The Forever War

Westhawk describes a largely unnoticed but important bureaucratic change in the Department of Defense.  The Pentagon has decided that irregular warfare is now co-equal with regular warfare. “After years of internal discussions, Mike Vickers, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for special operations and low intensity conflict, has hammered out a consensus inside the U.S. Defense Department that establishes the Department’s comprehensive policy for irregular warfare. Small Wars Journal has provided a copy of the new irregular warfare directive.”


That change has profound implications, as Westhawk observes.  One of the most important is that it recognizes the dissolution of the neat boundaries between “war” and “peace”. They are no longer binary, mutually exclusive states. Instead, they are intertwined threads in history; contemporaneous and — for the next decades at least — almost inseparable.

Irregular warfare is now considered to be both a “steady state” as well as a “surge” activity. This means that from a U.S. policy perspective, there are no longer alternating states of “peace” and “war.” There will only be a constant hum of irregular warfare in its various forms and conducted at varying levels of intensity. This will include traditional Phase 2 and 3 conflict, which will be followed by Phase 4 stability operations – more irregular warfare.

The directive is replete with requirements for the Department to conduct irregular warfare by, with, and through indigenous forces and allies. All corners of the Department are required to acquire capabilities to utilize this technique. Interpreted broadly, the entire U.S. military has now become John Nagl’s Advisor Corps.

The directive assigns U.S. Joint Forces Command, and not Special Operations Command, the lead role in developing the Department’s doctrine, concepts, and capabilities for irregular warfare. USJFCOM will design and evaluate the irregular warfare training and preparation of all U.S. general purpose combat forces. And USJFCOM will supervise the coordination of general purpose and special operations irregular warfare activity. Those who thought or hoped that irregular warfare would be an activity just for Special Forces must now have their hopes dashed.


Historians have criticized the military for always preparing to fight the next war. But that is to misunderstand the situation. Military organizations are configured to fight the conflicts they are faced with. It’s future conflicts — the enemy they haven’t met yet — that they are completely unprepared for. In that sense the unreadiness to fight the next war is the consequence of being ready to fight this war.

Given the fundamental unpredictability of the future, it is usually only the societies and military organizations who have a broad and general-purpose capability, one that can be tuned to any given task, that can successfully adapt. A critique of the Pentagon’s new emphasis on irregular warfare would ask whether the larger American society is prepared to support it; whether the man on the street gives a hoot about the focus on irregular warfare at all; whether there are now young men and women who are planning to enter language school, learn other cultures or have given thought to what it might morally mean to live in the perpetual twilight.

For those with a sense of historical drama, the new directive means an end to the dream of the End of History. Perhaps one day the wolf shall dwell with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; and the calf and the young lion and the fatted calf together; with a little child shall lead them. But not yet; or mayhap, we’re getting there; we just need to work at it.



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