Planning for the Last Peace?

July 2, 2014

Frank N. Schubert, Other than War: The American Military Experience and Operations in the Post-Cold War Decade, (Washington, D.C.: Joint History Office, 2013)


There seems to be a consensus among military and foreign affairs punditry that one of the greatest dangers at the close of American conflicts is that the military begins planning for the last war and fails to effectively look ahead to future conflicts and combat. It is a common bit of insight that frequently finds itself at odds with other popular wisdom, like the idea that the U.S. Army forgets everything it learns about counterinsurgency once those wars are over. However, for the next decade this may simply be argumentum ad populum among military analysts as they ignore the vast majority of American military history: operations that happen during “peace.”

Historian Frank Schubert’s new study of “military operations other than war” between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the attacks of September 11th, offers a much needed counterbalance. And it’s free. The book is the second recent work from an official historical office that focuses on military operations in the 1990s, a decade between major theater combat operations. The history written about this period generally focuses on organizational and doctrinal development more than operational experience. Other Than War offers a broad synopsis of some history, which might easily be otherwise overlooked. The result is a book that should serve as both important background for a military facing the next decade of post-war policy and planning, as well as a jumping off point for further historical study.

Schubert is concise in his writing and consistent in his level of detail, making for a quick read that provides a summary of operations and just enough background and exposition to inform the reader. As an honest piece of contemporary history, rather than a polemic, it raises questions as well as answers them.

The first three chapters of the book offer an overview and historical essays on military operations outside of war campaigns in the 19th and 20th centuries. These chapters alone provide critical context and analysis and could be read independent of the rest of the work. Schubert demonstrates that throughout history the missions associated with gendarme duty, peacekeeping, nation building or other labels of peacetime operations have been a critical part of the American military experience.

The central thrust of these broad chapters is reminiscent of Max Boot’s book The Savage Wars of Peace, but explained quickly and succinctly as background to the focus on the 1990s. Despite repeated claims by both uniformed and political leadership that the U.S. military simply didn’t “do that sort of thing,” Schubert shows us that our history demonstrates the opposite. He tells us that “from the earliest days of the Republic, operations such as those identified above characterized the role of American forces during long periods of peace.”

The middle of the book is made up of four chapters that break down operations into four categories from the end of the Cold War to the start of the War on Terror. A chapter each is spent on counter-trafficking and migrant operations in Central America and the Caribbean, humanitarian operations, stability operations, and other types of operations. Schubert systematically works through the operations of each category with brief summaries and examinations that connect the missions, from efforts in Somalia and the Balkans, to support for presidential travel, to planned and executed non-combatant evacuation operations (NEO).

The final two chapters offer broad observations on what the collected data from the operations tell us, and provide a look toward the future of American military operations in a peacetime era. During the 1990s and early 2000s, the common refrain was that because of the pace and number of operations other than war, the military was exceedingly busy and overstretched. It became common for leadership to renounce military involvement in anything other than direct combat. Schubert debunks these myths with solid data and crisp analysis. In the final chapter he also lays out some interesting points to consider for the future including the nexus between international law enforcement and 21st century counterterror operations and the importance of military police and engineer units to peacetime force structure.

Schubert compares U.S. military forces and the Roman Legions early in his overview. Such a parallel raises questions about the military elements of American foreign policy and labels like occupation, imperialism, and hegemony. These are issues that can only be discussed with an honest engagement in our peacetime military history and global involvement. While many have studied and written about the “American Way of War,” few have engaged with understanding the U.S. military’s “way of peace.” The book also leaves the reader thinking about how military and political leaders communicate military roles in peacetime, and how they marshal their data to engage with policy debates. Do our leaders place a higher value on messaging and control than they do on honest engagement with the issues and history?

The impetus for this book offers an illustration of not only why the work is important, but also how the field of military operations other than war is generally misunderstood and under studied. Starting in the mid-1990s, Schubert, as a historian working in the Joint History Office, began collecting data on current military operations and those in the recent past. He tells us, “I undertook the creation of the data base on which this essay is largely based without an official directive to do so.” Despite the fact that there was no organizational support or official tasking to collect the information needed to study operations other than war, individuals from speechwriters to staff action officers began asking for data. While the organization didn’t appear to value the study, individual planners and officers recognized how important it was. Now, because of the publication of this book, we can all benefit from his efforts.

In recent weeks I have heard both senior flag officers and civilian policy experts in the Pentagon suggest that “peace” does not exist and that the United States must always be on a war footing. Whether by design or not, this has very nearly been treated as the default case since the late 1930s. However, this line of reasoning fails to recognize that while military operations and violence may occur around the world, if they are outside of a major power conflict they may require a different approach. At the very least, analysis of these situations requires a knowledge of our history in similar circumstances.

As we look into the future and the potential for a period of relative peace following the end of combat missions in Afghanistan, the Department of Defense again appears focused exclusively on wartime roles and future combat missions. We hear the old fear that policymakers are focused on “planning for the last war.” Instead, in order to prepare for what we may face in the next decade, maybe we should spend a small portion of our time thinking about the recent past and planning for the “peace.”


BJ Armstrong is a naval officer, rotary-wing aviator, and PhD Candidate with the Laughton Naval History Unit in the Department of War Studies, King’s College, London. He is a member of the Editorial Board of the U.S. Naval Institute and editor of the book 21st Century Mahan: Sound Military Conclusions for the Modern Era and the forthcoming 21st Century Sims: Innovation, Education and Leadership for the Modern Era. The opinions expressed here are his own and are presented in his personal capacity.


Photo credit: The U.S. Army