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Preparing for One War and Getting Another?

Authored by Dr. Antulio J. Echevarria II. | September 2010

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Current trends in defense thinking show signs of being influenced by the notion that preparing for one form of war has brought about another. We find evidence of this notion in a number of official speeches, the 2008 National Defense Strategy, and the 2010 Quadrennial Defense Review Report. It is captured in the almost routine claim that America's superiority in conventional warfare is so great that it is driving our adversaries toward irregular methods. All of these examples share the basic assumption that we are now fighting (and will likely continue to fight) conflicts for which we have not prepared--precisely because we have not prepared for them. Thus, the modern complement--a preparation paradox--to the old Latin adage "If you want peace, prepare for war," might well be "If you want one kind of war, prepare for another."

Paradoxical propositions of this sort have a certain intellectual appeal: they are keen and pithy, and thus are frequently used in debates. Edward Luttwak's classic work, Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace, attempted to argue that the realm of strategy is full of paradoxical propositions. However, embracing any paradox is rarely a good idea. This one rests on at least two questionable premises. The first of these is the assumption that America's broad range of foes or potential foes can be grouped together. They cannot. Second, the preparation paradox assumes that substantive change is easier for our foes than it is for us, but the evidence actually points in the opposite direction.

Dissolving Paradoxes.

Paradoxes are intellectually intriguing, but they are almost always resolved by rigorous logical analysis. That was true of Luttwak's basic argument regarding war's supposed self-contradictory propositions, and it is true of the apparent paradox influencing defense thinking today. Eventually, we either find (1) the essential item of information that reconciles the contradictory statements, or (2) that the premises of one or all statements are false, or (3) that the paradox only seemed valid because we initially made hasty generalizations.

Dissolving Strategic Paradoxes.

In his classic work, Luttwak maintained that "strategy is governed by a contradictory, paradoxical, contrarian logic," and that this is true at all levels of war. However, his argument is an example of attempting to identify independent variables within a dynamic environment that is, instead, made up of innumerable dependent ones. Military operations depend on a larger, overriding logic, which is, at root, political. Creating paradoxes out of difficult dilemmas, or risky trade-offs, or the use of indirect methods is not analytically useful. If historical analysis has any value, then we have to admit that exogenous factors are always at work in war. It is not an independent activity with its own logic. The grammar of war, which is often confused with logic, is eminently linear. For instance, logistical requirements--and the consequences of not meeting them--are patently linear.

In fact, the phrase "if you want peace, prepare for war" is an irony, not a paradox. That is to say that it is not a rule or a principle, but a clever way of saying "if you want peace, make yourself strong enough to deter an attack." As one prominent logician noted, for example, it "is ironic [rather than paradoxical] that the competent general must both protect his soldiery and endanger them by use, and that he cannot do the one without forgoing the other;" similarly, it "is ironic [rather than paradoxical] that the individual soldier cannot pursue glory without putting his life at risk."1 Again, this logic is all precisely linear: the supposed paradoxes dissolve once we realize that the link connecting the seemingly contradictory statements is the concept of risk--accepting that mission accomplishment or self fulfillment requires a certain exposure to harm. The idea that war has a paradoxical logic only emerges when war is stripped of its political context, that is, when its grammar is mistaken for a distinct and overriding logic.

Dissolving the Preparation Paradox.

Just as Luttwak's self-contradictory propositions are dissolvable, so too is the apparent paradoxical logic driving the argument that America's superiority in conventional conflict is pushing its enemies into irregular warfare. The underlying assumption is that strength in one area only comes at the cost of weakness in another; or that preparing for today's challenges tends to create tomorrow's vulnerabilities. To be clear, it is not paradoxical to attempt to redress a shortfall in capabilities, as the U.S. military has done in recent months with its increased focus on counterinsurgency and irregular warfare. However, it is paradoxical to do so if our efforts would be counterproductive, which is what the contrarian logic of the preparation paradox suggests.

As noted at the outset, the preparation paradox rests on the flawed assumption that America's broad range of enemies can be grouped together. Like any major power, the United States has numerous adversaries and competitors arrayed at various points along the threat spectrum. Many of them, especially violent nonstate actors, have from the start employed irregular methods for important reasons, and are not likely to abandon them, regardless of U.S. strengths.

Violent Nonstate Threats. A closer look at some contemporary nonstate threats--such as al-Qaeda and other violent jihadi groups, various criminal gangs, the Fuerzas Armadas Revolutionarias de Colombia (FARC), and other insurgent organizations--confirms that they have not fundamentally changed their methods, though their targets and priorities have clearly shifted over time.

State Competitors. Like the United States, a number of contemporary state actors maintain some capabilities across the spectrum of conflict. However, we are more likely to see cases where ways of war are refined rather than changed in a comprehensive or revolutionary way. Whereas military conservatism was touted as the principal reason for such outcomes, the real culprits were strong strategic traditions, coupled with compelling domestic interests. Studies of the 2006 war in Lebanon illustrate that historical forces can exert a correcting influence on military change. Prior to the 2006 campaign, the Israeli army shifted its training and procurement efforts away from conventional, joint combined arms operations toward low-intensity conflict and counterterrorism. However, Hezbollah presented a challenge that required competence in conventional operations; as a result of critical assessments done in the aftermath of the war, the Israeli army shifted its efforts back toward developing competency in joint combined arms operations.

Perhaps a more telling example is China's People's Liberation Army (PLA), which since the 1980s has attempted to modernize while retaining the basic doctrine of People's War, which is characterized by an emphasis on manpower and protracted, but limited, conflict. Through an evolutionary series of revolutions, the PLA continues to integrate more high-tech weaponry and information technology, as well as a series of "new" doctrinal concepts designed to optimize them in practice. In sum, the Chinese military appears to be following a modernization trajectory that will turn it into an effective, high-tech, joint military organization, rather than a force that would shift direction and re-embrace the guerrilla model.

The brief survey here has shown that revolutionary change--that is, moving from one part of the spectrum of conflict to the other--is as rare among nonstate actors as it is among states. Even if the U.S. military had not demonstrated its superiority at conventional war in the early 1990s, few of our adversaries would have challenged it in that realm for important political and cultural reasons. Most were employing irregular methods well before the 1990s, a fact that in some ways should make them more dangerous since, presumably, they have had more time to become proficient. The rub is that U.S. opponents need not change radically in order to identify and attack any number of U.S. vulnerabilities. Thus, it makes more sense for the U.S. military to approach conventional and irregular warfare not as separate kinds of conflicts, but as different priorities within the larger activity of war itself.

While the U.S. military remains eloquent in the vernacular of battle, it is still developing fluencyin the language of war. Embracing the preparation paradox would only harm this effort. As we have seen, the premises of the paradox are invalid; however, they have contributed to shaping many of the debates within defense circles today. For that reason, it is important to examine them, and to understand why they are faulty. Just as the saying "If you want peace, prepare for war" is little more than an irony, so too is its modern-day complement "If you want one kind of war, prepare for another." Neither can really serve as a guide for action. The problem is that some propositions remain persuasive long after they have been stripped of any semblance of logic.


1. Nicholas Rescher, Paradoxes: Their Roots, Range, and Resolution, Chicago, IL: Open Court, 2001, p. 7.