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Techno-Fetishism and Meta-Rhetoric: Assessing the Nature and Character of Past and Future Warfare

  • Published
  • By Maj Nicholas J. Mercurio, USAF


What is war? More than 200 years ago Carl von Clausewitz provided an answer, describing the nature of war as defined by a single premise concerning the existence or absence of total war. He equated total war to a “duel on a larger scale,” where the object is to destroy the enemy.1 If total war does not exist, then war is violence in pursuit of an issue, or “political intercourse, carried on with other means.”2 In this condition, the subjective value assigned to the issue engenders restraints on means employed and costs tolerated by each actor. War’s resulting nature is best described by a triadic reciprocal relationship between violence, uncertainty, and purpose.3 This relationship may also be interpreted as the interaction between people, military, and government.4 How this interaction occurs in reality is referred to as the character of war.5

Will future war look different? This article will argue the nature of war will remain unchanged while the character of war will continue to be influenced by the relationship between technological advancements and theories prescribing their use. The author will accomplish this by first establishing the conceptual permanence of war’s nature as well as its inconstant character. Following this will be a practical assessment of the character of past and present wars using technological advances and applied theory as lenses for analysis. The analysis will conclude by examining the nature and character of future war, employing the same lenses and highlighting areas that will bear similarities to previous wars, as well as those that will differ.

A conceptual understanding of the nature of war requires first an understanding of human nature. Human nature is a binary proposition. Human beings, in their essence, are either moral beings whose natural state is harmony with nature or exist amorally in a constant state of violence fomented by competition, insecurity, and fear.6 An individual may ascribe to either the optimistic or pessimistic outlook, but elements of one cannot be present in the other and remain valid. As a result, human nature is constant. War, as a human endeavor, is reflective of human nature’s immutability and thus may only have one enduring nature. The human element in each facet of Clausewitz’s trinity dictates its permanence. What will change over time is the character of war, or how violence or threat thereof for political gain is manifested within the context of history, geography, demography, technology, and political ideology.

The wars of antiquity displayed a common character succinctly captured by Thucydides who wrote, “The strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must.”7 Historically, it would seem both the strong and weak alike would suffer a premature demise as humans were far more likely to die as a direct result from war than in the present day.8 This statistic was reflected by prevailing war theory; Clausewitz asserted, “There is only one means in war: combat.”9 This notion of combat as the only means, and military forces as the sole proprietor, of war would endure until the mid-twentieth century when Mao Tse-tung described how revolutionary guerrillas could weaponize ideology.10 Even Sun-Tzu’s indirect approach—one that favored victory without combat as the ultimate goal—was preoccupied with armies and combat.11 It is not until the twenty-first century that nonmilitary means are considered viable and, as in the case of Russian General of the Army Valery Gerasimov, the preferred means to win wars.12

However, for the majority of human history, wars were violence inflicted by armies and navies on behalf of governments, and that is where the focus of innovation was fixed. In the time of Napoleon, the advent of gunpowder and associated advancements like mobile field artillery, flint-lock muskets, and ring bayonets gave way to the rise of professional armies across Europe, altering the character of war.13 This evolution of war machinery and military professionalization was accompanied by society’s fascination with science and led Antoine-Henri de Jomini, a contemporary of Clausewitz, to offer a new theory concerned with applying scientific principles to war. Headlining his theory was the notion of an army’s decisive points such as supply lines.14 Subsequently, Alfred Thayer Mahan, when considering steam-powered ships, would appropriate Jomini and articulate naval strategy with the enemy fleet held as the primary objective.15

This continued focus on military forces and zealotry for a scientific approach would be further inflamed by the industrial revolution’s obsession with efficiency, producing a war-by-schedule mind set.16 The result was catastrophe in World War I when protracted trench warfare subjected fielded forces to ruthlessly efficient weapons.17 While history shows a combined-arms approach broke the stalemate of trench warfare, it was technological obsession with the tank and airplane that would demand theorists’ attention, further altering the character of war.18 J. F. C. Fuller, recalling Clausewitz’s aim of destroying enemy forces, heralded the tank’s ability to penetrate lines and strike the enemy’s “brain.”19 Early airpower theorists would revive Jomini as seen in Giulio Douhet’s emphasis on strategic bombing of adversary industrial centers, or J. C. Slessor’s focus on airpower supporting land forces by interdicting lines of supply and communication.20 Both approaches would be employed in subsequent wars from World War II to the Gulf War. They would evolve over time until a systems-thinking approach wherein multiple, parallel attacks designed to induce “strategic paralysis” became the preferred modality.21 Over this same timeframe, the existential threat posed by nuclear weapons, coupled with a push to integrate capabilities derived from space and cyberspace,22 created three new and distinct arenas for military thought focused on deterrence strategy that significantly shifted the character of war. Also occurring in this span—breaking the technology-theory pattern, yet no less disruptive to the character of war—were a rash of irregular wars introducing new terrain that resisted even the most advanced weaponry: the population.23 Consequently, it is the technological fixation of nuclear, space, and cyber deterrence, as well as protracted irregular warfare against insurgencies, that influences the present-day character of war. With this understanding, attention will now shift to assessing the nature and character of future conflict.

Nothing in the entirety of human history suggests the nature of war has varied; nor is there reason to believe that—as long as warfare is conducted between humans—it will change in the future. The one caveat that would fundamentally alter this assertion is the existence of a true learning artificial intelligence (AI) afforded an autonomous operating and decision-making capacity in a future war. It is logical to assume that, by interacting with and learning from the world over time, the AI could overcome the influences of human nature that were consciously or unconsciously imbued by its human creators to an extent that introduces a nonhuman element to the facets of the Clausewitzian trinity. It may be argued this nonhuman factor already exists in the form of curated content on social media platforms that reflects “algorithmic identities” produced through indicated preferences and repetitive deterministic interfacing online.24 However, that question is beyond the scope of this article so the focus will remain on future warfare prosecuted only by human decision making and thus defined by a decidedly consistent nature. Conversely, the character of future wars will continually change along the fault lines of technology, theory, and strategy that in some instances will neatly recall the patterns of previous conflicts, and in others will represent significant departures requiring new modalities.

First, regarding similarities, future warfare will be characterized by continued nuclear deterrence strategies and counterinsurgency (COIN) operations directed against violent extremist organizations. Regarding the former, the destructive power of nuclear weapons necessitates a distinct mode of thinking and behavior wherein actions both dictate, and are dictated by, adversary perceptions.25 As for the latter, advanced weaponry, even applied in the network-centric fashion admired at the outset of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, cannot alone prevail against an ideologically-based insurgency.26 Only a long-term commitment to population-centric COIN,27 featuring a cohesive alternative narrative of operations, actions, and activities (OAAs), and strategic messaging, will offer success. Furthermore, the concept of cross-domain deterrence as a response to the unique challenges of deterrence in the space and cyberspace domains will continue influencing the character of war in what is currently termed the “gray zone,” or operations and continuous competition below the threshold of war.28


(US Army photo)

Figure 1. Population-centric counterinsurgency. The future is not one of major battles and engagements fought by armies on battlefields devoid of population; instead, the course of conflict will be decided by forces operating among the people of the world. Here, the margin of victory will be measured in far different terms than the wars of our past. The allegiance, trust, and confidence of populations will be the final arbiters of success.

However, the concept of gray zone conflict nullifies the previously-held proposition of existing in a state of either war or peace.29 Correspondingly, in future war, the role of violence and military forces is diminished. As a result, future wars will depart from traditional territorial aggression to military and non-military operations to secure access, maneuver, and effects across domains.30 Domains, as they are traditionally understood, will also change. Driven by the reciprocal relationship between technology, society, and human behavior, cyberspace will no longer be considered a domain. The physical features that constitute the current definition of cyberspace31 will transfer to the new electromagnetic spectrum domain that—similar to air, land, sea, and space—is characterized by its physical attributes and inherent restraints. The remaining elements under the umbrella of cyberspace will be more accurately regarded as “societal infrastructure,”32 which connects and influences, through effects, the preexisting physical domains as well as a key addition—the perceptual domain.

The perceptual domain is the fait accompli of the premise that an adversary is a complex, adaptive system wherein the one constant is perception, or the result of the Observe-Orient segments of the Observe-Orient-Decide-Act (OODA) loop.33 Ultimately, all military efforts to secure access, maneuver, and effects across the five physical domains aim to set conditions that will allow the joint force to dominate the adversary’s perceptual domain. Posturing for effective action in this vital domain requires eschewing the “techno-fetishism” of past wars.34 Instead, it is the meta-rhetorical alignment of multi-domain effects in the “mental and moral dimensions of conflict,”35 delivered faster than an adversary can adapt, that produces a winning strategy. Meta-rhetorical alignment refers to a consistent and complementary relationship between what is communicated by the joint force—through OAAs, force posture, policies, messages, images, and even inactions—and the overt and implied signals of the additional instruments of national power. More than avoiding the appearance of a “say-do gap,”36 meta-rhetorical alignment produces the overarching narrative of whole-of-government response that underpins the joint force’s ability to create and “perpetuate a highly menacing state of affairs” to deny, disrupt, and degrade an adversary’s capacity to adapt within the perceptual domain.37

History has shown that as the nature of war remained consistent, its character has been continually dictated by the innovation-theory interaction. However, the familiarity of this pattern should offer little comfort when considering the character of future wars where the military and its machines may not play a decisive or even central role. It is only by resisting the allure of technological advances and embracing modes of thinking optimized to win in the perceptual domain that a military may achieve victory in future conflicts.

Maj Nicholas J. Mercurio, USAF

Major Mercurio (BS, US Air Force Academy; MA, George Mason University; MMOAS, Air Command and Staff College (ACSC) is currently assigned as an ACSC student, Maxwell AFB, Alabama.




1. Carl Von Clausewitz, On War, ed. and trans. Michael Howard and Peter Paret, Indexed (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984), 75; and Clausewitz, On War, 77.

2. Clausewitz, On War, 87.

3. Clausewitz, On War, 89.

4. Clausewitz, On War, 89.

5. Clausewitz, On War, 89.

6. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999), 25–82; and Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. Richard Tuck (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1996).

7. Thucydides, The History of the Peloponnesian War, trans. Richard Crawley (New York: E. P. Dutton and Co., 1950), 394.

8. Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, Reprint edition (New York–Toronto–London: Penguin Books, 2012).

9. Clausewitz, On War, 96.

10. Fleet Marine Force Publication 12-18, Mao Tse-Tung on Guerilla Warfare, trans. Samuel B. Griffith, 1989.

11. Sun Tzu, The Art of War, trans. Samuel B. Griffith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971).

12. Valery Gerasimov, “Value of Science in the Foresight,” Military Review (January–February 2016): 23–29.

13. Michael Howard, War in European History, 1st ed., (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2009), 59–61.

14. John Shy, “Jomini,” in Makers of Modern Strategy from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age, eds. Peter Paret, Gordon A. Craig, and Felix Gilbert, 1st ed., (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1986), 154.

15. John Gooch, Seapower and Strategy (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1989), 38.

16. Gen Stanley McChrystal et al., Team of Teams: New Rules of Engagement for a Complex World (New York, NY: Portfolio, 2015), 44.

17. Stephen Biddle, Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat in Modern Battle (Princeton: Princeton University, 2004).

18. Biddle, Military Power: Explaining Victory and Defeat, 36.

19. J. F. C. Fuller, On Future Warfare (London: Sifton Praed, 1928), 87.

20. Giulio Douhet, The Command of The Air, trans. Dino Ferrari (Washington, DC: Air Force History and Museums Program, 1998); and Sir John Cotesworth Slessor, Air Power and Armies (Tuscaloosa, AL: University of Alabama Press, 2009).

21. John A. Warden III, “The Enemy as a System,” Airpower Journal A (1995),

22. Thomas C. Schelling, Arms and Influence, Revised ed., (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2008); Bleddyn Bowen, “From the Sea to Outer Space: The Command of Space as the Foundation of Spacepower Theory,” Journal of Strategic Studies 42, no. 3–4 (2019): 532–36; and Jacquelyn G. Schneider, “Deterrence in and through Cyberspace,” in Cross-Domain Deterrence, ed. Jon R. Lindsay and Erik Gartzke, 1st ed., (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019).

23. Ivan Arreguin-Toft, “How the Weak Win Wars: A Theory of Asymmetric Conflict,” International Security 26, no. 1 (2001); and David Galula, Counterinsurgency Warfare Theory and Practice (Praeger Security International, 2006).

24. John Cheney-Lippold, “A New Algorithmic Identity: Soft Biopolitics and the Modulation of Control,” Theory, Culture & Society 28, no. 6 (1 November 2011): 164–81,

25. Schelling, Arms and Influence, 60.

26. Frans P. B. Osinga, “The Enemy as a Complex Adaptive System: John Boyd and Airpower in the Postmodern Era,” in Airpower Reborn: The Strategic Concepts of John Warden and John Boyd, ed. John Andreas Olsen (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2015), 62–92; and McChrystal et al., Team of Teams.

27. Galula, Counterinsurgency Warfare Theory and Practice.

28. Jon R. Lindsay and Erik Gartzke, “Introduction: Cross-Domain Deterrence, from Practice to Theory,” in Cross-Domain Deterrence, ed. Jon R. Lindsay and Erik Gartzke, 1st ed., (New York: Oxford University Press, 2019); and Elizabeth Troeder, “A Whole-of-Government Approach to Gray Zone Warfare” (United States Army War College, 1 April 2018), 2.

29. “Gray Zone Warfare” (lecture, Air Command and Staff College (ACSC), Maxwell AFB, AL, 2019).

30. Paul Nakasone, “A Cyber Force for Persistent Operations,” Joint Force Quarterly 92 (Quarter 2019): 100; and “Gray Zone Warfare,” ACSC.

31. Schneider, “Deterrence in and through Cyberspace,” 97.

32. Schneider, “Deterrence in and through Cyberspace,” 97.

33. Osinga, “The Enemy as a Complex Adaptive System.”

34. Osinga, “The Enemy as a Complex Adaptive System,” 92.

35. Osinga, “The Enemy as a Complex Adaptive System,” 92.

36. Michael G. Mullen, “Strategic Communication: Getting Back to Basics,” Foreign Policy, August 28, 2009,

37. Osinga, “The Enemy as a Complex Adaptive System,” 78.

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