The New Rules of War, by Sean McFate

Why this book: My friend Doug recommended it to me. After looking at it and starting to read it, I convinced several of my friends to read it with me, in order that we could meet on zoom and discuss it.

Summary in 3 Sentences:  McFate argues that war has changed, but we in the US and the West have not evolved our thinking to fit the new reality, and continue to use old and outmoded approaches to respond to current versions of warfare.  He argues that today we seldom see war as state-sponsored military-on-military conflict, but there is extensive ongoing warfare in the model he outlines, noting that we are at war now, whether we realize it or not.  Today, war is much more subtle and insidious, and no longer fits traditional or conventional paradigms of the first half of the 20th century, and he warns that if we in the US and the West fail to recognize that and fail to adjust to the new reality of warfare, we will be (are being)  strategically outmaneuvered by our adversaries.  

My Impressions:  What a thought provoking and extremely relevant book. It is short, pithy, easy and engaging to read, and it  definitely grabbed my attention.  He is provocative, and occasionally even incendiary.  His thesis is that the paradigm for “war” has changed, yet our leaders, our military industrial complex, our society is still thinking in terms of the old paradigm – that war is one state pitting its military against that of another state in search of victory.  He is arguing that version of warfare is no longer how war is fought.  In fact we are already at war in a new paradigm, which he describes in this book. And he points out that the “new” paradigm is not really so new – it has been around in different forms for centuries.

The book begins with a forward by Gen Stan McChrystal who asks the question: How do we create strategically adaptable leaders in a world afraid of change?  McFate then launches into a couple of brief chapters that explain how and why things have changed and how and why we in America have missed the changes.  He states; “No one fights “conventionally” anymore –  except us.” p5 and “Those stuck in the traditional mind-set will probably not even recognize future conflicts as wars at all, until it is too late.”  p6

 It would be easiest for me to summarize his points by looking individually at his ten new rules of war, to each of which he devotes a separate chapter: 

Rule 1:  Conventional War is Dead – In this chapter McFate gives us a brief history of state-on-state warfare that followed the Peace of Westphalia, evolving to the Geneva Convention and other mechanisms designed to create rules to manage war, rules which he argues are obsolete – since the main instigators of “war” as he describes it, don’t follow them. He argues that our expensive weapons and military infrastructure are designed for a war that is obsolete. He says that nothing is more unconventional these days than conventional war and  argues for more Special Operations Forces (SOF,) but he says, SOF also needs “rebalancing” with more focus on working in the political and soft-power arenas, and the nation needs to make better use of other less violent tools of national power.  He quotes Gen Jim Mattis to Congress: “If you don’t fund the State department fully, then I need to buy more ammunition ultimately.”  p42

Rule 2:  Technology Will Not Save Us. The hyper-expensive F35 is the bête noir of this chapter and he  says that “People want cool stuff, rather than weapons that work.” p 46.  “Low tech – so easy to obtain and so difficult to defeat – will form the future’s weapons of choice.” p46 He argues against the “Third Offset Strategy” which intends to give us robotics and artificial intelligence which  it is claimed will be the answer to future warfare problems, but also will feed billions of dollars into the high-tech defense industry. “Intelligent humans will always find a way to outfox smart weapons” p56 McFate says, arguing that we should invest more in people. He concludes  “This does not suggest we forsake sophisticated gear, but we should stop worshipping it….War is armed politics, and seeking a technical solution to a political problem is folly.”  p57

Rule 3: There is No Such Thing as War or Peace – Both coexist, always.  In this chapter he makes the point that traditionalists see a duality between war and peace and that others – especially China – use this against us.  While we may not be engaged in military vs military or state-on-state warfare, we have to recognize and combat these more subtle forms of warfare that undermine our national security.  He offers many examples of how China is “playing” the US, using the media against us, controlling the narrative of our differences, and he uses a term new to me  “..’lawfare’ .a form of combat against the international rules-based order” p69 which is an element or version of “war”  that doesn’t fit into traditional concepts of warfare.  He notes that the US has no recognizable “grand strategy” that addresses how we defend against and/or use these subtler forms of power that one country uses to gain strategic advantages over another.  

 Rule 4: Hearts and Minds Do Not Matter  McFate argues against traditional Counter-insurgency (COIN)  doctrine which calls for winning hearts and minds, nation building and developing “legitimacy.”   He said it has failed the US at every turn. That may not appeal to our sense of fairness, morality and justice, but he gives multiple examples to make his case.  He says that insurgencies are like armed social movements, and he notes that populations are not bribable – people will take your stuff, but not  your ideology.  “Legitimacy in societies like Iraq and Afghanistan is conferred by …political Islam.” p 94  “In the end, effective COIN is brutal and heartless – the opposite of Petraeus’s warm and fuzzy version. ” p97  He proposes that we consider creating a type of “foreign legion” to represent the US in “zones of disorder” to avoid “inept proxy militias, wily contractors, and American casualties.”  p102

Rule 5: The Best Weapons Do Not Fire Bullets  In this chapter McFate makes the point that influence is more effective than blunt force and traditional deterrence by military force is obsolete. “To eliminate jihadism you need to delegitimize the ideology.” p 109  He talks about weaponizing influence by monitoring and understanding your target, discrediting fake news, alternative facts, trolls, etc, and counter-attacking with our own messages delivered in a way that is effective in the target culture.  Here, “Tone may be more important than information” p111  He advocates “velvet regime change” and that we seek to undermine and corrupt overly strict moral values that run against human nature in target cultures.  “Who cares about the sword when you can influenc the hand that wields it” he asks.

Rule 6: Mercenaries Will Return A fascinating chapter that points to the long history of mercenaries working for the highest bidder in war, and he describes how mercenaries continue to play a key role in international influence and war.  “Private military companies, private security contractors, or just contractors –  it’s all euphemism.  If you are an armed civilian paid to do military things in a foreign conflict zone, you’re a mercenary.” p121 He lays out the fascinating history of mercenaries (“the second oldest profession”)and addresses the objections many people have to them.  “Mercenaries are butchers, while soldiers make innocent mistakes,” p122 and “People view soldiers like wives, and mercenaries like prostitutes.” p 124 

He points to how the US has unabashedly hired contractors and private military companies to do their work overseas, and that everybody seems to be doing it – because it makes sense from many perspectives.  Provocatively he predicts that “future American wars may be fully outsourced.” 131.  The challenge is that mercenaries make the option of force and forceful deterrence an option for any entity with  enough money since “…renting force is cheaper than owning it.”p125  He also notes that “..for-profit warriors constitute a wholly different genus and species of fighter….Unsurprisingly, mercenaries do not fight conventionally.”  133.

Rule 7: New Types of World Powers Will Rule   In this chapter, McFate points to the weakening power of the traditional nation state, and  builds on the last chapter’s point that military force is no longer the sole prerogative of the nation state.   And he notes that “most of the world’s 194 states are fragile…” p149  and are vulnerable to internal insurrections funded by internal or external sources.  “The illusion of states may continue on maps but not in reality, as new types of powers slowly take over.” p149  He again derides our nation- building strategies, arguing that “countries are not machines that can be built.” p 150

“The use of private force will expand in the decades to come, because nothing is in place to stop its growth, and in so doing, it will turn the super-rich into potential superpowers.” p146  “When anyone can hire mercenaries to wage war, the ultra-rich can become a new kind of power in world affairs… War is becoming marketized, and mercenary supply will attract new demand” p151 and he points out that organized criminals are becoming increasingly wealthy and constitute new potential power brokers.  

He concludes the chapter with a discussion of “deep states,” distinguishing between conspiracies – powered by individuals, and deep states – driven by institutional actors. “Conspiracies seek to undermine the system, while deep states seek to hijack it. Conspiracies hide in the shadows, while deep states operate in the open.” p161  In the US he points to the military industrial complex as a deep state alliance among the military, the arms industry that supplies it, and Congress.   He warns that “When a deep state is threatened, it does not go gentle into that good night. It attacks.” p169 And he points to how deep states have centralized power and authority in autocracies in Russia, China, Turkey, Iran, Egypt.    Is the US vulnerable?

Rule 8: There Will Be Wars without States  He begins this chapter by pointing to Mexico, noting that “cartels are not street gangs but regional superpowers.” p177  He makes the point that wars fought for money and material gain have not been considered “war” by “experts,” but he believes that is a mistake. “The irrational distinction between war and criminality is killing Mexicans daily.” p176 He notes that “Traditionalists cannot contemplate wars without states…most of wars in Africa fall into this hazy category, and most of the world’s wars are in Africa….Africa shows us the future of war.”  

Privatizing war changes warfare in profound ways, and conventional strategists who fail to grasp this will get their troops killed.  “The availability of private force lowers the barriers of entry into armed conflict for those who can afford it, tempting even more war.” p188

Seeing private wars as a business proposition, at the conclusion of the chapter McFate offers to those who wish to purchase or rent military power (demand side) strategies for for winning a privately financed war, and then separately, a list of strategies for force providers (supply side – mercenaries and contractors) for making sure they win in the negotiation and outcome, noting that Wall Street will recognize these strategies as everyday business practices. 

Rule 9: Shadow Wars Will Dominate In this chapter, he uses Putin and Russia as the primary example of masters of the shadow war.   “Shadow wars are fought by weaponizing information.” p201 and points to “troll factories” and bots that drown out legitimate content.  “For shadow warriors, the media is not a liability but an opportunity.”  p203 

This chapter extols the wisdom of Sun Tzu, and he provides a whole section on how Clausewitz, the god of Western military thinkers, is obsolete.  “Subversion will be everything in future wars.” p203  He quotes Sun Tzu extensively advising “don’t fight your enemies – outfox them. Done well, this approach manipulates the enemy in order to create vulnerabilities you can exploit.” p204   In this type of warfare, information supremacy is supreme and recognizes that the cunning mind is superior to the martial one – noting that this is NOT the Western, nor the American way of war.  In the battle for influence, “plausible deniability is the shadow warrior’s weapon of choice” p207 especially when using civilians as targets and exploiting a nation’s respect for human rights.   He argues that “the laws of war have devolved into a punch line…” saying that “the rise of shadow wars will be the dominant form of warfare in the decades ahead.” p208

He gives some examples of options that the West should consider to be able to play effectively in the international shadow war arena, to include facilitating corruption in our adversaries and reconsidering the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act that puts the US, UK and other Western powers at a great disadvantage in the international market place. But he also notes that “The West needs to learn how to fight in the shadows without losing its soul,  or it will continue to get sucker punched by autocracies.” p212   He concludes that “Power no longer comes out of a barrel of a gun, but rather from the complicated shadows.” p218

Rule 10 Victory Is Fungible.   McFate repeats his dictum that “War is armed politics, which means that victory is as much political as military.” p222  “There are easier ways to win than open warfare, and such strategies do not require a big military or even a military at all…This is how David defeats Goliath.” p223  He quotes Henry Kissinger, “The guerrilla wins if he does not lose.  The conventional army loses if it does not win.” p229 He offers a formula for how a militarily weaker adversary can defeat a much stronger one if certain pre-conditions exist – drawing lessons learned from the mistakes the US has made over the last 70 years to outline  his prescription.   

He then goes on to argue that in recent wars,  the US has focused on tactical victory at the expense of strategic victory, and this has cost us dearly. ” Failure to translate military victories into political ones equals defeat, and this is how big militaries lost in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.” p233  He echoes McChrystal in pointing to how tactical warfare is complicated and military leaders are taught to win by applying formulaic solutions appropriate to complicated problems, but inadequate to the complexity of effective strategy.  Strategic victory is complex which requires a different type of thinking – which he argues requires more of an artist’s mentality than a scientists. “In systems theory, complicated systems can be solved, while complex ones cannot.” p236 

He concludes the chapter noting that “an agile strategic mind is more important than smart bombs, gee-whiz technology, or numerical superiority. None of these things win war without a quality strategy behind them.  War artists can win the future, if we cultivate them.” p 240

Concluding Chapter – Winning the Future. McFate’s final chapter reiterates the points of his last chapter about the need for broader strategic thinking, and re-thinking what war has become and how it is currently being fought by our adversaries.  He says  “..war has moved beyond lethality.” p245 

A few quotes from the final chapter (and a few earlier ones) that make the key points of McFate’s book:  

“The solution is to reimagine war and change the way we think. Only then will solutions present themselves.”  p 176

“Conventional war has become a relic, like a pay phone, and studies show that deaths in modern wars are overwhelmingly civilian.”  p81

“Warfare is ever changing and we must adapt or die.” p213

“In the information age, anonymity is the weapon of choice.” p246

“Shadow war is attractive to anyone who wants to wage war without consequences, and that’s everyone. That is why  it will grow.” p 246

“Future wars will not begin and end; instead, they will hibernate and smolder. Occasionally, they will explode.” p246

“We should invest in people rather than machines, since cunning triumphs over brute force, and since technology is no longer decisive on the battlefield.” p247

“Attempting to reverse disorder is a Sisyphean task because such disorder is the natural condition of world affairs – again..” p247

“War is going underground, and the West must follow by developing its own version of shadow warfare.”  p248

“Victory will be won and lost in the information space, not on the physical battlefield.”  p248

“Today, bastards do not die for their country; they die for their religion, their ethnic group, their clan, money , or war itself.” p249

“…it is the nature of militaries to resist change.  Many generals are rigid in their understanding of war, how it should be waged, and how it should be won….warfare evolves before fighters do.”  p250


About schoultz

CEO of Fifth Factor Leadership - Speaker, consultant, coach. Formerly Director, Master of Science in Global Leadership at University of San Diego; prior to that, 30 years in the Navy as a Naval Special Warfare (SEAL) officer.
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