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The Great Paradigm Shift: Denial and then Acceptance II (Part 7/8)

Photo: Sari Dennise/flickr

9-11 introduced a moratorium if not outright end to the intramural squabbling then occurring over the nature and direction of Military Transformation, both in the case of the U.S. Army and Air Force (see yesterday’s blog) and to a lesser degree among NATO allies.  The soon-to-follow second Iraq War, however, showed yet again that old paradigms die hard.  What came to be known as Phase 1 of this war would not have confused Jomini or Clausewitz.  Nor would they have been disoriented by the rationalist (i.e., Jominian) principles behind it either.  It was Phase 2 of the war, of course, that became the problem.  Because the U.S. and its allies remained fixated on long-familiar conventional operations, they were slow to see that three of the supposedly unrepresentative forms of war previously discussed in this series had now actually come to define organized violence.  They were no longer “peripheral”, they were central.  War, that’s capital W war, was different now.  The not-so-stealthy changes that had been knocking on the door for 50 years were now in the house; in fact, they owned the house.  We were now, to use Rupert Smith’s term (see his The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World), flailing about in “wars amongst the people.”

But what, in practical terms, does this mean?  Well, it means the blurring of what had once been a clear foreign-domestic divide.  It means the blurring of what had been a relatively clear combatant-non-combatant divide.  It means the blurring of what had been war and what had been peace.  (Peace, after all, isn’t necessarily the violated starting point of a conflict.)  It means that organized violence has become privatized and that unregulated “shadow warriors” are now capable of mass effects violence, as only states were once able to do.  And perhaps most importantly, war amongst the people means that J.F.C. Fuller was right.  Total Napoleonic-Industrial Warfare, regardless of all the “bells and whistles” Military Transformation has tried to add on over the last 20-30 years, no longer exists.  There will no longer be “big fights” between multiple nations and their armies à la World War II, or so Smith and his supporters claim.  There will no longer be “massive deciding events” used to resolve international disputes.  Warfare is now “360 degrees”, irregular, asymmetrical, post-heroic, “liquid”, etc.  It focuses on intangibles and not necessarily territory.  It is designed to promote the perceived legitimacy of one collective narrative or storyline at the expense of another.   It stages salutary spectacles to impact the psychology of whole populations.  (The word “stages” is appropriate here since today’s warfare is decidedly theatrical.  It is an updated and more complex version of Prince Kropotkin’s “propaganda by deed.”)

Today’s war, in other words, is about perception management.  It is Sun Tzu’s world, not Jomini’s or Clausewitz’s.  The vocabulary developed by the military rationalists and irrationalists of the past has lost much of its explanatory power.  The perception of a war now matters more “than the ground realities of the engagement.”  Indeed, the point of war is not necessarily to crush or incapacitate opposing forces, which was once THE prerequisite needed to change a hostile state’s behavior.  The goal now is something decidedly more amorphous – i.e., to exploit the conceptual space you need to achieve a favorable strategic condition, and if the desired condition then actually comes about, to claim “victory.”  Finally, and as mentioned in an earlier blog, because all of the above trends have converged together, the political utility of conventional hard power has plummeted over the last 20 years, anomalies (!) such as the 1½ Gulf Wars notwithstanding.  Why?  Well, because Reality and the traditional tools we designed to deal with it have misaligned – badly.  As a result, the use of conventional hard power has become more incoherent over the last 20 years.

But are Smith and his fellow travelers right?  Aren’t there two problems here?  First, has the hard power pendulum actually swung almost to the opposite end of what was once considered “normal”?  Have we, in short, turned a permanent corner in warfare or is Smith in particular trying to universalize the regional and local experiences he had as a senior NATO and British commander?  Is Smith, in other words, trying to foist a peacekeeper’s sensibility onto a reality that is more complex than he would like to admit?  I must say that on this point I agree with Colin Gray, the great realist philosopher of strategy.  Gray does think Smith has gone too far – i.e., the latter’s characterization of current and future hard power is too “European” and wish fulfillment-oriented.  There is the possibility, Gray notes, that a series of Great Power triangulations (U.S.-EU vs. China; China-Russia vs. India, etc.) could return in the 2020s and that the danger of conventional warfare could well revive with them.  Regardless of who is right on this particular point, Smith has a serious problem on his hands.  Even if you grant that he’s right about the long-term asymmetrical nature of future warfare, it remains much easier to adapt existing conventional forces, regardless of how ill-fitting, to lower levels of conflict than it is to transform them into counterinsurgency/asymmetrically-centered forces and then have to “conventionalize” them back up at a future point in time. Since the latter process would be a seriously tough slog in so many ways, isn’t it better to embrace a hedging strategy, the Grays of the world argue, where you don’t jettison what you have and yet also adapt to new realities?  That’s a serious question we all have to answer.

Second, we need to address Smith’s tidy contrast between outdated Napoleonic-Industrial Warfare versus today’s Wars of the People.  Is the contrast between the two just too tidy?  For me it is.  One description I haven’t used thus far to mark the recent paradigm shift in war is Hybrid Warfare.  In fact, that’s the dominant form of war that exists now, or so a number of us believe.  What we are actually seeing in 21st century warfare is that we are moving back to the future.  In other words, we are seeing behaviors and practices already used by the mercenaries and armies of the pre-18th century period.  And there’s no doubt that the reversion back to pre-“scientific” forms of war has some unappetizing features, at least from the perspective of what we came to define as traditional conventional warfare.  They include, in addition to those already discussed, 1) malleable, hard-to-pin-down objectives; 2) fluid definitions of victory; 3) the quiet abandoning of hard-and-fast military end states; and 4) fluid pre-nation-state forms of identity.  Any individual, for example, can now develop a virtual, “de-territorialized” identity through the Internet and feel just as intensely about it as 19th century German narrowly felt about being German.  Yes, we’re back to an early modern era where the conventional and unconventional both intermingle AND operate independently of each other.  That’s what makes Hybrid Warfare so difficult to cope with and I personally don’t see this problem abating anytime soon.

But am I right or is Steven Pinker right?  (See his recently released THE BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE: Why Violence Has Declined.)  In several respects Pinker is right.  The numbers don’t lie – the frequency and intensity of war has gone down since the late Cold War.  Anti-hard power norms have spread and been codified.  They are no longer steamrolled as they once were.  So, am I right to assume that Hybrid Warfare is (and will be) the new norm in our back-to-the-future world, or are we slowly but surely vanquishing violence?  Our last post in this series will examine this question tomorrow.