Counterinsurgency Words of Wisdom from Pete Ellis***


There is a saying among historians that the best place to find a new idea is in an old book.   Time and again over the years, I have cracked open long-forgotten volumes to find gems of timeless and timely wisdom, astute commentary, and unimpeachable good sense.  Contained on those yellowed pages are answers to problems and challenges not at all different from contemporary times, and appreciations of conditions and factors that are surprising for their sophistication and insight.

In the March 1921 edition of The Marine Corps Gazette, then-Major Earl H. “Pete” Ellis penned an article entitled “Bush Brigades”, which dealt with the deployment of US Marine forces into areas in the Western Hemisphere in which instability and violence threatened US interests and the safety of the native populace.  These interventions, known collectively as the “Banana Wars”, were the basis for the seminal 1940 Small Wars Manual.  Interestingly, nearly two decades before SWM was published, Major Ellis struck upon a number of maxims that fairly leap off the page, and would have been excellent counsel for US commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan.

At the minimum, Ellis’s words would have permitted today’s Officers and NCOs (and politicians!) to understand that the challenges and issues faced in the decade-long counter-insurgency fights were not new or unprecedented, but rather something with which US military thinkers had had to wrestle and solve for a significant portion of the previous century.  And in those words and the words of others might have been lessons and cautions that aided in success on the battlefield and in the newspapers.

The mercurial Major Ellis expounded upon a number of topics from large to small, that military thinkers would find highly relevant today.   I will attempt to do justice to the more salient of those topics below:

  • The character of enemy operations:

a)      A somewhat disorganized attempt to prevent landings.

b)      More or less resistance in cities followed by a race to the jungle.

c)       The organization and operation of armed bands, at first risking open battle and finally waging guerilla warfare.

d)      The operation of outlaw bands (bandits, ladrones, cacos) who murder members of the forces of occupation and their own people indiscriminately.

In general, enemy operations will be those of irregular forces or guerilla bands with the usual series of surprise raids, ambushes, and assassinations.  The enemy will have moral support from most of his own people, material support from many, and will operate in their midst. 

Replace “landings” in a) with “invasion”, and “jungle” in b) with “desert”, and you have a pretty accurate description of the course of things in Iraq and Afghanistan.

  • The role of the press/media and the “peculiar attitude of the American people themselves”:

The Marines are down in Jungleland!- and killed a man in a war!

And the oft-forgotten fact that

…the Marines are only doing their job as ordered by the people of the United States.

  • The usefulness of cash payoffs to the locals:

…it must be emphatically stated that a flying column should never be sent into the bush unless amply provided with CASH.  With it can be purchased knowledge of the terrain and movement of the enemy, and food.  It is safe to say that at least 50 percent of the so-called harsh measures used in bush warfare could be eliminated by providing troops with adequate information money.

  • Considerations in the location of a fortified  post:

The site of the post should have, if possible, the following characteristics:

a)      Be capable of defense by a small detachment.

b)      Be of sufficient extent to permit the bivouac of … one hundred men, with mounted detachment.

c)       Permit control of any town in the vicinity and all approaches, especially roads and ravines.

d)      Have sufficient elevation to generally observe the surrounding country.

e)      Permit control of a landing field for aeroplanes.

The main requirement for a fortified post, garrisoned as it will be by only a few men, is that it cannot be rushed.

The above would have been a helpful guide to the Officers who decided to emplace COP Kahler Keating in Wanat.

  • What is now termed “Lawfare”:

To enforce one’s will upon an enemy of the nature depicted without subjecting one’s self to undue criticism is one of the most difficult tasks that can confront a soldier.   The “Rules of Land Warfare” lay down certain rules which are to be followed, subject to military necessity during hostilities between regular forces of civilized nations.  The “Rules of Land Warfare” for the guidance of regular forces engaged in hostilities with irregular or guerilla forces have never been written; and it is doubtful if they ever will be written…

  • “Phase Four” operations and “Information Dominance”:

It is the final phase which is difficult because, owing to the policy pursued, the following conditions will prevail to a greater or lesser extent:

a)      Bands of murderers and other criminals base in thick, difficult country, and prey indiscriminately on the peaceful people in the production areas.

b)      These bandits have no property other than that which they carry with them or keep in hiding.

c)       Many bandits, having been captured and turned over to proper authority, have been permitted to escape and have rejoined their bands.

d)      The inhabitants of localities frequented by bandits keep them informed of the movement of the force of occupation

e)      The forces of occupation are at a minimum.

Major Ellis’ article was never officially published by the Marine Corps (the Gazette is as then an MCA publication), but nonetheless provides context and narrative which our current generation of Officers and NCOs would find startlingly familiar a century hence.   As it would be to Napoleon’s veterans of the Peninsula War a century previous.

Most famous for his prescient divination of the character and requirements of the Pacific War yet to come, Ellis was no stranger to the counterinsurgency efforts of the Marine Corps in the early 20th Century, nor was he unversed in conventional war.  He had been plucked from Quantico by General Lejeune and was a key planner for the successful Meuse-Argonne Offensive in France in 1918.   Ponder.

*** Milblog writer/reader/commentor “Moe DeLaun” was most gracious in his gift to me of the March 1921 Marine Corps Gazette (along with a wonderful collection of Kipling by Somerset Maugham and the DVD of The Man Who Would Be King!)  There is much more in that March of 1921 edition that I will be sharing and commenting on over the next several months, including articles on Russia, American Marines in Nicaragua, and the Aisne-Marne Offensive of the late war.  THANKS MOE!

8 thoughts on “Counterinsurgency Words of Wisdom from Pete Ellis***”

    1. Affect, or effect?
      Another well written post, URR! You have a talent for clear, consise writing, Brad chose well in picking you, sir. Well Done Brad, Bravo Zulu, URR!

    2. It IS Affect, “affect” is the verb form, “effect” the noun! I doff my had to my better in grammar!

  1. “The Man who would be King”… a warrior’s movie by any consideration.

  2. Lejueune was my Grandfather’s Division CG in the 42nd Division. I think Lejeune is the only Marine General to command an Army Division iirc.

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