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Vicarious Warfare Cover

Vicarious Warfare

American Strategy and the Illusion of War on the Cheap

Thomas Waldman

Bristol University Press, UK, 2021, 320 pages

Book Review published on: February 25, 2022

Thomas Waldman’s Vicarious Warfare: American Strategy and the Illusion of War on the Cheap was published about eight months before the ignominious evacuation of U.S. forces, allies, and some of the indigenous supporters in Afghanistan, amidst the stunningly rapid collapse of Afghan forces and the Afghan government. In that light, one might be tempted to consider Waldman a prophet of sorts, warning of imminent failure in Afghanistan, but that is not the thrust of his book. While the events of the last twenty years in Afghanistan and Iraq certainly provide a backdrop, Waldman’s work is not a critique of U.S. policy or its actions in the Middle East. Instead, it is a much more holistic and expansive analysis of a third type of warfare, “vicarious warfare,” emerging alongside the two previous paradigms of “conventional wars” and “small wars.” Waldman’s research is extensive and exhaustive, and his analysis of broad historical evidence is logical and convincing. His thesis: “The intent of vicarious warfare is to achieve one’s ends with relatively minimal means … limiting what it takes relative to what it brings.” He argues that vicarious warfare is not something entirely new; it is as ancient as war itself, but the United States has embarked on an extreme and dangerous path of vicarious warfare to accomplish its strategic ends. Vicarious warfare, as practiced by the United States and described by Waldman, is characterized by delegation (to avoid responsibility), danger-proofing (characterized by a “fetish for force protection” and use of unchallenged airpower), and darkness (extensive use of clandestine special operations and CIA paramilitarization).

Waldman does a superb job of outlining his larger text in its introduction, describing three parts. The first part examines historical precedents and experiences, the second part examines the emergence of vicarious warfare during the Cold War, especially as practiced by the United States, and the third part provides an in-depth analysis of themes and issues identified in parts one and two. He also identifies four central arguments in his introduction: (1) vicarious warfare is not new, elements can be seen throughout the history of warfare; (2) vicarious warfare has emerged as one of three major paradigms of U.S. warfare; (3) vicarious warfare has come to dominate the ways and means to achieve American strategic ends; and (4) vicarious warfare contains serious flaws that threaten long-term American security. The summary of part three identifies seven conclusions emerging from his analysis that are worthy of serious contemplation. In his epilogue, he examines the demands of great power rivalry and how those demands may force a return to a focus on “conventional war,” with a deemphasis on vicarious warfare.

Most of us occasionally need a good friend to speak to us with brutal honesty, as it sometimes takes an “outsider” to help us see a clear and accurate reflection in the mirror, and that reflection may not be pretty. Waldman is an accomplished analyst of strategic policy and practice (he is the author of War, Clausewitz, and the Trinity and coauthor of Understanding Influence: The Use of Statebuiilding Research in British Policy), and senior lecturer in international security studies at Macquarie University in Sydney; he provides the brutal honesty of a good friend. One may not agree with all of Waldman’s conclusions, but they are certainly worth considering. This is serious scholarship, so it is not an easy or casual read, but it is well worth the time and effort of any American who is or is likely to be involved in the development of strategy.

Book Review written by: Thomas E. Ward II, PhD, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas