A New Approach to Warfare and Applying Historical Context

Quite an interesting interview with Lieutenant General H.R. McMaster about modern warfare and the importance of fully appreciating the uniqueness of such conflicts through among others applying historical context to them. It is very clear from the interview than General McMaster has solid professional expertise in the area of warfare. He also has impressive academic credentials as an Intellectual/critical thinker with degrees as Master of Arts and a Ph.D. in American history; his thesis was critical of American strategy in the Vietnam War, which was further detailed in his 1997 book Dereliction of Duty; all ingredients that make for an effective all rounded leader. Here are some of the key takeaway points/my commentary from this interview;

  • The Shock & Awe military doctrine with its 4 vital characteristics is fiction because it ignores the inherent uncertainty of war. Perceptions of an easy war and/or the lack of strategic/pragmatic objectives/planning pre/post conflict continues to this day within the political establishment. It is therefore important that the Military plays a key role in making the case in terms viability/scope of military intervention.
  • Ignoring continuities/nature of war and focusing exclusively on social  or technological change in the character of armed conflict.
  • Neglect of diplomatic & military history perpetuates deficiencies of understanding which in turn makes new wars or extending existing ones more likely.
  • We should not confuse the study of war with advocacy of it-as often happens in Academia.
  • What we lack today is depth of understanding as we reach new heights of superficiality in our perceptions of global events and our reactions to them.
  • Current difficulties in strategic decision making, operational planning and development have stemmed from shallow/flawed thinking enabled by the abject neglect of historical context/considerations.
  • How history can help
    • Dissect large problems and break them down to their constituent elements. This allows us to engage/deal with issues on their own terms  while recognizing the complexities/uniqueness of each conflict.
    • Learn to ask the right questions/in the right order and trace events back to their root causes.
    • Avoid confusing activity with progress. Requires clarity/transparency of strategic objectives (political and military) by all key stakeholders.
    • Applying interdisciplinary approach to problems of diplomacy and war utilizing (anthropology-literature-philosophy-economic-science); History is inherently interdisciplinary.
    • Helps us avoid the misconception of considering war as something autonomous rather than an instrument of policy. Military intervention is not an end game but a tool to achieve political ends 
  • Importance of connecting historical knowledge & understanding to contemporary strategic/operational problems “with qualification”
  • Applying historical context to understand issues of today/tomorrow just as important for citizens as it is for defense officials and diplomats as they need to understand the fundamentals of war and warriors if they are to ensure they can hold politicians accountable with decisions involving killing and the prospect of death; disconnected citizens undermines military effectiveness and makes recruitment more difficult.
  • Historians must engage on contemporary issues because unless we access history in a purposeful manner its lessons will lay inert in unread books.
  • Consolidation of military gains is an integral part of military operations and also it’s more expensive component.
  • We need to stop using temporary fixes to complex and/or long term issues otherwise we’re likely to extend duration and increase scale of our effort.

Military strategy as with any other domain of strategic policy requires a multi-disciplinary (multi-agency) infrastructure that allows constant knowledge sharing/analysis in defining and achieving objectives-what I term as Strategic Policy Framework. The framework should also allow for the contribution from academia as well as independent experts-and possibly connected to external independent knowledge sources (like think tanks databases)-since we know that government agencies are for the most part best geared towards data collation rather than validation/analysis. It is also key that this infrastructure is supported by an effective IT base that allows efficient storage/search/analysis/presentation of data. Such a structure can play a key role in supporting government & policy executives make the right choices where strategic policy is involved.

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