May 2017 Book Reviews

Monday, April 17, 2017

Tour de War: Digital Space the New Battleground

iWar: War and Peace in the Information Age. Bill Gertz. Threshold Editions. 372 pages. $26

By Lt. Col. James Jay Carafano, U.S. Army retired

Award-winning national security journalist Bill Gertz asserts in his latest book that for some time now, America has been in a state of perpetual war beyond Iraq and Afghanistan—and we are getting our butts kicked. He argues in iWar: War and Peace in the Information Age that the ability to compete in the digital space empowers all of America’s enemies. Gertz concludes our foes have consistently used that advantage to undermine our vital interests.

Separate chapters address each of Gertz’s top-tier threats: North Korea, China, Russia, Iran and transnational Islamic terrorism. Few would squabble with the list. His threat matrix matches the Pentagon’s handy “four-plus-one” shorthand for what keeps the generals and admirals awake at night. What distinguishes the assessment in iWar is viewing these adversaries as not just competitors but active combatants, each relentlessly seeking to undermine the peace and security of the United States.

They can continuously attack us, according to iWar, through their capacity to exercise “nonkinetic conflict in the digital realm.” Gertz divides the cyber face of war, that arena without traditional bombs and bullets, into two parts. One is “technical cyberattacks on networks that run everything from our electrical grids to our financial transactions.” An example Gertz cites, and discusses extensively, is the infamous North Korea hack of Sony Pictures in retaliation for a satirical film depicting the fictional assassination of the country’s leader Kim Jong Un.  

The other form of cyberwar that iWar details is what Gertz calls content attack operations that “employ media warfare, legal warfare, psychological warfare, traditional public diplomacy, and strategic communications along with secret or semi-secret operations such as disinformation—the use of false and misleading information—and covert influence activities.” For example, Gertz catalogs a range of disinformation and active measures employed by the Russians in the run-up to the seizure of Crimea.

Gertz finds that not only are we being constantly attacked, but that America is doing a poor job of fighting back. He argues for an institutional response to information war. He proposes government projects specifically tailored to meet a specific info-combat threat, from a legal arm that uses international law against our enemies to new instruments for political warfare.

While there is an argument to be made that America is pretty lame at info-combat, iWar is the start, not the end, of the debate. To begin with, the basic premise of the book—that we are embattled in open war—is open to question. If every hostile act by a foreign power is the equivalent of war, then arguably America has never been and likely will never be at peace. Further, blurring the war-peace divide is nothing new. In 1940, for example, anti-interventionists argued that the U.S. already had committed acts that essentially made it a combatant. The Roosevelt administration countered that U.S. policies were strictly defensive, designed to keep us out of a war.

Defining the line between war and peace is a fundamental task of statecraft. The decision to be at war, as is the decision to declare a national challenge a national security issue, is a political choice. That is as it should be. The instruments of war are blunt weapons; they should be used sparingly and appropriately. They should be our most serious choices—not the political flavor of the month. We need more sparse and prudent judgments about these weighty decisions, not looser definitions.

Further, it is not necessary to adopt the war paradigm to acknowledge the U.S. is in serious competition with a number of global players and we ought to up our game. While it is true that neither North Korea, Iran, Russia, China nor global terrorism match the existential threat of the Soviet Union, if you add the Pentagon’s four-plus-one worldwide worries together, these current threats also comprise a global-sized problem for America.

Though iWar introduces the faces of the globe’s bad guys, the book falls short of delivering a compelling threat assessment. Gertz lumps together every bit of bad behavior that he can fit between the covers, but his book offers no sense of proportionality. There is no convincing measure of our competitors’ weaknesses or the effectiveness of their information warfare activities. For example, few question that the Russians are addicted to conducting disinformation and active measures, but it is not clear the Russians even have metrics for gauging the effectiveness of what they do.

And it is not clear whether what’s detailed in iWar is the problem or just the symptom of the problem. To really gauge how serious a threat these entities represent requires a fuller net assessment of all the strengths and weaknesses of the competitors and their competitive strategies.

Without that kind of balanced evaluation, it is difficult to make the case that Gertz’s particular prescriptions for burnishing American power make sense. iWar does, however, suggest a conceptual approach to non-kinetic competition that does make for good counsel: No manner of competition or competitive practice is inherently better than any other; in any competition, the most effective response is the one that has the most effective impact upon the competitors.

In the competitions that are vital to the U.S., we must maintain a critical competitive advantage. Islamic terrorism’s global online footprint offers a case in point. Internet radicalization certainly is not uniformly effective around the world. In some places, terror tweets fall flat. In other places, the Islamic State Group, known as ISIS, is effective at organizing or inspiring terrorist activity online. In the places where ISIS represents a serious threat to U.S. interests, we ought to have a way to outcompete our enemy. The best answer might be kinetic or non-kinetic, or a judicious combination of the two. Job 1 should be figuring that out and then delivering the right capability to win that competition.

Gertz may be right that a big part of the problem is that national security has become so muddled by divisive domestic politics that it is difficult to have a simple and clear sense of what to do. But that kind of problem is not new, either. It has plagued many presidential administrations to one degree or another. Presidents get the kind of domestic politics they get, not always the ones they want.

What great strategic leaders sometimes must do is see their way clearly through the political storm rather than wait for the weather to clear. Certainly, that is the situation at present. America’s leaders need to figure out how to keep America free, safe and prosperous in a dangerous world. One clear path is to focus on building and sustaining the nation’s competitive power in relation to key competitors.

Lt. Col. James Jay Carafano, USA Ret., is a Heritage Foundation vice president in charge of the think tank’s policy research in defense and foreign affairs.

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A Gloomy Assessment of U.S. Role in Mideast

America’s War for the Greater Middle East: A Military History. Andrew J. Bacevich. Random House. 453 pages. $30

By Col. Kevin C.M. Benson, U.S. Army retired

The study of the history of America’s involvement in the Middle East will occupy scholars for years. For those of us who lived through this era and its now historic events we rely on our memories, good and bad, as well as the swapping of war stories among comrades in arms. While we continue to wonder if in fact there was a grand scheme or policy/strategy for which we tried to link operational and tactical success, a scholarly work on the broad sweep of this history has arrived.

Andrew J. Bacevich’s latest book, America’s War for the Greater Middle East, is powerfully written; it contains a strong argument; and it truly is a tour de force of the sweep of history from the Jimmy Carter administration to the present. Bacevich, a retired Army colonel and professor emeritus of international relations and history at Boston University, is well-known in American foreign policy circles. He is also a New York Times bestselling author. He writes well. He tells a compelling story, explaining how our country started its engagement in the Middle East and, in his assessment, the continual series of miscalculations and faulty assumptions made from the early 1980s to the present.

Bacevich presents an indictment of civilian policymakers, military strategists and Army general officers from the Carter era to present times. He decries the lack of historical focus and the lack of historians on the teams of strategists and policymakers who populate the larger circle of security studies experts. He states there was no discussion of religion and the impact of Islam on the Middle East as the Rapid Deployment Joint Task Force, precursor of U.S. Central Command, was established.

Bacevich develops a theme of the intertwining of military responses and actions taking the place of diplomatic action—in effect, a militarization of foreign policy. The inclination of U.S. policymakers, irrespective of party, was that military action offered a path to solve the problem of terrorism and the Middle East.

The other theme in the book is the lack of a role for the American people. The George W. Bush administration, in Bacevich’s assessment, consigned the American people to the role of spectator. Given our professional military force and extant U.S. military capabilities, these would be enough to get the job done, thus the people did not need to be involved in the wars. Indeed, public involvement and the need to explain actions could impinge on the freedom of action of the government and military.

There was also, in Bacevich’s assessment, a belief in the promise of the “Revolution in Military Affairs,” and the promise of technology to win the wars. This mindset established a mistaken belief equating initial tactical and operational success in Afghanistan and Iraq with mission accomplishment.

Bacevich concludes by proposing and reviewing four assumptions upon which the continued American engagement in the greater Middle East was based. Additionally, he offers two courses of action for our country regarding this war in the Middle East. Essentially, our choice is either muster the will to win—winning is not defined—or admit what we are doing is not working and leave. In his assessment, the U.S. will likely choose to take a middle and inconclusive path. He presents and supports a powerful assessment of U.S. policy and military failures.

Bacevich offers a historical assessment of American efforts in the greater Middle East. Some will say it is a realistic and pragmatic assessment of continued flawed policy and inept military action, but Bacevich ends his book without offering a path forward. If Americans are in deep slumber and uninterested in the security and military actions taken in their name, how do we move forward? How do we restore our military competence and demonstrate determination or resolve?

So, what to say about this powerful work? I cannot say I enjoyed reading this book, or even liked it. However, this is a book serious professionals must study. Bacevich’s observations must turn into lessons not only learned but taken to heart as we educate the next generations of American military and policy leaders. At its heart, this is a book written with sorrow and lack of hope. The next step is to make sure we do not repeat the mistakes of the past as we consider a broader range of perspectives and concepts in the development and continued reassessment of security policy.

Col. Kevin C.M. Benson, USA Ret., served in armor and cavalry assignments in Europe and the U.S. He is a former director of the School of Advanced Military Studies and has a doctorate in history from the University of Kansas.

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Vietnam-era Soldier Built Enduring Legacy

Heart of Gray: Lt. Raymond “Iggy” Enners, Courage and Sacrifice of a West Point Graduate in Vietnam. Richard W. Enners. Acclaim Press. 240 pages. $26.95

By Col. Kevin W. Farrell, U.S. Army retired

Great attention has been paid in recent years to those U.S. Military Academy graduates who entered West Point before the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. These young people entered the academy in a time of peace and were commissioned as junior officers in a time of war. This is not a new phenomenon. Many graduating classes have experienced the same thing in the more than two centuries of West Point’s existence.

Heart of Gray: Lt. Raymond “Iggy” Enners, Courage and Sacrifice of a West Point Graduate in Vietnam is a compelling biography focused on a West Point graduate from an earlier generation who entered the academy during a time of peace and graduated during a time of war in 1967. The author, Richard W. Enners, also a West Point graduate, is Raymond Enners’ younger brother. He says he wrote Heart of Gray “so others might learn the value of living one’s life with a purpose and make a difference in the life of others.” In this task, he has succeeded admirably.

Heart of Gray is an appropriate read for anyone interested in learning more about inspirational leadership and living a life of purpose. But the book is most useful for Army junior leaders learning the fundamentals of their profession and time-honored techniques of effective leadership. Iggy Enners was a living example of the Army Values of loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage.

The book recounts the key events of the soldier’s short but purposeful and impactful life. Divided into three sections and 15 chapters as well as an epilogue, the book is compact and a quick read.

The climax of the book, Chapter 11, details his bravery and tragic death in combat in Vietnam on Sept. 18, 1968. After coming to the aid of a wounded squad leader, Enners was mortally wounded by machine gun fire during a fierce counterattack against the enemy. For his courage under fire, Enners posthumously received our nation’s second-highest award for heroism, the Distinguished Service Cross. Any reader of ARMY magazine will find this portion of the book engaging and moving.

However, readers also will benefit from many other aspects of Enners’ life. His brother does a commendable job of painting a portrait of a young man from a middle-class family on Long Island, N.Y., amid the changing face of American culture in the mid-1960s. Readers will enjoy learning about life at West Point, the trials of Ranger School, daily life in the U.S. Army of the 1960s, and even the sport of lacrosse. They will also share the pain of a loving family who lost a beloved son and brother far too soon, before his 23rd birthday.

Col. Kevin W. Farrell, USA Ret., Ph.D., is the former chief of military history at the U.S. Military Academy. He commanded a combined arms battalion in Iraq. His most recent book is The Military and the Monarchy.