The easy and reliable way of defeating all insurgencies everywhere

Saturday, July 1st, 2017

Edward Luttwak explains the easy and reliable way of defeating all insurgencies everywhere:

Perfectly ordinary regular armed forces, with no counterinsurgency doctrine or training whatever, have in the past regularly defeated insurgents, by using a number of well-proven methods. It is enough to consider these methods to see why the armed forces of the United States or of any other democratic country cannot possibly use them.

The simple starting point is that insurgents are not the only ones who can intimidate or terrorize civilians. For instance, whenever insurgents are believed to be present in a village, small town, or distinct city district — a very common occurrence in Iraq at present, as in other insurgency situations — the local notables can be compelled to surrender them to the authorities, under the threat of escalating punishments, all the way to mass executions. That is how the Ottoman Empire could control entire provinces with a few feared janissaries and a squadron or two of cavalry. The Turks were simply too few to hunt down hidden rebels, but they did not have to: they went to the village chiefs and town notables instead, to demand their surrender, or else. A massacre once in a while remained an effective warning for decades. So it was mostly by social pressure rather than brute force that the Ottomans preserved their rule: it was the leaders of each ethnic or religious group inclined to rebellion that did their best to keep things quiet, and if they failed, they were quite likely to tell the Turks where to find the rebels before more harm was done.

Long before the Ottoman Empire, the Romans knew how to combine sticks and carrots to obtain obedience and suppress insurgencies. Conquered peoples too proud to accept the benefits of their rule, from public baths and free circus shows to reliable law courts, were “de-bellicized” (a very Roman idea). It was done by killing all who dared to resist in arms — it made good combat practice for the legions — by selling into slavery any who were captured in battle, by leveling towns that held out under siege instead of promptly surrendering, and by readily accepting as peaceful subjects and future citizens all who submitted to Roman rule. In the first two and most successful centuries of imperial Rome, some 300,000 soldiers in all, only half of them highly trained legionary troops, were enough to secure a vast empire that stretched well beyond the Mediterranean basin that formed its core, today the territory of some thirty European, Middle Eastern, and North African states. The Romans could not disperse their soldiers in hundreds of cities, thousands of towns, and countless hamlets to repress riot or rebellion; the troops were needed to guard the frontiers. Instead, they relied on deterrence, which was periodically reinforced by exemplary punishments. Most inhabitants of the empire never rebelled after their initial conquest. A few tribes and nations had to be reconquered after trying and failing to overthrow Roman rule. A few simply refused to become obedient, and so they were killed off: “They make a wasteland and call it peace” was the bitter complaint of a Scottish chieftain (as reported by Tacitus).

Terrible reprisals to deter any form of resistance were standard operating procedure for the German armed forces in the Second World War, and very effective they were in containing resistance with very few troops. As against all the dramatic films and books that describe the heroic achievements of the resistance all over occupied Europe, military historians have documented the tranquility that the German occupiers mostly enjoyed, and the normality of collaboration, not merely by notorious traitors such as the incautious French poet or the failed Norwegian politician but by vast numbers of ordinary people. Polish railwaymen, for example, secured the entire sustenance of the German eastern front. As for the daring resistance attacks that feature in films, they did happen occasionally, but not often, and not because of any lack of bravery in fighting the routinely formidable Germans but because of the terrible punishments they inflicted on the population.

Occupiers can thus be successful without need of any specialized counterinsurgency methods or tactics if they are willing to out-terrorize the insurgents, so that the fear of reprisals outweighs the desire to help the insurgents or their threats. The Germans also established secure and economical forms of occupation by exploiting isolated resistance attacks to achieve much broader demonstration effects. Lone German dispatch riders were easily toppled by tensed wires or otherwise intercepted and killed, but then troops would arrive on the scene to burn or demolish the surrounding buildings or farms or the nearest village, seizing and killing anyone who aroused suspicion or just happened to be there. After word of the terrible deeds spread and was duly exaggerated, German dispatch riders could safely continue on their way, until reaching some other uninstructed part of the world, where the sequence would have to be repeated.

Likewise in the Vietnam War, the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese were skilled in using terror to secure their pervasive territorial control and very ready to use any amount of violence against civilians, from countless individual assassinations to mass executions, as in Hue in 1968. The Communist cause had its enthusiasts, “fellow travelers,” and opportunistic followers, but Vietnamese who were none of the above, and not outright enemies, were compelled to collaborate actively or passively by the threat of the violence so liberally used. That is exactly what the insurgents in Iraq are now doing, and this is no coincidence. All insurgencies follow the same pattern. Locals who are not sympathetic to begin with, who cannot be recruited to the cause, are compelled to collaborate by the fear of violence, readily reinforced by the demonstrative killing of those who insist on refusing to help the resistance. Neutrality is not an option.

By contrast, the capacity of American armed forces to inflict collective punishments does not extend much beyond curfews and other such restrictions, inconvenient to be sure and perhaps sufficient to impose real hardship, but obviously insufficient to out-terrorize insurgents. Needless to say, this is not a political limitation that Americans would ever want their armed forces to overcome, but it does leave the insurgents in control of the population, the real “terrain” of any insurgency. Of course, the ordinary administrative functions of government can also be employed against the insurgents, less compellingly perhaps but without need of violence. Insurgents everywhere seek to prohibit any form of collaboration or contact with the authorities, but they cannot normally prevent civilians from entering government offices to apply for obligatory licenses, permits, travel documents, and such. That provides venues for intelligence officers on site to ask applicants to provide information on the insurgents, in exchange for the approval of their requests and perhaps other rewards. This effective and straightforward method has been widely used, and there is no ethical or legal reason why it should not be used by the armed forces of the United States as well. But it does require the apparatus of military government, complete with administrative services for civilians. During and after the Second World War, after very detailed preparations, the U.S. Army and Navy governed the American zone of Germany, all of Japan, and parts of Italy. Initially, U.S. officers were themselves the administrators, with such assistance from local officials they chose to re-employ. Since then, however, the United States has preferred both in Vietnam long ago and now in Iraq to leave government to the locals.

That decision reflects another kind of politics, manifest in the ambivalence of a United States government that is willing to fight wars, that is willing to start wars because of future threats, that is willing to conquer territory or even entire countries, and yet is unwilling to govern what it conquers, even for a few years. Consequently, for all the real talent manifest in the writing of FM 3-24 DRAFT, its prescriptions are in the end of little or no use and amount to a kind of malpractice. All its best methods, all its clever tactics, all the treasure and blood that the United States has been willing to expend, cannot overcome the crippling ambivalence of occupiers who refuse to govern, and their principled and inevitable refusal to out-terrorize the insurgents, the necessary and sufficient condition of a tranquil occupation.


  1. Bob Sykes says:

    It is conspicuous that we have been fighting Islamic terrorism since the Carter administration, some 40 years and six Presidencies, and the Islamists have spread across Africa, the Middle East, Europe, Central Asia and the Far East, including Malaysia, Indonesia and now Philippines, where they recently captured and still dispute a city. That is a record of abject failure and ever-spreading defeat. There have been a number of terrorist incidents in the US itself, and our mindless open borders policy guarantee the number of incidents will balloon in the future.

  2. Mehere says:

    The principle of total victory still holds good, however painful to our modern sensibilities that may be. There have been wars where the victors removed the present generation of (likely warring) males and the next one, too. Brutal, but extremely effective.

    Unfortunately while we may say we are not at war with islam, that religion’s extremists keep repeating it is very much at war with the west. For all the good it does, ‘reaching out’ and ‘hope not hate’ processions and a media determined to virtue signal at every end at turn rather than tell the truth has not proved effective. The atrocities still continue and it could be argued, are increasing in scope and intensity.

    It has been said that in war, you do not leave your B52s on the runway at home. The enemy, for that is how the Muslim warlords regard us when it comes to their narrow interests, are enjoying our laughable ‘rules of engagement’ that let the warring opposition escape with hardly a scratch. It may be ‘politically sound’ not to wipe out villages and whole areas to show you are winning, but the people who say they are war with us have no such compunctions.

  3. James says:

    So basically those who don’t “snitch” on terrorists and gangsters should be massacred.

  4. Ross says:

    Fat Boy. Thin Man.

  5. Dan Kurt says:

    Ross, did you mean to write Fat Man and Little Boy?

  6. Gaikokumaniakku says:

    In the Vietnam police action, the USA cheerfully destroyed villages such as My Lai to save them.

    The USA also operated the Phoenix Program to develop its capacities for torture under the guise of interrogation.

    The USA has proven its superior firepower by dropping bombs on civilians. And when USA warfighters try to snitch about “collateral murder,” they get the Bradley Manning treatment, or worse.

  7. Jeff R. says:

    It’s Chelsea Manning, ya transphobe!

  8. Lu An Li says:

    The Hama solution: Hafez Assad, the father of Bashir, leveled the town of Hama with 25,000 dead, and then allowed buses to run through the ruins to show the rest of Syria what the consequences of revolt were.

  9. Gaikokumaniakku says:

    Jeff R.: Point taken.

    As a side note, the title is “The easy and reliable way of defeating all insurgencies everywhere.” And yet Israel has shown infamous levels of brutality, but is not peaceful, or secure. Rather, Israel’s repeated war crimes only motivate most of the planet — except for bribed USA legislators — to shun Israel.

  10. Sushi Musashi says:

    Gaikokumaniakku, I don’t know about that. Their military is about as brutal as a standard third-world police force. Look at the civilian death tolls from the various intifadas and compare those numbers to those from any genuine total war. Israel may screw around too much with the rest of the world’s policy decisions, but they are not exactly a modern-day Mongol empire.

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