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#WavellReviews “Vicarious Warfare: American Strategy and the Illusion of War on the Cheap” by Thomas Waldman

Available here from Bristol University Press

Having recently read Simon Akam’s The Changing of the Guard, I rushed straight to The Wavell Room asking if I could write a review of it.  “Already taken by someone else,” came the reply, “but why don’t you do this other book instead?”  Filled with a new-found zeal for military academia, and motivated by the chance of a free book, I immediately accepted.

Reader, I regret this.  The tome in question arrived a few days later and I eagerly turned to the first page.  I lasted until the end of the second sentence: “The equivalent of this [the Philosopher’s Stone] in war has been the endeavour to achieve victory at minimal cost relative to one’s ambition, to realize strategic objectives but without the high political, human or financial price tag that typically accompanies violent contest, or, at a wider societal level, to use war to achieve national ends but in a manner that does not place significant demands on the people.”  Perhaps you may have grasped the message of this sentence in one reading, marveling at the clear logic and precise terminology.  Some of you might even have enjoyed it.   For someone like me, however, who has been existing recently on a diet of tweets and Mail Online articles, it was too much too soon, and I gave up.

I made repeated attempts to finish, or even properly start, the book over the next few days, usually running out of steam once I hit words like “debellecized”.  As you may have gathered by now, this book is heavy going.  It suffers from a fault common to some military writing, which is to try and lend gravitas to the argument by leaning heavily on a thesaurus and waving terms like “linearity” around.  No noun is left unaccompanied by an adjective, or even two or three, and no clause left without other, subordinate clauses, ensuring that each sentence veers off, at some point, down a small detour, before rejoining the main sentence, all topped off with describing each concept, issue, problem, thought, theorem and paradox with as many synonyms as possible.  I appreciate the author is a professional academic, who has clearly put in a significant amount of work to research and write this book, and I don’t mean to casually dismiss that. However, it takes just as much effort to write a bad book as a good one and my aim here is to point out what should have been pointed out pre-publication: using plain English does not undermine the academic legitimacy of your work, but rather enables its clear communication.

Nevertheless, I will review what I was able to decipher of the book’s arguments; if only to show that I did, eventually, make it to the end.  The central theme is that the US has, since World War 2, pursued a strategy of “vicarious war”.  I spent most of the book wondering just what the author meant with this term: proxy warfare, clandestine operations, or both.  However, patience is rewarded, and 75% of the way through the book, the author finally confirmed what he meant using a military favourite: a slightly tortured acronym.  The “3 D’s” stand for “delegation, danger-proofing and darkness”, by which the author means proxy forces, reduced risk taking, and covert operations such as Special Forces or cyber.  Personally, I am very much unconvinced by “darkness” as a doctrinal term.  Regardless, I think in contemporary British military thinking, we are pretty comfortable with these terms in general, although we might know them better as “grey space”, or “influence operations”.  Therefore, few will find anything really new here, although others might enjoy the chance to spend more time with their favourite doctrinal concepts.

Waldman argues that this vicarious warfare is predominantly, although not exclusively, a modern and American way of war, aimed at trying to achieve strategic aims on the cheap.  In support of this, there is a swift gallop through the entirety of human history (Western only, obviously) which means that huge geopolitical events are explained cursorily through whether vicarious or non-vicarious war was undertaken.  Fall of the French monarchy?  Vicarious war.  Fall of the British Empire?  Vicarious war.  Success of the American Revolution?  Non-vicarious war.  Perhaps a thorough weighing up of military strategies throughout history would find that one or the other is superior in delivering success, but this account does not do that.

The book then moves to a detailed chronicle of the growth of the US military and paramilitary (i.e. the CIA) and how essentially the US has pursued vicarious warfare for the past 70 years and not really done very well out of it.  Concepts such as COIN, courageous restraint and remote warfare all get ticked off, but the author rarely offers a new angle, or deeper insight.   Waldman also does not conduct analysis of what the alternative should be: either good old-fashioned, have-it-up-em, total war or not engaging in the first place.  And here the book also suffers from failing to ask whether it is vicarious war that has failed America, or if the US just isn’t very good at it.  Iran and Russia are obvious examples of countries enthusiastically pursuing vicarious warfare.  Arguably it is this that has allowed both of them to reach levels of influence in their respective regions that they otherwise would have lacked.  Now that would be interesting to read about.

So, in short, it was difficult to see what this book adds to the debate, other than the word “debellecized”.  It offers neither new understanding of the development of war throughout history, nor the specifics of why Afghanistan and Iraq seem to have gone so wrong for America.  Avid military theorists may find something in this work to reward their perseverance, but frankly, there are plenty of more insightful books out there which are considerably more enjoyable to read.  For example, I hear there’s a book out by Simon Akam, which is rather good…


Louise spent 6 years in the British Army Intelligence Corps, serving in both Land and Joint environments, as well as deploying on operations.  She holds a degree in Chinese from the University of Edinburgh.

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