Wither war? The View from the Mindshaft

Is this America’s future, endless war?

Steven Metz, Chairman of the Regional Strategy Department of the Army War College’s Strategic Studies Institute, noted in a tweet a few days ago that “Ten plus years and people are still trying to pound the round peg of terrorism into the square hole of war.”

Which got me thinking, again, and this is a discussion Fabius and I have been having for many years: Are we at war with anybody? Is there any chance we will ever be at war with anybody? And the collateral issue, which makes all this more than just a philosophical discussion on the futility of names: What sort of military forces will be useful for us in the first half of the 21st century?

As way of background, strategists have typically reserved the word “war” for something serious. Here are a couple of the best known examples:

  • War is a matter of vital importance to the state; the province of life or death; the road to survival or ruin. (Sun Tzu’s Art of War, Griffith trans. 63)
  • War is an act of violence pushed to its utmost bounds. (Clausewitz, Penguin edition, 1987, p. 103)

Some have noted that in the era of nuclear weapons, Clausewitz’s conception must be modified:

  • Thus the effect of nuclear weapons, unforeseen and perhaps unforeseeable, has been to push conventional war into the nooks and crannies of the international system. (Martin van Creveld, The Transformation of War, p. 11)
  • State-on-state war has gone the way of the dinosaur thanks to America’s willingness to remind everyone on a regular basis that we are the last superpower standing. (Thomas P. M. Barnett, The Pentagon’s New Map, p. 271)
  • War as a massive deciding event in a dispute in international affairs; such war no longer exists. (Sir Rupert Smith, The Utility of Force, p.1)

Note that none of these rule out war, per se, just a replay of WWII or at least one of its major battles. Are they right? Doug Macgregor doesn’t think so, as he wrote in an earlier post:


[US Army Chief of Staff GEN Ray] Odierno’s emphasis on everything but the readiness to fight enemies that can actually fight back with armies, air forces, air defenses and navies may temporarily endear him to the shrinking pool of nation builders on the left, but it’s also a prescription for future disasters on the 1950 Korea model — a disaster created by army four stars, not Congress.

You might argue that we should keep a significant conventional force, including a large army, because the future is uncertain and it’s better to be safe than sorry.  The problem with that approach is not only the cost of such forces but that when they are used against entities that cannot “actually fight back with armies, air forces, air defenses and navies,” they not only don’t solve problems but make them worse. Macgregor himself observes:

… self-defeating operations to suppress Muslims resisting occupation in Iraq — operations that put Iran in charge, not the United States. Directing air strikes, raids, check points or patrols against Muslim insurgents from the comfort and security of the Green Zone is not the future. It’s the past and a dead end at that.

This is typical of “wars” against something other than organized military forces. If you regard “war” as a large-scale act of violence to compel other people to do our will (a paraphrase of another Clausewitz quote), and you try to apply it to something else — “terrorism,” for example — you run into another interesting observation by van Creveld on the nature of conflict between states and non-state entities:

Compared with the willingness or lack of it, in men (and women) to die for their cause, virtually all questions of policy, organization, doctrine, training, and equipment pale into insignificance.”  (The Changing Face of War, p. 228)

To the extent it is valid, van Creveld’s observation has serious implications because we are putting all of our brainpower and money into questions of “policy, organization, doctrine, training, and equipment.” Consider, as just one example, our tactic du jour, drone warfare, essentially very long range sniper shots, or to use another term, assassinations.  Missiles fired from drones kill bad guys without exposing our troops to risk, as Tom Barnett predicted back in 2004:

Within a short time, we will close in on a standard of warfare where an unmanned aerial vehicle operating on the other side of the world can locate, identify, and kill a terrorist within eight or nine minutes—all at the push of a button. (New Map, p. 272)

But as a character in Steel Magnolias once pointed out, just because you can get pregnant doesn’t mean that you should get pregnant. Is drone warfare an effective tool in the war on terrorism, or does it just advertise to the world that we are afraid to risk our lives for our cause? What should we be doing?

Is the war metaphor itself part of the problem?

Over to you. What do you think?

For more information

These issues Chet discusses are central to the concept of Fourth Generation Warfare:

  1. A solution to 4GW — the introduction
  2. How to get the study of 4GW in gear
  3. Why We Lose at 4GW – The 2 kinds of insurgencies
  4. Arrows in the Eagle’s claw — solutions to 4GW
  5. Arrows in the Eagle’s claw — 4GW analysts
  6. Visionaries point the way to success in the age of 4GW
  7. 4GW: A solution of the first kind – Robots!
  8. 4GW: A solution of the second kind
  9. 4GW: A solution of the third kind – Vandergriff is one of the few implementing real solutions.
  10. Theories about 4GW are not yet like the Laws of Thermodynamics
  11. About Fourth Generation Infections – Chet Richards explains the nature of outlaw organizations in the 21st century
  12. About the 4GW between India and Pakistan, 6 January 2009
  13. 4GW in India – more people who want to watch the world burn, 19 January 2009
  14. The War Nerd shows how simple 4GW theory can be, 22 January 2009
  15. Is 4GW magnifique?, 22 June 2012

“War” sung by Edwin Starr (1970)


19 thoughts on “Wither war? The View from the Mindshaft”

  1. One of the strong implications of FM’s articles as well those of the guest writers here seems to be that large-scale land wars have become obsolete. This is due in part to nuclear weapons, but also (as Martin van Creveld points out) due to the exponentially increasing expense and lethality of conventional weapons. Fuel-air munitions can now produce explosive overpressures comparable to the nuclear weapons dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The A-10 Warthog’s depleted uranium 20 mm cannon (and the titanium shielding in which the pilot sits, making him pretty much invulnerable to ground fire) along with TOW wire-guided missiles have made big tank battles obsolete. The shkval supercavitating torpedo, traveling at circa 450 mph underwater, together with the new Chinese radar-stealthed pop-up cruise missile, makes all surface ships in conventional navies sitting ducks. (The “pop-up” feature means that the stealthed cruise missile travels on the deck circa 3 feet above the waves and then suddenly veers upward in the last few hundred meters and comes down on the target ship from directly above.) The Vulcan M134 minigun remains unexcelled at mass killing of ground forces. GBU-32s fitted with JDAMs and using boosted unitray penetrators (tungsten shielded payloads with a rocket engine on back) can destroy deep heavily-fortified reinforced bunkers that stood up to thousands of sorties in WW II or the Korean War or Vietnam. The U.S. Air Force has stopped development on conventional manned aircraft and is now concentrating on increasingly sophisticated UAVs able to pull turns that would generate G forces that turn humans to puree. These kinds of 21st century weapons are not only staggeringly lethal, they’re also so amazingly expensive that they can’t be used in the quantities required for a prolonged large-scale land war. The Air Force has to be careful which theaters of battle it introduces its B2 bombers into, for example, because at 2 billion each they’re too expensive to lose.

    Yet another issue remains that in the era of large-scale land wars, most of the economic value in conquered territories came from physical resources like oil or iron ore. Today, most of the economic value in potential targets like Taiwan comes from the organized brainpower of the population + the information infrastructure. If an invading Chinese army stormed ashed and captured Taiwan it would have little of value because in the process all the informational infrastructure and computer servers and data networks and skilled engineers would have been destroyed or would have fled.

    We also appear to be entering a world in which distributed peer-production generates a great deal of the economic and “soft power” of a territory. Distributed peer production networks cannot be conquered or annexed by invading armies because they are not localized in space.

    1. Thomas, I think you may be right.

      The marginal cost of lethality just doesn’t make a profitable enterprise out of most offensive wars. I ran a few rough numbers, and calculated that the Iraq war cost the United States somewhere in the order of $135B per year, yet we could simply BUY all the oil produced in that country for only in the order of $55B per year.

      Of course those are very rough calculations, so they could be off. It’s also a very simple analysis that assumes oil was the sole motivation, not to mention the fact that the US even now doesn’t actually own the oil production there. Still, I think it’s something interesting happening there.

      Here’s a question for the analysts out there: At what point does the arms race change? At what point is it no longer “The best defense is a good offense”, but instead becomes “The best defense is a good economy with strong diplomatic and trade connections.”
      Once a nation’s military develops to this point, should they stop pouring money into building ever more destructive weapons, and instead start pouring it into the brainpower of the population and the information infrastructure?

      1. Todd,

        One detail about your analysis of the Iraq War: we lost the bet.

        To use a bad analogy, leaders start a war like gamblers bet on a pony. Bush Jr and his team planned to get oil (as in the statement the war wouldn’t cost us anything) and “enduring bases” from which to project power across the region.

        We got neither. Lost wars have a poor return on investment. Most aggressive wars against modern states have been bad investments since Westphalia in 1648, but they remain popular (can anyone say why?).

        On the other hand, Iran lost an enemy, gained an ally. And bin Laden smiles from wherever he his, having changed the course of American history and perhaps started a new crusade (which he hoped would unify Islam under fundamentalist leadership).

      2. “At what point does the arms race change?”

        Perhaps it has already changed. Nukes make it suicidal to attack a great nation (ie, one with nukes) or a key ally. 4GW makes it difficult to occupy even small states. That does not leave much opportunity for profitable conquest.

  2. From The Once and Future King by T.H. White.

    “Now what I have thought”, said Arthus, “Why can’t you harness Might so that it works for Right? I know it sounds nonsense, but, I mean, you can’t just say there is no such thing. The Might is there, in the bad half of people, and you can’t neglect it. You can’t cut it out but you might be able to direct it, if you see what I mean, so that it was useful instead of bad.”


    “By the way. You remember that argument we were having about aggression? Well, I have thought of a good reason for starting a war.”

    Merlyn froze. “I would like to hear it.”

    “A good reason for starting a war is simply to have a good reason! For instance, there might be a king who had discovered a new way of life for human beings — you know, something which would be good for them. It might even be the only way from saving them from destruction. Well, if the human beings were too wicked or too stupid to accept his way, he might have to force it on them, in their own interests by the sword.”

    … “Very interesting,” he said in a trembling voice. “Very interesting. There was just such a man when I was young — an Austrian who invented a new way of life and convinced himself that he was the chap to make it work. He tried to impose his reformation by the sword, and plunged the civilized world into misery and chaos. But the thing which this fellow had overlooked, my friend, was that he had had a predecessor in the reformation business, called Jesus Christ. Perhaps we may assume that Jesus knew as much as the Austrian did about saving people. But the odd thing is that Jesus did not turn the disciples into storm troopers, burn down the Temple at Jerusalem, and fix the blame on Pontius Pilate. On the contrary, he made it clear that the business of the philosopher was to make ideas available, and not to impose them on people.”

    1. I hate to be negative, but this reminds me of an oft-made but depressing observation that perhaps a day will come when Hitler was considered not wrong — but early.

    2. Quite negative….however, one can see both sides of the argument if applied to today’s society. T.H White wrote this book just after WWII, so obviously was much against this type of dictatorship. In today’s world it would seem that such extreme authority may be necessary to bring people back to the realization that with liberty come responsibility. We Americans get the liberty part of being American, but to often fail to understand the responsibility that comes with the deal.

  3. “War is the health of the state.”
    Randolph Bourne 1918

    Bourne was an anti-war Progressive. In his America of 100 years ago, you hardly needed a national government unless you were prosecuting wars.

  4. Chet’s point about war as a poor metaphor seems profound. Simply put, war is going away, as Chet notes in the witty title of his article (we’d expect “Whither war?” but instead he says “Wither war?”) and indeed large-scale land war as a practical socioeconomic methodology seems to be withering away and going the way of jousting or dueling.

    So for the American military to think in terms of fighting war seems like a big mistake. What other method of resolving conflicts twixt large socioeconomic groups may replace war? Economic competition seems to be rising to the top of the list. But also informational struggles involving soft power are now becoming increasingly prominent, as shown by the frantically hysterical American response to Julian Assange.

    America’s military is organized to fight large-scale land wars. But what if instead our near-future conflicts will involve presenting large networks of people with information that gives them a good impression of our society? Or what if instead our near-future conflicts boil down to taking global market share in various industries and services? Then instead of a Pentagon, America might be better served by groups of reformer-publicists (because the best way to manage the image of your country is to reform it and make it better), or groups of inventors (since technology remains the basic driver of economic growth).

    Maybe the best way to fight fundamentalist Islam would be to airdrop porn and educational materials for women into Islamic countries on a massive scale, instead of fighting them with a conventional army. Maybe the best way to fight mideastern religious terrorism would be to assemble a massive U.S. group of Arabic-speaking experts to produce new versions of the Qur’an with detailed notes showing all the internal inconsistencies and self-contradictions and the evidence that much of the text was created long after the death of the prophet Mohammed from many sources of doubtful authenticity.

    1. Thomas,

      Thanks. It was one of my whittier titles.

      You’re definitely thinking out of the box.

      One note for readers who may not be familiar with Islam. The first pillar of Islam, the Shahadah is the statement “There is no god but God, Muhammad is the messenger of God.” (Shia adds a phrase concerning Ali). Every Muslim I have met and everything I have read on the subject agree that this implies the recitation by Muhammad of the word of God. I can think of no better way to recruit for terrorist groups than for non-Muslim states to question the inerrancy of the Qur’an. To the extent that Muslims want to examine the question, it’s their religion.

      Why do you think that discrediting the Qur’an would lessen the problem of terrorism? For that matter, we have plenty of religious fundamentalism here at home. Why not start by fighting it?

    2. Discrediting the Qur’an probably would not be effective at convincing terrorists the error of their ways. Actually I think it’s likely to have the opposite effect.
      I do like your idea of air-dropping porn and education. I’d take the idea even further. Access to mass media seems like a great alternative opiate in place of religious fundamentalism. How about we assemble a massive U.S. group of Arabic-speaking experts to produce Arabic versions of Friends and Seinfeld?

    3. @Thomas More: “Maybe the best way to fight mideastern religious terrorism would be to assemble a massive U.S. group of Arabic-speaking experts to produce new versions of the Qur’an with detailed notes showing all the internal inconsistencies and self-contradictions and the evidence that much of the text was created long after the death of the prophet Mohammed from many sources of doubtful authenticity.”

      This will totally backfire. But I encourage anyone motivated enough to try it anyways. You will learn a lot from the process. Most people trying to show contradictions in other religions, philosophies and beliefs are usually very ignorant in that which they are trying to attack. The contradictions they almost always show are not because of any weakness in that which they are attacking. But the contradictions arise only due to their superficial understanding and ignorance. This is true for all people regardless of their philosophy.

      The multitude of “atheist vs believers” debates are almost always very painful to watch even the debates by those famous speakers, because there is so much ignorance of the other position. Are they really that ignorant or are they using all those fallacies on purpose?

      Learning Arabic is only the very first baby step. It goes much and much deeper than that. For example, just because someone can speak English doesn’t mean he deeply understands the Philosophy of Science. Many scientists themselves don’t even study these matters. Most people only know how to apply their philosophy, but cannot dissect it. Many know how to drive a car, but few know how to properly build one.

      On the other hand “no single person knows how to build a pencil”, but they do exist nonetheless.

      The best way to fight extremism (or any enemy) on the moral level is not to reject their moral values, but to show that they contradict their own moral values. This only works if the enemy is already contradicting his (publically proclaimed) moral values. The biggest mistake people can make with these extremists is to assume that they are in harmony with their religion. This way you unnecessarily validate their moral position. At least amongst the fish they swim.

      So instead of rejecting the Qur’an, accept it even if it is only for the sake of argument, and show that what the extremist are doing is in fact contradicting the very values they claim to be fighting for. And the overwhelming majority of Muslims are already doing this. So much of the work is already done, if you know where to look for. There are already American Muslims who do this.

      But there is a catch Like Fabius Maximus has stated many times before: “The problem is choice”.

      People want to choose their own representatives. Having outsiders dictate people’s representatives will severely hurt their legitimacy. So giving too much (any?) support to some desirable (sub)group can backfire as well. The best thing would probably be to not get in their way, at most only give indirect support and only intervene when bad apples clearly cross the line.

      “If you give part of yourself for knowledge, knowledge will reveal nothing of itself to you. And if your give everything of yourself for knowledge, knowledge will reveal only a part of itself to you.”

      It isn’t impossible, but it will take much effort.


      One of the main difficulties for nations today is that, the more “wars” one starts the more exposed one becomes and the higher the risk that one’s extreme actions blatantly contradict one’s moral values. “One is most exposed during an attack.” This is especially true for aggressive nations, because they force themselves to rapidly scale their systems to accommodate new and different peoples to their values. Unless they want to contradict their own values. However if done correctly all this is of course an opportunity for huge self-improvement.

      Although I disagreed with the detailed application of your idea, your are aiming in the right direction. Focus on the mental level to compromise their moral level.

    4. The idea of discrediting the Koran borders on the ridiculous. After all the discrediting of the bible and the book of mormon and other holy books, religion is no longer a political force in the world, right? Right.

      The idea of carpet bombing with porn is childishness. It’s about as clever as telling the sepoys their bullets were lubricated with pork fat, or burning Korans or simply screaming “fuck you!” in people’s faces. Think harder and think subtler.

      One thing to consider is that the islamic world is probably ripe for a reformation. There is real unhappiness in large parts of it regarding its arab-centrism. A defanged “reformed islam” that backed away from some of the crazier elements of the faith, which was embraced by the west, would have two effects: it would show an easy path for the moderates and it would set up the extremists against those moderates; there’d be a good chance that parts of the islamic world would collapse into fratricidal insanity like the christians did when the papacy overreached itself and triggered a political reaction. That pretty much was the end of christianity as a temporal power – it’s hard to take your religion as seriously once it’s become the proximal cause of humongous fratricide.

      As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, however, the problem is not islam. The idea that “fanatical muslims” are the problem amounts to adopting a vastly simplified narrative that completely omits the west’s role in causing the tremendous anger and resentment in the regions of the world that are most central to islam. Thus, many westerners (steeped in their own foolish religious world-views) take at face value claims that the arabic-speaking world is pissed off because of religion. They’re pissed off because they’ve been colonialized, abused and shat upon, and then punished for picking the wrong side in WWII – far more severely punished than, say, the Italians – and they’ve had European zionism foisted on them as well, through the incompetence of the British and the US. They’re pissed off by western racism and arrogance and religion is a convenient rallying-point. We need to face the fact that they have more than adequate reasons to hate the US, UK and Israel specifically, and “western civilization” in general. This is not a religious struggle – it’s a political struggle that is taking place under a religious narrative, because that religious narrative makes sense in terms of the long-term context of the crusades, reconquista, invasion of Europe, etc. But continuing to patronize the “islamic world” by treating this as a purely religious conflict serves to blind the west to the fact that they have good reasons to be pissed off at us and if we only engage with the religious narrative we will fail, fail, fail, fail, fail.

      Let me put this a different way: the Vietnam war (for the Vietnamese) was not about communism versus capitalism. It was about land grabs, serious abuses, colonialism, genocide, conquest, and indigenous people wanting to get control of their lands out of the hands of European powers that were basically treating them like slaves. Because we adopted this silly communist/capitalist narrative, the French and US completely misunderstood the situation and treated the Vietnamese like “dumb wogs” then proceeded to lose the war because they fell for their own ideology of capitalism triumphing against communism, the dominoes, and all that bullshit – while Ho Chi Mihn understood that it was just a bloody war that could be won and went about doing it. “We” want to keep replaying these bad ideas as if, by trying harder, we’ll eventually succeed and it’ll justify the whole bloody awful thing.

      The way to deal with the “islamic world” is to drop the religious narrative entirely and to take a good hard look at how the “islamic world” acts. Guess what? They like their money and their iPhones and their land and being able to self-determine. They are not barbarian goat-herders, they’re intelligent, pissed-off people, who are pissed off because they’ve been pissed on. It may already have gone too far to recover the situation but the first step to dealing with the “islamic world” is to discard the religious narrative entirely and start talking frankly with them about what matters: power, land, money, and their rights. Starting off with some sincere apologies about assisting with the establishment of a psychotic genocidal nuclear-armed colony in the middle of their region would be a good start. Stopping threatening them with destruction while simultaneously trying to kiss their asses for oil, while playing a childishly transparent game of “divide and conquer” would be the second step. Acknowledging that they did, in fact, invent civilization and stopping treating them like rubes would be a good third step. As long as we’ve got idiots saying dumb stuff like that this is about Koran burning or porn or whatever, we are playing right into their rather accurate view that we’re a bunch of racist religion-blinded crusaders, ourselves. Enough, already!

    5. I think we should remember that, while fundamentalist religion is certainly an important element in today’s wars, the inventors and first users of the suicide bomber vest — the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam — are a bunch of marxist atheists. Suicide terrorism does not require a religious worldview, and neither does warmongering.

    6. In my opinion, Marcus J. Ranum nails it very well. If there is one point I would correct it is this:

      “punished for picking the wrong side in WWII”

      Actually, only the Iraqis and some of the Palestinians (under the mufti of Jerusalem) took the side of the Axis, while Saudi Arabia sided with the Allies. The rest of the Arab world was essentially colonized at that time, and played the role of a vast battlefield for Western powers. In fact, large numbers of North African and Arabs fought on the side of the Allies — and basically got no thanks for that.

    7. As guest points out, I was specifically thinking of Amin al-Husseini and his alignment with Hitler. That kind of didn’t work so well, although he took that position because in a sense it was already too late. Most Americans, ignorant of history, don’t realize that the immigration to Palestine was happening before and during WWII and not exclusively after it.

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