The Bush Wars: Ellis on Population-Centric Counterinsurgency

March 30, 2015

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of three adapted excerpts from 21st Century Ellis: Operational Art and Strategic Prophecy for the Modern Era, published by Naval Institute Press. It features part of Ellis’ article, “Bush Brigades,” which first appeared in Volume VI, Number 1 of the Marine Corps Gazette in March of 1921. Check out part one, “America Fighting in the Philippines.”


Lieutenant Colonel Pete Ellis, widely known in the Marine Corps as the “amphibious warfare prophet,” wrote about far more than just amphibious operations. This series of three excerpts from his 1921 article demonstrates that he was just as prescient when it came to counterinsurgency. In Part 1, Pete Ellis began with the big picture: the strategic level of counterinsurgency. He continued on to describe the important dynamics of deploying troops to a foreign country (or, in the context of the Philippines, to occupy it.) In this section, he focuses on how to fight an insurgency.

Ellis first describes a system of fortified posts and flying columns. Flying columns are of course necessary to perform security patrols and to seek out insurgents. He stresses the need for these columns to be mobile but also to have the ability to reach fortified posts for rest and resupply. The Forward Operating Bases of Iraq and Afghanistan are simply tricked out fortified posts that the U.S. soldiers and Marines who served in the Philippines would be familiar with. (In Part 3, Ellis will recommend that said fortified posts should be located in population centers, a lesson his descendants would have to learn the hard way.)

The reason for this is that the enemy is amongst the people, a concept that became popular more recently, particularly with the publication of Rupert Smith’s The Utility of Force. Today this applies on two levels: enemy forces physically hide amongst local population and all warfare is conducted in front of an audience enabled by digital technology and the speed of global communications. Such audiences of all kinds, foreign and domestic, must be taken into account by military leadership. Ellis saw that in the early 20th Century this situation was just beginning but in today’s world the ability of military forces to operate without scrutiny is dead and gone.

Despite his recognition that such wars are by necessity conducted amongst the people, Ellis’ vision of counterinsurgency is no kindler or gentler version of warfare. He explicitly states that the most devoted insurgents will have to be hunted down and killed by the counterinsurgents: “There is a certain amount of brutality in any kind of warfare that can never be eliminated.” Again, current debates echo these statements.

He does not, however, advocate the wonton destruction of total war. Much of this section discusses Rules of Engagement and the practical benefits of the Laws of Armed Conflict or, during his time, the “Rules of Land Warfare.” Ellis makes it clear that he does not think that those rules apply to a regular force fighting an irregular insurgency. Yet, this is no reason for counterinsurgents to apply wanton and indiscriminate destruction. Ellis lays out four historical methods used by counterinsurgents and discards three of them for having the “great disadvantage” of alienating the population.

Ellis circles back to the strategic level to reinforce the point. Ethical and moral behavior on the part of counterinsurgent forces is no sop to sentimentality; there are practical strategic and tactical reasons for Rules of Engagement, especially during counterinsurgency warfare. I’ll leave it to him. The excerpt begins here:


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As soon as the mobile columns have destroyed or dispersed any irregular forces in the production areas the next step in order is the establishment of fortified posts for the prosecution of the last strategical phase- the drives of flying columns into the far interior.

The particular functions of a fortified post are as follows:

(a) To cover production areas and communication with markets.

(b) To observe and steady the populace.

(c) To form a base of supply, rest, replacement, and information for flying columns.

As a general rule, these posts will be located at valley heads on main roads or water-ways leading from sea bases and at the apices of valley and inter-valley roads and trails leading to the more difficult jungle and mountain regions- the final theatre of operations.

The site of the post should have, if possible, the following characteristics:

(a) Be capable of defense by a small detachment.

(b) Be of sufficient extent to permit the bivouac of a flying column of one hundred men, with mounted detachment.

(c) Permit of control of any town in vicinity and of all approaches, especially roads and ravines.

(d) Have sufficient elevation to generally observe the surrounding country.

(e) Have direct access to water supply and main road.

(f) Permit of control of landing field for aeroplanes.

In many cases old forts, redoubts, or isolated masonry buildings with compounds can be organized and are suitable for the purpose. Often, however, it will be found that conditions warrant the construction of an entirely new post from the material available in vicinity.

The main requirement of a fortified post, garrisoned, as it will be, by only a few men, is that it cannot be rushed. This requirement can be met by constructing a double defense of the palisade type; an outer defense (occupied only when flying column is present) to enclose the bivouac area and an inner defense, or keep, to enclose the depot facilities and permanent garrison, provision being made in both lines for the widest use of automatic weapons and grenades. The outer defense forms the obstacle for the inner defense and all portions of it should be within bombing range. Such earthworks as the armament of the enemy may render necessary should be provided in addition.

Communications with fortified posts, especially in the beginning, will be largely by air patrol, and a most complete liaison plan must be perfected. A landing field may not be available, and in any case unnecessary landings on natural fields are to be avoided.

With fortified posts established the flying column phase of the operations begin. This is the most arduous- although the most interesting- of all phases; the idea being to beat the native guerilla at his own game on his own ground.

The enemy will operate in his own territory, among his own people, and every habituation will be a base of supply. In other words, he will be most familiar with the terrain, have the best channels of information, and will be free of all impedimenta. He will be the survivor of the worst of the irregular forces and will know no rule of war- he will assassinate, ambush and disperse, and repeat it until destroyed.

To operate with rapid success against such an enemy requires a very high standard of both individual and organization training in bush warfare combined with good natural individual mental alertness and physical endurance.

At the beginning of the flying column operations the columns may be of considerable strength- say a company of infantry with a mounted detachment. As the enemy is finally worn down, combat patrols (mounted or unmounted) consisting of one or more squads may suffice. The mission of the flying column will be to find the enemy and then fight fast and hard to pursue him to the limit. Therefore, there should be nothing in its composition or armament tending to reduce its mobility or independence of action beyond that absolutely necessary. Except for supplies which can be carried by the men the column must, as a rule, depend upon fortified posts. These posts must be established in sufficient numbers to permit of this- a post always being within a day or two’s march.

And while on the subject of supply and mobility of flying columns it must be emphatically stated that a flying column should never be sent into the bush unless amply provided with CASH. With it can be purchased knowledge of the terrain and movements of the enemy, and food. It is safe to say that at least 50 per cent. of the so-called harsh measures used in bush warfare could be eliminated by providing troops with adequate information money. (As a rule, however, the intelligence fund that is available is paid out in salaries to so-called secret agents for reporting the incoherent babblings of harmless native politicians in barrooms.)

The conditions under which flying columns or groups operate, as set forth, naturally force the adoption of a formation of the mobile square type. This may be described as a formation organized so as to be able to immediately and automatically exert fighting power in any direction. For instance, a company of infantry is marching through thick jungle and is ambushed from the front and both flanks; an advanced group exerts rifle, automatic rifle, and grenade fire to the front and rolls up the enemy flank; a third group marching directly in the rear of the second group, operates similarly on the left; a fourth (rear) group marching a short distance in rear of the two flank groups, protects the rear and advances with the attack.

Having completed, in brief, an account of the fighting to be expected in effecting a “peaceful occupation,” it will be well to touch upon a few of the special circumstances which attend a war that is not a war.

To enforce one’s will upon an enemy of the nature depicted without subjecting one’s self to undue criticism is one of the most difficult tasks that can confront soldier. The “Rules of Land Warfare” lay down certain rules which are to be followed, subject to military necessity during hostilities between regular forces of civilized nations. The “Rules of Land Warfare” for the guidance of the regular force engaged in hostilities with irregular or guerilla forces have never been written; and it is doubtful if they will ever be written because people only write about such operations when they are accomplished facts.

There is a certain amount of brutality in any kind of warfare that can never be eliminated. As published rules for conduct become more strict, action under military necessity increases. When one is confronted by a type of warfare not contemplated by the framers of published rules the only sound guide to action is a thorough knowledge of the end in view of the United States coupled with a knowledge of the methods used by other civilized nations under similar conditions.

Other civilized nations, when confronted by irregular or guerilla warfare, have taken the following measures among others:

(a) Killed or wounded the individuals concerned and destroyed their property.

(b) Destroyed the property of people who aided or abetted the enemy.

(c) Laid waste entire sections inhabited by people generally supporting the enemy.

(d) Removed and dispersed women and children living in an area of unrest.

All of the above-named measures with the exception of the first have the great disadvantage in that their application is likely to exasperate the people as a whole and tend to forfeit their friendship permanently. (Mothers in these countries particularly are prone to nurse hatred and pass it along to their children.) That the friendship of the people of any occupied nation should be forfeited by the adoption of any unnecessarily harsh measures is avowedly contrary to the policy of the United States. It would seem, therefore, that the proper method would be to kill or wound the individuals actually in arms, or at least, hunt them from their homes and destroy any property which they might have. If the families of bandits and those of an actively supporting element suffer by this procedure it is unfortunate but amply justified. In case these measures fail and harsher measures are necessary to clear up a situation, then it is the duty of the seniors (experienced officers) to determine what shall be done after a careful estimate of the factors involved. Each situation should be treated as a separate problem and the most humane solution, always keeping in mind the safety of our own troops, should be applied.

While the foregoing line of conduct seems to suffice for the solution of any case, yet it does not always various reasons.

When Uncle Sam occupies the territory of a small nation he wants to enforce his will but he does not want any trouble- that is, any stir that may cause undue comment among his own people or foreign governments. He wants to interfere as little as possible with the lives of the people– in fact, he wants to be considered the good angel (that he really is) by the nation that he is cleaning up, and this policy “Clean Up Without Trouble” is transmitted down to the junior who is actually cleaning up the “corners.”

The military operations under the enforced conditions are generally recognized as ethical and proper as long as there is some semblance of military organization in the hostile element; it is considered as ordinary, legitimate fighting. It is the final phase which is difficult because, owing to the policy pursued, the following conditions will prevail to a greater or lesser extent:

(a) Bands of murderers and other criminals base in thick, difficult country and prey indiscriminately on the peaceful people in the production areas.

(b) These bandits have no property other than that which they carry with them or keep in hiding.

(c) None of these bandits, whatever their crimes, have ever been executed after having been captured and turned over to proper authority.

(d) Many bandits, having been captured and turned over to proper authority, have been permitted to escape and have rejoined their bands.

(e) The inhabitants of localities frequented by bandits keep them informed of the movement of the force of occupation.

(f) The forces of occupation are at a minimum- not more than 1 to every 100 native males capable of bearing arms and not more than 1 to each 5 square miles of territory.

(g) Combat columns have little cash to use.



Captain B. A. Friedman is the editor of 21st Century Ellis and a field artillery office in the US Marine Corps. He has been published in numerous journals is a founding member of the Military Writers Guild.


Photo credit: The U.S. Army