US soldiers rest after military exercises by US and South Korea troops at Daegu in March 2005.  Washington and Seoul have just signed a long-term military agreement, although a key aspect is still unclear. Photo: AFP / Kim Jae-hwan
US soldiers rest after military exercises by US and South Korea troops at Daegu in March 2005. Photo: AFP / Kim Jae-hwan

In Washington, the US military is routinely feted as the best equipped, the best trained, the most lethal, indeed, the greatest force ever fielded. However, its dismal war record since 1945 suggests otherwise.

An uneasy draw in Korea was followed by humiliating withdrawals from South Vietnam, Somalia, Afghanistan and Iraq – with dire consequences for US policy, interests and reputation. These disasters were counter-balanced only by small-scale successes – the invasions of Grenada and Panama – or limited-objective wins, such as the liberation of Kuwait in Gulf War I.

Indeed, a detailed 2015 briefing by the US Special Operations Command analyzing the last century of American overseas conflicts found nine losses, 43 ties and only 12 wins.

The United States, it seems, no longer knows how to win wars.

Doomsayer and author

“The last time the United States won a conflict decisively, the world’s electronics ran on vacuum tubes,” writes author and thinker Sean McFate. And the problem impacts not only the US; it extends to the democratic West.

“This isn’t just happening in the United States. Over the last 70 years, a disturbing trend has emerged; the West has forgotten how to win wars,” McFate noted.

“Modern war’s only constant is that the world’s strongest militaries now routinely lose to their weaker enemies.”

McFate knows his subject. The latest enfant terrible in international security, he has both academic muscle and real-world street cred. As a scholar, he is a professor of strategy at the National Defense University and Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service.

He has also worked at the Rand Corporation, Atlantic Council, Bipartisan Policy Center and New America Foundation.

He is a former US Army officer and a former private security contractor with experience dealing with African warlords, raising small armies, working with armed groups in the Sahara, transacting arms deals in Eastern Europe and helping prevent genocide Burundi.

In 2015 he published The Modern Mercenary: Private Armies and What They Mean for World Order. His latest work, published on January 22, takes a wider view: The New Rules of War: Victory in the Age of Durable Disorder.

Author Sean McFate (center, in sunglasses) during his time as a private military contractor in Africa. Photo: Sean McFate

Goodbye to all that

“The West is losing because it suffers from strategic atrophy. We yearn to fight conventional wars like its 1945, our glory days, and then we wonder why we have stopped winning. War has moved on, and our enemies have moved on with it,” McFate said.

“But we are stuck in the fantasy of yesteryear, and that’s why we are failing. We do not know how to fight other kinds of wars, especially the confusing endless ones of today.

“Rather than face the future, experts turn to the past and imagine robot wars and grand air-naval battles against China that resemble World War II with better technology.”

The era ushered in via the mid-17th century Peace of Westphalia treaty, when nation-states held monopolies of violence, is over. Also receding into yesteryear are the relatively clear-cut, set0piece battles of a conventional war.

Instead, historic enmities are reemerging across geographical, cultural and religious fault lines. The methods the West is using to try and deal with them, short of outright war, are increasingly ineffective.

In McFate’s view: “Ancient rifts, such as that between Sunni and Shia Muslims, reopen and destabilize entire regions. UN peacekeeping fails, mostly because there is no peace to keep. Nothing seems to work; high-stakes negotiations, superpower interventions, track II diplomacy, strategic nonviolence, nation-building or winning hearts and minds. Everything fails.”

As for the title of his latest book, McFate dubs this situation – an era characterized by non-state violence and long-term, globalized conflicts – “durable disorder.”

“The world will not collapse into anarchy; however, the rules-based order we know will crumble and be replaced by something more organic and wild,” he noted.

“Disorder has taken over the Middle East and Africa, significant portions of Asia and Latin America and is creeping into Europe. Soon it may be in North America.”

Think strategically

So what is the solution? Firstly, McFate says, big-picture thinking needs to be pushed right down to the tactical ranks.

“We don’t do strategic leadership in [the US],” McFate told Asia Times. “Military schools barely teach it. As a whole, there is a no-strategy program. We don’t even teach strategy [to officers] until they are 15 years into their career. We should start at age 18. We need to create a strategy track in the military.”

At the top, the brass also needs a rethink. Noting that US Army Joint Chiefs of Staff always come from traditional “teeth” arms – infantry, armor or artillery – McFate asked: “Why don’t we have an intel specialist at the top?”

At a time when some are suggesting tactical nuclear strikes as a potential “solution” to weaponized islands, McFate, in a bold assertion, says that nuclear arms will soon cease to be weapons of non-use.

He writes: “Nuclear weapons will be seen as big bombs, and limited nuclear war will become acceptable to some. Nothing lasts forever.  India and Pakistan could have a nuclear war.

“Also, there is a theory that if Saudi Arabia gave up their nuclear program and gave it to Pakistan, but could always buy it back. You could very easily envision a Middle East war with a 1914 moment.”

One of McFate’s prescriptions is bound to raise eyebrows. “It’s time for an American foreign legion – and a British one, an Australian one, a Danish one, and any other country that wants to overcome threats before they arrive at their borders.”

He suggests following the French model: a globally-recruited force that falls under national control. “The legion’s units would be led by American officers and special forces teams, scaling their missions at a reasonable rate,” he said.

This would obviate the multiple problems presented by the ragtag mercenary troops maintained by private military contracting firms. “In this model, legionnaires should replace contractors and all the troubles associated with them,” McFate suggested. “Training and vetting standards could be maintained in a transparent manner, unlike with barely vetted private military contractors.”

It would recruit globally, availing itself of a huge pool of manpower, and would ensure loyalty by offering a pathway to American citizenship. And most importantly, it would obviate the American public’s distaste for seeing its troops returning home dead; experience in Iraq and Afghanistan indicates the American public is indifferent to casualties outside regular military forces.

Mastering future war

Western publics fail to understand future war trends, particularly because Hollywood and popular writers peddle false visions. “The biggest abusers are Hollywood and science fiction writers, who redo the Battle of Midway over planets,” he said.

In fact, one critical future battlespace is cyber war – but not the way it has been understood by most in the West.

“Cyberwar doomsayers are the biggest con artists among technophiles,” McFate noted. “Cyber is important, but not in the way people think. In 2011, people thought the power of cyber was to destroy things: spying, theft, propaganda and sabotage.”

The real use of cyber, according to McFate, is not as a form of hard power, but as a form of sharp power. It is this form of force that Russia – a long-time master of “disinformation warfare” – has deployed to tremendous political effect in recent years, opening up gulfs of division in Western publics.

“The true power of cyber is propaganda. We should take that very seriously,” McFate said. “Representative democracies are very vulnerable to it. Russians without a doubt were involved in the 2016 US election, Brexit and other European elections.”

It is time to hit back – and not by using clunky Cold War-era techniques like pamphlet drops. McFate suggests using US soft power as a weapon: Covert broadcasts to oppressive regimes of Baywatch and Idol may be more effective than earnest bulletins by Radio Free Europe.

He also suggests ridicule be leveraged to delegitimize opponents: Russia’s president, he says, is particularly ripe for this given his macho stunts, as is North Korea’s odd-looking leader.

Sean McFate’s latest work. Photo: Amazon.

Join the Conversation


  1. The next time I read a blog, I hope that it doesnt disappoint me as much as this one. I mean, I know it was my choice to read, but I actually thought youd have something interesting to say. All I hear is a bunch of whining about something that you could fix if you werent too busy looking for attention.

  2. Wonderful beat ! I would like to apprentice while you amend your web site, how could i subscribe for a weblog web site? The account helped me a acceptable deal. I have been tiny bit acquainted of this your broadcast provided shiny clear idea

  3. Do you have a spam problem on this blog; I also am a blogger, and I was wanting to know your situation; we have developed some nice procedures and we are looking to trade methods with other folks, why not shoot me an email if interested.

  4. Hey there! I’ve been reading your site for a while now and finally got the bravery to go ahead and give you a shout out from Houston Tx! Just wanted to mention keep up the great work!

  5. At this time it seems like Expression Engine is the preferred blogging platform out there right now. (from what I’ve read) Is that what you’re using on your blog?

  6. Thank you a lot for providing individuals with an extremely splendid opportunity to discover important secrets from this website. It can be so ideal and as well , jam-packed with fun for me personally and my office fellow workers to visit your web site nearly three times per week to find out the new stuff you have. And indeed, I’m actually amazed with your impressive guidelines you serve. Certain 3 tips in this article are definitely the most impressive we have ever had.

  7. Heya! I’m at work browsing your blog from my new apple iphone! Just wanted to say I love reading through your blog and look forward to all your posts! Keep up the fantastic work!

  8. Having read this I believed it was very enlightening. I appreciate you finding the time and energy to put this article together.
    I once again find myself spending a lot of time both reading and
    commenting. But so what, it was still worthwhile!

  9. Hmm it looks like your website ate my first comment (it was super long) so I guess I’ll just sum it up what I had written and say, I’m thoroughly enjoying your blog. I too am an aspiring blog writer but I’m still new to the whole thing. Do you have any suggestions for beginner blog writers? I’d certainly appreciate it.

  10. It is perfect time to make some plans for the future and it’s time to be happy. I have read this post and if I could I want to suggest you few interesting things or tips. Maybe you can write next articles referring to this article. I desire to read even more things about it!

  11. This is really interesting, You’re a very skilled blogger. I have joined your feed and look forward to seeking more of your great post. Also, I’ve shared your site in my social networks!

  12. Undeniably imagine that which you stated. Your favorite reason seemed
    to be on the web the easiest factor to be aware of.
    I say to you, I definitely get irked even as other folks think about concerns that they
    plainly do not recognise about. You managed to hit the nail upon the highest and also outlined out the entire thing with no need side-effects , folks can take a signal.
    Will probably be again to get more. Thanks

  13. It’s really a great and useful piece of information. I’m
    happy that you simply shared this useful info with us.
    Please keep us up to date like this. Thank you for sharing.

  14. Pretty nice post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wished to say that
    I have really enjoyed browsing your blog posts.
    After all I’ll be subscribing to your feed and I hope you write again soon!

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *