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The Future of War

When you ask people to describe war, they often depict two militaries engaging in battle, like at Waterloo, Gettysburg or Stalingrad. But that’s not what war is today. War is messy and complex, often fought in the shadows for ambiguous purposes. The combatants do not wear uniforms, don’t care about the laws of war, and don’t fight for king or country. Battlefield victory guarantees nothing.

Yet national security types still conceive war modelled on WW2, with Sergeant John Wayne taking Iwo Jima, raising the flag at the summit and Japan surrendering shortly thereafter on the deck of a battleship. All one needs is stronger military, and then—poof!—”Mission Accomplished.” This fantasy is dangerous. The cognitive disconnect between “war as we wish it” and “war as it truly is” has led to strategic blunders in America’s recent past. It’s also pricy. for instance, the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter cannot defeat today’s forces of disorder, yet we continue to invest in this plane ($1.5 trillion spent so far).

The war of tomorrow is actually here today. I’m a former private military contractor—”mercenary” to some—who has worked on the front lines of modern war, and it’s not what you think it is. I give an account of this world in my new book Shadow War: A Tom Locke Novel, based on actual events.

Here’s what you need to know about shadow wars and why it matters, especially to business leaders.

  • War is not just about states anymore. Warfare during the 19th century, WWI, WWII and the Cold War was state-centric. The imperial powers with the strongest militaries determined the fate of the planet. No longer. Today, states are just one voice among many. The United Nations and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) bully states, claiming they represent “civil society.” The global media also influences international relations through the CNN Effect. Multinational corporations are titans in world affairs. The Fortune 500 outclasses most states, the majority of which are failing. Companies wield this power too. As Nobel winning economist Milton Friedman, said: “Is it really true that political self-interest is nobler somehow than economic self-interest?” A century ago, the world stage had only one category of actor: the state. Today, the stage is crowded, and all these actors fight for their interests.
  • Anyone can rent a private army now. The US resurrected the dormant mercenary trade when it hired Blackwater and other private military companies to fight in the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. As the US has withdrawn from those areas, private military companies have found new clients, offering more offensive services. For example, in 2015 Russia, Nigeria, the United Arab Emirates and corporations all used mercenaries. The mercenary industry will grow, as people will pay for security in a deeply insecure world. Don’t expect effective international regulation in our lifetime.
  • New Superpowers are emerging. If money can buy firepower, then large corporations and ultra-wealthy individuals will become a new kind of superpower. This includes strongmen like Putin, who really just runs a regime disguised as a state.
  • Today’s warriors don’t wear uniforms. Modern battlefields, from Iraq to Ukraine to Yemen to El Salvador, are full of combatants who don’t wear a uniform, don’t fight “symmetrically” (which just means they don’t fight like us), do not care about the Laws of War, and rarely fight for patriotic reasons (see #1 above). The front lines are populated by terrorists, militia, mercenaries, criminal organizations, UN peacekeepers, warlords, journalists, NGOs, refugees, business people, and occasionally a national army unit.
  • Shadow Wars. Based on the above, a new kind of warfare is budding: “Shadow Wars.” These messy conflicts are fought around the world by many actors for multiple interests: political, economic, and “other.” Occasionally shadow wars bubble to the surface, and are covered in main stream media, like in eastern Ukraine or the Middle East. But more often they simmer beneath the radar away from scrutiny.

My novel Shadow War explains how these new wars are fought and won. It centers around Tom Locke, a likable albeit damaged guy. He’s a high-end mercenary, working a multi-billion-dollar private military company that works for the highest bidder.

Locke is sent covertly to eastern Ukraine to ensure America’s chosen oligarch becomes the next president. But nothing is as it seems. Soon he is engulfed in the complex geopolitics of the Eurasia, and must rely on cunning (and a little firepower) to survive.

Meanwhile, Locke’s conniving boss, Brad Winters, is playing Washington DC, Houston, New York City, London and others off each other for his own power and profit. He uses the Ukraine shadow war between Putin and the West to rule from behind the headlines. But he is not alone, and faces mortal competition.

Shadow War is based on actual events. Sometimes fiction is a superior truth-telling platform than non-fiction, and this novel aims to pull back the curtain on modern international relations, not as we wish it but as it truly is.

Sean McFate co-authored Shadow War: A Tom Locke Novel, an international action thriller based on his own experiences, which was released today (5/10/16). He is also a Senior Fellow at the Atlantic Council, and a professor of strategy at the National Defense University and Georgetown University’s School of School of Foreign Service.

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