Conventional military history is peppered with instances of humbling engagements against forces mistakenly perceived to be substantially weaker, and this pattern has continued through the 20th Century and into our current security context. Strategies from World War II came up short in Vietnam, lessons learned in Vietnam were rarely relevant in Afghanistan, and an overarching counter-insurgency strategy covering the urban centers of Iraq together with the remote Afghan battlespace failed to fit either situation adequately. The grouping of unconventional fighters from the jungles and rice paddies of Vietnam, the mountains of Afghanistan, and the cities of Iraq goes to illustrate a troubling blind spot in the Western view of warfare which has, and threatens to continue to, cost time, materiel, and lives.
Observers from Western conventional perspectives oversimplify the variety of unconventional approaches to warfare. This overly binary distinction often leads to erroneous assumptions as to the potential nature of an unconventional conflict by drawing upon previous experiences with unconventional fighters regardless of distinct differences between the fighters’ settings, background, experience, and culture. For conventional commanders to lump unconventional tactics together as one indivisible approach to combat is tantamount to a prize fighter assuming underground street fighters all fight the same way: Each fighter is shaped by a variety of differing experiences, preferences, and ideas in a relatively limitless system of combat, whereas prize fighters, being trained through a relatively established pedagogy and management system, are more likely to exhibit uniformity. By making this assumption, the prize fighter limits his or her own ability to perceive differences between potential adversaries and to correctly contextualize and apply new tactics he or she may wish to adopt.
A deeper understanding of factors contributing to unconventional tactics is required. Conventionally inexperienced and undersupplied forces often draw knowledge and strategies from civilian life. Transportation, hunting strategies, prior exposure to combat, relevant hobbies such as martial arts and outdoors sports, concepts of honor, and religion all contribute to the way a society will wage war. The strength of these influences emerges most clearly when looking at groups with limited to no development in what we as Western observers would perceive to be a conventional military tradition. Like the prize fighter, the conventional commander who ignores these contributing factors risks inaccurate assumptions and predictions about the capabilities, strategies, and tactics of an unconventional force.
By studying examples through history up to modernity, and focusing on the dynamic transformation from civilian to militant rather than the static designation of “guerilla,” progress can be made in identifying contributing factors to a new combatant group’s strategy and tactics. This line of inquiry could facilitate the development of a specific profile of what that group would most likely look like as a militant force. This could be applied both in countering insurgencies by more accurately predicting tactics as well as improving the effectiveness of foreign internal defense (FID) training by building on local paradigms.