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Shadow Wars: Chasing Conflict in an Era of Peace

Shadow Wars: Chasing Conflict in an Era of Peace by David Axe. Potomac Books, 2013, 256 pp.

Shadow Wars examies the events leading to twenty-first-century warfare and the nature of that conflict by intertwining the history of drones, military contractors, special operations, peacekeeping operations, and embedded journalists with the fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Chad, Mali, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, the Philippines, and others. The shortness of the book (only about 200 pages), combined with an ambitious spread of stories, makes for a fast-paced narrative that seeks to profoundly challenge 'readers' conceptions of war and peace in the twenty-first century' (inside jacket).

Axe's main thesis is that wars are less likely to be fought between conventional forces and increasingly involve the United States' use of security contractors, media manipulation, public apathy, and drones to attain strategic goals in so-called shadow wars. As a result, war is less prominent, involves fewer casualties, and is easier for the public to dismiss. Overall, the author seeks to remind the public to pay attention to these conflicts as he draws on personal experiences as a journalist to take the reader through various battlefields. In between visits to the front lines, Axe includes an abbreviated history of drones and security contractors, including Blackwater, to describe the United States' growing preference to wage war from the shadows.

The strongest narrative in Shadow Wars that supports this thesis concerns the counterterror and counterpiracy battles waged in Somalia since the "Black Hawk Down" incident of 1993. Axe uses Somalia to describe how the incident created an aversion for deploying US forces and led the United States to call upon security contractors, drones, special operations forces, and the armies of Ethiopia, Kenya, and the African Union to fight proxy battles in Somalia. The story of how America supported several African armies is available to readers who know to look for it, and the author rightly brings the entire narrative into the limelight while adding additional context.

Throughout the book, Axe uses the conflict in Somalia as a springboard to offer some sharp insights into and criticisms of modern warfare, some of which are not related to operations in Africa. In one of his most passionate asides, Axe recalls the experience of embedded journalists during Operation Iraqi Freedom, claiming that military commanders arbitrarily evicted and thus prevented them from covering the Iraq conflict in a deliberate attempt to "preserve the shadows" (p. 87). This recollection serves as a transition to the story of the stealthy RQ-170 Sentinel, a drone that the US Air Force kept secret for years until a photo of it operating at Kandahar was leaked in 2009 (p. 88). These somewhat disjointed anecdotes support Axe's overall thesis of the growing tendency of conducting wars away from the public's attention.

Another refreshing aspect of Shadow Wars is the author's willingness to confront the conventional wisdom that drone strikes are counterproductive because they inspire more terrorists than they remove from the battlefield. Axe disputes the idea that terrorists have used US drone strikes in Yemen as an effective recruiting tool (p. 175). In doing so, he draws upon many well-documented references in the notes, offering the reader a number of sources useful in further exploring the book's various conflicts and stories.

Unfortunately, Axe gets carried away by his ambitions to tie so many narratives and conflicts together. Furthermore, several of his asides are only loosely connected to the main thesis, seemingly included only because they represent the author's personal testimony (e.g., the description of how the MQ-9 Reaper uses synthetic aperture radar) (p. 112). He also drifts into personal speculation that could hinder an uninformed reader's efforts to understand which conclusions are well supported and which ones remain in the shadows. For example, although the military may have restricted the access of embedded journalists in Iraq and tightly controlled information related to drone capabilities over the past 20 years, it seems unlikely that both of these efforts were part of a coordinated effort to enable a worldwide campaign of shadow wars. Casting a wide net of subjects and anecdotes ultimately forces Axe to leave some stories incomplete and some ideas only cursorily examined.

Shadow Wars would have better served its thesis by more narrowly focusing on US involvement in Somalia, easily the strongest of several narratives competing for attention. Axe still would have had the opportunity to delve into background material but without the distracting anecdotes about the very public wars in Iraq or the development of the RQ-170 Sentinel. The author himself acknowledges that drone's irrelevance to the shadow wars involving enemies who lack the very radars that a stealthy drone so effectively avoids (p. 89).

Such a narrower perspective naturally would have led to an examination of the most prominent unanswered question of Shadow Wars: "So what?" Axe seems to imply that the general public should be more concerned about the use of contractors, drones, and foreign armies to realize US objectives, but one of his principal points is that this form of warfare is far less destructive than a total war and thus a better option for the United States to pursue its interests (p. 190). This implication is unfortunate since his open-ended conclusion calls into question the validity of the author's previous questions about the military's handling of journalists and the use of military contractors, drones, and proxy armies. The reader can assume that Axe believes that journalists should have more freedom to report on the US military but is left with ambiguous conclusions concerning ethical use of the other components of shadow wars.

Despite these and other flaws, including a shortsighted look at special operations and security contracting, Shadow Wars does present enough fresh insight mixed into an ambitious narrative that will engage a well-informed reader. Individuals who wish to become well versed in one of the subjects covered by Axe's book will find that they are frustrated by the competing narratives and would be better off reading more complete books, such as P. W. Singer's excellent studies of security contractors or drones, which are referenced throughout Shadow Wars. However, readers who are informed about the various components of Axe's shadow wars will appreciate his attempt to weave these stories together and may find just enough unique insight to make this book worth the quick read.

Capt Nicholas A. Reinhold, USAF
Langley AFB, Virginia


"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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