War and the limits of theory

Image of the Persian Gulf from the CIA World Factbook
Image of the Persian Gulf from the CIA World Factbook

This week an anonymous author wrote a brief article in the New York Review of Books that is attracting a lot of attention. All that we know about the writer is that they have worked as an official in a “NATO country” and that they have a great deal of experience in the Middle East. The central idea of the piece is that our current social science theories utterly fail to explain the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. As the author argues, there is a rich literature on guerrilla warfare, which is based on more than a century of experience. ISIS has violated everyone of these rules -don’t engage in fixed position warfare; don’t violate the social norms in the communities in which you exist- and yet ISIS still moves from success to success against vastly greater forces.

Like most observers, the author of this piece has been stunned both by the sheer speed of ISIS’s success, and its ability to change the rules of the game. The author makes the point that observers often assume that what is needed is more information, but perhaps that is not the case. Maybe the real problem is our analytical frameworks. Maybe we don’t know what we thought we know. Certainly, the complete failure of U.S. policy in Iraq raises questions about every aspect of U.S. counter-insurgency doctrine. Of course, one could also point to the deeply flawed rationale for the invasion of Iraq in the first place. Still, perhaps the conceptual problem is even larger than this, and speaks to the overall weakness of social science theories as they are applied to the region. The author makes the point that to see an equally stunning success against all expectations you might have to look to the Vandal conquest of North Africa in the dying days of the Roman Empire. This is an engaging analogy, although historians might quibble with the need to reach so deeply into the past. Even so, the larger point is that our current social science models governing what are sometimes called “small wars” don’t seem to be working well to understand this current conflict.

One might question whether our understanding of small wars is to Eurocentric. Still, most of the authors of foundational texts -Mao, Ho Chi Minh and Che Guevara- were not Western. A counter-argument might be that ISIS may yet collapse as quickly as it emerged on the scene. Perhaps ISIS appears to be rewriting the rules only because there has not been enough time for it to pay the price for violating them. Perhaps ISIS has not yet had enough time to fail, and its collapse will be as quick as its rise. Still, if ISIS continues to thrive over the next few years, then the author is correct that something fundamental is wrong with our understanding of these conflicts. In that case, theorists and strategists will need to fundamentally question everything about our current understanding of irregular warfare.

If you are interested in the theory of war, I strongly recommend Ann Hironaka’s Neverending WarsI used the book in my “Foundations of Global Studies Theory” class, as a key security studies text. I am often frustrated by much of the existing literature in security studies, which still overemphasizes conventional conflict, and relies too much on Realism as a theoretical approach. In an era of terrorist organizations, cyber-warfare, Anonymous, and drug cartels, much of this theoretical literature is in danger of becoming dusty. Hironaka’s work is interesting because it focuses on civil war, the dominant form of conflict in the world today, and draws on insights from Sociology. Her central argument is that the international community unintentionally propagates these conflicts, an idea that is relevant to many existing conflicts globally.

Shawn Smallman, Portland State University

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