The New Rules of War: Victory in the Age of Durable Disorder

| December 2019
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The New Rules of War: Victory in the Age of Durable Disorder, Sean McFate (New York: William Morrow, 2019), 336 pp., $29.99 cloth, $17.99 paper, $12.99 eBook.

If marking up the margins of a book with notes and queries is a sign of the reader’s interest, then The New Rules of War engaged me as few other books have in years. With this book, Sean McFate has written an important and, I suspect, deliberately provocative piece of work. He brings unusual and impressive credentials to the debate over national security and the future of warfare. A former officer in the 82nd Eighty-Second Airborne Division who has also trained local troops and conducted operations for an international security firm, McFate now teaches at the National Defense University and the School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University. McFate challenges much conventional wisdom and his “rules” point the way to a strategy for twenty-first century defense and security.

McFate devotes a chapter to each rule, and a quick look at the table of contents gives an idea of the outline of his argument. The rules begin with “Conventional War Is Dead” and “Technology Will Not Save Us,” followed later by such chapters as “The Best Weapons Do Not Fire Bullets” and “There Will Be Wars without States.” Clearly, McFate is deriving his rules from the American and global experience of armed conflict over the past two decades, in which nonstate opponents and intrastate conflicts have been the rule and interstate war the exception. In doing so, he goes against what appears to be the prevailing state-centered thinking in defense and security circles today. The latter mindset, reminiscent of a Cold War outlook, is reflected in the 2018 National Defense Strategy of the United States, which calls for greater attention to “inter-state strategic competition.” The book’s responsiveness to recent and current events aside, one of its many strengths is its historicism—a trait shared by too few writings on contemporary security and defense. McFate leverages this historical vantage point to argue that the age that is upon us is a return to a pre-Westphalian (almost Hobbesian) world of private armies and stateless war.

McFate’s warning of an American overreliance on certain types of technology (he reserves special scorn for the F-35 jet) also puts him in a minority, as does his belief that the military trends of the past decades will continue and intensify. Many other strategic thinkers, perhaps out of a desire to fight a war that better suits American weaponry, predict a resurgence of a form or warfare more familiar to the twentieth century than to our own time.

His most controversial rule may be number four: “Hearts and Minds Do Not Matter.” This may be hyperbole, but he defends this position by referencing the many counterinsurgencies, ancient and modern, that have devolved into campaigns of displacement and extermination. Counterinsurgencies have sometimes been won, but usually by methods that Americans consider unacceptable. In place of these brutal methods, “hearts and minds” campaigns (in Vietnam and Iraq, for example) have involved shallow and ineffectual transactions that barely scratch the surface of the causes of an insurgency. McFate does not argue for a return to said brutal tactics but rather for a realistic appreciation of what might be the poor chances for success without them.

The above rule reveals McFate to be somewhat dismissive of the laws of armed conflict (LOAC), a point that may make some readers (including this one) a bit uneasy. There are undeniable difficulties involved in constructing and implementing LOAC: Tanisha Fazal’s book Wars of Law, for example, highlights how the overregulation of war can at times have disastrous unintended consequences. These difficulties should not, however, lead us to dismiss the project entirely.

The very next rule, “The Best Weapons Do Not Fire Bullets,” seems to form a caveat to his dismissal of hearts, minds, and the LOAC. In this chapter, McFate gives examples of effective propaganda and public relations campaigns, showing how this sort of “soft power” has been used to nefarious ends, having facilitated the entry of terrorists into Europe, promoted Brexit, and arguably tipped the scales in a U.S. presidential election. McFate points out that the United States spends twelve times as much on the military as it does on diplomacy and foreign assistance. Much defense spending goes to the heavy, high-tech weaponry intended mostly for the conventional warfare that McFate argues will likely never come. Too little, he says, is spent on the kind of special operations forces that are carrying out the current fights, and on the kind of skills and capabilities needed to defeat the unconventional adversaries of the twenty-first century. This lopsided investment strategy extends to many other areas, as evidenced by the navy spending billions on expensive vessels and technology while skimping on training. The result is that ships regularly collide and run aground.

McFate offers several solutions to the security challenges of the age of “durable disorder.” For one, he believes that the use of mercenaries is a growing practice that the United States and its allies might as well embrace, going so far as to advocate for a globally recruited “Foreign Legion” led by American officers. But the most important solution he proposes concerns the education of strategic leaders. American military education tends to produce tacticians and engineers—capable problem solvers who lack the breadth of knowledge and range of creativity to see an entire problem in context. To produce more officers who are capable of strategic thought, McFate calls for officer education to embrace the liberal arts. “In the future,” he writes, “we will need more than warriors—we will need war artists” (p. 239).

There has been much written and said over the years predicting the future of war, by generals, academics, and others, and most of these predictions have been to a large extent wrong. But even wrong predictions contain elements of the truth and can give us much from which to learn. Whether it is McFate’s predictions or those of the official majority concerning the future of war that turn out to be more accurate, McFate provides a needed corollary to the conventional wisdom. Even if conventional war between powerful states is in our future (and this should not be said without a slight shudder), conventional war itself is not what it was in the twentieth century. Ideas and information have always mattered, but they are now more essential than ever. The kinds of skills for which McFate argues there is a necessity, those of the diplomat and the artist, will be needed in both conventional and unconventional war.

This book should be of great interest to members of the armed forces and the U.S. Defense Department, but true military reform rarely takes place in isolation. The engagement of a defense-savvy, “alert and knowledgeable citizenry,” famously referred to by President Eisenhower, is necessary to effect real change in the military establishment. For such citizens, the book is engagingly written and military jargon is used sparingly and explained where necessary. Overall, the book does an excellent job of providing an accessible introduction to many issues of war and peace. It will be interesting to follow the development of McFate’s ideas and influence. His is an important voice, and more so because it runs counter to an enormous amount of inertia and vested interest in defense thinking. I am sure that we have not heard the last from him on these subjects about which he writes so well.


—Reed Bonadonna

Reed Bonadonna is a retired Marine Corps Colonel and a senior fellow at the Carnegie Council for Ethics in International Affairs. He is the author of Soldiers and Civilization: How the Profession of Arms Thought and Fought the Modern World into Existence (2017).

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Category: Book Review, Issue 33.4

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