Professor John Schindler of the Naval War College posts in a Creveldian vein on “The Coming Age of Special War,” while advocating that the U.S. respond consequentially to fundamental alterations in the nature of warfare1:
What is needed… is a serious capability in what some Eastern intelligence services term “special war,” an amalgam of espionage, subversion, even forms of terrorism to attain political ends without actually going to war in any conventional sense. Special war is the default setting for countries that are unable or unwilling to fight major wars, but there are prerequisites, above all a degree of cunning and a willingness to accept operational risk to achieve strategic aims. I’m afraid the U.S. Government falls quite short in those two departments.
Schindler nowhere considers the third major prerequisite, arguably the singular prerequisite, for a shift of this kind: a shift in aims. An America that focuses on a “serious capability” in “espionage, subversion, even forms of terrorism” would not be, because it simply cannot be, an America focused on international rule of law, in a world ever safer for liberal democracy or universal human rights. It would be an America getting out of that business2, and into some other line whose character Schindler seems uninterested in examining.
Schindler does not tell us which forms of terrorism he would have us exclude from the new serious and special arsenal, nor on what philosophical or moral or other basis, nor how exactly Americans are to portray the terrorisms and other violations of norms that we do adopt as policy. Perhaps he believes that the policy could and should be adopted secretly or under false pretenses, in a manner indicatively in keeping with its eventual implementation. If so, the fundamental prerequisite is revealed even more clearly to be an accelerated departure from liberal democracy as an ethos and in practice on the way to parts unknown. The question is not just the trivially political difficulty of a country having just fought a “War on Terror” needing to retire one buzzword and to find a new one: “Terrorism”in its modern meaning was developed to describe forms of warfare and political violence outside the “conventions” of “conventional war,” “beyond the norm,” from the Jacobins to Al Qaeda. For the United States of America, at this moment, the adoption of “forms of terrorism” as a policy would amount to the abandonment of its own civilizational project, of which the law of war is a central and characteristic part. The other means typical of special war are likewise destructive to that project and contradictory to its ideals: They are mainly weapons of the weak, of the immediately endangered, and of anti-democratic and rogue regimes (“outlaw” regimes).
Questioned on Twitter about this apparent advocacy of terrorism, Schindler responded with three words – “read and ponder” – then turned without further explanation to other topics3 while betraying the same lack of interest in what the America of the “coming age” would do with this serious capability, or what the pursuit of this serious capability would imply about the coming America. Confusion on this score, about what the U.S. is or ought to be trying to accomplish, or what the U.S. wants to be in the world, makes clarity about military strategy impossible, or turns it into the tool of unspoken – or unspeakable – designs. Against whom and for what reasons will we be developing this serious capability? Whom would we be “subverting,” and what other means of coping with possible threats (to what?) would we be declaring too expensive, laborious, counterproductive, or morally intolerable? More important, what would be the guiding objective? To defend the empire? To take our place among the countries of the world as just another one? Empire on the one hand, a pure and limited national self-interest, however further elaborated, on the other, will tend to be quite different concepts from “Leader of the Free World”; neither has yet proved politically sustainable in America; and our most serious past flings with special warfare have typically become subjects of public shame, to the point of impairing the effectiveness and sustainability of those intelligence and related operations whose necessity Americans have been willing and able to defend.
I have frequently written against peremptory, one-sided, and uncomprehending attacks on controversial methods of war adopted by the U.S. government.4 I would also be the last to deny that, in the pursuit of higher or supposedly higher ideals, Americans have often acted with great “ruthlessness.” Through different administrations and shifts in public mood, Americans will and arguably should explore varied capabilities for different particular purposes as well as for main purposes conceived differently, and we will very likely make new and even shameful mistakes as well. Finally, it also seems quite possible to me that, whether or not the course Schindler outlines is truly desirable in any way, it may still be the one we follow. Yet the larger, inescapable problem remains that every serious alteration in the American way of war must correspond directly to a re-definition of the American idea as realized, or, more simply, a re-definition of what America is. A long series of expediencies and exigent measures tend to become simply who you are, whatever you might prefer to think or may have previously had in mind.
- As is frequently argued, these alterations may have resulted from America’s own success at rendering so-called “conventional war” obsolete or nearly obsolete. The durability of the new conditions subsequent to some major alteration in American strategy is a complex topic, less often addressed. The underlying premise of the huge American investment in arms is in a strong sense precisely for the purpose that they stay mainly unused and effectively unusable other than indirectly. [↩]
- …what generations of young anti-imperialists, as well as some of their elders, call “imposing” our ways or values on others. [↩]
- Full Twitter Exchange at “Exchanges on “The Coming Age of Special War”” on Storify [↩]
- …drones, torture, Iraq. [↩]