In Washington, the US military is routinely feted as the best equipped, the best trained, the most lethal, indeed, the greatest force ever fielded. However, its dismal war record since 1945 suggests otherwise.
An uneasy draw in Korea was followed by humiliating withdrawals from South Vietnam, Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq – with dire consequences for US policy, interests and reputation. These disasters were counter-balanced only by small-scale successes – the invasions of Grenada and Panama – or limited-objective wins, such as the liberation of Kuwait in Gulf War I.
Indeed, a detailed 2015 briefing by the US Special Operations Command analyzing the last century of American overseas conflicts found nine losses, 43 ties and only 12 wins.
The United States, it seems, no longer knows how to win wars.
Doomsayer and author
“The last time the United States won a conflict decisively, the world’s electronics ran on vacuum tubes,” writes author and thinker Sean McFate. And the problem impacts not only the US; it extends to the democratic West.
“This isn’t just happening in the United States. Over the last 70 years, a disturbing trend has emerged; the West has forgotten how to win wars,” McFate noted.
“Modern war’s only constant is that the world’s strongest militaries now routinely lose to their weaker enemies.”
McFate knows his subject. The latest enfant terrible in international security, he has both academic muscle and real-world street cred. As a scholar, he is a professor of strategy at the National Defense University and Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.
He has also worked at the Rand Corporation, Atlantic Council, Bipartisan Policy Center and New America Foundation.
He is a former US Army officer and a former private security contractor with experience dealing with African warlords, raising small armies, working with armed groups in the Sahara, transacting arms deals in Eastern Europe and helping prevent genocide Burundi.
In 2015 he published The Modern Mercenary: Private Armies and What They Mean for World Order. His latest work, published on January 22, takes a wider view: The New Rules of War: Victory in the Age of Durable Disorder.
Goodbye to all that
“The West is losing because it suffers from strategic atrophy. We yearn to fight conventional wars like its 1945, our glory days, and then we wonder why we have stopped winning. War has moved on, and our enemies have moved on with it,” McFate said.
“But we are stuck in the fantasy of yesteryear, and that’s why we are failing. We do not know how to fight other kinds of wars, especially the confusing endless ones of today.
“Rather than face the future, experts turn to the past and imagine robot wars and grand air-naval battles against China that resemble World War II with better technology.”
The era ushered in via the mid-17th century Peace of Westphalia treaty, when nation-states held monopolies of violence, is over. Also receding into yesteryear are the relatively clear-cut, set0piece battles of a conventional war.
Instead, historic enmities are reemerging across geographical, cultural and religious fault lines. The methods the West is using to try and deal with them, short of outright war, are increasingly ineffective.
In McFate’s view: “Ancient rifts, such as that between Sunni and Shia Muslims, reopen and destabilize entire regions. UN peacekeeping fails, mostly because there is no peace to keep. Nothing seems to work; high-stakes negotiations, superpower interventions, track II diplomacy, strategic nonviolence, nation-building or winning hearts and minds. Everything fails.”
As for the title of his latest book, McFate dubs this situation – an era characterized by non-state violence and long-term, globalized conflicts – “durable disorder.”
“The world will not collapse into anarchy; however, the rules-based order we know will crumble and be replaced by something more organic and wild,” he noted.
“Disorder has taken over the Middle East and Africa, significant portions of Asia and Latin America and is creeping into Europe. Soon it may be in North America.”
So what is the solution? Firstly, McFate says, big-picture thinking needs to be pushed right down to the tactical ranks.
“We don’t do strategic leadership in [the US],” McFate told Asia Times. “Military schools barely teach it. As a whole, there is a no-strategy program. We don’t even teach strategy [to officers] until they are 15 years into their career. We should start at age 18. We need to create a strategy track in the military.”
At the top, the brass also needs a rethink. Noting that US Army Joint Chiefs of Staff always come from traditional “teeth” arms – infantry, armor or artillery – McFate asked: “Why don’t we have an intel specialist at the top?”
At a time when some are suggesting tactical nuclear strikes as a potential “solution” to weaponized islands, McFate, in a bold assertion, says that nuclear arms will soon cease to be weapons of non-use.
He writes: “Nuclear weapons will be seen as big bombs, and limited nuclear war will become acceptable to some. Nothing lasts forever. India and Pakistan could have a nuclear war.
“Also, there is a theory that if Saudi Arabia gave up their nuclear program and gave it to Pakistan, but could always buy it back. You could very easily envision a Middle East war with a 1914 moment.”
One of McFate’s prescriptions is bound to raise eyebrows. “It’s time for an American foreign legion – and a British one, an Australian one, a Danish one, and any other country that wants to overcome threats before they arrive at their borders.”
He suggests following the French model: a globally-recruited force that falls under national control. “The legion’s units would be led by American officers and special forces teams, scaling their missions at a reasonable rate,” he said.
This would obviate the multiple problems presented by the ragtag mercenary troops maintained by private military contracting firms. “In this model, legionnaires should replace contractors and all the troubles associated with them,” McFate suggested. “Training and vetting standards could be maintained in a transparent manner, unlike with barely vetted private military contractors.”
It would recruit globally, availing itself of a huge pool of manpower, and would ensure loyalty by offering a pathway to American citizenship. And most importantly, it would obviate the American public’s distaste for seeing its troops returning home dead; experience in Iraq and Afghanistan indicates the American public is indifferent to casualties outside regular military forces.
Mastering future war
Western publics fail to understand future war trends, particularly because Hollywood and popular writers peddle false visions. “The biggest abusers are Hollywood and science fiction writers, who redo the Battle of Midway over planets,” he said.
In fact, one critical future battlespace is cyber war – but not the way it has been understood by most in the West.
“Cyberwar doomsayers are the biggest con artists among technophiles,” McFate noted. “Cyber is important, but not in the way people think. In 2011, people thought the power of cyber was to destroy things: spying, theft, propaganda and sabotage.”
The real use of cyber, according to McFate, is not as a form of hard power, but as a form of sharp power. It is this form of force that Russia – a long-time master of “disinformation warfare” – has deployed to tremendous political effect in recent years, opening up gulfs of division in Western publics.
“The true power of cyber is propaganda. We should take that very seriously,” McFate said. “Representative democracies are very vulnerable to it. Russians without a doubt were involved in the 2016 US election, Brexit and other European elections.”
It is time to hit back – and not by using clunky Cold War-era techniques like pamphlet drops. McFate suggests using US soft power as a weapon: Covert broadcasts to oppressive regimes of Baywatch and Idol may be more effective than earnest bulletins by Radio Free Europe.
He also suggests ridicule be leveraged to delegitimize opponents: Russia’s president, he says, is particularly ripe for this given his macho stunts, as is North Korea’s odd-looking leader.