By Kevin Black
Best Defense future of war contest entry
What is the future of
war? My response: Who cares? I mean,
what good are the tools and methods of war when we don't understand its nature
in the first place?
Our country, with its
unmatched military might and sophistication, has the capabilities to destroy
any country, any coalition, and indeed, the world multiple times over. And at
the same time, everyone knows we will never unleash our full military potential.
When exactly was the
last time we decisively won a war? Too far to think back? Isn't our military,
the spiritual descendants of Chesty Puller and of Curtis LeMay, made up of the
best trained killers in the world? Well, the USMC recruiting commercial showing
the Marine working hard to pass out food packages like a Peace Corps worker
Our logic of warmaking
is breathtakingly backwards. Nukes, weapons which assure the complete
destruction of an enemy army or state in a moment, and which also make standing
armies unnecessary, are too politically taboo to discuss. Drones and special
operators, excellent accessories to conventional forces, are now our most
cherished combat assets. And arguably the greatest danger on the battlefield is
our rules of engagement. We actually imprison our soldiers for fulfilling their
roles as soldiers. This is not only insane, this is our nation's military
How did this sad state
of affairs come about? They are many explanations, all of which are probably
prefaced by "Well, it's complicated..." I'm convinced there is an answer and that
it is obvious. Our policymakers and military leadership do not understand the
nature of war with all its implications.
War begins with policy, first and foremost. Here at the most strategic
level of operations, the aims, the goals, and the tone of fighting is set. "War
is the continuation of politics," wrote Clausewitz, meaning that the state uses
war as a means to impose its will on another for political ends. Not all wars
are equal in ferocity; their scope and scale are determined by the political
goals that drive them.
What is war? In
Clausewitzian thought, it is an episode characterized by pure, adulterated
violence and hatred. Think of war as a Platonic Form. What
actualizes or dilutes its potential are the biases and values of the
politicians who set the political goals. According to Clausewitz, he who brings
war closest to its ideal has the best chance of success. Total war becomes the
obvious assurance of ultimate military success.
Victory must be
decisive and complete, your enemy must unconditionally submit to your will. The
utter destruction of the enemy army, or even their nation, which might include
every man, woman, and child, must be your exclusive aim. Then, and only then,
will your enemy understand your resolve and potentially yield. Failure to
implement war in these total terms, however, invites continued or future
resistance, resulting unnecessarily in costs in men and national treasure.
To recognize war's
nature, and then to act on it, requires enormous willpower of the people who
wage it. Most of all, it takes moral certitude: the absolute conviction of the
righteousness of one's cause. Only then will a people freely endure the social
deprivations that follow.
This "extreme" view
of war, i.e. its most consistent form, is the only prescription for political
success. History concurs. For example, the Civil War's outcome can be
rightfully ascribed to Grant and Sherman's unyielding determination to force
the South to submit. World War II was won in four years. In both cases, entire
strategic arsenals were utilized unapologetically. The results were that the
conflicts were resolved permanently and long-lasting peaces ensued.
response to this approach is abhorrence. Aren't we too civilized for something
so barbaric? If civilized means enduring more pain rather than inflicting it on
our enemies, then yes. "These principles seem
to me to have made men feeble," Machiavelli remarked in his Discorsi,
on the impact of Christian morals to warfare in contrast to Greek and Roman
predecessors, "...seeing that the great body of men, for the sake of gaining
Paradise, are more disposed to endure injuries than to avenge them."
So how did we get into
multiple wars without actually winning them? The root cause can be found in our
culture's "philosophy," or the way Americans interpret the world and our place
in it. Step into a college liberal arts classroom and chances are you'll see
we've abandoned our Enlightenment roots, mental and spiritual. Aristotelian
logic has been replaced with subjectivist language parsing. Critical thinking has
been subverted with the post-modern certitude that we can't be certain of
anything. The challenges of long-range thinking are disregarded for the instant
gratification of our emotional whims.
Military leadership is
of course affected. An overriding emphasis on analysis and tactics has
completely overshadowed its counterparts, synthesis and strategy. The
short-range fight, not the long-range struggle, has become our focus.
Maharbal's critique of Hannibal easily applies today to our national leadership,
"you know how to gain a victory; you do not know how to use it."
In terms of ethics,
we've forsaken the moral prerogative to defend ourselves with all means
available. Instead we've adopted the morally obscene "Just War" theory -- a
religious guide that ultimately protects our enemies from our full wrath. The
fact is we have become a people that "want to eat our cake and have it too." To
borrow Ayn Rand's quip about the modern mind, "blank out" has become our
intellectual modus operandi. We want
to kill our enemies at arm's length and imagine there are no long-term
consequences. We want to pretend that drones and special forces are too precise
to be significant, that a real state of war does not exist between us and the
rogue nations that sponsor the insurgents we fight.
"How's that working for
you?" to quote our most celebrated modern intellectual, Dr.
weaker United States is the result. Clausewitz's take on the relationship
between the offense and the defense is instructive here: The longer a war is
waged without decisive victory, the weaker the attacker becomes and the
stronger the defender. Since 9/11, our enemies have multiplied exponentially. The
astute Michael Scheuer recommends a simple test to measure our military
progress: Compare terrorist footprints using a pre-9/11 world map with one from
The ripple effect of
our indecisive wars undermines our domestic harmony. Think the TSA is going
away soon? Expect greater intrusions into your privacy the longer our enemies
are allowed to roam about. Will a rogue state be attacked if it shelters a
motley gang of Middle Eastern Pancho Villas? That justification was invalidated
with the Iraq War II debacle.
What about the increase
in big government in our daily lives? Madison's observation that standing armies are dangerous to the
liberties of a free country is becoming more prescient every day. Now, however,
standing armies have become militarized police forces in our local communities.
What can we do as
Americans? I see two alternatives.
The first is to
withdraw from the world stage. This will at least, and for the short-term, give
an illusion of safety. We can increasingly become a nation under siege. Incidentally,
our eroding position in the world today suggests we as a people have chosen
The more difficult
alternative, the one that could make this country powerful again, requires a
major cultural awakening. We must return to the American philosophy of life
that made this country great. What we need now is what Nietzsche called a
complete "transvaluation of
and indeed, of mindset.
Aristotle should again
become the dominant philosophy that guides our lives, replacing the megaphones
of irrationalism championed in academia, found in the likes of Chomsky and
Chopra. Our cultural ethics should seek happiness in this world and this life,
and reject the "noble" sacrifices of our military for some mystical
"higher" ideal. Our foreign policy should be U.S.-centric: We should act in our
best interests first and foremost, for the short- and long-run.
Our military and
political leaders need to understand the nature of war. Then they will treat
the military for what they are, professionals who specialize in killing and
destruction, not social workers with weapons. So the next time we go to war, we
will want to win unapologetically and decisively.
Kevin Black served in the Army as an
infantry captain in Iraq in 2003. Now an entrepreneur, he consults on business
strategy and leadership. He graduated from VMI and also holds two degrees from
Arizona State, a master's in interdisciplinary studies, and an MBA.