If Howe, Clinton and Cornwallis had COIN: Applying the U.S. Army and U.S. Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual to the American Revolution

Authored by: Gregory Wright and Daniel T. Murphy

Britain’s loss to American revolutionaries in 1781 has been attributed to a variety of explanations, including the American social and political landscape, blunders by field commanders, incompetence and corruption in London, London’s lack of understanding of American grievances and the collapse of British public support for the war.[1]  This paper will explore Britain’s effort in the American Revolution as a counterinsurgency effort, and discuss how the British sometimes followed, but largely failed to adhere to, the historical and contemporary principles of counterinsurgency doctrine, as we understand them today. 

If Generals Howe, Clinton and Cornwallis had utilized the principles in the Counterinsurgency Field Manual FM 3-24, the American Revolution may have turned out quite differently.  Two specific sections of the manual would have been of significant help to the British.  The first section is a discussion of principles based on a long history of counter-insurgency operations that have been conducted in the world.  The second section discusses principles derived from more recent COIN experiences.

HISTORICAL PRINCIPLES FOR COUNTERINSURGENCY

The counterinsurgency manual describes historical principles for counterinsurgency that have been largely followed by U.S. forces in Operations Iraqi Freedom (though not necessarily initially) and Enduring Freedom, but only partially followed by the British during the American Revolutionary War. 

The COIN Field Manual says, “Legitimacy is the main objective.”[2]  Counterinsurgents achieve that objective via the balanced application of both military and non-military means.  “Legitimate” governments rule through the consent of the governed.  In Western societies, governments derive their legitimacy by looking out for the welfare of the people, and they exercise authority by regulating social relationships, extracting resources, and taking actions in the peoples name. 

In colonial America, the British had allowed a very high level of government autonomy at the municipal and colonial (state) level.  In many modern day revolutionary situations, an insurgency grows organically from the population, and matures to the point where it can challenge the government.  The situation in Colonial America was the opposite.  The British mistakenly thought that they had legitimacy.  Even General Gage, who used relatively soft language in describing how he would deal with the insurgency, promised to “ram the policy of the government down the American throats.”[3]

However, the colonies and municipalities had operated autonomously from the crown for so many years that they saw themselves as being the legitimate party.  In Afghanistan, the NATO challenge has been to set up new government institutions, and create legitimacy for those institutions by showing that they can deliver basic goods and services (e.g., electricity) to the people.  In contrast, British forces in America sought to wrench legitimacy away from the colonies.  For the most part, in the eyes of the colonists, the British failed the Counterinsurgency Field Manual’s six indicators of legitimacy: 

1.  The ability to provide security for the populace –Other than minor threats on the western frontiers, the colonies did not need protection by British forces from internal or external threats.  On the contrary, after the Boston Massacre on March 5, 1770, colonists in Massachusetts increasingly looked at the British forces as a threat to internal security. 

2.  Selection of leaders at a frequency and in a manner considered just and fair by a substantial majority of the populace – This was a major failure.  The colonists increasingly grew to feel that they were not justly represented in the British Parliament.

3.  A high level of popular participation in or support for political processes – As described above, colonists felt they were administered (and taxed) by Parliament without having any representation in Parliament.  At the same time, the high level of popular political participation that they did have was at the local level.  This reinforced the legitimacy of the local governments over the British government, which was thousands of miles away.

4.  A culturally acceptable level of corruption – The regulations and taxes imposed on the colonists via the Stamp Act, Navigation Acts and Townshend Acts likely caused a level of dissatisfaction amongst the populace similar to a corrupt government.

5.  An acceptable level and rate of political, economic, and social development – This indicator worked only partially in London’s favor.  According to John Shy, “Revolutionary America may have been a middle-class society, happier and more prosperous than any other in its time, but it contained a large and growing number of fairly poor people, and many of the them did much of the actual fighting and suffering between 1775 and 1783.”[4]   

6.  A high level of regime acceptance by major social institutions – This was the second positive indicator for the British.  Colonial governments, businesses, churches, and other institutions generally accepted the legitimacy of the crown.  The crown had established many of these institutions, and most had been allowed to flourish under the crown.[5]

The COIN Manual emphasizes that “unity of effort is essential”[6] at every echelon of a COIN operation. In today’s COIN environments, military leadership works in liaison with a wide variety of nonmilitary agencies, including members of the State Department to counter an insurgency.  Early in the conflict, British General Thomas Gage, the military governor of Massachusetts, did initially function as a unified commander, and he did exercise a DIME combination of diplomatic, informational (newsletters), military (Bunker Hills, Concord and Lexington, etc.) and economic (blockade) effects to counter the insurgency. The British government approached the conflict as a military policing operation vice a multi-agency perspective/effort, as we would today.  

Unity of effort was further degraded when British operations split into two separate efforts.  One British force remained in the north, where “as late as 1780, twice as many (British) troops remained in and around New York” under Sir Henry Clinton,” with the intention to bring Washington’s main army to a decisive battle in New Jersey or New York. [7]  Other British forces were sent to South Carolina with the very different mission of “encouraging, protecting, and organizing Loyalists, while not discouraging Americans who might be inclined to support royal authority.”[8] British forces in the South, beginning in Charleston, ultimately did behave in a way that discouraged Americans from supporting royal authority, and stirred up a bitter conflict between Loyalists and patriots.  In the words of John Shy, “These men were numerous and, having been driven from their homes, they had no intention of letting peace return to the province until the guilty had been punished.”[9]

After having fanned, rather than extinguished, the flames of insurgency in the South, British forces chased American forces northward, and ultimately found themselves cornered on the Yorktown peninsula.  If the British had maintained unity of command, forces in the north under Clinton could have marched to the south, or could have been transported southward by sea to open up a second front against Washington’s forces in Virginia.  Ultimately, Clinton focused on his own operations in the north, while Cornwallis fought an entirely disconnected war in the south. Cornwallis was left with no relief, and no alternative but surrender to Washington.

The COIN Manual emphasizes that “Counterinsurgents must understand the environment” and that “intelligence drives operations.”[10]  British forces demonstrated that they clearly did not understand their environment and did not recognize the principle of intelligence driven operations.  Britain’s strategy in the South was a good example.  Shy emphasizes the “belief, repeated frequently by those British officials and supporters with most direct knowledge of the South, that Georgia, the Carolinas, and even the Chesapeake were hotbeds of Loyalist, ready to support royal authority whenever it appeared in sufficient force.”[11]  The British also mistakenly counted on the loyalty of the Indian tribes located along the southern border and the “explosive potential of black slaves concentrated in the southern tidewater” area. [12]   In the final months of the war, “calls for Loyalist support, even for information, went unanswered.”[13]  As Cornwallis advanced northward, “supposedly pacified areas in his rear crumbled back into rebellion.”[14]

Finally, the Manual describes the principle that “Insurgents must be isolated from their cause and support.”[15]  Throughout the conflict, the British sought to separate the northern colonies from the southern colonies.  According to Shy, a key objective of the southern strategy was to cause the northern colonies to be “deprived of south resources.”  As a result, the insurgency “would become weak and demoralized in the middle provinces and eventually could be isolated and dealt with in New England, where it had begun.”[16]  

CONTEMPORARY IMPERATIVES OF COUNTERINSURGENCY 

As David Galula reminds us, there is an automatic asymmetry in “revolutionary warfare” due to the typical disparity in strength between insurgent and counterinsurgent, as well as fundamental differences in “assets and liabilities.”[17]  As with the historical principles, the contemporary imperatives seek to empower the counterinsurgent to leverage this asymmetry and succeed, with a bent toward current-day operations. 

The first imperative to manage information and expectations of the population, or Information Operations (IO) and subsets such as Psychological Operations and Civil-Military Operations, are key to success in this arena.  State of technology and infrastructure (basic services) in the Revolutionary War timeframe must be accounted for in the discussion. The colonists most likely had very low expectations regarding the provision of basic services (power, water, etc.) given the fact that these necessities were met in a different manner. 

Additionally, the delay in communications and the potential for misunderstanding in the era, created much difficulty for both sides.[18]  However, the British given their long Lines of Communication (LOC) with their political leadership, would be at a distinct disadvantage to the colonists.  Even if one assumed instantaneous communications, the British still failed to grasp the fundamental nature of what the Manual describes as “convincing the populace that their life will be better under the HN (British) government than under an insurgent regime.”[19] The British did publish articles in local colonial newspapers and subsequently generated pamphlets for distribution to colonists. However, these efforts were not nested under any over-arching IO approach and message tailored to each distinguishable audience across the colonies (regional, ethnicity, trade/profession).

The appropriate use of force is another key element to successful COIN operations, as evidenced by the maxim “sometimes, the more force is used, the less effective it is.” [20]   The British absolutely failed to recognize that more is not always better. Their brutal tactics in the Southern campaign actually served to endear many previous Loyalist or undecided colonists, to the insurgent cause. The most infamous example of British brutality can be seen in “Tarelton’s Quarters,” where LtCol Tarleton continued to engage and kill colonial militia after the white flag of surrender had been flown (including wounded).  This single event became a focal point in the insurgent colonial IO message to recruit previously uncommitted persons and convert Loyalists.[21]

Additionally, British actions in the Southern Campaign to mobilize the “Loyalist base” led to brutal reprisals and smaller civil wars between Loyalist and insurgent forces. British efforts to appease various ethnic groups (Germans, Scotch-Irish, Native American) led to increased violence between these groups and reprisals as British troops moved out of areas and insurgent forces re-took them.[22]  These policy actions, by default, imposed significant violence without restraint or proportionality on the populace, leading to increased alignment with the American cause.

The British, in some ways, could have been called a learning organization, but not as a whole.  The British did recognize the need to “pacify” the Southern region, however, this was only within the calculus of supporting conventional operations in the North.  The British pacification initiative was too little, too late, and failed to understand the strategic environment in the colonies, especially the South.  The British, at the time, were arguably the premier fighting force in the world, and were considerably arrogant about it.  The British officers quipped that the colonial army was “but a contemptible band of vagrants, deserters and thieves.”[23]  Given this opinion, it is plausible that the British thought much less of the guerilla forces in the Southern region. This would be the “speck in the eye” of the British, coloring all subsequent views on the conduct of the war in the colonies. This would also prevent the British from seeing the need to adapt or learn from previous experience.

Today’s military (U.S.) precept of centralized command and de-centralized execution is critical to deal with complex conflicts involving different variables, players, motives from block to block, much less state to state or region to region.  “Commander’s Intent” and the issuance of general guiding principles and endstates, with detail of execution left to the local commander (even a NCO), was a foreign concept to the British.  Numerous factors present in that time, to include social demographics, education and established Napoleonic tactics, precluded the British from adopting this advanced concept. However, if they had employed this concept, they would have been able to tailor operational approaches to different geographies and people-groups to reach a common endstate of pacification

CONCLUSION

            The British war effort in the colonies failed to properly assess the strategic environment, formulate appropriate strategic and operational approaches and implement those approaches. Had the British understood and employed, at the very least the historical imperatives of COIN, the outcome of the Revolutionary War could have been very different (possibly not even occurring).  At the core, if the British had foreseen the implications of years of colonial independent and austere living, they would have paid more attention to governance and influence in America in the period leading up to the Revolution.  At the very least, a proper assessment at the outset could have led the British to adjust political and economic policies to pacify the population and avoid conflict altogether.  Instead, Britain treated the colonies as an insignificant annoyance that could be snuffed out with superior military might in conventional warfare. Had the British focused on the population at the outset, then Washington’s army would have been rendered irrelevant and the colonies would have gone bankrupt trying to pay the standing army and lost popular support for the rebellion. If the British had possessed the COIN Field Manual, and had the humility to apply it’s precepts, then the result might have been very different indeed.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Galula, David. Counter-Insurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice.  New York: Frederick A. Praeger, 1964.

Middlekauf, Robert. The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution 1763-1789. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982.

Montanus, Paul. “A Failed Counterinsurgency Strategy: The British Southern Campaign – 1780-1781  Are There Lessons for Today?” USAWC Strategy Research Project, U.S. Army War College, 2005. 

Shy, John. A People Numerous and Armed: Reflections on the Military Struggle for American Independence.  Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1990.

U.S. Department of the Army. U.S. Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual,

U.S. Army Field Manual No. 3-24, Marine Corps Warfighting Publication No. 3-33.5. Washington, DC: Headquarters, U.S. Department of the Army, 2006. 

Wood, Gordon S. The American Revolution: A History. New York: Modern Library, 2003.

Copyright Gregory Wright and Daniel T. Murphy 2013.


[1] John Shy, A People Numerous and Armed: Reflections on the Military Struggle for American Independence, (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1990), 17.

[2] U.S. Department of the Army, U.S. Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, U.S. Army Field Manual No. 3-24, Marine Corps Warfighting Publication No. 3-33.5, (Washington, DC: Headquarters, U.S. Department of the Army, 2006), 1:21.  

[3] John Shy, A People Numerous and Armed: Reflections on the Military Struggle for American Independence, (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1990), 197.

[4] Ibid., 173. 

[5] U.S. Department of the Army, U.S. Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, U.S. Army Field Manual No. 3-24, Marine Corps Warfighting Publication No. 3-33.5, (Washington, DC: Headquarters, U.S. Department of the Army, 2006), 1:21. 

[6] Ibid., 1:22.

[7] John Shy, A People Numerous and Armed: Reflections on the Military Struggle for American Independence, (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1990), 197.

[8] Ibid., 206. 

[9] Ibid., 207. 

[10] U.S. Department of the Army, U.S. Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, U.S. Army Field Manual No. 3-24, Marine Corps Warfighting Publication No. 3-33.5, (Washington, DC: Headquarters, U.S. Department of the Army, 2006), 1:22-23. 

[11] John Shy, A People Numerous and Armed: Reflections on the Military Struggle for American Independence, (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1990), 199. 

[12] Ibid. 

[13] Ibid., 211.

[14] Ibid.

[15] U.S. Department of the Army, U.S. Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, U.S. Army Field Manual No. 3-24, Marine Corps Warfighting Publication No. 3-33.5, (Washington, DC: Headquarters, U.S. Department of the Army, 2006),1:23.

[16] John Shy, A People Numerous and Armed: Reflections on the Military Struggle for American Independence, (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1990), 199. 

[17]David Galula, Counter-Insurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice, (New York:Frederick A. Praeger, 1964), 5.

[18] Robert Middlekauf, The Glorious Cause: The American Revolution 1763-1789 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1982), 8.

[19] U.S. Department of the Army, U.S. Army and Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual, U.S. Army Field Manual No. 3-24, Marine Corps Warfighting Publication No. 3-33.5, (Washington, DC: Headquarters, U.S. Department of the Army, 2006),1:25.

[20]  Ibid., 1:27.

[21]Paul Montanus, “A Failed Counterinsurgency Strategy: The British Southern Campaign – 1780-1781  Are There Lessons for Today?” (USAWC Strategy Research Project, U.S. Army War College, 2005), 14.

[22] John Shy, A People Numerous and Armed: Reflections on the Military Struggle for American Independence, (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1990), 121.

[23]Gordon S. Wood, The American Revolution: A History, (New York: Modern Library, 2003), 77.

 

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