The concept of a “Strategic Corporal” is vital to understanding counterinsurgency. In these types of wars, action becomes highly decentralized. Leadership is provided by tactical teams led by the lowest ranking NCOs and officers.

The Strategic Corporal rests on the notion of military virtue which extends to the lowest ranks of enlisted soldiers. Military Virtue is not “mere bravery” as Clausewitz said. This virtue is harder to describe in the abstract but is easily witnessed. It includes skill at arms, morale, discipline, honor, bravery, and esprit de corps. It combines all virtuous elements into a cohesive unit which is more skilled than the mere sum of its parts.

Clausewitz:

An army which preserves its usual formations under the heaviest fire, which is never shaken by imaginary fears, and in the face of real danger disputes the ground inch by inch, which, proud in the feeling of its victories, never loses its sense of obedience, its respect for and confidence in its leaders, even under the depressing effects of defeat; an army with all its physical powers, inured to privations and fatigue by exercise, like the muscles of an athlete; an army which looks upon all its toils as the means to victory, not as a curse which hovers over its standards, and which is always reminded of its duties and virtues by the short catechism of one idea, namely the honour of its arms;—Such an army is imbued with the true military spirit.

Virtues can be provided by generals, but in guerrilla war, the virtue must be present in the lowest ranked leader and his unit.

1. Military virtue is a quality of standing armies only, but they require it the most. In national risings and wars, its place is supplied by natural qualities, which develop themselves there more rapidly.

2. Standing armies opposed to standing armies, can more easily dispense with it, than a standing army opposed to a national insurrection, for in that case, the troops are more scattered, and the divisions left more to themselves. But where an army can be kept concentrated, the genius of the general takes a greater place, and supplies what is wanting in the spirit of the army. Therefore generally military virtue becomes more necessary the more the theatre of operations and other circumstances make the war complicated, and cause the forces to be scattered.

Military virtue keeps the military functioning well even in its most scattered and leaderless form. The corporals are intended to be tactical leaders who lead fire teams in combat. But in guerrilla wars, they must serve as strategic leaders as well. The soldiers of an army interact in a political environment and make strategic decisions that accumulate to be more important than any general.

Virtue extends beyond mere fighting and actively helps serve the civilian community. The idea in small wars is that the most virtuous army will win over the civilians and defeat their enemies. This requires thousands of corporals, sergeants and 2nd lieutenants to decisively win a vast number of diffuse conflicts.

I believe this is partly the reason why democracies produce better soldiers than autocracies.

Michael Yon describes the impact of a military’s virtue in Iraq:

Large numbers of Iraqis detested us after the prisoner abuse stories, and some over-the-top attacks on Fallujah, for example. But through time, somehow the American military has managed to establish a moral authority in Iraq. It’s not the only authority, but the military has serious and increasing moral clout. In the beginning, our influence flowed from guns, or dropped from the wings of jets. Later it was the money. Today, the clout still is partially from the gun, and definitely the money is key, but there is an intangible and growing moral clout and it flows from an increasing respect among Iraqis for our military. Washington has no moral clout in Iraq. Washington looks like a circus act. The authority is coming from our military. The importance of this fact would be difficult to understate.

American military leaders are serving many roles at once. They easily defeat insurgents in combat, serve as diplomats, and help reconstruct the economy. They continue to act as a cohesive military unit in the most adverse conditions.

On the other hand, you can easily spot militaries which lack military virtue. The Russian debacle in Chechnya demonstrated the weakness of conscripted troops and poor leadership.

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