The smallest of wars

Recent issue of the journal Small Wars & Insurgencies includes two articles on early modern partisan sniping, as well as several more on the Revolutionary and Napoleonic period.

To wit:

Deruelle, Benjamin. “The Sixteenth-Century Antecedents of Special Operations ‘small War.’” Small Wars & Insurgencies 25, no. 4 (July 4, 2014): 754–66.
Abstract: The first conceptual, theoretical treatises about small war (la petite guerre) as special operations appeared only from the middle of the seventeenth century. The term is not used in the eighteenth-century sense of ‘special operations’ in older sources. The supposed absence of any treatment of the subject is surprising considering the obsession with the ‘art of war’ in the Renaissance, but other authors attribute it to a supposed antinomy between chivalric ideals and irregular warfare. But the absence of explicit manuals on the subject is not evidence of absence of advanced reflection on this kind of operations in the Middle Ages and in Early Modern times. We should thus look elsewhere, in other genres, for writings that contain and pass on military knowledge. Epics, romances, educational and military treatises, and memoirs in fact contain elements of a theory of special operations, even though these genres differ from our conception of rationality inherited from the Enlightenment.
Fonck, Bertrand, and George Satterfield. “The Essence of War: French Armies and Small War in the Low Countries (1672–1697).” Small Wars & Insurgencies 25, no. 4 (July 4, 2014): 767–83.
Abstract: In the late seventeenth century during the Dutch War (1672–1678) and the Nine Years War (1688–1697), French armies relied on small war for the accomplishment of essential tasks and as part of an overall strategy of exhausting their opponents in the Low Countries. The purposes of small war included the imposition of contributions on enemy populations, the destruction of the enemy base of operations, blockades of fortresses, and the general support of campaign armies. The expression ‘small war’ in the French language appeared with growing frequency in the 1690s. Small war can be viewed as both a cause and consequence of the characteristics of these wars. The limited policy goals of Louis XIV the king of France required a strategy that minimised risk and accomplished the goal of reducing if not eliminating the Spanish presence in the Low Countries that bordered the north of France. As French armies increased in size during this period, the demand for specialists at small increased in order to provide security and ensure supply. Small war in the late seventeenth century was thus not ideologically motivated insurgency, but in the minds of French commanders an essential component of strategy and the nature of war.
Personally, I’m waiting for someone to find a way to connect la petite guerre to la petite mort in a title. My feeble attempt:
“Does la petite guerre always result in la petite mort? Casualties in early modern skirmishes”
Feel free to leave a better title in the Comments.


3 responses to “The smallest of wars”

  1. Pradana Pandu Mahardhika says :

    Well, as I understand it, the category of “small wars” didn’t exist in warfare before the mid-17th century or so because its opposite (the grand war? Major war? Formal war?) hadn’t become as rigidly defined as it would become in the 18th and 19th centuries. Things that we see today as “guerrilla” or “special operations” activities were part and parcel of normal, overt warfare. For instance, raids, infiltrations, and camisades were all over the place in medieval military accounts (it’s impossible to read more than a few pages of Froissart without running across one or two) and Renaissance memoirs (Montluc has them by the spades) but the writers saw no need to distinguish such actions from larger-scale and more open military manoeuvres, battles, or sieges.

    • jostwald says :

      My apologies for not thanking you for the comment earlier (Thanksgiving got in the way). I hope to post a bit on small war in the near future, but the point you raise about whether giving something a name changes things is worth pondering.

  2. Jegrenier says :

    Please, can we stop calling lpg special operations? It is so ahistorical and anachronist that it makes my eyes bleed each time I read it. Nor was petite guerre “unconvential warfare.” NB: today’s US military can’t even define this stuff. There’s a world of difference between SF (Special Forces) (aka Green Berets who specialize in training indig. Troops as proxies, or UW [unconventional warfare] and are part of the various SFG, or Special Forces Groups) and SOF (Special Operations Forces) like, wait for it, USN small boat riverine teams and USAF tactical air control parties (TACPs). Oh yeah, throw in some SEALs, but the 160 SOAR (special operations aviation regiment … Watch Blackhawk Down) are not (if I remember my wiring diagram correctly) SF but SOF. Point is, very little petite guerre going on there. From ipad. Pardon typos svp.

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