“Perhaps wars weren’t won anymore. Maybe they went on forever.”
— Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms
War used to be easy to define. Once, we could say with confidence whether we were at war or peace. If the former, we could identify with whom we were fighting and where the front was. Americans in particular have for a long time had the good fortune of being able to say that the war—any war—was “over there.”
These concepts have deep roots—in the West, anyway. In ancient Rome, for example, a particular class of priests called fetiales officiated the onset of war by throwing a ceremonial spear into an enemy’s territory and opening the doors of the temple of Janus. Bringing war to an end has traditionally been just as ceremonial—think of Vercingetorix laying his sword at Caesar’s feet, Lee and Grant’s meeting at Appomattox, or Emperor Hirohito’s representatives signing documents of unconditional surrender on board the USS Missouri in 1945.
Things are certainly more complicated today. The United States and its allies have been “at war” for almost two decades, yet it is difficult at times to explain the who, the why, or at times even the where. What happened?
There seems to be widespread agreement that the character of war is changing but little consensus as to exactly how. New terms have proliferated. Some of these focus on speed, like “hyperwar.” Others allude to the odd co-mingling of old and new tactics: “‘hybrid war.” War today can be nonlinear, fourth-generation, next-generation, even contactless. Some add “meme wars” and “like wars” to the mélange. Which, if any of these concepts have merit?
Like Janus, war has many faces. Though its nature or, if you prefer, logic, has been consistent since the dawn of time, its character—or grammar—is always adapting itself to the environment in which it is expressed. Carl von Clausewitz, the doyen of contemporary war, recognized that it was practically limitless in variety, describing it as “complex and changeable,” noting that every age has its particular kind of war with “its own limiting conditions and its own particular preconceptions.”
Sadly, many military thinkers have fixated on Clausewitz’s contemporaneous observations of the character of nineteenth-century warfare and confused them with the unchanging nature of war itself. The result is that a single paradigm has monopolized how we conceive of war and warfare for over a century. But there are other, older models of conflict and competition now resurfacing as a hitherto dominant West dilutes, and other powers cohere. In classical Islamic jurisprudence, for example, there is only the house of Islam and the house of war. Ancient Chinese traditions of legalism and Confucianism diverge in other ways from the more familiar Western construct, framing war as rebellion from the rightful order under the mandate of heaven.
Strip away its modern trappings—nation-states and international laws, for instance—and war is at its core organized violence waged for political purpose. Politics is the competition between rivals for power and influence. War, then, is organized violence to gain power and influence. If humans are naturally political animals, then war is the proverbial state of nature and peace the aberration. To turn Clausewitz on his head, politics may be the continuation of war by other means—and warriors are politicians.
Of course, I’m not the first person to figure that out. Thinkers from Leo Tolstoy to John Boyd to (most recently) Sean McFate have argued that On War was incomplete at best. Does this mean we should cast it into the trash bin of history?
Of course not.
Rumors of the demise of “conventional” warfare have been exaggerated for decades. Clausewitz left us a powerfully explanatory theory of conflict that has withstood the test of time. Military theorists who criticize the master, do so at their peril. And after all, Clausewitz himself advised us against paradigmatic complacency: theories, he wrote, were “meant to educate the mind of the future commander, or more accurately to guide him in his self-education, not to accompany him to the battlefield.”
To be useful, paradigms must accurately reflect reality. When they cease to do so, they must be replaced, or the institutions that rely upon them will inevitably fail. Today strategists reared in Western-style liberal democracies, used to thinking in terms of an orderly Westphalian world, are slowly being forced to come to terms with anomalies in the existing paradigm.
War is changing today, but only because so is everything else. Nearly twenty-five years into the twenty-first century, civilization is in the midst of a societal transformation on the scale of the Industrial Revolution. This transformation is driven by four key trends that are dramatically altering all social interactions—including war.
First is the continuing compression of relative time—what Karl Marx referred to as the “annihilation of space by time” (emphasis added). You may be more familiar with it as the “death of distance.” Advances in transportation and communication technologies have rendered the concept of “over there” increasingly quaint, having brought many more people into much more regular contact. Old distinctions of regional conflict have started to lose their meaning in an age where localized violence has global implications since every part of the planet is being interwoven into a shapeless whole.
The democratization of these technologies is rendering the distinctions between great powers, regional powers, multinational corporations, and nonstate actors vague. What were once prohibitively expensive niche capabilities are becoming ubiquitous. As the relative effects of industrial-age weapons deteriorate on one end, off-the-shelf technological tools and weapons available to low-end actors are increasing on the other, resulting in something like relative parity.
Brave New World
Second, as former Secretary of Defense James Mattis once told his Marines, “The most important six inches on the battlefield is between your ears.” He was right, in more ways than one. The information domain has become the center of gravity in Clausewitzian terms—the source of power that provides an actor with moral or physical strength.
Data is the critical raw material of this new era, information is its weapon system, and data brokers its arms dealers. A failure to treat data as a strategic resource—essentially giving it away—cedes precious time and space to our adversaries. Like any raw material, data must be harvested, refined, and delivered.
But unlike the fossil fuels that powered the industrial era, data is renewable, self-generating, and practically limitless. Within five years the global datasphere will exceed 175 zettabytes by 2025, compared to thirty-three zettabytes in 2018. By 2020, the internet of things will consist of more than fifty billion connected devices, silently and relentlessly producing and consuming data.
This unprecedented growth of global digital networks is just now beginning to influence the creation of new physical systems that will have profound effects on geopolitics—altering the flow of global commodities and capital for instance, and controlling who can access what information.
The continuing weaponization of human heuristics and psychometrics has enabled precision targeting and manipulation of the cognitive space that makes previous eras’ “information operations” look ham-fisted by comparison. It’s the difference between the strategic bombing campaigns against cities and other expansive targets during the Second World War and the precision fires of Desert Storm that drove the last revolution in military affairs.
Once, you had to defeat a state’s armed forces in battle and occupy it even to attempt changing its political system. Today, it may be possible to alter political preferences without ever firing a shot.
It’s All Connected, Man
Third—and mainly because of the first two—global interconnectivity has grown far beyond anything in history. Recollections of the Silk Roads, the Roman Empire, or pre–First World War Europe as periods of proto-globalization are apt examples of how human societies have always pursued connectivity, but they are crude approximations of the sheer volume of routine interactions we take for granted today.
Things that were once separate have now become linked in ways we can’t completely understand, and the contingent outcomes from their complex interactions are impossible to predict. The resulting delimiting of conflict makes the kind of decision Clausewitz envisioned from a bounded battlefield difficult to even imagine. At the same time, shocks in one part of our interconnected system can have cascading effects elsewhere far removed, which should give us pause.
Furthermore, connectivity blurs the lines between what used to be fairly distinctive “domains” of warfare—land, sea, air, and space. Modern naval combatants can affect broad swaths of terrain far from the sea; ground platforms can destroy satellites in orbit or sink ships at sea. The burgeoning information domain cuts across every other aspect of war like never before.
In contemporary war, the notion of “net assessment”—counting up hulls and tanks and missiles—doesn’t hold up. In an era when unprecedented speed, precision, or impact can have outsized effects on intricately interconnected systems, industrial-era comparisons are misleading.
The Speed of Relevance
Lastly, all of these combine to make everything go faster. I’m not being flippant; the rate of change—the pace of life itself—is literally accelerating. Successive technological revolutions—broad transitions, like that from wind to steam, from steam to combustion, or from analog to digital—occur at increasingly smaller intervals. Santa Fe Institute physicist Geoffrey West compares this to society repeatedly jumping from one accelerating treadmill to another, even more quickly accelerating treadmill, over and over.
Communications almost anywhere in the world now occur instantly. Soon, artificially intelligent swarms of hypersonic missiles will be able to prowl the atmosphere, able to strike at targets an ocean away within minutes.
The actor who collects, processes, analyzes, and disseminates information more rapidly and accurately than any competitor will possess a decisive advantage in contemporary conflict, a fact our adversaries recognize. The United States has long assumed air superiority—but it may not possess temporal superiority. Forget vertical envelopment—in the information age; fourth-dimensional envelopment may be a risk.
Change, of course, is continual. But it’s not always incremental or evolutionary. In periods like the one we are currently living through—a punctuated equilibrium—change can be exponential and revolutionary. These paradigm-shifting periods are often accompanied (or caused) by what some call military-technical revolutions—that is, “periods of sharp, discontinuous change . . . [in which] existing military regimes are often upended by new more dominant ones, leaving old ways of warfare behind.”
These transitions are often turbulent since the adoption of new technologies almost always outpaces the ability of people and governments to understand them and adapt. Recall the deep misconceptions that led planners in 1914 to waste millions of lives in the opening months of the First World War because they were slow to grasp its changed character from an agrarian to an industrial era.
Today, an American superiority inherited from the Second World War is degrading as institutions and operating systems created for a bygone era decay. A growing lack of faith in these and the erosion of once-accepted norms of behavior are driving security communities to seek new models of organization and concepts of operation. Advantages still retained are increasingly vulnerable to disruption, or risk becoming irrelevant as new weapons surpass them in effect.
Commentators have long decried the tendency of American presidents from both parties to increasingly rely upon Defense Department capabilities instead of other elements of national power. But the fact is that the existing bureaucracy wasn’t designed for whole-of-nation competition. Quite the opposite—the major muscle groups of the American government—State, Treasury, Commerce—were built to cooperate under an American-created, American-led global order that assumed mutual interests were built into the system.
The resulting asymmetries in the structures that govern the United States’ military, intelligence, and law enforcement functions—asymmetries that made sense in the twentieth century—are now not only showing their age, but actively working against us. For another example consider NATO’s Article 5, the cornerstone of the twentieth-century collective security framework. It declares an armed attack against one ally an attack against them all. But Article 5 requires that attack to be overt enough to warrant broad political consensus—precisely the stipulation Russia is exploiting with so-called “gray-zone” actions.
Philosopher Raymond Aron observed that strategic thought “draws its inspiration from each century, or rather at each moment of history, from the problems which events themselves pose.” On a Clausewitzian battlefield, lines of soldiers arrayed against one another would fire and maneuver according to their commander’s directions.
Today by contrast, these have been replaced with ambient forms of physical and nonphysical violence—sniping, roadside bombs, and lethal drones on the one hand, electronic attack, spoofing, and disinformation on the other. War is always likely to require some amount of sacrifice on the part of men and women required to fight for and control territory. But the problem posed by our moment in history has broadened in both time and space, increasing the opportunity for myriad actors to produce tactical effects.
If, as Helmuth von Moltke taught us, strategic effects emerge from the amalgamation of these tactical effects, it is incredibly more difficult today to forecast the outcome of tactical actions because the number of actors has increased exponentially, as everyone is connected to everyone else.
Make no mistake, the character of war is changing, because it always is. War is a social construct, an interaction between political communities. Its expression changes in line with the tools we use to make those interactions. Wise commanders will recognize these changes and adapt their formations and weapons to suit them.
Zachery Tyson Brown is an intelligence consultant for the Office of the Secretary of Defense and US Army veteran. He most recently graduated from the National Intelligence University’s graduate program in Strategic Intelligence. His writing has appeared in The Strategy Bridge, War on the Rocks, and RealClearDefense. Find him on Twitter @ZaknafienDC.
Image credit: michaeljoakes