- Operations of low lethality. Western militaries do not have the desire, nor the sanction, to conduct the high casualty operations typically associated with real wars. Technology has been leveraged to increase the precision of attacks to limit collateral damage and save the lives of civilians. The corollary to this is that western militaries are also fiercely protective of the lives of their soldiers. Warfare, increasingly, is supposed to be costless. What this means is that we will not see Sherman's 'March to the Sea' or Hama in the near future - and - the loss of a hundred soldiers in southern Lebanon will be enough to stop the Israeli army.
- Marginal placement within national priorities. Militaries are increasingly professional (with a trend towards the use of mercenaries) and conscription has become impossible. This drastically limits the number of soldiers that can be applied to any conflict. In addition, to retain competitive positioning on the global stage, states and their economies are operated as if war is not going on. To wit: military budgets are considered just another line item on a more complex national budget. Gone are the days of massive mobilization and economic restructuring for war.
- Muddled objectives. Given the lack of the cohesive and singular reason for war -- the survival of the state and its people through the elimination of its enemies -- the reasons for warfare will drift. This translates into a constantly shifting landscape of military objectives, where current objectives recede in favor of replacements before they can be reached. The result is confusion, mission creep, and conflict escalation.
Playing with WarThe upshot of this diminishment of warfare is that wars will become increasingly difficult to win. The reasons are straightforward:
- Asymmetric motivation. In almost all instances, the opposition will approach the conflict as an existential war. This motivation both allows them to fight harder and longer than those western forces sent against it. The only aspects of warfare left in the west's favor are training and technology.
- New methods of warfare will emerge to level (flatten) the playing field Since warfare is a conflict between minds, its natural to expect that as the rest of the world gains capacity through globalization, the delta in training and technology will diminish. We have already seen this in the emergence of open source warfare (Iraq, Nigeria, Afghanistan, and more) and 4GW light infantry (Hezbollah).
- Proliferation of opposition. As we have often seen, as western militaries apply violence, they often destroy the structures that hold together societies. This results in the proliferation of groups that adopt violence. Much, if not all, of that violence will eventually be directed at the western militaries themselves.
Learning to Live with LimitsUltimately, western societies will need to learn to live within the limits of this new framework. It is not possible for us to reverse the clock on this trend. Any mass mobilization for war that lifts existing limitations will be severely punished by both global markets and opinion (both domestically and abroad) if it ever was attempted. Given the inevitability of the limited nature of western warfare from now and into the future, we should avoid the following traps:
- Nation-building as a global social policy. Historically, counter-insurgency against an established enemy has almost never worked (and when it has, it usually involves bloody exterminations). Any attempt to build a nation will likely, particularly in the current environment of globalization, yield an opponent that will be impossible to defeat through limited means. Further, the durations of these conflicts will exceed the capacity of the western states to maintain a cohesive set of objectives -- they will shift with opinion polls and political winds.
- Collapsing rogue states. In almost all instances, despite how easy it is to collapse a weak state with modern weapons, those wars launched to collapse rogue states will not yield positive results. The collapse will necessitate calls for revival (see item one). Unless states are willing to live with partial collapse without resolution, they should not undertake the action in the first place.
- Escalation of tension. Given an inability to resolve conflicts through nation-building and state collapse, western states should endeavor to deescalate conflicts rather than ignite them. Escalation is a false God that promises a return of the motivational clarity found in the wars of the 20th Century. It cannot deliver this.