Sailing Through the 'Fog of Peace'

By Thomas G. Mahnken

These geopolitical changes are being amplified and reinforced by changes in the character and conduct of war. For example, the United States’ long-held edge in high-technology warfare is diminishing as precision weaponry matures and diffuses. Although China’s development of antiship ballistic missiles has received considerable attention, this trend is also manifest in the development of precision-guided rockets, artillery shells, and mortars. 1

Increasingly sophisticated cyber capabilities are also growing and spreading. Space-based intelligence, communication, and navigation services, once the exclusive province of the superpowers, are now available to all at little cost. As a result, the future operational environment may look considerably different, at least in some respects, from that of recent years.

It is, of course, impossible to foresee exactly what types of wars today’s officers must be prepared to fight in the future. The great military historian Sir Michael Howard likened militaries in peacetime to a ship sailing through a thick fog:

Occasionally there is a break in the clouds: a small-scale conflict occurs somewhere and gives you a “fix” by showing whether certain weapons and techniques are effective or not; but it is always a doubtful fix. . . . For the most part you have to sail on in a fog of peace until the last moment. Then, probably when it is too late, the clouds lift and there is land immediately ahead; breakers, probably, and rocks. Then you find out rather late in the day whether your calculations have been right or not. 2

‘Inconceivable to Predict’

Twenty years ago, at the conclusion of the 1991 Gulf War, it would have been inconceivable to predict that ten years later the United States would suffer nearly 3,000 dead in attacks on the U.S. homeland from al Qaeda, a group that barely existed at the time; that the United States would then invade Afghanistan, a nation newly free of Soviet occupation; and two years after that would invade and overthrow the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein, whom the United States and its coalition partners had just defeated.

If there is anything certain about the future, it is that we will be surprised. To avoid the rocks and shoals that lie ahead, we will need officers proficient in both the theory and practice of strategy and operations. Perhaps the best guide to navigating the fog of peace is to be found in strategic theory and history. Theory can help us make sense of complex situations. As military strategist Carl von Clausewitz wrote, the purpose of theory is not to uncover fixed laws or principles, but rather to help the officer educate himself:

[Theory] is an analytical investigation leading to a close acquaintance with the subject; applied to experience—in our case, to military history—it leads to a thorough familiarity with it. . . . Theory will have fulfilled its main task when it is used to analyze the constituent elements of war, to distinguish precisely what at first sight seems fused, to explain in full the properties of the means employed and to show their probable effects, to define clearly the nature of the ends in view, and to illuminate all phases of warfare in a thorough critical inquiry. Theory then becomes a guide to anyone who wants to learn about war from books; it will light his way, ease his progress, train his judgment, and help him to avoid pitfalls. . . . It is meant to educate the mind of the future commander, or, more accurately, to guide him in his self-education, not to accompany him to the battlefield; just as a wise teacher guides and stimulates a young man’s intellectual development, but is careful not to lead him by the hand for the rest of his life. 3

Similarly, an understanding of history allows officers both to perceive continuity and recognize novelty, to distinguish old wine in new bottles from genuinely new circumstances. Such an education will become more, rather than less, important in coming years.

The Challenges of Professional Military Education

Historically, most major efforts to reform military education have come after major wars. The two decades following the end of World War I saw a blossoming of professional military education in the United States. On the game floor at the Naval War College and in the classroom at the Air Corps Tactical School, officers spent a great deal of time trying to understand the strategic and operational challenges that the United States would face as well as the changing character of war. 4

After the Vietnam War, Admiral Stansfield Turner revolutionized the study of strategy at the Naval War College, a transformation that has affected not only the U.S. professional military education system, but has spawned, directly and indirectly, strategic studies programs at Johns Hopkins and Yale universities, to name but two. Following the 1991 Gulf War, the Commandant of the Marine Corps, General Al Gray, emphasized operational art and strategic education in the Marine Corps.

The United States is in a similar position today. The challenge ahead of us involves translating the tactical proficiency of junior officers into operational and strategic excellence. That, in turn, will require that the professional military education system overcome intellectual and leadership challenges.

The Intellectual Challenge

Over the past decade, the United States has waged two wars of a particular kind in a particular part of the world. Scholars will long debate how well the U.S. military met the challenges of counterinsurgency in Iraq and Afghanistan. Whatever the eventual verdict, the experience of a decade of war will nonetheless mark a generation of officers. Much like their predecessors of the Vietnam era, the veterans of the 9/11 generation have undergone intense personal experiences that cannot help but shape the rest of their careers, and indeed, their lives.

While teaching at the Naval War College, I have had more than one officer tell me that Clausewitz’s strategic theory was irrelevant because he failed to write about population-centric counterinsurgency. Such a statement represents both a failure to read On War (which contains, in Book 6, Chapter 26, an insightful discussion of insurgency), but more profoundly to understand that Clausewitz seeks to explain war as a whole, not merely one manifestation of it, let alone that the United States is likely to fight different types of war in the future than it has in the past.

Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates was famously concerned that DOD spent too much time thinking about potential future conflicts, a condition he dubbed “next war-itis,” without focusing on how to win current wars. As we look to the future, we need to ensure that “last war-itis” doesn’t replace “next war-itis.” We need to ensure that we learn the lessons of these wars without becoming enslaved to them.

The British and French armies that fought World War II were led by officers who had been traumatized by the experience of trench warfare on the Western Front during World War I and were fundamentally unprepared mentally to comprehend the situation they found themselves in. The German army, by contrast, cashiered most of its veterans after World War I and built the Reichswehr , and later the Wehrmacht , around highly educated staff officers. In studying the Great War, they not only analyzed the campaign on the Western Front, which was dominated by attrition and positional warfare, but also those on the Eastern Front, which witnessed sweeping maneuvers. It is thus hardly surprising that the German military was alive to possibilities that the British and French militaries ignored.

Professional military education curricula thus need to balance the study of recent conflicts with historical ones, as well as different types of war. Long before the current interest in counterinsurgency, the Strategy Department at the U.S. Naval War College, where I have taught since the mid-1990s, has had a curriculum that strives for a balance between global, multi-theater wars, which range from the Peloponnesian War through World War II; regional wars, which include the Russo-Japanese War and the 1991 Gulf War; and irregular wars such as the Anglo-Irish War and the Chinese Civil War. The study of strategic theory, informed by historical experience, should lie at the heart of any course of instruction.

The Leadership Challenge

A second challenge is ensuring that the best and brightest officers, with the greatest potential for higher command and leadership, get the full benefit of professional military education in residence. There is always a tension between operational assignments and education, and too many warfare communities equate time as a student as wasted time in an officer’s career progression and a tour as a war-college instructor as a terminal assignment. This is a tendency that has grown over the past decade of war, and it is one that must be reversed. Strategic and operational excellence is every bit as important as tactical proficiency. Wars are won or lost at the strategic level, and no amount of tactical brilliance can make up for strategic incompetence. In an era of growing threats and decreasing budgets, the key to continued American effectiveness lies in a mentally agile and strategically effective officer corps.

The U.S. armed forces need to build intellectual capital to understand the challenges of today and prepare for those of tomorrow. It was with that purpose in mind that in 2008 Secretary Gates announced the Minerva Research Initiative, a program of grants to universities to develop expertise in a range of topics of interest to U.S. national security, including Chinese defense science and technology, the strategic impact of religious and cultural changes, and regime and social dynamics in failed, failing, and fragile states. 5 Unfortunately, this much-needed initiative is under attack, with Congress cutting $70 million from the program.

The travails of the Minerva program are symptomatic of a larger problem. Education is relatively inexpensive compared with other military activities, and yet it is a constant target for budget cuts. Pressure to cut corners in professional military education is only likely to grow, even as the need for the military to build intellectual capital increases.

Professional military education is sorely in need of a champion. For years, Congressman Ike Skelton (D-MO) was a vocal advocate. His persistent efforts over decades resulted in more rigorous courses of instruction and links between education and promotion. Since his loss in the 2010 election, no member of Congress has stepped forward to play that role. Similarly, professional military education needs a champion at the head of the U.S. military. The recently announced demotion of the president of the National Defense University from a three-star to a two-star billet, and more significant, the shift in reporting senior from the Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, to the Director, J7, does not bode well.

PME needs a champion in the Navy, as well. It is clear that the Navy’s warfare communities prize tactical excellence, as well they should. They have, however, been increasingly reluctant to send their best and brightest to in-residence PME. As a result, only the Chief of Naval Operations can serve as the champion of professional military education within the Navy. He should ensure that the best Navy officers attend the Naval War College and that promotion policies do a better job of linking intellectual achievement with professional advancement, measured by rank and command opportunity.

Professional military education will become more, rather than less, important over time in preparing officers to defend the nation against an increasingly complex set of challenges. Thus, the professional military education system itself will have to overcome intellectual, personnel, and financial challenges. That it does so is vital to both the Navy and the nation.

1. Thomas G. Mahnken, “Weapons: The Growth & Spread of the Precision-Strike Regime,” Daedalus , vol. 140, no. 3 (Summer 2011), pp. 45–57.

2. Michael Howard, “Military Science in an Age of Peace,” Journal of the Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies , vol. 119, no. 1 (March 1974), p. 4.

3. Carl von Clausewitz, On War , edited and translated by Michael Howard and Peter Paret (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1989), p. 141.

4. Williamson Murray and Allan R. Millet, eds., Military Innovation in the Interwar Period (London: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

5. See the Minerva Initiative website at .

Dr. Mahnken is Jerome E. Levy Chair of Economic Geography and National Security at the U.S. Naval War College. From 2006–09, he served as Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Policy Planning.

Dr. Mahnken is a Navy Reserve commander and professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College and a visiting scholar at the Philip Merrill Center for Strategic Studies at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, Johns Hopkins University.

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