Military Book Reviews

Vicarious Warfare: American Strategy and the Illusion of War on the Cheap

Vicarious Warfare: American Strategy and the Illusion of War on the Cheap, by Thomas Waldman (Policy Press, 2021, 320 pages)

Thomas Waldman defines vicarious warfare as a tradition of war that seeks strategic goals while paying a minimal price. It’s not trying to find an advantage over the enemy as much as to wage a war without making a sacrifice, separating the ends from the means, and looking to get something for nothing.   

Waldman briefly explains how leaders have attempted to wage war vicariously throughout history. Specifically, how war dominates the strategy of the United States more and more as time goes on since 2001. He states that the U.S. has sought to minimize the political, economic, and human cost of war through the growing use of Special Forces, local proxies and militias, private contractors, unmanned drones, and airpower. 

Dangers of Vicarious War

For Waldman, there are several concerns with this vicarious tradition. These concerns include drone and airstrikes that can kill indiscriminately so military actions overseas receive little attention in the mainstream media. Without “boots on the ground” (i.e. soldiers active in the war zone), it is hard to win the hearts and minds of the population in war-torn areas and achieve a stable political situation. 

Another concern is the U.S. Constitution split the power to wage war between the President and Congress to make it hard to become involved in costly military actions. Politicians view vicarious methods as a viable alternative between all-out war and doing nothing, with little awareness or oversight from the public. Lack of forethought, discretion, and restraint results in the initiation of small actions that escalate quickly and often have unintended consequences, which lead to “forever wars” in Afghanistan and the Middle East. 

Food For Thought

Vicarious Warfare is a tightly written, thought-provoking book. It is not an argument against the use of military force or against America. It’s a request to exercise restraint on the use of force and to ensure they align the ends with the means when taking action, after serious consideration of all the alternatives. Vicarious methods should not be the default choice when there are problems overseas but should be limited to those situations when appropriate.  

Waldman does a great job building and shaping his case through several chapters. He digs into Clausewitz to explain how he believes adherents of vicarious warfare have misused or failed to understand the lessons taught in On War, leading to poor decisions driven by ideology or greed rather than vital interests. 

As this reviewer was reading this book during the summer of 2021, the U.S. pulled troops out of Afghanistan, resulting in a resurgent Taliban taking over sizeable areas of the country. It was hard not to see many of the things Waldman warned about actually happening.     

This book should be mandatory reading in the U.S. War College. Also, all those (including Congress) that are ultimately responsible for defending the country and sending troops into harm’s way should read to drive discussions on the major topics presented. Highly recommended. 

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