The Bush Wars: Ellis on Intel, Governance, and Ethics in Counterinsurgency

April 2, 2015

Editor’s note: This is the last 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.


In Part 1, Pete Ellis started at the strategic or policy level of counterinsurgency operations and then moved down, describing how best to achieve access to the country in question but always with a mind for the strategic end state. In Part 2, he described the use of fortified posts and the use of flying columns to combat the insurgents, while also describing such “weapons” as money and the need to adhere to Rules of Engagement. The final entry in this series will again be familiar to modern counterinsurgents.

This excerpt begins with what modern militaries describe as lines of operation, basically different ways with which one can affect the insurgent force. Ellis’ version includes intelligence services, the provost service (in today’s terms, military police), the “moral effect of the presence of troops,” and combat itself.

The first two hardly need explanation. The U.S. military in recent years has tied itself in knots trying to reform its intelligence system to adequately cope with the exigencies of counterinsurgency, and has had to task some units, such as artillery to learn to act as military police in order to fill this “unforeseen” requirement. Ellis’ conception of the calming “moral effect” of troops is of course contingent upon those troops acting as a protective force. Finally, in a very modern fashion, Ellis places combat last on his list of lines of operation.

Interestingly, Ellis proposed an entire brigade-level structure designed to perform these functions and to operate in the manner he described earlier in the article. This is a step that the U.S. military did not take then or now. At no point did the U.S. military purposely build a military unit — brigade level or otherwise — to perform counterinsurgency operations in Iraq or Afghanistan. All manner of units were tasked to conduct counterinsurgency operations, but were essentially reflagged to do so. Certain enablers were attached, such as intelligence specialists at the company level, but other than the rewrite of FM 3-24 Counterinsurgency in 2006 no other drastic steps were taken to create the force structure required by the situation. While an increase in end strength was authorized for the Army and the Marine Corps, the units deployed to fight insurgents were organized in the same manner as if they were to fight motorized Soviet units. Reorganization happened only in an ad hoc manner that varied from unit to unit and commander to commander.

Ellis closes the article by connecting once again the fighting quality of the troops and their “moral fibre.” In Part 1, Ellis described the need for clear and ethical strategic guidance to maintain that moral fiber amongst the troops who must do the dirty work of counterinsurgency.

The connection between the ethics of the war’s purpose and the permutation of that morality, through strategy down to the tactics, was forgotten by a later generation of Americans. Jim Frederick, author of the book Black Hearts: One Platoon’s Descent Into Madness in Iraq’s Triangle of Death, blamed the war crimes committed by the platoon in that book in part on incoherent strategy. Ellis’ very first point in this article (Excerpt 1) was that troops needed to be provided with clear, concise strategic level guidance — a “Proclamation of Occupation.” President McKinley issued just such a proclamation in 1898 early in the U.S. occupation of the Philippines in which Ellis would later participate. Such a guiding document may have been the best provision the United States government could have made for the troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and it would have cost nothing.

Somewhere between 1921 and 2003 this lesson was forgotten. Read what Ellis had to say:

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Immediately upon the occupation of any portion of foreign territory the peculiar problems of small-nation occupation present themselves for a solution. The operations staff section, heretofore occupied with using military means for the purpose of fighting, faces about and bends its efforts toward using them for the purpose of avoiding fighting. The methods employed to effect this determine the organization, strength, and distribution of the forces of occupation.

As has been stated before, in most small nations the chief danger to a peaceful occupation is the effect of hostile propaganda initiated and spread by the agitator class (aided by the activity of the lawless element) on the producer class, especially during economic crises. In fact, there can be no serious uprisings unless the producer class joins in the movement.

The problem thus resolves itself into a question of keeping informed of the revolutionary propaganda of the agitator class, together with the movements of the lawless elements, and the economic conditions surrounding the producer class; and acting with the means at hand to forestall evil effects.

The forces of occupation have four weapons with which to act: (a) Intelligence Service; (b) Provost Service (including exceptional Military Courts); (c) moral effect of the presence of troops; and finally (d) fighting action.

It is well to consider the first two weapons very closely in connection with “peaceful occupation,” for it is mainly by their efficient action that such things are accomplished.

The intelligence and provost services belong to that class of services which may be indifferently provided for with impunity so long as brave men are available and ready for expenditure. Hence the scant attention given to them in the preparation of operation plans, tables of organization, school curriculums, and similar preparatory measures. As a rule, they are established only when the necessities of operations force it upon higher command.

Correctly speaking, the functions of intelligence in a bush brigade should include the gathering and dissemination of all information necessary for ensuring correct action- political and military- on the part of the military government. This information includes (a) a thorough analysis of the psychology of the people (including their origin, history, temperament, civilization, etc.), economic conditions and their tendencies, the various political factions, and, in fact, all fundamental forces which may act to affect the tranquility of the country during the twilight sleep of occupation; (b) current information regarding the action of fundamental forces; (c) predictions as to the future action of those forces, and (d) up-to-date information of a purely military character, including potential and active military strength and morale, terrain data, etc.

It may be said that this is a big task and requires a large and efficient organization. It is– and does. At present it requires a section of Naval Intelligence, a section of Marine Corps Operations and a normal bush brigade intelligence unit- all, at least until the fundamental work is complete.

The normal organization required is approximately as follows:


(1) Correspondence Section:

Research work- collation of information- dissemination of information by daily, monthly and special reports.

(2) Information File Section:

Analysis of fundamental forces

Personal cards and cases on leaders of political, revolutionary, and criminal elements.

Cases on “anti-” movements.

Military information

(3) Mapping Section:

Preparation and distribution of maps and charts- military, political, economic, physical, meteorological, etc.

(b) FIELD:

(1) Troops- minor intelligence organizations.

(2) Agents-press-personal channels.

There are two main peculiarities to be found among the people of ordinary small nations which form the basis for current intelligence activity: (a) Political parties do not represent principles but the personal ideas of influential leader of the political agitator class who may change their minds overnight; (b) hostile military action in any moment depends on the success of a political faction in swaying (by threat or promise) the producer class. Hence current intelligence actually resolves itself into a close observation of the movements of the influential political agitators and the economic conditions attendant to the producer class and sounding timely warning of their consequences. If a particular insidious hostile movement is inaugurated by the agitator class during an economic crisis trouble may be expected. As a rule, a serious condition of this nature cannot be successfully combated by counter-propaganda unless conducted on a prohibitive scale. At least provost action against the leaders combined with increased activity of troops will be necessary to insure tranquility. The ordinary political agitator knows no limit except that set by force. The ordinary producer believes anything he hears, but what he sees is decisive. The sight of one clean-cut, armed Marine will offset volumes of hostile propaganda.

In executing the intelligence functions as stated the most difficult of all is to force the intelligence personnel to realize that its mission is not to gather information of any kind and place it on file, as is generally the custom, but to gather pertinent information, put it in proper form for use and then place it in the hands of the person who can use it to best advantage- and this as quickly as possible.

The provost service, including the exceptional military court system, represents the military government to the mass of the people, with whom it comes in direct contact, and is the normal active instrument for the enforcement of tranquility. During the irksome months or years of reconstruction, when there must be effected a continual and vital change in native methods of life in all its respects, the provost service stands watch over all. It, more than any other element of the forces, should understand the people- temperament, customs, activities, and the every-day working of the every-day native mind. Its functions warrant a well-founded and complete organization- including provost marshals and judges with legal knowledge, good and loyal interpreters and sufficient clerical assistance to dispatch business with justice and celerity.

The most peculiar (and the worst) characteristic of the usual provost service (a part of the judicial system of the occupied territory) is that it is required to maintain itself by the punishments which it inflicts. This, too, notwithstanding the fact that the more efficient the service becomes the less liability there is of orders being violated- and thus a decrease in funds available for its maintenance at standard. As a rule, however, when lack of funds threatens the disruption of the organization in any locality the officer directly concerned keeps the “buck” and uses his initiative.

The moral value of the presence of troops and fighting power to preserve tranquility need scarcely be commented on.

A small nation should be occupied in sufficient strength to always keep the fact of military supervision before the eyes of the people. The forces necessary to effect this may be termed the permanent occupation force. This force, widely distributed among a number of permanent posts, by its patrol activity, makes visible the fact of occupation to the people, steadies them, and insures a thorough policing of the land. These centres of troop activity coincide closely with the production areas and their markets.

In addition to the permanent occupation forces there should be mobile reserves so located that they may be quickly poured into temporarily disaffected areas, and by a demonstration of strength show the impracticability of armed resistance.

Fighting action is the last resort and constant effort must be exerted to build up and maintain a fighting edge among troops that will render their use instantaneous and decisive. The practice of “letting down” on things military as soon as general tranquility is restored is bad in that it leads the people to underestimate the power of the troops (thus encouraging agitation) and gives the troops a false idea of their functions besides lessening that efficiency in general. Mobile reserve centres should be the training centres for various areas. This arrangement not only makes for economy of men and material but, if a proper and constant interchange of organizations is maintained within the areas, keeps the fighting efficiency and moral fibre of all troops at a high standard.

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.