Even The Romans Were Better At Doing Counterinsurgency Than We Are

The Long March
Wikimedia Commons

Editor's note: This is the depressing conclusion of a chapter on the Romans from a new book, The Many Faces of War.

What is the relevance of the Imperial Roman Way of War and Counterinsurgency for America today? Despite possessing an army noted for its skill in decisive battles, the Romans faced some 120 instances of insurgency between 31 BC and AD 190.

Unable to achieve overwhelming force everywhere, the Romans developed a sophisticated approach to solving these insurgencies. While historians have often focused on the Roman army’s role in counterinsurgency, the Romans succeeded because the imperial administration and others developed mutually beneficial long-term social, cultural, and economic ties with their subjects. Tacitus tells us that Agricola brought urban life and ways to Britain and encouraged the learning of Latin (Agricola, 72-3). To copy a well-known phrase from the 60s, this is “winning hearts and minds,” but it is also about establishing relationships that bring people over to your side. David Kilcullen in Counterinsurgency (2010: 152) offers a compelling explanation called the “theory of competitive control”: namely that:

in irregular conflicts, the local armed actor that a given population perceives as most able to establish a normative system for resilient, full-spectrum control over violence, economic activity, and human security is most likely to prevail within a population’s residential area.

While Kilcullen’s concern is combating insurgents, the basic argument remains: simply, whoever does a better job at establishing a resilient system of control that brings order and security is ultimately going to gain people’s support and win the competition for government. This is what the Romans did and with great success. One need only remember the hundreds of thousands of provincials who signed up for military service as auxiliaries with the aim of becoming a Roman citizen.

The Romans also always considered the impact of strategic communications on their image and adeptly ensured that their actions were publicized with social elites to deter potential insurgents. Militarily, the Romans developed a doctrinal response to an insurgency that included a prompt offensive reaction with immediately available forces that could sometimes be successful. While preferring set piece large battles that favored their strengths, the Romans could also wage campaigns of small engagements. However, they also found that counterinsurgency operations [to clear, hold, build] frequently take a long time, require an adequate and sustained force structure, and must be enabled by local allies.

As far as force structure, Imperial Rome found that the combination of heavy infantry citizens in legions enabled by lighter and more mobile non-citizen auxiliaries, and occasionally naval forces, sufficed for both ends of the spectrum of conflict. In addition, as the Empire grew, the Romans employed non-citizens more effectively and in larger numbers, especially for security over large areas, despite the occasional mutiny. The Empire also faced challenges of a contemporary flavor: lack of interagency coordination, incompetent leaders, divided loyalties of indigenous people, and adaptive enemies. Finally, the Romans realized that winning the peace with a “whole government approach” proved more successful than just winning battles.

Excerpted, with permission, from The Many Faces of War, edited by Lawrence Tritle and Jason Warren and published by Tsehai. ©2018. All rights reserved.

Pictured left to right: Pedro Pascal ("Catfish"), Garrett Hedlund ("Ben"), Charlie Hunnam ("Ironhead"), and Ben Affleck ("Redfly") Photo Courtesy of Netflix

A new trailer for Netflix's Triple Frontier dropped last week, and it looks like a gritty mash-up of post-9/11 war dramas Zero Dark Thirty and Hurt Locker and crime thrillers Narcos and The Town.

Read More Show Less
Army Sgt. Daniel Cowart gets a hug from then-Dallas Cowboys defensive end Chris Canty. Photo: Department of Defense

The Distinguished Service Cross was made for guys like Sgt. Daniel Cowart, who literally tackled and "engaged...in hand to hand combat" a man wearing a suicide vest while he was on patrol in Iraq.

So it's no wonder he's having his Silver Star upgraded to the second-highest military award.

Read More Show Less
A small unmanned aerial vehicle built by service academy cadets is shown here flying above ground. This type of small UAV was used by cadets and midshipmen from the U.S. Air Force Academy, the U.S. Military Academy and the U.S. Naval Academy, during a Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency-sponsored competition at Camp Roberts, California, April 23-25, 2017. During the competition, cadets and midshipmen controlled small UAVs in "swarm" formations to guard territory on the ground at Camp Roberts. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Drones have been used in conflicts across the globe and will play an even more important role in the future of warfare. But, the future of drones in combat will be different than what we have seen before.

The U.S. military can set itself apart from others by embracing autonomous drone warfare through swarming — attacking an enemy from multiple directions through dispersed and pulsing attacks. There is already work being done in this area: The U.S. military tested its own drone swarm in 2017, and the UK announced this week it would fund research into drone swarms that could potentially overwhelm enemy air defenses.

I propose we look to the amoeba, a single-celled organism, as a model for autonomous drones in swarm warfare. If we were to use the amoeba as this model, then we could mimic how the organism propels itself by changing the structure of its body with the purpose of swarming and destroying an enemy.

Read More Show Less
Soldiers from 4th Squadron, 9th U.S. Cavalry Regiment "Dark Horse," 2nd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, are escorted by observer controllers from the U.S. Army Operational Test Command after completing field testing of the Armored Multi-Purpose Vehicle (AMPV) Sept. 24, 2018. (U.S. Army/Maj. Carson Petry)

The Army has awarded a $575 million contract to BAE Systems for the initial production of its replacement for the M113 armored personnel carriers the service has been rocking downrange since the Vietnam War.

Read More Show Less

President Donald Trump has formally outlined how his administration plans to stand up the Space Force as the sixth U.S. military service – if Congress approves.

On Tuesday, Trump signed a directive that calls for the Defense Department to submit a proposal to Congress that would make Space Force fall under Department of the Air Force, a senior administration official said.

Read More Show Less