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The Last Warrior: Andrew Marshall and the Shaping of Modern American Defense Strategy

The Last Warrior: Andrew Marshall and the Shaping of Modern American Defense Strategy by Andrew Krepinevich and Barry Watts. Basic Books, 2015, 305 pp.

Written insights from Sun Tzu, Thucydides, and Clausewitz have influenced audiences across the ages by teaching concepts such as the benefits of spying, the dangers of strategic overreach, and the fog and friction of war. In The Last Warrior, Andrew Krepinevich and Barry Watts propose that there has been another "extraordinarily successful and influential" thinker--Andrew Marshall--whose life and written works have been, and will likely remain, unknown to the general public.
The authors use their pages to whisk a reader through their selective "intellectual history" of Marshall's development and contributions. Marshall's influence while directing the Office of Net Assessment (ONA), an internal think tank of the Department of Defense, fills half the book. Both authors performed research for Marshall at ONA (Marshall has since retired) and have known him for decades. As alumni of "St Andrew's Prep," they have since advanced to other think tanks where they have continued in strategic endeavors.
The central thesis of the book is that Marshall and his analytic framework for strategic thinking-"Net Assessment"-have influenced US policy. Due to the classification of Marshall's and ONA's writings, we cannot directly see and assess most of this impact. Fortunately, we can look at the evidence contained in the book and comfortably conclude that Marshall has been as influential as they suggest.
For example, Andrew Marshall held his position as leader of ONA for over 40 years, regardless of the political party in power. He was granted a direct reporting line to each secretary of defense, and although he did not always develop a great working relationship with them, multiple former secretaries have praised him. Marshall was also awarded the Presidential Citizen Medal by then-President George W. Bush. The evidence of Marshall's influence is substantial.
The tales of Marshall's influence include how his net assessments went beyond the static tallying of two nations' weapons or personnel quantities. Marshall investigated the impact of additional, dynamic factors such as geography, doctrine, and an adversary's economy. He examined rival nations and looked for ways to impose disproportionate costs and difficult challenges upon them.
For example, he supported research during the Cold War that deduced a strong preference by the Soviets for achieving a "scientific" level of "objectively correct" warfare operations, devoid of fog and friction. With the Soviet desire for certitude established, ONA diagnosed that missile defense programs could perform as poorly as "15% effective" and still tilt the scale of deterrence in favor of the United States. This finding supported that unproven capabilities, such as then-President Reagan's "Star Wars" initiatives, would create net benefits vis-à-vis the USSR.
Another Cold War, long-term strategy that Marshall diagnosed was to "stay in the bomber business" because it would cost the USSR far more to defend its thousands of miles of borders with air defenses than it would cost the United States to breach those borders with new bombers (e.g., B-1, B-2). Marshall further believed that the USSR did not have the economic strength to sustain its large military spending; Soviet collapse was inevitable. The accurate predictions from Marshall's insights leave a reader appreciative of his thinking with regard to the Cold War, the rise of China, and more.
As tempting as it may be to skip to the ONA chapters of Marshall's life, readers would miss out on fascinating stories of Marshall's early years, including how he was a better-than-average teenage athlete who saved money to purchase a set of Encyclopedia Britannica for personal leisure reading. Later, while a graduate student, he earned extra cash by helping upgrade the University of Illinois's cyclotron with former Manhattan Project member Enrico Fermi. After graduation, when he was employed at RAND, he pursued advanced statistics coursework from one of World War II's leading decipherers of Japanese and German code machines. Marshall's early years foreshadow his life of continuous learning.
As the central figure of the book, Marshall is portrayed as an unsung hero who lived by a code of "there is no limit to the amount of good you can do if you do not care who gets the credit." By the final chapter, it does not come as a surprise to learn that Marshall believed his major achievement as ONA's director was his mentorship of the people who had served on his staff. Indeed, at times the authors seem to have written of Marshall like Plato wrote of his beloved teacher Socrates: Marshall regularly displays the highest wisdom, with his positions consistently superior to all others. However, readers will not be treated to Marshall's debating style or conversations because the authors tell their history using a third-person narrative. Readers will also not find any checklists explaining how to conduct a net assessment, but that is not the authors' error since there never was a rigid net assessment recipe to be followed. "Net assessment" appears to be have been more of a cover label for the focused analysis in person or by mentorship of the highly dexterous, renaissance-style wisdom of Andy Marshall.
Overall, the authors convey their history in a manner that is not flashy within any section but is quite illuminating in totality. Even if the authors sometimes write from a rosy prism of recollection, the magnitude of Marshall's impact is striking. Readers wanting to see Marshall's own voice may wish to read some of his unclassified RAND reports, starting with his 1966 RAND paper Problems of Estimating Military Power.
Many will assess that this book is worth reading, especially strategists, historians, military stakeholders, national security policy makers, and people who desire inspiration from a role model whose power and influence was cultivated from continuous learning and deep thinking.

Lt Col Brian E. A. Maue, USAF, Retired, PhD

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."

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