The Small Wars Manual: Fleet Marine Force Reference Publication 12-25. Sunflower University Press;(formerly Navy and Marine Corps Manual 2890), July 1940. By Major Timothy M. Parker, USMC, NOPC 2002
Some might question the continued utility of a field manual produced prior to the Second World War, especially in light of the claim that precision-guided weapons has fundamentally changed the nature of war. But the Marine Corps' Small Wars Manual is something unique in the annals of military literature. Unlike many of the military histories and analyses that inhabit the military professional's bookshelves, it is not theory, it is not a dissertation, nor is it the analysis of the military's success or failure in some action or campaign. The Small Wars Manual is a practitioner's manual written by the Marines who successfully fought America's small wars for the future practitioners of America's small wars. As America comes to grips with its present Terror War instead of looking for all the answers in the future, perhaps it would behoove us to learn from the hard won lessons of past. A recent editorial regarding the current war best encapsulates the continued value of the manual:
"[Al Qaeda's actions] seemed a case study in the kind of asymmetric warfare, that is, warfare aiming at key enemy vulnerabilities rather than at the enemy's main force, that had flummoxed American forces in Vietnam and might soon flummox them again in Afghanistan. Here is something that al Qaeda didn't know: For a century or more, the United States made a specialty of fighting small wars against elusive foes that used asymmetric tactics. And no one ever did it better." (Jonathan Rauch, National Journal, 18 June 2002).
Following the First World War, the United States adopted its traditional isolationist policy and disengaged from "entanglements" in Europe. This was not the case in the Western Hemisphere, where the "Monroe Doctrine" and the Roosevelt corollary ensured continued United States diplomatic and economic involvement. Most commonly termed the "Banana Wars", these conflicts rarely involved the investment of greater than a brigade of Marines, yet were highly successful in promoting stability and US influence in Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua. An example of this success was the first incursion into Haiti in 1915. The "First Caco Revolt" (Caco being the common name for the Haitian insurrectionists) was successfully suppressed by the deployment of a Provisional Marine Brigade (2000 Marines), who within a few months established control of a country consisting of over 2 million people, with a loss of three Marines KIA and 18 Marines WIA. Considering the present investment of manpower in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Afghanistan, perhaps the lessons, tactics, techniques, and procedures of the past are applicable.
The manual begins by defining what 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". The manual makes clear from the start that small wars are conceived in uncertainty, conducted often with precarious responsibility and doubtful authority, and under indeterminate orders lacking specific instructions. Considering the current amorphous conditions under which many of our forces operate, this manual should be in the pack of every US warrior deploying overseas. Moreover, whereas many modern military theorists wrestle with the role of the military in MOOTW, this manual sees no such dichotomy, and sees a vital and clearer role for the military in such contingencies. The manual makes clear from the start that diplomacy has not been exhausted in these operations, and that there will be an active role for the State Department, who will often be the primary US agency conducting the operation, and that military measures alone will not re-establish peace. Additionally, it recognizes that the US incursion may range from simply assisting the host nation in re-establishing their operation to assuming the government's role. Between these two are a whole range of possibilities of employment, which will require "the greatest ingenuity in their application", and demand "the highest type of leadership directed by intelligence, resourcefulness, and ingenuity".
What makes this publication so different from other current military publications is that it does seek "information dominance" or a clear set of rules to fit every possibility, but looks to adapt each campaign to the character of the native people, with the understanding that the indigenous forces will usually have better information, forcing the US forces to either swim or drown in the "fog of war". There will be no defined area of operations, nor a recognized exit date. In many ways, the military philosopher Sun Tzu would applaud its tenets: encouraging caution and steadiness, and "simple displays of force", not overwhelming US power.
One of the visionary aspects of the manual is its focus on the social and psychological aspects of small wars, a practice not exactly in line with the "White Man's Burden" philosophy being espoused in many circles of the day. It recognizes that ultimate victory will only be possible if the root causes for resistance are addressed to the population, be they social, political, or economic. This can only be determined by a study of the history and culture of the native people and mastered by experience in country. Likewise it recognizes a psychological ascendancy in these types of operations, which speaks directly to re-directing the perceptions and beliefs of the native population, either by psychological operations, or by undercutting the insurgents' popular support by addressing some of the causes of dissent. Attacking those furnishing material support or improving the lives of the population, obviating their need for insurrectionists, can accomplish this. Personal conduct of US forces must be beyond reproach as "they judge the United States and the ideals and standards of its people by the conduct of its representatives." Even-handedness and cognizance of belligerent parties, local politics, and customs is one of the keys to creditability and success.
In guiding the commander, the Small Wars Manual lauds the "a Force Commander who gains his objective in a small war without firing a shot has attained far greater success than one who resorted to use of arms". Indeed a superiority complex on the part of the commander is unproductive, and will lead to failure in his mission. Commanders of small wars operations must accept that they cannot control all operations. Decentralization is a key to success. This can only be accomplished by clearly and succinctly articulating a commander's intent to his subordinates, freeing them to carry out this guidance without an inordinate amount of supervision. Moreover, it guides the commander in directing his attack in two different veins, both the visible and invisible causes of the crisis. The visible cause, the insurrectionist, is attacked by active patrolling, psychological operations, and garrisoning specific locations guaranteeing the safety of the local populace and denying sanctuary to these insurgents. Significantly, the commander is also instructed to attack the invisible causes of the conflict by assisting in re-establishing government operations, conducting engineering projects (most importantly the construction of roads to more effectively link the nation), and assisting in establishing a viable, professional military and police force. These efforts in many ways are often the most effective manner to eliminate the support base for the insurgent. The manual goes on to discuss staff functions, different environments, rules of engagement, tactics, bases of operation, nation building, and most importantly training for small wars.
The key value to the continued relevance of this manual is that it is based primarily upon experience, not theory. Moreover, the principles are still sound, and have been used in America's continuing small wars involvement, most significantly post-Gulf War in Haiti (again), Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo, and now in Afghanistan. Indeed one of the few success stories of the Vietnam War was the Marine Combined Action Platoon (CAP) Program.
Some say that a manual that diagrams the proper manner in which to pack out a mule with crew served weapons has little relevance in the 21st century. However, considering the recent success of horseback special operations forces in OPERATION ENDURING FREEDOM, perhaps the lessons of the past have a viable place in the future.
Major Timothy M. Parker, USMC