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March 30, 2006

The Problems of Future War: Another Bloody Century: Future Warfare - Colin Gray

Posted by Jeremy Black

Another Bloody Century: Future Warfare
by Colin Gray
London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2005
Hardback, 20

Colin Gray is a master of strategy, literally so in that he has played a role as British and American government adviser in strategic policy areas, and, intellectually, because he is the author of a number of relevant and perceptive studies, including Modern Strategy (1999), Strategy for Chaos: Revolutions in Military Affairs and the Evidence of History (2002), and The Sheriff: America's Defense of the New World Order (2003). His particular skills are his fine understanding of the nuances of American strategic culture and institutional practice and his willingness to appreciate the complexities of historical processes, the latter, alas, not a characteristic of most of those in his field, for Gray is a professor of international politics and strategic studies. The absence of such characteristics of all-too-much theoretical work as complicated mathematical formulations about international systems, and abstract reflection on the nature of the subject is particularly welcome. Gray briefly mentions the debate between realists and liberal optimists, but he ably avoids framing the discussion in the book in terms of the contours and vocabularies of this, and other, debates.

Gray begins by warning about the perils of prediction, provides political, social and cultural contexts for the importance of war, questions the emphasis on technological determinism, assesses the likely nature of future regular and irregular warfare, considers weapons of mass destruction, space mounted-weaponry and cyberwarfare, all of which are seen as different forms of weaponry, not paradigm-busters, and discusses the issue of whether wars can be controlled: in some cases, he believes, they should not be, so that issues can be settled through conflict. Gray argues that war is a constant feature of the human condition, albeit one of a highly variable nature that requires historicist assessment; that, although irregular warfare may be dominant for some years, a Sino-Russian axis is emerging to oppose the USA globally; that warfare is best understood in a political context, but that this needs to be considered in the light of cultural pressures; that war and warfare do not always change in an evolutionary, linear fashion; and that attempts to regulate war are problematic.

The range of reference is impressive, the writing clear, the book excellent value as a hardback. By its nature, writing about the future is a difficult exercise. I had a shot in War and the New Disorder in the 21st Century (London: Continuum, 2004), and, considering Gray's first-rate book in light of my own efforts, I would say he is better on the American side and on new technology, but possibly not sufficiently interested in the problems posed by civil conflict, and the related issue of how best to define war. The latter is not an abstract question if you are sent to deal with armed drug-dealers in a failed state.

I agree entirely that we need to prepare both militarily and strategically for the consequences of great power confrontation: is it sensible, for example, for Britain to become dependent on Soviet gas?, and, given Franco-German willingness to look at the Sino-Russian axis to balance the USA, not an easy or prudent policy to pursue safely or securely, is not the Blair government's European policy based on a strategic fallacy? At the same time, most conflict will continue to be in the "Third World", much of it at the sub-state level that IR theorists find so elusive because it does not match their criteria; and those who write on war, whether IR specialists or military historians, will doubtless persist in giving this warfare short shrift.

While valuable, his book is less original than he suggests, but it is not easy to be original in a crowded field, and Gray is rather as one with a tendency in the field to attract more than its fair share of assertive individuals not given to qualification and self-doubt [J. Black, 'Determinisms and Other Issues', and 'War Stories', Journal of Military History, 68 (2004), p. 1226, 69 (2005), p. 827]. The extent to which the future [see 'The Future of War: A Forum', Historically Speaking, vol. 7, no. 3 (Jan/Feb. 2006), pp. 25-38] is the proper domain of the historian has been queried, not least by Michael Howard, and it could be argued that historians find themselves in a very different position to the strategic theorist, such as Gray, whose business it is to help plan for the future. Indeed, much of the value of Gray's work derives from his hands-on experience.

Gray argues that the past provides valuable insight for the political scientist, whether as strategic theorist or in other roles, a welcome and pertinent rebuke to political scientists who rely simply on models. His work is also a helpful reminder that historians do not own the past, as they so often imply, and that the perspectives of other branches of scholarship are instructive, if only in defining difference. Indeed, with reference to the latter, a fundamental weakness with the benign take on inter-disciplinarity (a take that, in the UK, reflects the restructuring of academic departments) is the argument that such inter-disciplinarity will lead to a mutual enrichment. Sometimes, but it can also encourage a marked sense of difference between disciplines, and a realisation of the particular qualities and drawbacks that flow from these contrasts. Students in inter-disciplinary courses often find the contrasts difficult to manage.

It is certainly clear that political scientists, like historical sociologists, risk making serious mistakes if they underrate the specificity, and both deep and current context, of particular situation, whether past, present or future. To that extent, the future poses a particular challenge, as the specificities it poses are yet unclear, and therefore it is particularly likely that theory will dominate in writing, whatever the background of the writer. A lack of known chronological conjuncture is a key issue when considering the future. Whereas the past can be assessed in terms of timing, of simultaneity or sequencing, those who write on the future tend to fail to consider this aspect of the situation. Instead, there is a relatively broad-brush approach to the future, or one simply divided in terms of near, medium and distant future.

This approach faces several problems. Most seriously, it ignores the extent to which, far from being simply thematic or chronological, the future, like the past, is, in part, a series of action-reaction cycles in which developments arise in response to particular crises, and the order of the latter helps define attitudes. Themes are played out in conjunctures.

This is of particular importance due to the role of strategic culture in modern discussion of war, in part as an aspect of a wider scholarly interest in the role of cultural factors [see e.g. A. I. Johnston, Cultural Realism: Strategic Culture and Grand Strategy in Chinese History (Princeton, 1995); W. Murray, "Does Military Culture Matter", in J.F. Lehman and H. Sicherman (eds), America the Vulnerable. Our Military Problems and How to Fix Them (Philadelphia, 2002), pp. 134-51]. Some of the discussion is sophisticated, but there is, all-too-frequently, a tendency to treat culture, whether strategic or otherwise, in fairly rigid terms. This ignores the extent to which it is a sphere and form of contention, and that, partly as a result, it changes. Indeed, strategic culture can as much be seen as a vocabulary for framing responses as as a clear framework for the latter, not that the two are incompatible. Indeed, they are closely linked.

The extent of contention and mutability in strategic culture ensures that it will, in part, be moulded by events, and this has major implications for force structures, doctrine and preparedness. As militaries tend to be task-orientated, rather than capability-based, or, rather, the capability is heavily shaped by tasking, as are doctrine and training, so the understanding of tasks reflects the perception of current problems and the experience of recent events. To take a simple example, the nature of Peruvian military doctrine in 2090 will be very different if Peru either has troubled relations with Brazil or is primarily faced by domestic discontent.

The example is taken advisedly because much of the writing on the future of war focuses on the USA, but the majority of conflicts will not involve the USA, other than indirectly if that. Furthermore, these conflicts will be waged by militaries and NGOs that are armed very differently to the USA, and also in a military and political environment that is one of home-conflict not force-projection. As a consequence, the trickle-down approach to military analysis understand the USA and you will appreciate the military system is deeply-flawed, and this is one of the reasons why the USA, as site or, as in Gray's case, both experience and market, is a highly problematic basis for writing about military affairs, whether past, present or future. The policy-community there in which Gray has strong roots, necessarily focuses on the USA, as does the popular market. Perfectly understandable, but deeply-limiting, as any consideration of the nature of the popular market will show. The same could be argued of aspects of policy.

This limitation, moreover, is even the case if the range of attention extends outside the USA as, all-too-often the rest of the world is understood in terms of Western interests and also analytical conceptions. This is the fundamental asymmetry, an intellectual one that is much more profound than that of different fighting styles or weaponry which currently engages attention. In that sense, there is a clear need to direct attention to the "culture" of military analysis, in so far as that over-used word can be employed.

The problematic nature of American trickle-down is the case whatever the trajectory of American military tasking, whether high-spectrum against China and/or Russia, or at lower intensity. One mistake, indeed, is to assume that lower intensity American conflict offers much of a guide for the situation for most other states. This is not the case, not least because of the American option of terminating distant conflict. Militaries that have to face home-grown insurrections and/or terrorism, the vast bulk of militaries in short, have to consider the situation very differently.

It is the unpredictability of the future stemming in part from chronological interactions that needs underlining. A political science approach that skims history for examples, not least trans-chronological models (lessons for the theoretical), rather than considering the impacts of time, past and future, has only so much to offer.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. Amongst much else, he is the author of War since 1945 (Reaktion, 2004), Rethinking Military History (Routledge, 2004), Introduction to Global Military History (Routledge, 2005), The Age of Total War (Praeger, 2006), George III (Yale, 2006) and The European Question and the National Interest (Social Affairs Unit, 2006).


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