Postmodern classic?

Wednesday, August 30, 2006

What is the future of war?

UPDATE: This TCS Daily article by Michael Vlahos is an excellent summation of some of these trends from a Roman perspective, well worth your time. Ran into it via this excellent Chicago Boyz post by James McCormick of similar note. In addition, some thoughts at Winds of Change about another theory, I've put a few comments there.

And of course, most importantly! The Monty Python revolutionary model of the 'People's Front of Judea' via Youtube...

Original Post: There are some interesting thoughts on what the future face of war will look like. The current conflict in Lebanon sheds some interesting light on what is good and bad, victorious or failure in the current arena of the world. There's quite a bit of interesting ink spilt on the low benchposts for success (ie not being destroyed) that allowed Hassan Nasrallah of Lebanese Hezbollah to claim his victory.

Current events aside, there is this ongoing presumption that war will continue to develop in this manner. I paraphrase Kissinger when he said that in modern warfare a 'conventional Army fails if it does not win, while a guerilla army succeeds if it not destroyed.' I like Martin Van Creveld's reverse of Clausewitz even better, which I roughly paraphrase here as 'Von Clausewitz described war as the continuation of politics by other means, while guerillas use politics as the continuation of war by other means.'

This post at Global Guerillas perfectly captures this viewpoint, that we are 'Playing at War'. It's a succinct abstract of the major obstacles faced by modern warfighters. I don't want to reproduce it here, since I'd have to reprint the whole thing for you to get it, so please read it. It's quite a succinct and logical article, showing how current warfare is becoming hitched more and more to these abstract values almost entirely unrelated to the actual work of war. A guerilla must leverage the weaknesses of his enemy, most decisively in the gray realm of 'public opinion' and 'public perception'. It's the logical continuation to the 'People's War' of Mao and his successors, adapted to the context of the post-modern battlefield.

I should explain myself on that account, though, before I continue. There are many theories trying to explain the warfare I describe above as 'post-modern' (please forgive my lazy 'Wiki' research). Currently popular is one called '4th Generation Warfare', which is supposed to be the counter to the People's War, first successfully championed by Mao. Ideas matter, and to me '4GW' is just a twist on Mao, sharing the same intellectual framework and assumptions, which I have written about before and reject. To be brief, one sees that foremost among these assumptions is the historicist presumption of material progress in the Hegelian sense, their idea being that war also falls into a rational developmental pattern that can be defined arbitrarily by 'generations'. One must conclude that the proponents of this theory either share that basic philosophical agreement or are in ignorance of it's origins- characterizing to me, the weakness of their vague post-modern argument. As you may conclude, I love that word, 'post-modern' (re: the title of this blog), and do throw it around a lot. But not just for style- I believe it has meaning, mostly being the conceit that we've somehow divorced ourself from the past by entering an intellectual arena of the future. That's not the orthodox definition, but to me it epitomizes all the other issues associated in that kind of 'PoMo' conceit- radical human rights, secular denigration of religion, cultural relativism, etc... all concluding in nihilism (even if well-intentioned), from the point of view of a classicist or similar perspective to myself.

So what is it? Have we entered a new phase of warfare? Are we doomed to be stuck into these narrow and easily manipulated afflictions that are identified in the article from Global Guerillas? If you buy into the nihilist death pact of post-modernism, then the answer is yes. Is there an alternative, if one would avoid this?

One of the books that has influenced me the most is Robert D. Kaplan's 'Coming Anarchy'. Kaplan traveled to many different fields of war and conflict as a journalist. In describing the places in question, he made connections to a living history among different peoples and ethnicities that continued it's seemingly primitive existence on the outskirts of civilization . Often declared dead, but seemingly resurgent at any conflict, this 'history' still lives with us. This fresh perspective led to both praise and criticism, as you can imagine. Reading him and a few others, I found myself delving into the Classics of Greece and Rome, to discover the wisdom of our predecessors. I would be very presumptuous to try to summarize their lessons in a sentence or paragraph, due to the varied richness of their outlook and experiences. Because what I found was a refreshingly open and practical outlook, compared to the narrow focus of my organized studies in the formal education system. In this world of slaves and empires of long past, they somehow had the same problems of today.

In this context, the terrorist armies of Hezbollah and their compatriots echo that of the tribal chieftains bordering the empires of the past. The vacillation of the elites in the Republics of Rome and Greece led to the creation of opportunity for Alexander or Caesar to fill the vacuum by forcefully solving their problem to much acclaim. Great men, to be sure; but most definitely not interested in some of the other more valuable aspects of civilized life, such as liberty (or due process as we understand it). This paradox was a central conflict of the political and philosophical aspects of Western governance, and seemingly stays so today.

To return to the original question on what future warfare might look like, we see these trends of restriction and artificiality becoming dominant in the execution of contemporary warfare. What we don't see, if we lose the historical context, is how the rewards (basic economic/game theory) become even greater for the participants involved to ignore, if not reject entirely, these arbitrary restrictions on their conduct. The odd part is how we expect the other side to willfully disobey, yet somehow still maintain our obedience to these outdated ideals. We have this dominant legalistic attitude that perpetuates belief in ineffectual and antagonistic bodies like the UN, which you can see in debates such as those of unilateralism vs. multilateralism. Or what has become the perverted ideal of 'humanitarian warfare', seemingly held by the world's elite's and dominating the ethos of the UN. Much more likely is an even bloodier 21st century, explaining that selection on my booklist (which I'd like to review if it ever gets here!).

The comfort of wealth, along with the short-sightedness of Eurocentrism, leave us crippled to view the world through the intellectual prism of the past 100 years, leading us down the road to repeat their ineffectual disaster. Our civilization and wealth don't come free! Just as Macedonia picked up the pieces of Greece following the disaster of the Pelopponesian War, or as Caesar won the Civil War, we must follow the dictum laid down in the times of Sun Tzu.

'The art of war is of vital importance to the State. It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin. Hence, it is a subject of inquiry which can on no account be neglected.'

Based on my experiences, I believe that the 'Art of War' is being relearned and maintained as we speak, even if begrudgingly. I feel sorry for those who would restrict themselves to the unworkable mess of post-modern warfare, mistaking that for the mess and disappointment to come when these artificial restrictions crash to the ground, along with their well-meant ideals.


  • This is a great article.

    I believe that 4GW is not a break from Mao's People's War, it is an evolution of it.

    We keep asking ourselves "How is war changing" when the hugely better question is "How is war staying the same? What common metaphors and language can we use to fight wherever we are?"

    Nice correlation to the Romans and the barbarian tribes. What if Rome had actually conquered the world, however? What if each Roman lived like a king? What if the Romans had nukes? How much would they let things go before taking action? And at some point, isn't success self-defeating? The soft, easy life is not the warrior's.

    By Blogger DAN, at 11:51 PM  

  • That's the point I was trying to make, that 4GW doesn't really change anything from Mao- it is still stuck in Marxist-Leninist framework. If you accept the assumptions of M/L and Mao, then you will be doomed to fight 'post-modern' warfare, of which 4GW is a part. Not to mention the nightmare scenario presented by the Global Guerillas post. My solution is the opposite- reject that entire framework.

    Then one would look to the Romans for guidance. And as I said somewhere else (think it was QandO but can't remember where), their solution for the problems we face today, such as air transportation safe from terrorism, wouldn't be more X-ray machines and bureaucrats, but more invasions. I think we all could imagine the outcry. Yet this affront to modern sensibility would echo that of the more civilized Greeks living under the dominion of their warlike neighbors of Rome.

    But to answer your other question, yes, I believe after a certain point success IS self-defeating. In the Western tradition we call this Decadence, but you can also see it clearly in the dynastic cycles of Asian history. It's rare to find a culture or race than can continue to perpetuate itself in the years following their overwhelming success.

    Thanks for checking it out. Never mind another critical look when I can get it!

    By Blogger sunguh5307, at 1:42 AM  

  • I do not think you understand how this war is being fought at all.

    It is not a war of mobility.

    It is siege warfare. The warfare of sea powers. Blockades.

    The most important siege tool is the control of something so inexpensive that individual units are for all practical purposes are free.


    These ought to give the general idea:
    Hizballah Joins the Cash Flow Jihad
    Cash Flow Jihad Strikes Hamas
    Cash Flow Jihad Meets Aftermath
    Iran to Enter Cash Flow Jihad Zone
    Follow the Money
    Follow the Gold

    The purpose of the military is to increase the rate of expenditures of resources to the point where resistance is futile.

    All military power is at its base economic.

    By Blogger M. Simon, at 2:28 PM  

  • M. Simon,

    Don't understand at all? Sorry friend, just spent a year over there, so I have a little idea. Another person might be offended by a similar accusation, but all's fair and all that, right?

    You'll have to do a little better than that to convince me. I've spent quite a bit of time reading about war and history and the related theories, and to me, Thucydides said it best: honor, fear and interest. And it's this third aspect of 'interest', as I've said before, that dominates the 20th/21st century economic-centered outlook. My explanation would be the preemeninence of Marxist-Leninist thought alongside more Liberal (Adam Smith and JSM, not contemporary politicians)capitalist theory.

    This being my understanding, which I've addressed in my post and one before it (, I conclude that this is an incomplete view. Look at the religious aspect- not for us, but the Islamists- can that be explained economically? The feeling of shame and the honor of jihad? The fear of change and dominance by the foreign institutions of the West? Just to name a few examples.

    But to return to the practice of war, especially in the Middle East. Yes, Al Qaeda and the Saddam holdouts are using money to continue their fight- as we are (don't forget revolution isn't cheap- those 'People's Wars' in Africa and Asia were mostly bankrolled by the USSR or the PRC as well). But they have to have something to attach themselves to, some grievance or cause- in essence, a political argument.

    Economics are important; they aren't the end-all and be-all.

    By Blogger sunguh5307, at 4:52 PM  

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