War as violent politics: A proposed framework for irregular and non-traditional strategies

size0David H. Ucko and Thomas A. Marks propose, in their new article, a theoretical framework that places military tasks in their proper supporting relation vis-à-vis the political and which identifies and explores the interaction of military tasks with other, non-military lines of effort.

Despite its efforts to conceptualize present challenges through concepts such as “hybrid war” and “the gray zone,” the United States remains overly reliant on the strategic utility of military force and has struggled to translate such martial abilities into political progress. Ironically, these shortcomings were also found in abundance in the U.S. effort to counter insurgency. At heart lies an understanding of war replete with theoretical barriers and unfounded presumptions, constituting an up-stream source of analytical friction with real implications for how strategy is conceived and implemented.

The foundational premise of our study of war should emphasize its political nature: war is not just political violence, but more accurately, violent politics and as such a subset of contentious politics. This placement of politics as the central engine of action, both violent and non-violent, is in line with the manner in which the American Revolution was waged by the Patriots but also Mao Tse-tung’s approach to strategy, as well as that of the Vietnamese.

Strikingly, a similarly supporting (rather than supported) function of military force is found in the so-called Gerasimov Doctrine. Though the Gerasimov Doctrine is neither doctrine nor the intellectual creation only of General Valery Vasilyevich Gerasimov, the former Russian chief of general staff, it does provide the main coherent theorization of the shadowy, gradualist approach used by Putin in the Near Abroad—in Ukraine, Georgia, Estonia, and elsewhere. In contrast, despite the West’s tireless invocation of Clausewitz, its discourse and conduct of war fall short of treating it as “a continuation of politics by other means.”

To encourage the necessary type of thinking about war, we propose a theoretical framework that places military tasks in their proper supporting relation vis-à-vis the political and which identifies and explores its interaction with other, non-military lines of effort. Such a framework can be constructed by interrogating the irregular conflicts of the past to derive a guide, or blueprint, for analysis and action.

“People’s war,” whether of the variety utilized by the American Patriots or by the Chinese and Vietnamese, all in their respective revolutions, has left a substantial body of material that has been used to operationalize a truly political strategy of warfighting. As the Chinese noted at the time in their communications with Che Guevara, the revolutionary’s construction of a new world is best achieved by a symbiosis of “kinetic” and “nonkinetic” approaches, something Che’s foco theory fatefully failed to grasp, relying instead on the use of violence to inspire spontaneous mass mobilization (and leading to Che’s death in Bolivia in 1967).

As an insurgent, Mao chastised those of “the purely military viewpoint,” those who “think the task of the Red Army … is merely to fight. They do not understand that the Chinese Red Army is an armed body for carrying out the political tasks of the revolution … Without these objectives, fighting loses its meaning and the Red Army loses the reason for its existence.”

What unites Mao’s “non-state” approach to strategy with Russia’s, or China’s, “state-based” version of the same is the blending of disparate lines of effort into a coherent whole—a political center that other efforts, to include the use of force, support. To mobilize people and resources politically, find the issues to which they will rally. Simultaneously, win over domestic allies who will back the cause on tactical issues even if they hesitate to do so strategically. Use violence only as appropriate to the situation to enable these two fundamentally political activities. Use non-violence, such as subversion, propaganda, offers of negotiations, or inducements, to coerce by other means than force; this is what Kennan meant by “political warfare.” And internationalize the struggle, making it difficult to contain or terminate within national borders.

The approach presented here offers an intellectual blueprint for the necessary type of analysis. Rather than front-load the analytical process with answers, it begins with five questions.

  1. What is the threat doing politically?
  2. How is it exploiting domestic alliances to better reach its objective?
  3. How is violence used in support of its political project?
  4. How is non-violence used?
  5. What is the role of internationalization in the struggle?

These questions, if used for careful interrogation of threat strategy, correct many of the cognitive shortcomings of present-day analysis and policy. Rather than detach military and security affairs from their political purpose, they force close consideration of their intimate relation. Rather than bifurcate artificially state and non-state uses of force, they anticipate a blending of styles and of modes of violence to achieve a political effect. Rather than let the use of violence, or of terrorism, eclipse the broader strategy at play, they compel a comprehensive analysis of wide-ranging lines of effort and their interaction. It is through careful engagement with these questions, and the construction of an effective counter-strategy, that we do better in the challenge at hand.

The approach serves to map both irregular strategy and operational art, whether violent or non-violent, by either state or non-state actors. Though the framework does not seek to comment specifically on traditional warfare, its treatment of irregular or non-traditional warfare informs, through its emphasis on politics and legitimacy, nearly all expressions of physical coercion. In effect, the manner of analyzing violence presented in this article opens a door to sorely needed theoretical insights into the nature of contention across the standard spectrums and dichotomies. By so doing, it also guides the construction of an effective response to the ambiguous threats of the 21st century.

David H. Ucko is an Associate Professor at the College of International Security Affairs (CISA) of the National Defense University (NDU). Thomas A. Marks is Distinguished Professor and the MG Edward Lansdale Chair of Irregular Warfighting Strategy at the College of International Security Affairs (CISA) of the National Defense University (NDU). They are authors of “Violence in context: Mapping the strategies and operational art of irregular warfare”, Contemporary Security Policy, 39(2), pp. 206-233. It is available here.

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