The Magazine

The Counterrevolution
in Military Affairs

Fashionable thinking about defense ignores the great threats of our time.

Feb 6, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 20 • By RALPH PETERS
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REVOLUTIONS NOTORIOUSLY IMPRISON THEIR MOST committed supporters. Intellectually, influential elements within our military are locked inside the cells of the Revolution in Military Affairs--the doctrinal cult of the past decade that preaches that technological leaps will transcend millennia-old realities of warfare. Our current conflicts have freed the Pentagon from at least some of the nonsensical theories of techno-war, but too many of our military and civilian leaders remain captivated by the notion that machines can replace human beings on the battlefield. Chained to their 20th-century successes, they cannot face the new reality: Wars of flesh, faith, and cities. Meanwhile, our enemies, immediate and potential, appear to grasp the contours of future war far better than we do.

From Iraq's Sunni Triangle to China's military high command, the counterrevolution in military affairs is well underway. We are seduced by what we can do; our enemies focus on what they must do. We have fallen so deeply in love with the means we have devised for waging conceptual wars that we are blind to their marginal relevance in actual wars. Terrorists, for one lethal example, do not fear "network-centric warfare" because they have already mastered it for a tiny fraction of one cent on the dollar, achieving greater relative effects with the Internet, cell phones, and cheap airline tickets than all of our military technologies have delivered. Our prime weapon in our struggles with terrorists, insurgents, and warriors of every patchwork sort remains the soldier or Marine; yet, confronted with reality's bloody evidence, we simply pretend that other, future, hypothetical wars will justify the systems we adore--purchased at the expense of the assets we need.

Stubbornly, we continue to fantasize that a wondrous enemy will appear who will fight us on our own terms, as a masked knight might have materialized at a stately tournament in a novel by Sir Walter Scott. Yet, not even China--the threat beloved of major defense contractors and their advocates--would play by our rules if folly ignited war. Against terrorists, we have found technology alone incompetent to master men of soaring will--our own flesh and blood provide the only effective counter. At the other extreme, a war with China, which our war gamers blithely assume would be brief, would reveal the quantitative incompetence of our forces. An assault on a continent-spanning power would swiftly drain our stocks of precision weapons, ready pilots, and aircraft. Quality, no matter how great, is not a reliable substitute for a robust force in being and deep reserves that can be mobilized rapidly.

There is, in short, not a single enemy in existence or on the horizon willing to play the victim to the military we continue to build. Faced with men of iron belief wielding bombs built in sheds and basements, our revolution in military affairs appears more an indulgence than an investment. In the end, our enemies will not outfight us. We'll muster the will to do what must be done--after paying a needlessly high price in the lives of our troops and damage to our domestic infrastructure. We will not be beaten, but we may be shamed and embarrassed on a needlessly long road to victory.

Not a single item in our trillion-dollar arsenal can compare with the genius of the suicide bomber--the breakthrough weapon of our time. Our intelligence systems cannot locate him, our arsenal cannot deter him, and, all too often, our soldiers cannot stop him before it is too late. A man of invincible conviction--call it delusion, if you will--armed with explosives stolen or purchased for a handful of soiled bills can have a strategic impact that staggers governments. Abetted by the global media, the suicide bomber is the wonder weapon of the age.

The suicide bomber's willingness to discard civilization's cherished rules for warfare gives him enormous strength. In the Cain-and-Abel conflicts of the 21st century, ruthlessness trumps technology. We refuse to comprehend the suicide bomber's soul--even though today's wars are contests of souls, and belief is our enemy's ultimate order of battle. We write off the suicide bomber as a criminal, a wanton butcher, a terrorist. Yet, within his spiritual universe, he's more heroic than the American soldier who throws himself atop a grenade to spare his comrades: He isn't merely protecting other men, but defending his god. The suicide bomber can justify any level of carnage because he's doing his god's will. We agonize over a prisoner's slapped face, while our enemies are lauded as heroes for killing innocent masses (even of fellow believers). We continue to narrow our view of warfare's acceptable parameters even as our enemies amplify the concept of total war.