This past week, the Reiff Center had the great honor of hosting a spectacular event, regarding the future of armed conflict. We would like to thank all of the people who came together to make this event a success:
The World Affairs Council of Greater Hampton Roads, whose generous support is always greatly appreciated
Dr. David Fautua for an excellent introduction of our esteemed speaker
Lt. General H.R. McMaster who provided an amazing wealth of crucial information in record time
Armed conflict is something that puts peoples’ nerves on edge. There are many opinions surrounding war, which range from pure disgust to resounding support. War and conflict is as ancient as it gets. The development of truly complex societies, the rise of agriculture, and the technological revolution of the Bronze Age brought about the rise of mass conflict and warfare. In fact the earliest known standing militaries are found in Egypt and Mesopotamia, dating back to about 2100 BC. The Realist branch of political science attempts to explain this development in that Man is naturally self-interested and Man is naturally a social creature. These two facets of humanity join together to justify the idea that war is inevitable. Looking at historical and contemporary examples, it would seem that the Realists might be right, although many would and have argued their foundational principles. Still, the reality of the situation is that war pervades every era and every location of known history. Going through the ancients, the Persians, Hellenistic Greece, Rome, the Huns, The Crusades, The Caliphate, it becomes impossible to discuss their history without discussing the role of conquest and military. Into more modern examples the same fact remains with British and greater European imperialism, the various Wars of Independence, and the constant conflict in Europe, which culminated into WWI, the “war to end all wars.” Here, we see the creation of the League of Nations, the first large scale attempt at diplomatic means to avoid conflict, which obviously failed as two decades later WWII devastated the European continent. Now, the rise of the United Nations comes forth as the beacon of diplomacy and peace – could Man work out its problems without pointing a gun (and at this point very big guns). The answer to this question is of course still highly debated, but recent history tells us that the UN’s success in reducing conflict is limited. We see that war continues throughout much of the world, found in Vietnam, Korea, and now in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Ukraine, to name just a few. It comes to be seen that war is as much a part of humanity as culture, religion, science, and commerce, if not even more so during certain eras.
War is constant, but how humanity fights its wars is dramatically different through the eras. From the early sharpened sticks to the mechanized infantry and UAVs of today, technology has evolved at a rapid pace making war deadlier and much more costly. Not only the technology, but also how we fight war has changed, as Dr. Fautua mentions, today we fight nuanced wars and avoid the ‘annihilation of the enemy,’ as seen in WWII. The nature of the enemy has changed as well, what were once great powers and nation-states fighting over territory and resources, has evolved into armed insurgents, terrorists, or “non-state actors.” So much has changed on the war field, and still the goals remain the same as Man hunts for power. What does all of this mean? What is the future of American and world armed conflict? These are the questions that Lt. General McMaster tackles on a daily basis – reinventing strategies and experimenting with multifaceted approaches, all to further American interests. As Fautua called him, the “most respected officer of his generation,” McMaster provided, what I found to be an indispensable viewpoint for understanding the future of American warfare.
Perhaps indicative of the military to be concise and consistent, McMaster asserts his major findings in groups of four. The first section addresses four continuities found in all of war across time and space. Firstly, war is an extension of politics. This interestingly has been expressed by a variety of military scholars, notably Major General Carl Von Clausewitz of Prussia. In his study, On War (1832) Clausewitz makes a claim that “war is merely the continuation of politics by any other means.” It would seem that when diplomacy fails, war is the next option to pursue political outcomes. Importantly, politics and power are the real drivers of war, even if they are masked by an ideological system. In order to be successful, McMaster believes that the military must reach a sustainable outcome in order to consolidate the political gains of conflict. It is when policy makers fail to understand this that gains are lost, institutions fail, and regions become a breeding ground for extremism. We must also remember that war is purely human. This goes back to the realist philosophy that I outlined previously- McMaster extends this idea by saying that humans fight for three things. They fight for they are fearful, for they seek honor, and for their own interests. War is also uncertain, as our actions will be met by opposing forces, which cannot always be foreseen. Finally, War is a contest of wills. As soon as a force loses the capability or will to fight, the opposing side will gain a great advantage in the field. Think of WWI’s “War of Attrition.”
The second segment focuses on four fallacies, which result in American leaders making similar mistakes between conflicts. The first of which is the Vampire Fallacy, as the fallacy routinely comes back into the forefront and cannot be killed. Our vampire is not Dracula, but rather the belief that such a complex political and human endeavor as war can be solved by technology, from afar, as stated by the military theory about the future of warfare expressed in the Revolution in Military Affairs. Technological advantages are critical, but they cannot achieve what troops on the ground can, and relying solely on technology will result in severe repercussions. The second is the idea that Americans believe all we need is a raiding party to go in, complete an objective, and leave. McMaster entitled this as the “Zero-Dark Thirty” Fallacy, based on the popular film where American troops quickly completed the assassination of Osama Bin Laden, and then were out of harm’s way. While this is an ideal method, it cannot be considered feasible for all conflicts, even though it would make war so much easier. The next fallacy may require the younger readers (and me) to do some Googling. The popular 1960s-80s T.V Show, Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom, features a host who would have his dutiful sidekick play with Lion and Bears, while he sat back and supervised. McMaster proposes that like a T.V host, America finds it can order “proxy armies” to do the dirty work. While our military should work with other forces, it is necessary that the US Military take an active role in order to achieve long and short term goals on the ground. The last fallacy is the RSVP Fallacy, where some Americans believe that war is simply a cordial invitation, which one can accept or decline at will. The fact of the matter is that, war is unpredictable, and Americans should be ready for the inevitability of conflict.
Why do Americans fall for these fallacies? McMaster asserts that the American culture, its optimism and progressive thinking may be partially to blame. While this is a strength in America, it becomes a weakness when we allow our optimism to cloud our judgment in preparing for future conflict. The Military-Industrial complex also plays a role in maintaining policies that are guided by fallacious thinking. Those fallacies are the answers Americans want to the hard questions of war. We allow hope and short-term interests to guide long term decisions. Lastly, Americans often invoke a narrow view of world affairs, which degrades the power of the military. In order to win, all of the branches of the military must be properly empowered, so that America has its “rock, paper, and scissors” ready to go, as McMaster puts it.
The future of armed conflict is bleak, as non-state actors will most likely continue to grow in capabilities and numbers. Non-state combatants will attack civilians, disrupt American capabilities, and emulate American technologies. America must develop new and creative strategies in order to combat this unique enemy, which is exactly what McMaster and his colleagues are hard at work to do. Technology will not save us, as there is no magic bullet – a countermeasure will always come about to contest new technologies. McMaster argues that the army is vital to the future of armed conflict. He asserts that the US army will be responsible for providing multiple options to the military form the ground, and then project American military power from the ground to the air, sea, and cyberspace. The US Army must continue to work diligently with multiple partners, including other branches of our military, multinational partners, and other Departments of the American government. Likewise, the army must learn to operate across multiple domains, by controlling land areas and the holding them in order to allow safety for other branches of the military. Lastly, the US military must offer unique and numerous challenges to the enemy on a variety of fronts. Only through these changes will the US Army and military at large be able to contend in the future of armed conflict.
Regardless of your views on war, the fact remains that it will stick around in the foreseeable future. Diplomacy and commerce may prevent some conflicts, but others will require war to achieve American policy goals. War is bloody, violent, and cruel, but it remains a necessary tool to protect American interests. Let us take McMaster’s advice that war in the future must be looked upon with a frank and scrutinizing eye, using history’s lessons to guide our policies. We must abandon fallacious thinking, develop new strategies, and be ready for a future we cannot predict. The American Military is made up of great minds and honorable men and women – with the right tools, they will see this nation through the battles of tomorrow.
Disclaimer: “The views expressed in this post solely reflect the author’s opinion, and does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Reiff Center or Christopher Newport University.”