For about three and a half centuries wars have been fought principally between and among nation-states or countries.  Military people are paid to prepare for these wars and employ the tools and practices of traditional warfare in doing so.  Now comes the 21st century and the new threats we face are not from the governments of other countries, and they rarely represent a challenge to our survival or the balance of power in the world.  What is a traditional military to do under these circumstances?

What our Pentagon did recently was to try to fit cyber attacks into the traditional military mold.  According to the New York Times, it “plans to issue a new strategy soon declaring that a computer attack from a foreign nation can be considered an act of war that may result in a military response.”  Notice that it does not insist the attack come from a foreign government, just from a “foreign nation.”

Starting some years ago reports of hackers around the world–Russia, China, and elsewhere–penetrating our military and civilian computer systems began to flourish.  Our counter-technology usually traced these to random mischief-makers demonstrating their computer skills.  Rarely have these been traced to a foreign ministry of defense or official source.  So, our Pentagon is going to war with other nations–“a military response”–if some hacker attacks any of our computer systems?  Really?  Are they serious?

Perhaps these geniuses, who are totally adrift in a world where threats do not originate from foreign governments, are trying to intimidate foreign governments, including Russia and China, into policing their own hacker world.  It is a theory, but not a very plausible one.  Instead, it seems like an attempt by traditional military thinkers to fit a world of new realities into an old world of conventional warfare: “Anybody in your country does something bad to us, particularly something bad we’re not prepared to deal with, and we’ll attack you.”

If someone, in this case the Commander-in-chief and the senior civilian command, doesn’t shut down this dangerous kind of thinking soon, we’ll find ourselves in the same situation of Gulliver–tied down by armies of little Lilliputians.  There is nothing more harmful to the survival and success of a great nation than to let itself become irrelevant.

6 Responses to “Looking for War in All the Wrong Places”

  1. Jim Engelking Says:

    Thank you for a timely and direct statement, Gary. I agree, and felt much the same when I heard the news report. 49 years ago today, in Annapolis, MD, I was commissioned an Ensign, USN. My classmates later suffered the worst casualties of any class, and had four POW’s, fighting an unconventional war for which our four years together by the bay had not prepared us. When I got to the fleet, commanded by veterans of WWII, there was not even a procedure nor readiness for defending against small boat attacks. My ship was still trying to make its new anti-aircraft missile system and new AA radar work, and had ignored its 5″ guns. Now at least the USNA curriculum includes classes on cyber warfare, and small unit special operations have been taught for years, but your point is much broader, and I hope incoming DOD Secretary Panetta has a much better plan and the authority to implement it. He needs to retire a whole lot of senior officers and civilian staff for starters.

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  4. John H Kennedy Denver CO Says:

    I’m appalled that the Pentagon generals usurped the prerogatives of their Civilian Boss, the President, in pronouncing this Policy. Does the Pentagon now feel Obama sufficiently cowed by the Pentagon brass that they can now make national policy independently of the President or US Congress? Someone should very soon arrange a comeuppance they will not forget.

  5. Stephen D. Pillow Says:

    We have become a nation of the fearful. We now will allow any action that seemingly protects us from “them” and provides us some feeling of security, no matter how illusory or fleeting or regardless of what impact it has upon our individual and collective freedom. As Ben Franklin once said, “Those who would give up essential liberty to purchase a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” I for one am not willing to give up any essential liberty for myself nor for anyone else.

  6. Gary Hart Says:

    The central fact, as commentators have pointed out, is that the nature of “warfare” is changing and the nature of the “warrior” is not what it has been for many centuries. A threatened military response to a non-military “attack” is not credible and therefore inaffective.

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