Counterinsurgency Prior to Clausewitz

by Scott Manning on July 30, 2013


We need to expand the literature and case studies we use to analyze counterinsurgency to include ancient and medieval periods.

In the recent “Thinking and Writing about COIN,” John T. Fishel and Edwin G. Corr provide a great overview of counterinsurgency literature over the past century. Their point is obvious in that if we are going to write about modern-day COIN policy, we must take into account the threads of influence from these various writings (COINography anyone?).

However, Fishel and Corr unwittingly reveal the limited scope of COIN literature in that it is almost entirely modern. They divide the works into three categories—classic, semi-classic, and modern. The earliest writers in the bunch are Clausewitz and Sun Tzu. The former was not available until the second half the nineteenth-century and the latter was always around, but did not gain prominence in the Western World until the twentieth-century. The earliest work in the semi-classical category dates back to 1898. That means all of the literature related to COIN is modern, at least in terms of their influence.

Similarly, in “An Actor-centric Theory of War,” Sebastian L.v. Gorka and David Kilcullen point out “the list of conflicts that the military and academic worlds examine under the category of ‘insurgencies’ is incredibly restrictive and ignores many cases of irregular warfare that could be included without undue justification.” They make the case that we should expand past the seven commonly analyzed small wars from the twentieth-century (Malya, Algeria, Vietnam, the Philippines, Burma, Nicaragua, and Northern Ireland) and examine some of the other 143 wars from the same century.

If we believe, as Gorka and Kilcullen state, “classic COIN is simply the current lens we use to try and comprehend an ageless form of conflict that is in fact more prevalent than conventional war,” then we can go one-step further to expand our dataset outset the twentieth-century, even including ancient and medieval periods.

For example, the Byzantines have the distinction of combatting and supporting insurgencies, depending on how it furthered their interests. There are now English translations for numerous Byzantine manuals (see Three Byzantine Military Treatises and Sowing the Dragon’s Teeth) that make great companions to medieval histories (see John Skylitzes).

Obviously, these works do not used our modern lexicon; they use a medieval one, a Byzantine perspective. They still deal with what we would call “insurgencies.”

Unfortunately, among some scholars there is an ingrained opposition to using a modern lens on history. For example, Fred Naiden criticized Victor Davis Hanson for using “catchwords such as ‘nation-building’ and ‘counterinsurgency’” to describe events from the ancient world.1 The “catchword” status of these terms is debatable, as they have been with us since the late nineteenth-century. Still, it is modern verbiage placed on top ancient events.

Not all scholars have this issue. The late veteran and historian Robert B. Asprey wrote War In The Shadows (1975), a 2-volume tome on the history of guerrillas (small wars) starting with the Scythians. Yet in more than 1400 pages, he dedicated roughly 200 pages to wars prior to the twentieth-century, less than 80 pages to the ancient and medieval periods. More recently in Invisible Armies (2013), Max Boot dedicates over 300 pages surveying and analyzing insurgencies prior to the twentieth-century, but less than 60 pages to the ancient and medieval periods.

Asprey and Boot make the case that small wars and insurgencies are as old as written history. Both works are superb starting points for learning about the history of insurgencies, but each covered period and people needs a deep dive by counterinsurgency analysts.

Otherwise, our literature and case studies for counterinsurgencies will start with Clausewitz, excluding thousands of years of history.


  1. Fred Naiden, review of Makers of Ancient Strategy from the Persian Wars to the Fall of Rome, by Victor Davis Hanson, ed., The Journal of Military History 74, no. 4 (October 2010): 1258-1259. []

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