Principles of Modern American Counterinsurgency: Evolution and Debate

Janine Davidson
Janine Davidson, President, Metropolitan State University of Denver
Janine Davidson Former Brookings Expert, President - Metropolitan State University of Denver

June 8, 2009


Insurgency and counterinsurgency are not new to Americans. People often forget that the American Revolution was an insurgency by colonists against the British crown. In South Carolina, Frances Marion, the so-called “Swamp Fox” who hid with his band of guerrillas in the woods and led raids against British troops, is considered an American hero. Likewise, during the American Civil War, southern “partisans” such as John Mosby, of Mosby’s Rangers, became infamous for their successful guerrilla tactics against Union soldiers.1

Americans have an even more extensive history as counter-insurgents –with a mixed record of success.2 Early American expansion led to a number of bloody engagements between the Army (and sometimes the Marines) and various Native American tribes in the Northwest Indian War (1785-1795), in the Creek and Seminole Wars that followed in the South, and in the many famous clashes with the Sioux, the Comanche, and others in the West throughout the 1800s. Many of the lessons learned through trial and error on the American frontier were handed down through word of mouth by soldiers who brought their personal experiences from one fight to the next.

This nearly uninterrupted string of guerrilla and counter-guerrilla operations informed the U.S. military’s approach in later conflicts, including the guerrilla elements of the Civil War and its aftermath; the Mexican-American War of 1846-48; the Spanish-American War and the long struggle against Filipino insurgents from 1898 to at least 1910.3 The Marine Corps leveraged the only doctrine the Army had up to that point (Small Wars and Punitive Expeditions)4 in the so-called Caribbean “Banana Wars,” and ultimately recorded its lessons learned from that experience as doctrine in the 1940 publication of the Small Wars Manual.5

Janine Davidson wrote this paper while a nonresident senior fellow at Brookings.