worries me now is that we will throw out the baby with the bath water. Insurgents aren’t going away anytime soon, we will most likely just “fight” them differently. The U.S. should avoid taking a counterinsurgency leadership role in a foreign country. While this was likely not possible in Afghanistan and Iraq where counterterrorism and conventional operations morphed over time (for various reasons, some not very good) into actively opposing insurgent threats, counterinsurgencies should be led by the host nation with U.S. and allied civilian and military organizations in support. With enough foresight and political will other Small Wars-related activities such as foreign internal defense and stability and reconstruction could mitigate the need for U.S.-led counterinsurgency operations.

Despite the calls for “no-more Iraqs and Afghanistans” that echo U.S. post-Vietnam War sentiments, the capability to understand and conduct Small Wars in the current and future security environment remains central to protecting and advancing U.S. interests. We can’t just wish them away and build the force we want to fight the war we want.

Here’s as good a place as any to address what the hell is a Small War? We get asked this quite a bit. So here is a history capsule:

Colonel C. E. Callwell, a British Army officer who was one of the first to write extensively on Small Wars (Small Wars: Their Principles and Practice, 1896), admitted that it was difficult to define such operations.  He explained that the term had no particular connection with the scale on which any campaign may be carried out; rather, it was used to describe operations of regular armies against irregular forces and required modifications to the art of war to suit the circumstances of each particular Small War.

The Small Wars Manual defined Small Wars as “a vague name for any one of a great variety of military operations. As applied to the United States, small wars are operations undertaken under executive authority, wherein military force is combined with diplomatic pressure in the internal or external affairs of another state whose government is unstable, inadequate, or unsatisfactory for the preservation of life and of such interests as are determined by the foreign policy of our Nation.”

David Galula (Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice, 1967), a French military counterinsurgency expert, best described the non-military component of Small Wars as “the soldier must… be prepared to become a propagandist, a social worker, a civil engineer, a schoolteacher, a nurse, a boy scout. But only for as long as he cannot be replaced, for it is better to entrust civilian tasks to civilians…to let the military direct the entire process…is so dangerous that it must be resisted at all costs” [emphasis mine].

The Small Wars Journal describes Small Wars as an imperfect term used to describe a broad spectrum of politics by other means. Today the term encompasses or overlaps with a number of familiar terms such as counterinsurgency, foreign internal defense, support and stability operations, peacemaking, peacekeeping, and many flavors of intervention.  Operations such as noncombatant evacuation, disaster relief, and humanitarian assistance are also often either a part of a Small War, or have a Small Wars feel to them.  Small Wars involve a wide spectrum of specialized tactical, technical, social, and cultural skills and expertise, requiring great ingenuity from their practitioners.

WTF, why the history lesson? Because SWJ is much more than a “counterinsurgency site” (a common misperception).

4.  With the release of the new Army/USMC manual on insurgency and counterinsurgency, how do you anticipate the debate will change? How would you like to see it change? Is there any chance we will move beyond the often bitter debates over what we should or should not have done in Iraq and Afghanistan? Or is that an important debate to continue?

Right now, from my perch, I see the current debate over insurgency and counterinsurgency as hashing over the same old issues by the same corners. This will change over time and SWJ will be there — though I am concerned that the current big debate over force structure, capabilities as well as roles and missions is not looking kindly at anything that smells remotely like a Small War.

As for the present, a copy of the soon to be published Army and Marine Corps doctrine manual Insurgencies and Countering Insurgencies has been provided to Small Wars Journal by the Army’s Combined Arms Doctrine Division. Small Wars Journal has arranged for at least seven reviews of the manual — five have already been published [Editor’s note: See below for links to this series of reviews].

In a nutshell, SWJ’s role is to keep the intellectual capital flame lit through all this, keep the forum open, and push important issues into the forefront when we can.

5.  The counterinsurgency debate is famously (and perhaps not helpfully) divided between so-called COINdinistas and COINtras. If you had to guess the favorite drink of each camp, what would they be?

Concerning the drinks for the COIN camps, I suspect the drink of choice for the COINdinistas is the Tartan Day Rob Roy [scotch, vermouth, bitters, lemon twist] and for the COINtras the Queens Park Swizzle [rum, simple syrup, lime juice, bitters]. Both are bitter drinks.


Editor’s Note: Read SWJ’s series of reviews of the new FM 3-24, Insurgencies and Countering Insurgencies

Dave Maxwell, “Counterinsurgency is Not a Substitute for Strategy”

John Nagl, “Original and Good”

Robert M. Cassidy, “Reflections on Counterinsurgency and Doctrine: Neither Strategy nor Platitudes”

Linda Robinson, “A Few Observations on the New Counterinsurgency Manual”

Crispin Burke, “Insurgencies and Countering Insurgencies”


Ryan Evans is the assistant director of the Center for the National Interest and the editor-in-chief of War on the Rocks.


Photo credit: The U.S. Army

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