A Hazardous Form of Peace
Col. Austin Bay, who with Jim Dunnigan wrote the classic A Quick and Dirty Guide to War, looks at the shape of 21st century conflict in his new book Cocktails From Hell: Five Complex Wars Shaping the 21st Century. Through the prism of five current conflicts, he both explains the actual conflicts and illustrates how the nature of conflict has changed or stayed the same. Bay begins with the most basic question: what is war? Unlikely as it may seem, the answer is not always self-evident. To some, it may appear invisible unless it looks like the familiar Hollywood conventions. Bay's book begins with the following story, which illustrates the point.
On an evening in February 1990, three months after the Berlin Wall cracked and the Cold War began to melt, I participated in a panel presentation held in a high school auditorium ... As I left ... a woman intercepted me in the hallway and planted herself directly in front of me ... “You write books about war, right? With the end of the Cold War and so many people waging peace, I guess you’ll have to find another subject, eh?” ...
I kept my reply civil, sincere, and accurate, “Well, ma’am, it’s quite a hazardous form of peace.”
Of the five conflicts he examines -- North Korea's "frozen" stalemate, Beijing's expansion in the South China Sea, Russia's "hybrid" invasion of Ukraine, the proxy and tribal battles in Yemen and the anarchy in the Congo -- none resemble the stereotype of conventional war.
The greatest trick modern despots ever pulled was to convince the world that war has ceased to exist by disguising it as other things. In 1999, nine years after Bay's anecdote and 7 years after Francis Fukuyama's book The End of History and the Last Man appeared, two Chinese air force colonels wrote a paper to contrive just that. It laid out how China could defeat America without a conventional confrontation. Their book, Unrestricted Warfare, proposed an ancient yet largely forgotten strategy to achieve this: by spreading out offensive activity over so many domains no one component would individually cross a red line. Then people like the woman who buttonholed Austin Bay would think nothing was happening until it was too late. The thesis of Colonels Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui was neatly summarized by War on the Rocks:
In 1999, two Chinese colonels wrote a book called Unrestricted Warfare, about warfare in the age of globalization. Their main argument: Warfare in the modern world will no longer be primarily a struggle defined by military means — or even involve the military at all....
Colonels Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui argued that war was no longer about “using armed forces to compel the enemy to submit to one’s will” in the classic Clausewitzian sense. Rather, they asserted that war had evolved to “using all means, including armed force or non-armed force, military and non-military, and lethal and non-lethal means to compel the enemy to accept one’s interests.” The barrier between soldiers and civilians would fundamentally be erased, because the battle would be everywhere.
The number of new battlefields would be “virtually infinite,” and could include environmental warfare, financial warfare, trade warfare, cultural warfare, and legal warfare, to name just a few. They wrote of assassinating financial speculators to safeguard a nation’s financial security, setting up slush funds to influence opponents’ legislatures and governments, and buying controlling shares of stocks to convert an adversary’s major television and newspapers outlets into tools of media warfare. According to the editor’s note, Qiao argued in a subsequent interview that “the first rule of unrestricted warfare is that there are no rules, with nothing forbidden.” That vision clearly transcends any traditional notions of war.
It is the hidden ingredients of the Cocktails from Hell that give them surprising destructive power. With attacks spread over a spectrum of domains, modern war is surprisingly hard to distinguish from other forms of conflict. People brought up on the notion of World War II as "total war" would be astonished to learn how much more "total," yet how much more invisible, war has become. The great strength of Austin Bay's book is how it illustrates, through the example of actual ongoing conflicts, how cross-domain and cocktail warfare in today's world actually works.
It works well. Disturbingly well. Just how successful Colonels Quiao and Wang's stratagems have proved is demonstrated by the fact that -- despite breathless media accounts of the Mueller investigation -- most of the public has never heard of these new attack domains. One explanation for their invisibility is that their instigators have deliberately contrived to stay out of the Narrative. Cocktails from Hell continues:
The colonels’ sketches of psychological and media warfare overlap with a buzz term that American national security agencies and commentators have begun using: narrative warfare. ... Cagey warfighters will dynamically link weaponized narratives to other kinetic and non-kinetic operations in an ongoing conflict and create a powerful operational cocktail. For example, narrative warfare linked to a false flag operation may shape or alter an election. Criminal speculators could use the same combination to destroy an honest company’s reputation, sell the company’s stock short, then spread the “big lie” to drive the stock price down. The weaponized narrative’s combination of speed and pervasiveness can create psychological vulnerabilities in an adversary’s population. In a long war or extended diplomatic confrontation, fear and doubt seeded by an adversary’s weaponized narratives may erode its opponent’s will to continue to struggle.
“Well, ma’am, it’s quite a hazardous form of peace,” as Col. Bay said. Today, as we nostalgically look back on the seemingly secure old global world, it's worthwhile wondering if perhaps that was the attack vector.
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Custer's Trials: A Life on the Frontier of a New America, by T.J. Stiles. Winner of the 2016 Pulitzer Prize in History, this book paints a portrait of Custer that demolishes historical caricature, revealing a volatile, contradictory, intense person -- capable yet insecure, intelligent yet bigoted, passionate yet self-destructive, a romantic individualist at odds with the institution of the military (he was court-martialed twice in six years). The key to understanding Custer, Stiles writes, is keeping in mind that he lived on a frontier in time. In the Civil War, the West, and many other areas, Custer helped to create modern America, but could never adapt to it. Stiles casts surprising new light on a near-mythic American figure, a man both widely known and little understood.
Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, by Sebastian Junger. We have a strong instinct to belong to small groups defined by clear purpose and understanding or "tribes," a connection now largely lost. But its pull on us remains and is exemplified by combat veterans who find themselves missing the intimate bonds of platoon life at the end of deployment and the high rates of post-traumatic stress disorder suffered by military veterans today. Combining history, psychology, and anthropology, Junger explores what we can learn from tribal societies about loyalty, belonging, and the eternal human quest for meaning. He explains why we are stronger when we come together, and how that can be achieved even in today's divided world.
For a list of books most frequently purchased by readers, visit my homepage.
Did you know that you can purchase some of these books and pamphlets by Richard Fernandez and share them with your friends? They will receive a link in their email and it will automatically give them access to a Kindle reader on their smartphone, computer or even as a web-readable document.
The War of the Words, Understanding the crisis of the early 21st century in terms of information corruption in the financial, security and political spheres
Rebranding Christianity, or why the truth shall make you free
The Three Conjectures, reflections on terrorism and the nuclear age
Storming the Castle, why government should get small
No Way In at Amazon Kindle. Fiction. A flight into peril, flashbacks to underground action.
Storm Over the South China Sea, how China is restarting history in the Pacific