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Durable Disorder

Book by: Sean McFate
Reviewed by: Shoshana Bryen Summer 2022

There are two books inside The New Rules of War by Sean McFate. One explains the failure of the United States to win a single war since 1945. That book is intriguing and worth pondering. The second one makes suggestions for the re-organization of the U.S. military to fight the wars of the present and future. That book will make you nauseous. And yet, it too is intriguing and worth pondering.

McFate is a professor of strategy at the National Defense University and Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. He has serious credentials. A former paratrooper in the 82nd Airborne and a private contractor in various countries, McFate has been in and around a variety of American military commitments over the past few decades.

In Book One, he defines the American military’s problem first through the lens of our fight against Al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). “Aspects of JSOC [Joint Strategic Operations Command] which had previously made us so unrivaled – our structure, equipment, doctrine and culture – were the very things constraining us. We were trapped in a cage of our own making: we believed ourselves to be tactically flexible, so much so that we stopped questioning whether our actions, or the nation’s broader strategy were correct.” 

An Absence of Strategy

Strategy is the theme. Are we fighting to “win” or to negotiate an end to fighting? If we end the fighting, will it come back again? Can you trust your negotiating partner? How do you know? And if you’re wrong about your partner, what will the U.S. gain or lose? These are, in fact, the key questions of the 21st Century – coupled with the knowledge that more defense spending won’t solve the lack of strategy problem.

McFate tends to use examples of small armies, militias, and other non-state actor group cheating; there is a lot of Africa and Afghanistan here and a very interesting bit on Acapulco. 

But there is a larger picture: Iran has cheated on its agreements with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and on the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) – and Russia cheated on the Budapest Memorandum, the INF Treaty, and the Open Skies Treaty among others – and North Korea cheated on its nuclear agreement with President Bill Clinton – and China simply declined to follow the ruling of the International Court on the Pacific islands. For Israel, the Palestinians cheated on Oslo and everything else.

Hugely opposed to building more, bigger, shinier, higher-tech weapons, McFate points to the ability of low-tech militias to hold Western armies at bay – or defeat them. “France was defeated in Algeria and Indochina, Great Britain in Palestine and Cyprus, the U.S.SR in Afghanistan, Israel in Lebanon, and the United States in Vietnam, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan.” 

Each of these was a militia/guerrilla/terrorist organization facing a conventional army. He believes we’re finished facing conventional armies. 

Oh, yeah? 

Side Trip Number One: The New Rules of War was published in 2019 – and in fact was, rightly, a Wall Street Journal Top 10 book that year. Perhaps Vladimir Putin should have read it before he used the most conventional of weapons to attack Ukraine in 2022. We’ve gotten a window on a) Russian strategic thinking – they believed their conventional forces could hook up with their “little green men” and take Kyiv in a few days – and b) how much less capable they were than the U.S. and NATO had given them credit for. And as regards China, we’re now considering the possibility of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. 

There is No Answer

International law and international institutions are no answer. “The United Nations did nothing to stop the genocides in Rwanda and Darfur. Nor did it challenge Russia’s theft of Crimea or curtail decades of slaughter in the Middle East…The Law of Armed Conflict… exists in name only. No one can legislate combat or regulate it and it is hubris to try. Kindhearted solutions to war just get more people killed.” 

Futurism – the bane of McFate’s analysis – isn’t the answer. Faulting Star Wars (the movie, not the BMD system) for encouraging planners to think in ever-more esoteric terms, he points to an overheard conversation in which one analyst said, “The problem is that the military can never fully anticipate tomorrow’s threats. However, it can future-proof itself through technology.” The other replied, “That’s why DoD needs more money. The military is woefully underfunded.” 

McFate’s conclusion is that “conventional war is dead.” It was replaced by:

Networks, caliphates, narco-states, warlord kingdoms, corporatocracies, and wastelands… in 2017, 70 percent of the worlds countries were “fragile.” And that the condition of “no war, no peace” is endemic  – U.S. Grand Strategy in the face of this is failing – if our goal was to uphold the rules based order, including using international organizations, information, our economy, our entertainment capabilities, backed by unquestioned military might. China is challenging every single one of those – including our belief in democracy and personal freedom.

Pay special attention to Chapter 6 on mercenaries. “Countries, organizations, oligarchs, companies all have enough money to hire the military muscle they need, particularly when they’re charging them with low-tech warfare.” This is where things start to get hairy. “There is actually an organization called the International Code of Conduct Association in Geneva that mercenaries can belong to – “They swear to a code of conduct so they can be hired by state or non-state actors.”

How many of the world’s mercenaries can we assume a) join and b) live up to their signatures – particularly after McFate has explained that signatures on a treaty or peace plan are only useful as long as the signatory wants it to be?

The Second Book

Here’s where we get into the second book. McFate’s interest in and apparent belief in the utility of mercenary armies leads him, in fact, to a logical conclusion. For him. The United States should use them. 

Side Trip Number Two: You may recall that actress Mia Farrow was a strong voice on behalf of the people of Darfur during the Janjaweed-committed genocide. But did you know she tried to hire a mercenary army to fight the militia? Which is interesting at two levels – first, that she is smart enough to know that crying over the people of Darfur wasn’t enough; that military action is sometimes necessary. But second, if an actress can hire a militia to kill the people SHE wants killed, what stops another actress or athlete or artist or gourmet chef from hiring an army to kill who THEY want killed? 

This applies to the armed forces of some actual countries (although McFate thinks countries are overrated and the real action is in subnational space). I wrote in 2019:

American security assistance generally is predicated on the principle that a smaller or poorer country that has U.S. equipment and training will be better able to defend common interests than one that doesn’t. Sometimes it works that way. But sometimes it puts the U.S. in bed with people who want our weapons and training but do not share our bottom line — their enemy is not ours; their rules of engagement are not ours; their government, in fact, is not a friend of ours, but maybe if we reward it thoroughly enough it won’t actively oppose our interests.

And some of them – see the entire story of U.S. (CIA) participation in the Syrian civil war – morph into terrorists.

The chapter headings now should begin to worry you: “New Types of World Powers Will Rule,” “There will be Wars Without States,” “Shadow Wars will Dominate,” and “Hearts and Minds Don’t Matter.”

Hearts & Minds Don’t Matter (Rule 4), is useful, and he covers it with various examples of countries/leaders killing their way to their goals. He hits the obvious killers – Mao, Stalin – but also includes a really interesting review of the Jewish defenders of Jerusalem and the culmination of their stand at Masada. The Romans were never going to win hearts and minds. They lost the battle but won the war – until 1948.

After the deconstruction of modern mercenary/militia warfare, McFate concludes: 

The lesson here is not that shadow wars don’t work – they do – but that secrets and democracy are not compatible. This means democracies will be disadvantaged in an era of shadow warfare, a fact Putin already exploits. Democracy thrives in the light of information and transparency… 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.

Can We? Should We?

If you can’t beat them, join them. “Shadow wars harm the soul of a democracy. But kneeling before dictators is not an option… The West “must develop its own version of shadow war.”  This would include:

Kinetic warfare: Maximum plausible deniability. Nonattributable forces; plausible deniability; false flags, foreign legions, little green men, mercenaries.

Weaponized information; Trolls and bots; mock them; whisper campaign; “support regime changes like Ukraine’s Orange Revolution” (Didn’t he say regime change was bad?) “Waging war in the television age depends as much on propaganda as it does on success in the field. This is especially true when fighting democracies because their citizens can hire or fire policy makers.” “Too often, the West is the chump. It must overcome its aversion to knowledge manipulation…” “Undermine autocracies.”

Sponsor organized crime: “Organized crime can become the enemy within the enemy’s state… demand it stop trafficking human beings and end all sex trade activities as a condition of sponsorship”

Use your businesses to get in

Talk to the terrorists: diplomacy must include “multinational corporations, terrorist groups, and criminal organizations who exert influence… is engaging with such actors any different from dealing with distasteful regimes?” 

Nauseous yet? 


In the end, McFate is right at the strategic level – and the strategic level is where he wants to be. Warfare has changed. The enemies have changed. There is, as he says, “durable disorder” in the world. Whether the U.S. can cope, and how it copes, will decide who we will become. Great Britain ruled for centuries and now it’s just a little island with a very checkered past. Is that our future?

“Don’t weep for Westphalia,” he cautions. We have to look forward. OK, fine. But at some point, we will look back on this generation’s future wars and we can only hope that we do it without thinking that we have, in fact, sacrificed our morality, our standards, our decency for military victory. Whatever that means four hundred years from now.

Shoshana Bryen is the editor of inFOCUS Quarterly and the Senior Director of the Jewish Policy Center.