Small Wars, Big Data Cover

Small Wars, Big Data

The Information Revolution in Modern Conflict

Eli Berman, Joseph H. Felter, and Jacob N. Shapiro

Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 2018, 408 pages

Book Review published on: December 7, 2018

Numerous professions are currently grappling with how to integrate fast-developing trends in the information revolution to their existing practices, and military thinkers are no exception. In Small Wars, Big Data: The Information Revolution in Modern Conflict, authors Eli Berman, Joseph H. Felter, and Jacob N. Shapiro share their experiences in harnessing the power of modern big data analysis to support and improve counterinsurgency campaigns. The authors show us how to leverage information analytics to better understand asymmetric conflict, and in so doing, illustrate the value of applying methodologically rigorous empirical approaches to the study of modern conflict.

The book is organized into ten chapters that together make up a coherent argument supporting the central lesson that “information flowing from noncombatants is the key resource in asymmetric conflicts.”1 Early in the book, the authors explain their work with the Empirical Studies of Conflict project, describe the rich sources of combat and civil information data they incorporate into their studies, and even attempt to identify their own biases as social scientists. Their section titled “Our Story” in chapter 2 effectively establishes their credibility and the applicability of their work for practitioners. Subsequent chapters further explore the respective roles of security forces and of development assistance in facilitating counterinsurgency campaign objectives. Chapter 9 does an admirable job highlighting practical lessons for leveraging information analytics by explaining how small policy changes can lead to big payoffs in asymmetric conflicts.

One of the strengths of the book is the authors’ use of scenarios and stories to illustrate their data-based approach. The vignettes used as examples throughout the book drive home the utility of social science and big data techniques to draw connections that may not have been apparent or were even counterintuitive. For example, three key propositions include “innovations that facilitate anonymous tips by civilians to government should reduce rebel violence.”2 Also, “service provision by government will reduce rebel violence, as it reduces the level of violence that will trigger civilian tips to government, which in turn increases the risk of failure of rebels should they attack.”3 Finally, “security by the government and service provision are complementary activities, that is, providing more of one increases the effectiveness of the other.”4 Using stories to illustrate and clarify these ideas help make the analysis more relatable and probably save the book from becoming what otherwise could have been a rather dry probability and statistics-heavy textbook.

Of interest to intelligence officers will be the authors’ examination of possible alternative explanations for increases in actionable information in the scenarios they examine. For example, rather than tips from civilians, the book analyzes whether it is the improved information and communications technology (ICT) coverage that leads to better intelligence and reduced violence. In other words, the additional tips to government security forces were actually from signal intelligence rather than human intelligence. If the alternative explanation is true, then the implications are that efforts should be focused on improving ICT because the increased information flow stems from being able to intercept more communications and combatants can put less effort into providing services and security that incentivizes civilians to voluntarily provide information. The authors use empirical evidence derived from declassified material (such as from the UK Ministry of Defence) to assess the relative importance of signal intelligence or human intelligence in reducing violence.5 The authors conclude that expanding cellular coverage was indicative of a safer environment for civilians that owed much to development assistance projects and security force operations, and facilitated actionable tips to government forces.

If Small Wars, Big Data has any weakness, it is its deliberately narrow focus on counterinsurgency. Although the methodologies described do point toward an applicability beyond the scope of this specific study, there is still much room for thinking on how we can apply these lessons to large-scale combat operations. The book leaves to others the challenge of applying these methodologies to a conflict with a peer competitor.

Small Wars, Big Data is nevertheless a thought-provoking work that helps us better understand what effects the information revolution is having on modern conflict. While others have analyzed the challenges posed to society by digital advances, Small Wars, Big Data looks at it from a military perspective. For example, Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson have written about how big data analytics have transformed human decision-making. They explain in Machine, Platform, Crowd: Harnessing Our Digital Future that society must rethink the balance between minds and machines if we are to master emerging trends of the digital revolution.6 Small Wars, Big Data gives us a glimpse at what some of the implications of transformed decision-making might look like for military commanders and their staffs.


  1. Eli Berman, Joseph H. Felter, and Jacob N. Shapiro, Small Wars, Big Data: The Information Revolution in Modern Conflict (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018), 18.
  2. Ibid., 77.
  3. Ibid.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid., 94.
  6. Andrew McAfee and Erik Brynjolfsson, Machine, Platform, Crowd: Harnessing Our Digital Future (New York: W. W. Norton, 2017).


Book Review written by: Kevin Rousseau, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas