Andrew Potter: The Everything War
Everything is a front line, everyone’s a potential combatant, and nothing is as it seems.
By: Andrew Potter
If you had to pick the most surreal moments from the ongoing war in Ukraine, somewhere in the top ten you would have to include the livestreaming of an assault on the Zaporizhia nuclear power plant; the hacking of Russian television by the Anonymous collective, which replaced the scheduled programming with pro-Ukrainian content; the White House briefing to Tik-Tok and YouTube influencers; and the the world’s richest man, Elon Musk, using his Twitter account to challenge Vladimir Putin to a duel.
Welcome to the Everything War, where everything is a front line, everyone’s a potential combatant, and nothing is as it seems.
Along with the military engagement between Russia and Ukraine, there has been a parallel information/propaganda campaign conducted by both sides. While NATO has refused to intervene directly in the war on Ukraine’s behalf, NATO member countries have flooded the country with all sorts of aid (save fighter jets), both lethal and humanitarian. For its part, Russia has been helped by Belarusian and Chechen military units, and, rumour has it, has reached out to China for help with everything from drones to MREs.
But in addition to the formal belligerents, thousands of foreigners have answered Ukraine president Volodymyr Zelensky’s call for help. As many as 20,000 volunteers now form a bit of a rag-tag foreign legion, and while some (such as the famed Canadian sniper “Wali”) are highly trained, many are not. Alongside the usual propaganda from the two sides, there’s an off-label information war going on between non-state actors, shadowy hacker organizations, fake media storefronts, and freelance contributors.
Even sanctions has become a cauldron of overlapping interests and allegiances. Aside from the formal interventions of the usual groups — the EU, the UN, the ICC, and so on — and the sanctions levelled by states, a lot of non-state actors, like corporations, NGOs, universities, orchestras and other groups have gotten into the censure game. Ukrainian farmers are stealing Russian materiel; foreign activists are seizing the mansions of oligarchs in European cities; a Ukrainian sailor sank the yacht of the oligarch who employed him.
On top of all this — which takes the 21st century logic of the pop-up shop, the gig economy, and cancel culture, and applies it to mechanized interstate warfare — there’s the disinformation-laden environment of Twitter, Discord, Telegram, YouTube, TikTok and whatever else, where it seems like just about everything is fake news, including the fact checking.
In 1999, a US Marine general named Charles Krulak wrote a piece in which he claimed that the future of combat for the Marines would be in urban environments in failed or failing states. In these situations, front line infantry might be doing humanitarian relief in one part of the city, performing peacekeeping duties in another, while doing intense urban combat in a third. He called this the “Three Block War”. Figuring out how to prepare and train for this scenario would be the central military challenge of the 21st century.
While the Three Block War was picked up and booted around as an interesting idea, it was never formalized into Marine doctrine. But one person who did take it seriously was Rick Hillier, the former head of the Canadian military who brought it into the Canadian forces when he took over as chief of the land staff in 2003, arguing that the Three Block War in failed and failing states was the future of warfare. He wanted a CAF that was trained and kitted out for this reality. When he became Chief of the Defence Staff in 2005, Hillier kept pushing this idea on Paul Martin and the Liberals, who loved his “vision” and firm sense of priority-setting.
In Hillier’s hands, the Three Block War concept was a disaster. Some American analysts blamed the strategy for Canada’s elevated casualty rates in Kandahar. The concept also came under considerable scrutiny from Canadian military analysts. In a highly critical paper, Walter Dorn and Michael Varey described the three block war idea as “fatally flawed.” While the Three Block War concept might have served as a useful description of a certain type of tactical reality (amplified maybe by a few too many viewings of Black Hawk Down), as a strategic concept it had a number of problems. For example, it wasn’t clear how it would apply to other armed services, or to theatres other than urban centres. It seemed to threaten the specificity of mandate and mission that is crucial to military operations. It clearly ran the risk of “block inflation” — why not throw governance, economic development, general nation building, and anything else you think you can get the military to do into the hopper? Indeed, in 2005 General James Mathis co-authored a piece proposing the concept of the four block war, which added psychological and information operations to the mix.
Ultimately, Dorn and Varey were concerned that crucial distinctions central to warfare were being elided. As they put it, the whole point of doctrine is to make a clear delineation between things that are “war” and things that are “not war,” and the Three Block War threatens to make everything into a type of war.
Two decades later the verdict is in, and it looks like everyone was right. When it comes to the tactical environment, people like Krulak, Hillier, and Mathis were more prescient than they might ever have imagined, at least if Ukraine is any template for how modern warfare is evolving. Yet at the same time, everything the critics of the Three Block War concept worried about has also come to pass: the confusion of mission and mandates, the endless proliferation of “blocks,” and most seriously, the assimilation of everything, and everyone, into “war.”
In his original article, Krulak argued that the reality of the Three Block War meant that any local engagement or interaction could have repercussions on the mission as a whole. For example, if a squad of Marines based in a “peacekeeping” block of the city gets jumpy and opens fire on a civilian truck carrying humanitarian aid (and not a truck bomb), that could have serious impacts for the entire strategic effort. And so he coined the notion of the “strategic corporal,” a front line soldier who would have the training, judgement, and moral fibre to do his or her job in a way that would always support strategic objectives.
Except Krulak’s underlying assumption was that whatever needed doing, it was a soldier that would be doing it, and that soldier would know and understand the strategic objectives. There was nothing in the original Three Block War concept for civilians doing war stuff, or non-state actors dictating strategy.
But this is precisely what we are seeing in Ukraine. The tactical environment has become enormously complicated, shot through with confusion over state and non-state, soldier and civilian, combat and humanitarian work, journalism and information ops. Another way to put it is that tactics has overwhelmed strategy so much that there is very little room left for a “strategic corporal” to have much influence; he’s just one actor amongst very many others.
The fact that all of this is going on in a theatre marked by extremely violent mechanised warfare that has seen shockingly high casualty levels amongst all concerned just jacks the surrealism and danger up to eleven.
It is hard to know what to make of all this, except to say unhelpful things like “we need to invest in our security” or “war isn’t just about guns and ammo, it’s a full spectrum thing”, or “we need to make sure we know who our allies are.” Yes, but what does this mean? How do we prepare? How should we fight? Who can we trust?
Whether we like it or not, we’ve entered the world of the n-Block War. Figuring out how to live in it safely and securely is the most pressing question of our time.
Andrew Potter is the author of On Decline: Stagnation, Nostalgia, And Why Every Year is the Worst One Ever.
The Line is Canada’s last, best hope for irreverent commentary. We reject bullshit. We love lively writing. Please consider supporting us by subscribing. Follow us on Twitter @the_lineca. Fight with us on Facebook. Pitch us something: firstname.lastname@example.org
Interesting thoughts. I thought, initially, you were going to make some connection between the Canadian Forces training methods - at the platoon level - for example, and the apparent success of the UA in holding off superior mechanized forces. Perhaps there's no connection and the war-fighting that's going on in the streets and towns of Ukraine is simply an artifact of better knowledge of local conditions and poor training on the Russian side. War is a complicated thing - almost never goes to plan.
To repeat James King's starting point above, this column is full of interesting thoughts.
I find that I am forced to think about things in a different fashion with this war. This column helps me put a framework on how I was flailing around (mentally, to be sure) trying to deal with those different things.
Thanks to the author for allowing me to better understand the absolute paucity of real, "true" (the definition of "truth" being questionable on all sides) information about this war - which I previously knew but did not have an adequate way of expressing it.