Fifty-One Strategic Debates Worth Having

*Note: This essay was originally published on the Modern War Institute’s Commentary & Analysis site.

Pervasive in academia, the perfection of specialization is the enemy of wisdom – by narrowing our curiosity, we limit our learning. Which is why I was thrilled to have received a new old book (1950), by B.H. Liddell Hart, Defence of the West: Some Riddles of War and Peace. Hart took on whale-sized topics, grouped in broad categories, including “riddles of the immediate past” like: “Was Russia Close to Defeat?,” “Was the 1940 Collapse Inevitable?,” and “Was Normandy a Certainty?” – in addition to several “riddles of the immediate future” like: “What Would Another War be Like?,” “Could We Survive Another War?,” and “Is Neutrality Possible in Modern Warfare?” This book was refreshingly refreshing in that it was genuinely fun to encounter a thinker that deliberately chose to engage with the biggest stuff – both the time-bound issues of the day and the timeless issues of all the days.

This book highlights for me the value of simple, direct questions (as the Israeli Defense Force General Aharon Farkash has said: “The question is the answer.”). A provocative corollary to the art of the question is the simple, direct prompt, designed to stimulate thought on a similar set of big issues. And so in the spirit of Hart’s contribution, I offer this list of 51 provocative, important strategic debates worth having.

  1. The military’s purpose is to kill people and break things (a statement from which I dissent).
  2. There will never be another need for a mass airborne drop.
  3. Pushbutton, standoff warfare is cowardly.
  4. Drone pilots deserve medals.
  5. Europe’s security is more important than Asia’s.
  6. COIN is dead.
  7. Tank warfare is dead.
  8. War in the Pacific is inevitable.
  9. Alliances are more trouble than they’re worth.
  10. The Middle East is a hopeless mess.
  11. America has nothing to learn from its Allies.
  12. The Army should adopt a SOF-approach.
  13. Lieutenants must have a strategic sense.
  14. Airpower will have a smaller role in future warfare.
  15. America will lose the next battle fought in a megacity.
  16. Gunboat diplomacy will have little relative value in future conflicts.
  17. Another world war is simply impossible.
  18. Winning wars is still possible.
  19. There are legal orders an officer has a duty not to follow.
  20. Drones harmfully reduce human control of warfare.
  21. A morally bad person can make a fine military officer.
  22. Afghanistan was worth it.
  23. Iraq was worth it.
  24. ISIS is not a terrorist organization.
  25. Nothing is worth the use of a nuclear weapon.
  26. Sometimes, America must go it alone in war.
  27. Military torture is sometimes justified.
  28. The ends always justify the means in war.
  29. Politicians should never interfere with military operations.
  30. The Marine Corps should be folded into the Army.
  31. The AF should be folded into the Army.
  32. Decapitation strikes can be strategically successful.
  33. The cyber Pearl Harbor will happen in the next five years.
  34. In brutal civil wars, we ought to give war a chance more often.
  35. American intervention is mandatory in genuine cases of genocide.
  36. War is more complex today than at any point in history.
  37. A fair national military draft would be good for American security.
  38. Douglas MacArthur is a role model Army officers should follow.
  39. The WWII era truly comprises America’s greatest generation.
  40. America has nothing to fear from international terrorism.
  41. Military officers must be prepared to lie, cheat, steal, and tolerate those that do – for national security.
  42. An operation which results in the successful capture of five high value targets is worth the life of one innocent child.
  43. In the future, the US might be allied with the Russians and Chinese.
  44. In the future, the US might become enemies to the British and Australians.
  45. Another war on the Korean Peninsula is unwinnable.
  46. America’s role is to keep the world from chaos by supporting democratization.
  47. Vladimir Putin is the greatest threat to European security since Hitler or Stalin.
  48. America’s light footprint in Africa is a mistake.
  49. Female combatant commanders will outperform their male counterparts.
  50. The US military would perform better if it was half its current size and budget.
  51. The Third Offset will fail because it is a technological solution to a strategic problem.

 

Author: ML Cavanaugh

Unequal parts strategist, assistant professor, wordsmith, runner, wine-o, reader, philosopher of firepower, and hopeless lover of three ladies named Rachel, Grace, and Georgie.

5 thoughts on “Fifty-One Strategic Debates Worth Having”

  1. 1. The military’s purpose is to kill people and break things (a statement from which I dissent).

    This is not entirely incorrect as an easy-to-understand distillation of the military’s strategies and tactics used to fulfill its purpose, but such a statement should not be understood as a full exposition thereof. The U.S. military’s purpose is to defend the country against foreign attack and fight America’s wars. Anything beyond that falls into the realm of the “how to.”

    2. There will never be another need for a mass airborne drop.

    While I am tempted to confine my response to, “never say never,” such a response would not treat the topic with the seriousness it deserves. Whether or not a future conflict would require the use of a mass airborne drop would depend on the who, where, and other tactical considerations of the conflict, including developments within the battle space. A mass airborne drop may be the most effective way of quickly delivering large numbers of combatants to the battle space when the circumstances of the conflict prevent timely introduction of conventional ground troops by other means.

    3. Push button, standoff warfare is cowardly.

    No, it is not. The means of conducting push button, standoff warfare should be used whenever and wherever it can be used in furtherance of the successful completion of the military’s mission. Where it can be used to reduce the number of killed and wounded American service personnel, it should be. However, it should never be considered as more than another tool in the military’s arsenal. It should not be thought of as capable of winning a war on its own.

    5. Europe’s security is more important than Asia’s.

    Neither area’s security is more important than the other’s. The two areas’ security concerns are equally important, and the U.S. military should always have the capability of addressing the security concerns of both areas simultaneously. To be clear, the U.S. military should be able to successfully conduct two major wars simultaneously.

    In order to keep my replies relatively short, I will address other topics in subsequent posts.

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  2. 7. Tank warfare is dead.

    If one defines tank warfare as tank versus tank battle, then such warfare is a possibility, if an unlikely one, only in a conflict with Russia. The use of drones, attack helicopters, and close air support aircraft such as the A-10 Warthog, gives America’s military non-tank assets to employ against enemy tank attacks, but tanks will remain an important part of America’s war fighting capability.

    8. War in the Pacific is inevitable.

    No war is inevitable, but such a war is a possibility and America’s military must plan and prepare for it. The likelihood of such a war increases if America appears irresolute and unprepared.

    14. Airpower will have a smaller role in future warfare.

    The response to this proposition depends upon one’s definition of airpower’s current role in warfare. However, in the foreseeable future, airpower will have an indispensible role in warfare by providing air superiority and close air support capabilities to America’s military.

    15. America will lose the next battle fought in a megacity.

    ONLY if America’s military fails to plan and prepare for such a battle, or if America’s military is forced to engage in battle in a megacity under rules of engagement that make such a loss inevitable.

    17. Another world war is simply impossible.

    To believe this proposition is to believe in fairy tales. If America continues to reduce the size of its military and its military’s war fighting capabilities, then such a war is not only possible, but will become increasingly likely.

    18. Winning wars is still possible.

    Winning a war IS still possible, but remains possible only if war is actually declared. Further, winning a war must be defined as the destruction of the enemy’s willingness and ability to engage in continuing the fight.

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  3. In general reply to your 51 debates, here are five replies which either cover multiples or I thought were especially relevant.

    1. Killing and breaking is the immediate purpose of the military, in order to empower political solutions to national problems. If the violence is not aimed to further a political solution gauged to the political problem, it will be a waste of time, so both military and political leaders are well served to understand both politics and the limits of force. These political solutions may also be found at very low levels, so every soldier may be a strategic actor, and every civilian may be a strategic audience.

    2. While the exact character of fighting is likely to change, basic operational principles like mobility, firepower, intelligence, etc., are likely to remain fundamental. Airborne units, tank units, and others need to remember why they were created and evolve along those lines, but the need is unlikely to go away. This also goes for services which have become confused as to their mission.

    3. Humans have engaged in standoff warfare since the first primitive man fixed a sharp rock to the end of a stick rather than wield it in his hand. It may be cowardly, but we’re going to keep doing it.

    19. Limited wars are about who’s right, wars of survival are about who’s left. Morality may be an ingredient or an impediment to mission accomplishment, depending on the war, but whether you win or lose tends to be a lot more important than how you played the game.

    38. Douglas MacArthur was probably a good role model for Army officers in his earlier career, but he could not see past the operational realm in Korea, and had to be fired because of it. We don’t fire enough generals like him—-behaving properly, operationally competent, but strategically ignorant—-today, though we should.

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