Discussing the Continuities of War and the Future of Warfare: The Defense Entrepreneurs Forum

Discussing the Continuities of War and the Future of Warfare: The Defense Entrepreneurs Forum

H.R. McMaster

Thank you to Nate Finney for the opportunity to participate again in support of the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum (DEF).   I thought that I might build on the previous essay I wrote for DEF on how to develop an understanding of war and warfare through the study of military history in width, depth, and context.  Many of the recent difficulties we encountered in strategic decision-making, operational planning, and force development have stemmed, at least in part, from the neglect of history and continuities in the nature of war, especially war’s political and human dimensions.  To compound the difficulties we encountered in Afghanistan and Iraq, we may be missing an opportunity to learn from those experiences.  That is because four fallacies about future war have become widely accepted; these fallacies promise that future war will be fundamentally different from those that have gone before it. 

The first of these we might call the vampire fallacy.  It is impossible to kill this fallacy.  It may go dormant for a period, but it reemerges just about every decade.   In its last manifestation, the vampire fallacy emerged as the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) in the 1990’s.  Concepts with catchy titles such as “Shock and Awe” and “Rapid, Decisive Operations” promised fast, cheap and efficient victories in future war.  Those who argued that these concepts were inconsistent with the nature of war were dismissed as wedded to old thinking.  Technology would make the next war fundamentally different from all that went before it because information and communication technologies had shifted war from the realm of uncertainty to the realm of certainty.  US forces would possess ‘Dominant Battlespace Knowledge.’  Under the ‘Quality of Firsts,’ Army forces would ‘see first, decide first, act first, and finish decisively.’   For those familiar with the TV comedy Seinfeld, we might refer to this as the George Costanza approach to war:  US forces would deliver firepower onto a transparent, hapless enemy and then ‘leave on a high note.’  The vampire is much older than the orthodoxy of RMA.  It goes at least as far back as strategic bombing theory in the 1920s.  Today, the vampire myth once again promises victory from standoff range based on even better surveillance, information, communications, and precision strike technologies.  The vampire fallacy is based in an important suite of military capabilities, but it neglects war’s political and human dimensions.  It equates targeting to tactics, operations, and strategy.  And this fallacy neglects war’s uncertainty based mainly on interactions with determined and elusive enemies.

We might call the second fallacy the zero-dark-thirty fallacy.  The zero-dark-thirty fallacy, like the vampire fallacy, elevates an important military capability, raiding, to the level of a defense strategy.  The US capability to conduct raids against networked terrorist organizations is portrayed as a substitute for rather than a compliment to conventional Joint Force capabilities.  Raids, because they are operations of short duration, limited purpose and planned withdrawal, are often unable to effect the human and political drivers of armed conflict or make progress toward achieving sustainable outcomes consistent with vital interests. 

Third, the Mutual of Omaha Wild Kingdom fallacy may require a little explanation for those of younger generations.  In the 1960s on Sunday nights, families with young children gathered to watch two television shows, the Wonderful World of Disney and Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.  The host for Wild Kingdom was Marlin Perkins.  Marlin Perkins would introduce the topic of the show, often a dangerous animal, and provide commentary throughout.  But Mr. Perkins would rarely place himself in a dangerous situation.  He usually left close contact with the wildlife to his assistant, Jim Fowler.  Under the Mutual of Omaha Wild Kingdom fallacy, the US assumes the role of Marlin Perkins and relies on proxy forces in the role of Jim Fowler to do the fighting on land.  While it is hard to imagine future operations that will not require US forces to operate with multiple partners, primary reliance on proxies is often problematic due to issues involving capability as well as willingness to act consistent with U.S. interests.  The political and human dimensions of war often create what economists and political scientists call principal-actor problems.

Finally, the RSVP fallacy solves the problem of future war by opting out of armed conflict, or certain forms of armed conflict.  The problem is that this fallacy does not give due consideration to enemies in wars or adversaries in between wars.  As Leon Trotsky said, “you may not be interested in war but war is interested in you.”  If the U.S. does not possess ready Joint Forces capable of operating in sufficient scale and ample duration to win, adversaries are likely to become emboldened and deterrence is likely to fail.  As President George Washington said, “to be prepared for war is one of the most effective means of preserving peace.” 

Preparing effectively for war to prevent conflict, shape security environments, and, if necessary win in armed conflict requires clear thinking.  We might begin by rejecting fallacies that are inconsistent with the enduring nature of war.   As the nineteenth century Prussian philosopher of war, Carl von Clausewitz, observed, "the first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish...the kind of war on which they are embarking; neither mistaking it for, nor trying to turn it into, something that is alien to its nature. This is the first of all strategic questions and the most comprehensive."  These fallacies persist, in large measure, because they define war as we might like it to be rather than as an uncertain and complex human competition usually to achieve a political outcome. 

The first step in thinking clearly about future war is to pay attention to continuities in the nature of war as well as changes in the character of armed conflict.  The new Army Operating Concept is grounded in historian Carl Becker’s observation that “memory of past and anticipation of future events work together, go hand in hand as it were in a friendly way, without disputing over priority and leadership.”  The concept establishes the intellectual foundation for Army force development.  It establishes a framework for learning and for applying what the Army learns across leader development, training, doctrine, organization, material development, and policy.    In contrast to the four fallacies, the concept emphasizes that American military power is joint power.  Army forces combine with the tremendous capabilities that reside in our sister services and our special operations community.  These include strategic and operational mobility, ISR, fires, close air support, unconventional operations and many others.    As stated in the Army Operating Concept:  “Since World War II the prosperity and security of the United States have depended, in large measure, on the synergistic effects of capable land, air, and maritime forces.  They have reinforced one another in the conduct of joint operations and together provided options that any one or two services could not provide alone.  U.S. military power is joint power.  Trends in threats, the operating environment, and technology highlight the enduring need for ready Army forces operating as part of joint, interorganizational, and multinational teams to prevent conflict, shape security environments, and win in a complex world.”

I applaud the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum for driving forward conversations such as these…as well as seeking solutions both human and technical.  I wish DEF luck at their upcoming annual event in Chicago on 24 October.

Your rating: None Average: 5 (1 vote)


What a pleasure it is to read such important insights from a superb commander, who is able to affect the course of future military education, and to then find them elaborated in the comments of thoughtful readers. The only thing worth adding is a reminder of the crucial role played by civilian contributions to national security, and the need for excellent, actionable intelligence. Unless all these components work together in harmony, a strategic vision cannot be implemented successfully.
Oh yes, and there's the strategic vision itself. But that is another, rather sore subject, which relates to the political culture of our nation.
Thank you, Gen. McMaster. We are lucky to have you.

LTG McMaster's essay is another intellectual oasis in a desert of conformity. I do not have a catchy title for a fallacy, but I believe there is at least one not yet mentioned. As a prologue, in order for our military leadership (current and future) to embrace both critical thinking and the strategic decision-making that follows it, there must be an organizational and cultural acceptance of the real possibility and necessity of change, ambiguity, and what is not yet known as it relates to warfare. In my opinion, that is not the case now; nor will it become, especially if it must occur coincidentally with reengineering Army Operating Capability.

I simply do not believe that the existing military incorporate can bifurcate its mindset to accomplish this not so radical and obviously not so new process of thinking about the future and change itself too.

Before there can be strategic decision, there must first be a strong foundation of critical thinking. Strategic thinking is the ability to see the total enterprise, to spot the trends and understand the competitive landscape, to see where the organization needs to go and to lead it into the future. I believe we're just not even close to top of this pyramid.

At the foundation is self-awareness, which arises from the ability to think critically, along with an intellectual openness. Does this ability come from intense training and the current Army NCOES/OES, for example? No sir. Indeed, I believe organizationally we value the elimination of disorder that occurs in spite of us over the chaos of change that can develop the skills that allow decision-making, problem-solving, and a solid grasp of mission and people. How can we restructure Army Operating Concepts without first changing how we recruit, educate, train, and mentor service members?

Can we be "new and different" without accepting/embracing/expecting "new and different?"

I will say we are not trying to sway the Middle East to become Western, as indicated by the comments of one Bill C. . We are not there to merely westernize the world. Think broader Bill.....

Now for my comments on “Preparing effectively for war to prevent conflict, shape security environments, and, if necessary win in armed conflict requires clear thinking.”
One helpful strategy on Clear Thinking is “Assume that your worldview is not borne by the public. More than that: Do not assume that those who think differently are idiots. Before you distrust them, question your own assumptions.” Rolf Dobelli, The Art of Thinking Clearly.
Which leads me to say, research the political outcome(s) desired while implementing current [and perceived] worldviews in our planning and developmental processes. The nineteenth century Prussian philosopher of war, Carl von Clausewitz also stated “War is the continuation of Politik by other means" (Politik being variously translated as "policy" or "politics). Therefore, ask what is the Gap in policy, what is the requirement to fill the Gap, and often not asked….why fill the Gap at all. The “How” will be developed by the Action Officers (AO), the why is the part most often over looked and not questioned with political outcome(s) in mind at the AO level. This may be a good thing, or not.
When we think of DOTMLPF (laid out below) we don’t see politics:
Doctrine: the way we fight, Organization: how we organize to fight, Training: how we prepare to fight tactically, Materiel: all the “Things” we need to fight and operate effectively, Leadership and Education: how to prepare our forces, Personnel: availability of Trained/Qualified personnel, Facilities: real property.

“The first step in thinking clearly about future war is to pay attention to continuities in the nature of war as well as changes in the character of armed conflict.” Is spot on, but I would add: "and political trends" at the end. That is to say trends that were in our favor, or not and why. This would help when conducting Risk Assessment.
Thank you for posting..........

Re: "thinking broader:" Consider my information below:

The "policy" is to transform outlying states and societies more along modern western lines. Our military forces, along with all our other instruments of power and persuasion (think: diplomacy, development and defense) all presently being deployed and/or employed to achieve this Clausewitzian political objective. This is being done so as to:

a. Gain greater access to and greater utilization of the human and other resources contained within these "outlying" states and societies; access and utilization which currently is being denied -- or potentially will be denied -- via the adoption (or potential adoption) of non-western ways of life, non-western ways of governance and non-western values, attitudes and beliefs. This effort also being undertaken so as to:

b. Provide that these outlying states and societies might come to better benefit from and better provide for the global economy and, thereby, become more of an asset to -- and less of a burden on/threat to -- the more-modern/more-globalized world.

Reasonable, intelligent and worthy strategic goals?

In this regard, let us note that it is specifically from within these non-western/less-western states and societies that such adverse problems (which plague the world today) as unchecked disease, terrorism, genocide, internal war, etc., continue -- at this late date in history -- to emanate.

These such problems -- which create a drag upon and threat to the present and potential promise of the more-modern/more-globalized world -- having largely been eliminated in western-oriented states and societies.

Is the above information what you are looking for re: "political objective" and "broader thinking?"

(Now, and with this outline before us, to apply your "Clear Thinking," etc., concepts?)

The "Vampire" Fallacy: Our superior technology will make war easier or unnecessary.

The "Zero-Dark-Thirty" Fallacy: Our superior raiding capability will make war easier or unnecessary.

The "Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom" Fallacy: Our ability to get partners/proxies to do our fighting for us; this will make war easier or unnecessary.

The "RSVP/I Will Not Attend" Fallacy: The belief that we can simply "opt out" of war; this will make war easier or unnecessary.

To these (but at the very top of this list) I would add the "Everybody Loves Raymond" Fallacy; wherein, we believe that everyone, everywhere, wants to be exactly like us (wishes to adopt our political, economic and social systems/structures and our unique values, attitudes and beliefs which underpin same).

This "Everyone Loves Raymond" Fallacy -- much as was/is the case with the author's other fallacies -- we thought, and continue to think, will make our current wars, and our future wars, easier and/or unnecessary.

If, however, we simply reflect on Clausewitz's suggestion that "the first, the supreme, the most far-reaching act of judgment that the statesman and commander have to make is to establish...the kind of war on which they are embarking ... "

Then, I believe, we will be able to understand why in our current wars -- to transform outlying states and societies more along modern western lines (see Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, etc.) -- and in our future such wars (to achieve this same objective) -- we have not been unable to (and cannot in the future hope to) rely upon the five fallacies listed above to get the job done.

It seems that a different cultural example, superior war-fighting technology, excellent raiding capabilities, excellent use of partners/proxies and/or simply not coming to war; these do not always make someone give up -- virtually overnight -- their cultural DNA, their cultural identity and their time-honored, values, attitudes and beliefs.

We have, however, already thrown down the gauntlet of such an epochal war; the purpose of which is to transform outlying states and societies more along modern western lines. And this gauntlet has been aggressively picked up by those who do not wish to be so transformed. So we cannot, even if we wanted to now it appears, un-ring this bell.

Will our superior culture(?), our superior technology, our superior raiding capabilities, our excellent use of partners/proxies, and/or our use of the RSVP/I-don't-want-to-come card get us out of this mess of our own making?

LTG McMaster would seem to say: "No."

Thus, if not via the five fallacies listed above, what will it take to win our already embarked upon (and already joined by the enemy) epochal war; the war to transform outlying states and societies more along modern western political, economic and social lines?