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America and the Future of War: The Past as Prologue

America and the Future of War: The Past as Prologue

by Williamson Murray


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Throughout the world today there are obvious trouble spots that have the potential to explode into serious conflicts at any time in the immediate or distant future. This study examines what history suggests about the future possibilities and characteristics of war and the place that thinking about conflict deserves in the formation of American strategy in coming decades. The author offers a historical perspective to show that armed conflict between organized political groups has been mankind’s constant companion and that America must remain prepared to use its military power to deal with an unstable, uncertain, and fractious world.

Williamson Murray shows that while there are aspects of human conflict that will not change no matter what advances in technology or computing power may occur, the character of war appears to be changing at an increasingly rapid pace with scientific advances providing new and more complex weapons, means of production, communications, and sensors, and myriad other inventions, all capable of altering the character of the battle space in unexpected fashions. He explains why the past is crucial to understanding many of the possibilities that lie in wait, as well as for any examination of the course of American strategy and military performance in the future—and warns that the moral and human results of the failure of American politicians and military leaders to recognize the implications of the past are already apparent.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817920043
Publisher: Hoover Institution Press
Publication date: 04/01/2017
Pages: 184
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.10(d)

About the Author

Williamson Murray is an American historian and author. He served in the United States Air Force, taught at a variety of universities, worked as a consultant, and has authored numerous works on history and strategic studies, the most recent being the highly acclaimed: A Savage War: A Military History of the Civil War (Princeton University Press).

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America and the Future of War

The Past as Prologue

By Williamson Murray

Hoover Institution Press

Copyright © 2017 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8179-2006-7


An End to War?

The hero becomes a thing dragged behind a chariot in the dust: ... The bitterness of such a spectacle is offered us absolutely undiluted. No comforting fiction intervenes; no consoling prospect of immortality; and on the hero's head no washed-out halo of patriotism descends.

Simone Weil

You suppose that this war has been a criminal blunder and an exceptional horror; you imagine that before long reason will prevail, and all those inferior people who govern the world will be swept aside, and your own party will reform everything and remain always in office. You are mistaken. This war has given you your first glimpse of the ancient, fundamental, normal state of the world, your first taste of reality.

George Santayana

This short study examines what history suggests ABOUT the future possibilities of war as well as the place that thinking about conflict deserves in the articulation and course of American strategy in coming decades. As an historian, the author has no intention of providing predictions about the future; nor does he believe that social science trend analysis offers much that is useful in thinking about the future. The past does provide some glimmerings about what will be. But at best, history can only provide a guide to our interpreting of the unfolding of events and an intellectual framework for adapting to the uncomfortable shocks and traumas that the future will inevitably deliver to our doorstep, much of it in indigestible and unpalatable forms.

We might begin our examination with some thoughts about the potential for major conflicts to erupt over the course of coming decades. It has become popular in some areas of the social sciences to argue that the occurrence of war around the world has been in decline over the past half century and that that trend toward a more peaceful world will probably continue well into the future. Certainly the American academic landscape would suggest that those who populate its universities and colleges believe that to be the case. The number of institutions in the United States where a student can study military and diplomatic history, security studies, and even strategy seriously has declined almost to the point where one can count them on the fingers on two hands. At the same time the number of institutions hosting centers given to the study of conflict resolution has proliferated at a considerable rate.

One might have thought that the increasing violence throughout much of the Middle East, the onward march of Chinese claims on oceanic areas well beyond their shores, Russia's increasing resort to force in the Caucasus, the Ukraine, the Baltic states, not to mention Syria, among a host of other violent confrontations in other parts of the world might have given the intellectuals in America's academies pause. But in the gated communities of universities and colleges, where the real world is far from the minds and interests of those responsible for preparing new generations of Americans to deal with an unstable, uncertain, and fractious world, that is certainly not the case. Not surprisingly, the saying falsely attributed to Trotsky that "you may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you" remains far from their thoughts.

The purpose of this short study is to suggest that Mars, the God of War, is not yet dead and to examine the implications of that reality. It is, of course, dangerous for an historian to comment on the possible paths that the fates will unwind over coming decades. But history can and does suggest how to think about the future at least in preparing for its shocks. As the historian MacGregor Knox noted in the early 1990s:

The owl of history is an evening bird. The past as a whole is unknowable; only at the end of the day do some of its outlines dimly emerge. The future cannot be known at all, and the past suggests that change is often radical and unforeseeable rather than incremental and predictable. Yet despite its many ambiguities, historical experience remains the only available guide both to the present and to the range of alternatives inherent in the future.

Simply put, if you do not know where you have been (the past), then you do not know where you stand, and any road to the future will do. Thus, a perceptive understanding of the present based on historical knowledge is the first step to thinking about the future. And of importance in understanding the past, even the recent past, is a considered and realistic understanding of the complex context within which historical events have occurred. In particular, as Knox underlines and this work will examine later, radical and unanticipated change is a major factor in the tangled course of human events. There is no indication such radical and unforeseen changes will not continue to confound those who believe that simple linear trends will determine man's fate in the coming decades.

Those who have been prognosticating about the disappearance of war from the human condition have largely spent their time in rummaging through the past with little attention to the fact that trends are incapable of identifying the violent changes that so often wreck the comfortable illusion of progress. Nor are trends necessarily indicative of the context within which politics and strategic decision making take place. The most valuable lesson of a rich immersion in the past is that the only trend on which one might trust in thinking about the future is recognition of the infinite capacity of human action and reaction to trigger violent change. The most recent advocate of the "war is disappearing" theory is the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker with his book, one that has gained considerable appeal. In fact, what the good doctor has assembled is a collection of badly interpreted history, some discussion of literature that indicates that he was a recipient of what used to pass for an Ivy League education, and a discussion of irrelevant trends, because he lacks the historical knowledge to understand the context within which those trends have taken place. As one critic has noted, he "seldom takes a long and careful look at the larger global and historical context in which decisions about war and peace are made. What we have instead is the rather nebulous and diffuse impact of changing sensibilities."

Admittedly the period from 1945 to the present has displayed a distinct lack of a great power conflict on the battlefield. There was no World War III, although there were massive preparations for such a contingency. Nevertheless, the Cold War interlude reflected the context within which the struggle between the United States and its allies on one side and the Soviet Union and its allies on the other took place. The most obvious was the fact that the most costly war in human history in terms of casualties and destruction had just ended, a conflict which had seen somewhere in excess of 50 million human beings killed and every major city in Europe wrecked with the exception of Stockholm, Madrid, Geneva, Paris, and Prague. What kept the Cold War from then destroying what little remained of Western and North American civilization was the fact that Soviet and American leaders quite correctly concluded that they, too, would likely die should the contest turn hot with the planned use of nuclear weapons and that there would be precious little of their countries remaining in the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust.

Nevertheless, the absence of great power wars hardly suggested that peace had settled around the globe in the aftermath of the Second World War. Instead of a massive conflagration, innumerable smaller wars occurred to blot the landscapes of Asia and Africa. The processes of decolonization provided a series of bitter wars: for the British, the Malayan and Kenyan insurgencies; for the French, war in Indochina, which the Americans followed a decade later in South Vietnam. The list continues on and on: the three wars between India and Pakistan; the Korean War; the Algerian revolution; the four Arab-Israeli wars; the collapse of the Congo into interminable conflict after the withdrawal of the Belgians; and even the short, bitter war between Britain and Argentina over the Falklands. The collapse of the Portuguese Empire in the early 1970s resulted in the nasty civil wars in Angola and Mozambique, in which Soviet and American proxies delightedly participated. None of these vicious conflicts were on the level of the great world wars, but they certainly underlined that peace was hardly at hand, even with the restraining hands on nuclear triggers, at least in those areas where the great powers believed their most important interests were in play.

The miracle of the peaceful Soviet collapse then supposedly resulted in what some pundits termed America's unipolar moment. Accompanying that decade's intellectual themes was Francis Fukuyama's The End of History and the Last Man, a more sophisticated work than its title suggested, but one that reflected the American belief that history was irrelevant. Given the fact of America's overwhelming military preponderance in the post–Cold War period, one that Saddam Hussein was kind enough to test with his invasion of Kuwait, there were few, except for Arab religious fanatics, who were willing to test the reality of overwhelming American power. But where the Americans were unwilling to involve themselves, such as in the Balkans, Somalia, and Rwanda, ancient hatreds reappeared with murderous results. What now appears to be occurring, at least in terms of President Obama's strategic policies, is that America's preponderance of military power and its willingness to use that power are beginning to unravel, a situation which some with little, or no, understanding of the role of the American military in maintaining stability or peace will undoubtedly find attractive.


Ironically, given their disinterest in any deep study in history, contemporary commentators are not alone in mistaking the temporary absence of conflict as heralding the arrival of a new age where wars are fewer. Over the past centuries, numerous politicians and pundits have proclaimed that the incidents of human conflict were on the decline, arguments that echo today's pronouncements. In 1792, a decade after the conclusion of peace between Britain and France, the great British statesman, William Pitt the Younger, declaimed in the House of Commons: "unquestionably there never was a time in the history of this country when, from the situation in Europe, we might more reasonably expect fifteen years of peace, than we may at the present moment." He could not have been more wrong about the future.

Within a matter of months Britain and the other major European powers had declared war on Revolutionary France and embarked on a series of wars against the French and their allies that would last for almost a quarter century. As Carl von Clausewitz noted, the next 23 years of warfare resulted in revolutionary changes and conflict. The cause was the fact that

[i]n 1793 a force appeared and beggared all imagination. Suddenly war again became the business of the people — a people of thirty millions, all of whom considered themselves citizens. ... The people became a participant in war; instead of governments and armies as heretofore, the full weight of the nation was thrown into the balance. The resources and efforts now available for use surpassed all conventional limits; nothing now impeded the vigor with which war could be waged, and consequently the opponents of France faced the utmost peril.

Why did Pitt get it so wrong? There are two possible explanations: The first is that, while nearly one-third of the previous years in the eighteenth century had involved wars between the major European governments, those conflicts, as Clausewitz suggests, had remained limited to cabinet wars. The forces involved had been relatively small, while the combatants had never really aimed at the complete overthrow of their opponents. The second factor was that France, Britain's great continental enemy during the previous century, appeared to be in a state of collapse with the king's authority in dispute and the nation's military forces dissolving as the other European powers watched. The explosion that followed after 1789, which was as unexpected to contemporary observers as was the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, quite literally blew up the map of Europe for the next quarter of a century. As Pitt commented after Napoleon's crushing defeat of Allied forces at the Battle of Austerlitz in 1805, "[r]oll up that map; it will not be needed these ten years."

In 1815, a Europe, exhausted by the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, entered one of the most surprising periods in its history: a near century of peace. There were, of course, relatively minor squabbles: the Crimean War, the Danish War of 1864, the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, and the Franco-Prussian War of 1870–1871. Only the last conflict threatened to get out of hand as both the Prusso-Germans and the French unleashed the fervor of nationalism in service of their war efforts. But the disastrous defeats Napoleon III's imperial army had suffered in the conflict's first month prevented the French from putting together effective military forces. More than forty years of peace then followed the Franco-Prussian War, as the Europeans created the first great period of globalization, a period that incorporated much of the world into an economic interdependence and that provided an economic expansion never before seen in history. Admittedly, if there were some gross inequalities, the trickle-down impact of capitalistic economics provided for the working class in a fashion never before seen.

Nevertheless, the sustained period of relative peace was not the result of stability underlying the relations among the powers. Rather, from the "war in sight" crisis of 1875, Otto von Bismarck, the chancellor of the new German Empire, recognized how dangerously exposed his creation, the unified German state, was in the center of Europe. For the next fifteen years the iron chancellor managed the instability of the complex interrelations of Europe's great power politics with enormous skill. Confronted with the considerable hostility of the Austro-Hungarian and Russian empires as well as the dangerously unstable political situation in the Balkans, the German chancellor kept diplomatic and political differences from spilling over into a disastrous conflict. However, his removal by the new kaiser, Wilhelm II, led to the slow but sure destruction of the Bismarckian system as well as the appearance of a far more aggressive foreign policy by his successors. But for two more decades Europe remained at peace; and the period before the disastrous outbreak of war in 1914 saw unprecedented economic progress that expanded far beyond Europe's frontiers. Nevertheless, in the largest sense one might note that statesmen, governments, and even historians mistake peace for stability; and the period after 1871 was a period in which instability churned underneath the appearance of a peaceful Europe.

In 1909 an English journalist, Norman Angell, published a pamphlet titled "Europe's Optical Illusion," which the following year he expanded into a book, The Grand Illusion. Angell's arguments made a great deal of sense, at least if mankind consisted entirely of rational actors. Quite simply, he argued that the economies and finances of the European powers, and much of the rest of the globe, had become so intertwined that a major war would cause a catastrophic economic collapse. And certainly the economic benefits of that interdependence had had a favorable impact on Europe's population as well as on those global extensions of Europe such as the United States, Canada, Australia, and Argentina, among others. The synopsis of the 1913 edition of Angell's book suggested: "For a modern nation to add to its territory no more adds to the wealth of the people of such nation than it would add to the wealth of Londoners if the City of London were to annex the county of Hertford." Thus, war and military power made no sense in the modern globalized world, at least to those who thought in a similar fashion.

In retrospect, Angell's argument was right. The problem was that it ignored the nature of Germany's leadership and the place of the Reich's military in German society. German leaders in the first years of the twentieth century and a considerable portion of their population were rational actors within an entirely different Weltanschauung, a German worldview that posited war as a fundamental necessity to protect the Reich's position in the center of Europe. In the 1960s, the German historian Fritz Fischer argued that Germany's leaders had unleashed the First World War deliberately. After historians had spent reams of paper and ink on Fischer's thesis, the general view has emerged that while the Germans may not have deliberately set out to cause a great world war, they certainly were the major instigators. The suggestion that several recent historians have made that the war largely resulted from miscalculations rather than deliberate actions, particularly of the Germans, simply does not hold water.


Excerpted from America and the Future of War by Williamson Murray. Copyright © 2017 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior University. Excerpted by permission of Hoover Institution Press.
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Table of Contents

Preface ix

1 An End to War? 1

2 The Nature and Character of War 25

3 The Nemesis of Human Affairs: The Ever-Changing Landscape 67

4 Déjà Vu All Over Again 93

5 The American Problem 115

6 When the Lights Go Off: The United States and War in the Twenty-First Century 155

Appendix: Potential Trouble Spots 183

About the Author 205

Index 209

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