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February 25, 2009

The Future of Warfare - Richard D. North debates Jeremy Black: War Since 1990 -Jeremy Black

Posted by Richard D. North

Jeremy Black has produced a pocket-sized manual of modern warfare which touches all the bases, writes Richard D. North. From hardware to the "Military Covenant", Professor Black shows how the recent past can be used to scope the widely different sorts of war the near-future may well throw up.

War Since 1990
by Jeremy Black
Pp. 176. London: Social Affairs Unit, 2009
Paperback, 10

The prolific Jeremy Black is an interesting historian partly because he makes unusual arguments and plenty of them. In The Slave Trade (SAU, 2007) he looked at the slave trade and wondered how to place it in a historical context. In The Curse of History (SAU, 2008) he mourned the way so many political leaders mine history for victimhood.

Professor Black finds lively work to do without being merely or mostly revisionist, let alone contrarian. War Since 1990 shows this extraordinarily well. Prof Black uses the book to tease his trade. He is looking at events which are too young to be quite historical and he is doing so as to think about the future.

Acknowledging his transgression, he explains himself:

. I see history not only as an engagement with the past but also a habit of mind, that while indeed based on the study of the past, can also be applied to the present and the future.
He says his history is:
. sceptical of received truths and, therefore, anti-authoritarian.
Oh dear. One of the pleasures of his work - and especially this book - is that it isn't dissident. Perhaps I am missing a nuance in his use of words.

In this case Prof. Black is putting himself at the service of the democracies (and the authorities) of the West as they wrestle with the military arts. We learn from the preface that Prof Black lectures to military officers of every rank, and especially in the United States. So we know he has tested himself in the right arenas. What's more, he is likely to know where the bodies are buried: he has been talking with people who certainly do.

Obviously, it wouldn't do if Jeremy Black was just purveying military gossip. Soldiers often only really know the bit of war which is right under their boots. On the bit they know, they have unique authority but the cleverest amongst them are hungry for the big picture, and Prof. Black lays it out beautifully.

Giving soldiers the modern big picture
It's a canter, of course: Prof Black has 170 pages. It is also more or less chronological, so the ideas have to catch hold where they can. There is a common thread. It is that the armed services of the US and its allies have to assume that they will have to fight very different kinds of war, probably several at once and quite soon. This understanding has been forced on the US because for too long its Army and politicians thought their mastery of "modern" war gave them unquestioned superiority. Prof Black suggests that what they were good at blocked them from realising that "non-Western" wars were far more important (more common, more fatal, more threatening) than the West liked to suppose.

What's more, he argues, "modern" victories are different too. The defeat of the enemy is not the old business of merely punching his lights out. So modern victories, and modern peace, are as disagreeably complex as modern (often non-Western) wars. The mighty US military machine needs to be prepared to intervene to produce a peace by a peculiar mixture of force and police work.

Prof. Black reminds us forcefully that there is only one moment and means to secure new territory: early and big time. It's a cheap argument because it was so expensively and clearly learned in Iraq. It's important for all that. (Though one can imagine the accusations of imperialism which would have attended a more forceful occupation of Iraq by the US.)

About the only thing which is not likely to happen is a big set-piece war anywhere near the US homeland. But Prof. Black shows that every other sort of war has happened since 1990 and may happen again. Pakistan, India and China are major countries in a nexus with various smaller proxies which may turn bellicose in any manner including the nuclear, the large-scale, or the asymmetrical.

Similarly, Israel, Iran, Iraq and Syria. Unpronounceable bits of the former Soviet Union may produce or provoke a wide range of conflicts. Russia may become bellicose for all sorts of reasons. As the Economist recently noted, a range of failed or mischievous states may provide crucial sustenance for imaginative and nihilistic terrorists who can do damage and foment chaos out of all proportion to their resources. Almost anything might happen almost anywhere in Africa.

The point of Prof. Black's book is not that he casts the runes as to which of these scenarios may unfold. It's more that by sketching the bits of the picture which have already been in our media for several decades he can show us the sort of readiness our armed forces will need.

The complicated Revolution in Military Affairs
Jeremy Black chops his period into two: The "conventional" 1990-2000 and the emerging really modern period after 2001. He is unsparing but not sneery about the military approaches adopted by the US before 9/11. Under a general rubric, the "Revolution in Military Affairs" (RMA) the US wanted to continue Colin Powell's doctrine of overwhelming force applied in the first Gulf War, but to add a modern element of communications and computer power to what became "shock and awe".

In a striking passage which nods to several of his themes, Prof. Black notes:

In particular, the RMA reflected the desire for unquestioned potency without any matching need to accept conscription, a war economy, or many casualties, and, in part, can therefore be seen as a response to the decline of the warrior ethos.
As Prof Black says, especially of the aftermath of the 2003 Iraq invasion, this amounted to a military doctrine which was unable or unwilling to put men on the ground. The British could look on and snipe about the US preference for helmets and Humvees over berets and boots. We might have a small army, we thought, but we liked to imagine that it would have managed an engagement in Somalia without the 1999 humiliation of a Black Hawk Down. Truth is, we Europeans had our own upsets in the former Yugoslavia in the 1990s: we know a bit about humiliation.

All this is germane to the growing discussion in the high-end media as to whether the West has a proper relationship with its soldiery. This is known formally as the "Military Covenant" and we need to get it as straight as we can in world which is producing peculiar wars.

After 9/11, with assaults on, and "occupations" in, Afghanistan and Iraq the US was stuck with a deepening muddle. At home, there was less support than ever for US troop losses, and yet in theatre there was more and more need for very close engagement and all for aims which were not only nebulous in themselves (especially in Afghanistan) but deeply uncertain of accomplishment.

Soldiers multi-tasking all over the place
In other words, contrary to everything the Americans planned-for ten and twenty years earlier, we now need them to be a nimbly counter-guerrilla force capable of wrestling with determined, courageous and well-armed insurgents and (if they are lucky) subtly policing vast regions for years on end with little promise of praise or result. But there can't be a wholesale switch from RMA to COIN (the acronym for fashionable counter-insurgency strategies).The US Army must be capable of delivering the remote-controlled wallop which was at the heart of the RMA strategy as conceived by the long-reviled Rumsfeld, and for the reasons he originally thought compelling.

Jeremy Black seems quite optimistic. As he discusses the various sorts of modern war, he doesn't tell us either that warfare is bound to fail to do good, or that the West will necessarily fail to make the sacrifices required. He doesn't exactly shout the odds, but the reader can come away with the feeling that the author thinks there is a chance a good deal of intelligence and determination and even political will might be applied to the application of force.

It is one of the great merits of the book that Jeremy Black lets us know that the discussion and conduct of warfare are of course fraught with ideological conflict. One person thinks and argues that "liberal" or - differently - "pre-emptive" interventions are legitimate and necessary, and another that they are very unsound.

Prof. Black probably isn't neutral on these issues. But his purpose here is only to draw on recent history to help people formulate what they want to do next. So he puts his accounts of the hardware, rhetoric, politics, doctrine and strategy of warfare since 1990 into our hands in a brisk, informed narrative in which his own preferences very seldom get in the way. I can't imagine a handier manual, whether one is an anguished citizen wrestling with the Military Covenant or a military person pitching for more budget. Even a peacenik might find ammunition here.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and Scrap the BBC!: Ten Years to Set Broadcasters Free.

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