Small Wars Journal / Military Writers Guild Writing Contest

What worked and what did not work, Small Wars tactical and operational lessons encountered through the lens of General Anthony Zinni’s and Dr. David Kilcullen’s considerations and fundamentals.


Lessons Encountered: Learning from the Long War began as two questions from General Martin E. Dempsey, the 18th Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: What were the costs and benefits of the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, and what were the strategic lessons of these campaigns? The Institute for National Strategic Studies at the National Defense University was tasked to answer these questions. Lessons Encountered represents an early attempt at assessing the Long War. Lessons Encountered is intended for future senior officers, their advisors, and other national security decision-makers. By derivation, it is also a book for students in joint professional military education courses, which will qualify them to work in the field of strategy.

Small Wars Tactical and Operational Lessons Encountered

Small Wars Journal believes there are valuable “lessons encountered” at the tactical and operational levels of war and command as well, and they too should be chronicled and disseminated. Moreover, SWJ posits there are certain enduring “fundamentals and considerations” (listed at the end) associated with Small Wars that are best addressed through first-person accounts. Small Wars / Irregular Warfare operations suitable for the writing contest include:

  • Insurgency/Counterinsurgency
  • Terrorism/Counterterrorism
  • Stabilization, Security, Transition, and Reconstruction Operations
  • Unconventional Warfare
  • Foreign Internal Defense
  • Civil-Military Operations
  • Information Operations
  • Military Intelligence and Counterintelligence Activities
  • Transnational Criminal Activities that Support or Sustain Small Wars / Irregular Warfare
  • Law Enforcement Activities Focused on Countering Irregular Adversaries

Small Wars Journal has partnered with the Military Writers Guild for this writing contest.

The Writing Contest

Winning entries and select others will be published by Small Wars Journal on its webpage. Winning and other entries will also be edited and formatted as a Small Wars Journal anthology (book). See Small Wars Journal and SWJ-El Centro anthologies for examples.

  • Papers should be 3,000 to 5,000 words in length
  • MS Word, Times New Roman 12
  • Citations as end notes
  • All graphics (to include tables) as JPEGs. No eye-candy please, only graphics that are value added to the text
  • Category: U.S. military, non-U.S. military, or non-military
  • Include a short bio and photograph of the author(s) as a separate MS Word document
  • In the bio include email address, phone number, and mailing address

Papers will be blind reviewed and judged primarily for clarity of presentation, relevant insights to the conduct of tactical and operational operations, and overall significance of the key points made to the practice of Small Wars. No extra points awarded for length, name dropping, or how epic the incidents discussed were as distinct from the weight of the insights. Papers need not be OIF- / OEF-centric. Papers must resonate beyond a single silo, i.e. they should address more than one or two of the fundamentals and considerations listed below.

Papers are to be submitted by midnight on 15 January 2017 to (cc The email subject line should read SWJ-MWG Writing Contest Submission. Winners will be announced in March of 2017.

We greatly respect the works and insights of the usual suspects from the many DoD-centric writing competitions and anticipate some great and hard-to-beat entries from them. We would really like to see some stiff competition from fresh new voices and experience sets not often heard. Submission by non-U.S. and non-military authors is highly encouraged – think coalition and interagency. Please spread the good word about this competition to the far reaches of the empire of important participants in the vastly broad and complex field of Small Wars. This is a level playing field and let’s get all the players on it.


U.S. Military

  • $1,000 First Place
  • $500 Second Place
  • $300 Third Place

Military Other Than U.S.

  • $1,000 First Place
  • $500 Second Place
  • $300 Third Place

Non-Military (U.S. & Other)

  • $1,000 First Place
  • $500 Second Place
  • $300 Third Place

Honorable Mention

  • $200 x 20 Honorable Mention Awards (From any award category listed above)

Considerations & Fundamentals – A General Guide in Addressing Small Wars Operations

What worked and what did not work, Small Wars tactical and operational lessons encountered through the lens of the following considerations and fundamentals. Use one – or as many as are applicable.

General Anthony Zinni’s “Small Wars” Considerations (Humanitarian Assistance, Peacekeeping, and Peace Enforcement Operations)

  • Each operation is unique. We must be careful what lessons we learn from a single experience.
  • Each operation has two key aspects – the degree of complexity of the operation and the degree of consent of the involved parties and the international community for the operation.
  • The earlier the involvement, the better the chance for success.
  • Start planning as early as possible, include everyone in the planning process.
  • Make as thorough an assessment as possible before deployment.
  • Conduct a thorough mission analysis, determine the centers of gravity, end state, commander’s intent, measures of effectiveness, exit strategy, and the estimated duration of the operation.
  • Stay focused on the mission. Line up military tasks with political objectives. Avoid mission creep and allow for mission shifts. A mission shift is a conscious decision, made by political leadership in consultation with the military commander, responding to a changing situation.
  • Centralize planning and decentralize execution of the operation. This allows subordinate commanders to make appropriate adjustments to meet their individual situation or rapidly changing conditions.
  • Coordinate everything with everybody. Establish coordination mechanisms that include political, military, nongovernmental organizations, and the interested parties.
  • Know the culture and the issues. We must know who the decision-makers are. We must know how the involved parties think. We cannot impose our cultural values on people with their own culture.
  • Start or restore key institutions as early as possible.
  • Don’t lose the initiative and momentum.
  • Don’t make unnecessary enemies. If you do, don’t treat them gently. Avoid mindsets or words that might come back to haunt you.
  • Seek unity of effort and unity of command. Create the fewest possible seams between organizations and involved parties.
  • Open a dialogue with everyone. Establish a forum for each of the involved parties.
  • Encourage innovation and nontraditional responses.
  • Personalities are often more important than processes. You need the right people in the right places.
  • Be careful whom you empower. Think carefully about who you invite to participate, use as a go-between, or enter into contracts with since you are giving them influence in the process.
  • Decide on the image you want to portray and keep focused on it. Whatever the image; humanitarian or firm, but well-intentioned agent of change; ensure your troops are aware of it so they can conduct themselves accordingly.
  • Centralize information management. Ensure that your public affairs and psychological operations are coordinated, accurate and consistent.
  • Seek compatibility in all operations; cultural and political compatibility and military interoperability are crucial to success. The interests, cultures, capabilities, and motivations of all parties may not be uniform; but they cannot be allowed to work against one another.
  • Senior commanders and their staffs need the most education and training in nontraditional roles. The troops need awareness and understanding of their roles. The commander and the staff need to develop and apply new skills, such as negotiating, supporting humanitarian organizations effectively and appropriately, and building coordinating agencies with humanitarian goals.

Dr. David Killcullen’s “Small Wars” 28 Articles (Fundamentals of Company-level Counterinsurgency)

  • Know your turf – Very little difference from saying “conduct IPB” (Intelligence Preparation of the Battlespace).
  • Diagnose the problem – Looks like mission analysis.
  • Organize for intelligence – Companies don’t have intelligence sections. Smart and innovative companies have developed in-house intelligence sections that collect and analyze intelligence from the platoons. These ad-hoc sections were more often than not better suited and outperformed battalion-level intelligence sections with actual intelligence trained soldiers.
  • Organize for interagency operations – In your typical mission rehearsal exercise, a company doesn’t even touch interagency operations. In-theater, maximizing the effectiveness of interagency operations, particularly in the realm of civil-military projects, can make or break your combat tour.
  • Travel light and harden CSS (Combat Service Support) – It doesn’t take a Rhodes Scholar to see that CSS convoys were getting hammered right off the bat (remember PVT Lynch). We didn’t do a good job in training our logisticians to fight on the roads. Conversely, for every tank or Bradley with a good load plan in theater I saw 8 gypsy wagons for tanks with all kinds of crap hanging off them that their crew would never use. Utilization of the conex-box for junk not used is an important PCI (Pre-Combat Inspection).
  • Find a political / cultural advisor – Why did SF (Special Forces) traditionally conduct UW (Unconventional Warfare) and FID (Foreign Internal Defense) missions? Because being culturally astute are SF imperatives in their doctrine. We, in the conventional force, were never trained that way. Good units pulled in people who knew what they were talking about. I remember learning a great deal from Dr. Hashim. Once in theater, I got hooked into a sheiks family who brought me up to speed on the specific cultural dos and don’ts in my area. It helped place my soldiers in my troop on a higher plain of understanding than other units in theater. Our performance and results spoke to that.
  • Train the squad leaders, then trust them – On the high intensity battlefield, I, as a troop commander, can maneuver individual sections much easier than in a COIN environment. The abilities of my junior leaders are of vital importance to everything I do. They conduct independent operations. Most of my patrols in my troop were led by an E5 or E6. I had 3 officers in my troop and they couldn’t be everywhere. I, as did my PLs (Platoon Leaders), had to trust my NCOs (Non-Commissioned Officers) to do the right thing consistent with the commander’s intent I wrote.
  • Rank is nothing, talent is everything – Goes back to the rule of thirds that Tom Ricks talks about in Fiasco (one third get it, one third are trying to get it, and one third just want to use the hammer as the only tool in their box). Some are really good at COIN, some suck. Some of our best COIN operators are E5s and E4s who are out there every day. They understand how 2nd and 3rd order effects work. They see them up close and personal.
  • Have a game plan – It may be surprising to you that many units go into an area without one. Ties back to Articles 1-4.
  • Be there – Near and dear to my heart. As a reconnaissance tactics instructor, it’s my job to communicate to the force that R&S planning and operations work in COIN just like they do in HIC environments. If you’re unable to place effective fires at the critical point and time (which in OCIN is 3-7 seconds) you’ll lose the engagement. Developing NAI (Named Areas of Interest) on areas that have a high IED (Improvised Explosive Device) threat and over-watching them will eliminate IEDs in given area. Again, goes back to IPB and planning
  • Avoid knee jerk responses to first impressions – First reports are wrong 95% of the time. Insurgents know when RIP/TOA (Relief in Place / Transfer of Authority) is happening. Depending on where you are – some lay low and some hammer the new unit. Those laying low can paralyze a new unit into inaction. Going into the game with a plan and sticking to it is better than initial improvisation.
  • Prepare for handover from day 1 – We reinvent the wheel on each rotation. It has been said we fought the Vietnam War for one year 11 times, rather than for 11 years. Many units get the RIP/TOA files and paperwork and never look at them again. That’s a travesty. Additionally, some units are preparing to RIP/TOA with indigenous forces. That needs to be planned from Day 1.
  • Build trusted networks – May seem like common sense but many units think they can do it on their own. There are people in the community who want to help, despite great risk to themselves and their family. Taking them in and getting them to help your unit will make the unit successful. This goes back to the cultural advisor piece. If the tree branches are overt operations, the tree’s roots are relationships with and in the local populace.
  • Start easy and seek early victories – Some go in and try to take down the entire AQIZ network in Iraq in their first 48 hours. The easiest victories have very little to do with kinetic operations; SWEAT-MS (Security, Water, Electricity, Transportation Network, Medical and Sanitation) victories, tribal engagements, and equipping of security forces are the easiest 3 things to focus on. The populace sees this and will warm to your unit quickly.
  • Practice deterrent patrolling – Firebase concepts, which conventional units were completely against initially, lend well to this. Dominating the environment through sheer presence to deter attacks goes back to R&S (Reconnaissance and Surveillance) planning.
  • Be prepared for setbacks – Things don’t go perfectly, despite even the best of plans. Western logic doesn’t always translate well. Despite your best effort to explain a specific COA (Course of Action) to a sheik, he may not roll with it. If you’ve hinged your entire plan on the COA he’s refuted, you probably needed to plan a bit better. Stuff happens. Deal with it.
  • Engage the women; beware the children – Iraq, despite the men’s perspective, is a matriarchal society. Getting into the women’s networks influences the family network and gets 14 year old Joe Jiahist grounded and beaten with a wooden stick by his mom. Aside from the pure comedic value of these types of events, the women’s circles are often the untapped venues of success in this type of society. Conversely, the insurgents are more ruthless than we are. They use kids because they’re impressionable and, to them, expendable. It’s much easier, seemingly, to deal with the kids, but they’re distracters and oftentimes scout for insurgents.
  • Take stock regularly – It may seem like common sense, but after continuous operations for prolonged periods, it’s tougher to do than you’d think. Determining the metrics of progress can change from week to week. But it lets us know where we are and where we need to go.
  • Remember the global audience – Perception is reality, even if it’s wrong. The way this war is covered, a private flashing a group of kids with the muzzle of his weapon on routine patrol can be cut and spliced into a nasty IO (Information Operations) message for the insurgents. We are always on stage and they have the benefit of the doubt globally right now.
  • Exploit single narrative – This goes right into the IO plan. It must be tailored to fit your specific area. Again, this is something we don’t train regularly and we learn by doing.
  • Local forces should mirror enemy, not ourselves – Further, they should mirror local operational requirements. What’s the use in providing the village doctor with an endocrinology lab that he doesn’t know how to use? I don’t know either, but some division surgeon thought it was a good idea. Additionally, just because we have bells and whistles for equipment doesn’t mean our partnering Iraqi unit does too. We need to remember that. Often we don’t.
  • Practice armed civil affairs – CMO (Civil-Military Operations) can be a decisive operation depending on where you are. You must be able to transition from CA to combat operations quickly. Additionally, the CA (Civil Affairs) bubba isn’t the only one doing CA work; your 19D1O is probably doing more CA in a day than the Civil Affairs officer will do in 3 days.
  • Small is beautiful – The Iraqis want to see results. The proliferation of small programs that work does wonders. Also, small is recoverable and cheap. They don’t need to know that.
  • Fight the enemy’s strategy, not his forces – The strategy is the iceberg, his forces are the tip. Ask Capt Smith from the Titanic what was more important. We often look for the 10 meter target and forget what’s downrange.
  • Build your own solution, attack only when he gets in the way – Combat operations do not win COIN. For a company, since combat operations are what we’ve trained for, they’re our comfort zone. CMO, IO, economic development, and the sustainment of security forces are all bigger moneymakers in COIN than combat operations. It’s tough to get to work, but more productive once you do.
  • Keep extraction plan secret – Everyone has a farewell tour with the sheiks, tribal leaders, political leaders, and others in the AO (Area of Operations) they’ve worked with over the year. That gets back to the insurgents. We need to watch it, but I was guilty of this too. It’s where human instinct and developed relationships interfere with what is doctrinally right.
  • Keep the initiative – Insurgents are used to the initiative. Hell, our battle drills are all named “react to ____.” By good planning and intelligence development, you can kick an insurgent in the teeth by making him react. Insurgents can handle the “initiate ambush” piece but aren’t too good at the react to contact game and usually die in place.