The United States does not have an ideal track record in the wars of the past 74 years. After the definitive victory of World War II, outcomes have been underwhelming, with no clear achievement of political objectives and termination of hostilities. This phenomenon is not limited to the United States either, as other western countries have faced similar difficulties in achieving their desired strategic outcomes through conflict. These outcomes have occurred despite interaction from western militaries with unparalleled training and equipment, who nonetheless have been unsuccessful against qualitatively inferior opponents. In “The New Rules of War”, Sean McFate assesses the changing character of modern conflict and highlights key problems requiring adaptation and innovation from western militaries and national security structures.
Sean McFate is currently a professor at the National Defense University. He served as an officer in the 82nd Airborne before working as a private military contractor. He has written both non-fiction and fiction books on the role of mercenaries in modern and future conflict. “The New Rules of War” was written for a mass audience with the objective of increasing appreciation for the need for strategic change. The “Rules” designation is semantic. The intent is not to provide definitive guidance, but instead to highlight important changing conditions. Any debate should be focused on the implications of these changes, rather than the common opinion that “there are no rules in war”. The book also directly challenges many fundamental assumptions, both explicit and subconscious, of the modern American military and national security community.
McFate begins by discussing the current state of American strategic thought and foresight. Generals, and strategic thinkers alike, tend to be biased towards fighting in the same manner as the last successful war. For the American military this usually means World War II. This style of fighting meshes well with the organizational culture of the American military and national security architecture. However, nowadays the United States as a nation is culturally oriented towards this image of future warfare, idealizing clean warfare between state adversaries. Tom Clancy’s “Red Storm Rising”, often considered a classic of realistic military fiction, imagined the Cold War going hot, but the fighting was mostly limited to conventional warfare in Western Europe and the Atlantic, with no nuclear weapons involved. Even Star Wars is essentially conventional warfare in space. The United States military excels in this style of conflict, but adversaries have recognized and adjusted to this advantage, as well as the changing global environment.
McFate classifies the new global environment as “durable disorder”. Durable disorder is essentially the international system equivalent of entropy, where existing systems continue to move towards disorder. It is possible to contain surface-level problems but solving core issues is increasingly difficult. According to McFate, those who grasp durable disorder can win in this new environment. Many of our adversaries have already begun to adapt to the changing character of war, and America risks strategic defeat if it does not adapt as well.
The list of rules is included below. McFate goes into great depth with each, providing analysis and real-world examples, but the list is simple enough to drive discussion.
1. Conventional War is Dead
2. Technology will not save us
3. There is no such thing as war or peace
4. Hearts and minds do not matter
5. The best weapons do not fire bullets
6. Mercenaries will return
7. New types of world powers will rule
8. There will be wars without states
9. Shadow Wars will dominate
10. Victory is Fungible
Several of the items on this list are guaranteed to be contentious, especially when considering their implications for the US military and entire national security apparatus. McFate’s book challenges many of our strategic assumptions, and his introduction and rules are useful for reassessing how we think about our current and future strategic problems. The character of war is changing and learning how to adapt and win in these conflicts will be key for ensuring future success. Adversaries are already developing their own playbooks to optimize their relative advantages, and it’s time for us to do the same. The book provides insight into a range of conditions that will likely be faced by officers in the future but are seldom covered to this level of detail in their training and preparation to lead. Tactical actions will continue to have strategic impacts and to be effective, we must thoroughly understand the strategic environment we operate in.
McFate’s book is concerned exclusively with the strategic level of war and most of his recommendations can only be executed at high levels in the military and interagency. Junior officers will still benefit from considering the changing strategic level of war, since it will define what missions they are called on the perform at the tactical and operational level. Be prepared to think critically about his points, regardless of whether you agree or not, and consider the consequences of his points on future operations and organizing, training, and equipping. The book’s style makes it extraordinarily readable and the organization of ideas facilitates easy discussion. McFate’s book is ultimately a challenge to military professionals and strategic thinkers at every level to develop the ways and means to achieve strategic success. Junior officers have an important role to play in fostering discussion, debate, and bottom-up innovation to meet these challenges throughout their respective services. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the future strategic challenges that western militaries and nations will face.
Reviewed by Riley Murray
Riley Murray is a 2nd Lieutenant in the United States Air Force and a 2018 Graduate of the United States Air Force Academy. He is currently pursuing his Master’s Degree in the Georgetown Security Studies Program.