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U.S. general joins with British historians to explore
21st-century challenges of ‘war amongst the people’

Mattis

USMC Gen. James Mattis, commander of the U.S. Joint Forces Command, center, shares a moment with Hew Strachan, Chicele Professor of the History of War at All Souls, Oxford University, before a panel discussion on military operations in the 21st Century. On the left is James Gow, professor of international peace and security and director of the International Peace and Security Programme at King’s College.

It was billed as a panel discussion among a U.S. general and two British scholars on military history and strategy.

But James Mattis, the general who heads the U.S. Joint Forces Command, said he considered himself more of a pupil of the other two men, whom he has turned to for strategic advice.

The discussion, “War and Military Operations in the 21st Century: Civil-Military Implications,” was part of a two-day conference last week sponsored by the University’s Curriculum in Peace, War and Defense and the War Studies Department at King’s College London in partnership with the Triangle Institute for Security Studies.

In addition to Mattis, panelists included James Gow, professor of international peace and security and director of the International Peace and Security Programme at King’s College, and Hew Strachan, Chicele Professor of the History of War at All Souls, Oxford University.

Mattis argued that, while the characteristics of war may be changing, the essence of war is immutable.

“The nature of war will change about the time the nature of water changes,” Mattis said. “It cannot change. It is what it is. We are going to have to deal with it.”

In his present command, Mattis’ focus is on supporting current operations while shaping U.S. forces for the future. Several years ago, he joined with Gen. David Petraeus to oversee the current command of the U.S. Central Command, the publication of Field Manual 3–24 on counterinsurgency.

He cited a term coined by British General Rupert Smith, “war amongst the people,” to describe the military challenges in Afghanistan and Iraq where instead of fighting on the battlefield, enemy combatants take the fight to the civilian populations to neuter the superior force of the U.S. military.

“So our military is going to have to adapt,” Mattis said. “It must adapt because it must avoid being dominant – and irrelevant – at the same time. And there is not one of us wearing this uniform who on 9/11 didn’t think we let you down.”

Gow and Strachan also emphasized the importance of controlling the perceptions of a battle as well as winning the battle itself, especially in an age of global communication where images can be transmitted across the world in an instant.

“Although our states are democracies, we are finding it very hard, extraordinarily hard, to understand and manage the relationship between war and politics, and as a result, exceedingly unable to produce a coherent strategy,” Strachan said.

Gow said it would be increasingly difficult for Western countries in particular to use their superior armed forces for foreign policy aims because of a growing aversion to using force and the resulting injury or death of so many people.

Mattis said the enemies of modern democracies have sought to use this to their advantage. Even as the United States has sought to narrow the battlefield and limit the loss of innocent life, its enemies have sought to expand it by fighting without uniforms among the civilian population.

Despite the changing face of war, Mattis emphasized that the enemies the United States and other Western democracies now face are little different from the enemies they have faced – and defeated – over the past century.

“The enemies of today may come disguised in false religious garb, but basically it is tyranny,” Mattis said. “We fought in World War I when it was militarism. We fought it in World War II when it was fascism. We fought it in hot wars and cold wars when it was communism. They can dress it up any way they wish, but it is basically tyranny.”

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