The New Rules of War - Book Review [2023]

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A friend of mine recommended me to read The New Rules of War, by author Sean McFate. My friend is a former Marine, and stated that this book showed how war would be fought in the modern era. I quickly ordered a copy of McFate's book, and consumed it within a week of starting. How good is "The New Rules of War: Victory in the Age of Durable Disorder"?

Sean McFate & The New Rules of War

Sean McFate penned this book, however his background is much more than just that of a writer. McFate was in the 82nd Airborne, and then later became a contractor with a PMC. He also holds numerous collegiate degrees, including a PhD in international relations. He currently teaches strategy at two different universities in Washington DC.

I mention McFate's background and education, as it shows how he came to his rules for modern war. He was a boot on the ground, in both conventional militaries and as a mercenary, something that many college educated scholars haven't done. Throughout the book, he talks about his time as a PMC in Africa, waging shadow wars against nonstate actors.

McFate states that conventional warfare (since the Peace of Westphalia in 1648) is dead, but the West doesn't know that yet. The US has lost every war it had fought since 1945, and the rest of the West hasn't fared much better. McFate begins with discussing military strategists that were correct, but were laughingstocks in their time. Billy Mitchell, John Fuller, and William J. Olson are cited as "war prophets", who predicted or spoke of strategies that would be used in modern war. Mitchell forecasted aircraft carriers and the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese, Fuller essentially wrote the rulebook on the mechanized warfare tactics used by the Germans during the Blitz of 1939/1940, and Olson saw how weak the USSR was in the mid-1980s. He mentions these, as war is not this unpredictable being.

The 10 Rules of Modern War

After the start of the book, McFate sets the ground work for 10 rules of war that he see's in the modern age.

  1. Conventional War Is Dead 
  2. Technology Will Not Save Us 
  3. There is No Such Thing as War or Peace - Both Coexist, Always 
  4. Hearts and Minds Do Not Matter 
  5. The Best Weapons Do Not Fire Bullets 
  6. Mercenaries Will Return 
  7. New Types of World Powers Will Rule 
  8. There Will Be Wars Without States 
  9. Shadow Wars Will Dominate 
  10. Victory Is Fungible 

Honestly, these rules are all pretty self explanatory. Throughout the book, McFate provides historical, and contemporary examples of these rules being used. Lets briskly cover the rules.

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A quick read, but densely packed with lessons learned.

Explaining the Rules of Modern War

Rule #1 is very simple. Conventional war, as done in WW1/2, is dead. As the US has seen in the last few wars we've waged and lost, our enemies do not fight conventionally, and neither should we.

The second rule has some nuance to it. McFate does not think that modern technology is without use, but an overreliance on it will not save us. Modern tech like inexpensive drones can be a boon, and McFate often brings up the budget of high-dollar tech vs. budget of underfunded programs, i.e. special forces.

Rule #3 is also simple. War and peace already exist concurrently. We can be in a shadow war with a country, but still trade with them in the light. McFate gives the example of US Navy shows of force near islands that China has taken place in the South China Sea.

Rule #4 states that the classic "Winning Hearts and Minds" method does not work. Killing your enemy, or converting them to your ally is the method.

#5 is clear, as McFate states that information and disinformation are stronger tools than kinetic weapons.

Rules #6,#7, and #8 all form together. Mercenaries have already returned (PMCs), and non-state actors (cartels, warlords, private entities) can, and will wage war. McFate gives examples of Hollywood actors trying to hire PMCs to stop genocide in Africa, and cartels waging war across Central America.

Rule #9 has been in place for years, as "Shadow Wars" have been fought for decades. McFate refers back to the US involvement in overthrowing the Guatemalan leadership in the 1950s.

The last rule states that victory is only achieved if the strategic goals set at the onset of a war are met. If you have not met or exceeded those goals, you have lost.

The Impact of The New Rules of War 

McFate published this book in early 2019, and the last 4 years of global affairs have only really proven him right. Those that have chosen to wage conventional war (US in Afghanistan, Russia in Ukraine), have been on the losing side. We've seen the rise of paramilitaries and PMCs, and low cost tech beating out much higher dollar ones.

I will say, it has been funny to see Russia do an about face with entering conventional war in Ukraine. After waging shadow war via PMC's in Syria, they've blown the proverbial wad and made every mistake in Ukraine. This book was fairly correct at predicting or explaining how modern war looks, and we're seeing how not to wage it in real time. Hindsight is almost always 20/20, but McFate certainly had some foresight in writing this book.

The rules present in New Rules of War are clearly defined, and with the examples provided, are not really new concepts. McFate defines what will embody the winning and losing sides in modern war, and has been mostly correct since the publishing of the book. Needless to say, I found this to be a worthwhile read, and can wholeheartedly recommend it. This review may seem barebones, but really, it's because I want you to go read the book.

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I took many notes during my read. This was a thoroughly enjoyable and insightful read.

Book Recommendations

Check out the following previously reviewed books:

About Paul Whaley 196 Articles
Paul Whaley is a guy with an interest in practical and defensive pistol shooting techniques with an eye for quality gear. He has received training from Holistic Solutions Group, John Johnston of Citizens Defense Research, Darryl Bolke, Cecil Birch, and Chuck Haggard. When not trying to become a better shooter, he can be found enjoying a Resident Evil game or listening to Warren Zevon.

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