Book Review: Fighting in the Shadows - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Monday 8 July 2019

Book Review: Fighting in the Shadows

The New Rules of War: Victory in the Age of Durable Disorder
By Sean McFate
HarperCollins, 2019
318 pages
Rs 1,699 (on Amazon)

Several authors have analysed the shifting templates of modern warfare, but few have the credentials that Sean McFate brings to his writing. He has served as a paratrooper in the United States army’s elite 82ndAirborne Division. He then went on to become a mercenary soldier in Africa, with one of the shadowy “private contractors” that rent out armed forces, no questions asked. Adding academic rigour to that battlefield perspective, he is currently professor of strategy at the National Defense University and Georgetown University, both in Washington DC, USA. This is his second non-fiction book on war, after his 2017 work, The Modern Mercenary.

In this book, McFate takes a cold-eyed look at the changing face of conflict over the last half century. He argues that war and force engagements have changed form dramatically, as the world has entered an age of “durable disorder” characterized by China’s rise, Russia’s resurgence, America’s retreat, the advance of global terrorism, the emergence of international criminal syndicates, wealthy and influential multinational corporations with resources larger than many countries and well-armed mercenary organisations that provide the wherewithal for countries, organisations and individuals to meddle deniably in hotspots anywhere. Instead of declared wars with tanks rolling across international borders, we have “shadow wars” such as Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea. McFate recounts how, with President Vladimir Putin feigning innocence, Moscow occupied parts of Ukraine, such as Donetsk, with its so-called “little green men” (military troops without uniform), elite Spetsnaz Special Forces, mercenaries and proxy militias that Russian leaders passed off as Ukrainian “self defence groups”. Russia’s denial of any links with this ghost occupation force made Western powers chary of intervening in a situation where even the basic facts remained contested. By the time Russia’s involvement became clear, the occupation was a fait accompli. McFate tellingly points out that, in the 1950s and 1960s, Russia crushed anti-Moscow protests in Hungary and Czechoslovakia under its tank treads. It could have done the same in Ukraine, but chose a “shadow war” instead, given that even implausible deniability was better than the opprobrium that would attend an old-style blitzkrieg invasion.

None of this is actually new, says McFate. The world is merely returning to the pre-Westphalian era when, in conflicts like the “30 Years War”, mercenary armies, owing shifting allegiances to whichever monarch, aristocrat or religious leader was paying them, laid waste to much of Europe, pillaging and raping indiscriminately. In 1648, the Treaty of Westphalia ended this carnage by recognising the monopoly of states on armed force, a consensus that largely held through the 20thcentury. But now force is again being wielded by non-state entities – such as religious groups, local militias, mercenary forces and corporations – even as the forms of force change and evolve.

In ten successive chapters, the book describes ten rules that govern modern warfare. “Rule 1: Conventional War is Dead”, postulates the demise of the Westphalian order and World War II style conventional war, even as contemporary generals prepare, as generals have through the ages, to fight the last war. McFate points out that, of fifty armed conflicts worldwide in 2015, only one was a conventional war. Yet orthodoxy prevails in planners’ minds. “Rule 2: Technology Will Not Save Us”, points out that nuclear submarines, aircraft carriers and the F-35 stealth fighter (“the most expensive weapon in history”) are practically unusable against contemporary threats such as terrorist strikes, cyber attacks, Russia’s aggression in Crimea or China’s creeping acquisition of the South China Sea. Yet, most of America’s enormous defence budget goes on those, with relatively few resources spent on usable forces, such as Special Force units, which remain underfunded and in insufficient numbers.

One of the book’s most provocative arguments is in “Chapter 7: New Types of World Powers Will Rule”. While the concentration of wealth in the hands of the top one per cent is well known, McFate argues that hyper-wealthy corporations like Walmart (which he wrongly says has a larger economy than India) now have the option of hiring mercenary forces to protect their interests. Why would companies like ExxonMobil and Shell remain tethered to corrupt governments such as Nigeria’s, when they can better protect their interests through hiring mercenary groups? Similarly, organised crime syndicates, and even terrorist groups, can today boost their lethality by hiring mercenaries for strong-arm operations. An Uzbekistan-based mercenary group, Malhama Tactical, already specialises in providing armed fighters to Islamist jihadi groups. Fascinatingly, McFate returns to history to demonstrate that none of this is new. In the 17thand 18thcenturies, the British East India Company set up its own private army to conquer, subjugate and plunder an entire sub-continent. One of the first Indian words to enter spoken English was “loot”.

McFate concludes by urging thinkers to shake off their “strategic atrophy”, since “conventional war thinking is killing us.” In the current information age, warfare will move further into the shadows, he predicts, where the arbiter of victory will be strategic subversion, not battlefield victory. Future wars will not begin and end, but will hibernate and smoulder, occasionally bursting into active fighting. This trend is already evident from the number of “neither war, nor peace” situations around the world. McFate has clearly written for a western readership, but the Indian reader can hardly miss how much of this applies directly to our own security challenges. This book should find a place on the bookshelves of all our strategists.


  1. Refreshing to hear about new thought recognising the world as it is, and not as it was. Recently, I attended a talk by a respected former CNS and it was shockingly outdated both in the conventional frame of thinking which no longer works, the old view of exploitative economic model of unlimited growth, and also the obliviousness to the huge threat posed by climate disruption in the future. We are sure to lose geopolitically and in the proxy wars and insurgencies unless we can understand and accept reality, and prepare for the future as we can foresee it.

  2. Armies defending and fighting territories ate things of the past. Insurgency, nibbling territories and proxy attacks are the order while the military amassed weapons which will never be used.


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