The War for the Soul of Military Thought: Futurists, Traditionalists, Institutionalists and Conflict Realists
The War for the Soul of Military Thought: Futurists, Traditionalists, Institutionalists and Conflict Realists
- Conflict Realists provide an alternative lens to the study of war and warfare, which brings a different flavor of analysis than that provided by the mainstream Futurists, Traditionalists and Institutionalists.
- Conflict Realists are under-represented in existing military thinking, often being pushed aside because their point of view clashes with overly optimistic, narrative-driven and aspirational perspectives on war and warfare.
- Conflict Realists find that armed conflict today—and, arguably, in the future—is decidedly urban and attritional and that it involves ubiquitous proxy war.
The future of armed conflict is a divisive topic in which competing camps and actors grapple for control of the narrative.1 Within this war for the soul of military thought, a handful of themes reoccur in the discussions of the leading minds. Among other things, the most influential voices focus on the importance of science and technological innovation on the future of armed conflict, on institutional bias and on justifying investment and procurement for the future. In a practical sense, these protagonists, all of whom are vying for control of the narrative, fall into one of four basic schools of thought:2 the Futurists, the Traditionalists, the Institutionalists and the Conflict Realists.
The Futurist camp asserts that science and technology will play a significant or even decisive role in future armed conflict.3 Meanwhile, the Traditionalist camp tends to stay close to the principles set forth by theorist Carl von Clausewitz. Traditionalists also often serve as a regulating force on the Futurists, whose aspirational ideas about how technology will alter the nature of war would, in essence, fundamentally change the nature of armed conflict. Institutionalists—those who are socialized to think and speak in their professional organizations’ respective languages—tend toward reinforcing the thought of those individual institutions.4 They offer little innovative thinking about the future of armed conflict because of their reluctance to operate beyond the bounds of their organization’s doctrines and narratives. In Western military thinking, these are the individuals and institutions who voraciously argue in support of things such as maneuver, precision and technology-centric solutions.
Despite their dubious records of success regarding their positions and the reality of armed conflict, these three camps are the leading voices in today’s conflict and defense studies communities. This is not because they are more right than wrong, but because they reinforce institutional and cultural values—and because they are more cognitively palatable than their alternative: Conflict Realism.
The primary problem with Futurists, Traditionalists and Institutionalists is that they represent modern and future war through the gilded lens of aspiration, focusing on how armed conflict should be, instead of viewing war and warfare through the blood-red lens of how things actually are—and arguably, how armed conflict will be in the future. In other words, their thinking on armed conflict fails to appropriately account for realistic deductions from modern war and how those deductions will—or will not—factor into future armed conflict.
Moreover, these three groups reflect a view of war which is idealistic, optimistic and mirror imaged. In many cases, these camps fail to account for the role of power in armed conflict and international affairs. They also ignore the fact that, when a state actor’s strategic interests are at odds with the prevailing ethos of the international community, self-interested state actors will move forward anyway. This gilded and bureaucratic outlook on armed conflict overlooks or discredits many disquieting realities of war and warfare.
The impact of these omissions and rejections of reality is often not felt in the moment; it rears its head later down the road, when the truth of armed conflict and self-interested foreign policy rises again to overturns rosy assertions of how states should act and how wars should be fought. For example, the mea culpas emanating from theorists, academics and practitioners in the wake of Russia’s February 2022 re-invasion of Ukraine—and the horrendous combat that has ensued—make this point self-evident.5 Conflict Realism, not so much a coherent body of knowledge, but a generalized grouping of ideas by critically minded analysts, offers the useful and much more practical alternative to the study of war and warfare that is sadly lacking in the camps of the Futurists, Traditionalists and Institutionalists.
In this essay, I assert that Conflict Realism is a marginalized school of thought regarding the future of armed conflict and that Conflict Realists are often overlooked participants in the study of war because of their less-than-idealistic analyses. Nonetheless, Conflict Realists and Conflict Realism provide a useful and pragmatic alternative to the ideas of the Futurists, Traditionalists and Institutionalists that dominate the study of war today.
To get ahead of the shock associated with the actions of states like Russia—states that seemingly violate nearly all the rules of the game of the rules-based international order—Western militaries must embrace Conflict Realism as a viable school of thought when examining future armed conflict. Conflict Realism, which emphasizes the importance of causal mechanisms in armed conflict rather than emphasizing narrative, procurement strategies and centuries-old myths, provides a useful tool for policymakers, academics and practitioners preparing for future armed conflict.
No single school of thought will perfectly address and answer all of the issues that our military faces—today or in any time period, past or future. However, we can still proceed in spite of these inevitable limitations, understanding that our discussion is not intended to provide a scientific classification, but rather an ontological framework by which to illuminate an overlooked and underappreciated element in the study of armed conflict. Further, thinking strategically about the future of armed conflict requires embracing a holistic view of war, not a preferential view; it must not operate in a zero-sum manner, which is a problematic undercurrent stifling military thought today.
Schools of Thought
The conflict and defense studies communities can be classified along various lines. Aligning participants into three primary interest groups—theorists, academics and practitioners—is a useful taxonomy. These groupings are the large pots in which the conflict and defense studies’ schools of thought socialize their respective ideas. But, they are not exclusive, meaning that individuals can easily fit into more than one classification. For instance, a practitioner can also be an academic, or an academic can also be a theorist.
John Myers and David Jackson, writing in War on the Rocks, made a good attempt to further classify military thought by aligning it into Futurist and Traditionalist camps.6 These groups are useful, but, as already noted, they have significant shortcomings. Looking into all four of the basic schools of military thinking—Futurists, Traditionalists, Institutionalists and Conflict Realists—provides a more nuanced understanding of contemporary military thought.
The term Futurist is misleading because all military thinking, aside from military historians, necessarily considers the future of armed conflict. Futurists would be better classified as Technologists, based on their view of the outsized and revolutionary role that science and technology will have in future armed conflict. However, the term Technologist is also problematic; most other schools of thought also think that science and technology will play an important role in future war, albeit from an evolutionary standpoint, and not a revolutionary position. With these considerations and limitations noted from the outset, Futurist is the term used herein.
Futurists, the prophets of revolutionary technology, promise that applied science will make future armed conflict more precise, less expensive, more indirect and less destructive.7 As a result of the theorized benefits of technology on future armed conflict and the fascination in the United States with technological advancement and technology-based problem-solving, Futurists command primary attention today; their philosophies are at the front of nearly all contemporary discussions on future armed conflict. Recent Western investment in futures commands, both in the United States and the United Kingdom, are clear evidence of this fact.8
Futurists tend to be the champions for so-called revolutions in military affairs (RMAs). They assert that game-changing technology has, or will, reshape the nature of war.9 Futurist thinking snubs any analysis that suggests that science and technology developments will be evolutionary or that improved technological warfighting solutions will make war more rather than less attritional.10 Moreover, they brush aside inconvenient truths about armed conflict, such as the fact that neither drones, precision targeting nor precision munitions have made modern armed conflict any less destructive, less expensive or less resource-intensive than it was in the past.11 To be sure, billionaire Futurist Elon Musk recently—and incorrectly—argued that the side in war which possesses the best technology will win, and will do so quickly.12 The ongoing war in Ukraine clearly demonstrates that the latest warfighting technology—such as drones, cyber capabilities and HIMARS (High-Mobility Artillery Rocket Systems)—fuels destructive battles of attrition without necessarily bring war any closer to a quick conclusion.13
Traditionalists fall on the other end of the cognitive spectrum from that of Futurists. Traditionalists tend to be advocates of history, military theory and existing military doctrine. Somewhat paradoxically, they look to the past when looking to the future,14 holding a position that not much has changed in 2,000 years of war. As a result, they repeatedly run into conflict with the Futurists’ visions of future war; their view that the nature of armed conflict is unflinching and immutable is in direct conflict with views that aggrandizes the revolutionary impact of novel technology on armed conflict.15
Traditionalists are readily identifiable because of their belief in the idea that, despite technological advancement, war remains fundamentally the same as it has always been—a contest of wills and a human endeavor, bound with friction and chance.16 The interposition of Clausewitz’s thoughts into nearly every conceivable situation, such as the Russo-Ukrainian War or cyber warfare, at the expense of potentially more relevant analytical tools, is a clear indication of a Traditionalist.17
Despite their shortcomings, Traditionalists are useful players in military thought because they counterbalance the Futurists in mainstream discussions through the provision of historical and theoretical context. Left unchecked, however, they can create an anchor bias around any number of historical or theoretical examples, ultimately impeding pragmatic and realistic thinking about the future of war.
Institutionalists are usually heard echoing the talking points and narratives that anchor their organizations. They can often be heard empathically stating unfounded assertions such as, “Our doctrine is pretty good.” Further, Institutionalist thought tends to reflect political and domestic idealism, not to mention their organization’s investment and procurement strategies. In terms of military thought, Institutionalists fall into advocating for ideas and tools that reinforce service or organizational priorities, not venturing far from their existing doctrines and cultural myths. Because of their self-referential character, Institutionalists place little value on ideas that do not align with their organization’s narratives and cultural prerogatives. In fact, Institutionalists often fall prey to the Not Invented Here bias, discrediting ideas simply because they do not originate within their organization or because they do not align with their pre-existing strategies. Further, Institutionalists tend to classify anyone inside their organizations who possess non-Institutionalist views as disloyal, or as “not getting it.” The U.S. Army’s 1925 court martial of Billy Mitchell, although dated, is a classic example of a situation where Institutionalists clashed with non-Institutional thinkers.18
Institutionalist’ value resides in their bureaucratic approach to modernization and in their ability to think about the future—which helps ensure that their respective organizations do not invest too much into novel ideas and technologies. On the other side of the coin, however, their Not Invented Here attitude can hinder cognitive and organizational growth. Institutionalists can also be the biggest killers of organizational innovation and can be drivers of organizational “brain drain” because of their status as defenders of the status quo.
Conflict Realism and the Future of Armed Conflict
Conflict Realists—not to be confused with Realist political theory—scrutinize armed conflict through reality’s blood-red lens in search of the causal mechanisms in war. Next, they determine whether those events are unique to a certain set of environmental considerations or if they are universally applicable in armed conflict. If the assessment indicates that an event is situational, the Conflict Realist assigns those events to the category of a passing fad, or just white noise in armed conflict. However, if the Conflict Realist determines that those events or situations are transcendent, then those features are considered to be germane threads which warrant inclusion in conversations of future armed conflict.
Conflict Realists generally see armed conflict being influenced by four competing factors: a principal (i.e., oneself), the enemy, the environment and chance. Each of these factors operates in tension with the others, and this tension creates suboptimization for the principal (i.e., oneself), causing aspiration to fall short of its goal by varying degrees. As a result, Conflict Realists apply a suboptimization factor when conducting contemporary analyses as well as when forecasting for the future. Their emphasis on suboptimized outcomes is one of the major features that distinguishes them from Futurists and Institutionalists, which, in turn, puts them at odds with organizations that are focused on rules-based thinking and glowing assessments of modern and future armed conflict.
Conflict Realists, a less unified camp than that of the Futurists, Traditionalists and Institutionalists, asserts that future wars will be long, bloody and destructive affairs of attrition.19 When viewed as a collective school of thought, Conflict Realism posits that war in the post-Cold War and post-9/11 eras is decidedly urban.20 From the Bosnian War’s Siege of Sarajevo to the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War’s Siege of Mariupol, urban operations sit atop modern armed conflict. Further, Conflict Realism accepts that political and military proxies, and proxy wars as a whole, reflect a cynical attitude toward the idealism of Western liberalism and an international rules-based order. Because of this, proxy wars will play a prominent role in the future. Lastly, Conflict Realists contend that military victory in armed conflict is predicated on the longitudinal fracture and exhaustion of an opposing actor’s political, military and economic system.21
Ultimately, the Conflict Realist camp argues that military victory sides with the belligerent who is best optimized for war’s attritional realities.22 As a result, it contends that strategic depth is the currency of armed conflict, and it therefore does not support the belief that short wars and decisive battles will have any kind of meaningful or common role.23
Because of its pessimistic assessment of current and future armed conflict, Conflict Realism is not the preferred school of thought amongst most policymakers, practitioners, academics and theorists. Nevertheless, preferential views of war and warfare are of little value when crisis tips into conflict; in such circumstances, which are an inescapable and inevitable fact of life, realistic and pragmatic assessments and solutions are required.
The Futurists’ theory of war—dominated by the idea that technology, precision strike and near perfect information will make armed conflict cheap, quick and relatively bloodless—readily contributes to the Conflict Realist’s interpretation of armed conflict. Institutionalists, the product of idealistic organizations, which are rooted in Western liberalism and a blinding faith that all actors will adhere to the tenets of the rules-based international order, often find themselves unprepared for pragmatic strategic actors. They quickly turn to Conflict Realism when they stumble out the gate to understand an unfolding conflict. Traditionalists provide cautionary tales to the overzealous Futurists and to the Institutionalists who are hankering for quick, decisive victory in war.
The study of armed conflict is not a zero-sum game. All four camps represent important interpretations of war; as a result, each camp should have adequate representation of when and where armed conflict is studied, prepared for and conducted. To that end, Conflict Realism is not the product of a small band of pariahs that “don’t get it.” Instead, Conflict Realism is an important wing of conflict studies. Conflict Realists are gaining more relevance as the ongoing Russo-Ukrainian War continues down the terrible path forecasted by them. Policymakers, academics and theorists must accept the fact that Conflict Realism, despite its comparatively grotesque assessments and forecasts, is a force of nature that must be accounted for when thinking about the future of armed conflict.
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Lieutenant Colonel Amos C. Fox is an officer in the U.S. Army. He is a PhD candidate at the University of Reading (UK), Deputy Director for Development with the Irregular Warfare Initiative, and an associate editor with the Wavell Room. He is also a graduate from the U.S. Army’s School of Advanced Military Studies at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, where he was awarded the Tom Felts Leadership Award in 2017.
- Alex Pascal and Tim Hwang, “War is as War Does: World Order and the Future of Conflict,” Just Security, 26 August 2019.
- Peter Roberts, interview with author, 4 March 2021, Western Way of War.
- National Science and Technology Council, “The National Artificial Intelligence Research and Development Strategic Plan,” Network and Information Technology Research and Development Subcommittee, October 2016.
- Valerjis Bodnieks, “The New Institutionalism: A Tool for Analysing Defence and Security Institutions,” Security and Defense Quarterly 32 (2020): 84–85.
- Hans von der Burchard, “We Failed on Russia: Top German Social Democrat Offers Mea Culpa,” Politico, 25 October 2022.
- John Myers and David Jackson, “The Fault Line Between Futurists and Traditionalists in National Security,” War on the Rocks, 18 January 2021.
- Mark Gunzinger and Bryan Clark, Sustaining America’s Precision Strike Advantage (Washington, DC: Center for Strategic and Budgetary Assessments, 2015), 8–11.
- “British Army Modernizes, Transforms for the Future,” Association of the United States Army, 7 May 2021.
- “Assassination Drones and Bioweapons: The Future of Warfare?” Al Jazeera, 15 September 2022.
- Anthony Cordesmam, “The Real Revolution in Military Affairs,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, 5 April 2014.
- “Drone Warfare Just Got Deadlier: System Error,” Vice News, 8 March 2022, video, 12:27.
- Dan Carlin, interview with Elon Musk, 13 December 2021, Hardcore History: Addendum.
- Pavel Baev, “Time for the West to Think About How to Engage with Defeated Russia,” Brookings Institute, 15 November 2022.
- Michael Howard, The Causes of Wars (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983), 190–197.
- Rosa Brooks, “Fighting Words,” Foreign Policy, 14 February 2014.
- Mike Martin, “Strategy, Logistics, and Morale: Why the Fundamentals of War Haven’t Changed,” Telegraph, 25 September 2022.
- Olivia Garard, “Some Clausewitzian Thoughts on the Ukrainian Defense,” Modern War Institute, 25 April 2022.
- Lawrence Freedman, Strategy: A History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), 125.
- Stephen Walt, “The Ukraine War Doesn’t Change Everything,” Belfer Center, 13 April 2022.
- Anthony King, “Will Inter-State War Take Place in Cities?” Journal of Strategic Studies 45, no. 1 (2022): 90–91.
- Amos Fox, “On the Principles of War: Reorganizing Thought and Practice for Large-Scale Combat Operations,” Association of the United States Army, Land Warfare Paper 138 (June 2021): 7–15.
- Cathal Nolan, The Allure of Battle: A History of How Wars Have Been Won and Lost (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017): 577.
- Nolan, The Allure of Battle, 577.