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12 Depressing Previews of America’s Next War

Here’s hoping past performance isn’t an indicator of future success.

U.S. soldiers near Kandahar, Afghanistan on Feb. 28, 2014. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)
U.S. soldiers near Kandahar, Afghanistan on Feb. 28, 2014. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

The excellent new book by Lawrence Freedman, The Future of War: A History, demonstrates that military futurists, like political pundits, have a terrible track record of predicting the future in their field of expertise. Freedman notably warns to avoid those who proclaim, “the ease and speed with which victory can be achieved while underestimating the resourcefulness of adversaries.”

Despite futurists’ long, poor track record, writing about the future of war is a well-resourced industry, within the military, in academia, and at think tanks. Because futurists are not evaluating or making judgments about contemporary events, they avoid critiquing those who hold power today, which prevents them from losing access to officials, being retaliated against, and generally harming their career advancement. Moreover, the penalties for making unsound or incorrect predictions are rarely incurred, and if they are at all, it is only in the distant future.

As a national security analyst constantly fascinated with studying what is happening on the earth today, I try to avoid predictions. This is due, in part, to my total failure at doing so (for example, I thought there would be an Israeli attack on Iran’s suspected nuclear weapons sites). It’s also because my gut feeling is that there are always a huge number of ongoing military activities that are understudied or underappreciated.

Nevertheless, I offer here a dozen, admittedly dispiriting, predictions about America’s future wars. I hope to be proven wrong about all of them.

First, the commanders and forces responsible for their geographic areas or domains (cyber most prominently) will do a poor job at preventing conflicts against U.S. interests in those areas or domains, despite pledging that conflict prevention is their highest priority.

Second, the military will not fight the adversary that it believes it will fight. As I first noted back in 2012, Pentagon officials have a terrible record of forecasting where it will fight and the sorts of challenges it will face, a record that has only worsened since.

Third, America’s armed forces will not fight the type of conflict that concept development and experimentation professionals conceive of, strategists and planners plan for, or service members are trained and prepared to encounter.

Fourth, civilian and military leaders will offer a buffet of vague justifications (humanitarian, economic, “national interests”) to defend going to war in order to obtain the widest possible support from Congress and American citizens.

Fifth, civilian leaders will wildly underestimate the human and financial costs, duration, political consequences, and second-order effects of those wars, in order to obtain the widest possible support from Congress and American citizens.

Sixth, both civilian and military leaders will mislead Congress, prominent media members, and the general public about the overall conduct and progress of the war by emphasizing positive stories and trends that they themselves generate, while similarly dismissing outside critical viewpoints.

Seventh, Pentagon officials and military commanders will articulate the intended political and military objectives with such vagueness that they are difficult to evaluate and nearly impossible to falsify.

Eighth, major media outlets will overwhelmingly portray the war based upon narratives and information provided by the U.S. military itself. Vignettes of individual heroism and service members’ surprise homecomings will be emphasized over critical reviews of the conduct of the war or stories from civilians living in the impacted countries.

Ninth, Congress will still not perform its congressionally mandated function of authorizing wars, nor its customary role of effectively overseeing them, which ideally would include monitoring, supervising, evaluating, and reviewing.

Tenth, during rare and intermittent congressional hearings about the war, commanders will assert that “the military element of national power is insufficient without adequate diplomatic support.” The elected members will collectively nod their heads in agreement and then quickly move on.

Eleventh, military leaders will pledge to learn lessons from the war and to implement new practices that assure that any operational or tactical mistakes are not repeated. These lessons will largely be overlooked by the new commanders of the next war.

Twelfth, politicians will selectively remember or forget how the war progressed and was concluded (if ever) when justifying the inevitable forthcoming military intervention. In keeping with historical practice, most of them will predict that the next war will go better than the last one.

Micah Zenko is the co-author of Clear and Present Safety: The World Has Never Been Better and Why That Matters to Americans.

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