Tag Archives: warfare

The New State of Warfare – Weaponizing Everything


The New State of Warfare -Weaponizing Everything


“As warlike behavior migrates into new competitive spaces – strategic influence, commerce, culture, domestic politics, cyberspace, space, and the electromagnetic spectrum —

the U.S.government and private sector must recognize the far-reaching and growing hazards of hypercompetition and rival gray-zone strategies.”

“There is a transformation afoot in great-power conflict. In a twist to the well-worn caution, “if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail,” China and Russia are redefining both. These competitors have discovered that nearly everything that can generate strategic leverage is a potential hammer, while everything of major interest to the United States and her allies can make effective nails. And so, as these rivals smell blood (or weakness) in the competitive water, they are on the offensive nearly everywhere, seeking to diminish American influence and strategic position through persistent and effective gray-zone maneuver.

Augmenting their substantial political, economic, military, and commercial capabilities, Beijing and Moscow are mastering the “weaponization of everything” to achieve exploitable hypercompetitive advantages vis-à-vis the United States. Their “hammers” range from political coercion, predatory economics and strategic extortion, to information warfare and subversion, covert action, and overt disregard for international norms. Recent U.S. Army War College work finds the United States off-balance and slow to respond to this increasingly dynamic multi-domain hypercompetition, where methods short of war are combined to generate favorable war-like outcomes for America’s great power rivals.

China and Russia hold three distinct advantages over the United States in today’s hypercompetitive environment. First, while the latter clings to a discredited model of persistent American primacy, the former radically redefine the rules, boundaries, and tools of competition. Feeling unconstrained, these competitors ignore previously accepted international norms, furiously working to directly or indirectly damage American position. Every aspect of U.S. power and interest is under assault – all levels of government, alliances and partners, international organizations, industry and media, political parties, and individual citizens. No “nail” is out of bounds.

Second, U.S. rivals have greater freedom of action and are more tolerant of risk than the United States. In contrast to ponderous “risk-confused” American policy- and decision-making processes, U.S. rivals mix top-down, centralized decision-making with opportunistic distributed action. They thrive on prudent risk-taking precisely because their gray-zone provocations rarely draw effective U.S. response. Any damage to U.S. position, influence, or power is a relative victory. Yet in the face of these attacks, the United States is slower to recognize hazard, slower to strategic consensus, and slower still to an aggressive defense of its interests. On the Russian threat specifically, information warfare expert Molly McKew suggests, “For now…America is still in the dark — not even on defense, let alone offense.”

Finally, U.S. rivals skillfully exploit the strategic influence space. Today’s hyperconnectivity exacerbates vulnerabilities in free and open societies. Perception dominance, not physical or material dominance, is fast proving the decisive advantage in great-power rivalry. U.S. rivals’ maneuvers go under-recognized and uncontested in the strategic influence space. They exploit divergent political perceptions and biases, magnify social and cultural fissures, disrupt commercial activity and markets, and they ignore law and precedent. All of this creates U.S. and allied decision vulnerability.

Perception dominance springs from the understanding that the volume and velocity of information can overwhelm accuracy and understanding. So U.S. rivals employ fact-perilous, fact-toxic, fact-inconvenient, and fact-free information to sow division and doubt and create disruptive alternate realities. In the end, deliberate manipulation of the strategic influence space by authoritarian adversaries erodes confidence in the institutions, stability, and will of their democratic rivals.

Russia and China create the worst possible Faustian choices for U.S. public- and private-sector leaders. On the one hand: choose to stick to the core values that define the United States – a rules-based international order, truth and candor, free speech, free markets, free enterprise, etc. – and see those values exploited at U.S. expense. On the other hand: compromise those values to wrestle in the mud with rivals, and hazard erosion of the hard-won principles that have for so long separated the United States and other liberal democracies from their authoritarian adversaries.

The character of the current hypercompetitive struggle for global influence and position couldn’t be clearer. Unfortunately, the United States is routinely outmaneuvered and outplayed precisely because it is heavily invested in a perception of its unrivaled primacy. Meanwhile, U.S. adversaries – undeterred by an imagined American past – generate and exploit new windows of opportunity, seizing gray-zone initiative and reaching directly into the heart of American democracy to destabilize the U.S.civil discourse.

The boundaries between war and peace, battlefield and market, and adversary and competitor are dissolving. If the United States is to effectively compete for position and influence in this turbulent and dangerous environment, it requires an urgent meeting of the minds to bring a more collaborative stance to hypercompetitive great-power rivalry.

We were sufficiently warned. The Chinese concept of “unrestricted warfare” and the Russian doctrine of “new-generation warfare” are fixtures of the contemporary international security debate. Both are playbooks focused on hammering every conceivable nail. By now, the United States should recognize its profound vulnerability. Failure to play is playing to lose; wrestling in the mud may be unavoidable.”



“Drone Warrior” – A Stunning First Hand Memoir


After a careful review by the Intelligence Community for Publication, Drone Warrior has performed a stunning service, giving the reader a gut level feel for the U.S. War on Terror from a decorated soldier’s perspective. 

Those of us who served in Vietnam and similar conflicts since can totally relate to this masterpiece of  honesty.  

Brett Velicovich pulls no punches. The mental stress, teamwork, tragedy and after effects in this modern, technological killing process can be felt with every line.  The impact on the man himself and on those with whom he worked has not been spared in its detail and its effects. 

Having left the service, Brett is now involved in harnessing and controlling the technology for peaceful purposes like wildlife preservation and management.  Those of us who have made similar transitions applaud, commend and recommend the book and the man. 

Read it to become informed and consider the billions we are spending on this warfare today as well as the impact on our youth and our future. 

Drone Warrior

Leadership and the Myth of “Better Wars” From Vietnam to Afghanistan


Diplomacy Better International Strategy

“WAR ON THE ROCKS” By Jon Askonas

‘The United States cannot afford to pretend that gurus will deliver rapid and satisfying victory.

Nor can America’s political leaders allow temporary success to distract them from the hard questions they must face about what America can hope to achieve in these wars, and whether the nation is willing to pay the cost.”

“For a variety of reasons, Vietnam is in the news again. The 50th anniversary of the Tet Offensive is coming up, Ken Burns has a new documentary out, and our re-commitment to Afghanistan has revived comparisons to Vietnam. It is, perhaps, more fundamentally the Vietnam War’s shape-shifting character and bitter ending that keep it alive. Every stage of the so-called War on Terror has involved relitigating Vietnam, as a metaphor, warning, and source of historical lessons. Much attention has been focused on how the United States stumbled into the “quagmire,” but students of America’s experience in the War on Terror have a lot to learn from the Vietnam War’s denouement under Gen. Creighton Abrams, Jr., and what it says about the hopes societies at war invest in their military leadership.

In the late 1990s, the historian Lewis Sorley wrote a book, A Better War, highlighting the progress the U.S. military in Vietnam, under Abrams, made after the Tet Offensive. The “better war” is Sorley’s shorthand for the notion that, first, Abrams transformed the American effort in Vietnam, fighting a better war than the previous commander, Gen. William Westmoreland, and, second, that Abrams was a latter-day Ulysses S. Grant who, disappointed by Washington’s fecklessness, “deserved” a better war. Abrams died in 1974 (the only Army chief of staff to die in office), before the fall of Saigon and before he could write a memoir, so Sorley effectively wrote one for him.

Sorley holds that Abrams’ transformation of Vietnam from Westmoreland’s search-and-destroy, big-unit war of attrition to a clear-and-hold, small-unit war of pacification routed the North Vietnamese, so that the U.S. military effectively had it in the bag by 1972, only to fail to back the South Vietnamese with materiel and airpower in 1975. Sorley’s historiography has some serious problems. More recently, Gregory Daddis has revisited Westmoreland’s role in Vietnam in Westmoreland’s War. Daddis finds a man who was neither the heartless body-counter nor the reluctant counter-insurgent that his detractors suggested. Daddis’ work contributes to a broader re-assessment of counter-insurgency in Vietnam prior to Abrams (and soon, during his command). Contrary to the reigning conventional wisdom, historians have increasingly highlighted the centrality of counter-insurgency to America’s Vietnam strategy from the beginning, even as that strategy was frustrated by political, military, and organizational realities. Westmoreland’s failures, such as they were, were not due to his personality or approach but due to the inherent complexity of the war in which he was engaged and the political and military constraints he faced.

While Sorley reflects on the way the war shifted form under Abrams’ command, he never reflects on the way it might have shifted before Abrams arrived. Abrams’ ability to avoid “the big unit war” and focus on small unit patrols was surely aided by the fact that the North Vietnamese were reluctant to engage in big-unit fighting for quite some time after having been decimated in the Tet Offensive. Sorley is in the awkward position of having written a biography of a victorious general in a war the United States lost. Sorley begins his thirteenth chapter – entitled “Victory” – with the claim that, “there came a time when the war was won. The fighting wasn’t over, but the war was won.”  For Sorley, there is no causal connection between the eventual loss of the war and the actions of the general who led it for the five years leading up to the end.

The problems with Sorley’s book are endemic to writing about Vietnam, and about counter-insurgencies in general. Involving shifting alliances of actors, multiple kinds of political constraints, and hazy relationships between coercion and results, success and failure in counter-insurgencies resist simple explanation and invite revisionism. It’s due to this complexity that serious students of the war can look at the same set of events and come to entirely paradoxical conclusions, such as that the war was unwinnable at any point, or could have been won before 1963, or was effectively won by 1972, or that the U.S. military focused (or even over-focused) on counter-insurgency from the beginning or from Abrams’ tenure, or avoided it like the plague in favor of conventional approaches. Sorley’s narrative fails to a great extent because he neglects to contend with the mind-numbing complexity of the war, putting success and failure on the shoulders of Abrams alone.

This should clue us in to an important lesson about the paradoxical danger of heroic leadership – a danger that haunts our country in the present. As you read his book, it’s striking how badly Sorley wants you to see Abrams as a personality. Every other person in the drama is a cardboard character. But Sorley presents Abrams as a larger-than-life counter-insurgent, a Lawrence of Indochina. His dialogue is colorful and stylized (he is apparently the only soldier in Vietnam who swears), with italics used to give you a sense of Abrams’ cadence. The contrast between the heroic Abrams and the milquetoast ensemble has little to do with the historical Abrams and everything to do with what Sorley needs for his story to make sense.

The man Sorley presents is a mythological archetype: the counter-insurgency guru. Abrams, readers are told, is a study in contrasts from “Westie,” the hapless, careerist, conventionally-minded general trying to win a war of attrition. Abrams is the sophisticated, worldly-wise, earnest counter-insurgent who really gets the war and the people, beloved by his men and the local populace alike. Where Westmoreland was a “corporation executive in uniform”, as Stanley Karnow put it, (complete with a degree from an advanced management course at Harvard Business School), Abrams was the earthy and decorated hero of Patton’s breakthrough at Bastogne and two-time recipient of the Distinguished Service Cross. America was losing in Vietnam because Westmoreland had the wrong strategy, and started winning because Abrams had a better one. The war was lost because Congress didn’t see Abrams’ plans through.

We like to tell ourselves these kinds of myths, complete with a supporting cast of good guys and bad guys and an easy to grasp narrative arch. These myths make thorny, complex wars seem intelligible, and tell us that our failures have primarily been failures of military strategy and approach, solved by fighting “a better war” delivered by the best leaders we can find: Before, America had military and political leaders whose views on the war were too simplistic or whose ideas about societal engineering and nation-building were unrealistic. But now, we have been chastened by the horror of war and the realities on the ground, and have found an appropriately sober, savvy leader. The temptation of this myth is the belief that the sophistication and intelligence of our leadership will necessarily deliver victory.

In Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan, Americans turned to counter-insurgency gurus in whom they invested their hopes for “a better war” and an end to the conflict, in contrast to what is depicted as the uninspired performances of their predecessors (Westmoreland, Casey, and the rotating cast of Afghanistan commanders). Politically, Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon needed Abrams, much as Bush needed Petraeus, and Obama needed McChrystal … until he did not and then he needed Petraeus again. The guru promises a fresh start and a new approach, and symbolizes a real commitment to winning the war. And the guru does usually boost flagging morale, help the military adjust to the conflict, apply principles of counter-insurgency and show some results. But we don’t like to talk about how much time a truly successful campaign would require or what often happens next. The guru achieves some meaningful level of success, enough for Washington to declare a victory of sorts and bring the troops home (against the guru’s advice). Defeat ensues, even if we refuse to call it such.

Quite apart from their historical accomplishments, figures like Abrams, Petraeus, and McChrystal play a mythological role that is equally indispensable and dangerous. In each case, Americans want to believe that these dirty, grinding wars in which they have become mired have finally called forth a champion, who will fight a better war and deliver a victory. While this myth can be a valuable tool to mobilize political resources, it can also distract from what fighting these wars really takes: long spans of time and deep wells of commitment. A better set of operational tools is not enough. The right technique is not enoughA gentler approach is not enough. Over the last decade the U.S. national security establishment has had to relearn some hard truths. Improvement in counter-insurgency campaigns is usually incremental and tied to organizational learning and experience over time as much as top-down changes of doctrineElite politics has a more determinative effect than good governance reforms or better tactics. Changing the military leadership is no replacement for actually making the resource commitments or costly political compromises necessary to fight and win a counter-insurgency.

Advocates of counter-insurgency often point to the futility of military-first solutions, only to propose their replacement by a new, better set of what fundamentally remain military-first solutions, which fail to address the long-term political calculations that local and national elites are making. Sorley cannot accept that the “center of gravity” in Vietnam was not the security of the Vietnamese people or the North Vietnamese military infrastructure (as important as these were) but American, North Vietnamese, and South Vietnamese political leadership, over which Abrams had little to no influence.

And this is the irony of the mythological counter-insurgency guru: You might not be able to win a war like Vietnam without a guru like Abrams. But the guru’s personality, vigor and success also make it easier, and more attractive, to cut your losses in a politically acceptable fashion.”



Jon Askonas is a predoctoral fellow at the Clements Center for National Security at the University of Texas-Austin and a DPhil candidate in International Relations at the University of Oxford. His current research addresses the impact US Army policies in Vietnam had on knowledge production, learning on the ground, and battlefield effectiveness.


We Need to Audit the Pentagon




“In 1994 Congress passed legislation requiring every federal agency to be auditable.

Since then every agency has complied—except for the Department of Defense.

“We have known for many years that the Department’s business practices are archaic and wasteful, and its inability to pass a clean audit is a longstanding travesty,” Chairs John McCain (R-AZ) and Mac Thornberry (R-TX) of the Senate and House Armed Services Committees said recently in a joint statement. “The reason these problems persist is simple: a failure of leadership and a lack of accountability.”

The Department’s… inability to pass a clean audit is a longstanding travesty

Increasing Pentagon spending under these circumstances is the opposite of fiscal responsibility. In fact, giving the Pentagon $54 billion and finding out why later is bad budgeting.

Both the Republican and Democratic party platforms included the need to audit the Pentagon, and Congress should resist calls to give more money to an agency they know to be irresponsible with taxpayer dollars.

You can learn more about the seemingly endless saga surrounding the Pentagon’s utter failure to get a clean audit opinion here.”







So Our Grandchildren Don’t Have to Fight




“Few doubt that we are failing in our post-9/11 wars.

Those who are 4, 5 or 6 years old will be fighting the war we could not end—like those who were 4, 5 and 6 at the time of 9/11 are doing now. It’s time to adopt an approach that fits the kind of war we’re in.      

We have accomplished neither the strategic objectives set forth by the George W. Bush administration nor those of the Obama administration. Both had notable successes and achieved periodic tactical and operational progress, but no sustained strategic success.

Now the contenders for the presidency offer two visions. One is composed of more of the same, with the expectation of a different outcome. The other suggests we can defeat a revolutionary movement with military force alone, an approach that led the British to failure from 1776 to 1781. To put it mildly, both of these visions miss the mark.

How do we reset our thinking? We must first admit we have not understood the kind of war we’re in; that we’ve tried to make it something it is not and in the process, we have been at war for 15 years and have little to show for it. Then we must read our enemy’s documents and actions for what they are. From the start, al-Qaida, the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria and their ilk have waged a global revolutionary—and therefore, ideological—war, a form of insurgency that is initially local and regional but has global implications.

We have waged, with few exceptions, a counterterrorist war. Our first approach was expansive: going after the terrorists and the states that sponsored them. Our second approach, the one we’re still using, is minimalist and gradualist: a combination of precise targeting of key individuals and selected groups coupled with reliance on surrogate ground forces. Neither works because both approaches miscast the enemy. We are waging one kind of war; our enemies are waging another. As long as we stay in this mode, our failure is near-guaranteed.

Waging a counterrevolutionary war is complicated and difficult, but this is the task before us. We are not conceptually or organizationally prepared to wage the kind of war we’re in. To move to a better strategic position, we must first create, and then use, a real alliance.

In both the maximalist and minimalist approaches, we’ve treated coalition partners as if they were members of a posse with the U.S. as the sheriff. We called the shots; they could join or not. Perhaps this approach made sense in the immediate period following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, but the strategic landscape has changed dramatically. Then, it appeared that only the U.S. was under attack. Now, it’s clear: The nations of Europe are also under attack, as are many in the Greater Middle East and as some will be in Southeast Asia Pacific. The U.S. must lead, but it cannot be the sheriff. The problem begs a true alliance.

Forming such an alliance will be difficult, but not impossible. Everyone would like a large tent in which all participate. To actually function, however, the core alliance will have to be smaller, with only those nations willing and able to commit to six actions. The initial alliance may contain only some of the NATO members: Turkey, which is key; a few of the Middle East and North Africa states; and select nations of the Asia-Pacific.

Over time, as the alliance succeeds, it will grow. Success, however, requires at least the following actions:

  • Identify a set of common goals and principles that will guide alliance actions. This first task is the most important. Right now, the potential alliance has different perspectives on the problem it faces as well as the solutions. A properly conducted diplomatic dialogue will not eliminate all differences, but it can reduce them to a point where all can commit to a set of common goals. Then the alliance must commit to a set of guiding principles. The legitimacy of the alliance’s transnational actions will derive from these goals and principles. Internationally, nations still live in a somewhat Hobbesian world. We have some international structures, laws and conventions, but no international government. The reality is that the United Nations is unlikely to sanction transnational actions against the revolutionary enemy we face. That leaves action up to individual nations—the alliance. Unilateral action, although sometimes justified, is an insufficient foundation upon which to wage the war we’re in. In fact, the problem itself defies any unilateral solution. An alliance, committed to a set of positive goals and guiding principles, will provide both the legitimacy and the resources necessary to succeed against a common enemy.
  • Create the structures to make decisions, coordinate execution, and adapt as the war unfolds. Collective action requires organizational capacity. The heads of government of at least core alliance members must set the strategic agenda and approve goals as well as the associated military and nonmilitary strategies, policies and campaigns necessary to achieve those goals. Further, they must meet frequently enough to provide continual strategic guidance. The alliance then needs an execution capacity—staff and line—that assures coherent action and timely adaptation as the war unfolds. Using existing bureaucracies to wage war is a very risky endeavor. One need only read Robert Komer’s Vietnam-era monograph, Bureaucracy Does Its Thing, to understand these risks.

Bureaucracies do “same” very well; they do “fast and continually dynamic” not very well. War is, by its nature, fast and continually dynamic.

  • Protect the commons that connect alliance members. Our enemies use the open transportation, information, fiscal and commercial commons to their advantage. They create followers. They move leaders and operatives. They raise and distribute money. They buy and distribute arms and ammunition, and they supply themselves—all using the global commons. Alliance members must close the commons to our enemies with minimal disruption to normal social and economic life. Closing the commons will require primarily a mix of information-sharing and coordinated law enforcement actions. And it will probably require adopting some new laws and conventions as well as taking some combined military action.
  • Prevent the fall of a state to the revolutionary enemies. Part of our revolutionary enemy’s strategy is to depose what they call apostate governments and replace them with fundamentalist regimes that even most Muslims do not support. The alliance must help to prevent states from collapsing. Such action is not solely related to building security forces—military and police—in at-risk countries. At times, alliance military or police actions, taken in conjunction with local forces but not reliant solely upon them, may be necessary to reduce the already present revolutionary presence within a threatened state. This reduction cannot be merely using remote means, for such action does not create durable effects. Reduction operations must be taken in conjunction with correspondingly necessary changes to social, political, security and economic policies that the revolutionary enemies use to their advantage. Such changes need not be aimed at creating democracies. Rather, they should increase the legitimacy of the government from the perspective of its citizens, whatever type it is. Without these changes—which will likely become the main effort in the overall prevention campaign—the revolutionary fervor is likely to remain, even spread.

Some might believe that these kinds of changes are impossible. They will be hard, that’s for sure, but these changes can be made incrementally. Committing to change and starting to change is what’s important. Further, absent this commitment, real progress in the war we’re in will remain elusive. One need only read Ken Pollack’s A Path Out of the Desert to see the essential connection between success in the war we’re in and a reform agenda.

It’s already too late for Syria. It has collapsed. There’s no resurrecting the Bashar al-Assad government, and no allowing a radical, jihadi revolutionary group to take over. So Syria becomes a special case, an important and hard nut to crack. This special case, however, should not be an obstacle to actions and progress in other areas. In fact, reducing the already present threat, improving legitimacy in other states—within and bordering on the alliance—and closing the commons will all contribute to creating an environment in Syria from which a potential solution may emerge.

  • Eliminate safe havens that threaten alliance members. Safe havens are breeding grounds for enemies. No good can come from allowing them to continue to operate. The alliance’s air, special operations and ground forces—again, in conjunction with local forces—may be necessary to clear and initially hold these areas before turning them over to local security forces. Once more, eliminating safe havens means more than conducting security operations that achieve only temporary effects. Such operations must be followed by improved governance packages; otherwise, bad guys just return. Experience over the last 15 years shows how hard coordinated security and governance actions can be. But difficulty does not erase need. If alliance nations don’t figure this out, our future will merely repeat our past.
  • Reduce the attractiveness of the revolutionary narrative. Alliance domestic actions are as important as any other in this kind of war. Alliance members themselves must commit to social, political, security and economic policies that do not make it easy for our enemies to recruit, motivate or radicalize within their borders. Reducing the attractiveness of the revolutionary narrative is not just an information or spin campaign. It is a campaign of the civil and military actions described previously that first, makes real the values and principles the alliance stands for and seeks to engender more broadly and second, demonstrates the fallacies in the revolutionary narrative. An aggressive counternarrative campaign begins at home but doesn’t end there. The campaign most likely to succeed is one that uses government-private organization partnerships. The ultimate aim is to influence the audiences the revolutionary seeks to encourage to remain on the sidelines.

Creating a real alliance that is able to take these six civil-military actions, and others, is a tall order. Sustaining it over time is harder still, but what’s the alternative? Strategic leadership is about getting the right people together to understand the problem at hand, setting in place and sustaining the right processes to act and adapt, and maintaining the focus through to success. This is what waging war, rather than just fighting it, is all about.

The revolutionaries waging war against us aren’t going away; the problem isn’t going to solve itself. The solutions of the past have not worked, and those now on the table show little promise. More of the same will merely get us to where we already are. Applying a solely military solution absent a broader strategic context won’t work, either. “


Debating the Morality of Hiroshima


Image: History.com


“Each year at this time — the anniversary of the bombing of Hiroshima — the world pauses. The pause is less to mourn the dead than to debate a moral question: whether the bombing was justified and, by extension, whether the United States unnecessarily slaughtered tens of thousands of people on Aug. 6, 1945.

The moral lesson of Hiroshima is twofold. The first is that military doctrine, like other things, is ruthlessly logical. The second is that in confronting Germany and Japan, moral purity was impossible, save for the end being pursued, which was destroying the prior evil.

The debate rarely focuses on a careful analysis of war and morality and is more frequently framed by existing views of the United States. The debate is rarely about Hiroshima or about World War II. It is a debate about the moral character of the United States. This is not an illegitimate subject, and Hiroshima might be a useful point with which to begin the debate. But that isn’t possible until after we consider the origins of Hiroshima, which can be found in the evolution of modern warfare.

Innovations in Industrial Warfare

Warfare became industrial for a simple reason. The introduction of firearms brought to the battlefield a weapon with tremendous strength and an overwhelming weakness. The strength was the ability to kill or disable an enemy at distances far beyond the range of previous weapons. The weakness was that without extraordinary training and talent on the part of the soldier, firearms are quite inaccurate. For a soldier under the pressure of combat, loading and effectively aiming his weapon — particularly with muzzle-loaded firearms — was not an easy task.

To compensate for the inaccuracy of firearms, larger forces could all fire at the same time. Simultaneous firing increased the probability of inflicting casualties on the enemy, and simultaneity, choreographed as it was in multiple lines of troops — with some firing, some waiting and some reloading — maintained near-continuous fire. The solution on the other side was more soldiers pouring more fire on their enemy. Thus, the inaccuracy of a deadly weapon required ever-larger armies.

It also required increasing innovations in weaponry. Firearms evolved from muzzleloaders to breechloaders, then those able to hold clips of multiple rounds and finally the machine gun, which compensated for its own inaccuracy per shot by saturating the horizon with bullets. It was said that in World War I it required 10,000 bullets to kill one soldier. I have no idea where this calculation came from, but it was true in essence. Given the inaccuracy of most riflemen, masses of them were needed. The machine gun made riflemen far more effective.

The approach to warfare that made it less efficient is at the heart of the real issue leading to Hiroshima. Armies surged in size and had to be equipped. Rifles and machine guns were not the work of master smiths but had to be mass-produced in factories, as did a wide range of products needed to support multimillion-man armies. These factories were the key enablers of war. Killing one solder eliminated one rifle, but destroying a factory eliminated the combat power of large numbers of soldiers. Therefore, destroying factories mass-producing the means of war was the most efficient counter to the massed armies made necessary by inaccurate weapons. These factories typically were in cities. In order to function, they had to have efficient transportation links with other factories manufacturing precursor parts, and thus tended to be located near other factories, transportation hubs, and their workers and the systems that employees needed to live and work — houses, grocery stores, schools and so on.

Master military strategist Carl von Clausewitz argued that the key to war was to attack the center of gravity of the enemy’s capacity to wage war. By World War I, the center of gravity was no longer the army but the factories and the workers who produced the engines of war. The distinction between soldier and civilian, critical to all modern notions of military morality, dissolved. The ability to wage war disappeared when the factories did. But given the location of factories, by necessity in cities, any attack on these factories would kill not only workers but also their children, and the milkman’s children. This was, by definition, total war — the only war that could be waged in the industrial age.

At the outset of World War I, there was no way to destroy war-critical factories or populations from a distance. But as with most things, a problem found a solution close at hand. Aircraft made their appearance on the European battlefield during World War I — first as observation planes, then as fighters tasked with shooting down observation planes, and then as bombers tasked with destroying targets identified by reconnaissance aircraft.

Targeting the Industrial Plant

Geopolitically, it was clear that World War I had not solved the fundamental problem of Europe and that another war was inevitable. Among those who believed this were the theorists of air power. Chief among these was Giulio Douhet, an Italian who thought through the reality of war at the time and concluded that the chief solution would be the destruction of the enemy’s war-making capacity. Douhet believed this would best be achieved by aircraft attacking cities en masse and destroying them. Joined in this view by the American Gen. Billy Mitchell and Britain’s Hugh Trenchard, Douhet argued that the key to warfare was to use large numbers of massed bombers to annihilate cities. This would achieve two things: It would destroy the enemy’s industrial plant and trigger a revolt by the public against the government. Because both sides would have massed bombers, the key to war was to launch attacks greater than the enemy’s potential response by both having a larger air force and destroying the enemy’s ability to produce more aircraft.

The inter-war air strategists were in part shaped by the carnage they saw in protracted trench warfare. Douhet believed that the role of air power was almost purely offensive, requiring rapid and destructive attacks against first the opposing forces’ aircraft and then against civilian industrial and commercial centers. Trenchard, like Douhet, saw air power as a strategic and valuable force. Where Trenchard differed from his Italian contemporary was in considering ground forces still important and suggesting joint ground and air operations against enemy airfields. Early American air theorists, including Mitchell and the Army Air Corps Tactical School, viewed the role of strategic bombing as targeted against the war-making capacity of the enemy, rather than against the enemy morale, as Douhet and some European counterparts considered. Mitchell saw attacks on industry, communications and transportation as the real objectives of strategic air power and saw the armies in the field as false objectives.

Douhet implicitly recognized the weakness of aircraft, which was the same as the weakness of rifles: They were extremely imprecise. In 1940, when the British began launching attacks on Germany, the imprecision of the bomber was so great that German intelligence could not figure out what they were trying to bomb. Only massing bombers and destroying cities would work.

The Germans used this dual strategy in the Battle of Britain. They failed both because of lack of sufficient weapons and an air force not designed for strategic bombardment (which is what attacks on cities were called) but for tactical support for ground warfare. The British adopted nighttime area bombardment, making no secret that their goal was the destruction of cities to suppress production and generate political opposition.

The United States took a different approach: precision daylight bombardment. The Army Air Corps Tactical School sought to make bombing more efficient by finding and identifying bottlenecks in the opponent’s supply chain. Targeting the bottleneck would reduce the total number of bombers, men and bombs needed to achieve the same ultimate goal as large city bombing. The Americans felt that they could solve the problem of inaccuracy and total attacks on cities through technology. They developed the Norden bombsight, which was supposed to enable the dropping of iron bombs with precision. The bombsights were delivered to the planes by armed guard, and the bombardier was ordered to destroy the bombsight at all costs if shot down. Regardless of this technology, U.S. bombing was not much more accurate than the deliberate randomness of the British.

By the time the air war focused on Japan, there were no illusions that there was precision in bombing. Curtis LeMay, who commanded U.S. air forces in the Pacific, adopted the British strategy of nighttime attacks with incendiary bombs. On the night of March 9, 1945, 279 B-29s conducted an incendiary bombing attack on Tokyo that destroyed more than 40 square kilometers (15 square miles) of the city and killed an estimated 100,000 people.

The Tokyo bombing followed Douhet’s logic. So did the creation of the atomic bomb. Douhet’s point that destroying cities was the key to winning wars drove Allied strategy against Germany and in Japan. The atomic bomb was a radically new weapon technologically, but in terms of military doctrine it was simply a logical step forward in the destruction of cities. The effects of radiation were poorly understood at the time, but even with acute radiation deaths included the death toll was less than 166,000 in Hiroshima. The development of the atomic bomb was one of the greatest scientific undertakings of all time, but it was not needed to destroy cities. That was already being done. The atomic bomb simply was a way to accomplish the goal using only one plane and several billion dollars.

Hiroshima’s Aftermath

The Japanese themselves were not certain what happened in Hiroshima. Many of Japan’s leaders dismissed U.S. claims of a new type of bomb, thinking that this was simply a continuation of the conventional destructions of cities. It was one of the reasons that no decision on surrender was made. The Japanese were prepared to live with extraordinary casualties. The firebombing of Tokyo did not lead to talk of surrender. And the argument was that since Hiroshima was not a special case, it did not warrant surrender. Recent research into archives shows that the Japanese were not planning on surrender. True, Japan had put out diplomatic feelers, but it is often forgotten that Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in the midst of negotiations. It is in this context that feelers have to be considered.

There are those who are confident that the Japanese would have surrendered without the bombing of Hiroshima. But they did not surrender because of the Tokyo bombing. Submarine warfare — not just bombing — had crippled Japan’s industry, but this had been the case for many months. And the example of Okinawa, with its kamikaze attacks and civilian resistance to the death, was sobering. You and I may know what was coming, but President Harry S. Truman did not have the luxury.

There are two defenses from a military perspective, then, of the American bombing. One is that no one at the time could be certain of what the Japanese were going to do because a reading of the record shows that even after Hiroshima, even the Japanese didn’t know what they were going to do. Second, a doctrine and reality of war was unfolding — a process that began hundreds of years earlier. But those who would challenge these defenses are compelled to explain how they would have dealt with monstrous regimes like Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.

The focus on Hiroshima is morally justifiable only in the context of condemning several centuries of military development. It can be condemned, but I don’t know what difference it makes. The logic of the musket played itself out ineluctably to Hiroshima. But the core reality that played out was this: Over time, the distinction between military and civilian became untenable. War fighting began in the factory and ended with the soldier at the front. The soldier was a capillary. The arteries of war were in the city.

There is a tendency in our time to demand that someone do something about evil. There is a willful denial of the truth that anything that is done requires actions that are evil.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt understood the logic of strategy and the logic of morality, in my opinion. For him, choices were shaped by military doctrine and the nature of the evil he faced. Truman had even less choice.

Hiroshima was an act that flowed logically from history, and we cannot in retrospect claim to know what the Japanese would or would not have done. However, I think that had I been there, knowing what was known then — or even what is known now — I would have been trapped in a logic that ultimately justified itself: Japan surrendered, and Asia was saved from a great evil.”