Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Book review

Book Review by David Buzard, 146 Proceedings of the U.S. Naval Institute, December 2020, at 87 (reviewing Sean McFate, The New Rules of War: How America Can Win Against Russia, China and Other Threats (New York: HarperCollins, 2020)). (5th item linked here)

"With Admiral James Stavridis praising its author as 'a new Sun Tzu,' and the Army War College having added it to its reading program, it seems that The New Rules of War by Sean McFate has become essential reading. And a must-read it is, both for lay devotees of military affairs and serious security-sector professionals. To the former, enthralled by the might of U.S. arms during the 20th century, it is a clarion call for fundamental change in strategic and tactical thinking. To the latter, it is nothing new: 'We’re already behind in adapting to the changed character of war today in so many ways,' declared Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Corps General Joseph Dunford to the 2016 graduating class at the National Defense University, on whose faculty McFate sits.

"McFate relays the message in riveting Tom Clancy style sure to please the armchair warrior—and, hopefully, to convert worshipers of the military-industrial complex away from their faith in multibillion-dollar programs such as the Third Offset Strategy. According to McFate, relying on conventional use of force is an historical anomaly, a vestige of the Westphalian order, that is fading fast with the advent of nonstate actors. Although the era of nation-states clashing on the battlefield is over, armed conflict abounds, belying what McFate terms a state of global 'durable disorder.' Yet, the United States military suffers from 'strategic atrophy,' preventing it from adapting to this new world order.

"McFate provocatively describes this order as 'wars without states,' where 'countries will become prizes to be won by more powerful global actors'; 'mercenaries . . . take over countries, ruling as kings; and 'nonkinetic elements like information, refugees, ideology and time will be weaponized.' One can see its harbingers in the resurgence of the 14th-century Russian tactic of maskirovka, or 'masquerade,' and China’s official 'Three Warfares Strategy,' which draws on Sun Tzu. Both firmly relegate kinetic force to a secondary role.  The veneer of the Westphalian order—along with its 'conventional war theory,' whose 'high priest' is Carl Von Clausewitz—is falling away. McFate does not mourn that order by any means; under it, humankind has experienced the greatest bloodshed in all history. Yet the post-Westphalian world he describes is frightening, one in which 'slaughtering the innocent is used . . . to bait, punish, or provoke,' and where 'killing civilians to manipulate the winds of war and to achieve indirect strategic effects' is the norm.

"Although he expressly 'brackets the important question of war ethics,' McFate implies that with the fading of conventional warfare, so goes the War Convention. In fact, he as much as pronounces it dead: international law is 'futile,' the laws of war a 'marvelous fiction' that has 'devolved into a punch line.' Let us hope McFate’s cavalierism is merely symptomatic of his overall bravura, playing to the more brutish aficionados. Surely, given his impeccable credentials (BA from Brown, MA from Harvard, PhD from London School of Economics, professorships at the National Defense University and Georgetown), he knows better than to reference 'waving a white cloth to signal surrender.' It is in this respect that McFate disappoints: One cannot honestly 'bracket' the question of morality in war, and then gratuitously denigrate the efforts made to enforce basic morality within it.

"Nevertheless, McFate’s argument that we must both adapt pre-Westphalian basics for the information age and embrace extra-Western strategic thinking is compelling, well-illustrated, and thrilling to read. For these reasons, his book is highly recommended to all Americans with a passion for military affairs. McFate’s core advice is to overhaul military education to foster 'scholar-practitioners' and unchain strategic thinking from its conventional prejudice. As he puts it, 'We will need more than warriors—we will need war artists. War is more like jazz than engineering and we need strategists who can think this way.' In so doing, however, let us not throw away our moral compass and sail aimlessly through the seas of durable disorder."

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