The Best Defense

The future of war (no. 26): Where are the professional military voices in New America's project on the future of war?

By Maj. Matt Cavanaugh, U.S. Army
Best Defense Future of War essay contest entry

Though New America is doing great service by leading some much-needed public discussion, its "Future of War" project is seriously flawed. It's not who New America selected for the team. The named panel includes two superstars from the world of academia, law, and policy, plus an innovative technology thinker, and two journalists who likely have spent more time in interesting combat zones than the vast majority of military officers currently in uniform.

The issue is the demographic not represented. The sin is one of omission. Specifically, the team New America assembled is missing a professional military voice (even if that profession might be in a state of decay). As usual, the shortcoming is human. That's not to say the team isn't incredibly impressive. Any reasonably well-informed reader would agree these are serious people, well equipped to address most of these issues. Moreover, war is certainly about more than warfare. Civilians have an important place on the panel. Unfortunately, as it stands, civilians have the only voice in the project.

This comes at the exclusion of any professional military perspective. It's almost as if New America deliberately avoided the military view, as the panel includes notable figures from law, academia, journalism, and diplomacy. Was the medical profession not available? (Should someone page Dr. Sanjay Gupta?) The oversight reminds one of the famous image of the all-male group of politicians standing around President George W. Bush as he signed a piece of abortion legislation into law. Like the women missing from that event, the military profession has an important role in this discussion and at least merits some direct involvement. In short, the military has "skin in the game" and that matters greatly. Most helpfully, this inclusion would also make the resulting product better. As Richard Betts wrote, "if strategy is to integrate policy and operations, it must be devised not just by politically sensitive soldiers but by military sensitive civilians."

Having read "Future of War" panelist Rosa Brooks's rebuttal to the feedback the group's early product release generated, this civil-military gap appears to be a critical vulnerability. Ms. Brooks was apparently surprised to find that the military profession has preferred "terms of art." Imagine a legal conference on the future of tort law without any lawyers present or, crucially, participants with any understanding or background in established common law definitions like "assault" or "battery." Exorcising this narrow negligence requires both an old priest (retired military panelist) and a young priest (active military panelist).

Provided that New America can assemble the proper panel, there are just two guidelines they ought to follow. One, a strong sense of humility, as the battlefield punishes intellectual vanity. Two, the group should agree on a basic set of assumptions to avoid the "wicked problem" black hole. Colin Gray's advice is valuable in both these respects. In 2005, he counseled readers on four "caveats" that "should be affixed to strategic predictions,"

  • "War should not be approached in ways that would divorce it from its political, social, and cultural contexts."
  • "Defense establishments are apt to develop impressive military solutions to problems that they prefer to solve, rather than those that a cunning or lucky foe might pose."
  • "Trend-spotting and analysis is not a very helpful guide to the future."
  • "Surprises happen.... Because war is a duel, there are intelligent adversaries out there who will strive to deny us a mode of warfare that privileges the undoubted strengths of our transforming military power."

As far as who represents the active military profession with New America -- Tom: try to avoid calling between 6 and 8 p.m.; that's family dinner and bedtime for our daughter. Anytime other than that is great.

Major Matt Cavanaugh is a FA59 (Army Strategist), currently assigned to teach military strategy in the Defense & Strategic Studies Program at West Point; he blogs regularly at This essay is an unofficial expression of opinion; the views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of the U.S. Military Academy, Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or any agency of the U.S. government.

Tom note: This marks the end of the Future of War essay contest. The next step will be a post from me about determining the winners. My thanks to all who participated -- not just those who had essays published, but also people who tried. I learned from all of you, and I appreciate it.

Also, the answer to Major Cavanaugh's question is that we are assembling some advisory boards -- one will likely have several military professionals, and another some academic experts on strategy and history. And yes, he is invited to be on one.


The Best Defense

Gen. Sherman (IX): His wartime communications with the enemy

More from good old General Sherman to continue our celebration of Confederate Defeat Month:

In Afghanistan some American soldiers were shocked that members of government forces sometimes would talk over the radio with their Taliban enemies across the front lines.

I thought of that when reading the Civil War letters of General William T. Sherman, which one of you recommended recently after I began dipping into his memoirs. Given his performance in torching a wide swath of Georgia and South Carolina, no one would call Sherman a Confederate sympathizer, or even doubt his strong loyalty to the cause of the Union.

Yet during the Civil War, Sherman communicated several times across the lines. Sometimes these were fairly stiff communications, as when in August 1862 he wrote, "not officially," to respond to a complaint from Confederate Gen. Gideon Pillow (the great liar of the Mexican War) that 400 of Pillow's slaves had been taken from his plantation near Helena, Arkansas. Sherman's view was that the Rebs were getting a taste of their own medicine -- they had rebelled against authority, and their slaves were now following their example. Even so, he reassured Pillow that, "At present I know of none of your negroes in or near Memphis."

He was softer when he wrote to Thomas Hunton, an old West Point friend living in Mississippi who also wanted his slaves returned to him. "We are enemies, still private friends," he observed. "In the one Capacity I will do you all the harm I can, yet on the other if here, you may have as of old my last Cent, my last shirt and pants." But he still wouldn't help him.