Former national security reporter Rick Atkinson recently published the third and last volume of his Liberation Trilogy that recounts the struggle of the Anglo-American led coalition to liberate Europe from Fascism. This volume, The Guns at Last Light, recounts the ultimate campaign to enter the Continent, liberate France and the Low Countries and occupy Germany. Historians and defense analysts have heaped justifiable praise on Atkinson for the lessons he provides regarding how a small number of political and military leaders handled the challenges associated with large-scale, high-technology, industrialized, coalition warfare.
The Guns at Last Light appears on bookshelves at an important time in the formulation of post-Cold War national security. A debate is heating up on the likelihood of future conflicts and the desirable characteristics of U.S. military forces. On one side of the debate are a group of academics such as John Horgan, Joshua Goldstein and Stephen Pinker, who have written books (The End of War, Winning the War on War and The Better Angels of Our Nature, respectively) that argue that the world is becoming less violent, wars are decreasing both in frequency and intensity and that war at least between states can be eliminated. These themes are being echoed by some policy experts such as Micah Zenko of the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR) and Bruno Tertrais of the Fondation pour la recherche stratégique. CFR President Richard Haass this week added his voice to this mounting chorus in a New York Timeseditorial titled “America Can Take a Breather. And It Should.”
On the other side of the debate is virtually the entire national security apparatus of the United States as well as equally prestigious academics and think tankers. The Obama Administration’s 2012 Defense Strategy does not foresee a world that is becoming more open, enlightened or peaceful. In fact, it requires defense planners to prepare for a range of potential conflicts up to and including major state-on-state collisions resulting in the need to change a hostile regime. In a series of speeches, testimonies and articles, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, accurately described the views of virtually every uniform leader on the future of conflict.
We live in an era where we’re at an evolutionary low in violence . . . State-on-state conflict is far less likely than it has been in the past. The problem is that other kinds of conflict, other kinds of violence, are exponentially more likely as technology spreads, as the information age allows organizations and individuals, middleweight nations, if you will, to have capabilities that heretofore were the purview of major nation-states.
The current debate on national security, U.S. defense strategy and appropriate force structure is confined to a very narrow range of visions between the view that war is becoming a thing of the past and the alternative view that there will be conflicts in the future but that they will be relatively small and brief affairs involving primarily Special Operation Forces, cyber attacks or limited strike with precision guided weapons. Neither side in the debate seems willing or able to address the possibility that Richard Haass’ “respite” maybe like that of the 1920s and 1930s and end in a return to major inter-state conflict.
This brings me back to Atkinson’s book, or more precisely to a review of it by Robert Goldich published on Tom Rick’s Foreign Policy blog. Goldich draws a lesson from Atkinson’s writings of profound importance to the current debate and to the thinking of Pentagon planners.
Atkinson sends us an important message that can never be repeated too often: When armies of roughly equal military competence and weaponry clash, tactical and operational deadlock are almost inevitable, and usually the only way to break it is through attrition.
Someday we’ll fight somebody just about as good as we are. When we do, we’ll have to use our huge population, and the high casualties that such a huge population can absorb, as well as our productive capacity, to attrition them if we are going to win. Planners for future wars, especially with possible peer competitors, take note.
We have seen these cycles of high and low levels of violence before. Tragically, periods of peace have been followed by long periods of wars of great intensity. Those who see the future as one of ever declining levels of violence have not explained what has changed in human nature, the organization of societies or the structure of political competition to ensure that war will not come again. Those who see future conflicts as solely to domain of SOF, cyber warriors and robots better figure out what happens when two or more large, powerful and rich nations or coalitions decide to have a go at war.
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