Founding Insurgents

What today's military could learn from George Washington.

This week, the 150th anniversaries of Gettysburg and Vicksburg are being observed, their military lessons reabsorbed. But for strategists today it is more appropriate to recall the Revolution than the Civil War. Yes, Gettysburg was a pivotal slugging match that saved the Union from defeat. And the Vicksburg campaign was indeed a masterpiece of maneuver warfare that split the South in two along the Mississippi River. But both were very conventional military struggles, a rare form of conflict today. Instead, our world is now rife with irregular wars, so there is much more value in remembering that American independence was won by insurgents.

As historian Joseph Ellis makes clear in his new account of that time, Revolutionary Summer, George Washington was initially far too tied to notions of conventional stand-up fights and nearly lost the whole army in his disastrous 1776 campaign in Manhattan. After a narrow escape, he learned his lesson and seldom thereafter ran such risks. Washington grew content, for the most part, to keep the Continental Army "in being," posing an ever-present threat that the British always had to take into consideration in their planning. In the meantime, Washington sent off smaller forces to fight in savage actions, as at Oriskany, and in skillful operations like those that culminated in the great victory at Saratoga.

In the main, what took shape was an insurgent approach to the war based on "winning by not losing," and it was nowhere better employed than in the South. It was there that the Revolution was won -- not so much by the main force as by the inspired blending of conventional infantry and irregular raiders. Washington's most effective executor of this approach was the Quaker-turned-soldier Nathanael Greene, who marched his Continentals here and there to draw his opponent, Lord George Cornwallis, after him. While the British were chasing Greene and his men, American irregulars led by Francis Marion ("the Swamp Fox"), Thomas Sumter, and others struck at outposts and supply lines, causing no end of trouble.

Greene never won a pitched battle, but it didn't matter. As he famously put it, "We fight, get beaten, rise, and fight again." He always retreated with enough of his force left to recover and resume the offensive later -- when the British were more dispersed, trying to chase down Marion and his colleagues. Working in tandem like this, Continentals and guerrillas completely exhausted Cornwallis and his forces. Worn after much lashing out at the elusive rebels, the British fell back on Yorktown where George Washington was able to trap them -- thanks to the preparatory efforts of Nathanael Greene. The eminent historian Russell Weigley's assessment was that Greene "remains alone as an American master developing a strategy of unconventional war."

Indeed, it is curious that in the Civil War the Confederates completely failed to seize upon the founders' key strategy from the Revolution. Improvements in firepower -- particularly the rifle -- made advances by massed conventional forces problematic. To win, though, and restore the Union, the North had to go on the offensive, ensuring that its armies' losses would be high. And they were, from the costly defeat at Fredericksburg to the even more costly victory that U.S. Grant won during his year-long duel (1864-65) with Robert E. Lee. But the Confederates never took advantage of the opportunity to create a Greene-like campaign that blended a conventional defensive with an offensive led by irregular raiders. To be sure, the South had great guerrillas like John Hunt Morgan and Nathan Bedford Forrest. But Lee's was the guiding spirit, and he preferred the conventional -- right up to and even after the culminating disaster of Pickett's Charge at Gettysburg.

The true strategic heir of Washington and Greene seems to have been Vo Nguyen Giap -- now over 100 years old -- who guided the skillful blending of conventional and irregular field operations that ultimately prevailed against American might in Vietnam. To counter Giap's strategy, U.S. forces were deployed in a "big unit" war -- not too unlike the British effort against the American rebels during the Revolution. And even in the wake of failure against Giap, U.S. military leaders reaffirmed a preference for the conventional, culminating in the development of the Powell Doctrine of "overwhelming force." Needless to say, this doctrine has not served particularly well in either Iraq or Afghanistan, where successes, when achieved, have more often than not resulted from the close integration of conventional and special operations forces.

So the battle for the American military's strategic soul goes on unabated. No doubt the predilection to pursue conventional approaches is a natural outgrowth of an industrial age in which sheer mass came to mean so much, particularly in the world wars. But in an information age, when the fundamental dynamic in armed conflict has shifted from mass-on-mass collisions to the simple need to find the hidden -- the key to fighting insurgents and terrorists -- the persistence of the "overwhelming force" mindset imposes huge costs and makes victory ever harder to achieve.

Now, at this inflection point in history, this time at the end of the industrial era and the beginning of the information age, when networks of all sorts are rising up to challenge nations, this is the moment to look back before looking ahead. To look back all the way to the founders of the Republic, who won their and our freedom by using irregular means to defeat the world's leading power of that day. Now is the time to rekindle our strategic roots if we are to continue to be an effective force for good in the world. This is worth deep contemplation on our 237th Independence Day.


National Security

Mitt Romney Was Right

Russia's our No. 1 enemy -- and Snowden's just the tip of the iceberg.

Back in the late 18th century, when Adam Smith wrote that "there is much ruin in a nation," he was referring generally to the resiliency of countries under conditions of great adversity. Today, his words seem especially well tailored to Russia. Its 20th century history was bookended by problematic social revolutions (the first destroyed the Russian Empire, the second dissolved the Soviet Union) and was replete with military defeats (to Japan in 1905, in World War I a decade later, and then again in Afghanistan in the 1980s). Forced collectivization of farms caused the starvation of millions in the 1930s, and even victory over the Nazis cost tens of millions more lives. It is a wonder that Russia has survived and even more astonishing that it thrives, both economically and as a key player in the high politics of world affairs.

Mitt Romney suffered much unfair criticism last fall when he called Russia "our number one geopolitical foe." Russia remains a country of vast natural resources, much military capability -- including parity with the United States in nuclear arms -- and human capital of the very highest quality. These classic geopolitical indicators of inherent strength aside, Romney noted, the leaders of Russia have also made it clear that their interests often do not coincide with American policy preferences. Though the current furore over Moscow's willingness to shelter the fugitive Edward Snowden is eye-catching, the resurgent rivalry is more evident, and more important, in the case of Syria, where Russia can derail any effort to obtain the blessing of the United Nations for military intervention and at the same time shore up the Assad regime with a wide range of weaponry.

A determined effort to understand Russian strategic thinking about the Syrian situation could pay real dividends in terms of pointing out Moscow's true geopolitical strength on the world stage. In my view, Russian reasoning and aims regarding Syria are nested -- in a manner somewhat like their many-in-one matryoshka dolls. The first layer of motivation must certainly be defined by a determination to avoid being snookered into giving even tacit permission -- as happened in the case of Libya -- for international military action against the Assad regime. Yet another concern must be about maintaining a naval toehold in the Mediterranean, as is provided for the Russians by the Syrian port of Tartous.

But in a larger strategic sense, Moscow may be looking at Syria as the western anchor of an anti-Sunni arc of friendly countries in what is -- the American pivot to the Pacific notwithstanding -- the most important region in the world. This point may do the most to explain both the importance to Moscow of avoiding an outright insurgent victory in Syria and steadfast Russian support for Iran in the current proliferation crisis. Of course, Tehran's influence with the Shiite-led government in Baghdad ensures that the eastern and western ends of this geostrategic arc of friendly states are connected, with Iraq serving as bridge between the two. And, as the Russians have keen insight into the ethnic fissures in the Muslim world, it is not at all surprising that Moscow is also sensitive to the needs and concerns of the sizeable Christian population of Syria -- some two million in number, most of them Orthodox.

Syria is thus something of a lens through which Russian strength, influence, and strategy can be gauged. From political pull in the United Nations to alliance-creation and clientelism among friendly states, and on to nuclear parity and a robust conventional military capability, Russia remains formidable. Moscow has engineered a strong position for itself in the Middle East just as the United States is talking openly about de-emphasizing the region in favor of focusing on the Far East. And the dismissive way in which President Obama's call for deep reductions in nuclear arms was treated by Russian leaders is yet another sure indication of Moscow's confidence in its standing in the world.

It is tempting to ask what Mitt Romney would do -- and I invite him to weigh in on this matter -- given that the concerns he expressed about Russian opposition to American interests during last fall's presidential campaign have been largely borne out. For my part, geostrategic thinking leads me to three pretty straightforward conclusions. First, there is the need to keep Russia from "winning" in Syria. This can be achieved either by escalating support for the anti-Assad insurgency or ratcheting up a peace process -- the aims of which are to put Syria on a path to a post-Assad, democratic future. Perhaps both approaches can be simultaneously pursued. Either way, Russian influence will wane, and the western linchpin of its anti-Sunni arc would become unhinged.

The second country of geostrategic importance in the region is Iraq, and any fruitful initiative here may require some truly perverse thinking. Basically, the implication is to support the Sunnis who are currently resisting Shiite, Tehran-friendly rule in Baghdad -- perverse given that this is an al Qaeda aim as well. But the end of Assad in Syria, something that the Obama administration has repeatedly demanded, also aligns us with al Qaeda's aims. Yes, refraining from toppling Saddam Hussein in the first place would have avoided this mess -- but that was then; this is now. And a consistent strategy, one that would thwart larger Russian geostrategic aims, means siding with the Sunnis in Iraq.

As for Iran, the third link in the Middle Eastern anti-Sunni arc, the solution is far simpler: Offer the mullahs a guarantee that the United States will not plump for regime change in return for Tehran's absolutely verifiable abandonment of its nuclear weapons development program. This solution is quite like the deal that President John F. Kennedy cut with Fidel Castro and Nikita Khrushchev to end the Cuban Missile Crisis some 50 years ago.

Back then in the 1960s, and at least until the late 1980s, it was clear that most regional problems were nested in a global rivalry between Washington and Moscow. Today, however, there is a determined effort to view regional events as divorced from global power politics -- an odd formulation, given that almost all social and economic phenomena tend to be seen as linked to globalization-driven trends. Last fall, Mitt Romney performed a signal service in reminding us that, even decades after the Cold War, great geopolitical powers still matter. An awareness of this can inform and should guide grand strategy today. Ignorance of this simple truth is the path to costly ruin.

Michael Klimentyev/AFP/Getty Images