Small Wars Journal

Small Wars Journal Book Review: Secret Wars by Austin Carson

Sun, 12/13/2020 - 8:38pm

Small Wars Journal Book Review: Secret Wars by Austin Carson


Reviewed by Benjamin Arbitter


Carson, Austin. Secret Wars: Covert Conflict in International Politics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018.



In the early 1990s, interviews with former Soviet pilots and access to Soviet archives revealed that “Soviet pilots covertly participated in air-to-air combat with American pilots during the Korean War for two years.” Subsequently and arguably more surprisingly, declassified U.S. intelligence documents revealed that U.S. officials not only knew of this intervention but actively sought to keep the Soviet intervention secret. In Secret Wars, Austin Carson seeks to answer two related questions deriving from this type of curious interaction between rivals: Why do states choose to limit such interventions to covert means, even after their opponents have discovered their inventions? Similarly, why do adversaries occasionally decide to maintain their rival’s secret, rather than revealing the intervention to the international community?

To answer these questions, Carson lays the foundation for a novel theory to understand why national leaders choose to intervene covertly in certain situations and—more interestingly—how adversaries sometimes collude with one another to keep these interventions secret. Carson maintains an appropriately scoped and nuanced approach, developing an intriguing explanation for an unexplained phenomenon in international relations. Carson readily admits that his theory does not pertain to all limited conflicts or all covert interventions, but he does illuminate the potential utility of secrecy in mitigating escalation risks.

As Carson notes, the existing literature adequately explores the merits of secrecy to either operationally deceive one’s opponent or limit backlash from domestic “doves.” However, Carson proposes two alternative purposes for secrecy when rival parties intervene in an existing conflict à la Russia in the U.S. Korean War or the U.S. in the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. As an intervening party, limiting an intervention abroad to covert methods signals to rival powers that their invention seeks limited objectives in the conflict. If a rival state detects this intervention, the detecting power may elect to maintain their rival’s secret or reveal it to the public. One of Carson’s central points is that keeping the rival’s secret allows the detecting power to avoid pressure from domestic “hawks” to escalate the conflict. Although somewhat counterintuitive, these peculiar dynamics occasionally result in rival powers colluding to withhold information from the public to prevent undesired escalation. These types of signals and communications remain limited but take place “backstage,” away from the prying eyes of other noninvolved states and the public. In doing so, the intervening and detecting power can simultaneously resist one another’s efforts while signaling a mutual desire to keep the conflict limited.

Carson frames the origins of this concept in the context of the post-World War One international order. Following WWI’s devastation, states began to recognize the importance of mitigating escalation. The risks of unintended escalation became even more poignant following the introduction of nuclear weapons and the Cold War stalemate between the U.S. and Soviet Union. Carson makes a case for his theory across four case studies: The Spanish Civil War (1936-39), the Korean War (1950-53), the Vietnam War (1964-68) and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (1979-86).  Carson leverages declassified intelligence reports and correspondence to gain insights into the decision-making calculus of both the intervening powers and the rivals who detected these interventions.

As Carson outlines his theory and navigates his four case studies, he makes a clear and well-developed argument. He refrains from broad generalization and focuses his theory on situations in which it clearly applies. Similarly, Carson does not seek to revolutionize how his readers perceive coercion or covert military interventions. He simply adds a new tool to the scholar’s inventory. Carson successfully nests his argument in existing international relations and deterrence theory while methodically laying the foundations to a compelling and engaging explanation for this puzzling phenomenon.

This nuanced approach to escalation dynamics and secrecy in military interventions seems especially relevant today in an era defined by “Great Power Competition” and notions of “Hybrid Warfare” and the “Grey Zone.” As Carson discusses briefly in his conclusion, his theory has important implications for current events such as the Syrian Civil War, Russia’s “covert” interventions throughout Ukraine, and the increasing employment of cyber-attacks by multiple states.

Carson’s analytical and cautious approach does come at a cost. The narrow criteria which Carson proposes for when his theory applies allow little space to rebut his argument. As Carson admits, his theory attempts to understand decision-makers’ intent in specific scenarios and relies heavily on declassified memorandums and correspondence for evidence. This cautious approach makes sense but relegates his theory to a relatively niche space in understanding covert engagements between states. Likewise, Carson’s case studies are appropriately scoped for a novel theory, but one cannot help but wonder how well the theory would hold up to scrutiny across a longer span of time. Granted, WWI and II may have highlighted escalation risks, but are either covert interventions or escalation concerns limited to the 20th century? Even without the troves of declassified documents, one wonders how well Carson could have applied his theory to a broader range of conflicts.

Ultimately, Carson delivers a well-researched, well structured, and compelling argument supporting his “limited-war theory of secrecy.” Given the plethora of recent covert interventions undertaken and subsequently discovered, his work will prove relevant to both scholars and practitioners in international affairs in the decades to come.


Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Naval Postgraduate School, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

About the Author(s)

Benjamin Arbitter is a graduate of Michigan State University with a Bachelor of Arts in International Relations and is a Major in the United States Army. Ben is currently pursuing a Master of Science degree in Defense Analysis as a student at Naval Postgraduate School.  



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