War, Humility, and Hubris
check yourself before you wreck all of us
Peace is the ultimate goal and is a wonderful thing – but what makes it so special is that peace is not the natural state of things for our species. If you are lucky, you might get a couple of decades of peace before the next conflict of significance. More than that is a blessing few get to enjoy.
That is the human benefit of peace, but peace also has a heavy price. As eventually wars come, nations have to be ready for them. From the time the first band of men walked in to your valley, you heard the horses of the steppe archers in the distance, or the tank rumbled through your local gas station – war comes and demands you join it immediately.
You go to war with the people, equipment, and concepts built when you were at peace. Good, smart nations make sure that their militaries do their best to ensure they know how the tools of war have advanced since the hard lessons of the last war, and the ideas and techniques that take advantage of those changes adjust with them. You hope smart people with the ability to effect change have a good, if not imperfect, understanding of what the next war will require.
The longer the time of peace, the greater the error will be between what you have/think and what you will need/demand.
The wisest thing to do is to step away from anyone in the natsec arena who – like some late-night televangelist – tells you they have THE vision of the future or has the ONE thing that you will need to succeed.
No, the wise planner and strategist is one who is first humble and has that humility grounded in history.
Why humility? Simple. The humble mind is a flexible mind, a mind that can change when facts present themselves. The humble mind is a harder working mind as well. Knowing it might be wrong, it will try harder to get it right and will continually look for indications that it was wrong and will correct accordingly.
These are some of the threads that tied together to construct the great fear I have for our Navy: we have been a peace for too long. The ground and to a lesser extent the air component have been tested firsthand in the last couple of decades, though at the low end of the conflict spectrum. Our naval forces at sea simply have not. We have placed large bets on theory and hope. From our airwing to our VLS cells, we have limited our flexibility to change simply by limiting our number of systems/platforms.
I think we have been getting better since the Age of Transformationalism at the turn of the century, but we still lack enough humility. That is clearly demonstrated in the haughty attitude of many towards the quality of the People’s Republic of China’s naval growth and the turning of a blind eye to the scale of their growth in units and industrial capacity.
Recall earlier that I mentioned that humility is grounded in an understanding of history? History is just a written record of experience. Mistakes should be expected, and in efforts to constantly modernize, new structures can come up that on paper and at peace – or in the face of a different level of war – looked right, but in the practice of war their shortcomings become manifest.
Can your military adjust? Can it do so in a timely manner?
This whole thread came top of mind today in this brief graph from the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defence.
This is firmly in the Rumsfeldian “Known-Unknown” realm in that we really don’t know what we have wrong, or slightly wrong.
Just one datapoint of many coming out of the Russo-Ukrainian War. The future-perfect turned out not to be, and the neglected “old-think” of artillery, air-defense, logistics, shore-based anti-ship missiles, and armor were, in hindsight, unfairly shunted to the side for not being sexy enough.
As we try to get our Navy ready for the next war, what is important is that we don’t convince ourselves that we fully understand what future war will be. That uncertainty should shape our force such that it distributes future-risk such that we have a variety of flexible tools out there, not single points of failure.
Single points of failure are a secondary indication of hubris, as we all know what the gods like to do with that.