Review: Nonstate Warfare

Stephen Biddle’s Nonstate Warfare aims to debunk the myths around warfare featuring nonstate actors and point out that there really isn’t as clear a line as thought between “conventional” and “unconventional” warfare. As I’ve been annoyed by the use of the terms “Hybrid War” and especially “4th Generation War”, I was eagerly awaiting this book. However, I found the execution significantly flawed.

Now, the premise is sound and well supported, which makes the flaws in outcome all the more severe. Basically, even the most mass-mobilized total wars with the clearest defined front lines have an irregular and/or deep element (he uses the excellent example of partisans on the Eastern Front in World War II). Likewise, even non-state elements can and have fought battles with large forces, heavy weapons, and the aim to hold territory. Very few people would dispute this. Biddle also points out that the progress of industrial-age technology means that ill-equipped irregulars can have weapons that the most advanced world powers didn’t have a few decades prior.

None of this is really controversial, and simply stating that would make for a very short book. What would be useful would an example of middle-level armies that don’t fit categories very well. Biddle does do this, with his descriptions of the Sadrist militias in the Iraq War and Adid’s forces in Somalia fitting well. He also has an interesting analogy with a spectrum from “Fabian” operations (a reference to the Roman strategy of avoiding defeat) to “Napoleonic” ones (a reference to seeking decisive battlefield victory). To be snarky, Fabian operations to excess are Kalib Starnes spending the entire MMA fight running away from Nate Quarry, while Napoleonic ones are the bandit in a Bethesda game charging the player in super-armor.

Unfortunately, this is written in clunky academese. Biddle uses a rigid scale to rank various forces from “Fabian” to “Napoleonic”, one that I found to be too rigid for an inherently arbitrary judgement. His writing is full of hair-splitting and nitpicking of what honestly feels like a strawman that everything is either phalanxes on a field or nothing but backstabbing. There’s weird hangups like a fixation on force density for its own sake, obsession on individual technical examples (so Adid had TOWs? So what? Even in 1993 it wasn’t like they were stealth fighters), and not enough focus on non-state forces supplied by state ones.

I wanted to like this book. And I don’t disagree with the overall point. But it could have been made just so much better. This feels like an academic squabble in academic language, when a plain-text history of case studies with “conventional irregular armies” would have been far more suitable in promoting the argument.

One thought on “Review: Nonstate Warfare

  1. Interesting review- thanks for posting it up.

    The book has been on my wish list for academiic reasons but I’ve not got hold of it yet. Now I’m not so sure…




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