Small Wars Journal

War, "Like War", or Something Else?

Share this Post

War, "Like War", or Something Else?

by Colonel Robert Killebrew

Download the full article: War, "Like War", or Something Else?

Bob Killebrew, a Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security, is heading up a major study on the relationships between gangs, the Chavez government, and U.S. national security. What follows is the central question that is evolving from the study -- is this war? Or something like war? Opinions are not only welcome -- but encouraged; it's Bob Killebrew at

Purveyors of "Fourth Generation War" have suggested that future warfare will have certain characteristics; that it will be decentralized, complex and transnational; it will involve actors from many networks, and that it will involve political, social, military and economic factors.

What, then, do we make of the activities of Venezuela, Iran, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC), the Mexican drug cartels and the Latino gangs both destabilizing Central America and operating on our streets today? All are acting from different motives, all are highly organized and, in some cases, networked organizations, and all are, for different reasons, threats to the national security of the United States. And all are connected by the supply of illegal drugs to the U.S. and to other countries.

Download the full article: War, "Like War", or Something Else?

Robert B. Killebrew is a Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security. Killebrew is a retired Army colonel who served 30 years in a variety of assignments that included Special Forces, tours in the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions, XVIII Airborne Corps, high-level war planning assignments and instructor duty at the Army War College.

About the Author(s)

Colonel (USA ret) Bob Killebrew writes and consults on national defense issues as a Senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security. His most recent writings include The Crossover of Urban Gang Warfare and Terrorism (National Strategy Forum, Fall 2008) and Terror at the Border for Armed Forces Journal, December, 2008. With Jennifer Bernal he authored the CNAS study Crime Wars; Gangs, Cartels and U.S. National Security, published in 2010. He is currently working with Matthew Irvine on U.S. – Colombian security policy.


Rob Thornton (not verified)

Mon, 01/25/2010 - 5:52pm


I think it goes back to first defining what war is. At least by my understanding it is when one polity employs violence against some other polity to achieve a political decision. Both polities could either be a state or a non-state; and both must have some means and some will to force / or resist the decision.
What may characterize the war is:
-the limits on/definitions of the political objective or ends
- the amount of military means to be used (either at the disposal of, or the willingness to employ)
- and the ways that are available/tolerable given the objective.
The character of the war must account for not only your objective, but the objectives of those resisting your objective(s). Nothing new there, it is pretty much CvC, or some of the other philosophers on war.

What characterizes the nature of a war? With respect to a non-state actor we may be at war with them because we see them as being both willing and able to resist our (and our allies) political objective(s). With respect to objective(s) for both combatants one limitation can be defined by geography, another has to do with tolerance for political control - who has it? There are others pursuant to the nature of the war. Another characteristic has to do with the means available to the of the non state actor to resist - they are probably not fielding any formal organizations such as armored divisions or bomber wings any time soon - to do so requires some of the trappings of a state. This has a direct affect on what ways are available to the non-state organization to resist your objective(s) or pursue their objective(s). We can call it what we will when they employ means and tactics such as IED ambushes by non-uniformed groups or individuals, mortar IF, and suicide bombers in support of an identified (for them) political end they are waging war characterized by the means and ways available to them.

The means and ways being employed by what we are calling non-state actors are probably available to states, but for different reasons, those states may not choose to employ them. However, they may - and so develop the capabilities to either directly employ those means and ways, or develop a capability in someone else to do it for them (for related reasons). If open to them, they may sustain that capability for as long as they see a requirement.

So for a Columbian drug cartel to be in a war with the United States they have to be pursuing or resisting a political objective through the use of violence against the United States - I dont think the conditions as they are currently fit. If they for example blow up the U.S. embassy, or launch an attack on U.S. soil that is representative of the means and ways available to them to realize some political objective such as the curtailment of all U.S. support to the government of Columbia, then the U.S. could consider it a war against it. At that point the U.S. would have to evaluate the nature of the war, and determine how it wished to pursue it. If the attack employed a limited capability - there was no more of it, or an increase in security made it unlikely to occur again, it may only want to pursue "war" so far as it satisfied its need to show others what the penalties were, and as far as it felt required to punish those responsible. If on the other hand, this was a capability that it could not counter and constituted a significant, enduring threat, the U.S. may desire to broaden the objective, and neutralize or destroy the capability at its source, or change conditions that made it possible via some other way.

I do think there are drug cartels which have political power, and which are pursuing political objectives - however, they are primarily limited to affecting the policies of those states in whose boundaries they live and operate in. Within those states where they live and operate they are not just breaking a law, as they may be doing in countries where they distribute drugs and profit from their sale. In those states they are in effect a non-state organization seeking to affect a political outcome, and have the means available and will to do so. They dont have to seek to impose a new order (a replacement political system), their objective may be limited to removing the parts of the political system which impose an undesired order and seek to regulate their behavior, e.g. - diminish their power, influence, profit through killing or incarcerating them.

Relationships between State and Non-State:
A state such as Venezuela that employs non-state organizations such as the cartels to achieve its political objectives is waging a form of war where the objectives, means and ways are limited to what can be accomplished through a proxy that may have political objectives somewhat congruent to its own. Until it decides to (or can) increase the means and ways, its ends will remain constrained. By waging war (with whatever characteristics) against Columbia, Venezuela would not necessarily be waging war against the United States - it is contingent upon the ends and the consequences that pursuing those ends brings. If Venezuela wages war against certain South and Central American states for the purpose of countering U.S. policy objectives, and the United States only supports those states at war with Venezuela, then it is not at war with Venezuela. If the U.S. were to enter that war and use its military means and ways to directly support those states Venezuela is waging war against, then that end and the ways and means it uses to achieve it define the wars limitations - such as defeating Venezuelan forces and compelling them to withdraw back to Venezuela. If the U.S. were to seek to impose its will upon Venezuela and remove its political leadership directly, then those ends, means and ways would characterize its war.

Going back to the opening paragraph, and the discussion about terms such as 4GW which seek to describe the characteristics of what war will be like, I think while that it may be useful for some reasons to name our poison, it may also lend itself to constrained thinking. Id point back to that responsibility that Clausewitz apportions to the legitimate authority that will employ force to achieve a political decision - paraphrased - the first, most important duty is to define the nature of the war upon which one is about to embark". I understand the role of developing a theory on future characteristics of war by considering the implications of technology, proliferation, the physical environment, politics, religion, etc. It is useful to a point. However, as Clausewitz also observed (also badly paraphrased) theory should be confined to outside the battlefield. Each policy objective that is to be pursued or resisted in war requires us to consider the nature of the war freshly and outside some description which seeks to constrain us. So while theories on the characteristics of war such as limitations in the objectives, or the means and ways available may be useful in informing how we modify ourselves or our policies. However, they should not contradict what we know to be the fundamental nature of war - nor should they constrain us from considering characteristics outside of those theories that may be available to one or multiple participants in a war. That is where I think constrained thinking is at its most dangerous, and most likely to lead to strategic surprise and risk to the end(s).

I think to answer your question of "is this war, or just a series of unrelated events?" is: those parts of our policy challenges that may meet the definition of war are war, and those that do not are not war. This does not mean they cannot be related - only that they are different. Understanding the relationship between friction(s) and objectives - and between the two - helps us to understand when to employ war as a tool, and when to employ some other means. Relating all the events only so that they can be addressed with a single tool is not effective or efficient - and will likely engender increased risk to other policy objectives. Because chance is heightened when using war to affect an end, it is the least desirable means when others are available.

If by your question you are considering the nature of the relationship between events Id say that even when we see relationships between events, the quality of those relationship may not be what it appears to be on the surface. We may see the causation behind the relationship as contrived in support of a common policy, while in fact they may be more tangential. In sum, analysts and policy makers at all levels have to do the hard work of seeing how things are related and communicate it in such a way that it informs the decision makers to the pros and cons of one COA over another - and helps them understand the difference between now & later, and can and should. I dont think well get it all right all the time, but I think due to stove pipes in our processes and structures we inhibit our ability to do better, and then we over react when the system does not perform perfectly as advertised after the last round of commissions, hearing and post event threats.

Ken White (not verified)

Mon, 01/25/2010 - 12:04pm

Bob Killebrew got one thing right and one thing wrong:<blockquote>"...what were doing now isnt working, and unless we solve the narco-state challenges posed by Venezuela and its criminal allies, were going to be increasingly vulnerable to our South."</blockquote>What we're doing now -- in many areas of endeavor -- is indeed not now working. For the drug problem, the repair is simple, stop the "War on Drugs" totally -- it was never a 'war' problem. It is an education problem and a societal problem. Drug use can never be eliminated but it can be significantly reduced through competent education, sensible treatment programs and effective stigmatization of users. There is no place for the Armed Forces in that...<br>

He's wrong on the vulnerability to our South. The potential for that to occur certainly exists but it is not now more than a blip and the answer to insuring it does not occur is, again, <b>not</b> military. I suggest that even applying this 'logic:'<blockquote>"If it is a war, although it may not be expedient to label it so, can military analysis be applied to a center of gravity, decisive points and lines of operation and so forth?"</blockquote>is fallacious. To suggest it might be a war is to wish it were so; to apply military analysis is to seek a military solution -- he's advocating using the wrong tool for the job...

We have got to get out of the habit of using our overfunded Forces as the tool of choice for every world problem. We should also realize that it is not up to us to fix 'failed States.' We have ourselves failed to rein in medical costs, our edicational system needs work, our political processes are captive to a very flawed budgetary process loved by a Congress that admires the way it obscures what they actually do with tax dollars, we have emascualted our Department of State (with their help...) and thus have some failures of our own that require repair.

All that is an aside to make a point -- there is no enemy center of gravity because there is no enemy. There are a series of unrelated and related events and people -- <b>both inside and outside the US</b> -- who have created an evolving situation that is somewhat inimical to US interests. While some of these persons would enjoy being labeled as enemies of the US, most do not have the wherewithal to really rise to that level -- and it would be a mistake for us to accord them that dubious honor.

Trying to provide a 'center of gravity' to or for widely disparate persons and activities is highly likely to lead to making a standing broad jump at a wrong conclusion.

Though, historically, we do that well...

Robert C. Jones has an excellent point:<blockquote>"...<i>the actual irregular abnormality in history was the Cold War itself</i>."</blockquote>It should be recalled that we really did not do that "war" nearly as well as many like to think. We do not need to wander blithely off into another self fulfilling prophecy we can call a war...

Bob's World

Mon, 01/25/2010 - 9:40am

I had the pleasure to spend a few days with Bob in a forum focused on strategic discussions regarding these very issues and my assessment was that Bob is a good Cold Warrior.

I say that not to be derogative in any way. Bob and men like him have earned my respect and I offer it without reservation. The fact is that our government in Washington is dominated by "Good Cold Warriors." The problem with that is, of course, that the Cold War ended over 20 years ago.

Good Cold Warriors see the Cold Was as "the norm" and as a tremendous American victory. Good Cold Warriors see things that don't fit that "norm" as "irregular," or "4th Generation," or "Global Insurgency," or even as a "global war on terrorism." Good Cold Warriors then reach into their bag of Cold War tools and bang away at these abnormalities and try to make them look "normal."

The fact is, to my way of thinking, that when one takes a couple steps back to take a broader historic perspective, that the actual irregular abnormality in history was the Cold War itself.

So I would caution that before we set out to call everything that challenges us a "war" or "threat" or a "terrorist"; that we instead spend some time considering that it is not everything around us that is irregular, but it is in fact the perspective from which we judge and assess these things that is irregular.

Perhaps from that fresh perspective new alternatives will reveal themselves that are a bit less extreme than seeing every challenge to our good Cold War perspective as an act of war.

olepapajoe (not verified)

Mon, 01/25/2010 - 8:57am

A great question Colonel. As you suggest, lumping them together only makes the issue more obscure.

gian p gentile (not verified)

Mon, 01/25/2010 - 8:49am

So Bob, please answer your most important question: Is it war?

However Bob you might at some point answer this question many folks seemingly already have: Everything nowadays is war from information operations with a geek sitting behind a computer, to Phase 0 operations, to disaster relief in Haiti, to eating soup in Malaya, to search and destroy missions in Vietnam, to Surging south of Baghdad in Iraq during the Surge, to challenging narco-trafficers in Venezuela, to a combat patrol by an infantry platoon in Helmand, to World War III.

Everything now is war, which is why I would have liked to have read Colonel Killebrew's answer to this question.

Unfortunately from my hunkered down position along the banks of the Hudson with everything nowadays being war, how is our army to find its way in this most confused and dysfunctional conceptual muddle?

Mark Pyruz

Mon, 01/25/2010 - 7:03am

COL, with all due respect, I think lumping together these vastly different countries, with differing criminal organizations, provides an entirely over simplistic, if not disconnected approach to whatever you're getting at.

By the way, the Iranian military exchange in Venezuela is providing the latter with advice in applying what the IRGC refers to as the "Mosaic Doctrine." This doctrine reflects lessons learned from the 33-Day War and the Iraq War (where an insurgent force of only a few thousand full timers inflicted over 35,000 casualties on the greatest military on earth).

The Mosaic Doctrine is inherently defensive, providing no offensive threat to the United States. It is only applied as a response to invasion by a foreign aggressor possessing a considerable advantage in conventional firepower.