Shadow Wars: Chasing Conflict in an Era of Peace

  • Published
Shadow Wars: Chasing Conflict in an Era of Peace by David Axe. Potomac Books, 2013, 235 pp.


In 1837, military strategist Carl von Clausewitz discussed the uncertain nature of war Vom Kriege. Specifically, von Clausewitz noted, "War is the realm of uncertainty, three quarters of the factors on which action in war is based are wrapped in a fog of in his book greater or lesser uncertainty." Without question, today's global conflicts exhibit the same vague battlefield characteristics presented by von Clausewitz. Shadow Wars: Chasing Conflict in an Era of Peace by David Axe is a historical review of US involvement in various conflicts over the past 30 years. David Axe is an American freelance journalist who completed several deployments to some of the world's most austere locations, including Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia, Congo, East Timor, and Lebanon. Axe regularly contributes to mainstream publications, including Wired, Voice of America, and other media outlets, where he writes about war.

Shadow Wars is centered on the argument that the United Sates is increasingly and purposefully engaging in "shadow wars," a term representing future wars that are likely to be small and subtle with uncertain characteristics. While Shadow Wars claims the United States engaged in such wars over the past few decades to distance itself from the consequences of such wars, even the author recognizes there are exceptions to his theory, a self-appointed weakness to his argument. For example, Axe says in 2011 the United States engaged in a shadow war against terrorists in Somalia because it supplied and trained African Union (AU) forces in Mogadishu and supported Ethiopia's offensive actions in border towns. He wants the reader to believe the United States' material and financial support of AU and Ethiopian forces fighting terrorism is a shadow war because the United States can remove itself from the consequences; however, Axe shows a weakness in his thesis: the United States may not have had any other viable options at its disposal to fight terrorism in Somalia, given American commitments to the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

Shadow Wars is divided into three major sections to present a historical review of various conflicts spanning Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and Pacific theaters. Not only does Shadow Wars examine what happened at the battles, he also argues these conflicts have unique characteristics that exist within their midst. The first part of Shadow Wars discusses remotely piloted vehicles (drones) and how initial drone deployment failures combined with new battlefield requirements helped catalyze drone development. Second, Axe examines additional shadow war activity in the Middle East and the Pacific theaters, the rapid growth of US special operations personnel, and the challenges associated with reporting as a journalist embedded into a tactical military unit. Last, Axe analyzed shadow-war risk factors and offered a few considerations for future drone use and the Afghanistan war.

Throughout Shadow Wars, Axe hones in on three factors that support the obscure and changing nature of today's shadow wars--advancements in technology, international peacekeeping efforts, and information control. First, he notes the advancements in technology, coupled with the increased use of special operation forces and mercenary groups, casts shadows in today's wars. With respect to technology, a significant portion of Shadow Wars discusses the development, testing, and implementation of drones, supporting the author's argument about the United States potentially masking itself from today's conflicts using drones. Second, the growing international peacekeeping presence in various parts of the world impacts shadow conflicts; Axe argues the presence of such units reduces conflict duration and bloodshed, all while obscuring proxy force origins and objectives. To solidify his argument, he draws from statistics published by the Human Security Report Project, an independent research center focused on global and regional trends in organized violence, cause, and consequences. Third, Axe declares the US government's current approach to managing the press (to include restriction) is an inverse of how the government previously responded to press demands rather than dictate coverage as shadow wars occur. In all, Axe argues the nature of warfare is evolving into shadow wars of darkness, less bloodshed, and limited duration that will not require a large number of Americans to do the direct fighting as compared to previous wars.

This book captures a strong point when the author reveals the relationship between battlefield requirements and technological evolution. Axe does an exceptional job explaining how drones developed, their initial limitations, how those capabilities evolved over time, and what impact an increased use of drones presents as shadow wars continue. The author demonstrates how the early limitations of drones did not adequately support shadow war needs and shows how battlespace requirements could catalyze the development of technology. In all, the reader will appreciate Axe's examination of drone evolution, which encourages one to think about contested space and whether or not the United States possesses the capabilities to meet future shadow war requirements.

Another profound element in Shadow Wars is how the author discusses information and why it is traditionally categorized as a source of national power. He offers several examples of how the United States used information power in previous shadow wars but warns of the dire consequences when information power is poorly executed. The author presents the example of how the Department of Defense contracted a private firm to launch a propaganda campaign against Saddam Hussein to destabilize his regime shortly after 11 September 2001. The author uses this example to demonstrate the shadow nature associated with private firm involvement in conflicts, but this also shows the value of information power, assuming the Rendon Group's propaganda campaign destabilized Hussein's regime. The reader can appreciate Axe's point of a private firm's involvement in conflict, thus strengthening his point of shadow war cloudiness.

Although Axe uses most of this book to examine the United States' engagement in shadow wars, there is an opportunity to conduct research into how other state and nonstate actors engage in shadow wars. Without question, other nation-states purposely disguise their actions to conduct warfare, but additional research could discuss to what extent enemy shadow warfare influences the United States' national defense and military strategies. Furthermore, Shadow Wars focuses extensively on the physical domain, but supplementary effort should include cyberwarfare, especially given the difficulty involved with attribution and blurriness between observed state and nonstate-actor cyber activity.

Shadow Wars is worth reading, particularly to military strategists and historians. Such readers would welcome this book to examine Axe's assertions regarding the shifting nature of warfare from overt to the shadows. These readers' insights and feedback might assist Axe in explaining why shadow wars occurred, something even the author admits is beyond the scope of his book.

TSgt Travis R. Porter, USAF

"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."