Great Powers, Small Wars: Asymmetric Conflict since 1945

  • Published

Great Powers, Small Wars: Asymmetric Conflict since 1945 by Larisa Deriglazova. Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2014, 384 pp.

Great Powers, Small Wars is a monograph detailing the asymmetric conflict theory. Larisa Deriglazova is a scholar and associate professor of history at Tomsk State University with the distinction of having been a Kennan-Fulbright Scholar. She used a highly analytical approach to discuss how major powers lose conflicts to significantly weaker opponents. This adds a more “metric-driven” approach to the field of irregular war studies, which tends to lean more heavily on theory and case studies.

The author argues that asymmetric conflict theory explains how weak powers beat stronger ones through “the dilution of (the great power’s) political will to continue war as a result of domestic economic, political, and social processes. International factors may also place pressure on the behavior of the belligerent parties, thereby limiting the aims and methods used to achieve objectives and influencing in particular the political elite, as well as the populace as a whole (48).” The thesis is a simple one and not exactly new, and she spends several pages discussing the numerous scholars who support it.

To support the theory, Deriglazova uses a two-pronged approach. First, she relies on a pair of international conflict databases that compared a multitude of quantifiable factors to determine who lost various conflicts and why. The methodology for this task makes for a tedious read, but the author includes an appendix detailing all of the conflicts used for the study. The benefit of this approach is that it provides a numbers-based analysis for conflicts, thus adding substance to the theories studied by so many other scholars. The metrics support the overall theory, and act as a superb bridge into the second prong of the book’s analysis: the case studies.

The first case study is a broad analysis of the British Empire’s numerous small wars throughout its colonies that pursued independence after 1945. The second study looks at the US war in Iraq from 2003 to 2012. Here the book suffers from the comparison of two, arguably dissimilar historical events. Where the British Empire was waning at the time of its multiple conflicts, American military, economic, and political powers were at a height at the beginning of the Iraq War. Additionally, Deriglazova applies the asymmetric conflict theory to multiple wars in the British portion of her analogy, yet the Iraq War is a single event. While the underlying factors of the theory undeniably apply to both situations, the use of these two case studies is analogous to a scientist conducting an experiment without proper controls. This work compares apples to oranges and, thus, weakens the overall argument. The case studies do support the book’s underlying thesis; unfortunately, the reader may confuse or miss that conclusion based on the lack of surface similarity between the British Empire’s small wars and the Iraq War.

In the end, Deriglazova does not add much that is new to the discussion of asymmetric or irregular warfare. The book would appear ponderous for anyone new to the field, theoretically mixing its case studies too much to seriously add to the discussion. However, the book does succeed in presenting its metrics and database- driven methodology. The academic fields of history, strategy, and doctrine often suffer from a lack of data, or the indisputable facts needed to identify and prove trends and theories. This work suggests a framework of how to objectively analyze small wars and asymmetric conflict. Furthermore, the databases used and the references provided may act as a stepping off point for others’ studies. The work can also help readers who are more comfortable with abstract theories to approach this concept from a new point of view.

Ultimately, I would not recommend this work to the casual reader. It may act as a superb reference work for some, if the case studies were avoided. They are unimaginative at best and inconclusive at worst. The work may be a comfortable introduction to asymmetric conflict for mathematically driven military members. Let the service libraries hold a copy and reference it as needed. Respect it for the analysis it can provide, but any reader who picks this up should not expect to be enlightened or entertained.

Maj Ian Bertram, USAF

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."