Best Defense

The Future of War essays (no. 18): Who cares about ‘the future of war’? We should be thinking about the future of victory!

By Kevin Black Best Defense future of war contest entry What is the future of war? My response: Who cares? I mean, what good are the tools and methods of war when we don’t understand its nature in the first place? Our country, with its unmatched military might and sophistication, has the capabilities to destroy ...


By Kevin Black
Best Defense future of war contest entry

What is the future of war? My response: Who cares? I mean, what good are the tools and methods of war when we don’t understand its nature in the first place?

Our country, with its unmatched military might and sophistication, has the capabilities to destroy any country, any coalition, and indeed, the world multiple times over. And at the same time, everyone knows we will never unleash our full military potential.

When exactly was the last time we decisively won a war? Too far to think back? Isn’t our military, the spiritual descendants of Chesty Puller and of Curtis LeMay, made up of the best trained killers in the world? Well, the USMC recruiting commercial showing the Marine working hard to pass out food packages like a Peace Corps worker suggests otherwise.

Our logic of warmaking is breathtakingly backwards. Nukes, weapons which assure the complete destruction of an enemy army or state in a moment, and which also make standing armies unnecessary, are too politically taboo to discuss. Drones and special operators, excellent accessories to conventional forces, are now our most cherished combat assets. And arguably the greatest danger on the battlefield is our rules of engagement. We actually imprison our soldiers for fulfilling their roles as soldiers. This is not only insane, this is our nation’s military policy!

How did this sad state of affairs come about? They are many explanations, all of which are probably prefaced by “Well, it’s complicated…” I’m convinced there is an answer and that it is obvious. Our policymakers and military leadership do not understand the nature of war with all its implications.

War begins with policy, first and foremost. Here at the most strategic level of operations, the aims, the goals, and the tone of fighting is set. “War is the continuation of politics,” wrote Clausewitz, meaning that the state uses war as a means to impose its will on another for political ends. Not all wars are equal in ferocity; their scope and scale are determined by the political goals that drive them.

What is war? In Clausewitzian thought, it is an episode characterized by pure, adulterated violence and hatred. Think of war as a Platonic Form. What actualizes or dilutes its potential are the biases and values of the politicians who set the political goals. According to Clausewitz, he who brings war closest to its ideal has the best chance of success. Total war becomes the obvious assurance of ultimate military success.

Victory must be decisive and complete, your enemy must unconditionally submit to your will. The utter destruction of the enemy army, or even their nation, which might include every man, woman, and child, must be your exclusive aim. Then, and only then, will your enemy understand your resolve and potentially yield. Failure to implement war in these total terms, however, invites continued or future resistance, resulting unnecessarily in costs in men and national treasure.

To recognize war’s nature, and then to act on it, requires enormous willpower of the people who wage it. Most of all, it takes moral certitude: the absolute conviction of the righteousness of one’s cause. Only then will a people freely endure the social deprivations that follow.

This “extreme” view of war, i.e. its most consistent form, is the only prescription for political success. History concurs. For example, the Civil War’s outcome can be rightfully ascribed to Grant and Sherman’s unyielding determination to force the South to submit. World War II was won in four years. In both cases, entire strategic arsenals were utilized unapologetically. The results were that the conflicts were resolved permanently and long-lasting peaces ensued.

The modernist response to this approach is abhorrence. Aren’t we too civilized for something so barbaric? If civilized means enduring more pain rather than inflicting it on our enemies, then yes. “These principles seem to me to have made men feeble,” Machiavelli remarked in his Discorsi, on the impact of Christian morals to warfare in contrast to Greek and Roman predecessors, “…seeing that the great body of men, for the sake of gaining Paradise, are more disposed to endure injuries than to avenge them.”

So how did we get into multiple wars without actually winning them? The root cause can be found in our culture’s “philosophy,” or the way Americans interpret the world and our place in it. Step into a college liberal arts classroom and chances are you’ll see we’ve abandoned our Enlightenment roots, mental and spiritual. Aristotelian logic has been replaced with subjectivist language parsing. Critical thinking has been subverted with the post-modern certitude that we can’t be certain of anything. The challenges of long-range thinking are disregarded for the instant gratification of our emotional whims.

Military leadership is of course affected. An overriding emphasis on analysis and tactics has completely overshadowed its counterparts, synthesis and strategy. The short-range fight, not the long-range struggle, has become our focus. Maharbal’s critique of Hannibal easily applies today to our national leadership, “you know how to gain a victory; you do not know how to use it.”

In terms of ethics, we’ve forsaken the moral prerogative to defend ourselves with all means available. Instead we’ve adopted the morally obscene “Just War” theory — a religious guide that ultimately protects our enemies from our full wrath. The fact is we have become a people that “want to eat our cake and have it too.” To borrow Ayn Rand’s quip about the modern mind, “blank out” has become our intellectual modus operandi. We want to kill our enemies at arm’s length and imagine there are no long-term consequences. We want to pretend that drones and special forces are too precise to be significant, that a real state of war does not exist between us and the rogue nations that sponsor the insurgents we fight.

“How’s that working for you?” to quote our most celebrated modern intellectual, Dr. Phil. A weaker United States is the result. Clausewitz’s take on the relationship between the offense and the defense is instructive here: The longer a war is waged without decisive victory, the weaker the attacker becomes and the stronger the defender. Since 9/11, our enemies have multiplied exponentially. The astute Michael Scheuer recommends a simple test to measure our military progress: Compare terrorist footprints using a pre-9/11 world map with one from today.

The ripple effect of our indecisive wars undermines our domestic harmony. Think the TSA is going away soon? Expect greater intrusions into your privacy the longer our enemies are allowed to roam about. Will a rogue state be attacked if it shelters a motley gang of Middle Eastern Pancho Villas? That justification was invalidated with the Iraq War II debacle.

What about the increase in big government in our daily lives? Madison’s observation that standing armies are dangerous to the liberties of a free country is becoming more prescient every day. Now, however, standing armies have become militarized police forces in our local communities.

What can we do as Americans? I see two alternatives.

The first is to withdraw from the world stage. This will at least, and for the short-term, give an illusion of safety. We can increasingly become a nation under siege. Incidentally, our eroding position in the world today suggests we as a people have chosen this approach.

The more difficult alternative, the one that could make this country powerful again, requires a major cultural awakening. We must return to the American philosophy of life that made this country great. What we need now is what Nietzsche called a complete “transvaluation of values,” and indeed, of mindset.

Aristotle should again become the dominant philosophy that guides our lives, replacing the megaphones of irrationalism championed in academia, found in the likes of Chomsky and Chopra. Our cultural ethics should seek happiness in this world and this life, and reject the “noble” sacrifices of our military for some mystical “higher” ideal. Our foreign policy should be U.S.-centric: We should act in our best interests first and foremost, for the short- and long-run.

Our military and political leaders need to understand the nature of war. Then they will treat the military for what they are, professionals who specialize in killing and destruction, not social workers with weapons. So the next time we go to war, we will want to win unapologetically and decisively.

Kevin Black served in the Army as an infantry captain in Iraq in 2003. Now an entrepreneur, he consults on business strategy and leadership. He graduated from VMI and also holds two degrees from Arizona State, a master’s in interdisciplinary studies, and an MBA. 

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at

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