Technology and War: The Revolution that Never Arrived


Editor’s Note: This piece on the War on the Rocks Hasty Ambush blog is published in partnership with the Hoover Institution’s Military History in the News.

In the 1990s, as a result of the overwhelming victory that U.S. military forces and those of their allies achieved over Saddam’s army in the war over Kuwait, a number of military pundits argued that a revolution in military affairs had occurred. That revolution rested on the newly developed capabilities of stealth, precision weapons, computer-based communications, and reconnaissance capabilities of satellites. Supposedly, this revolution would allow America’s military forces to see and understand everything that was occurring in a 200-mile by 200-mile space, and destroy enemy forces at will. As the vice–chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff argued in the mid-1990s, these capabilities would banish friction, uncertainty, ambiguity, and the fog of war from their traditional habit of gumming up the conduct of military operations. The subtext of such popular theories was that ground forces would play a minimal role in future war; in effect soldiers and marines would find themselves useful only in policing up the wreckage left by American air power, missiles, and other weapons systems. Donald Rumsfeld and his advisors largely agreed with such visions, which is why they expended such efforts to minimize the size of ground forces deployed to destroy Saddam’s regime in 2003.

Events did not quite turn out as they expected. What the American military discovered in Iraq beginning in summer 2003, was that it was one thing to destroy Iraq’s military forces, but quite another to put down a swelling insurgency with too few troops and intelligence organizations that possessed neither the linguistic nor cultural understanding required. As the history of the past 150 years has underlined again and again, technology can extend and maximize military capabilities, but it cannot and will not in the future alter the fundamental nature of war. Friction and fog will inevitably continue to hinder the conduct of war. As the old military proverb goes, “the enemy always gets a vote.” The outcome was a long, drawn-out conflict which required a major commitment of boots on the ground, before coalition forces were eventually able to defeat the insurgents, at least long enough to turn Iraq over to Nouri al-Maliki’s grossly incompetent government.

Despite the lessons of the past it would seem that the Obama administration is going down the same path trod by the technologists of the 1990s and early 2000s. It is drastically reducing the Army’s size, while the Marine Corps is also feeling the pinch. In its efforts to deal with the substantial threat that the Islamic State raises, Washington’s current leaders are refusing to put advisors in harm’s way. Its apparent belief is that drones and precision weapons dropped by aircraft will prove sufficiently effective to destroy the military forces of the Islamic State. So far that approach has been less than successful. The Islamic State remains in control of much of eastern and central Syria and northern and western Iraq, while its survival represents a beacon to innumerable fanatical Muslims not only throughout the Middle East, but in Western societies as well. All in all, current American strategy in the Middle East represents a wonderful repetition of the old saw that “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”


Williamson Murray serves as a Minerva Fellow at the Naval War College. A widely published historian and former Air Force officer, Murray was educated at Yale and taught there before moving on to Ohio State University as a military and diplomatic historian. In 1987, he received the Alumni Distinguished Teaching Award. He retired from Ohio State in 1995 as a professor emeritus of history.


Photo credit: Staff Sgt. Perry Aston, U.S. Air Force