War is hell, especially when the rules of engagement change in bewildering ways, as former paratrooper and current National Defense University professor McFate (Deep Black, 2017, etc.) explores in this combat-tested book.
“Why has America stopped winning wars?” So asks the author, provocatively. Why indeed, given how much of our national treasure goes to the care and feeding of a behemoth war machine? The problem isn’t the military’s, strictly speaking, nor of party politics and its curious ways, though “Congress has been AWOL since the Truman administration.” No, the problem is an endemic American one that centers on “strategic incompetence,” the inability to understand the nature of war and the modern enemy: organizations that are stateless, without standing armies, insurrectionary, enjoying the support of at least a good percentage of the populace, and able to drift in and out of a fight. Against this, writes McFate, American military leadership has taken a Tom Clancy/Red Dawn view that we’re still up against the Soviet Union and its big tank armies—though eschewing the use of nuclear weapons, since gentlemen do not go tossing around atomic bombs in the age of mutually assured destruction. “Preparing for conventional war is unicorn hunting,” writes the author dismissively before proposing a different scenario without failure baked into the recipe. Some of the ingredients are controversial, including the notion that future wars will likely be waged by special forces and mercenary armies, which, though carrying ugly connotations, are more cost-effective than standing national armies. McFate occasionally wanders into odd territory, including the notion that “deep states” will be responsible for world disorder as the nation-states of old fade away. However, it’s not far-fetched to believe, as he does, that “the double helix of corporations and politicos forms the DNA of America’s power structure” and that such elements have a way of fighting for themselves rather than the common good.
Shadow wars, wars by proxy, wars in which the weak predictably beat the strong: This book isn’t pretty, but it’s necessary reading for the strategically inclined.