LTC Nagl on War in the 21st Century

LTC. John Nagl had an article, not yet available online, in the prestigious RUSI journal where he used his review of The Echo of Battle: The Army’s Way of War by Brian McAllister Linn to drive home a geopolitical and grand strategic reality that I offer here with my subsequent comments( major hat tip to Lexington Green for the PDF):

In the twenty-first century, wars are not won when the enemy army is defeated on the battlefield; in fact, there may not be a uniformed enemy to fight at all. Instead, a war is only won when the conditions that spawned armed conflict have been changed.

Fielding first rate conventional militaries of local or regional “reach” are inordinately expensive propositions and only the United States maintains one with global power projection capabilities and a logistical tail that can fight wars that are both far away and of long duration. Economics, nuclear weapons, asymmetrical disparities in conventional firepower, globalization and the revolution in information technology that permits open-source warfare have incentivized warfare on the cheap and stealthy at the expense of classic state on state warfare. The predictions of Martin van Creveld in The Transformation of War are coming to pass – war has ratcheted downward from armies to networks and blurs into crime and tribalism. In this scenario, kinetics can no longer be neatly divorced from politics – or economics, sociology, history and culture. “Legitimacy”, stemming from getting actions on the mental and moral levels of war right, matter tremendously.

‘Decisive results’ in the twenty-first century will come not when we wipe a piece of land clean of enemy forces, but when we protect its people and allow them to control their territory in a manner consistent with the norms of the civilised world.

This is “Shrinking the Gap” to use Thomas P.M. Barnett’s phrase. The remediation of failing and failed states not to “utopia” but basic functionality that permits a responsible exercise of sovereignty and positive connectivity with the rest of the world.

Thus victory in Iraq and Afghanistan will come when those nations enjoy governments that meet the basic needs and garner the support of all of their peoples.

Taken literally, Nagl errs here with two polyglot regions, especially Afghanistan where the popular expectation of a “good” central government is one that eschews excessive meddling while providing – or rather presiding over – social stability and peace. Taken more broadly to mean a gruff acceptance by the people of the legitimacy of their state so they do not take up arms ( or put them down), then nagl is on target. Realism about our own interests vs. global needs and our own finite resources requires a ” good enough” standard be in place.

Winning the Global War on Terror is an even more challenging task; victory in the Long War requires the strengthening of literally dozens of governments afflicted by insurgents who are radicalised by hatred and inspired by fear.

We might want to consider prophylactic efforts to strengthen weak states prior to a major crisis arising – more bang for our buck – and this should be a major task of AFRICOM. Strengthen the Botswanas, Malis and Zambias before wading hip-deep into the Congo.

The soldiers who will win these wars require an ability not just to dominate land operations, but to change entire societies – and not all of those soldiers will wear uniforms, or work for the Department of Army. The most important warriors of the current century may fight for the US Information Agency rather than the Department of Defense

Nagl has internalized an important point. The “jointness” forced upon the U.S. military by the Goldwater-Nichols Act in the late 1980’s and 1990’s needs to be broadened, first into true “interagency operational jointness” of American assets then into a full-fledged “System Administration” umbrella that can integrate IGO’s, NGO’s, and the private sector along with military-governmental entities to maximize impact.

Like SecDef Robert Gates, LTC. Nagl “gets it” and we can hope now that he has joined the ranks of policy wonks that an administration job is in his future.

15 thoughts on “LTC Nagl on War in the 21st Century”

  1. But it turns out that the conventional capacity underpins all. Pure jaw-jaw is ignored and over-ridden by the “gangs”, especially when big enough and externally driven and supported. Often overlooked in the full “SysAdmin” job description is the ability to merge with a dominating “Leviathan” conventional force. RTWT.

  2. Couldn’t another definition of victory be:

    “To deny the barbarian enemy achieving what he considers to be a victory”

    (If this message is too long, i’m sorry)

  3. Vince,
    If playing for a tie would be acceptable I would agree with your comment. However I would argue that what we have been doing so far is “denying the barbarian a victory.” It is a nasty, confusing, stick mess. Only through building capacity for the local force will we close the door to victory for the insurgent forever. Gen Wallace from TRADOC has a saying I would like to make an addendum too. “The US Army does not do fair fights, and we dont do home games!” I would also add “that we dont play for a tie.”

  4. The reason why I gave a sort of fuzzy definition is becauase I think with an Islamic enemy, it’s not so easy to defeat them in the classical sense.

    They could just decide to suspend Jihad… then they give you no basis for being at war with them.

    Then you leave, and then they turn jihad back on ( a process that could take a week, or a 100 years)

    .. or.. the Muslims in the same locality of our forces turn Jihad off.. but Jihad travels to another country and is reactivated there.

    I see no way of “winning”.. ever.

    the only thing we can do is prevent them from having victories.

  5. With all the fancy rhetoric and smarts out there, I doubt the Mongols had to much difficulty when dealing with a problem. The Mongols practiced real shock and awe. As long as the Mongols had the means, they didn’t lack the will. We build Gordian Knots. Our approach is to build a bridge, but only after first filing all the impact statements and minimizing damage to the environment or even delay or defer building the bridge, that needs to be built.

  6. Vince:

    “Then you leave, and then they turn jihad back on ( a process that could take a week, or a 100 years”

    Any defeated enemy might recover and attack again later. Neighboring states and communities tend to fight on and off over the centuries. An entire century of peace is “peace” by any reasonable reading of history.

    Muslim opponents present their own peculiar set of attributes, like any other category of opponents, including the view many of them have of the meaning of “jihad”.

    All you can do is figure out who your most active and dangerous enemies are, and direct your limited military, political, financial, police and surveillance efforts against them.

    Every day is a new configuration of forces, new risks, new opportunities.

    There is no end state. There is no permanent security. There is no respite from a dangerous world.

    Every hour of relative peace is a blessing. In the larger view, they are rare hours indeed.

    Don: Do we really want to be like the Mongols? As appealing as it may seem at times … .

  7. LG – what I’m addressing is the ritualistic processes each culture goes through before arriving at similar ends. In this case, even though we mask our process in modern thoughts and dogmas, it’s nothing more than the invocation and divining of ancient cultures to arrive at a group consensus on carrying out that which must be done or not done when the issue as grand as war is at hand. It is our internal processes, ensconced by our taboos, in developing the will to do that which needs to be done. We have the means. We’ve always had the means. It all goes back to will.

  8. Don: I cannot understand what your first two sentences mean.

    Your final sentence seems to unresponsive. I asked whether we really wanted to be like the Mongols, by which I meant waging wars of annihilation and enslaving huge populations for our benefit. Your apparent response was “We’ve always had the means. It all goes back to will.” My question again: Why should we want to “have the will” to behave like the Mongols. I would rather we behaved like the Americans.

  9. My response is that we have the same abilities as the Mongols in removing any threat to us. However, we like all people have methodologies cloaked in cultural processes to arrive at similar ends. While the Germans were cursed for their bombings of Warsaw, Rotterdam, and London, in the end, we too reached a point in, which having worn down those cultural attributes that adjudged others, resorted to the same end. The Americans began the war with the doctrine of ‘pin-point’ daylight bombing, by the time of LeMay and the fire campaigns over Japan the theories and constraints, were superseded by the will. We were willing to annihilate entire swaths of population on a scale that hadn’t been achieved since the Mongols. We haven’t reached a similar point, yet. However, there are potential scenarios in which we could remove the constraints in the waging of war that we only impose upon ourselves. It’s there, it exists. Hopefully, our various contrivances of ritual [strategies, politics, et al] and technology will keep those from coming to the table. As an acquaintance of mine would say, hope is not a strategy.

  10. Don appears to favor Total War even in campaigns with very limited military objectives.

    The Mongols’ military strategy was intimately connected with their political objectives: political mastery and absolutism throughout the Asian landmass. Their military strategy made sense, given relatively limited numbers of Mangudai and large numbers of unwilling conscripts. So though it may appear that the Mongols were a pure war machine with no objective other than to kill, that would be buying into the hype and legend of the Mongol scourge.

    At the end of the day, tactics, operations, and strategy have to be connected to policy. Our policies prevent us from nuking anything that walks. That is the way it should be. That is not political correctness. That is war.

    It would appear that Don puts the cart before the horse: He seems to want to nuke everything that walks, and because we can do that, he thinks our “will”, aka our “policy” should be to nuke whatever walks.

    Policy consists of more than will to destroy.

  11. Projection. Is it easy?

    What we’ve forgot is that war is social action of a culture or people. First generation warfare is nearly all social, creating and being the will to carry it out. It has often been trumped by Second generation, but not always. However, the further you get away from First Generation, the more you lose will. Will that is both internal in recognition and externally perceived by your opponent. People will reference WWII, but WWII hangs as a unique in merging both first and second generation warfare. Moving more and more into Third Generation, the ability to arouse will and sustain it becomes more and more difficult. We move this way, because fundamentally we perceive war as icky, nasty, undesirable. So we come up with cultural and ritualistic nuances, techniques and technologies to civilize it. In doing so we create a disconnect from war as a social institution and thus its sustainability in its conduct. It becomes like the much sought after fusion reactor, magnificent in concept but flawed and unattainable in application.

    When Afghanistan and Gulf War II were executed, after the long series of rituals in the region, the UN, and in Congress, it was basically generation 2.5. However, it was still perceived as 2 by both the society caring it out, but also by those in the region. Thus you get Qadaffi actions to rid himself of his nuclear ambitions predicated upon that perception. You get the isolation of Assad and the Lebanon Spring. As the conflicted shifted from 2 to 3, the perception of war and the will to carry it out changed. Borders which were declared not to be a refuge once again become a refuge and as more nuances and rituals were observed and applied, the perception of will eroded. So Assad reasserts his game in Lebanon and across the Iraq borders without fear of second generation warfare. The Taliban operate out of Pakistan without fear of second generation warfare. All because our own rituals and norms have been imposed upon the perception that alternatives exists that could solve the problem. Yet those alternatives only demonstrate to the opponent the lack of will. However, will also eroded internally. As Justice Kennedy opined in a prior finding, it is a strange sort of war. So can the most recent decision be a surprise? When the culture’s own institutions shift from the classical perception of first and second generation war to molding it into something more aligned with more familiar rituals of a non-state of war, you are witnessing the dissolution of will. The more we slip away from first and second generation warfare, the more displaced from will and thus the means to conduct it. The more you move away from the rituals and trappings of first generation warfare the more you move the population from participants to observers. Observers don’t have a stake in the process.

    You can conduct war without going full ’Mongol’, however you still have to engage in those rituals that are predicated in first generation warfare because war, once again, is a social function, not just an engineering exercise. All the nuances, all the techniques, all the technology to avoid the nastiness of war will be for naught if the will is not there as perceived by the enemy. You need to communicate that will. You can say we can bring all the technological hurt in the world down upon someone, but if he still perceives that he can hold out just for another month or two, because you lack the will to make it stick, he’ll never go away. For other societies and cultures, as well as your own internally, you have to communicate in a way they understand. If they only understand first and second generation warfare, you have to use those tools to send a message they comprehend. Unless, you do want to go Mongol, then there is no need for communications.

  12. Don-

    Interesting comments indeed. I am afraid, however, that you’re going against a lot of orthodoxy regarding what constitutes a generation of war, and what specific conflicts in history are representative of a given generation. For example, defining WWII as a “unique in merging both first and second generation warfare” is not a conclusion of Lind, van Crevald, Boyd, or Hammes. Most define WWII as a sort of 3rd Generation of War. For you to say it’s not requires a bit more explanation than you give. I am open to your ideas, but you haven’t convinced me of anything.

    Furthermore, your definition of a generation of war as to the level of “social action” by a culture/people doesn’t seem to fit with some more orthodox conventions of generations of war. 1GW is often defined as massed manpower–armies of the people, lead by officers, who are commanded by a government. Nationalist commitment is a requirement for these armies, yes.

    If we move to 2GW, which is often defined as massed firepower, we still see large amounts of nationalistic commitment, buttressed by propaganda. The height of 2GW was probably the Western Front of WWI. With nearly a million dead from the battle of Verdun, it is difficult to claim that commitment for victory by the people was less than that required for pre-WWI battles.

    Moving to 3GW, we have not only propaganda-buttressed armies, but propaganda-driven armies. Maneuver spreads the concentrated destruction of 2GW across the countryside, putting civilians at risk like they never were before. Yet they continued to fight. Legitimacy of the state is still strong, as is commitment by the people. Mutinies, which nearly occured in France in WWI, were nearly unheard of in WWII. Resistance movements sprouted and thrived in occupied countries. Commitment was extremely strong.

    Only in 4GW, with the decreasing legitimacy of the state, the rise of nuclear weapons, detente, and even use of new media, can commitment by a nation’s people be viewed as less than previous times. But this belies the fact that many so-called 4GW movements (Hamas, Hizbollah, al-Qaeda, ETA, Tamil Tigers, etc.) have members whose commitment ranks with those of the most hardened warriors in history.

    In conclusion:

    -I think more work needs to be done on your part to decipher any connections between generations of war and commitment to “social action.”

    -Your redefinition of various wars in history as other than orthodox requires more citation that you are giving.

    -Your connection between the “social action” commitment construct and your complaints of politically-correct Gordian Knots that Americans apparently get involved in, I can only say that your ideas may have merit, but none of that has been seen so far.

    Semper Fidelis.

  13. William Lind’s essay is a statement of the original orthodoxy regarding the “GW” framework. This framework, in turn, has come under intense scrutiny and debate on numerous blogs for several years now, and a whole vocabulary has grown up around it.

    Don’s idiosyncratic usage of this terminology makes it difficult to figure out what he is talking about, or if what he is saying has any merit.

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