War adapts itself and evolves. While some may take comfort in the fact that conventional battles are most likely a phenomenon of the past, the wisdom that guided those who won them is crucial to inform us about how to efficiently carry the fight from now on.
I recently reviewed the insightful novel 2034 by Admiral James Stavridis about a potential future war between China and the United States, during which China’s People’s Liberation Army takes advantage of technology to defeat the US Navy. Anyone watching the news can grasp that the rivalry between Beijing and Washington could lead to a hot war in the future, even if the author of the novel – a man who forgot more about polemology than any of us will ever learn – evaluates that the risks are feeble, the need to be prepared is nevertheless crucial.
Good news is, “Chinese military strategy generally aims to avoid a conventional war”, writes Seth G. Jones in his recent book Three Dangerous Men: Russia, China, Iran and the Rise of Irregular Warfare (W. W. Norton). But, in the words of Sun Tzu, “to subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.” From Syria to Ukraine, sailing through the South China Sea, America’s main opponents are investing colossal efforts to pin it down without going to the mat. Using a formidable weapon, irregular warfare. This form or war requires a smaller footprint on the ground to conduct military operations and fighting the enemy indirectly, notably using public opinion, psychological and legal domains. The goal is to inflict maximum damage at the lowest possible cost.
Seth G. Jones therefore brilliantly chronicles the careers and contribution of the three main strategists behind the irregular warfare currently conducted against the United States. Valery Gerasimov (Russian chief of the General Staff), Qassem Soleimani (former commander of the Iranian Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guards) and Zhang Youxia (Vice chairman of the Central Military Commission in China and longtime friend of President Xi Jinping) were and are deploying treasures of ingenuity to exploit American weaknesses in a way that may call for admiration, even though a Westerner can and should be worried because of the consequences this might entail.
Faced with such an efficient and damaging strategy, the United States shows a deplorable lack of awareness, with a fossilized mindset to prepare for the battles of the past. No later than 2018, US Undersecretary of Defense John Rood naively expressed that “we aren’t doing irregular warfare anymore.” Well then, you might as well raise the white flag. Because that’s where Moscow, Tehran and Beijing will come from, and they won’t spare any effort to that end. They have already done so in Ukraine, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, in the Pacific and through the Belt and Road Initiative.
“The most important six inches on the battlefield is between your ears”, said retired US Marines General James Mattis. In his book Call Sign Chaos, the former US Secretary of Defense further developed this argument when he writes that “[…] not all good ideas come from the nation with the most aircraft carriers.” Knowledge of the enemy is an essential weapon.
In that regard, Seth Jones evokes one of my favorite military figures, the Duke of Wellington. Walking with an Irish statesman in the countryside one day, they were wondering “[…] what sort of country they might discover over the next rise.” When his fellow walker expressed surprise at the accuracy of the Iron Duke’s guess, the victor of Waterloo replied: “Why, I have spent all of my life in trying to guess what was at the other side of the hill.”
China understands it perfectly. It should come as no surprise that “Beijing invests substantial resources in translating and exploring the contours of American culture and politics”, writes the international security specialist. But what is shocking is to realize that “unlike during the Cold War, the US government and private sector have failed to invest in the language skills and expertise to effectively compete with the Chinese Communist Party.” I can’t help but wonder the amount of knowledge on the culture, history and mindset of Washington’s opponents we could gather with the money budgeted for one aircraft carrier or just an F-35.
One of the aspects that I found most revealing in Three Dangerous Men is how much of an intellectual Valery Gerasimov is. I can easily imagine him strolling at the Dom Knigi – one of Moscow’s best bookstores – searching for a new book to devour. While Qassem Soleimani was more in his element sharing a modest meal with the troops and Zhang Youxia seems to be the embodiment of the perfect apparatchik, both men are depicted as being no less brilliant in efficiently conducting a type of warfare for which Washington is damagingly unprepared.
General Mattis deplored that military history is no longer taught in Americans universities. And please don’t get me started on Canadian institutions. If we seek to prevail in the new ecosystem of warfare, we must think until our heads hurt, to paraphrase him. The main lesson I take form Seth G. Jones book is that Washington’s enemies are already one step ahead. Perhaps more.
The bookworm, the martyr and Xi’s longtime friend have proven to be better students of the Duke of Wellington than his direct military descendants.
Seth G. Jones, Three Dangerous Men: Russia, China, Iran and the Rise of Irregular Warfare, New York, W.W. Norton, 2021, 256 pages.
I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Ms. Shona Cook of Penguin Random House Canada for providing me with a copy of the book. Despite a busy schedule, she is always more than generous with her assistance for this blog.