Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Another anachronism? A word on irregulars and asymmetry

I just finished reading John Mueller's "The Banality of 'Ethnic War'" (pdf), which is, I think, a pretty good debunking of the lazy and misleading clash-of-civilizations/ancient-ethnic-hatreds explanation for allegedly communal violence. It was published in 2000, and has some hints of the argument that would later emerge at the root of Mueller's less-compelling 2004 book The Remnants of War. This latter work basically argues that humanity is getting over war, at least in the developed world, and that what passes for it in the modern era is just the sort of criminality and sociopathy that Mueller convincingly argues (in "Banality") drove the conflicts in Bosnia and Rwanda.

While Mueller's general argument strikes me as sound, I'm mystified with the way the paper is suffused with what seems like an unjustified optimism about the evolution of human culture away from mass violence. He goes to quite considerable lengths at times to explain and rationalize the supposed centrality of socially anomalous irregulars (noting repeatedly, almost without exception, that such groups are "often drunken") to modern conflict; the quest to absolve "regular people" of guilt for genocidal atrocities is, for me, alternatingly encouraging and desperate.

The concluding section of the paper, entitled "Extrapolations," is where the future "remnants" argument is most clearly delineated.
[...] Martin van Creveld has proclaimed [in The Transformation of War, 1991] that we have entered a "new era," in which "war will not be waged by armies but by groups whom we today call terrorists, guerrillas, bandits, and robbers." Banditry and depredations by roving militias are hardly new of course, but [Michael] Ignatieff and van Creveld may be correct in suggesting that regular soldiers are no longer engaging in combat nearly as much as they used to. It is not, as van Creveld would have it, that low-intensity conflict has risen to "dominance." Rather it is that, increasingly, warfare of that sort is the only kind still going on--war by thugs is the residual, not the emerging, form.
Moreover, if some states (like Serbia, Croatia, Bosnia, and Rwanda) came to depend on irregulars, it is not because they find this approach preferable, but because they are unable to muster an adequate number of recruits to field a real army. And if, again like Serbia and Rwanda, but unlike Croatia and Bosnia [which were, in this telling, saved from early dependence on the ethnic protection rackets of purportedly nationalist militias by military professionalization and the intervention of professional western forces, respectively], they continue to rely on such corrupt, opportunistic, inept, and often cowardly forces, they are likely eventually to go down in pathetic defeat.
To which I can only respond: are we quite sure?

If irregulars are "corrupt, opportunistic, inept, and often cowardly" by definition, then who can argue? But this strikes me as a bit of truistic question-begging to justify Mueller's optimism about the obsolescence of war: if warring parties are increasingly dependent on marginalized elements of society as instruments of violence, and those elements are increasingly detached from the martial attributes that generate combat effectiveness, then surely they'll be easily defeated by capable peacekeepers or police -- the at least minimally-capable tools of the advanced and morally elevated state... right? If all that is true, though, then we have to ask: why is it taking so long?

What I really want to focus on, though, is the section I've italicized above: "if some states... came to depend on irregulars, it is not because they find this approach preferable, but because they are unable to muster an adequate number of recruits to field a real army." This qualifying conditionality -- "if some" -- is a bit of rhetorical deftness, as it's impossible to deny that some states may have employed irregulars because of problems with recruiting, morale, or sustainment of regular forces.

But should we take this to mean that all states -- or even most states (or sub-state combatants) -- that rely on irregulars do so because of personnel inadequacies? This contention is pretty plainly false: from the post-November 2001 Taliban to the Fedayeen Saddam and associated insurgents to the Jaish al-Mahdi to the Kurds in Turkey and Iran to Lebanese Hizballah irregulars in the 2006 war to the dispersed and civvie-clad Libyan regime forces in 2011, the last decade has seen a virtual parade of organized, dedicated, coordinated fighters choosing to array themselves in irregular fashion and adopt asymmetric tactics against much stronger adversaries.

Some "wars" may be fought by disorganized, drunken thugs because they're the only ones who will show up. Participants in many others, though, depend on irregulars as a tactical adaptation devised to increase fighters' survivability and lethality. van Creveld, as it turns out, is almost certainly closer than Mueller to the truth.


  1. There's another explanation for resorting to irregular forces that I would argue is interwoven with those you've already put forth: often they provide a degree of deniability, however thin, for states looking to use force without blatantly engaging in acts of war that would undermine their legitimacy and invite/permit direct retribution. Proxy warfare along these lines is neither new nor the exclusive domain of our enemies (see the Contras, UNITA, the Muj), but in the COE, it's an increasingly attractive option.

    Moreover, that 'thuggishness' Mueller refers to is not the inevitable outcome of unprofessional armies - it's generally the product of a brutal, twisted but strategic logic.

  2. Excellent points, both. And both speak to the fundamental vulnerability of Mueller's thesis: it seems to reject out of hand the possibility of pragmatic, instrumental explanations of violence.

  3. Oh, and tell the Krajina Serbs about the professionalism of Croat forces.

  4. Oh, and tell the Krajina Serbs about the professionalism of Croat forces.

    To be fair, he does make the point that, particularly early in the war, much Croat violence was little different than Bosnian Serb violence (in the sense that it was largely irregular, sociopathic, and civilian-targeted). His argument is that those irregulars didn't have the chance to be defeated because they were bailed out by the professionalization of a Western-advised government force.

  5. Why not argue that irregular forces are, in some cases, legacies of the past regime or artifacts of the current regime that do *not* reflect any attempt attempts to optimize military power against enemies per se? Rather, they may reflect, as in the case of the Fedayeen, perhaps, an attempt to ensure the regime (i.e., Saddam) remains in power. In that particular case, they represented protection of the regime (e.g., coup protection) against potential internal opposition. I suppose what I am inching toward arguing is that the discussion above seems somewhat of an economic one: actors choose force structures (i.e., regular versus irregular forces, in this instance) to maximize their military power. Conversely, one can choose an historical explanation, or - since it's already a weird hybrid discipline that is part history, part economics, part sociology, and part everything else - a political science one. Namely, historical and institutional legacies, and actors faced with real-world (as opposed to purely theoretical) constrains and demands, choose - or in many respects, by nature of the situations they encounter, have chosen for them - the force structures they nominally select and field.