Article Published in The Washington Monthly
It seems that retired Army Lt. Col. Ralph Peters could have had a great pitching career. I don’t know if he’s ever picked up a baseball, but the way he heaves rocks indicates a strong arm. Peters takes aim at a number of targets in Fighting for the Future, a collection of previously published essays. He unloads on the Pentagon, the State Department, the U.S. Defense Industry, and some intelligence experts who couldn’t sleuth their way out of an overseas hotel lobby. In the process, he attempts to chart the likely global security landscape of the early 21st century and cattle prod the United States into being prepared for the challenges that lie ahead. He defends his tough rhetoric. “You must pound bureaucracies and not stop,” Peters writes. “You have to grind them down.”
Grind away he does. And like the over-the-top assaults of the First World War and the Chinese en-masse charges of the Korean war, Peters’ thoughts and writing style could benefit from greater finesse and economy. Which isn’t to say he is wholly ineffective. One benefit of attacking a target-rich environment – – like America’s sclerotic national security structures and habits – – is the good fortune of being able to bayonet more than a handful of sacred cows. This Peters does with flourish and obvious delight.
“Our Department of State is a magnificent tool for dealing with symmetrically structured, like-minded entities – – but what has it accomplished in Somalia…in Bosnia…in Africa’s ruptured Gold Coast territories?” he asks. “Again and again, we find that hard-won treaties mean nothing because we negotiated them with governments that have only nominal authority while the true sources of local power are asymmetrical to our own… We are speaking Latin in the computer age.”
Peters, who served as a foreign area expert while in uniform, has written a series of fictional books about the future security environment. He is a graduate of the Army’s Command and General Staff College and traveled widely throughout the former Soviet Union during its implosive shakeup. In retirement, he has made something of a career of jabbing a sharp stick at the Army.
During his fearless travels – – this is a man who flew Aeroflot – – Peters acquired a bleak view. America’s enemy will come not clad in ceramic armor and the other trappings of a modern army. Nor is it an ascendant China or recidivist Russia. Rather, it exists in the various guises of Russian mobster, narcotraficante, terrorist, fundamentalist, treasury-looting financier, and Balkan nationalist. So vast and malevolent does Peters describe this group that it is as if the grotesqueries in Hieronymous Bosch’s triptych “The Garden of Earthly Delights” had come to life and occupied seats in the United Nations (a perspective undoubtedly shared by some U.S. ambassadors to that body). This loose cabal of international brigands will prey upon unfortunate nations – – theirs and others – – keeping a sizable portion of the world seething in its own misfortune. What is the United States doing to prepare itself for this? Besides comforting itself with Cold War-era diplomatic and military rituals that no longer suit the chaotic future, too damned little, in Peters’ view. He says that U.S. diplomats’ refusal to recognize the “fiction” of borders blinds us to the transnational threats freely breeding between time-zones. And when diplomacy fails and the U.S. military answers the call, our military is equally unprepared to rise to the occasion.
Not all of this is the military’s fault, Peters hastens to add. Times have changed considerably from open contest between roughly symmetrical armies upon the even plains. Today, “there are often multiple warring parties, overlaid with civil factions, all interacting with multinational peacekeeping or peacemaking forces (often with radically different doctrines and agendas).” To appreciate his point one has only to review the countless extensions of the original 12-month U.S. military presence in Bosnia, or examine the empty strategy today masquerading as a blueprint for imminent U.S. involvement in Kosovo. The unanswered question is whether missions like these are the exception or the rule. Peters says gets used to it; the future is already here.
That may be a hasty conclusion. Convinced of his own predictions, Peters often breathlessly imagines tomorrow’s problems based on today’s circumstances. This is the case, for instance, in his musings on urban warfare. “The future of warfare lies in the streets, sewers, high-rise buildings, industrial parks, and sprawl of houses that form the broken cities of our world,” he writes. He goes on to conjure up a fantastical array of flying tanks and caterpillar-like machines that would navigate the sewer systems and ascend the skyscrapers of tomorrow’s battlefields. Never mind that the cost of even distant relatives to the kinds of weapons he envisions would quickly deplete the Pentagon’s account, leaving the nation unprepared for any other kind of war. Just imagine the circus-like Congressional hearings such plans would attract. The committee chairman bangs the gavel: “General, are you telling me that we should spend $10 billion of our precious taxpayer dollars on a troop-carrying armored caterpillar meant to go galloping up the side of skyscrapers…?”
The fact is that the world’s cities are growing and may very well be the battlegrounds of the future. The key word here is “may.” History is littered with one-way futurists who claimed the machine-gun, strategic bombing, or atom bomb, would win or end all wars. Caution instructs us that strategic flexibility is the way to go, not strategic specialization.
Peters clearly has a fertile imagination – – one that, on balance, hits more worthy targets than it misses. At times, though, he succumbs to the same problem that often plagues fighter pilots. Called “target lock,” it means that the agressive pursuit of a target can often blind the pursuer to everything else in his field of vision. For pilots, it can mean chasing another plane right into the ground. For Peters, it’s fatal only to some of his arguments, but puts at risk others he makes well.
In his concluding chapter, for instance, Peters says that the promise of military technology — which he trashes in its current form as little more than Pentagon pork — will give the United States the ability to construct constellation of weapons that will be able to instantly destroy the weapons of any offending nation. We must stop buying “big-ticket weapons,” like nuclear-powered attack submarines, he insists, and invest in the weapons he predicts offer the most promise. But he misses that some Cold War weapons are, in fact, well-suited to defend against future threats. Take the Joint Surveillance and Target Attack Radar, which can simultaneously keep an eye on hundreds of suspect targets moving on the earth’s surface. Or the Navy’s tentative plan to swap the nuclear-tipped missiles aboard four Ohio-class submarines with hundreds of Tomahawks, like those used against renegade Saudi terrorist Osama Bin Ladin. The Pentagon is reorienting toward a post-Cold War future, but it will never do so quickly enough to satisfy all.
Ralph Peters’ entertaining predictions and prescriptions serve as useful signs of how maddening it is for the world’s sole remaining economic, cultural and military superpower to peer into the 21st century with little clue as to what’s . . .
Find Archived Articles: