But if all goes according to plan, we’ll be completely out of both Iraq and Afghanistan by 2015. Except for the “advisory and assistance brigades.” And special forces. And drones. And all the other minutiae and caveats that will have essentially set the stage for a near-permanent American presence in Central Asia for the foreseeable future.
But some day, an end will come both in name and in deed—even if that end turns out to be anticlimactic. It’s said all too often that “today’s generals are preparing to fight yesterday’s wars.” By the same token, the ascendancy of counterinsurgency doctrine in the United States military could be here to stay.
Charting the future course of war requires wisdom—and prescience. Who will do the fighting? How will our fighting be done? Why will we fight? And why will they fight? The pithy answers, in order, are: Very few people, remotely, preservation and economics.
***Since the Vietnam-era reinstatement of the draft, it’s been common knowledge that service in the United States military is disproportionately performed by minorities, “degenerates” and the economically-disadvantaged. Whites, the college-educated and those in higher socioeconomic brackets have been said to get out of service by varying their deferments, and faking physical infirmities. This class divide is purported to permeate the military today.
But does it?
A heavily minority Vietnam-era United States military is mythical. Ten percent of those who served in Vietnam were black, and ten percent Hispanic. Many were from the poor South, yes—but just as many were from the great cities of the North. As World War II veteran memoirist Samuel Hynes tells it, “for the Vietnam War, the United States chose not to send the middle-class wound men who had written the war narratives of the two world wars, but sent instead young men from the lower end of the social ladder – the rural and urban poor.”'1'
These divides soften in today’s Army. Consider the recent findings of the National Priorities Project. 10.9% of 2009 Army recruits were Hispanic, 17.2% black. 84.9% graduated high school, versus 70.7% in 2007. And, perhaps most intriguingly, the middle class was heavily over-represented in the 2009 recruit pool. The South held the highest recruitment rate; the Northeast, the lowest.
That picture of today’s Army – “Smarter, Richer, Southern” – could very well be the template for the next few decades. Within the Army, and the larger military, there’s little that’s troubling about this. Trends point to increased education among the ranks, higher ASVAB scores and an overall high-quality pool of recruits. But what this could mean for civil-military relations is another story completely.
***Even before the stress of two simultaneous wars, and a heavily-polarized electorate, the divide between civilian and soldier was becoming more pronounced.
Marines in the 1990s returned from boot camp “repulsed by the physical unfitness of civilians, by the uncouth behavior they witnessed, and by what they saw as pervasive selfishness and consumerism.” As America grows softer, dumber, and fatter, the civil-military gap has turned into a yawning chasm. Civilian society, while still respectful of the military, sees both enlisted soldiers and flag officers as politicized entities.
Since retired Admiral William Crowe, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, endorsed Bill Clinton for president in 1992, the number of retired admirals and generals lending their support to one candidate or another has soared to over a hundred in the 2008 election. Incoming administrations now refer to the “Clinton generals” or the “Bush generals” in the Pentagon, thus calling the very loyalties of the upper echelons of the military into question after every election cycle.
In a recent lecture given to students at Duke University, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates praised the all-volunteer military that had arisen after the Vietnam debacle. He credited extended service—now 50% of enlisted Army soldiers have at least four years of service, as opposed to 20% in 1969—with improving the quality of American armed forces, and with America’s success in conflicts since Vietnam. But most tellingly, Secretary Gates cautioned against the risk of self-selecting segregation:
For most Americans the wars remain an abstraction… Even after 9/11, in the absence of a draft… service in the military… has become something for other people to do. In fact, with each passing decade fewer and fewer Americans know someone with military experience in their family or social circle. According to one study, in 1988 about 40 percent of 18 year olds had a veteran parent. By 2000 the share had dropped to 18 percent, and is projected to fall below 10 percent in the future…
The nearly four decades of all-volunteer force has reinforced a series of demographic, cultural, and institutional shifts affecting who is most likely to serve and from where… In this country, that propensity to serve is most pronounced in the South and the Mountain West, and in rural areas and small towns nationwide – a propensity that well exceeds these communities’ portion of the population as a whole. Concurrently, the percentage of the force from the Northeast, the West Coast, and major cities continues to decline…
There is a risk over time of developing a cadre of military leaders that politically, culturally, and geographically have less and less in common with the people they have sworn to defend.
We haven’t reached such a crisis in civil-military relations yet. For the moment, military “meddling” in political affairs is limited to retired flag officers and the occasional “rogue general” (see l’Affair McChrystal). But, in keeping with the politicization of every aspect of American life, we may soon reach a watershed in which the military and America have to find a sort of common ground. Those who do our fighting now will eventually command everyone who fights later. If the United States reaches a point where the warrior segment of society is completely segregated from the rest of the country, we will have rendered ourselves powerless.
Of course, this speculation assumes that the current paradigm of modern war will remain unchanged into the future; that we will continue to have privates led by sergeants and lieutenants by captains, with forces arranged in battalions, and regiments and brigades and divisions. We at least expect humans to do the fighting. But, if the use of unmanned drones is any indication, we will replace them with robotic systems as soon as the latter prove reliable.
***It’s a byproduct of our living in a “risk society”: Paradoxically, our obsession with safety and minimizing casualties might make us more likely to wage war if there are no lives at stake. And that’s precisely what the architects of combat are heading towards. Be it DARPA’s yearly “Grand Challenge” to find a successful autonomous land vehicle, remotely controlled bomb-defusing robots or the overall push to put robots in every industry, the prospect of human losses becomes increasingly remote. The new confidence engendered by the emerging of remote platforms could in fact put us more at risk, and on an existential level.
But is our conscience affected? Can airmen controlling a UAV in Las Vegas insert their own morality into a situation in Iraq, on the other side of the world? We risk losing our very humanity in the process of preserving its existence. P.W. Singer has explored this question, at the nexus of ethics, technology, humanitarianism, and the concept of ‘just war’. Perhaps the earlier question of “who will do the fighting?” is better phrased as, “who will control the robots that do the fighting?” That question has even more fundamental implications.
Whether it be man or machine that fights our wars, those wars will be still fought. But to what end? Where we choose to engage will depend a great deal upon our adversaries. The traditional motivators of ideology and “liberation” no longer hold much sway. But neither does the all-too-seductive idea of monolithic “culture” as the great determinant of both a willingness and reason to go to war.
It is tempting to read too much into cultural differences in the developing world as catalysts for conflict. At the risk of excessive postmodernism, identity is largely a recent construct. To wit: created and exploited by colonial powers as a tool of imperial rule, the concept of ethnicity has really only achieved any hold when coupled with nationalistic programs. John Bowen warns that the three big assumptions—“that ethnic identities are ancient and unchanging…that these identities motivate people to persecute and kill… 'and' that ethnic diversity itself inevitably leads to violence,” all are completely mistaken. Often, warring parties seeking to obfuscate their true intentions will exaggerate such differences. In Military Orientalism, Patrick Porter describes the common American belief in Afghanistan that “it is culture above all the makes Afghans tick.” But as Porter goes on to describe, this is not at all the case:
The wartime behaviour of Afghans suggests that their culturally-rooted beliefs and taboos are not decisively important. First, the Taliban did not come out and fight. In a tactical moment, self-preservation trumped religious sensitivity. More deeply, the idea that…ritual honour is the Afghans’ political centre of gravity, contradicts other patterns of behaviour.'2'Defying expectations—the “element of surprise”—is a principle tenet of warfare in both East and West; in developing countries and in the first world; according to both Sun Tzu and to Clausewitz. Encouraging the attribution of particular explanations to their own behavior and then defying those expectations is a logical wartime tactic. It might seem then that it is self-preservation, or rather, existence above all that drives people to (and from) conflict. But is it out need, or just out of plain want that conflicts occur?
***The case of piracy in Somalia is a particularly fascinating one. The traditional assumption is that the complete absence of any central authority in Mogadishu leads to piracy. In this vacuum, acts of piracy are held to be a cathartic way of acting-out—as well as the only path to obtain income. While not entirely incorrect, the “desperation” and last-resort nature of piracy is not how the pirates in the Horn of Africa have sustained themselves.
Instead, the entire operation has become a community effort. Ransom money funds the infrastructure—the roads, schools and hospitals—in Haradheere, 250 miles north of Mogadishu. The community invests in piracy; a 22-year-old divorcee contributed a portion of her alimony towards a single rocket-propelled grenade for a raid on a Spanish fishing ship. She made $75,000 in thirty-eight days.
The sua sponte approach to local governance is not confined to the anarchic regions of Africa. In the favelas of Rio de Janeiro, drug cartels have control over much of the territory; even the well-armed, paramilitary Brazilian police are afraid to enter their sectors. In response, private vigilante civilian militias formed, and went from controlling 10% of the most violent areas in 2005 to 36% in 2008. At this point, the warfare itself is out of the hands of the central government. Like the slums of Bombay or the former District Six ghetto of Cape Town, the Rio favelas are an example of “government-free” zones left to local control. In these cases, fighting is at an existential level, or at least at a level of acceptable existence.
This, then, is the future of conflict: decentralized, devoid of ideology and community-based. The Balkanizing of the world that began with decolonization and accelerated after the collapse of the Soviet Union is not a temporary phenomenon. The Western Sahara region of Morocco, the fracturing of Somalia, Nagorno-Karabakh in Azerbaijan, Abkhazia and South Ossetia in Georgia, the Tamils of Sri Lanka, Chechnya, Dagestan, and Ingushetia in Russia—the list of succession and liberation movements in the 21st century is unending. Of course, some of these (see the Second Vermont Republic) are little more than dreams and idle talk, but as the August War in Ossetia and the ongoing Sunni-Kurd conflict in northern Iraq have shown, their supporters are deadly serious.
The coming resource wars will be devastating, and they will come. With water growing scarcer and scarcer, and desertification becoming the norm in much of North Africa and northwest China, the struggle to secure existential human needs like water and shelter will be fierce. We will see formerly peaceful nations and peoples lash out in unimaginable ways. But we need to start imagining them now.
***American strategic thought has not been completely ignorant of the changing face of war. In response to the economic factors at play in Somalian piracy, both civilian officials and the military have begun to discuss development designed to address the root causes of maritime lawlessness. Yet the broader picture is still seen as the real threat, and so international efforts remain focused on interdiction and enforcement.
Conflict and semi-traditional warfare are not the only threats to the United States. We are seeing an increased push towards securitization of formerly domestic and civilian issues. Transnational crime, such as the drug cartels of Latin America and various criminal gangs operating throughout Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, is seen in many places as a military issue. Efforts to combat environmental degradation, HIV/AIDS and infectious disease, and other “soft” issues are now portrayed as vital to national security, and thus of military concern. The overlap between domestic law enforcement and military operations has grown extreme, and while the military can contribute staggering resources towards combating some of these problems, we risk severe overextension of our armed forces both around the world in in our everyday lives.
Why do we want a military in the future? Will it exist to combat high-seas piracy, and other economic-related conflict? To preserve water and oil access for the United States? Complicating our identity crisis is what John Robb calls the obsolescence of state dominance. “The wars states, at least Western ones, can wage today are tightly constrained affairs … High-risk wars with other states are extremely rare because of the potential for nuclear holocaust, and as such are fast becoming extinct. Today, wars are wars of choice.”'3'
Unfortunately, we have not chosen wisely in recent history, and we’re still trying to compensate for our woeful unpreparedness in the wars that we have elected to fight.
The military leviathan of America cannot adapt or adopt new thinking without a total paradigm shift. That, more than anything, is what makes current counterinsurgency doctrine a passing fad – by its very nature, the Pentagon has to go through phases. Unfortunately, these phases aren’t quick adjustments or refinements. They’re huge, overarching changes that require a full commitment of the Department of Defense. At least, that’s how it works now. It’s not a process that can be easily halted midstream. The shift in regimental organization to the Pentomic system, begun in 1957 and considered more appropriate for a nuclear battlefield, was halted only six years after implementation began when it was discovered as too unwieldy. Yet the shortcomings of the system were revealed in a time of relative peace, and the transition that was well underway came to an end as the Pentagon shifted to yet another system, CARS, which in turn was not modified until 1981.
Even if no equivalent of Army Field Manual 3-24 exists for other service branches, the process of procurement and design for them is following a COIN-based path. The scrapping of the F-22 and Future Combat Systems, development of the Navy’s Littoral Combat Ships, the push for MRAP vehicles – all of these indicate an American military geared towards fighting fourth-generational, low-intensity conflicts in the long term, at the expense of other operational capabilities. COIN doctrine may very well be appropriate for Iraq and Afghanistan, but by gearing the armed forces to execute that and that alone, we jeopardize the ability to involve their strengths in other conflicts.
The good news is, that planning for the postwar era has actually begun. Admiral Gary Roughead, Chief of the Navy, felt it necessary to reiterate the Navy’s support for the missions in Afghanistan and Iraq before continuing a speech outlining its future:
When it comes time for the other services to re-deploy or return to major bases in the United States, the Navy will continue its “reset in stride” as we have for centuries and we will continue carrying on as before…
Perhaps of greatest strategic importance over time, American military power without a global navy presence would see the United States forfeit the opportunity to shape a favorable security environment in the Western Pacific and Indian Ocean. That is the ‘landscape’ upon which we will act for the foreseeable future – the reality of our surroundings which may not be evident to many Americans given the immediacy of our ground campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the specter of international terrorism.
How active America will be in the world is then the ultimate question. The cost of our unchallenged military supremacy only grows more staggering, and there is significant doubt as to whether we can maintain in the long run. Britain has decided it is incapable of preserving its place as a global power; will we now do the same? We’ve been preparing for asymmetrical war against an Islamic foe in the desert, when in all likelihood we’ll be fighting in cities against God only knows what.
The truth is, there’s no way to prepare for everything. So we must be prepared for anything. That means diversification. China is the big issue: is it an actual threat to our security, or is it a menace drummed up by those with delusions of a Cold War-style grand clash of civilizations? Regardless of the answer, though, it would be better if we were prepared for every eventuality; expect the worst, and hope for the best.
That’s the price we pay for living in our risk society; for minimizing casualties and maximizing returns on warfare. This trend not only affects the way our armies conduct themselves in combat (or the way they don’t), but also determines their very composition. What is our military used for? The more one considers Afghanistan, the more it must be asked: What the hell are we doing there? And that lack of purpose threatens to determine the course of human events far too significantly for comfort. Donald Rumsfeld was excoriated for his “unknown unknowns” observation, but it’s the simplest way possible to describe what has become a very complex combat situation. It’s very possible that the wars of tomorrow will be fought by robots from the South, against Africans trying to survive.
Past performance is no guarantee of future results, and this maxim needs to be enshrined by our armed forces command and written into American defense doctrine. We will determine the future of our choosing. Looking over the horizon, the only obvious factor ahead is one of motivation. Land? Water? Oil? Future foes will be fighting to obtain resources for survival. It’s entirely possible that America will be, too.