Discover how my writing can benefit your business or organization, by providing engaging, in-depth analysis and research.

Asymmetry Through the Ages: The Myth of Irregular Warfare as Modern Phenomenon

Asymmetry Through the Ages: The Myth of Irregular Warfare as Modern Phenomenon

The collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War saw the United States as the unchallenged hegemon. America in all its military superiority and glittering technological panoply now stood with no enemy in sight. During the 1990s and into the new millennium the political community witnessed the re-emergence of asymmetrical conflicts, with irregular forces now the commonplace enemy. Consequently international relations at the beginning of the 21st century is characterized by several new factors. Firstly there has been a marked decline in the level of inter-state warfare; specifically a virtual cessation of great power conflict has occurred following the Second World War. With the end of the Cold War, most developed states such as the United States, Western Europe and Japan, inhabit a “security community in which war is unthinkable.”1

Specifically changes in the national identities of many former colonial powers and traditional rivals, has resulted in the decline of territorial disputes and other historic causes for war.2 As such, the probability of states engaging in conflict is at its lowest since the early 1950s; however, most modern conflicts are not purely inter-state affairs.3 While the possibility still exists of conflict between the United States and major powers not party to the aforementioned security community (Russia, China), the potential 'sparks of war' have also changed. Whereas it is theoretically possible to conceive of conflicts between China and America over Taiwan, or with Russia over the Baltic states, these conflicts would result not from traditional great power interests, rather from “milieu goals” such as democracy and self-determination.4

Ideals and ideologies are presently the most potent drivers of modern conflicts. These conflicts have been instigated by the re-emergence of national, racial, ethnic and religious forces. Moreover the vast majority of conflicts in the post-WWII era have been of an asymmetrical nature. Since the early 1990s asymmetrical threats and low intensity conflicts have become prominent topics in debates concerning (inter)national security.5 These so called “new wars”6 are viewed by many as a new paradigm in warfare for “given the scale and frequency of war amongst the great powers in the proceeding millenia, this is a change of spectacular proportions, perhaps the single most striking discontinuity that the history of international politics has anywhere provided.”7
Contrary to such hyperbolic claims, asymmetrical warfare is by no means a recent phenomenon, rather it has been an integral facet of warfare throughout human history. This paper argues that examples of asymmetrical conflicts litter history, and that their legacy and lessons are of great importance. This paper shall also demonstrate that the challenges faced and counter-measures undertaken by modern actors find many parallels in the historical record.

Hearts and Minds, Guerrillas and Guardsmen

Asymmetrical conflicts manifest themselves as insurgencies and guerrilla wars. Such conflicts are characterized by a lack of large confrontations, with insurgents electing to attack the stronger force via hit-and-run tactics.8 Insurgents also utilize superior local knowledge and their environments to counter superior firepower and technology, while operating unseen amongst the general population.9 In such conflicts, no real battlefield exists, and conflicts are characterized by an oft maddening fluidity between combatants and civilians.10

Insurgencies and their corresponding counter-insurgencies see governments waging war against non-state actors, with significant portions of the populace potentially supporting either side.11 As a result the “shooting side of this business is only 25 per cent of the trouble and the other 75 per cent lies in getting the people behind us.”12 The key struggle in asymmetrical conflicts is over the 'hearts and minds' of the populace, for the goal is no longer that of military defeat per se, rather “the internal political collapse of the opponent's willingness to continue.”13

Insurgents do not follow traditional organizational methods, rather they use a myriad of political, societal, economic and technological means in order to coordinate, operate and fight. The 'traditional' style of inter-state warfare which Western armies are organized to fight, is described as 4th generational warfare; which is founded upon structures, be they command, firepower, logistical etc.14 Militaries operate within a context of over lapping structures, which allows for effective broad based and large scale operations.

Conversely this reliance on structures hampers efforts at small, delicate low-intensity operations, for military-complexes are too unwieldy to effectively counter insurgent activities. In asymmetrical conflicts neither side can predict what the other intends and as such flexibility and speed of adaptation are the key determinants in deciding a conflict's outcome.15 Insurgents in turn adhere to what is described as 5th generational warfare, namely operating in autonomous networks,16 – Western militaries routinely fail to defeat insurgents by 'cutting off the snake's head,' for no head exists.

Following the events of September 11th 2001, and the resulting quagmires which now characterize operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, leaders and policymakers promptly declared the familiar forms of warfare as “no longer relevant to modern asymmetrical times.”17 Criticisms were also levelled against Western armed forces for being equipped and based on “the obsolete concept of large scale war in the post-1945 [and post 9/11] world.”18 Similarly aspects of the 'traditional' institutional and legal framework have been called into question. On January 11th 2002, US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld declared that insurgents would not be handled as POW (prisoners of war) rather as “unlawful combatants [for] technically unlawful combatants do not have any rights under the Geneva Convention.”19

Traditional/Asymmetrical Dichotomy False

Such claims sought to paint Geneva and its ilk as irrelevant, however these very conventions were created in response to asymmetric forces. The 1863 Lieber Code which regulates American military forces, was created by Abraham Lincoln in response to the actions of irregular forces during the American Civil War.20 Similarly the 1874 Brussels Declaration, which sought to regulate wartime operations, and in turn influenced many later conventions, was born out of Prussian experiences during the Franco-Prussian war of 1870-1871. Despite being seen as the archetype of traditional regular inter-state conflict, the war saw Prussian forces suffer most of their causalities after the decisive victories at Gravelotte and Sedan in 1870.

Following the capture of Napoleon III and the French army, the nascent civilian government adopted new tactics and dispersed into the countryside.21 The rear-guard attacks by French franc-tireurs (free-shooters), led in turn to the Brussels Declaration. German paranoia of franc-tireurs led to the later repression of the Belgium populace during WWI and slaughter of partisan fighters during WWII, acts which in turn sired further conventions in 1929 and 1949 respectively.22 It is true that those present at the Hague and Geneva “repeatedly choose to deal with the challenge of irregular fighters by placing them outside the remit of the law. But that does not mean that the law is not geared towards irregular 'asymmetric' conflict.”23

Contemporary asymmetric conflict sees modern armies routinely frustrated in their counter-insurgent efforts, often by distinctly 'unmodern' opponents.24 Insurgents contradict core modern notions such as the state monopoly on violence, and religious guerrilla movements such as the Taliban, the Eritrea Islamic Jihad Movement and Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan flaunt modernist secular conventions.25 Furthermore, the language of 'insurgent' delegitimizes asymmetrical struggles26, for “irregular warfare implies a distinctness from 'regular' warfare...irregular implies infrequent, yet such events are common occurrences.”27

There exists a common tendency to view combatants who do not organize along 'normal' lines nor field 'normal' armies as backward and primitive.28 In truth these combatants operate within a post-modern rather than pre-modern context, a fact often mistaken, for former often resembles the latter.29 For instance consider the following description of an asymmetrical conflict in which “small groups of armed partisans attack civilians, special forces throw their enemies off balance with surprise attacks, insurgents murder diplomats and take hostages, and [warring parties] use infiltration and information gathering.”30 Such words conjure images of Kabul, Baghdad or Waziristan, yet in fact the above passage refers to the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta during the 5th century BC.

Asymmetrical warfare has been a persistent aspect of human conflict. Those who characterize asymmetry in war as a merely modern, nay 21st century phenomenon, fail to acknowledge the myriad of pertinent examples throughout history. Indeed most conflicts have been asymmetric.31 Following the conclusion of the First World War a British army officer stated; “good we can now get back to proper soldiering” - referring to small wars and counter-insurgencies.32 Moreover many of the tactics, happenings and frustrations experienced by modern policymakers, are present in historical conflicts.

Consequently “lessons and insights from past low-intensity war deserve revisiting...they provide perspective as well as context for what may be a defining period for the American war on terrorism.”33 The notion that warfare has somehow drastically changed from the past is simply fallacious, for the issue of asymmetrical conflict has been an important topic of discussion in many eras. Whereas “counter-insurgency is a modern term...we can go back at least a couple of centuries to Ireland, to India [over] a century and a half ago, to Africa at about the same time, and indeed to Iraq almost a century ago.”34

Asymmetrical Tactics Throughout History

This common misinterpretation of military history stems from misunderstandings of previous time periods due to incomplete or selective readings of history. Specifically “incidents of irregular warfare throughout history [have] become analytical orphans...unfairly excluded [from the] knowledge of strategic studies [thus] simultaneously weakening and limiting models of war.”35

There exists a popular view that prior to WWII nations fought large traditional wars, whereas after 1945 asymmetrical wars evolved. The traditional form of warfare is described as Clausewitzian and that the “pre-conditions of [such] Napoleonic warfare [are] absent” in modern conflicts.36 Such descriptions of historical and contemporary warfare, however rest upon misconceptions surrounding 'normal' warfare. Carl von Clausewitz (1780-1831) is known as the theorist of grand inter-state wars, and his oft quoted (and unfinished) opus “On War” is seen to be representative of traditional military thinking.37

Interestingly, Clausewitz also speaks at length concerning small wars, and was the first theorist concerned with wars of national liberation. Clausewitz states that weaker actors should adopt an active defence, thereby aiming not for the annihilation of one's enemy, rather his destruction through attrition.38 Indeed it was Clausewitz who advocated for a popular uprising and guerrilla war against Napoleonic forces, by abolishing the regular Prussian army, and reorganizing troops into independent action groups to attack and ambush the French from behind.39

Such statements clearly demonstrate the existence and importance of asymmetrical warfare prior to the mid-twentieth century, and show that “military events that depart from standard set-piece battles are frequent throughout history and in the post-Napoleonic period.”40 The Napoleonic era is championed as the golden age of large inter-state war, yet by defining 'regular' warfare as Napoleonic, one commits a severe error. The Napoleonic wars coined the term 'guerrilla' during the Peninsular War of 1808-1814,41 in which Spanish irregulars fought the French by harassing spread out parties, cutting communication lines, ambushing patrols and intercepting supplies.42

Such tactics sound familiar to the modern ear, for many common themes are present throughout asymmetrical conflicts, with history echoing the difficulties and experiences of 21st century combatants. The US military upon entering Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003 enjoyed overwhelming firepower superiority, yet could never bring it to bear as insurgents never confronted the Americans in open combat. The American military was structured to fight a massive technological war against another superpower, yet found all that expertise and power was rendered impotent in asymmetrical conflict. Similar problems faced Napoleon's forces two centuries prior.

During the royalist Vendee counter-revolution against Revolutionary French control which began in 1793, there was “no specific fortress to storm, no real army to capture...in this theatre the sophisticated military education of the Revolution's generals was found to be largely irrelevant.”43 The French in Spain fought under similar circumstances in which “if small columns were sent out to attack the insurgency, they were liable to be destroyed. Yet if larger columns were sent out they found no one to fight.”44

Similarly British armies in India during the 1760s-1790s found that East India Company soldiers who adapted to Indian circumstances fared better than professional soldiers with European training and experience.45 This was due to the fact that “country (Indian) armies hardly seemed to constitute what would have been understood by European officers as 'coherent' standing establishments.”46 Furthermore large infantry and artillery based armies with their “superior firepower, might win battles, when they could be contrived, but could not win wars quickly or decisively.”47

More recently following WWII, the French in their efforts to subdue Indo-China tried and failed to force the Vietminh to fight in the only manner they knew - classic pitched battles.48 These exact problems resurfaced a decade later, as did the same type of mistakes with US military leaders lamenting that “if only the little bastards would come out of the jungle and fight like men, we'd cream them.”49

This frustration has yet again emerged in American rhetoric concerning Afghanistan-Pakistan; one need simply replace the word jungle with mountain, and the above sentence loses none of its relevance. Such consternation is due to in part to the fact that following Vietnam, America made a conscious move away from counter-insurgency,50 and as such is in the process of relearning the same old lessons in Afghanistan.51 The main factor, however, is the faulty presumption that the “United States must end military conflicts quickly and at minimum cost [a notion which] has achieved almost the status of orthodox dogma.”52

Speed Anathema to Successful Counter-Insurgency Efforts

Speed and economy, the defining features of much of our 21st century lives, are anathema to the successful completion of counter-insurgent activities. Counter-insurgencies are lengthy affairs, in which much time and effort must be put into the delicate non-military (hearts and minds) aspects; however, the US has as of yet been unable to create systems to “effectively execute non-lethal side efforts.”53

The successful British counter-insurgency in Malaysia (1948-1960), resulted from the realization that the country could not have been “subdued by a purely military solution, because insurgency is not primarily a military activity.”54 The term 'hearts and minds' is assumed to be a modern one, and is usually attributed to the Malayan conflict, however as with so much surrounding asymmetric warfare, the notion has more distantroots. John Adams described the American revolution / insurgency as being “effected before the war commenced...the revolution was in the hearts and minds of the people.”55 Similar notions were present in British actions in India during the 1770s.

In their efforts to subdue the irregular forces of troublesome hill tribes, the British created special counter-insurgency units trained in jungle warfare, street fighting and night attacks. Such tactics “in conjunction with a 'hearts and minds' policy, followed over the next 20 years, secured a tolerable degree of order in the borderlands.”56 The aforementioned example demonstrates a key characteristic of counter-insurgency operations: time. American forces are entering their twelfth year in Afghanistan, and this very issue of time commitment remains totally antithetical to American military policy, and public opinion expectations.

Arbitrary time constraints and an aversion to long-term commitment in part doomed American efforts in Vietnam, and hastened their exit from Somalia.57 Counter-insurgency actions took twelve years in Malaya and El Salvador, fourteen in Oman, over twenty in Colombia and Vendee, the combined Franco-American fiasco in Vietnam lasted over three decades and insurgencies in Nepal, and until recently Sri Lanka and Burma lasting decades more.58

By examining past endeavours, modern tacticians and leaders can gain valuable insights, and dispel some of the ominous nebulosity surrounding asymmetric conflicts. It is important to remember that “today's insurgencies differ significantly from those of the 1960s...classical theory is necessary but not sufficient for success against contemporary insurgents.”59 Indeed the views of Mao Zedong for instance concerning the role of insurgents as paving the way for regular armies, differs vastly from contemporary realities.60 Furthermore the recognition of asymmetric warfare as equally important and serious as its more 'traditional' counterpart, is an important step towards better dealings with insurgencies.

The false assumption of asymmetric conflicts as deviations from the norm as well as the successive 'forgettings' of past lessons have had severe and deadly consequences on modern battlefields. The ascendency of asymmetric conflicts in recent decades is not, as dreaded by some, a fearsome apparition heralding the death knell of western military competency and power. Rather it is merely a longstanding facet of human conflict, and its past appearances can be studied and learned from.

While the wholesale adoption of previously successful tactics is not ideal, by referencing historical examples, modern policymakers can distinguish successful trends. The variety of past operations demonstrates the need for making local circumstances and issues paramount in any counter-insurgence stratagem. The plethora of problems facing modern combatants, be they irregular tactics, local idiosyncrasies or the ensuing battle for hearts and minds, have all been encountered before and at times successfully surmounted by warriors past.


Bryant, G. J. "Asymmetric Warfare: The British Experience in Eighteenth-Century India." The Journal of Military History 68, no. 2 (2004): 431-469.

Carvin, Stephanie. "Linking Purpose and Tactics: America and the Reconsideration of the Laws of War during the 1990s." International Studies Perspectives 9, no. 2 (2008): 128-143.

Daase, Christopher and Sebastian Schindler. "Clausewitz, Guerillakrieg und Terrorismus. Zur Aktualität Einer Missverstandenen Kriegstheorie." Politische Vierteljahresschrift 50, no. 4 (2009): 701-731.

Dixon, Paul. “Hearts and Minds? British Counter-Insurgency from Malaya to Iraq.” Journal of sssssStrategic Studies 32, no. 3 (2009): 356.

Esdaile, Charles. "Heroes Or Villains? Spanish Guerrillas in the Peninsular War." History Today 38, no. 4 (1988): 29.

Goldstein, Joshua & Jon C. Pevehouse & Sandra Whitworth. International Relations. 2nd ed. Toronto: Pearson Education, 2008.

Harbom, Lotta and Peter Wallensteen. "Armed Conflict and its International Dimensions, 1946-2004." Journal of Peace Research 42, no. 5 (2005): 623-635.

Jackson, Mike. "British Counter-Insurgency." Journal of Strategic Studies 32, no. 3 (06, 2009): 347-351.

Jervis, Robert. "Theories of War in an Era of Leading-Power Peace "Presidential Address, American Political Science Association, 2001"." The American Political Science Review 96, no. 1 (2002): 1-14.

Murden, Simon. "Staying the Course in ‘Fourth-Generation Warfare’: Persuasion and Perseverance in the Era of the Asymmetric Bargaining War." Contemporary Security Policy 28, no. 1 (2007): 197-211.

Porter, Patrick. "Review Essay: Shadow Wars: Asymmetric Warfare in the Past and Future." Security Dialogue 37, no. 4 (2006): 551-561.

Robert R Tomes. "Relearning Counterinsurgency Warfare." Parameters 34, no. 1 (2004): 16.

Scheipers, Sibylle. "Review Article: Levelling the Battlefield in ‘Asymmetric’ Conflict? some Comments on Michael L. Gross’s Moral Dilemmas of Modern War." War in History 18, no. 4 (2011): 547-550.

Schuurman, Bart. "Trinitarian Troubles: Governmental, Military, and Societal Explanations for Post-1945 Western Failures in Asymmetric Conflicts." Small Wars & Insurgencies 22, no. 1 (2011): 32-54.

Vacca, W. Alexander and Mark Davidson. "The Regularity of Irregular Warfare." Parameters 41, no. 1 (2011): 18.

Yun, Minwoo. "Insurgency Warfare as an Emerging New Mode of Warfare and the New Enemy." Korean Journal of Defense Analysis 22, no. 1 (2010): 111-125.


1Robert Jervis, “Theories of War in an Era of Great Power Peace: Presidential Address, American Political Science Association, 2001,” American Political Science Review 96, no. 1 (2002): 1.

2Jervis, 5.

3Lotta Harbom & Peter Wallenstein, “Armed Conflict and its International Dimensions 1946-2004,” Journal of Peace Research 45, no. 15 (2005): 623.

4Jervis, 2.

5Simon Murden, “Staying the Course in ‘Fourth-Generation Warfare’: Persuasion and Perseverance in the Era of the Asymmetric Bargaining War,” Comparative Security Policy 28, no. 1 (2007): 207.

6Sibylle Scheipers, Review Article: “Levelling the Battlefield in ‘Asymmetric’ Conflict? Some Comments on Michael L. Gross’s Moral Dilemmas of Modern War,” War in History 18, no. 4 (2011): 547.

7Jervis, 1.

8Patrick Porter, “Review Essay: Shadow Wars: Asymmetric Warfare in the Past and Future ,” Security Dialogue 37, no. 4 (2006): 551.

9Porter, 552.

10Joshua S. Goldstein, Jon C. Pevehouse & Sandra Whitworth, International Relations, 2nd ed. (Toronto: Pearson Education, 2008), 160.

11Paul Dixon, “Hearts and Minds? British Counter-Insurgency from Malaya to Iraq,” Journal of Strategic Studies 32, no. 3 (2009): 356.

12Dixon, 362.

13Minwoo Yun, “Insurgency Warfare as an Emerging New Mode of Warfare and the New Enemy,” Korean Journal of Defense Analysis 22, no. 1 (2010): 112.

14Yun, 117.

15G. J. Bryant, “Asymmetric Warfare: The British Experience in Eighteenth-Century India ,” The Journal of Military History 68, no. 2 (2004): 433.

16Yun, 118.

17Christopher Daase & Sebastian Schindler “Clausewitz, Guerillakrieg und Terrorismus. Zur Aktualität einer Missverstandenen Kriegstheorie,” Politische Vierteljahreschrift 50, no. 4 (2009): 703.

18Bart Schuurman,“Trinitarian troubles: Governmental, Military, and Societal Explanations for post-1945 Western Failures in Asymmetric Conflicts,” Small Wars & Insurgencies 22, no.1 (2011): 40.

19Stephanie Carvin, “Linking Purpose and Tactics: America and the Reconsideration of the Laws of War During the 1990s,” International Studies Perspectives 9, no. 2 (2008): 140.

20Scheipers, 549.

21Alexander W. Vacca & Mark Davidson, “The Regularity of Irregular Warfare,” Parameters 41, no. 1 (2011): 21.

22Scheipers, 550.

23Scheipers, 550.

24Yun, 117.

25Harbum & Wallenstein, 624.

26Porter, 559.

27Vacca & Davidson, 24.

28Porter, 559.

29Yun, 117.

30Porter, 551.

31Schuurman, 40-41.

32Gen. Mike Jackson, 347.

33Robert R. Tomes, “Relearning Counterinsurgency Warfare,” Parameters 34, no.1 (2004): 16.

34Gen. Mike Jackson, “Opening Address: Speech at the conference, ‘Hearts and Minds: British Counter- Insurgency from Malaya to Iraq’, 21 September 2007,” Journal of Strategic Studies 32, no. 3 (2009): 347.

35Vacca & Davidson, 17.

36Murden, 198.

37Daase & Schindler, 703.

38Daase & Schindler, 706.

39Ibid, 706.

40Vacca & Davidson. 24.

41Vacca & Davidson, 20.

42Charles Esdaile, “Heroes or Villains? Spanish Guerrillas in the Peninsular War,” History Today 34, no. 4 (1988): 32.

43Vacca & Davidson, 20.

44Esdaile, 32.

45Bryant, 434.

46Bryant, 439-440.

47Ibid, 448.

48Tomes, 18.

49Porter, 558.

50Schuurman, 42.

51Vacca & Davidson, 20.

52Schuurman, 37.

53Murden, 208.

54Dixon, 356.

55Dixon, 362.

56Bryant, 453. - emphasis own.

57Schuurman, 37.

58Porter, 558.

59Schuurman, 42.

60Porter, 558.

American Constitutionalism and International Human Rights: A Legal Perspective

American Constitutionalism and International Human Rights: A Legal Perspective

Voluntary Human Shields & International Humanitarian Law: Issues of Identity and Immunity Stratification

Voluntary Human Shields & International Humanitarian Law: Issues of Identity and Immunity Stratification