The Professional Soldier

female soldier wearing a pilot's helmet army recruiting ad

A long-standing interest of mine is the concept of the “warrior” and the way it started to permeate military culture at the beginning of the GWOT. Recently, there was a small kerfuffle over the rebranding of some Army dining facilities as “warrior cafes.”

The “warriorization” of the Army is a subject with deep roots. We can trace it back to the 2003 invasion of Iraq, and specifically, the ambush of the 507th Maintenance Company in Nasiriyah and the capture of Private First Class Jessica Lynch.

Part of the problem, as the popular thinking went, was that soldiers outside of combat jobs (like infantry) didn’t see themselves as potential combatants. The Army was a job and each soldier had their role – but theirs wasn’t to fight. The early realization that the Iraq war was not going to end quickly and that the “front line was everywhere” led to a re-thinking of the culture that preceded the ambush.

As a result, we became warriors. 

We learned the warrior ethos. Modern Army Combatives, which, until then, was more of a niche hobby inside elite Army units, became ubiquitous with the publication of the Modern Army Combatives Field Manual and later TC 3-25.150. Commanders spoke to their “warriors” at formations and spoke of their “warriors” in official communications. 

It stuck. Until it didn’t.

It’s difficult to put hard dates on it, but this seemed to last from 2003 to about the early 2010s. The warrior craze seemed to just fade away as a priority. It’s still out there, but it’s not getting the attention that it once did.

That’s part of what was strange about the emergence of ‘warrior cafes.’ It seems like a throwback to those COIN years where we were just trying anything. Remember the Defense of Jisr al-Dorrea (better known as ‘those weird COIN dreams’)?

Personally, I never liked the warrior moniker and the campaign around it. It seems disingenuous. If we just call ourselves warriors, the thinking goes, maybe we would foster a more aggressive mindset.  

I always thought ‘soldier’ was a term that captured everything that was needed. And if anything, I’d say professional soldier, to distinguish it from conscription. 

I’m not alone in this thinking. Military ethicists have dug deep on this issue and can better explain why calling ourselves warriors is a bad idea. 

I’ll add something though. I think there is a connection between the warrior campaign of the early 2000s and the growth of “warrior” brands and the “warrior” aesthetic both inside and outside of the military. All of this self-reinforcing narrative has become such a strange identity marker. 

Remember those discussions, articles, and hot-takes on the “warrior-caste?” This is the idea that the US has this cadre of warriors who are doing the heavy lifting when it comes to our military activity. It is true that only a tiny percentage of the population serves and this community grows increasingly insular over time. 

But most of the articles I remember reading about the “warrior-caste” were written in a barely-veiled self-congratulatory style, by reluctant warriors.

As a counter, I really liked the “profession of arms” campaign that we saw under General Dempsey. That too seems to be dying from lack of attention.

Warriors, soldiers, conscripts, victims. At the end of the day, there’s nothing wrong with simply being all that you can be.

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What is hybrid warfare?

a venn diagram displaying the range of warfare

“In Putin’s mind, America is the country that has been waging hybrid warfare, political warfare, irregular warfare, against Russia for decades.”

That line from a recent IWI episode buried itself into my head where it has been sitting ever since.

I only recently took the time to dig into defining irregular warfare, and that was a slog.

These terms get thrown around so cavalierly and while I can’t be certain, my sense is that most folks who are using them don’t exactly know what they’re saying.

So what is ‘hybrid warfare?’

The first place to start is always the DOD Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms – for which there is no definition.

Just because there isn’t a definition doesn’t mean it’s not real. Our doctrine could just be lagging behind the current reality.

Digging a little further, it becomes apparent that the biggest problem with hybrid warfare is the fact that no one can agree on what it is – or if it’s even anything at all.

There is a good article in SWJ from February that takes this on – ‘Hybrid Warfare: One Term, Many Meanings.’

Even better, after a bunch of senior defense officials began using the term in congressional testimony, there was a Government Accountability Office examination into the term (back in 2010!).

Check out the summary of their findings:

  • DOD has not officially defined “hybrid warfare” at this time and has no plans to do so because DOD does not consider it a new form of warfare.
  • DOD officials from the majority of organizations we visited agreed that “hybrid warfare” encompasses all elements of warfare across the spectrum. Therefore, to define hybrid warfare risks omitting key and unforeseen elements.
  • DOD officials use the term “hybrid” to describe the increasing complexity of conflict that will require a highly adaptable and resilient response from U.S. forces, and not to articulate a new form of warfare.
  • The term “hybrid” and hybrid-related concepts appear in DOD overarching strategic planning documents (e.g., 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review Report); however, “hybrid warfare” has not been incorporated into DOD doctrine.

I found myself feeling refreshed having read this. I’m not alone in thinking there’s not much there when we use the term hybrid warfare.

As the report states, when people use the term, they are likely referring to the increasing complexity of modern warfare, as opposed to some new form of warfare that we are only now discovering.

If we really want to use the term, though, we might be able to say that hybrid warfare is a blending of traditional warfare (state-on-state conflict using traditional armies) and irregular warfare (state and non-state actors vying for legitimacy and influence over a population).

Maybe sprinkle in some ideas about criminals and you’ve got yourself a Venn diagram.

Now, all of this is looking at the concept of hybrid warfare from a Western perspective. That is, what does it mean for “us?” 

As I’ve gone further down this rabbit hole, there’s another detour that looks at how others define it. How do the Russians define hybrid warfare? Or the Chinese? Or the Iranians?

Another post for another day…

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“If you have a phone, you can be a resistance fighter.”

cyberpunk reaper mural art

Episode 50 of the Irregular Warfare Podcast.

In Episode 50 of the Irregular Warfare Podcast, our guests discuss the history of technological innovation, examples of current and burgeoning technologies that will impact future warfare, and how governments can (and sometimes cannot) regulate the development and distribution of potentially dangerous technologies to malign actors.

Power to the people.

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GWOT War Stories

night vision afghan commando raid with special forces

This is an addendum to this morning’s post.

Sometimes it is easy to get excited about some new term or piece of information. I had never heard the term “grammando” before but it instantly clicked.

That’s how you get a new post.

But the rest of that episode is terrific. It’s a long war story.

The GWOT is over, right?

Maybe.

I’m continuously struck by the numbers of folks who are still around with incredible stories of heroism, triumph, and tragedy.

We are fortunate to have such people.

Click through and listen to this setup:

“We got into a big firefight, our dog handler got shot in the head, he lived, some of our commandos got killed, our Echo (Communications Sergeant) took a machine gun round to the chest plate and it exploded his magazines, destroyed his M4, so he took an AK from a guy he shot earlier that day and used it for the rest of the mission, and at one point… their snipers were shooting at those explosives…”

Brackforce #1, ~18:50

We are very fortunate indeed.

Image Source: New York Times

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How important is culture training, anyway?

afghanistan shura meeting culture

I was excited for this episode on the importance (or un-importance) of cultural training / cultural awareness in military operations.

Just like the information operations episode – which I wanted to dislike – this one nailed it.

It has become axiomatic that cultural intelligence is key to success in counterinsurgency operations. But is it? This episode examines this assumption—is the cultural training we receive in the military indeed the linchpin to success, or is it a red herring, even a harmful distractor, in the absence of coherent strategy? Why does cultural awareness tend to be absent at the strategic level, and does this really matter? As with much of the questions we discuss on the Irregular Warfare Podcast, the answers are by no means simple—but are important for both policymakers and practitioners to understand.

COIN AND CULTURE: HOW IMPORTANT IS CULTURAL INTELLIGENCE IN COUNTERINSURGENCY? Irregular Warfare Podcast

Cultural training has become an obsessive topic for me over the past few years. I have conflicting feelings.

On the one hand, it seems like cultural training – and especially language training – should play an important role in military operations. Knowing your adversary and the environment in which you might be operating is a no-brainer. The ability to understand what is being said and the writing on the wall will also help.

On the other hand, does that knowledge actually lead to any tangible wins? To develop the linguistic and cultural understanding we’re talking about – beyond the Wikipedia level knowledge – takes years and years of work. Is that juice worth the squeeze?

That’s what this episodes explores.

On the way military leaders treat cultural training as a “secret sauce” to achieving success:

[according to military leaders]…cultural intelligence was key to the success of counterinsurgency, or any intervention when you’re fighting wars amongst the people, and it’s held almost to be like some secret sauce – you get this understanding of the environment, you understand the people, and then you can exert influence and achieve your objective.

Dr. Christian Tripodi, ~7:00

Few people will push back against a senior leader saying “we need to understand the language and we need to understand the culture.” Yes, of course, that sounds good.

But why? Does it actually work? Can we demonstrate where this understanding meant something?

On politics as culture:

…politics – which is hugely important – and is the war-winning aspect of the whole shebang… Military actors become political actors and they are thrown into a deeply complex political environment and they are asked to become part of that environment…

Dr. Christian Tripodi, ~11:30

We tend to think about culture as the squishy things – the little rituals and norms of a society. Placing your hand over your heart after greeting, understanding differences in spatial boundaries, etc. But politics is a huge element of culture and one we tend to place in a different bucket altogether.

Think of the United States – our politics is part of the culture. How do you even begin to explain the way politics work in the US without roping in all of the cultural influences we see at play? They are deepy interconnected.

“We’re trying to be culturally aware, but we don’t like your culture!”

Sir Simon Mayall, ~15:30

This was a great portion of the episode which gets into how we “mess up” culture all the time. Sir Mayall uses an anecdote that demonstrates how we can get culture wrong at the organizational level by doing things which may make us feel good and demonstrate our cultural leanings but has harmful effects on the operational environment.

And of course, we see this all the time at the individual level. The GWOT is rife with examples. There’s a good anecdote from the end of the foreign fighters episode which illustrates this, as well.

On the military-centrism of applied counter-insurgency:

Western military professionals respond to counter-insurgency in very particular ways. They interpret it initially as a small version of “big war,” so they devote a primarily military response to addressing that… when they realize that only gets them as far as a stalemate because military primacy only matters to a certain degree in COIN, they incorporate some other methods, some population-centric methods, they engage with the locals, build some schools, build some hospitals, but they never divert far from their preferred mode of operation which is essentially the application of the compellence of force.

Dr. Christian Tripodi, ~19:30

It’s not going to matter – even if you’re Lawrence of Arabia:

Even if we had units who were fully culturally aware – they spent years immersing in this… it’s just too complex with local politics, for even the best-intentioned, best-informed external actor to ever fully-understand what they’re getting enmeshed in…

Kyle Atwell, ~20:00

This is the push back we don’t see very often, and it’s accurate. There is value in cultural knowledge, but it is not going to win the war. It might make things run a little more smoothly, and it might reduce the risk of a strategic faux pas, but that’s pretty much it.

Now, there is an argument to be made for integrating cultural understanding in the strategy that informs campaigns and operations. In many ways, that’s a more difficult proposition.

But in terms of the way we typically discuss it – training individuals and units on culture – all of this seems pretty dismal, no?

So at the end of the day, should we even being doing this culture stuff?

The simple answer is yes.

Sir Simon Mayall, ~40:00

Yes, it’s worthwhile. There’s a role for it. And it’s acutally important.

But the complicated answer is yes, we should train this stuff, but don’t expect it to win you any wars.

That’s just sorcery.

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Learning the right lessons

george bush jr. looking at vladmir putin

There is a lot I object to in this article. Much of it is too simplistic.

But the gist is on point.

Yes, American motives were nobler. Yes, American methods were less brutal (most of the time). Yes, there were many other differences between the conflicts. But on a strategic level, the broad similarities are striking. This means there are several important lessons to be learned from recent American military history—but only if that history is looked at from the enemy’s perspective, not Washington’s. Because it was the enemies who won.

Gideon Rose, The Irony of Ukraine: We Have Met the Enemy, and It Is Us

If we had invaded Iraq in 2022 instead of 2003, we would be facing a lot of the same problems the Russians are facing today.

Pay attention, sure.

But it’s important to learn the right lessons.

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How do you “do” irregular warfare?

a map on the wall briefing a military plan

When most folks discuss irregular warfare, I’ve come to believe that they actually want to talk about political warfare. It’s a rung up on the ladder and encompasses a whole lot more.

Political warfare is so big a term that you can be vague in speech and still make sense without inviting too much inquiry.

Political warfare encompasses many different aspects of national power. The military is one of them.

And irregular warfare is the military’s contribution to irregular warfare.

Another dive into irregular warfare, this time, from the 2020 Summary of the Irregular Warfare Annex the National Defense Strategy.

Irregular warfare is a struggle among state and non-state actors to influence populations and affect legitimacy.

The key difference here, again, is the word “violent.”

The document goes on to describe irregular warfare and the importance of institutionalizing it as the Global War on Terrorism (as a security paradigm) shifts to Great Power Competition.

Ok, so, how do you “do” irregular warfare?

You don’t.

Like many terms, it’s an umbrella term that encompasses a bunch of other things that you can “do.” To “conduct irregular warfare” means you are doing something else, or more likely, a combination of things, things that fall under it.

It’s similar to using the term “setting conditions” as a stand-in for actual activities. If you are setting conditions for something, it means you are taking some tangible action to prepare for some other result.

Often, we don’t say that specific thing we intend to do. And that’s bad. It leaves everyone confused.

And most people – military people especially – don’t like to admit they don’t know.

So, what are the things “under” irregular warfare?

It includes the specific missions of unconventional warfare (UW), stabilization, foreign internal defense (FID), counterterrorism (CT), and counterinsurgency (COIN). Related activities such as military information support operations, cyberspace operations, countering threat networks, counter-threat finance, civil-military operations, and security cooperation also shape the information environment and other population-focused arenas of competition and conflict.

Most of the above have their own field manuals.

Now we’re getting somewhere…

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What is irregular warfare?

lawrence and arab warriors in a line holding rifles

There are so many terms that sound similar but actually have distinct meanings, that it is helpful to pause occasionally and make sure you know what you’re talking about.

irregular warfare – a violent struggle between state and non-state actors for legitimacy and influence over the relevant population(s). Also called IW. (JP 1)

DOD Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms, November 2021

A simple definition. What does JP 1 say?

A whole lot more.

Irregular Warfare. This form of warfare is characterized as a violent struggle among state and non-state actors for legitimacy and influence over the relevant population(s). This form is labeled as irregular in order to highlight its non-Westphalian context. The strategic point of IW is to gain or maintain control or influence over, and the support of, a relevant population.

(1) IW emerged as a major and pervasive form of warfare although it is not a historical form of warfare. In IW, a less powerful adversary seeks to disrupt or negate the military capabilities and advantages of a more powerful military force, which usually serves that nation’s established government. The less powerful adversaries, who can be state or non-state actors, often favor indirect and asymmetric approaches, though they may employ the full range of military and other capabilities in order to erode their opponent’s power, influence, and will. Diplomatic, informational, and economic methods may also be employed. The weaker opponent could avoid engaging the superior military forces entirely by attacking nonmilitary targets in order to influence or control the local populace. Irregular forces, to include partisan and resistance fighters in opposition to occupying conventional military forces, are included in the IW formulation. Resistance and partisan forces, a form of insurgency, conduct IW against conventional occupying powers. They use the same tactics as described above for the weaker opponent against a superior military force to increase their legitimacy and influence over the relevant populations.

(2) Military operations alone rarely resolve IW conflicts. For the US, which will always wage IW from the perspective of a nation-state, whole-of-nation approaches where the military instrument of power sets conditions for victory are essential. Adversaries waging IW have critical vulnerabilities to be exploited within their interconnected political, military, economic, social, information, and infrastructure systems.

(3) An enemy using irregular methods will typically endeavor to wage protracted conflicts in an attempt to exhaust the will of their opponent and its population. Irregular threats typically manifest as one or a combination of several forms including insurgency, terrorism, disinformation, propaganda, and organized criminal activity based on the objectives specified (such as drug trafficking and kidnapping). Some will possess a range of sophisticated weapons, C2 systems, and support networks that are typically characteristic of a traditional military force. Both sophisticated and less sophisticated irregular threats will usually have the advantages derived from knowledge of the local area and ability to blend in with the local population.

(4) To address these forms of warfare, joint doctrine is principally based on a combination of offensive, defensive, and stability operations. The predominant method or combination depends on a variety of factors, such as capabilities and the nature of the enemy.

Doctrine of the Armed Forces of the United States, JP 1, March 2013

This is all good. But even more useful is the definition of “traditional warfare” which is a term that I rarely hear used at all these days. If the above is irregular warfare, then traditional warfare is by definition what irregular warfare is not.

Interestingly, there is no definition for traditional warfare in the DOD Dictionary, so again we turn to JP 1.

Traditional Warfare. This form of warfare is characterized as a violent struggle for domination between nation-states or coalitions and alliances of nation-states. This form is labeled as traditional because it has been the preeminent form of warfare in the West since the Peace of Westphalia (1648) that reserved for the nation-state alone a monopoly on the legitimate use of force. The strategic purpose of traditional warfare is the imposition of a nation’s will on its adversary nation-state(s) and the avoidance of its will being imposed upon us.

(1) In the traditional warfare model, nation-states fight each other for reasons as varied as the full array of their national interests. Military operations in traditional warfare normally focus on an adversary’s armed forces to ultimately influence the adversary’s government. With the increasingly rare case of formally declared war, traditional warfare typically involves force-on-force military operations in which adversaries employ a variety of conventional forces and special operations forces (SOF) against each other in all physical domains as well as the information environment (which includes cyberspace).

(2) Typical mechanisms for victory in traditional warfare includet he defeat of an adversary’s armed forces, the destruction of an adversary’s war-making capacity, and/or the seizure or retention of territory. Traditional warfare is characterized by a series of offensive, defensive, and stability operations normally conducted against enemy centers of gravity. Traditional warfare focuses on maneuver and firepower to achieve operational and ultimately strategic objectives.

(3) Traditional warfare generally assumes that the majority of people indigenous to the operational area are not belligerents and will be subject to whatever political outcome is imposed, arbitrated, or negotiated. A fundamental military objective is to minimize civilian interference in military operations.

(4) The traditional warfare model also encompasses non-state actors who adopt conventional military capabilities and methods in service of traditional warfare victory mechanisms.

(5) The near-term results of traditional warfare are often evident, with the conflict ending in victory for one side and defeat for the other or in stalemate.

Doctrine of the Armed Forces of the United States, JP 1, March 2013

That’s helpful. Too often, we hear the term “near-peer conflict” as a stand-in for what we should be calling traditional warfare.

Critical to both definitions is the emphasis on a violent struggle. In traditional warfare, the violent struggle occurs between states with an aim of domination. In irregular warfare, the violent struggle occurs between state and non-state actors for legitimacy and influence over a relevant population.

When I first read through this, I thought that the emphasis on violence might have been misplaced. After all, there are lots of things that can be done within the sphere of irregular warfare that don’t appear to be violent (the use of propaganda, for example). Couldn’t we drop the violent aspect of the definition?

We could, but we shouldn’t. These are military definitions, after all. It is the military that engages in irregular warfare in support of national objectives.

When you remove the violent aspect of this, you are moving outside of the military sphere. You are in the world of political warfare. And other parts of the national security apparatus contribute to political warfare using other elements of national power.

But, irregular warfare is the military’s contribution to political warfare.

Next up: a post on what it is the military does in irregular warfare.

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The urge to “do something” and the need to be patient

the end from metal gear solid 3 aiming his sniper rifle

I’m forever catching up with my podcast queue.

I recently finished two IWI podcasts – one on the role of Air Force Special Operations Command (ep 44) and the other on counter-insurgency (ep 43).

A couple of things stood out.

The Air Force episode featured a discussion on the importance of measures of effectiveness. The crux of the argument was that it’s important to ensure we are measuring things to be certain that we are making progress, especially in messy little wars.

Nothing wrong with that. It makes sense.

But.

The conversation eventually meandered towards just how difficult that is to do. Often, there are no clean measures to determine if the needle is moving in the right direction. And this is often the case in small wars.

As such, smart young men and women contort themselves to put numbers on things where numbers don’t belong.

The military has become obsessed with measures of effectiveness, often shortened to “M-O-E.” Much of this is borrowed from business practices with a shady past and questionable conclusions.

But it is pervasive. A senior leader putting up his hand mid-brief and stating “Ok but how are we going to measure this?” while all of the other officers in the room turn to the briefer with a scowl is one of the reasons we have such a hard time doing anything anymore.

Asking “how are we going to measure it” sounds like a smart thing to ask. And it’s a great way to kill a good initiative.

Quantifying all of the great things that were achieved is also a great way to get a good evaluation.

As a result, we tend to do the things that are easily measured as opposed to the things that are actually effective.

Sometimes, we just know what will be effective. It’s a gut feeling that comes from education and experience.

The schoolyard bully doesn’t need to measure what to say to make the other kid cry; he just knows it. He knows the other kid’s psychic weak point.

He doesn’t need to measure it.

This is a subject I feel strongly about because this hyper-focus on MOE isn’t helping.

The second podcast, on counter-insurgency, featured a pointed short discussion on the limits of military power. What I loved most was Jacqueline Hazelton planting the flag on the source of many of our problems – leaders’ insistence that we “do something” in response to every emergency.

The immediacy of modern communications and the perceived political and social pressure that swells whenever something happens – especially if that something includes dramatic images – compels political and military leaders to “do something” in response.

“How are countering this?”

No one wants to “appear weak,” thus, we escalate, often doing the proximate thing we shouldn’t.


There’s a great short-expression in Arabic – فَٱصْبِرْ صَبْرًا جَمِيلً – which translates to “be patient with beautiful patience.”

We need much more of that.

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