.

If Everything is War, Nothing is War

As the United States heads to the polls in one of the most contentious presidential elections in recent history, a conflict is taking place in the background. On an almost daily basis, Americans are told that the Russian government is waging a political war on democracy. They are told that Moscow’s aims are to: erode the population’s faith in the democratic institutions, undermine the Democratic candidate, former Vice President Joseph Biden, and support the Republican incumbent, Donald Trump. Their tools are “active measures”, propaganda, disinformation and misinformation, hacks and cyberattacks, and more.

War: How Conflict Shaped Us | Margaret MacMillan | Random House | October 2020.

For all of the discussion of political warfare, most Americans would be forgiven for not understanding what is happening. The West finds itself in a new era of warfare or merely the latest iteration of old tools and tactics. From the “little green men” (or my personal Twitter favorite “Kremlins”) invading Crimea and gray zone or hybrid war, to China’s literal expansionist foreign policy in the South China Sea and its “lawfare”, the conception of war has become so expansive that its meaning is lost in the forest of hot-takes and analysis.

War as a concept has grown to include campaigns against drugs, poverty, obesity, and more. The lexicon of conflict inhabits every aspect of our lives, from marketing campaigns to the way we structure organizations and hierarchies—e.g. chains of command, etc.… Yet, the actual conduct of war, its art and science, is increasingly restricted to those practitioners in uniform and the small cadre of experts studying the subject. For most, the only encounter they will have with war is in a classroom where it is an event with consequences, but nothing more. Fewer and fewer Americans have regular contact with servicemembers, leading to a growing civil-military divide.

This is also a consequence of the fifty years of the “long peace” amongst the liberal democracies. In the wake of World War II and with the emergence of mutually assured destruction, large-scale conflict has not erupted between major developed powers. There were countless violent conflagrations in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, but those fell below the level of mass interstate violence that led to the deaths of millions. Thus, removed from the immediacy and the effects of conflict, most liberal democracies became increasingly disconnected from war.

Taken together, as war’s conception expands and conflict is increasingly fought elsewhere, society is less familiar with, and perhaps increasingly uncomfortable with, war. Comfort is used here not in the context of acceptance or warmth, but in understanding and fluency of conversation. To perhaps apocryphally quote Trotsky, “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”

Going Back to First Principles

In her newest book, War: How Conflict Shaped Us, Ms. Margaret MacMillan aims to rectify that yawning gap in society’s understanding and appreciation of armed conflict. It is an ambitious goal, attempting to provide a societal view of war and its impact across the human experience. In less capable hands, such a sweeping perspective would lose the forest for the trees, but Ms. MacMillan succeeds masterfully.

Focusing on ground combat as opposed to naval or aerial warfare, she seamlessly blends different eras of conflict from the Athenians and Spartans to Alexander the Great’s conquests and the expansion of Rome. She connects the experiences of the Mongols to Napoleon’s armies, to the trenches of World War I and the global battlefield of World War II. In doing so she illustrates the fact that while the tools of war may change, at its core war is immutable.

The experiences of Rome’s legions are not all that different from the French, English, and Germans in Ypres. The Londoners hunkering below ground during the blitz would share similar descriptions to those besieged in Medieval Europe. Efforts to constrain the violence of war by limiting its weapons are markedly familiar, be it restricting crossbows, dum-dum bullets, or nuclear arms control.

From War’s outset, Ms. MacMillan quite rightly describes how the study of war remains esoteric, confined to the dusty halls of political science and history departments, war colleges, and think tanks. As a young undergraduate student, I encountered this first hand—wishing to write my honors thesis on national security policy and defense spending, it took some persuasion by my dissertation adviser, Dr. Jeremy Pressman, to get the green light for my research to proceed. Even then I needed to reframe it to a more “political” subject, in this case, civil-military relations. I suspect that this was less to do with the size and scope of my initial research topic and more of an institutional discomfort on the part of the then-honors program director with anything conflict related.

Ms. MacMillan’s writing is beautiful, evocative, and engrossing. Reading this is like attending a lecture but in the best of ways. This collection of essays reminded me of my first graduate class under Sir Lawrence Freedman at King’s College London. I was pursuing my MA in War Studies, a field of study which prompted several raised eyebrows upon my arrival at Heathrow Airport’s immigration and customs (the stern Welsh woman inspecting my paperwork scoffed upon hearing my field of study muttering “bloody Americans” before welcoming me to my new, temporary home). In Sir Lawrence’s Approaches to War course, students were exposed to the totality of war as a concept, an instrument of policy, its conduct, and its impact. It was the single most comprehensive discussion on war I had yet encountered, until Ms. MacMillan’s book.  

War and Society

As Ms. MacMillan outlines, there is little in society that is left untouched by war, be it organizational and bureaucratic structures, technology and its application, or even gender roles. Here, Ms. MacMillan is particularly enlightening, discussing how the role of women in war has changed and grown from ancient times to today, noting the tensions in the traditionally male-dominated field of conflict.

Equally, throughout the book, Ms. MacMillan illustrates the duality of war and humanity. War is abhorrent, destructive, and violent, something most would wish re-consigned to Pandora’s Box. Yet, war produces stories of unparalleled heroism, sacrifice, and bravery. Bookstore shelves groan under the weight of first-hand experiences and innumerable explorations of historical battles. Not a year goes by where there is not some new take on D-Day or the western theater of World War II. There is a duality in this appetite—repulsion, and excitement. Humans are simultaneously repulsed by the horrors of war, and excited by its violence. Every year, major entertainment studios produce the latest Call of Duty video game where players gun down Nazis, terrorists, or ultra-nationalist Russian adversaries.

America’s Disconnect from War

The consequences of this disconnect, as Ms. MacMillan outlines at the start of her book, are significant. War is not the arena of generals and admirals alone. It is a wholly political and societal event. The maxim of Carl von Clausewitz, “War is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce, a carrying out of the same by other means” is so over and misused that its articulators miss the point—it is a political act and a political effort. It is about compelling an adversary to your will by means of force. If, however, the national leadership does not have a defined end or will it wishes to achieve, it is merely exercising force in a vacuum.

Here is perhaps the crux of the problem for the last 20 years, at least in the United States. Successive administrations have applied American force, and that of its allies, to challenges in Afghanistan and Iraq, and elsewhere, with little conception of what the ends are or what victory looks like.

True, in the early days of the aftermath of 9/11, the ends were perhaps clearest: unseat the Taliban and defeat al-Qaida. That immediate objective was, arguably, achieved early on, but the mission set grew and grew to vast nation-building efforts. We’ve fallen so far through the looking glass of splintering conflicts that now it appears the United States is aiding the Taliban against the Islamic State in Afghanistan. In Iraq, we saw what many considered to be a war of choice, not of necessity. It was an attempt to reshape the Middle as if democracy and stability are neat little packages that one can gift over the holidays. Somehow, we believed that with the right care and feeding, you too could have your own democracy.

The American people were left, understandably, confused, and conflicted about the wars themselves. One of my best friends who sadly passed away last year, an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan, once asked me over drinks, “what was I fighting for there?” If he, someone who was on the ground, could not answer that question with any clarity, what hope would there be for the average American? Without a story in the headlines or a friend or family member serving abroad, how many of us go about our days forgetting entirely that wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere continue?

War, the American Experience, and the Future

That Ms. MacMillan does not dive into the minutiae of the American experience is to be welcomed. War is not, despite my Welsh immigration officer’s comment (and many of my fellow citizens’ perspectives), the purview of Americans alone. War is a human condition and a human endeavor. Ms. MacMillan’s sweeping perspective vividly illustrates this, explaining how we have been shaped by war and in turn, have shaped war. War is inextricably linked, as Ms. MacMillan shows, to societal development. As conflicts became larger, the requirements of sustaining them necessitated great organization and greater cohesiveness. As societies became larger, the scale of war they could wage grew. Societal development and war’s growth occurred hand-in-hand.

Ms. MacMillan is right to beg off of forecasting the future of warfare. The words of Yogi Berra should be etched in every think tank pontificating about the wars of tomorrow: “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” There is value and utility in attempting to see around the bend. “Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable,” as Eisenhower is alleged to have said. But as Ms. MacMillan notes, there is more continuity in war than we would like to think. The speed, scale, and scope of war may change, but its core tenets are immutable.

War is a masterful study of violent conflict and its impact on society. If more were acquainted with war’s concepts, its impact, and its meaning, perhaps politicians and societies alike would be better equipped to understand the consequences of the most impactful decision a nation-state can make.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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How Conflict Shaped Us

Photo by Duncan Kidd via Unsplash.

October 31, 2020

War: How Conflict Shaped Us | Margaret MacMillan | Random House | October 2020.

If Everything is War, Nothing is War

As the United States heads to the polls in one of the most contentious presidential elections in recent history, a conflict is taking place in the background. On an almost daily basis, Americans are told that the Russian government is waging a political war on democracy. They are told that Moscow’s aims are to: erode the population’s faith in the democratic institutions, undermine the Democratic candidate, former Vice President Joseph Biden, and support the Republican incumbent, Donald Trump. Their tools are “active measures”, propaganda, disinformation and misinformation, hacks and cyberattacks, and more.

War: How Conflict Shaped Us | Margaret MacMillan | Random House | October 2020.

For all of the discussion of political warfare, most Americans would be forgiven for not understanding what is happening. The West finds itself in a new era of warfare or merely the latest iteration of old tools and tactics. From the “little green men” (or my personal Twitter favorite “Kremlins”) invading Crimea and gray zone or hybrid war, to China’s literal expansionist foreign policy in the South China Sea and its “lawfare”, the conception of war has become so expansive that its meaning is lost in the forest of hot-takes and analysis.

War as a concept has grown to include campaigns against drugs, poverty, obesity, and more. The lexicon of conflict inhabits every aspect of our lives, from marketing campaigns to the way we structure organizations and hierarchies—e.g. chains of command, etc.… Yet, the actual conduct of war, its art and science, is increasingly restricted to those practitioners in uniform and the small cadre of experts studying the subject. For most, the only encounter they will have with war is in a classroom where it is an event with consequences, but nothing more. Fewer and fewer Americans have regular contact with servicemembers, leading to a growing civil-military divide.

This is also a consequence of the fifty years of the “long peace” amongst the liberal democracies. In the wake of World War II and with the emergence of mutually assured destruction, large-scale conflict has not erupted between major developed powers. There were countless violent conflagrations in Asia, Africa, and the Middle East, but those fell below the level of mass interstate violence that led to the deaths of millions. Thus, removed from the immediacy and the effects of conflict, most liberal democracies became increasingly disconnected from war.

Taken together, as war’s conception expands and conflict is increasingly fought elsewhere, society is less familiar with, and perhaps increasingly uncomfortable with, war. Comfort is used here not in the context of acceptance or warmth, but in understanding and fluency of conversation. To perhaps apocryphally quote Trotsky, “You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.”

Going Back to First Principles

In her newest book, War: How Conflict Shaped Us, Ms. Margaret MacMillan aims to rectify that yawning gap in society’s understanding and appreciation of armed conflict. It is an ambitious goal, attempting to provide a societal view of war and its impact across the human experience. In less capable hands, such a sweeping perspective would lose the forest for the trees, but Ms. MacMillan succeeds masterfully.

Focusing on ground combat as opposed to naval or aerial warfare, she seamlessly blends different eras of conflict from the Athenians and Spartans to Alexander the Great’s conquests and the expansion of Rome. She connects the experiences of the Mongols to Napoleon’s armies, to the trenches of World War I and the global battlefield of World War II. In doing so she illustrates the fact that while the tools of war may change, at its core war is immutable.

The experiences of Rome’s legions are not all that different from the French, English, and Germans in Ypres. The Londoners hunkering below ground during the blitz would share similar descriptions to those besieged in Medieval Europe. Efforts to constrain the violence of war by limiting its weapons are markedly familiar, be it restricting crossbows, dum-dum bullets, or nuclear arms control.

From War’s outset, Ms. MacMillan quite rightly describes how the study of war remains esoteric, confined to the dusty halls of political science and history departments, war colleges, and think tanks. As a young undergraduate student, I encountered this first hand—wishing to write my honors thesis on national security policy and defense spending, it took some persuasion by my dissertation adviser, Dr. Jeremy Pressman, to get the green light for my research to proceed. Even then I needed to reframe it to a more “political” subject, in this case, civil-military relations. I suspect that this was less to do with the size and scope of my initial research topic and more of an institutional discomfort on the part of the then-honors program director with anything conflict related.

Ms. MacMillan’s writing is beautiful, evocative, and engrossing. Reading this is like attending a lecture but in the best of ways. This collection of essays reminded me of my first graduate class under Sir Lawrence Freedman at King’s College London. I was pursuing my MA in War Studies, a field of study which prompted several raised eyebrows upon my arrival at Heathrow Airport’s immigration and customs (the stern Welsh woman inspecting my paperwork scoffed upon hearing my field of study muttering “bloody Americans” before welcoming me to my new, temporary home). In Sir Lawrence’s Approaches to War course, students were exposed to the totality of war as a concept, an instrument of policy, its conduct, and its impact. It was the single most comprehensive discussion on war I had yet encountered, until Ms. MacMillan’s book.  

War and Society

As Ms. MacMillan outlines, there is little in society that is left untouched by war, be it organizational and bureaucratic structures, technology and its application, or even gender roles. Here, Ms. MacMillan is particularly enlightening, discussing how the role of women in war has changed and grown from ancient times to today, noting the tensions in the traditionally male-dominated field of conflict.

Equally, throughout the book, Ms. MacMillan illustrates the duality of war and humanity. War is abhorrent, destructive, and violent, something most would wish re-consigned to Pandora’s Box. Yet, war produces stories of unparalleled heroism, sacrifice, and bravery. Bookstore shelves groan under the weight of first-hand experiences and innumerable explorations of historical battles. Not a year goes by where there is not some new take on D-Day or the western theater of World War II. There is a duality in this appetite—repulsion, and excitement. Humans are simultaneously repulsed by the horrors of war, and excited by its violence. Every year, major entertainment studios produce the latest Call of Duty video game where players gun down Nazis, terrorists, or ultra-nationalist Russian adversaries.

America’s Disconnect from War

The consequences of this disconnect, as Ms. MacMillan outlines at the start of her book, are significant. War is not the arena of generals and admirals alone. It is a wholly political and societal event. The maxim of Carl von Clausewitz, “War is not merely a political act, but also a real political instrument, a continuation of political commerce, a carrying out of the same by other means” is so over and misused that its articulators miss the point—it is a political act and a political effort. It is about compelling an adversary to your will by means of force. If, however, the national leadership does not have a defined end or will it wishes to achieve, it is merely exercising force in a vacuum.

Here is perhaps the crux of the problem for the last 20 years, at least in the United States. Successive administrations have applied American force, and that of its allies, to challenges in Afghanistan and Iraq, and elsewhere, with little conception of what the ends are or what victory looks like.

True, in the early days of the aftermath of 9/11, the ends were perhaps clearest: unseat the Taliban and defeat al-Qaida. That immediate objective was, arguably, achieved early on, but the mission set grew and grew to vast nation-building efforts. We’ve fallen so far through the looking glass of splintering conflicts that now it appears the United States is aiding the Taliban against the Islamic State in Afghanistan. In Iraq, we saw what many considered to be a war of choice, not of necessity. It was an attempt to reshape the Middle as if democracy and stability are neat little packages that one can gift over the holidays. Somehow, we believed that with the right care and feeding, you too could have your own democracy.

The American people were left, understandably, confused, and conflicted about the wars themselves. One of my best friends who sadly passed away last year, an Army veteran who served in Afghanistan, once asked me over drinks, “what was I fighting for there?” If he, someone who was on the ground, could not answer that question with any clarity, what hope would there be for the average American? Without a story in the headlines or a friend or family member serving abroad, how many of us go about our days forgetting entirely that wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, and elsewhere continue?

War, the American Experience, and the Future

That Ms. MacMillan does not dive into the minutiae of the American experience is to be welcomed. War is not, despite my Welsh immigration officer’s comment (and many of my fellow citizens’ perspectives), the purview of Americans alone. War is a human condition and a human endeavor. Ms. MacMillan’s sweeping perspective vividly illustrates this, explaining how we have been shaped by war and in turn, have shaped war. War is inextricably linked, as Ms. MacMillan shows, to societal development. As conflicts became larger, the requirements of sustaining them necessitated great organization and greater cohesiveness. As societies became larger, the scale of war they could wage grew. Societal development and war’s growth occurred hand-in-hand.

Ms. MacMillan is right to beg off of forecasting the future of warfare. The words of Yogi Berra should be etched in every think tank pontificating about the wars of tomorrow: “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” There is value and utility in attempting to see around the bend. “Plans are useless, but planning is indispensable,” as Eisenhower is alleged to have said. But as Ms. MacMillan notes, there is more continuity in war than we would like to think. The speed, scale, and scope of war may change, but its core tenets are immutable.

War is a masterful study of violent conflict and its impact on society. If more were acquainted with war’s concepts, its impact, and its meaning, perhaps politicians and societies alike would be better equipped to understand the consequences of the most impactful decision a nation-state can make.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.