Crandall Examines “America’s Dirty Wars,” from Revolution to War on Terror

Although America's "War on Terror" began after Sept. 11, 2001, Davidson College political science professor Russell Crandall points out that terrorism has played a significant role in American warfare since the country's founding. Crandall examines the United States' repeated involvement in conflicts marked by terrorism in his latest book America's Dirty Wars: Irregular Warfare from 1776 to the War on Terror.

Crandall explained that the inescapable reality of irregular warfare poses challenges to the U.S. military and society due to its inherently ruthless – or "dirty" – nature. "We like our wars clean, but history has taught us that we can't always pick our wars – and sometimes we even choose the wrong ones," he said. "All war is dirty, but irregular warfare's intentional misuse of the regular norms of combat make them almost inherently so."

So what exactly is irregular warfare? "Everything that regular warfare is not," Crandall explained. For example, soldiers might not wear uniforms, or there may be no declaration of war. Crandall contends that the phenomenon of guerrilla warfare – e.g. the small insurgent against the strong counterinsurgent-is simply one element of the broader category of irregular warfare.

He added, "Once you begin to peel the onion, you see that most war is in fact irregular – and wars waged by the United States are no exception."

Changing Definitions

While the United States is often viewed as an opponent of irregular warfare, it's not always the case. Crandall noted that even the country's origins challenge that image. "During the American Revolution, we were the insurgents and we played dirty," he said.

Crandall pointed out that during the 1780 Battle of King's Mountain in South Carolina, American Loyalists defeated British-led forces by employing tactics that today we would label terrorism or war crimes. He explained, "What was especially salient about these sorts of episodes is that, more than kicking imperial British butts, the fighting was really American on American, brother on brother, more like we tend to see in the Civil War."

In other words, he added, these Americans fought a dirty war among themselves. "Americans tend to view our national military heritage as noble and romantic, but this 200-year-old story entails its fair share of dirtiness."

Since the Revolution, America's role in irregular wars has been almost entirely counterinsurgent. Furthermore, painful failures in irregular wars such as Vietnam are more common than successes, which remain abstract and amorphous. "The public tends to remember the struggles with the Taliban, Al Qaeda, and Viet Cong, while successful U.S. involvements in the early 2000s largely go unnoticed," said Crandall. "When we win we often quickly forget that we were even there."

An Expert Opinion

Crandall brings a plethora of personal experience and expertise to this broad and controversial topic. In 2004, he took a one-year leave of absence funded by a Council on Foreign Relations fellowship to serve as a special assistant on counterterrorism for the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff before moving to the National Security Council at the White House.

A few years later, Crandall and now-retired Vail Professor of History Ralph Levering co-led an educational trip for Davidson alumni that focused on the history of irregular warfare. That trip inspired him to begin writing America's Dirty Wars. Crandall put down the book for two years when he served in the Obama administration from 2009-2011. "Picking it back up again might have been the toughest thing I've ever done as an author," he said.

The comprehensive scope of America's Dirty Wars makes the book's implications equally far-reaching and influential. "One of the takeaways of America's Dirty Wars is that we have to know our history," Crandall explained. "U.S. involvement in irregular warfare is an inescapable part of our history. And it's probable that we will continue to be involved in irregular warfare whether we like it or not. The question is how we do it as cleanly as possible."

Crandall clarified that, though we must learn from our history, we mustn't forget the complex aspects of each time period. "Each era has its own zeitgeist," Crandall explained. "The 9/11 era's is the War on Terror. Earlier, the zeitgeist of the Cold War era was fighting communism. And even before that, in the 19th century, it was Indian removal and Manifest Destiny."

Crandall added, "Only by understanding these eras within themselves can we understand the decisions to either get involved or not get involved. Dirty wars have lots of similarities but none are identical. The key, I believe, is to understand the era."

As the war in Afghanistan winds down and drones become the weapon of choice, the United States may be entering a new era of dirty wars. Crandall said, "In the past, sending in special operations teams, or more maximalist options like an invasion, was almost the military's only option for tackling small-scale international conflicts. Nowadays, we still put ‘boots on the ground,' but we have other ‘post modern' options like drones."

He continued, "Joint Special Operations Command wields incredible budgets, training and readiness intensity that allow them to target a single person like Osama Bin Laden in a short amount of time," Crandall said. "It's amazing to imagine that we can conduct a small dirty war via a computer screen and joystick from a trailer on an Arizona Air Force base."

Student Collaboration

Crandall is most proud of the sustained student collaboration that helped convert his ideas into a full-length book. Six of Crandall's former students either wrote or co-wrote chapters in the book, and another two dozen read parts of the manuscript. Crandall said, "There's nothing better than having a former student who's active in the intelligence community or Foreign Service provide comments on what I'm writing from the Ivory Tower here in leafy Davidson."

America's Dirty Wars will be published by Cambridge University Press on June 13, 2014. Crandall's previous books include The United States and Latin America after the Cold War (2008); Gunboat Democracy: U.S. Interventions in the Dominican Republic, Grenada, and Panama (2006); and Driven by Drugs: U.S. Policy Toward Colombia (2008).


  • May 22, 2014