War By Any Other Name

In today's New York Times magazine, William Safire enters the thicket of military jargon to write about the latest buzzword sweeping the Pentagon: "irregular warfare."

Apparently, the Pentagon was unsatisfied with the use of "counterinsurgency" (too focused on one kind of warfare); "asymmetric warfare" (denotes only war where different or unbalanced tactics are use); and "unconventional warfare" (too confusing because of past usage). Other terms batted around included "small wars" and "hybrid wars" and "full spectrum wars" -- all of which were found wanting by the powers that be.

And so, the Pentagon settled on irregular warfare, defining it as: "a violent struggle among state and nonstate actors for legitimacy and influence over the relevant populations. Irregular warfare favors indirect and asymmetric approaches, though it may employ the full range of military and other capabilities, in order to erode an adversary's power, influence and will."

Safire correctly points out the conundrum here. For years, we've defined ourselves as the regulars and our enemies as the irregulars, and we've built an overwhelmingly conventional military institution to fight regular war. The U.S. defense establishment is the antithesis of agililty, and it may take decades to embrace this paradigm shift. By that time, I imagine our enemies will have evolved far beyond the definition of irregular warfare.

By Phillip Carter |  June 8, 2008; 8:32 AM ET  | Category:  Counterinsurgency
Previous: Insha'Allah | Next: Four-Star Heresy


Please email us to report offensive comments.

So who will be the executive agency for "Irregular Warfare"? As "Other Capabilities" are required for success, would the Pentagon make a power grab for the State Department? Or will the Pentagon cede control of field forces to the ambassador on scene?

Posted by: Jimmy Wu | June 8, 2008 10:44 AM


You are talking about the battle between Title 10 and Title 50. While you are correct that the ambassador has a role, as yourself if State should be conducting any form of warfare.

And the battle you speak of is not between DoD and State, but instead between DoD and CIA. If DoD is not in charge, the CIA is.

So if you are talking about a power grab, ask yourself this. Who is trying to grab power? An overworked DoD trying to get involved in more countries, or a parochial CIA who are fighting to remain relevant in the post Cold War.


I have no problem with the definition of "Irregular Warfare." You imply that this is the latest buzzword, actually, it has been very prominent for the last couple of years. It is really a throw back to a much older doctrine that we threw out after Vietnam.

Phil, I fail to see the "conundrum." We've used "Irregulars" as a way of defining non-uniformed enemy for decades (i.e., the North Vietnamese Army Regulars, vs. the guerilla Irregular forces), but not for the enemy forces as large (which I think you intended to write, but misspoke).

As far as agility, you are overstating the situation, but not entirely inaccurate when you are talking about the force as a whole. But our "Irregular" forces are very agile, and are adapting as fast as the enemy. I think the doctrine shift, for lack of a better word, the "paradigm shift" we are going for is to move our efforts more towards the Irregular methods of warfare so we can keep pace with the enemy. Thus far, the Special Ops community (our Irregular forces) has been pretty successful.

Words have meaning. I find Irregular Warfare to be the best, all inclusive word to describe future operations.

Posted by: bg | June 8, 2008 11:54 AM

The Pentagon concerns itself primarily with policy and money. Defining a term like irregular warfare sounds like the precursor to program definition for programmatics to follow. Counterinsurgency presumes you're on the defensive or have at least temporarily lost the intiative and are trying to get it back. Irregular warfare at least maintains the possibility that the state actor is willing to initiate hard and soft power in furtherance of pol-mil goals and keep the initiative from the outset. It is a different way of thinking to be sure. People who think America should always be willing to take the first punch to start with the moral high ground wouldn't be pleased with this summation. If its true that we are willing to be initiators then it is also a small acknowledgement that we are no longer comfortable with our role as shining light on the hill. If irregular warfare is the definition of a term as a prelude to evolving the American way of war, then it bears more serious discussion. It also sounds like a convenient way to capture programs for the GWOT by depoliticizing the phrase. To do that might be to lose the deeper meaning. I think we need to be sure we're not a bit myopic with the long term effects of redefining something.

Posted by: Panhandle Willy | June 8, 2008 9:04 PM

Perhaps you can call me naive, but I don't think there is a right wing conspiracy plot hatched by Cheney and being propagated by military leaders to set the conditions for anything nefarious. Irregular warfare, IMHO, is simply a counter proposal against the hard core COIN lobby in the Pentagon.

Panhandle, I tend to agree with your statement:

"I think we need to be sure we're not a bit myopic with the long term effects of redefining something."

However, I submit to you that this semantic change, as far as I know, is a DoD thing, and not a US Policy change. I don't think we will see the word catch on in State, or even in the CIA. I think as long as this way of thinking remains within the walls of the Pentagon and other military think tanks, I think it will simply shape military organizational thinking and not national policy.

Only caveat to this unlikely danger is that there is a tendency for our foreign policy options to be predicated on our military capabilities.

Posted by: bg | June 9, 2008 12:49 AM

We will never win any kind of war, regardless of what it is called, as long as the Military Industrial Complex is the ultimate authority. Why win a war when there is so much money to be made if you do not win?

Posted by: ghostcommander | June 9, 2008 1:03 AM

I've got no particular problem with getting away from the catch-all "COIN." In fact, I've been uncomfortable with general use of the term because it's very specific and in no way captures the nuances of what's now I guess going to be "irregular warfare."

Having said that, I don't like "irregular." I like "unconventional." Inasmuch as we still live in the Westphalian era, "conventional" is still the best descriptor for state-against-state warfare that I can think of. Its mirror image, "unconventional," seems to most accurately describe actions short of major war. I'd also suggest that "irregular" has somewhat of a negative connotation when applied to U.S. forces. "Irregular" evokes images of rag-tag guerilla bands. U.S. forces are anything but "irregular." Those doing things outside the realm of conventional combat formations are in fact regular forces doing unconventional things.

Panhandle Willy fires a welcome warning shot here, too. He's absolutely right in fearing that as this stuff becomes more institutionalized and as more and more resources are dedicated to it, it will be far easier to engage in it on a massive scale. That, IMO, is decidedly not what this nation needs. Whether you call it irregular or unconventional, this prescription should always be applied sparingly. The bulk of our forces should remain "regular" or "conventional."

I think Bg is also right in his reading of how this is aimed squarely at the COIN lobby. We don't need a COIN lobby. What we need are military leaders able to get beyond looking through their own self-delusional lenses and able to somehow arrive at the best way to accomplish the mission. For the best few years, too many have viewed the hammer as the default tool. Give the COIN lobby enough time to get well entrenched and we'll see a situation where the stilleto is the default tool. Unfortunately for hidebound generals, who can't seem to think beyond one tool, neither is the best tool. Each is needed when it's needed. You don't want to be taking a knife to a gun fight.

Posted by: Publius | June 9, 2008 10:03 PM

United States of America;Humanity Control Jerusalem Tue.6/10/08 8:42
AM;You have a Problem!

(IHT thrice size;Thus single Editorial,first seen Sunday June 8,minutes
after 3PM,@my W.Jerusalem Central Bus Station Bookstore,closing before
our Jewish upcoming Shavoth Holyday,(25 hours in length for Israel
residents,continuing,incl.now,24 hours more for world Jewry resident

Acumen concieved & deliberated while lazying around,after overnight
Torah study,on Shavoth Day,yesterday.(As LA Times Commentary of over a
year back quoted a famous slowpoke,"Idleness is the Wellspring of
Creativity." Albert Einstein.)

E@World now verified as (E-tap,composition,acumen to e-tap train Halted
at first sight of my E-Mail lead Heading;"washingtonpost.com Today's
Opinions: 'Bush Lied'? If Only It Were That Simple ".Will now E@World
delve,investigating.In no way arresting the U.S. @Humanity import of vmy
acumen to E-tap,to appear below.))

9:20 AM E@World verified as,"NY Times Editorial The Truth About the War
Published: June 6, 2008.

Ending:We cannot say with certainty whether Mr. Bush lied about Iraq.
But when the president withholds vital information from the public -- or
leads them to believe things that he knows are not true -- to justify the
invasion of another country, that is bad enough.

My native America; The New York Times,resting with indecision,on whether
President Bush lied,or not,to 'We,The People' is Humanity Preservation &
our U.S. Geo-Strategic future,Not Good Enough!

As;U.S. hidden coordinated plans,to sign Iraq onto an 'Alliance',thus
avoiding U.S. Senate,need for approval,legitimizing 50,permanent,U.S.
military bases @Iraq,appearing Virtual by Iraq single soldier manned
perimeter fence;With next day details of $50 million in Iraq funds on
deposit,@Federal Reserve Bank of New York,that Iraq will lose,if it
fails to sign onto this,previously hidden,pending,U.S. @Iraq Alliance.

As revealed late last week,by Patrick Co.kburn in the UK Independent,as
I E-post conveved U.S.hereabouts,immediatly afterward;

Reasonable evidence has become available to investigate towards Charging
our outgoing U.S. President George W.Bush with High Crime against 'We
The People' & our U.S. Geo-Strategic future facing Humanity!

In blatant disregard of our Forefathers sacred ideals,as they predicated
out revered Declaration of Independence;In essence:

'We Hold these Truths to be Self-Evident:That All...are Endowed by their
Creator with...Inalianable Rights...among...LIFE,LIBERTY & the PURSUIT

Our GW Bush/Cheney administration has substituted,in their mind's
eye,'U.S. affluent MUST be INSURED of Showing Off in their transport.'

Hence;Dissemble & hide ultimate aim as we go along;But enmesh our
serving,cherished U.S. Power@Iraq,in Real Death,Lifelong Brain Impairment &
Capture Harm's way;so that US will emerge as a Great Guzzling Gas
Station Attendant!

Crippling U.S.@World Geo-Strategic military capability permanently;
Bleeding & draining into our 'Virtual'U.S. Power @Iraq for Guzzling Gas Station.

Jihadist terrorism violence against homeland America is enthused by U.S.
permanent Iraq occupation.AS well as Muslim rage at U.S. never ending
avoidance of,decades called for 'tough love' discipline @my Israel's
unremitting,anti-Viable Palestine,Expansion@Settlements in Defiance of
our U.S. State Department's,over third of a Century,Just,Calls.

The Israel irritant to Humanity Preservation advances steadily
towards,as present,Certain,WMD to Israel resultant;Israel WMD Counter
Force,effective,extermination of Middle East warm-blooded Life.

Humanity will be @High Anxiety after Middle East warm-blooded Life is
WMD Blown Away!

This as;Actors;Enthused by the Great Mid-East,WMD brought 'peace on earth'
,will be greased towards tossing their own,to create peace @their enemies.

Such unleashed OK Corral High WMD Guns @World Humanity,
will put Humanity's very survival @unaceptable risk.

The projected future of this Bush/Cheney; U.S. DARK SIDE for Humanity!

'We the People of the United States of America' & in consideration for
our U.S. Geo-Strategic future @Humanity;Unacceptable!

Facing such a dismal projected Bush/Cheany administration,designed
U.S.@Humanity future is unpresidented.

Engage my amazing reach proven,& Democratic action aledged,Voice into
our U.S. for LIFE LIGHT SIDE future deliberative loop.

Phone me @International access 972,or Israel 0,then 50-5425235 to
inquire,or book for my required Introduction;My 2+hours,weekday noon
departing,'Illegal Settlement Expansion' self-escorted tour.Meeting
before departure in my upper west Jerusalem.

Wisdom needed for resolving this U.S. DARK SIDE for Humanity,U.S.
Triumphant LIFE LIGHT SIDE favorably!

To Life!=לחיים.Pronounced Le Chaim.

Michael of the upper west side.

Originally Manhattan.

Now Jerusalem.

PRIORITY 1 LIFE freely on fastmail.fm compose Far West Jerusalem.

Tuesday June 10,2008;Now @10:55 AM ET +7.(Embargoed from homeland U.S.
posting,until after homeland U.S. reasonably 'Rise & Shine' Up for
Tuesday June 10,2008.)

Posted by: Michael of up West.Orig.Manhattan.Now Jerusalem | June 10, 2008 11:11 AM

BG--I agree it is a DoD construct. My point is those constructs are used to build arguments for dollar allocations. You gather simliar programs under a roles and missions banner, get your own ASD directorship and your off to the feed trough...it's the third floor way to go. You've got a SOF CSA and now you've got a SOF CSAF. Their title 10 responsibility is to organize, train and equip. That's dollars.

I agree with Publius. DoD exists to defend the Constituted United States. The fact that they plan to do it on somebody else's shores is a good thing. It is the harvest of never bringing a knife to a gun fight. No matter how violent, wily and clever insurgents, terrorists, irregulars are...whatever you want to call them, they will never topple the government through force of arms. Only a big dog can do that. From my fighter jock days...you always deal with the most lethal and closest threat first...the rest becomes a mop-up exercise. We can't not keep near peer competitors on the back burner. They have to be at the forefront of American military planning.

Which doesn't mean you discard the stilettos either. They work really well when properly applied and nobody...no matter what any garment-rending, whip-smart reporter tries to tell us all...nobody does that better than we do. You don't see Iraqi insurgents taking down our field leadership. But daily we take theirs down. You don't see us on the run anywhere...even when we're 7,000 miles away in two foreign lands...but Al Qaeda is running. They might be firing back as they're running...but running they are.

The trick, as always, is proper balance. Now there is some imbalance going on. We need to be better informed in the field. UAV's do that for us because they are an asymmetrical advantage for us. With better information at a faster rate...we can bring superior fire power to bear and win every engagement against irregulars. Preaching to the choir I'm sure. So we need more NRT intelligence platforms and we need them now. OK...DoD address the imbalance sooner rather than later. We did the same with MRAPs vs HUMVEES. It took longer than the uninformed thought it should have...but it was lightning quick to the better informed.

And DoD needs to fully embrace the softer capabilities that SOF brings to the table...the art of winning hearts and minds before you are forced to grab the intransigent by the balls. Proper coordinated effort among State, SOF, and traditional hard power can narrow the field and provide focus to decisive military ops to attain national goals.

My fear is that the stiletto pushers will swing the pendulum too far. If ever there was momentum for that on the horizon...it is with a democratic president and senior leadership filled up with SOF folks.

To Ghost...back to the sauce my friend...let it ease you past your present stupification and into blissful inconsciousness.

Posted by: Panhandle Willy | June 11, 2008 9:02 PM

The comments to this entry are closed.

RSS Feed
Subscribe to The Post

© 2010 The Washington Post Company