We’re fighting a what now? Hundreds of words to define ‘insurgency’

After some intensive research (read: googling for a few minutes) I learned that that Eskimos do not in fact have hundreds of words for ‘snow’. Nor, in case you were wondering (which you probably weren’t), do Arabs have dozens of words for ‘sand’.

This makes for an amusing contrast with the plethora of English words we have for conflicts that could be classed as ‘insurgencies’ (or conflicts very close to insurgencies). I’ve noticed the use of a range of words by different authors during my research, but never really stopped to think about quite how many we really had. Not until the other day when, to pass some spare time, I started to idly jot them all down in a notebook:

  • Irregular Warfare
  • Unconventional Warfare
  • Guerrilla War
  • Terrorism
  • Counter-Terrorism
  • Insurgency
  • Counterinsurgency
  • COIN
  • Partisan Warfare
  • People’s War
  • Revolutionary War
  • Limited Warfare
  • Low Intensity Conflict
  • Revolt
  • Uprising
  • Insurrection
  • Rebellion
  • Revolution
  • War of Independence
  • Small War
  • Non-traditional warfare
  • Resistance
  • Savage Wars
  • Wars Amongst the People
  • Fourth Generation Warfare
  • Maoist Warfare
  • Post Maoist Warfare
  • Focos
  • Coup
  • Putsch
  • Riot
  • Mutiny
  • Violent Protest
  • Assymetric Warfare
  • Retrograde Warfare
  • Hit and Run Attacks
  • Colonial Warfare
  • Anti-Colonial Warfare
  • Anti-Bandit Campaigns
  • Popular Warfare
  • Protracted War
  • Wars of Pacification
  • Freedom Fighting
  • Emergency
  • Resistance
  • Civil War
  • Civil Strife
  • Civil Disturbance
  • Violent dissent
  • Class Warfare
  • Hybrid Warfare
  • Compound Warfare
  • War of the Third Kind
  • Anti-Thesis to Industrial War

New additions:

  • Occupation (Jared)
  • Armed Rebellion (A.E. Stahl)
  • Troubles (Ed (The Real One))
  • Sedition (Me)
  • Dead Ending (Perry)
  • Military Aid to the Civil Power (Alex)
  • The Long War (Alex)
  • Tactical Use of Armed Struggle (Alex)
  • Three Block War (Jill Sargent Russell)
  • Surgency (The Faceless Bureaucrat)

(While many of these do not technically describe exactly the same thing, but instead reflect subtle differences, they are nonetheless often used to describe the same or similar events/conflicts)

With the recent withdrawl from Iraq and the winding down of operations in Afghanistan, I think we can rest proudly that – no matter what else we may or may not have achieved – we have come up with a heck of a lot of words to describe that kind of conflict. And people have pretty strong feelings about the use of some of these words too, as shown here, there, here, there, here and finally there.

As we enter a period of reflection about these recent conflicts, it seems to me like the very first step we need to take to adopt a simpler selection of words. Some diversity is useful, but if we keep using as many words as those listed above, we’re just going to become/remain confused. Some analysts  will talk about ‘insurgencies’, others will talk about ‘terrorism’, yet more will talk about ‘wars amonst the people’, and no one will really know exactly what anyone else is talking about.

I think we need a more straight forward way of talking about these conflicts. Eskimos don’t need hundreds of words for snow, and we don’t need hundreds of words for ‘insurgency’ either.


P.s. Did I miss any?


17 thoughts on “We’re fighting a what now? Hundreds of words to define ‘insurgency’

  1. Tom H says:

    I agree whole heartedly with the need to be simpler in our use of terms when analysing such conflicts. I also agree “insurgency” is a better term than most. But it’s worth thinking about the partial nature of the term “insurgency” and many of the others above, which means the snow analogy does not extend perfectly to this discussion. There’s a difference between the type of actor (or campaign) and the type of armed conflict. As a descriptor, “insurgency” labels only one side. So if we’re analysing non-state actors, great, let’s just call them insurgencies. But if we’re analysing conflicts, then describing them as “insurgencies” is highly state-centric and automatically suggests a political or analytical bias. In Afghanistan, “we”, the NATO countries, face an insurgency. But from a neutral perspective the conflict is a civil war involving insurgencies and counter-insurgencies. So we need to break this down a little bit more than you suggest to ensure we’re being clear in our terminology – as is the purpose of your post. There are wars, and within them there are campaigns waged by their protagonists. Insurgencies aren’t wars, they are campaigns. Just a thought in response to your interesting post.

  2. “Counterinsurgency” and “COIN” should be combined (“COIN” is simply an abbreviation for “counterinsurgency”). Even then, COIN doesn’t refer to the conflict (insurgency), but rather, the government response to it.

    Unless you’re in the US Army’s COIN center. They seem to think “counterinsurgency” and “insurgency” are synonymous.

  3. Perry says:

    I did not see the latest term introduced to describe insurrection – “dead-ending.’

    I assume that’s what the dead-enders were doing, right?

  4. Francis Grice says:

    Thanks for the comments, much appreciated!

    A.E. Stahl, ‘Armed rebellion’ is indeed probably an additional term that should be added. I think ‘rebellion’ without the prefix has to stay as well though, just because some conflicts have it as a suffix by itself (e.g. the Cornish Rebellion of 1497).

    Tom H, I agree. Many of the terms have subtle (or even not so subtle) differences which mean we need to keep them to some degree. A civil war, for example, can have radically different traits from an instance of partisan warfare. That said, the number of different terms used to describe the exact same conflict can sometimes be quite suprising: for example, the terms ‘insurgency’, ‘unconventional warfare’, ‘irregular warfare’ and ‘terrorism’ have all been used frequently to describe the same set of practices adopted by the various rebel groups in Iraq. We definitely need some diversity, but a bit of trimming and more precise defining of terms would be useful too.

    Starbuck, I thought a bit about whether to put ‘COIN’ in a separate category to ‘counterinsurgency’ – you may be right that as the former is an abbreviation of the latter that they should be one and the same, but equally I think the abbreviation is used so regularly now (and usually without reference to the longer word) that it has taken on something of a life of it own… the same is true for whether ‘counterinsurgency’ and ‘insurgency’ (and ‘terrorism’ and ‘counterterrosism’ for that matter) should be combined. While they do of course describe opposite sides of the same coin (forgive the unintended pun), again I think the ‘counter’ version of each has come into a life of their own through the frequency of use (and again, often without reference to the ‘insurgency’ or ‘terrorism’ they are a response to). Funnily enough, the opposite is true for ‘banditry’: you’ll occasionally read about incumbent forces conducting ‘anti-banditry campaigns’ (e.g. Chiang Kai-Shek during the late 1920s and 1930s), but never really hear about anti-incumbent forces waging ‘banitry campaigns’.

    JP Rooney, the present situation in Mexico raises up the dividing line between politics, criminality and warfare. Where exactly it fits depends on your perspectives of the political or criminal motives of the groups involved. There’s an interesting opinion piece on that at this link: http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2011/02/03/108056/is-mexico-at-war-conflict-prompts.html

    Perry, are you talking about this? http://www.harpers.org/archive/2007/02/0081384

    Thanks again for all of the very interesting comments and feedback!

  5. Perry says:

    No, mine was a tongue-in-cheek reply, probably better suited to be understood by us Yanks.

    I was referring to Secretary Rumsfeld’s continued references to those fighting against the U.S. in Afghanistan (http://www.defense.gov/transcripts/transcript.aspx?transcriptid=3071) and Iraq (http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/iraq/2003-06-18-rumsfeld_x.htm) as “dead-enders.”

    Rumsfeld refused to let those in the DoD, including those writing classified intelligence reports, refer to the insurgents as such, as that would imply that the wars weren’t over and we were fighting an insurgency (or any of the 99 other synonyms you listed here) rather than simply mopping up a few remnants of the old regimes. He knew that calling it an insurgency would make it obvious that things weren’t going as he claimed.

    It was his bright shining lie, or maybe closer to body counts.

  6. Okay, I added the two extra suggestions, as well as one from twitter and one more of my own. I really like ‘Troubles’, totally forgot that one. There is something curious/amusing/worrying about how us Brits have managed to invest so many ways of saying ‘rebellion’ that don’t come anywhere near the word ‘war’ or ‘uprising’.

    David French’s new book, the British Way in Counterinsurgency (reviews here and here )suggests that the term ‘Emergency’ was used in part because declaring an Emergency (based on a slightly obscure 1939 law) actually provided colonial governments with more legal powers than martial law.

    Thanks Perry, very interesting stuff – yes, I recall that administration refusing to dub the rebels as being involved with anything resembling an uprising or insurgency for ages. Remember ‘Enemies of the Legitimate Iraqi Government’ (ELIG)?

  7. Not just the administration. Rumsfeld refused to admit there were insurgents in Iraq, but I also remember some Iraq war dissidents who got angry about calling them insurgents, as they seemed to think it was a derogatory term like “bandits”. AFAIK “insurgency” was originally coined (or COINed) because there was a need for a term that wasn’t value-laden like “resistance”, “revolution”, “terrorism” or even “guerrillas”, that didn’t take a view on which side was in the right.

    (Similarly to “bandits”, you never hear of anyone talking about their own campaign of terrorism.)

    What about “Military Aid to the Civil Power”? And “the Long War”? “Tactical Use of Armed Struggle”?

  8. Jill Sargent Russell says:

    Another for you – Three Block War – although it’s a concept for how to deal with it, I think the “olde” Marine Corps idea frames some of the issues nicely.

  9. The Faceless Bureaucrat says:

    In an only tangentially related aside, what is the opposite of insurgency?

    The obvious answer seems to be counter-insurgency, but I think it should be ‘surgency’–the effective and legitimate exercise of political sovereignty (with all that that entails, including a monopoly on the use of force). In this way, counter-insurgency can never be more than a means to an end, or a contributing line of operation to achieve surgency. If the counter-insurgency is applied by a Third Party, it may never actually contribute to achieving surgency, though, because it may undercut the legitimacy aspect of the nominally sovereign government.

  10. Francis Grice says:

    Alex – absolutely. It’s fascinating to see how a term which was originally conceived of as being more neutral than both the negative extremes of ‘terrorists’ and ‘bandits’ and the positive extremes of ‘freedom fighters’ and ‘rebels’ ended up gaining its own set of positive and negative biases. It’s also really interesting to compare how the word ‘insurgent’ was used so regularly to describe the resistance in Iraq, but the term ‘rebel’ was used during the conflict in Libya. The additional terms you suggest are great – I’ll add them to the list.

    Jill: Awesome, this one was entirely new to me. It’s a good example of word shift – while ‘Three Block War’ doesn’t necessarily seem as close to the term ‘insurgency’ as some other phrases, it is very near to ‘compound warfare’ and ‘hybrid warfare’, both of which are similar to ‘insurgency’. I’ll add it to the list.

    FB: Excellent point. I think the the phrase ‘surgency’ has two additional advantages. First, it would help to make the conflict between insurgents and counterinsurgents seem less focused on the former (there are two sides in an insurgency, the fact that one is called ‘insurgents’ makes it seem like they are the dominant and more important side). Secondly, it would help to tackle the dangerous idea that defeating the insurgents is the way to win the insurgency (logically, it makes sense – you beat an insurgency by destroying the insurgents. However, we know that defeating the insurgents is only part of the solution needed to resolve the problems that exist in this kind of conflict. The term ‘surgency’ would fit with the idea that the incumbent force needs to do more than simply defeat the insurgents to resolve the conflict, including taking political and civil actions to restore order and rebuild vital civil institutions.)

  11. Buck Turgidson says:

    You forgot unrest and civilian unrest, military takeover, coup d’etat, internal divisions, ethnic strife or conflict, militant, criminal or forceful opposition, death squads, restoration/defense of democracy, military junta, war of liberation, banditism, overthrow of puppet government, counter-revolution, the rise of the oppressed, pacification

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  13. David Taylor says:

    What I love about Military Study is that there are so many words to describe one particular thing.

    The Study of military matters is best carried out with the attitudes of the soldiers themselves for example everything is Black and White.

    Also it does not matter what you call something, it is what it is. Words are merely useful for the sharing of ideas. Anyone with a half a brain sell can work out that the above words are virtually the same thing.

    One many partisan is an others terrorist… One mans A-Symmetric Warfare Is anothers Counter insurgency. I wander if the Taliban referring to their operations in 2001 described the American Forces as ‘Insurgents’…

    Many of the above words are actually propaganda ploys for example NATO forces in Afghanistan Presume they have won & start to call the Taliban ‘Insurgents’ but surely insurgent implies you are coming from the outside in?

    Also for example insurgency / insurrection etc these terms are all applied carefully to create an image.

    If I were to invade Germany Tomorrow I would be an intruder… if I wanted to win the hearts of the people would I call the German Forces the ‘freedom fighters’ or the ‘terrorists’?

    Many Thanks,

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