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War sucks. Get over it.

(The set question: "‘Hybrid war’ is a novel concept that captures a real change in the character of warfare. Discuss.")


War amongst the people:
‘The Third of May 1808’,
by Francisco Goya[1]

Daniel Ford, Short Essay, March 2009

I was prepared to embrace the concept of hybrid war until I read the essays favouring it. Pointing to America’s misadventure in Somalia, Russia’s in Chechnya, and Israel’s in Lebanon, and to the continuing insurgencies in Iraq and Afghanistan, Jonas Nilsson argued that such conflicts ‘represent a new generation of war, hybrid warfare’. Its essential element, he thought, was the insurgent’s goal ‘to render the opponent’s efforts useless by out-combining him’.[2] As to what that combination might include, Stefan Parry phrased it nicely: ‘what is “new” [in hybrid warfare] is that all of these components … conventional and unconventional warfare, the media, criminality, terrorism etc will be more routinely used by the same forces, in the same battlespace, as part of a reasoned and coherent plan—to achieve a specific strategic effect.' [3]

Stefan’s is pretty much the definition adopted by the US Marine Corps. To the Marines, hybrid war ‘include[s] conventional capabilities, irregular tactics and formations, terrorist acts including indiscriminate violence and coercion, and criminal disorder ... directed and coordinated within the main battlespace to achieve synergistic effects’[4] But really, what is new about any of that? The Irish Republican Army were robbing banks, murdering judges, ambushing army columns, and proselytising in the United States—in 1920!—and the Viet Cong were doing much the same in 1960.[5] 

It’s the coordination I suppose that is supposed to make ‘hybrid war’ different. But is this really new, or just an inevitable add-on, given the changes in communications over the past hundred years? I suspect that the concept mostly reflects the intellectuals’ need to have something fresh to write about. ‘For more than two decades,’ confesses Frank Hoffman, ‘most of us overlooked these trends’.[6] Indeed! Academics and public intellectuals had other catch-phrases to occupy them, such as the End of History, the Clash of Civilizations, and the American Century or its end. In the current issue of Parameters, the ever-elegant Colin Gray has this to say on the subject of terminology (though not ‘hybrid’ specifically): ‘New-sounding terms and phrases, advanced by highly persuasive people with apparently solid credentials, can usually find a ready audience.’[7]

How could Mr. Hoffman have been surprised that war took a nasty turn? By his own account, the ‘trend line’ of the hybrid variety goes back to Beirut in 1983, though it actually began much earlier—before the bombing of the US Marine barrack in Beirut, before the ‘Viet Cong infested Mekong River Delta’, and even before the ‘troubles’ in the County Cork. Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831) is often regarded as the father of attritional warfare as practised in the bloody hundred years from 1850 to 1950. Yet he stresses in his very first chapter that war is ‘always  … an instrument of policy’. In consequence,  he warns, wars ‘must vary with the nature of their motives and of the situations which give rise to them’. War is a chameleon, in his term, altering its color to suit the circumstances, but more than that, war is swayed by ‘a remarkable trinity’ of raw violence, blind chance, and dutiful subordination to policy—attributes that he associates respectively with the people, the army, and the government.[8] Only from a mid-20th-century mindset must this trinity be the exclusive property of states represented in the UN General Assembly. Osama bin Laden, no less than Barack Obama, can fairly be said to represent a people (the Ummah[9]), an army (al Qaeda), and a government (himself and Ayman al-Zawahiri).

continued in part 2


[2] Nilsson 2009

[3] Parry 2009

[4] U.S. Department of Defense 2006, p.41

[5] Karnow 1983, p. 238, says that assassinations reached 4000 a year in 1961. Given the paucity of banks in the countryside, however, the VC probably didn’t rob many, but they were very active on the Saigon black market.

[6] Hoffman 2007, p.12

[7] Gray 2008

[8] Clausewitz 1976, pp. 88-89 (emphasis in the original)

[9] Camp Darulehsan (accessed 24.03.09 - no longer available)