American Classics

U.S. Marine Corps, Small Wars Manual (1940)

The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan catapulted the topic counterinsurgency from conversations among a handful of military thinkers and scholars and into the daily evening news. As setbacks in Iraq and Afghanistan reared their heads, some new to the field were left wondering why Western military organizations engaged against growing insurgencies were not better prepared for the fight in which they found themselves. Why was counterinsurgency so difficult? Why was the American military, the most powerful in the world, experiencing such challenges adapting to it? Were there no lessons from the past to apply to present?

In fact, the American military and the U.S. Marine Corps in particular had been fighting and analyzing counterinsurgency operations decades before their boots marked the sands of the Middle East and South Asia. Sadly, many of the lessons from these experiences languished on the shelfs of war colleges even as they became vitally important in the field. A handful of forward thinking officers cried for their reconsideration and modernization, and these efforts ultimately led to The U.S. Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual No. 3-24. However, long before General David Petraeus blended the wisdom of soldiers and scholars to produce his manual, an earlier effort already chronicled many of the central considerations for fighting against insurgencies. The Marine Corps Small Wars Manual, published in 1936 and updated in 1940, remains an important document for understanding the historical development of American counterinsurgency strategy and tactics. Students of strategy and diplomacy can benefit from considering the enduring aspects of its message.

So much is covered in its over five hundred pages that evaluating the entire Manual is simply not productive. Consequently, this paper proceeds along a bounded track. First, it introduces the concept of a “small war” as it was understood by the U.S. Marine Corps in the first half of the 20th century and offers the historical and authorial context for the Manual. Following these, the bulk of the paper considers many of the Manual’s central arguments from the perspective of a military learning from its past experience. Finally, suggestions for how students of strategy and diplomacy might read the Manual round out the closing portions of the paper.[1]

The Concept of Small War

The Small Wars Manual begins with some important conceptual definitions and frameworks, and any serious conversation of its contents requires establishing these at the outset. “Small wars” from the point of view of the United States Marine Corps at the time were:

…operations undertaken under executive authority, wherein military force is combined with diplomatic pressure in the internal or external affairs of another state whose government is unstable, inadequate, or unsatisfactory for the preservation of life and of such interests as are determined by foreign policy of our Nation.[2]

These operations could vary in size from demonstrations of power to interventions short of declared war, and their cost, casualties, or consequences had no bearing on their classification; rather, the nature of the fighting defined a small war.[3] In modern parlance, the type of fighting the Manual describes would generally be called counterinsurgency operations. The term “small war” today has come to have an even more general meaning covering counterinsurgencies to be sure, but also a host of other military activities falling short of total war.[4]

The conceptualization of small wars used by the Manual features several noteworthy aspects. First, small wars were generally launched to protect “American interests, life and property abroad…” and those in the Western Hemisphere aimed to support the Monroe Doctrine.[5] The issue of property was especially relevant to the motivations behind several American small wars, and though treaty obligations could also be the impetus for action, these were often wrapped up in commercial interests as well.[6] Secondly, diplomatic activities were not broken off during small wars as is often the case during major war; instead, these efforts continued in parallel with military action.[7] As the Manual makes clear, the military operations themselves were in fact supporting diplomatic initiatives. Finally, no act of Congress was required to launch small wars since they were not acts of war.[8] The president could engage in such efforts as he perceived the need to protect American lives and property.[9] Even with these characteristics, however, small wars are often difficult to classify given their diverse features.[10]

Notably, from the perspective of the Marine Corps, small wars were “normal and frequent operations.”[11] The Manual clearly anticipates regular small wars in the future and accepts them as a part of the Marine Corps mission, though history prove this view at least temporarily misplaced as soon Marines would struggle against the weight of the Japanese empire in the Pacific.[12] While its predictions for the future of small wars in the middle of the 20th century may have been off, the Manual is clear-eyed on the type of thinking and leadership required during these types of fights. Even while making some concrete prescriptions based on past experiences for how to propagate these operations in the future, it warns:

each small war is somewhat different from anything which has preceded it. One must ever be on guard to prevent his views becoming fixed as to procedure or methods. Small wars demand the highest type of leadership directed by intelligence, resourcefulness, and ingenuity.[13]

From this starting point the Manual offers practical, often flexible guidance on a range of strategic and tactical issues during small wars.

An Organization of its Era

But what are the origins of this guidance? Contained in the Marine Corps Small Wars Manual are hard won observations from often overlooked conflicts in American history. Indeed, for at least twenty-five years leading up to the Manual’s publication, if not longer, the American military, especially the Marine Corps, had been engaged in fighting insurgencies around the world from the shores of the Philippines to the jungles of the Caribbean and Central America. Indeed, as one reads Marines authoring the document, it is easy to imagine them personally engaging in these challenging fights and coming home to share their experiences. Students dedicated to better understanding the development of the Manual and just how these conflicts helped shape it would do well consulting Keith Bickel’s book, Mars Learning: The Marine Corps Development of Small Wars Doctrine, 1915 – 1940, which is by far the most complete treatment of the subject. Still, several exacting points ought to be highlighted to place our present discussion in context.

Up through the 1920s, Marines engaged in small wars had no formal doctrine of their own. Instead, they employed existing Army practices alongside their own informal learning while their leadership remained interested in focusing on missions of “national survival” more than anything else.[14] Nothing was formalized, and the Corps was consequently forced to relearn relevant lessons over and over again while engaged in a succession of clashes in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, and Nicaragua.[15] Still, in these places over the years spanning 1915 to 1932, their own small wars doctrine developed in an organic way. It was slowly captured in articles amongst the pages of the publications like the Marine Corps Gazette and by mid-level leaders who agitated for a more formal process.[16] These leaders included Major Harold H. Utley and Captain Merritt A. Edson who drew chiefly on the experiences of the Marines in Nicaragua.[17] The formal process that ultimately led to the Manual’s creation, meanwhile, was begun by Brigadier General Randolph C. Berkeley who headed the Marine Corps schools at Quantico, Virginia in the early 1930s.[18] The Marine Corps doctrine ultimately reflected many of the ideas that had been informally been circulating amongst experienced Marine officers for years.[19] It also drew on some insights from other militaries with small wars experience, notably those captured by C.E. Callwell from the British involvement in Afghanistan and South Africa.[20] Regardless, the Small Wars Manual was primarily the result of Carl von Clausewitz’s preferred method of learning – battlefield experience.[21]

Max Boot, one of the foremost commentators on insurgency today, contends that the Marine Corps was the first service to seriously consider small wars as naturally part of its mission. [22] The Manual reflected this view and embodied a spirit of learning from doing. Additionally, Boot stresses several key themes in the Manual were so well captured that they remain pertinent, namely the nature of small wars, the military mission during counterinsurgency, the relationship between civilian and military efforts, and the limits of military power. [23] In fact, these are among the best examples of institutional learning featured in the Manual as well. Unfortunately, as Boot laments, by the time hostilities broke out in Vietnam, the United States had largely forgotten the Manual and the lessons captured within it.[24]

The Manual & Institutional Learning

One of the most intellectually stimulating approaches to the Small Wars Manual focuses on how it embodies the lessons acquired from decades of fighting insurgencies around the world. The Manual makes this easy with frequent references to past experiences or best practices as determined by those with first hand involvement. Its chapters cover diverse topics from how to best pack a mule, to how to lay an ambush, to how to engage with diplomatic and political leadership. Because of this variety, not every section of the Manual is herein reviewed. For example, treatments of convoys, mounted patrols, river operations, military government operations, among others, are excluded because they are either far too tactical, have been overtaken by technological advancements, or otherwise provide only more esoteric examples of institutionalizing lessons from the past. The topics that are addressed by this paper are generally strategic in nature, represent findings with the most lasting significance, and are the clearest examples of institutional learning.

Small War Strategy & Policy

In discussing the military strategy surrounding small wars, the Manual makes an important differentiation between the two types of policies which may be driving strategic considerations. The first, intervention in the internal affairs of a state, is “…undertaken to restore order, to sustain governmental authority, to obtain redress, or to enforce the fulfilment, of obligations binding between the two states.”[25] The second, intervention in external affairs, is “the result of a treaty which authorizes one state to aid another as a matter of political expediency, to avoid more serious consequences when the interests of other states are involved, or to gain certain advantages not obtainable otherwise.”[26] These policies are not those typically associated with war, and as such the strategies to support them and the relationships between military strategy and policymakers are atypical.

Generally, the Manual expects five phases for small wars, though these are not necessarily sequential, independent, or exclusionary.[27] These fights typically begin with a demonstration landing of Marines and vanguard activities followed by reinforcements as needed to support general military actions. If necessary to achieve political goals, the executive branch of a government may be taken over by the intervening force. Police activities define a fourth phase, while the final phase features the withdrawal of American troops.[28] This is the framework against which the Manual expects small wars to play out, though it stress the portions where local opposition will likely feature guerrilla warfare, partisans intelligence efforts, and difficulties with hostile sympathizers.[29]

With this framework in mind, the Manual makes several observations of the past but with a clear vision for future small wars. Regarding military strategy specifically, it outlines progressively more aggressive approaches to achieving the political ends of the conflict in the swiftest way possible and stresses the need to attain “psychological ascendancy,” or resolve and knowledge over insurgents, before hostilities begin.[30] If a “forceful declaration” of military intent does not yield the desired results, a “demonstration of the power” might find success.[31] Should neither of these elicit the desired response, direct displays of “naval or military force within the area involved” are the final step before the actual application of force.[32] Regardless of which strategy is chosen and how far the conflict escalates, the Manual implores its readers that “while curbing the passions of the people, courtesy, friendliness, justice, and firmness should be exhibited…”[33] It goes on to admit the limitations of purely a military efforts and that difficulties spurring small wars are often of an “economical, political, or social nature and not a military problem in origin.”[34] These cannot be solved by the military strategy alone.

These last two points highlight what may be the most important lessons passed on by the Manual, namely: 1) developing positive relations with local populations is vital to success in small wars, and; 2) close cooperation between the diplomatic and military efforts is essential to success. These are connected. At the strategic level, the Manual makes clear that peace is contingent on economic welfare and that economic welfare cannot be brought about if the population cannot live under normal conditions; thus, supporting actions designed to achieve these conditions is a key facet of strategy in small wars.[35] Populations need security. They need to feel safe if they are to engage in economic activities. The military can certainly aid in this effort. Meanwhile, populations have economic and social needs that constitute part of everyday life, and diplomatic activities can help foster these provided that security exists. In turn, once these non-military needs are met, they help undergird lasting stability. Similar arguments are often championed by today’s counterinsurgency experts.

Indeed, the importance of the diplomatic connections to military activities is paramount throughout the Small Wars Manual. So connected were these activities that in the early years of the 20th century the Marine Corps was sometimes referred to as “State Department Troops.”[36] The document explains the situation simply:

The military strategy of small wars is more directly associated with the political strategy of the campaign than is the case in major operations… In small wars, either diplomacy has not been exhausted or the party that opposes the settlement of the political question cannot be reached diplomatically. Small war situations are usually a phase of, or an operation taking place concurrently with, diplomatic effort.[37]

That this joint action remains a feature of counterinsurgency operations today suggests the timeless aspect of this observation born in the jungles of Central America and the Philippines. To support its contention regarding the importance of this joint military-diplomatic strategy, the Marines cites “numerous precedents” in small wars showing the importance of this relationship and how it helps keep conflicts limited and devoid major war’s most “outstanding aspects.”[38]


Organization of U.S. Forces and Estimate of Situation

Strategy is just the beginning of the intuitional learning demonstrated by the Small Wars Manual. Staffing and pre-deployment preparation also get a detailed review. The Manual literally goes through each officer position in an expeditionary force, right down to the “amusement and welfare officer,” and cites their duties in War Department Field Manual 101-5, the document describing the general responsibilities of various military positions, and augments these with small war specific suggestions.[39] Equipment for these troops is given equally detailed discussion.[40] Ultimately, much of this material falls outside the scope of this paper and is in fact quite out of date given restructuring of the U.S. military over the past seventy-five years; however, a brief overview of how the Manual views the philosophy of organization and how it suggests that leadership understand their theater of operations is well worth consideration by modern students of strategy and diplomacy.

An overarching theme, one that is not surprising to those familiar with Clausewitz and Western military thinking, is that all activities from the most simple to the most complex are in support of achieving the political aim of the conflict.[41] To support this effort, the organization of a military force requires individual units have the capability to carry out independent operations as needed.[42] Indeed, underpinning the organization of forces during counterinsurgency operations is delegation to subordinates. This is vital since units are so widely disbursed across often challenging terrain.[43] The Small Wars Manual makes clear this importance by noting “operations orders should usually be phrased in general terms and the details of execution delegated to subordinate commanders.”[44] Thus, junior officers are given a great deal of latitude to prosecute the war as they see fit provided their actions support the overall strategy defined by senior leadership, and the enemy may be pressed to the fullest extent thanks to a flexible organization.[45]

Additionally, to support successful operations of his forces, the commander is encouraged to complete an “Estimate of the Situation” before the execution of hostilities.[46] This document includes such information as the size of the force to accomplish the mission and how this force will be used in accordance with established political goals and strategic planning. It also features information gathered on the political, economic, social, and psychological aspects of the country in which fighting will occur and centralizes other information relevant to situational awareness at the start of operations.[47] This is not so much an intelligence document as it is an outline of what is expected to occur and an overview where it will transpire. The “Estimate of the Situation,” if done well, holds valuable information for leadership at all levels of the military organization.


In its discussions relating to intelligence operations during small wars, the Manual shows off some of its best examples of learning from past experiences. It starts from a realistic premise – many locals will oppose the intervening force even if the force views its cause as just and helpful; consequently, intelligence available to the insurgents will be especially good.[48] There is thus a special need to cultivate local sources, “show the friendly aid that is being offered” via propaganda, employ “liberal” use of “intelligence funds” to collect information or sure it up, and otherwise rely on techniques like cyphers and rapid motion of troops, as needed, to gather accurate information about the enemy and prevent accurate information from getting to the enemy.[49] Through all of these activities, the most important thing is keeping pressure on the enemy since it is impossible to collect accurate information if one is constantly being harassed.[50]

The Manual cites past experiences with native “secret agents” to highlight their intelligence value in fighting small wars and goes into some detail discussing the ideal candidates and aspects of their handling.[51] Of particular interest is the discussion about how to pay such informants. The Manual entreats its readers to pay these individuals low wages and only give bonuses after the provision of valuable information.[52] In this way native agents are incentivized to provide quality intelligence and not just pocket cash. The alternative, voluntary informants, receives little appreciation. Material from these sources is viewed as unreliable since it often arrives too late, is distorted, or is just patently false.[53] Such are the risks of intelligence collection. On an important related matter, the Manual makes clear the position of the U.S. military regarding torture as a means of intelligence collection. In no minced words, it argues:

Methods of extracting information which are not countenanced by the laws of war and the customs of humanity cannot be tolerated. Such actions tend to produce only false information and are degrading to the person inflicting them.[54]

Finally, the Manual lauds the importance of propaganda. It suggests that people most respond to last impressions, frequent messages among many, and repeated messages in sequence.[55] Any or all of these may be employed during small wars to communicate with people who might not respond well to direct suggestion, but who over time may respond favorably to indirect suggestion.[56] There is no moral quandary as far as the Manual is concerned with the application of propaganda, and it may in fact be the best way to achieve certain objectives.

Psychology in Small Wars

The concept of “psychology” is referenced several times throughout the Small Wars Manual and is often used to describe different kinds of things. In the most general sense, when the document uses the term, it is referring to the origins of individual dispositions in either the counterinsurgent or insurgent. One of the earliest uses of the term is for describing the type of “spirit” that should be imbued within troops fighting guerillas; rather than breeding a “belligerent spirit” in military units fighting small wars, the Manual instructs that leaders should encourage one of “caution and steadiness.”[57] This is meant to suggest that a commander who can achieve his political goal via diplomacy and without firing a shot “has attained far greater success than one who resorted to the use of arms.”[58] Sun Tzu would be proud of such a formulation.

“Psychology” is again referenced when considering the study of the people in the country experiencing the small war:

It is of primary importance that the fullest benefit be derived from the psychological aspects of the situation. That implies a serious study of the people, their racial, political, religious, and mental development. By analysis and study the reasons for the existing emergency may be deduced; the most practical method of solving the problem is to understand the possible approaches thereto and the repercussion to be expected from any actions which may be contemplated.[59]

The Manual is meticulous on this issue and delves into several topical issues that may help motivate revolutionary forces, especially aspects of economic and political “discontent.” Leadership should understand these issues so that they may better appreciate the drivers behind their enemy and take actions, such as they can, to address these as part of a joint diplomatic-military strategy.

The insistence on getting quality local information is well founded and supported throughout the Manual. For instance, there is significant discussion about how to deal with local populations, specifically how information will flow from informal networks and how to gather information from individuals without offending local sensibilities, including guidance about how to accept gifts from locals while not giving the impression of special treatment.[60] Of course, central among these recommendations is developing a command for the local language whenever possible, and this practice has long since been an important part of training for some military units frequently engaged in counterinsurgencies.[61]

Indeed, perhaps the most important aspect of “psychology” is developing a quality relationship with the local population. While in most major conflicts troops are encouraged to hate their enemy, the Manual makes clear that the best practice in small wars should be to cultivate “tolerance, sympathy, and kindness” even while knowing there will be times requiring firmness.[62] To this end, the document reminds its readers that the Marine Corps often represents the United States to local populations during small wars and should behave appropriately as such.[63] When members of the U.S. military fail to live up to this aspiration, the Manual argues for the importance of prompt, thorough, and fair investigations conducted by the Inspector assigned to the force.[64] Such activities are simply a natural part to successfully fighting small wars because they are one facet of maintaining and cultivating positive relationships with local populations.

Operations during Small Wars

The implications of the policy and strategy outlined in the earliest portions of the Small Wars Manual flows naturally to its operational and tactical portions. These chapters actually make up the bulk of the Manual though most of their information falls outside the bounds of this introductory paper. Still, those affecting strategy or policy are worth considering. By exploring these in the order they might occur during a small war helps draw out their connections and larger implications.

Should a crushing defeat of opposing forces during the initial entry into the country not pacify the population, forces engaged in the intervention should prepare to continue fighting guerillas.[65] In such a fight, efforts to pacify local populations may take several forms. Forces might spread out through towns and establish fixed posts from which to operate with the aim of occupying area.[66] Patrols may augment efforts to occupy territory or stand on their own; regardless, they are often the only option available if quality information about the precise location of insurgents is unavailable.[67] Roving patrols may also be employed in conjunction with other efforts and feature self-sustaining units capable of giving pursuit to hostile forces.[68] These, along with special methods for river operations or the application of flying columns, constitute the backbone of what make up operational activities.

A closer looks at patrols of various types and their cousins, flying columns, are most illustrative of institutional learning. The Manual details what should constitute a combat patrol, including lists of materials, menus for food, and instructions on how to march in addition to guidelines for building lean-tos and laying ambushes, among other topics. Most important, however, are its entreaties for the principles of mass, or appropriately sized forces, movement, that is rapidly moving forces, surprise, and security as keys to successful patrols.[69] From past experience, the Manual makes clear that patrols should be strong enough to defend themselves against suspected threats but not be so large that their ability to move quickly and with a degree of stealth is sacrificed.[70] These are general operational lessons, but ones with strategic implications.

The “flying column” is similar to a mobile column that may be used for patrols but it is capable of operating independently at some distance from garrisons.[71] These units naturally stay in the field longer and are capable of exerting additional pressure on an enemy since there is no need to leave the field for resupply. While many of the same principles of patrols apply to flying columns, there are some special considerations that derive from these units operating on their own for such extended periods time. For example, the Manual strongly suggests that flying columns should always have significant cash in their possession not just for the purchase of supplies, but also for the purchase of intelligence from among the people it is likely to spend so much time around.[72] In a nod to practicality that also smacks of first-hand experience, the Manual urges its readers to ensure that such cash is in small denominations for easy use.[73]

A host of other lessons learned are applicable to patrols and columns of any kind. In an example of a very detailed suggestion, the Manual discusses mosquito netting. While it is helpful in malarial conditions, the Marines caveat this common sense by sharing that past units had not carried the bulky material in tropical environments and suffered no harmful consequences.[74] In a much more traditionally military bit of advice, the Manual cites past small wars as the justification for its estimates of fifty rounds fired per man per patrol which in turn forms the basis for its larger ammunition logistics recommendations.[75] Finally, in another seemingly tactical example that ultimately has significant operational and perhaps even strategic ramifications, the Manual strongly argues that Marines themselves should pack any mules used during mounted patrols themselves since the use of local packers will likely result in the population learning of military movements and potentially endangering these activities.[76] It is easy to see the influence of past conflicts as the Manual aims to prepare soldiers for those of the future.

One of the most timeless aspects of the Manual is its reference to what would ultimately be called “population-centric counterinsurgency” later years, or the focus on keeping communities secure as a means to win the war. Of course its discussions of “psychology” and interacting with locals reflect this view, but it makes the case in even more certain terms when harkening back to past experience. It implores readers to remain on the offensive and avoid remaining garrisoned without patrols spread throughout the country.[77] Such efforts hamper guerrillas who would “pillage defenseless towns, molest the peaceful citizenry, and interfere with the systems of supply and communication of the force of occupation.”[78] Without preventing these things, the pacification of the country is impossible.

How to Read the Manual

So, where does this ranging review of the Marine Corps Small Wars Manual leave the modern student of strategy and diplomacy? This essay attempts to lay out just how the Manual is an example of institutional learning and captured many of the lessons the American military learned from its decades of fighting insurgencies throughout the Americas and parts of Asia during the early 20th century. The many references to past small wars, the experiences of the Marines authoring the document, and the Manual’s seemingly timeless strategic suggestions speak to just this point.

But there are limitations. A modern reader of the Manual quickly sees its out of date understanding of American military organization and technology. Many of its suggestions are overly detailed for contemporary audiences, soldier or scholar, or have been simply overtaken with time. Likewise, its understanding of how small wars might evolve in the modern context misses, for obvious reasons, important developments of the past several decades. Sadly, these areas are where the bulk of its pages are spent. Meanwhile, its insights into timeless tactics like ambushes remain valid, but these are captured in many other military documents that are used in training solders today. In this way the Manual has become more a historical document than anything else.

In the end, the most relevant pages of the Small Wars Manual are found its first chapter. Here the nature of small wars is defined. Here are the central insights surrounding linked military action and diplomatic activity during small wars. Here are the beginnings of the need to understand the local culture and support the security of the local people. Students of strategy and diplomacy today may still gain much from reading the Small Wars Manual, but most of this is gained in reviewing the document’s opening volley. Anything after that serves only to refine, highlight, or provide historical context.


[1] The Small Wars Manual is divided into several chapters each with its own separate page numbering. These numbers take two forms, one stamped at the upper right or left corner of each page and a second consistently printed at the bottom of the page in the middle. These numbers often do not match since the stamps refer to subsections and not pages themselves. For the sake of consistency, this paper cites pages using the bottom number listed on each page. Because these reset with each new chapter, citations list both the chapter and the page, where the first number in the citation before the hyphen is the chapter and the second number is the page, e.g. 2-14 refers to chapter 2, page 14 of the Manual. Return to text.

[2] United States Marine Corps, Small Wars Manual (Washington, DC: GPO, 1940), 1-1. Return to text.

[3] Marine Corps, Manual, 1-1. Return to text.

[4] Keith B. Bickel, Mars Learning: The Marine Corps’ Development of Small Wars Doctrine, 1915-1940 (Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2001), 1. Return to text.

[5] Marine Corps, Manual, 1-2 – 1-4. Return to text.

[6] Marine Corps, Manual, 2-2 – 2-3. Return to text.

[7] Marine Corps, Manual, 1-4. Return to text.

[8] Marine Corps, Manual, 1-4. Return to text.

[9] Marine Corps, Manual, 1-3. Return to text.

[10] Marine Corps, Manual, 1-2. Return to text.

[11] Marine Corps, Manual, 1-2. Return to text.

[12] Marine Corps, Manual, 1-4. Return to text.

[13] Marine Corps, Manual, 1-9. Return to text.

[14] Bickel, Mars Learning, 6. Return to text.

[15] Ibid. Return to text.

[16] Bickel, Mars Learning, 19. Return to text.

[17] Nicholas J. Schlosser, “The Marine Corps’ Small Wars Manual: An Old Solution to a New Challenge?” Fortitudine 35, no. 1 (2010): 6. Return to text.

[18] Schosser, “Old Solution,” 7. Return to text.

[19] Bickel, Mars Learning, 19. Return to text.

[20] Schosser, “Old Solution,” 7. Return to text.

[21] Bickel, Mars Learning, 27. Return to text.

[22] Max Boot, The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power (New York, NY: Basic Books, 2014), 283. Return to text.

[23] Boot, Savage Wars, 284. Return to text.

[24] Boot, Savage Wars, 285. Return to text.

[25] Marine Corps, Manual, 1-12. Return to text.

[26] Marine Corps, Manual, 1-12. Return to text.

[27] Marine Corps, Manual, 1-5 – 1-8. Return to text.

[28] Marine Corps, Manual, 1-5. Return to text.

[29] Marine Corps, Manual, 1-14. Return to text.

[30] Marine Corps, Manual, 1-13. Return to text.

[31] Marine Corps, Manual, 1-13. Return to text.

[32] Marine Corps, Manual, 1-13. Return to text.

[33] Marine Corps, Manual, 1-15. Return to text.

[34] Marine Corps, Manual, 1-15 – 1-16. Return to text.

[35] Marine Corps, Manual, 1-16. Return to text.

[36] Marine Corps, Manual, 1-11. Return to text.

[37] Marine Corps, Manual, 1-11. Return to text.

[38] Marine Corps, Manual, 1-33. Return to text.

[39] Marine Corps, Manual, 2-11 – 2-42. Return to text.

[40] Marine Corps, Manual, 2-43. Return to text.

[41] Marine Corps, Manual, 2-8 – 2-9. Return to text.

[42] Marine Corps, Manual, 2-11 – 2-12. Return to text.

[43] Marine Corps, Manual, 2-33. Return to text.

[44] Marine Corps, Manual, 2-33. Return to text.

[45] Marine Corps, Manual, 2-7. Return to text.

[46] Marine Corps, Manual, 2-1 – 2-9. Return to text.

[47] Marine Corps, Manual, 2-1. Return to text.

[48] Marine Corps, Manual, 2-4. Return to text.

[49] Marine Corps, Manual, 2-4 – 2-5. Return to text.

[50] Marine Corps, Manual, 2-5. Return to text.

[51] Marine Corps, Manual, 2-25. Return to text.

[52] Marine Corps, Manual, 2-25. Return to text.

[53] Marine Corps, Manual, 2-25. Return to text.

[54] Marine Corps, Manual, 2-28. Given controversies following the apparent use of torture by American intelligence operatives following the September 11th attacks, this clear stance on the issue rings as especially relevant not just to the time of its writing, but also today. That this is the conclusion of a document resting its authority on decades of counterinsurgency experiences gives the message a practical strength that augments the readily apparent moral condemnation of torture. Return to text.

[55] Marine Corps, Manual, 1-28. Return to text.

[56] Marine Corps, Manual, 1-28. Return to text.

[57] Marine Corps, Manual, 1-18. Return to text.

[58] Marine Corps, Manual, 1-18. Return to text.

[59] Marine Corps, Manual, 1-18. Return to text.

[60] Marine Corps, Manual, 1-24 – 1-26. Return to text.

[61] Marine Corps, Manual, 1-26. Return to text.

[62] Marine Corps, Manual, 1-32. Return to text.

[63] Marine Corps, Manual, 1-30 – 1-31. Return to text.

[64] Marine Corps, Manual, 2-36. Return to text.

[65] Marine Corps, Manual, 6-1. Return to text.

[66] Marine Corps, Manual, 5-18. Return to text.

[67] Marine Corps, Manual, 5-18. Return to text.

[68] Marine Corps, Manual, 5-19. Return to text.

[69] Marine Corps, Manual, 6-2 – 6-3. Return to text.

[70] Marine Corps, Manual, 6-8. Return to text.

[71] Marine Corps, Manual, 5-6. Return to text.

[72] Marine Corps, Manual, 5-7. Return to text.

[73] Marine Corps, Manual, 5-7. Return to text.

[74] Marine Corps, Manual, 6-17. Return to text.

[75] Marine Corps, Manual, 6-14. Return to text.

[76] Marine Corps, Manual, 3-25. Return to text.

[77] Marine Corps, Manual, 6-2. Return to text.

[78] Marine Corps, Manual, 6-2. Return to text.


For Further Reading


Bickel, Keith B. Mars Learning: The Marine Corps’ Development of Small Wars Doctrine,

1915-1940. Boulder, CO: Westview Press, 2001.

Bickel’s book, based on his dissertation which is cited in this paper, is the definitive account of how the ideas captured in the Marine Corps Small Wars Manual were hard won over twenty five years. Indeed, his work is the best for understanding the context and the authors that helped give rise to the Manual.

Boot, Max. The Savage Wars of Peace: Small Wars and the Rise of American Power. New York, NY: Basic Books, 2014.

By reviewing instances of American involvement in small wars from throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, Boot highlights just how long the United States has been fighting and learning from these wars. He devotes an entire chapter to the Small Wars Manual that is especially useful in putting it into context.

Caldwell, C. E. Small Wars: Their Principles and Practice. Lincoln, NE:  University of Nebraska Press, 1996.

Col. Caldwell’s book reflects the lessons British officers took from the colonial wars in the 19th century. A bit dated at points, it remains a classic for understanding the development of small war or counterinsurgency thinking. Indeed, many of the key concepts and terms used by later writers are rooted in those coined by Caldwell.

Corps, United States Marine. Small Wars Manual. Washington, DC: GPO, 1940.

The Small Wars Manual captures many of the timeless strategic and tactical aspects of fighting insurgencies and remains especially valuable today as a historical document capturing how the U.S. military, and the Marine Corps in particular, learned from past small wars and institutionalized these lessons.

Galula, David. Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice. Westport, CT: Praeger, 2006.

This may be the seminal work on counterinsurgency published in the 20th century, and Galula is a required reading for both scholars and practitioners alike. Born of his experiences in fighting insurgencies in Asia and North Africa, this book captures many of the most widely accepted tenants of counterinsurgency in just one hundred pages.

Gentile, Gian P. Wrong Turn: America’s Deadly Embrace of Counterinsurgency. New York, NY: The New Press, 2013.

Perhaps the leading proponent of an alternative view toward counterinsurgency practices, Col. Gian Gentile suggests much that we take as given about population centric counterinsurgency operations is often irrelevant and may be problematic for attaining American policy objectives. This book represents the summation of Gentile’s observations in Iraq and Afghanistan and is the culmination of several earlier works that began developing his central ideas.

Kilcullen, David. The Accidental Guerrilla: Fighting Small Wars in the Midst of a Big One. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2009.

One of several books on the subject of counterinsurgency written  by long-time practitioner and General Petraeus advisor David Kilcullen, The Accidental Guerrilla now graces many a syllabus on in war colleges and strategy seminars. In it, he argues that that what might be considered modern small wars cannot be addressed using counterterrorism and counterinsurgency strategies of the past, but need new strategies that address singular aspects of these fights. His nuanced analysis of the situations in Iraq and Afghanistan are especially thought provoking.

Nagl, John A. Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counterinsurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam. University of Chicago Press, 2009.

John Nagl, one of the authors of The US Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual,offers his take on the experiences of counterinsurgency in Malaya and Vietnam in a book that has become vital reading for students of counterinsurgency. He explores how military organizations learn during counterinsurgency operations and alter their methods over time.

Nagl, John A., James F. Amos, Sarah Sewall, and David H. Petraeus. The US Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual. No. 3-24. University of Chicago Press, 2008.

This is the latest work on counterinsurgency by the U.S. military and is widely credited with being central to the improved effectiveness of American military units operating in Iraq and Afghanistan in the early 21st century. Because it is the latest manifestation of American military thinking on how to fight counterinsurgencies, it is required reading for any student seriously interested in the subject.

Schlosser, Nicholas J. “The Marine Corps’ Small Wars Manual: An Old Solution to a New Challenge?” Fortitudine 35, no. 1 (2010): 4-9.

This short article written for the Marine Corps Historical Program provides an easily accessible history of the development and application of the Small Wars Manual. Written for a popular audience, it cuts to the quick of the Manual’s development and intellectual origins.