Far From A “Post-Military Age”

Packed into David Ignatius’ piece on Admiral Mike Mullen is about two decades’ worth of accumulated assumptions about warfare that have not been particularly useful to us.Chief among them is the idea of a “post-military age:”

Talking to Adm. Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, in his final week in the job, I found myself wondering whether we are entering a “post-military” age, when our top officers understand that the biggest problems can’t be solved with military power …But what are the deeper, intractable problems facing Mullen’s generation of officers? They are about culture, and governance, and the subtle psychological factors that keep people from doing what’s in their interest. … In that sense, all the brilliance of the American military won’t be enough — not when the definition of victory is so interwoven with politics and culture.

There is a lot wrong with this paragraph, the most obvious being that it is next to impossible for an outsider to change someone’s perception of what’s in their interest–especially if, from the narrow goals of an Central Asian spymaster or Afghan narco-prince, their interests are served remarkably well by continuing their present behavior.A good deal of our difficulties over the last ten years have been failing to appreciate that our interlocutors have a fairly well developed idea of what their interests are and absent massive coercion will not budge from them.

The phrase “subtle psychological factors that keep people from doing what’s in their interest” is Ignatius’ way of saying that psychology prevents a given regional power-broker from realizing that it is in his interest to support us. We might instead, however, realize that his interests may be objectively different from ours. Even if we are correct that psychology prevents him from realizing that he is right to support us, it means little if we cannot compel him to do our bidding.

While critiquing snippets of the argument is tempting, it’s more useful to try to treat the problem holistically, since the phrase “post-military” is as suggested above is indicative of a lot of deeper intellectual issues.

Since most of human history has been marked by the use of force to advance broadly “political” aims, the idea of a post-military age would indicate a radical break with history. But the evidence suggests muddled thinking instead of novelty.

When someone uses the phrase “there is no military solution” it can mean one of three things. First, it’s not a military problem to begin with. Second, the military has failed badly in either planning operations or implementing them. Third, the political objectives have been defined so highly and unrealistically that by definition force cannot achieve them.

In this article, we see a good deal of factors (1) and (3). Culture, governance, and the political corruption and mendacity of Pakistani and Afghan elites are by definition things that are not military problems, although this realization is as old as war itself. However, they have military solutions. Coercive options against the Pakistanis, for example, are more credible without logistical dependence on Karachi. This brings us to factor 3–unrealistic objectives.  When the political objective is out of sync with the military means available, of course there is no military solution. To continue with the previous example, if the objective is to change Karachi’s strategic mind without credible pressures, then the objective rather than the military is at fault.

One of the seductions of a post-military age as represented by the soft power and smart power schools of thought is the fact that often times the utilization of those tools is advocated without a diagnosis of the real problem. The phrase “no military solution” implies an acceptance that military efforts to change the situation have not succeeded but not a realization that the aims themselves were unrealistic. Hence we attempt to achieve through supposedly superior nonmilitary or extramilitary aid, public relations, or tea-drinking what we could not win through force or coercion.

Or, to look at it from an non-COIN perspective, take Imperial Germany’s strategic balance and the force plans developed by the General Staff. It is commonplace for military historians (and marginalized contemporary military analysts such as Hans Delbruck or even Bismarck himself) to argue that Germany’s problems (geographical, diplomatic, etc) precluded the strategy that was eventually adopted. This did not mean, however, that Germany had no military solutions to its strategic problems (diplomatic isolation, two-front war).

Delbruck, Bismarck, Moltke the Elder, and others had proposed much more limited military plans that might have achieved better political results. But those force plans would have been contingent on a much more restrained policy and strategy than the idea of continental mastery that was implicit in the Kaiser and the General Staff’s actual 1914 opening moves.  But if we dropped in by time travel and told Moltke et al that Germany’s strategic problems were proof that Germany had entered into an post-military age in which the military could no longer contribute to national security, they rightly would not be receptive to such a message.

It would be laughable to propose to the Germans that the reason that they faced such a daunting challenge was that they didn’t get the new foreign policy/national security environment where force no longer paid dividends, and that their problems might be fixed if they only decided to replace their armies with Greg Mortensen and co. If Germany had a problem to fix, it was the fact that the Imperial state was hell-bent on doing something that Russia, Britain, France, and eventually America would not allow it to do, and that the German military and nation could not win a protracted war with a military strategy built on the principle of annihilation.

Let’s take a step back from 1914 into the present. If we continue define things such as authoritarianism, climate change, world poverty, or political instability and atrocities in peripheral states as core threats to national security without hard evidence beyond the vague idea that the world is flat, we will inevitably run into the disconnect between unlimited aims and our limited national security means to resolve them. This gaping disconnect fuels, as noted earlier, the dangerous notion that it is the military–rhetorically chastised by soft warriors for rightly prioritizing the use or threat of force–that has failed to provide solutions.

There is nothing wrong with soft/smart power, aid, or development. But just as Joseph Fouche and I have repeatedly attacked the idea of cure-all “magic bullets” in military strategy, we should also recognize that when influence is used as a substitute for force it is also a magic bullet. And in a time of great fiscal peril and possible American retrenchment in the world we ought to be as vigilant as we can in spotting magic bullets before we load them into our guns–they have a bad habit of hitting the gunman rather than the intended target.


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