The Pentagon’s Dangerous Cult of Lethality

European leaders misjudged World War I. America shouldn’t repeat their mistake

Virginia Woolf famously observed that sometime in the first decade of the 20th century — she arbitrarily chose December 1910 — human life was fundamentally transformed. That date is near the culmination of what Barbara Tuchman called a “century of the most accelerated rate of change in man’s record.” Tuchman was describing the somatic effects of the Industrial Revolution, Woolf the psychological changes in society that those effects drove.

What Woolf sensed and Tuchman saw, however, was something the political leaders of the time largely missed. Heads of state, foreign ministers, and chiefs of army staffs failed to appreciate the revolutionary technological advances of the late 19th century and the dramatic acceleration of life that followed. The mismatch between their outdated mental models and the new reality led them to practically sleepwalk into the lethality of World War I, unheeding of the warnings of the Boer and Russo-Japanese wars that preceded it.

Today, militaries around the world are experimenting with new technologies and debating which capabilities to invest in and which to divest of — just as the European empires did a century ago. Now, as then, political leaders struggle to make sense of rapidly changing social, technological, and geopolitical milieus. And just like their predecessors, our own leaders risk tragedy by underestimating — or worse, misunderstanding — the profound implications of all that change.

The years prior to the outbreak of World War I were flush with military innovation, just like today. After suffering a complete and embarrassing defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, France’s leaders faced the particularly daunting challenge of reforming a military that had been thoroughly humiliated and somehow making it ready for 20th-century combat. French military theorists acutely feared that the emerging tactics favoring cover and entrenchment would lead them backward to “the passivity of which the French were allegedly guilty in 1870, and destroy the moral willingness to advance and fight,” the military historian Azar Gat writes.

France’s army thus fell victim to a dangerous pathology that made attack the highest virtue. “Only the strategic offensive … gives important and decisive results,” French War Minister Jean Auguste Berthaut declared. “One therefore has to make all efforts to seize it.” This doctrine was then known as the French School but is today more often derisively referred to as the “cult of the offensive.” An entire generation of French army officers was instilled with the idea that French élan — the flash of the bayonet and the weight of the cavalry charge — could win the day no matter the odds. “Returning unto its traditions,” one wrote, the army “no longer knows any law other than the offensive.”

But France’s leaders had applied the wrong lessons. Their faith in the cult of the offensive to them obviated the need for real military reform; their renewed emphasis on enthusiasm took the place of real technological or organizational innovation. They ignored the horrific revelations from Petersburg and Mukden, preferring instead the nostalgic reassurance of decidedly outdated Napoleonic concepts like strategic maneuver and the “battle of annihilation.”

World War I was unprecedented in its scale and scope. France’s almost religious faith in the cult of the offensive was largely responsible for the million-plus casualties it suffered during the execution of Plan XVII and the Battle of the Frontiers in the war’s opening months in 1914. Never had new and newly combined technologies allowed armies to kill so many so swiftly in so many places at once. What France’s military commanders and policymakers failed to comprehend was the changed character of 20th-century warfare, a failure that resulted in the greatest wholesale slaughter in human history, a conflict that went on to claim the lives of more than 40 million people.

A little over a century later, we find ourselves at the outset of another military-technical revolution — a period of sharp, discontinuous change in the conduct of war. But where World War I was characterized by revolutionary hardware — wireless communications, railway networks, machine guns, and long-range artillery, for example — the most dramatic capabilities today are being wrought by the development of revolutionary software — of both the digital and human varieties.

This new era of digitized warfare compresses time and distance, blurring once separate warfighting domains and rendering national borders practically irrelevant. An amorphous digital blanket has been stretched across the planet, running over, under, and through individuals, political parties, and nation-states. This connectivity opens nations to manipulation and attack by making their internal frictions painfully transparent and malleable to almost anyone, almost anywhere. And while the battles that take place within this ethereal domain may be virtual, their consequences — from radicalization to the hijacking of infrastructure — can be very real.

U.S. policymakers have so far failed to appreciate the disruptive changes undermining the so-called “American way of war,” just like their World War I-era French predecessors failed to appreciate the carnage of the Maxim gun and high-explosive shell. They’ve ignored the lessons of the recent past and have instead doubled down on the force structures and weapons platforms of yesterday by giving the Defense Department billions of dollars to buy slightly better versions of things it already has.

The 2018 National Defense Strategy acknowledged this but stopped short of calling for the sort of wholesale reforms required. It nonetheless marked a turning point, directing the Pentagon to essentially abandon its 20-year fixation with terrorism and to shift its focus to “long-term strategic competition” with rival great powers — namely, a risen China and a recalcitrant Russia. It ordered the department’s leaders to “shed outdated management practices” and “adapt their organizational structures.”

But while changing ingrained practices and adapting organizational structures are incredibly difficult, buying stuff is easy — indeed, it’s what the Pentagon does best.

That’s one reason, perhaps, why the National Defense Strategy’s urgent call for transformative change was instead quickly watered down and reduced to a meaningless buzzword — lethality.

Lethality was so loosely defined that it could mean anything to anyone. It was quickly adopted by a chorus of departmental apparatchiks and defense industry executives to highlight their product or policy’s purported contribution to that end since having been used to justify such things as the acquisition of new car doors for military working dogs and the authorization of command-approved naps for soldiers.

The problem with this renewed emphasis on lethality is that the United States already has an impressive panoply of coercive power, one capable of dishing out more lethality than any of several other nations on the planet combined, including Russia and China. Yet despite this lethal overmatch, it hasn’t been able to achieve U.S. policy preferences — the very purpose of war — for a generation or more. That’s something that is unlikely to change no matter how much more lethal it becomes.

America’s adversaries, recognizing this, are moving beyond mere lethality. They’re still building tanks, planes, and ships, of course — but they’re also working to seize first-mover advantages by recognizing the asymmetric potential of a globally integrated datasphere and the revolutionary applications of autonomous weapons and artificial intelligence.

Russia’s “new-generation war” is characterized by an emphasis on information weapons, for instance. Its goal is to achieve Russian political preferences by changing foreign citizens’ moral values and undermining state authority — not through the application of lethal force. But Russia has also invested billions of dollars in autonomous systems that it has extensively tested in Syria.

China’s “Three Warfares” doctrine synchronizes the employment of strategic psychological operations, the manipulation of global media narratives, and the weaponization of legalism to establish precedent, foster doubt, and erode international norms — to which the People’s Liberation Army’s growing capacity to deliver lethal force is but an adjunct. China’s concept of systems confrontation warfare “is no longer centered on the annihilation of enemy forces on the battlefield” but on the disruption or paralysis of an enemy’s “operating system,” a schema that can be equally applied to naval flotillas or national infrastructure.

These concepts, of course, aren’t entirely new. Nor are they magic bullets capable of inflicting the sort of catastrophic doom on the United States that some commentators imagine. What they are, however, are signs that the country’s principal adversaries have recognized the changing character of geopolitical competition in an environment that bears little resemblance to the one that spawned the mass industrial-style wars of the 20th century.

If the United States is to survive and thrive in the 21st century, its leaders must recognize that the currency of great-power competition under contemporary conditions isn’t measured in the numbers of ballistic missiles or aircraft carriers a state possesses but by its administrative capacity, structural resilience, and global legitimacy. The real competition between the United States and its allies on the one hand, and Russia and China on the other, is between competing systems of governance and ways of ordering society.

The United States needs a modern military that’s better suited to defend its governance systems against the threats its competitors pose. It needs a military that’s both adaptive and resilient, one flexible enough to quickly concentrate resources when crises emerge — and just as quickly able to reallocate them when those crises subside. It needs a military capable of continuous operations in the increasingly crowded and contested global digital commons, one that’s able to effectively respond to the strategic and operational challenges of this century — not the last one.

Before the digital warfare revolution subsides, the old ways of warfighting will have been left behind. If the United States continues to spend profligately on military platforms whose looming obsolescence is clear to anyone paying attention, it risks competing itself to death by preparing for a conventional war that never comes, while its adversaries win the societal-level conflict that’s already here.

A strategic futurist contemplating the intersection of national security, defense, and disruptive technologies with empathy, skepticism, and hopefully, insight.

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