Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Book excerpt: Of Humans and Hardware

It’s the human factor that is the ultimate determinant in war, as military intellectuals like Arthur Cebrowski, Robert Scales, H. R. McMaster, and many of their kind have long argued.



By Christopher Holshek


By Christopher Holshek
Best Defense guest columnist

It’s the human factor that is the ultimate determinant in war, as military intellectuals like Arthur Cebrowski, Robert Scales, H. R. McMaster, and many of their kind have long argued. War, in other words, is more about people than platforms. Or, in the first of the “Special Operations Truths” I later learned as a Civil Affairs officer: “Humans are more important than hardware.”

The wars we have fought — more so now than then — have essentially been wars of identity. Those who have a more firmly and widely rooted sense of it are usually the winners. The latest batch of bad guys we see in the news today went asymmetric, not just because they couldn’t go toe-to-toe with the world’s most professional fighting force. They had identified the Achilles’ heel of our industrial-era strategy of annihilation in attrition warfare. They understood better than we do that war is and always has been more a psychological than a physical struggle.

It was both my upbringing and civil–military education that helped me understand my trade in this way. I [later] learned how civil-military operations were not simply a form of public relations. They were a form of maneuver and economy of force, more in the psychological than physical sense. They should be integral to the operation rather than nice to do. If war was primarily a human endeavor, then civil–military operations could hardly be a sideshow — they were part of the main act.

Connecting this to my experience in the Iraq War as I maneuvered the Wide Glide back on to Interstate 40, heading west once again directly into the wind, I realized that our Phase Four failure in Iraq was not that much out of character, because we weren’t thinking of it in Cold War West Germany either. Then I remembered how I had learned from my father, as a carpenter’s understudy, that it wasn’t the framing and shaping work of posts, beams, and rafters that was most difficult or time-consuming. It was the finishing work — joinery, windows, doors, walls, and trim — that ultimately decided how good a job you had done. Civil–military operations and Phase Four stability and reconstruction operations are, in a way, the finishing work of war.

It wasn’t about men or machines — it was about both — about understanding that technology, as metaphors of the interplay between inner and outer nature, should work to enhance rather than be a substitute for moral conscience. War, like any collective human endeavor, is ultimately an exercise of the moral in the physical, not just over it. As such, therefore, the role of art and science in our lives cannot be understood any more separately than can humans apart from their hardware. This more expansive understanding of who I was and what I was about helped prepare me well for later challenges that I could not have foreseen during those days in Central Europe.

In this emerging new world, the military has to be a force of cooperation as much as confrontation. Professional soldiers of the twenty-first century must be as adept in the use of restraint as in the use of force. Among the most significant things I later heard someone in the UN explain to me was “In peacekeeping, the enemy is not a party to the conflict — the enemy is the conflict itself.” That’s really the paradigm we’re in now. The Powell Doctrine has had limited application for the unconventional or what are now called irregular-warfare situations between peace and war that have become the new normal.

What I was beginning to internalize [in Germany and the Balkans] but couldn’t articulate until much later was that civil-military operations embrace the art of leveraging nonviolent means to achieve the same ends as violence. There may be no substitute for victory, but there are substitutes for the ways and means to achieve it. Getting the civil-military approach right was and remains the most important but toughest sell in this business.

(This is excerpted, with the permission of the author, from Travels With Harley: Journeys in Search of  Personal and National Identity.)

Christopher Holshek, a retired U.S. Army civil affairs colonel, is a senior fellow at the Alliance for Peacebuilding and author of Travels with Harley: Journeys in Search of Personal and National Identity. He rides a Harley.

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

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 Twitter: @tomricks1

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