February 8th 2020


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Articles from this issue:

COVER STORY Sensible environment policies can counter extremists

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Bushfires: Never let a good crisis go to waste

CANBERRA OBSERVED Submarine build gives us a sinking feeling

RELIGIOUS DISCRIMINATION Bill Mark II a shade better but still faulty

OBITUARY Wilson Gavin: Requiescat in Pace

WORLD AFFAIRS Central banks move to dictate climate policies

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Trump impeachment will end with a whimper

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS Australia considers a Magnitsky-type law

SOCIETY The optimist vindicated? Er, no!

LITERATURE AND SOCIETY The poetry of Distributism

ASIAN POLITICS Changing of the guard: Taiwan votes

HUMOUR Legal X-clamation points and that

MUSIC Is there a way to virtue via the sublime?

CINEMA The Authentic Mr Rogers: A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood

BOOK REVIEW How little, low-tech militias stay under the radar of huge, high-tech armies

BOOK REVIEW First novel dips into depths of medical murder-suspense genre

POETRY

LETTERS

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Coronavirus: China must answer hard questions

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BOOK REVIEW
How little, low-tech militias stay under the radar of huge, high-tech armies




News Weekly, February 8, 2020

GOLIATH: Why the West Doesn’t Win Wars, and What We Need to Do about It

by Sean McFate

Michael Joseph, London

Hardcover: 336 pages

Price: AUD$39.99

Reviewed by Bill James

Most of us, either consciously or unconsciously, hold a number of assumptions about the nature of “normal” war.

The participants are sovereign, independent states, a state being by definition an entity that holds a monopoly on the legitimate exercise of violence.

Conflicts are fought by permanent, professional armed forces, and clear-cut victory goes to the side with the most and the best-trained fighters, using the most technologically advanced equipment.

Fighting is (in theory, anyway) governed by principles derived from the Christian “just war” theology of Augustine and Aquinas; the protocols of diplomacy; and various international agreements and conventions.

The author of Goliath, Sean McFate, is a former paratroop officer and “military contractor” turned academic, who is now Professor of Strategy at an American university. And he questions all of these presuppositions.

What is more, he believes that our dogged adherence to them means that advanced Western countries, such as the United States and Australia, are going to be unsuccessful at winning wars until we grasp the real nature of contemporary warfare.

For a start, the “conventional” war that lives on in our assumptions died in 1945, after a lifetime dating back to the 1648 Treaty of Westphalia, which ended the Thirty Years’ War.

McFate maintains that these three hundred years were a historical aberration.

“There is no such thing as conventional versus unconventional war – there is just war”; and there “is just one problem with conventional war; no one fights this way anymore”.

We have now returned to the murky, ruthless and chaotic conditions under which war has always been conducted, which amount to the law of the jungle.

For a start: “Since World War II, destitute, untrained, low-tech militias armed with primitive weaponry have foiled military juggernauts routinely.”

Examples of such conflicts include France in Algeria and Indochina, and the United States in Vietnam, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Examples of low-tech weapons include IEDs (improvised explosive devices) and punji sticks (sharpened stakes) – and now cheap and easily available drones can be exploited!

McFate is scathing about the billions of dollars invested in nuclear devices and high-tech tanks, jet fighters, aircraft carriers and submarines, which have proved ineffective against peasants with AK47s.

Wars today, he argues, are not won by money and technology, but by patience, commitment and cunning.

Control and manipulation of information, along with “plausible deniability”, is vital, particularly in wars against democracies, where public opinion is influential.

As part of this psychological manipulation, opponents’ ideologies must be routinely ridiculed and delegitimised. Vietnam 50 years ago is the textbook case.

The communists lost the 1968 Tet Offensive at the military level, but won the propaganda struggle when the fighting was televised direct into American homes.

The My Lai Massacre at the beginning of that year (along with iconic images of the naked Vietnamese girl covered in burning napalm, and the police chief shooting a Viet Cong suspect) was publicised worldwide, where-as the communist slaughter of up to 6,000 civilians at Hue a month earlier, was hermetically censored.

“Shaping people’s perception of reality is more powerful than mobilising a carrier strike group … Subversion will be everything in future wars. Who cares how many nukes you have if you don’t know where to point them?”

Not only news (or pseudo-news) but phenomena such as terrorism, refugees and ethnic cleansing can be weaponised to influence and deceive.

McFate cites Russia’s use of “little green men” – that is, Russian troops without identifying insignia – in eastern Ukraine and the Crimea to avoid exposure and bad publicity.

Russia is an example of involvement by a nation state, but there are increasing numbers of other players with armed power at their disposal, such as ISIS in the Middle East; narcotics empires in Central and South America; warlords across Africa; and even immensely rich corporations and individuals out to protect their factories, mines, ships and other enterprises from terrorists and pirates.

This brings up the issue of private military contractors, or mercenaries, who have been proliferating in recent decades, and who McFate believes are the military wave of the future.

As a variation on this theme, he suggests that the United States set up a Foreign Legion, on the model of France’s.

There are too few homegrown volunteers for the armed services; they are expensive to maintain; they lack the necessary skills that only Special Forces troops possess; and it is politically too difficult to keep them in combat zones for extended periods if there are ongoing casualties.

A Foreign Legion could be recruited from the worldwide pool of unemployed expert soldiers, then kept in trouble spots indefinitely until all opposition is crushed.

McFate sees such extended use of force as a much more practical option than “winning hearts and minds”, given that so many of the world’s population hate the West, and place ideological, ethnic and religious loyalties far above any desire for democracy, liberalism, and philanthropic aid or reform.

He also warns that we must get used to living with permanent states of simultaneous war and peace or, in the case of failed states, such as Somalia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Venezuela and Mexico, outright “durable disorder”.

“The world will not collapse in anarchy but smoulder in perpetual conflict, as it has for millennia.”

In fact, we need to learn to exploit this state of affairs to make incremental gains, just as the Chinese are currently doing in the South China Sea.

In summing up, McFate predicts that in “the future, wars will move further into the shadows. In the information age, anonymity is the weapon of choice. Strategic subversion will win wars, not battlefield victory.

Conventional military forces will be replaced by masked ones that offer plausible deniability, and nonkinetic weapons like deception and influence will prove decisive. Shadow war is attractive to anyone who wants to wage war without consequences, and that’s everyone”.

This book raises two broad issues.

First, is McFate correct in his assertion of irrevocable change in the nature of war as we think we know it?

Or has he identified a number of emerging trends which are merely modifying our traditional understanding of war, and which politicians, generals and ethicists will have to take into account, without demonstrating a need for fundamental shifts in military strategy?

In other words, is it a matter of “either-or” (that is, realistic versus outdated ideas of war) or of  “both-and” (that is, adding McFate’s insights to the existing paradigm)?

Second, if war is a continuation of politics by other means, and if politics is the art of the possible, then how realistic, both ethically and practically, are McFate’s prescriptions?

On the face of it, he seems to be advocating an amoral policy of “whatever it takes”, in which the means are deception and self-interested (that is, paid mercenaries), and the end is sheer survival.

Now, it is true that strategy can involve an ethic of “the lesser of two evils”, as in the West’s World War II alliance with the dictatorial and murderous Soviet Union of Joseph Stalin to defeat the even more dangerous dictatorial and murderous Nazi Germany of Adolf Hitler.

Is that what McFate is saying?

Or is he saying that we need to abandon all the delusions of honour, patriotism, justice, humanitarianism, liberal democracy and international law, which we have used to justify war in the past, and begin to wage it with a nihilistic ruthlessness on bleak but clear-sighted terms of “it’s either them or us”?

Read this provocative and disturbing book, and decide for yourself.


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