On the (non) obsolescence of industrial war

Some years ago, I read Gen. Rupert Smith’s semi-memoir/discourse on “war amongst the people,” The Utility of Force. Most notable among some rather sweeping claims was that what he called “industiral war”—or war between states with standing armies, using mechanized forces that engage one another on the battlefield—is obsolete, that war has fundamentally changed to now involve something involving military forces against non-state groups organized to use violence. Quite apart from the rather strange invalid inferential logic used to justify this claim—i.e., just because we’ve not seen something in a while, it won’t come back—this line of reasoning really bothers me. In fact, we can see that it commits the logical fallacy of affirming the consequent:

  1. If industrial war were obsolete, we wouldn’t see it occur.
  2. We haven’t seen industrial war in a while.
  3. Therefore, industrial war is obsolete.
Straightforwardly, we can see that the conclusion, (3), doesn’t follow from the premises. Why? Because there are any number of reasons that (3) might be true without (1) and (2) being true: unipolarity, economic strain, a working great power concert, military technology, etc.

In fact, periods of peace between the great powers have certainly existed in the past, and just because we’re not seeing war between them now, I can’t imagine that this also implies that states with modern militaries in the future won’t have disputes that they might settle by force—force involving the instruments of industrial warfare. More after the fold, including my thoughts on why tanks are just as important when they’re not in use as when they are.

In fact, we can take this argument further: just because we’re not seeing war between industrial militaries now doesn’t mean that the weapons systems associated with them—tanks, APCs, fighter aircraft, blue-water navies—aren’t highly consequential. In fact, one could argue that they have just as much of an impact when they’re not being used at all. How?

Imagine two antagonistic countries with multiple border disputes and industrial militaries, both of which can cause each other a substantial amount of pain and have decided, for the time being, that none of the issues between them merit provoking the kind of military force their could bring to bear against them. In this case, the two countries aren’t fighting, and you might be tempted to think that major, industrial war is “obsolete,” because these two countries just won’t use these big, costly, expensive instruments against each other.

Well, I submit that giving in to this temptation is incorrect, because we can think about it this way: imagine that one of these countries buys into that (fallacious) logic. It demobilizes, eliminating the industrial elements of its military and focuses on fighting asymmetric or irregular brushfire insurgencies. Once it does so, its opponent—who kept is instruments of industrial war—can now do it significant harm with a limited fear of serious reprisal, and it gains a massive political advantage over its enemy, able to coerce changes or even conquer it much more easily. With the tools of industrial war, neither country makes concessions to or capitulates to the other, but if one gives those tools us, it must do just that—yielding to an enemy that it otherwise wouldn’t.

That’s hardly an argument for the obsolescence of industrial war, because we can see the effect of having those weapons (safety, if an armed one) versus giving them up (capitulation to an outside enemy). That’s how we consider whether industrial war is obsolete—considering what would happen if states with rivals didn’t have those tools—not speculating merely on the characteristics of current wars. Just because, in equilibrium, industrial militaries are for now “canceling each other out,” in a way, we can in no way infer from that that the absence of war between major states is “obsolete” or “over.” This, of course, is a very different reason for observing point (2) above than the fact that major war has somehow disappeared…

…but it leads to some radically different policy prescriptions.

(And, to be sure, it should temper our willingness as scholars to abandon the study of interstate war, as opposed to civil conflict, too soon…)

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2 thoughts on “On the (non) obsolescence of industrial war

    • Thanks for the reply, LFC. I’d argue that my point is somewhat different than what you seem to take it to be, though. I’m not staking a claim on the truth value of (3) here. I’m merely making the point that declaring the obsolescence of war on the basis of what Smith did is just logically untenable—sure, it may be true (then, again, it may not be), but the evidence he cites isn’t sufficient, given the big logical problem in the attempted inference. There may be other ways to get at this empirically (some of which you suggest), but my challenge is simply that there are other stories consistent with a period of peace between countries with industrial militaries. To figure this out, we’d need to rule out my alternative explanation—which is difficult, since we can’t run experiments randomly forcing countries with rivals to give up their militaries. So whether industrial war really is or isn’t obsolete is beside my point, which is just that we need to take a *lot* of care when making inferences and to be disciplined about the logical structure of inquiry. My goal was to spin an alternative story that’s also consistent with the evidence—and also with the maintenance of these armies that aren’t being used—to show just how critical logical argumentation is in what we do.

      But, again, thanks for reading and commenting!

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