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Published on: August 22, 2014
History Lessons
US Entering New Era of Dirty Wars?

Americans don’t always like to acknowledge it, but the U.S. has a long history of fighting so-called dirty wars. Perhaps rather than insisting we should never get involved in these conflicts, we should learn how to do so as cleanly and efficiently as possible.

Back in May in a brief Rose Garden address, President Obama announced his plan for ending the war in Afghanistan. The effort involves cutting the present troop level of 32,000 down to a residual force of just under 10,000 American soldiers by the end of this year. That reduced number would be halved at the end of 2015 to around 5,000 troops, and trimmed 12 months later to a tiny, almost diplomatic military mission thereafter. As he told the American people, “We’re finishing the job we started” after the 9/11 attacks in what has turned out to be the longest war in American history.

Critics contended that new plan was inflexible and therefore unable to adapt to unforeseeable circumstances, and that it would also embolden the Taliban to hold out for what would be an irreversible American departure. In comments during a trip to Afghanistan, Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel defended the President’s position, “The American people want our job finished here, but they want it finished the right way. And I think we’re on a path to do that over the next two years.”

It is of course too soon to know whether the war will end the way President Obama wants it to, with the Afghan forces assuming the nation’s security as American troops head permanently for the exit. What we do know better, however, is that however it turns out—victory, success, or something in between—Afghanistan will go down as yet one more dirty war in America’s 200-year history of fighting such conflicts.

First some definitions. We define irregular warfare as the opposite of conventional or regular warfare, in which combatants adhere to the general norms of the particular era (for example, wearing uniforms, treating prisoners of war humanely, not deliberately targeting civilians). Total war encompasses the mobilization of the entire nation in an all-out struggle for victory and survival. While the terms irregular war and dirty war, are interchangeable, the latter is more appropriate in that it reminds us that these sorts of conflicts by their very nature tend to be especially bloody, polarizing, and poorly understood. The term small wars is also used to describe irregular warfare, but many of these conflicts are in fact neither small nor short-lived.

All wars are of course dirty, and many episodes of conventional warfare (for example, both World Wars) in fact saw their fair share of irregularity and dirtiness. During World War II, German soldiers at times pretended to surrender before firing on the apprehending Allied soldiers. American and British bombing missions deliberately targeted urban civilian populations to terrorize the collective German psyche.

America’s self-identity is that we are a reluctant nation when it comes to starting wars, but when forced we fight total wars regularly and successfully—and sometimes even leave behind the defeated societies better than they had been before. In his remarks at the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings, President Obama explained to his audience that following victory in this total war American deeds were noble: “We claimed no spoils of victory…we claimed no land other than the earth where we buried those who gave their lives under our flag and where we station those who still serve under it.” As Obama’s remarks reinforced, we etched D-Day into our national memory as a battle that represented the pinnacle of our selfless fight for the “survival of liberty.” Yet despite our desire to fight the good fight against a foe who will play by our rules, America’s history is overwhelmingly one of fighting opaque and incomplete dirty wars—from the American Revolution through Afghanistan.

America’s dirty wars have come in all shapes and sizes. Sometimes it is maximalist involvement such as the Philippines after 1898, Vietnam, and Iraq. In others, like Greece in the late 1940s or El Salvador in the 1980s, it is by proxy—essentially military aid and training with a miniscule American military combat presence. It is worth nothing that Afghanistan started out as a minimalist dirty war but wound end up being a maximalist one, which by definition tend to be costlier and controversial. Rarely has the United States fought dirty wars on the insurgent/guerrilla side, with one key exception being the fight against British and Loyalist forces during the American Revolution. Another departure occurred in the 1980s, when the Reagan Administration backed the insurgent anti-communist contras against the Sandinista regime in Nicaragua.

One challenge with developing a useful synthesis of our past and present involvement in dirty wars is that we tend to overlook the successes and overemphasize the significance of the failures. Take Vietnam, for example, where this unique case has been applied to just about every dirty war the United States has fought in the ensuing half century. There are undoubtedly lessons from Vietnam of what to do or not to do in current or future cases. Yet there has never been, and never will be, another Vietnam. What’s more, successes in dirty wars are inherently nebulous and often not apparent at the time. For example, the Pentagon today holds up El Salvador in the 1980s as a model of nation-building and counterinsurgency. But in fact even right up until the war ended much of the conventional thinking held that Washington’s strategy had failed to defeat the Marxist guerrillas.

Because they don’t usually involve formal declarations of war and mass mobilization of society, the American public tends to pay episodic attention to dirty wars at best. When we are winning or at least not losing—in say, Colombia or the Philippines in the 2000s—there is little attention paid or controversy. When the campaigns stumble, controversy and polarization invariably crops up and sets people to wondering, as Will Rogers did in the late 1920s, “Why are we in Nicaragua and what the hell are we doing there?” Similar responses have been uttered about Vietnam and, more recently, Libya, Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Sometimes the United States learns the right lessons from its dirty wars. In El Salvador the light footprint, “let the locals do it and we’ll pay for it” model was successfully transposed to Colombia over the past decade. Yet, this win streak was interrupted when U.S. policymakers took the Salvador/Colombia strategy to Mexico, whose raging narco war is an entirely different beast. Sending Blackhawk helicopters to Colombia was a brilliant stroke, but using that strategy as a cookie cutter for Mexico suggested an alarming ignorance of the country’s needs.

One way to put the American experience with dirty wars is to understand that each historical period often has its own zeitgeist. The 9/11 era’s is the War on Terror, and President Obama’s decision to leave Afghanistan sooner rather than later suggests that the 9/11 era is over, perhaps replaced by some sort of era of scarcity and sobriety. Earlier, the zeitgeist of the Cold War era was fighting communism. And even before that, in the 19th century, it was Indian removal and Manifest Destiny. It is only by understanding these unique historical eras that we can understand the decisions to get involved or stay out.

Successfully fighting these wars often entails striking a critical balance between military victory and politics. America’s status as a democracy only serves to make fighting—and, to a greater degree, winning—these irregular wars even harder. We also must understand our two centuries-long sustained history in these sorts of conflicts, warts and all. A history of the American military experiences that jumps from conventional World War I to World War II to irregular Vietnam and then Iraq and Afghanistan is highly incomplete, misleading, and perhaps even dangerously counterproductive. In other words, understanding, say, the invasion of Panama in 1989 or U.S. counterinsurgency in the Philippines after 9/11 is as salient to our current and future conflicts as any of the larger or more controversial wars.

As the war in Afghanistan winds down and drones likely become an appealing new weapon of choice, the United States may be entering a new era of dirty wars. In the past, sending in special operations teams, or more muscular options like an invasion, was almost the military’s preferred option for tackling small-scale international conflicts. Nowadays, we of course still put boots on the ground, but the enthusiasm for this has waned for understandable reasons. We also now have other “postmodern” options like drones that appear to fight the dirty wars for us. It’s still remarkable to consider that we can conduct a small dirty war across the globe via a computer screen and joystick from a trailer on an Arizona Air Force base.

In the same late May Rose Garden address, Obama said that the end of the war in Afghanistan would allow resources to be focused on “the changing threat of terrorism, while addressing a broader set of priorities around the globe.” What we do know is that, despite the looming end in Afghanistan, our ambivalent involvement in these dirty wars big and small remains and will so well into the future. Perhaps rather than futilely insisting that Americans should not or cannot fight these kind of conflicts, we would be better served by considering how we can do so as cleanly and effectively as possible. In a subsequent speech at West Point, Obama told the graduating cadets that they were the first class to graduate since 9/11 who many not be sent to combat in Afghanistan or Iraq.

It is perhaps ironic that in a speech that the nation has “been through a long season of war,” the President’s lofty rhetoric supported a call for a more maximalist American presence around the world (military or otherwise)—which almost be definition makes dirty wars more likely. He said the U.S. military “has no peer” and that America “remains the one indispensible nation [something that] has been true for the century passed and it will be true for the century to come.”

So looking forward what are the policy implications of all of this dirtiness in America’s dirty wars? Perhaps one way to avoid these inescapable dilemmas is to simply do the opposite of whatever pols like Senator John McCain would do. The 200-year American experience in dirty wars tells us that considering action should be done deliberately and with the utmost sobriety and humility, not bluster and impetuosity. Perhaps a slight modification of the Roach Motel slogan is apt, “You can check into dirty wars but you can’t always check out.”

Russell Crandall is a professor of American foreign policy at Davidson College and a contributing writer at the American Interest and New Republic and contributing editor at the London-based journal Survival: Global Policy & Strategy. His new book is America’s Dirty Wars: Irregular Warfare from 1776 to the War on Terror (Cambridge University Press, 2014).
show comments
  • ShadrachSmith

    You can’t do dark deeds in the sunlight.

  • johngbarker

    Can anyone explain Obama’s foreign policy and the role he plans for the military? I am not getting the message of this posting.

    • ljgude

      Good question. Repeatedly quoting Obama on military matters – a man we have come to recognize is long on rhetoric and short on substance – was the opposite of convincing. I think the message came at the end where he takes a gratuitous shot at John McCain in defence of a president who’s greatest foreign policy accomplishment is the defeat of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt – an outcome Obama is still trying to reverse the last I knew.

      • johngbarker


    • Anthony Costa

      Obama’s policy has been one of revealing the misconception of being “Number 1″ in a wise and prudent manner to let Russia or China become the new “Great Satan.” We are moving away from overthrowing democratically elected governments and installing puppet dictators, into a world of letting the people of foreign nations realize the negatives involved with civil war and sectarian violence. Obama is keeping us out of most messes that are hopeless as it is, saving money and lives, and trying to rebuild our image as much as possible, but in the end, all that is revealed is that he is pretty much a W clone, as least as it pertains to corruption and expansion of government powers.

  • Arkeygeezer

    Why fight these dirty wars at all? There’s nothing in it for us. Let the rest of the world fight their own wars. Leave us to live in peace!

    • LarryD

      ISIS has stated very plainly that they intend to bring war to American soil. And our political class is not interested in sealing our borders even against illegal immigrants.

      “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”

      • Arkeygeezer

        When they attack us, I will fight. I should not fight on conjecture.

        • El Gringo

          You may prefer to be attacked first but I would rather end the threat before it flies four jumbo jets full of Americans into skyscrapers.

          • Anthony Costa

            Your head is full of random fears. Only our government ineptitude caused 9/11, not a bunch of sheepherders going to flight school.

          • Chuck Pelto

            El Gringo has more effective synapses between his ears than YOU obviously do.

          • Chuck Pelto

            Or someone sets off a dirty nuke in downtown NYC. Or pops a real nuke 250 miles above Omaha.

        • JDanaH

          Spoken like a true heir to Neville Chamberlain.

        • Chuck Pelto

          RE: When They Attack US?

          You won’t fight if you’re in the effective casualty radius. And you don’t care about the others who would die along with you.

        • Chuck Pelto

          RE: When They Attack US — Reprised

          Silly person. They have already attacked US. They and their ilk have done multiple attacks from 9/11 on.

          You DO suffer from some kind of ‘memory loss’ issue….

    • Chuck Pelto

      RE: Why Bother?

      Born yesterday? Or serious issues with long-term memory loss? Can’t recall how 9/11 came about?

      • Arkeygeezer

        In order to wage an effective war, we need two essential things:
        1. A Leader willing to send American troops into battle; and
        2. Overwhelming public and political support to go to war.

        At the moment, neither condition exists in the United States. These conditions did not exist in Great Brittain in 1938. Great Brittain when to war only after France was attacked in 1940. These conditions didn’t exist in the U.S. prior to 9/11 even though the world trade center had been bombed some years before. It took the attack on 9/11 to enable a willing leader to marshall public and political support for a war in the middle east.

        • Chuck Pelto

          RE: In Order to Wage Effective War

          Better read my other posts in this thread, counsellor. And we’re not discussing the American form of ‘jihad’. We’re discussing the necessity of ‘dirty little wars’ to avoid having another 9/11 or Pearl Harbor.

          I’m more a student of war than you are. And YOU should read Fehrenbach’s classic. Every general officer who came to address the assembled classes at Benning School for Boys while I was going through the Advanced Course said….“READ THIS BOOK!”

          And they were right.

          [You haven’t lived until you’ve almost died.]

          • Arkeygeezer

            You know you have ‘em flummoxed, when they tell you to read a book rather than address the post.

          • Chuck Pelto

            RE: Flumoxed? Moi?

            You don’t know me counsellor.

            And I do appreciate your projection, as you obviously don’t care much about history to ignore good advice.

  • FedUpWithWelfareStates

    Until we re-configure our military into something that resembles a real fighting force, instead of a weakened social experiment, all designed to perpetuate career officers to stardom, we will never be ready, able or competent enough to fight & win any war…as we have not won any since WWII. 1. Consolidate ALL Fixed Wing Air assets into the Air Force, picking up all of the current missions. 2. Consolidate ALL Naval assets, minus SOF insertion craft, into the Navy, picking up all of the current missions. 3. Consolidate ALL conventional Ground Force missions into the Army. 4. Consolidate ALL Special Operation Forces into SOCOM, picking up all of the current missions & getting rid of redundant forces/missions. Establish SOCOM as the 4th branch of service. SOCOM would still recruit from the other branches of service w/o any SOF element being service specific. 5. Transfer the USMC under SOCOM & deploy them on MEUs only, expanding the number of MEUs x 3 in the Pacific AOR. 6. Expand the National Guard 4 x fold, & have them take over border security, with the Border Patrol performing the Illegal Alien processing & ICE performing immediate deportation.

    • Corlyss

      Why bother with all that consolidation? As soon as it was accomplished, exceptions would only proliferate until shortly we were back to what exists now. Meanwhile we would have wasted a lot of money in facially appealing reorganization and pointless process. The problem we have now is a death-like inertia in a risk averse political class dominated by people who came of political age in the 60s and 70s, i.e. Boomers, many of whom subscribe to the anti-American multiculti claptrap that pervades and degrades what passes for thought among Western ruling Elites and renders them incapable of common sense.

      • Andrew Allison

        Perhaps what’s really missing is the recognition that only total war can actually win wars (see Korea, Vietnam, etc., etc.

        • Corlyss

          Well, why stop with a single issue? I don’t see any hope for a change in the political class soon enough to avoid a disaster.

      • Fred

        As you may have noticed, I disagree with you from time to time, but when you’re right, you’re right. I was personally involved (in a very small way at the worker bee level) in the Navy’s “Revolution in Training” in the early aughts. It was exactly the kind of bureaucratic reorganization FUWWS was talking about. It was a disaster. Sanity has since been restored, but who knows how much time and money were wasted. I just hope it didn’t cost any lives.

        • Corlyss

          Fellow DoD worker! I spent 18 glorious years with DoD. I survived several of those kinds of management buzz-word reforms (Remember Zero Defects, and Do More With Less?). The only one that made serious changes, at least in my field, was the Goldwater Nichols reforms, which crushed the Services’ influence over how they spent their money. In some respects, I think it resulted only in more spending decisions concentrated in Congress and thus being divorced from real needs at the operational level. Back in the halcyon days of my early career, the Services had much more control over the disposition of their own appropriations. I don’t think G-N made things better; it just made things different!

    • Chuck Pelto

      RE: Our Military

      Until we re-configure our military into something that resembles a real fighting force…. — FedUpWithWelfareStates

      It always has been a fighting force. The problem has been the politicians that won’t let it fight. Look at Nam. Look at Gulf War I. Look at post-Gulf War II Iraq and Afghanistan.

      You should read Churchill’s account of the British dealings with the Afghans in the late 1800s to get a clue, i.e., the difference between how the Brits dealt with these people and compare that to what we’ve been doing, handcuffing our combat forces.

  • Boritz

    “Perhaps one way to avoid these inescapable dilemmas is to simply do the opposite of whatever pols like Senator John McCain would do.”

    waterboard, waterboard, waterboard.

  • General_Chaos

    The article has a good premise but no follow through. He states we need to learn to do dirty war as cleanly and efficiently as possible. So…how do we do that?

    BTW, you missed another big example of being on the insurgent side. A’stan after 1979. Also support for UNITA in Angola, and arguably, the “moderate” Syrian opposition currenty.

    • Peripatetic

      Exactly — the author raises the question and then doesn’t offer an answer. On the bright side, he didn’t cop out and say the answer is “smart strategy.”

      It seems to me that our government will take one of two routes when fighting future dirty wars: (1) change the PR and stress that the definition of “success” in dirty war is different than what most expect; (2) make dirty wars secretive and hide as much as possible from public view. I fear (2) is the future.

  • Chuck Pelto

    TO: Glenn Reynolds
    RE: What Would LeMay Do

    I’m thinking that a useful paradigm for dealing with ISIS is, what would Gen. Curtis LeMay do if he were serving under President Andrew Jackson? But I could be mistaken. — Glenn Reynolds

    You ARE mistaken.

    Americans in 1950 rediscovered something that since Hiroshima they had forgotten: you may fly over a land forever; you may bomb it, atomize it, pulverize it and wipe it clean of life—but if you desire to defend it, protect it, and keep it for civilization, you must do this on the ground, the way the Roman legions did, by putting your young men into the mud.

    The object of warfare is to dominate the earth, with its peoples, for causes just or unjust. It is not to destroy the land and people, unless you have gone wholly mad. — T.R. Fehrenbach, This Kind of War

    Take a lesson from history, professor.


    [Any kind of war, short of jihad was, is and will be unpopular with the people. Because such wars are fought with legions, and Americans even when they are proud of them, do not like their legions. They do not like to serve in them, nor even allow them to be what they must.

    For legions have no ideology or spiritual home in the liberal society. This liberal society has no use or need for legions—as its prophets have long proclaimed.

    Except that in this world are tigers. — T.R. Fehrenbach, This Kind of War]

  • rheddles

    Wow. This guy thinks America’s dirty wars started in 1776. Did he miss King Philip’s War, the bloodiest war in American history? And only a single sentence about the dirty Indian wars that lasted 300 years that should be the best historic guide for us to learn from in dealing with the War on Terror. Because the Indians were tribal cultures that delivered terror into American homes as no other force has every done. Till now. None of the other dirty wars he mentions approaches the Indian Wars in scope, barbarity or existential risk. He confuses dirty little wars over there that don’t last long and are voluntary with dirty long wars over here that last a long time with multiple fronts with multiple enemies that continue until one or the other is vanquished. Maybe on 9/12/14 he’ll understand.

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