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Thinking About the Interwar

The most popular analogy in international affairs is World War II. Politicians are either strong-willed Churchills or lily-livered Chamberlains, treacherous allies are Quislings, and villains of the month are either actual or potential Hitlers. The defense field has its own World War II analogy–the interwar period from 1918 to the late 30s. In this period of time, new methods of war such as blitzkrieg, deep battle, and strategic bombing developed and matured. For this reason, defense reformers often state that we are in a interwar that heralds a new form of conflict. James Der Derian points out that the Pentagon saw the 1990s as the interwar before a period of digital warfare. This rhetoric was the driving element behind what Thomas K. Adams called the “postindustrial army.”
      Of course, the high point of the interwar was the Spanish Civil War, where strategic bombing was utilized in support of Franco’s forces. John Robb sees the Iraq War as being today’s equivalent of the Spanish Civil War, arguing that the techniques of networked terrorism and low-cost insurgency are beginning to migrate to other theaters. Chirol of Coming Anarchy points out that the network of walls and security zones in Iraq are staying, and wonders when they will arrive here:

“While it is easy to dismiss Iraq as an exception, it is important to note that such gates exist in Israel too (as this author has seen and passed through) and when Hurricane Katrina hit, residents of New Orleans quickly erected makeshift ‘gates’ of furniture and trash to protect their blocks. In fact, such gates are nothing new and are simple, basic security measures that have been taken in the past. The question is when they will come to the United States. Walls and gates are nothing new in South Africa. Will cities with bad neighborhoods opt for such measures one day in the near future? Lord knows, the US doesn’t typically deal with the root of such social problems making the use of barriers a far more likely.”

       As Chirol points out, Iraq is far from the only harbinger of change. Military swarming is an important part of terrorism studies now, but few remember that John Arquilla and David Ronfeldt’s original contemporary examples of swarming and netwar were the Zapatista revolt in Mexico and the anti-globalization protests at the 1999 World Trade Organization summit in Seattle. Likewise, the Mexican criminal insurgency and the general gang and cartel warfare in Latin America are just as important to the future of conflict as Iraq and Afghanistan, but are perpetually understudied.
      The interwar frame as a whole has questionable utility. The 1920s-30s interwar is memorable because it is seen by many as a clear-cut division between two respective modes of warfare, a point where the doctrines of old slowly mutated into something radically different. The reality is somewhat more complex, as the beginnings of tactical and operational doctrines that matured in the Second World War can be seen in World War I. “Stormtroop tactics,” for example, prefigured the blitzkrieg with its emphasis on maneuver, multiple points of contact, and decentralized “mission tactics.”
      The interwar frame simplifies the complex and often bewildering process of strategic change into a pat analogy that can be marshalled into interservice debates about the future of conflict. Military analysis of foreign conflicts is turned into a search for the one conflict that demonstrates a strategic shift, a modern day equivalent of the Spanish Civil War. The 2006 Lebanon War serves this role, spurring efforts to counter “hybrid warfare.” Likewise, the 1972 Yom Kippur war played a crucial war in spurring the shift towards the maneuverist/AirLand Battle mashup in 1980s Army doctrine. Ideally, we should look at a variety of different conflicts in many different geographic regions to try to grasp systematic change. But analogies and metaphors are sometimes needed as frames to spur change and debate. For that reason, the obsessive focus on Lebanon as the high point of the interwar may yield concrete benefits in strategic planning.