36 Black Swans, Gray Swans, and Pink Flamingoes to Watch in 2018

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

While driving along the shore of Lake Wanaka on New Zealand’s South Island in September 2011, I saw them for the first time.

Black Swans.

My wife and I pulled over, jumped out, and spent a half hour with the darkly elegant cousins of the waterfowl we were accustomed to in North America. Black swans, of course, were at one time presumed not to exist (so much so there was a Latin phrase coined to cement their perceived non-existence)—until later eras, when travel to Australia and New Zealand (where they are commonly found) revealed their earthly presence.

Since then, a famous book has popularized “black swans” as a commonly used metaphor for the disproportionate effects of previously unobserved, high-impact, hard-to-predict, and rare events (in Rumsfeldian parlance, “unknown unknowns”). Continue reading “36 Black Swans, Gray Swans, and Pink Flamingoes to Watch in 2018”

After Action Review: Operation UNDERBELLY

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

There are lessons from wars of the past. There are lessons from wars of the present. And there are lessons from wars of the future.

MWI Fellow August Cole proves this third point in his exceptional work of short fiction, “UNDERBELLY,” which “explores what war in Europe against an increasingly aggressive Russia might look like with a dramatically reduced US commitment to NATO.” The tale envisions a new role for the American Sheriff in which it only provides “logistic, intelligence, and technical support” to NATO in a crisis. Operation UNDERBELLY then, is a British-led, multi-national European military effort to drive back the Russians in the Baltics. And strategists, planners, and tacticians can apply today’s tools to learn from this fictitious future-look. Continue reading “After Action Review: Operation UNDERBELLY”

Military Victory is Dead

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

A few weeks back, Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos and Harvard Professor Steven Pinker triumphantly announced the peace deal between the government of Columbia and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Columbia (FARC). While positive, this declaration rings hollow as the exception that proves the rule – a tentative treaty, however, at the end, roughly 7,000 guerrillas held a country of 50 million hostage over 50 years at a cost of some 220,000 lives. Churchill would be aghast: Never in the history of human conflict were so many so threatened by so few. Continue reading “Military Victory is Dead”

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. Continue reading “Fifty-One Strategic Debates Worth Having”

The Future of Warfare in Five Drawings

Image proudly created by Matt Cavanaugh. Image proudly created by Matt Cavanaugh.

*Editor’s Note: A version of this essay will be presented as remarks to the War Council event on May 4, 2015. The panel discussion will be focused on the dominant trend that will shape warfare over the next 20 years.  

The Continuum of Conflict

Why do bad things happen to good people?

It’s a question that we had better start thinking about. Because when enough people start thinking this thought, when a critical mass of people start thinking this thought – whether it’s due to barrel bombs or burning pilots or killing cadets – that’s when society calls for the use of force. Continue reading “The Future of Warfare in Five Drawings”

A Very Unequal Dialogue: Debating Civil-Military Relations with Tom Ricks

*Note: What follows is the beginning of an essay of mine (“A Very Unequal Dialogue”) on the current state of civil-military relations, which is available in full over at The Best Defense. 

Tom disagrees with my recent assessment that the recent New America Foundation/Arizona State University Future of War Conference underrepresented the uniformed military, resulting in a stunted, unbalanced product.  In response, I’ll do three things; first, we’ll look at the numbers. Second, I’ll explain why this is imbalance undermines the conference’s efficacy.  Third, I’ll get into some personal anecdotes that describe how these civil-military themes play out at the individual level.  What a reader will find is that the civil-military gap is unacceptably wide in the intellectual sphere, and even the kindest expressions of gratitude cannot effectively bridge this expanse.  My takeaway from the Future of War Conference: the military is to be thanked and not heard. Continue reading “A Very Unequal Dialogue: Debating Civil-Military Relations with Tom Ricks”

Future of War Conference: No Skin in the Next Game

Image created by ML Cavanaugh. Image created by ML Cavanaugh.


There’s only one thing wrong with the New America Foundation’s Future of War Conference – not one participant has skin in the next game.  There’s exactly one more NFL player (Donte Stallworth) in attendance than there are likely future combatants. The average audience member is closer to retirement than the next battlefield.  This oversight matters because those with the most at stake in future war ought to have a voice in deliberations on the subject. Continue reading “Future of War Conference: No Skin in the Next Game”