400 - Small Wars and significant ideas

N. Lygeros

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Though small wars are omnipresent in the world, their polemological value still remains largely unknown. It is true that some authors were concerned by this alternative strategy but often to denigrate it. Adopting this idea would show some old-fashioned sentimentalism about the sense of war and some conservatism about the art of war. For that view has so much hindered the knowledge of regular armies in this field. Already known at the time of Salluste and studied in the 10th century by the Byzantine emperor Nicephore Phokas, small war will only be ascertain in the 20th century, once become revolutionary war.
Yet, from 1896, Colonel Charles Callwell in his book entitled “Small Wars” has expounded the law of tactical superiority and strategic inferiority of regular armies facing more mobile irregular warriors not concerned by their communications. Moreover, the very concept of small war follows the lines of strategy because its essential aim is to call into question well determined power struggles concerning strengths. For the birth of small war didn’t happen by chance. It came from the need to understand a conflict being inferior in numbers, for, in that case, the frontal clash is out of the question. So, it represents par excellence, the strategy of the weakest facing the strongest.
Despite the brilliant examples of guerrillas of Colonel Lawrence in the Arabian Peninsula, despite the success of his masterpiece entitled “The Seven Pillars of Wisdom”, the rules of regular armies only plan the use of small war in colonies. However, no use within Europe has been considered. The only counter-example of a massive use of that concept with a view to refining a revolutionary war strategy is due to Mao. And we can notice how this way of acting is far from the one of the French revolution in similar conditions, for the latter preferred to use the mass of inexperienced insurgents than the charge of heavy columns. A fast and violent mean to fix the fate of a battle, but less efficient within the context of an extended war. Thus, the types of guerrillas such as spontaneous resistance and organized political action can naturally be linked, for the first one can develop to the second one.

These low intensity conflicts have always, at least initially, a temporary skewness of power struggle. This skewness that can be sudden (spontaneous resistance) or required (subversive war) is an ontological basis affecting the way of proceeding. The aim is not to gain ground in the strict sense of the term. Targets, always local ones, even if their structure proves to be more important aim to distract the order ruling a regular army. With no hierarchy, the one of the other represents a perfect target. The guerrilla uses the main flaws of the adverse camp that are its slowness and its heaviness. It gets organized round the isolated disruption of power struggles. Unable to break the structure, it aims at its weak local points and holds a war of attrition for its environment is represented by the people themselves. People are its logistics, its security and its information. Thus, guerrilla has a global and relocated substratum though it is naturally isolated and local. For this reason, it is like Special Forces in the world of regular armies. Scorned for not belonging to the strict military structure, small wars nevertheless teach great lessons to those who take time to study them.