For Dave Dilegge, the days usually started at 3 a.m. as he began to scour the internet for the latest military and national security news he’d compile for Small Wars Journal.
The website was a must-read for anyone interested in urban warfare, counterinsurgency, foreign internal defense, support and stability operations, peacemaking, peacekeeping, and “many flavors of intervention.”
Over the years, Dilegge and publisher Bill Nagle, “put in thousands of dollars and thousands of hours” to the journal,” he told me back in 2012 when I wrote a story about him for the late, great Tampa Tribune. He told me they rarely make much — if any — money.
“It is a labor of love,” he said at the time.
Dilegge may not have struck it rich, but Small Wars Journal helped change the way future military leaders are taught.
“The Small Wars Journal has been an invaluable resource as the U.S. military struggled to understand and prevail in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan,” John Nagl, a retired Army lieutenant colonel and an expert on counterinsurgency who helped write the U.S. Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual used in Iraq and Afghanistan, said in an interview at the time.
Sadly, Dilegge’s long days are now are over.
On Saturday, Dilegge, 63, died at his home in Largo, Florida. The cause is yet undetermined, said his family, but coronavirus is not suspected.
“His loss is already being felt by many but his legacy will live on and will surely inspire so many to think critically, write, and share their ideas and experiences, which I think is all Dave would ever ask for,” said Dave Maxwell, a retired Special Forces colonel, senior fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and Small Wars Journal board member.
“He was certainly a thought leader,” retired Marine Gen. James Mattis, the former defense secretary, said in an email Wednesday morning.
Meanwhile, efforts are underway to keep Small Wars Journal alive.
Dilegge grew up in Ellicott City, Maryland, where he spent his childhood well-loved by his parents David and Edith and sister Michele, according to his obituary.
“Mentored by his father, Dave became an accomplished athlete in his adolescence and developed a lifelong passion for basketball and baseball,” the obit reads. “During his youth, Dave established an incredible work ethic and grew into a gregarious man who used his sharp wit and captivating storytelling to entertain and bring laughter to everyone around him.” From 1974 to 1978, Dave attended Frostburg State University, “where he was known for his fun-loving nature, humor and magnetic personality.”
Shortly after graduating Frostburg with a Bachelor of Science in Sociology, Dilegge joined the United States Marine Corps “marking the start of a prominent career that brought him much recognition, fulfillment and pride.”
During his time with the Marines, Dilegge served with the 1st Marine Division during Operation Desert Storm and earned the Combat Action Ribbon during an Iraqi counterattack in the Burgan Oil Field. He was a retired USMCR Intelligence and Counterintelligence / HUMINT officer, as well as a Marine civilian intelligence analyst who worked several years in the private sector.
He retired from the Marine Reserve as a major in 1998 and in 1999 he was the recipient of the National Military Intelligence Association’s Colonel Donald G. Cook Award for his work in supporting the Marine Corps and the Defense Department’s urban operations analysis, wargaming and experimentation.
In the mid-'90s, as the Marine Corps began looking at the way war was fought in urban environments, Dilegge volunteered to help lead its efforts on the intelligence side. There was so much interest in what he was finding out that Dilegge created a homepage for something called Military Operations on Urbanized Terrain.
That led him to create the Urban Operations Journal, which morphed in 2005 into the Small Wars Journal, a nod to the Marine Corps’ Small Wars Manual for fighting local insurgencies.
SWJ quickly gained traction as a must-read source for daily news and commentary and Dilegge gained wide recognition as not only a font of knowledge, but someone who cultivated and nurtured some of the best minds in the business.
Military leaders and experts who have written for Small Wars Journal included former Marine Corps Commandant Gen. Robert Neller, retired Army Lt. Gen. H.R. McMaster, then-Brig. Gen. Donald Bolduc, former commander of U.S. Special Operations Command Africa, retired Marine Lt. Col. Kate Germano and Special Operations expert Linda Robinson.
“Dave’s contribution to critical thinking on national security issues is really unmeasurable but it will be lasting for years to come,” David Maxwell said. “He provided a platform for military and civilian practitioners, scholars, students, current and former officials to publish articles with their thoughts and experiences in order to improve the ability of the U.S. and like-minded friends, partners, and allies to conduct irregular, unconventional, counterinsurgency operations, in short small wars.”
Small Wars Journal served as an “’after action report’ mechanism where practitioners could describe successes and failures,” said Maxwell. "It was built with intent of the famous adage: 'Intelligent men learn from their mistakes and wise men learn from the mistakes of others.’”
Dillege “was an early pioneer in crowd-sourcing strategic and tactical thinking and operational art with the sole goal of improving U.S. military and national security operations. Dave was supremely selfless. He was a one-man band, single-handedly editing, writing, and publishing everything that came his way, giving the opportunity for so many young authors to publish for the first time and gain the confidence and their voice to speak truth to power in writing and in public,” Maxwell said.
Phillip Carter, an Iraq War veteran, former combat adviser, former Defense Department official and researcher, agreed that Dilegge was hugely influential.
“Dave’s SWJ site filled a vacuum left by military schoolhouses that were mostly still focused on big wars while our military was immersed in bloody post-9/11 small wars,” Carter said. “He created a platform where new voices were welcomed — especially soldier-scholars who fused their combat experiences with study of military theory and history. And Dave helped exhume decades of lost knowledge from the small wars of the 20th Century, which provided a library of lessons for soldiers like me learning to fight the small wars of the 21st Century.”
John Spencer, Chair of Urban Warfare Studies with the Modern War Institute at West Point, said Dilegge helped him gain confidence as a writer.
“I write something about every month,” Spencer said. “The very first piece I did was through David. I was real apprehensive about putting my name out there and publishing as a young major, but he made the entire process easy.”
Spencer said that Dilegge compiled “the single best collection of research on urban warfare. He was the grandfather of urban warfare studies.”
Steve Leonard, a former senior military strategist and the creative force behind Doctrine Man, told me his “fondest memory” of Dilegge “will be that he gave voices to a lot of new writers who might not otherwise have had an opportunity to share their stories.”
“That’s a legacy few can hope to achieve,” said Leonard. “He never asked anything of anyone, he just gave. That makes him a giant among us. He was great.”
David Kilcullen, author and professor of practice in the School of Politics and Global Studies at Arizona State University, told me he was “a fan of Dave’s in late ’90s, back when he was running the Urban Operations Journal, that transited into Small Wars Journal a couple of years later.”
“At the time, it was the online home of the counter guerrilla underground,” said Kilcullen. “We were not allowed to use the word ‘insurgency.' Institutions did not want us to think about it. But Dave and Bill Nagle created a home that became Small Wars Journal.”
Kilcullen author of the recently released book The Dragons and the Snakes: How the Rest Learned to Fight the West, said Dilegge made contact with him when Kilcullen was working for the State Department.
“I was one of their first bloggers, from Baghdad,” Kilcullen said. “From nothing, with just basic talent and dedication and some carefully acquired funding, he was able to create this amazing hub of knowledge, and continued to grow, update and keep pace with changing environment. A lot of that was Dave’s energy and legacy. It is really a sad blow to all of us to lose Dave. I only hope that his legacy continues to be reflected in the Small Wars Foundation he started and the journal.”
Nadia Schadlow, a former senior program officer at the Smith Richardson Foundation, which funded the Small Wars Journal for over a decade, said the organization backed Dilegge "because we believed it was critically important that voices of practitioners in the field be heard and by doing so lessons could be learned more quickly and disseminated across the defense community."
“It was history and practice from the ground up in a way,” she said. “Dave recognized the importance of that from the start.”
Many others weighed in via Twitter.
Dilegge also co-edited Small Wars Journal anthology books including: Blood and Concrete: 21st Century Conflict in Urban Centers and Megacities, Global Radical Islamist Insurgency: Al Qaeda and Islamic State Networks Focus, Hammer of the Caliphate: The Territorial Demise of the Islamic State, Jihadi Terrorism, Insurgency, and the Islamic State, Islamist Insurgents on the Defensive: Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State in 2016, and Global Radical Islamist Insurgency: Al Qaeda Network Focus Vol. I: 2007-2011.
He was the primary author of two U.S. Marine Corps books: The Urban Generic Information Requirements Handbook and the North Korea Handbook. He was also the author of the intelligence chapter of Center for Army Lessons Learned (CALL) Newsletter 99-16: Urban Combat Operations.
But beyond small wars, Dilegge had other passions.
He loved the Baltimore Orioles.
And Baltimore food.
There was probably only one food truck in the world where the owner took breaks from slicing Baltimore pit beef to edit and post articles on irregular warfare for a website featuring contributions by the likes of the commandant of the Marine Corps.
The food truck was called the Old City Grill. It’s was a 32.5-foot-long custom-built rig complete with a refrigerator and freezer, deep fryer, steam table and oven, four large grills, griddle, and a high-end slicer to get the meat just so.
Dilegge gave me a tour when I first me him back in 2012.
The idea for the food truck came about as his contracting work for the Joint Forces Command dried up when the Virginia-based command was eliminated in budget cuts.
He almost bought a restaurant in Northern Virginia but decided to live a more mobile and debt-free life.
So he sold his big house and paid cash for his mobile home in Largo and about $60,000 for the food truck, made from scratch by a Miami firm.
The food truck, with its Baltimore favorites like pit beef and crab cakes, proved challenging.
“We were doing food truck rallies, markets and other special events,” Dilegge said. “We’ve done that and late night in front of bars.”
Dilegge told me that, even with the end of the war in Iraq and the looming end of the war in Afghanistan, there will always be a place for Small Wars Journal.
“I have been hearing there will be no more Vietnams, no more Somalias, no more Iraqs and I sure hear there will be no more Afghanistans,” Dilegge said in an interview. “But sure enough, we seem to find ourselves in these messy situations. These small wars. We will stick around as long as there is a military.”
Maxwell said he and others are trying to find a way to keep SWJ going.
“We are trying to figure that out,” he said. “We have some work to do to find it a good home but we do not know the way forward yet.”
According to his obituary, Dilegge is survived by his parents David and Edith Dilegge, sister Michele Dilegge, wife Marion Dilegge and children Elizabeth Bertholdt, Cristina Dilegge and David Dilegge, and grandchildren Katelyn, Bertholdt, Gavin Bertholdt and Ty Beau Dilegge.
Howard Altman is an award-winning editor and reporter who was previously the military reporter for the Tampa Bay Times and before that the Tampa Tribune, where he covered USCENTCOM, USSOCOM and SOF writ large among many other topics.