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Defining Contemporary War Part 2 - Terms we dislike

(Today, I continue my study in defining contemporary war.- I caution that my approach is in no way exhaustive; I will likely leave out many terms and give all the terms much too short of a discussion. Without putting too much thought into it, I have divided up the terms into three parts: terms I dislike, terms I like, and the one phrase that I believe captures the feeling of contemporary war.)

This week, I start with terms I dislike. The terms I dislike fall into two categories: those that I feel mischaracterize current conflict and those that are synonymous but negative in origin.

In the eighties and nineties, the military differentiated war into two categories: Low Intensity Conflict and High Intensity Conflict. These provide two easy acronyms (HIC and LIC) and the ability for maneuver forces to ignore LIC as being for Special Forces, CA, and other military branches. Unfortunately, as the example of Iraq, Vietnam or Somalia can attest, war is very rarely delineated into HIC or LIC. Usually, the stages merge together as fighting in LIC conflicts can feel extremely intense. Particularly, if one gauges the intensity from the point of view of the local population, it is hard to call an insurgency “low intensity.” Therefore, I do not prefer that term.

In addition to their intensity, the military community also tends to refer to contemporary wars by their perceived size or length. The term Small Wars has been around since the late nineteenth century, and has been used extensively by the British and is the name of a Marine Corps manual from the 1930s. One of the most popular military blogs and online forums uses this term and it basically refers to the small brushfire wars the Colonial powers waged since the late nineteenth century (think the Philippines, the Malayan Conflict, and the French in Algieria).  Again, I think calling the insurgencies in Afghanistan or Iraq small horribly miscalculates their impact on American foreign policy or their cost to our economy. Also, no war feels small for the country on whose soil it is being waged.

I am not sure how long the term has been around, but some contemporary blogs refer to our current fight as the Long War. The problem with defining current warfare as either long or short is that it gets confused with the struggle against extremist terrorist groups and our counter-insurgency campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq. I agree with other theorists who caution against lumping Al Qaida extremists and all other terrorists together in the term "terrorism." Also, by labeling terrorism a war we risk limiting ourselves to only a single solution, the military.

Asymmetric war gained cogency in the early days of the Iraq conflict as a way to define the tactics of the enemy compared to our overwhelming technological advantage. Basically, asymmetric warfare is the acknowledgement of the huge technological advantage of the US military and the adoption of guerilla or terrorist methods to fight against the US. This terminology gives a very big power versus small power view of contemporary warfare. This view of warfare ignores states where the ruling party has only a minimal technological or political advantage over its opponents. Asymmetric warfare also emphasizes the technological nature of warfare, a bias all to evident in the American way of warfare. While I don't have enough room to prove on this post, in the long run, I would argue that when America's wartime leaders emphasize technology over people we lose.

The final two terms are probably the most common when discussing guerilla warfare, insurgencies and their ilk. They are unconventional, which describes conventional as major units lining up to fight and unconventional as everything else, and irregular, which describes regular as state on state warfare and irregular as everything else. One term primarily discuss the means of fighting and the other who decides to wage it. In fact, the American military waged irregular conflict in its origin during the American revolution and continued to do so until modern times. The British fought unconventionally throughout their history, possibly more than they fought conventionally. Since 1960, the American army has fought irregularly and unconventionally in Vietnam, Lebanon, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and currently in Iraq and Afghanistan. Its only conventional fights were during Panama and the first Gulf War. Therefore, using negative terms (unconventional and irregular) to describe contemporary warfare would seem to ignore the surprising frequency in warfare and because of this these are terms I do not like.

Even though I disagree with these terms in principle, I cannot say that they won't pop up on our blog from time to time. However, in the long run all the terms I discussed today limit our military in terms of viewpoint and creativity in fighting future wars.

six comments

All excellent observations. Here’s the term I dislike most, at least in the context that is most often used to describe our operations in Iraq or Afghanistan: Counter-insurgency. The reasons for my dislike is twofold; it misframes our problem set and unnecessary makes the conflict about us as an outside actor rather than the internal dynamics perpetuating conflict conditions.

I preach to my S-2 section as we train everyday that “It’s not about us!” I mean that in the sense that we are but one of many actors in a complex, “wicked” problem set. I see a U.S. forces centric analytical approach all too often and it strongly impedes true “understanding” of the battlespace. To suggest that an outside actor such as the United States can truly counter an internal insurgency in a sovereign nation is ridiculous and a complete misread of history. The mere suggestion and use of the term counter-insurgency, I believe, drastically shifts our strategy and tactics towards U.S. military focused solutions away from a holistic approach integrating mostly civil and some military activities. As I hope I can argue for this upcoming deployment, I strongly believe we should drop the use of the term “counter-insurgency” in favor of “foreign internal defense” and “security force assistance.”


I personally like the term “asymmetrical” Although it does concern the disparity is technological advantage, to me it is more about the power disparity. Who has more money, more troops, better technology, and a more powerful standing in the world at large. And the gap is a small gap, but when the disparity is gigantic.

@ Nick-
If it doesn’t sound too contradictory, I agree with everything you write except for your conclusion. Yesterday, I gave an LPD on KLEs and IO and my main point was exactly what you said, its not about you the Coalition Forces, its about the government. More importantly, KLEs with US forces are not nearly as beneficial as KLEs led by ANA or ANP. Or, shuras led by a partnership of ANA/ANP and representatives of the GIROA. Your advice to call the conflict in Afghanistan one of FID is an excellent suggestion.

On the whole, though, an insurgency is what is going on in Afghanistan. Therefore, the effort to counter that by the government in Kabul (no matter how weak it may be without US support) is still a counter-insurgency.

Your second to last point is the most important one and a battle I am losing on the SWJ forum. Our best hope in Afghanistan is not a maneuver forces/kill/capture mission but one consisting of civil development and government integration with security being a minor role.


I’m very glad to see that you emphasized the Afghan approach to solving what are fundamentally Afghan problems. It really is all too often overlooked or ignored because of the perceived futility or lack of expediency of working through the Afghans. It is, I suppose, a reflection of our Army culture.

I absolutely agree that the conflict in which we are participating in Afghanistan is best described as an insurgency, though it has elements of many other types of conflicts. I don’t seek the abandonment of the term and counter insurgency is exactly what the Afghan government must conduct. Rather, what I want to see is a Brigade mission statement that goes something like, “The 173D ABCT conducts security force assistance and foreign internal defense in support of the GIRoA, in order to…” We must frame the problem set and basic mission to our subordinates properly if we are to expect them to apply the appropriate solutions. Those solutions must go “by, with and through” the Afghans.


Nick, when we can get Brigade to write a specific mission statement with clear and specific goals then operationally the Army will be on its way to winning in Afghanistan. I think we both know we aren’t there yet though.

I’m seeing a pattern where the terms you dislike seem to be relative terms. Irregular war, high and low intensity conflict, long and short are all relativistic terms which are used but seemingly without a baseline comparison. Comparatively, Vietnam, our nations longest running constant conflict is considered a short war when compared to the Hundred Years War. I think the problem lies in the lack of establishing a base for comparison and accurately and universally defining terms so that a low intensity conflict or an irregular war, etc. is recognized as such by experts. Hence, why I respect your desire and attempt to define terms and establish baselines.