Even The Romans Were Better At Doing Counterinsurgency Than We Are

The Long March

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.

Wikimedia Commons
Photo: Lance Cpl. Taylor Cooper

The Marine lieutenant colonel removed from command of the 1st Reconnaissance Battalion in May was ousted over alleged "misconduct" but has not been charged with a crime, Task & Purpose has learned.

Lt. Col. Francisco Zavala, 42, who was removed from his post by the commanding general of 1st Marine Division on May 7, has since been reassigned to the command element of 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, and a decision on whether he will be charged is "still pending," MEF spokeswoman 1st Lt. Virginia Burger told Task & Purpose last week.

"We are not aware of any ongoing or additional investigations of Lt. Col. Zavala at this time," MEF spokesman 2nd Lt. Brian Tuthill told Task & Purpose on Monday. "The command investigation was closed May 14 and the alleged misconduct concerns Articles 128 and 133 of the UCMJ," Tuthill added, mentioning offenses under military law that deal with assault and conduct unbecoming an officer and gentleman.

"There is a period of due process afforded the accused and he is presumed innocent until proven guilty," he said.

When asked for an explanation for the delay, MEF officials directed Task & Purpose to contact 1st Marine Division officials, who did not respond before deadline.

The investigation of Zavala, completed on May 3 and released to Task & Purpose in response to a Freedom of Information Act request, showed that he had allegedly acted inappropriately. The report also confirmed some details of his wife's account of alleged domestic violence that Task & Purpose first reported last month.

Read More Show Less
Photo: U.S. Army

A soldier was killed, and another injured, after a Humvee roll-over on Friday in Alaska's Yukon Training Area, the Army announced on Monday.

Read More Show Less
Staff Sgt. Daniel Christopher Evans was arrested on Jan. 29, 2018. (Photo courtesy of Wilmington Police Department, North Carolina.)

A Marine Raider convicted in a North Carolina court of misdemeanor assault for punching his girlfriend won't spend any time in jail unless he violates the terms of his probation, a court official told Task & Purpose.

On Monday, Staff Sgt. Daniel Christopher Evans received a suspended sentence of 60 days in jail, said Samantha Dooies, an assistant to the New Hanover County District Attorney.

Evans must complete 18 months of unsupervised probation, pay $8,000 in restitution, complete a domestic violence offenders program, and he cannot have any contact with his former girlfriend, Dooies told Task & Purpose. The special operations Marine is also only allowed to have access to firearms though the military while on base or deployed.

Read More Show Less
Photo: Facebook

A former Army infantryman was killed on Monday after he opened fire outside a Dallas, Texas federal building.

Read More Show Less

That's right, Superman is (at least temporarily) trading in his red cape, blue tights, and red silk underpants for a high and tight, a skivvy shirt and, well, he's still rocking silkies.

Read More Show Less