Skip to main content

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

Promo image - Vicarious Warfare book cover

By Thomas Waldman

Bristol, UK: Bristol University Press, 2021, 320 pages)

Reviewed by Major Andrew Maher

Thomas Waldman’s Vicarious Warfare: American Strategy and the Illusion of War on the Cheap, unpacks America’s contemporary employment of military force in conflicts worldwide. On the basis of his analysis, Waldman argues that an operational concept exists, called “vicarious warfare,” which he asserts is a manifestation of a political desire to limit the costs of waging war – financial, political, and human. Waldman’s book is thus a timely examination of whether contemporary approaches to warfare challenge democratic oversight, moral responsibility and international norms.

In outlining the concept of vicarious warfare, Waldman explains:

“Currently, America’s general preference is to fight its wars by delegating fighting to proxies, limiting the exposure of its own military forces to danger, and operating in the shadows through the use of special forces, covert practices and evolving offensive cyber techniques.” (pp. 3-4)

Importantly, Waldman notes that such means of warfare are not new. Instead, he charts a current of American strategy that has sought to minimise the costs of pursuing strategic aims through (generally) para-military means.

If this was all that the book offered, it would be a valuable addition to military reading lists. But Waldman gently opens the door to a much wider conversation. Specifically, Waldman asserts that vicarious warfare is not a strategy, such as attrition or annihilation; and not an operational concept, such as Blitzkreig or Deep Battle. Instead, for Waldman, vicarious warfare is a sufficiently well-established method of warfare to justify its categorisation as a ‘tradition’ on par with the two other deep rooted traditions; namely conventional warfare (which might be termed a ‘Prussian model of decisive battle’) and ‘Small Wars’ or resistance. This important definitional facet of ‘tradition’ incorporates elements of culture and institutions.

In taking this stance, Waldman’s argument that vicarious warfare is an American “way of war” contrasts with the position of other well-known strategic thinkers such as Colin Gray who describe the ‘American Way of War’ as “sequential, apolitical, firepower-focussed and impatient.”[1]

Like other traditions of warfare, Waldman’s conception of vicarious warfare is not static.  Conventional warfighting experienced a ‘revolution in military affairs’ (RMA) in the post-1991 Gulf War environment. The demonstration of this “hyper-Prussian” way of war, building upon Air-Land Battle doctrine, was only validated with the 2003 Gulf War.  So too, the tradition of resistance is arguably experiencing the ‘other-RMA’ (O-RMA). As observed by Brigadier General Itai Brun of the Israeli Army, O-RMA is particularly relevant to a group of states, including Syria, Iraq and Iran, and a group of non-state entities such as Hizballah, Hamas and Al-Qaeda.  As Brun explains, O-RMA deals with a developing type of warfare characterised by: 

  • “a strong emphasis on the survivability of the fighting forces and other systems …
  • high-trajectory ballistic weapons…
  • the use of weapons and methods of operation that can lead to a high number of casualties among civilians and army forces…
  • media and propaganda efforts vis-à-vis the local population, the opponents’ population and the international community…
  • ‘close battle’… [and]
  • confronting the opponent’s aerial supremacy with the use of active means (aerial defense and attack systems) and passive ones (as part of the entire absorptive effort).”[2]  

In a similar vein, Waldman advances the argument that vicarious warfare is an evolving tradition too. Indeed, from Waldman’s narrative, the emergent concept of vicarious warfare owes much to the RMA / O-RMA dynamic; a result of Americas’ engagement with the vexed challenges of globalised criminal, insurgent and terrorist organisations, and the unrealised promise of technology to lift the ‘fog of war.’  As Waldman explains:  

‘Vicarious warfare is presented here as an emergent third tradition alongside the existing traditions of ‘conventional battle’ and ‘small wars’… [It has] emerged alongside but also, in some important respects, out of these two traditions, borrowing approaches and ideas at their margins but crafting them into an increasingly novel and largely independent tradition of American warfare supported by its own intellectual pedigree and justificatory narratives.” (p. 5)

Following Waldman’s logic, a graphic model of three traditions of war might be constructed in a Venn diagram of overlapping concepts (Figure 1). The ‘blending’ of traditions is shown on the outside of the Venn diagram as indicative positions between the three primary vectors: conventional warfighting, small wars/resistance and vicarious warfare.  

Introducing such a model helps to characterise various nations’ approaches to war, based upon their particular environments, geopolitical contexts and adversary capabilities. Looked at this way, the multiple ‘ways of war’ practiced in American history are not a contradiction.  Rather, the diagram demonstrates how American military culture blends the ethos of its conventional forces (which are steeped in the traditions of conventional warfighting), and its Marine Corps and Special Forces capabilities (deeply familiar with ‘small wars’ of counter-insurgency).  Meanwhile, it acknowledges that the US political establishment has engaged in vicarious warfare over much of its history.

Three circle Venn diagram. Top - Conventional Warfighting (Prussian model of Decisive Battle), Bottom right - 'Small Wars' or Resistance Warfare, Bottom left - Vicarious Warfare (Cost-limiting focus); there are more referenced types of warfare between the main circles.
Figure 1 – Modelling ways of war (Source: A. Maher)

Waldman’s insightful examples and poignant implications have broad relevance to the ADF’s doctrine, training and education structure which are clearly steeped in conventional warfighting tradition. Recent operational experience has exposed ADF personnel to this American form of vicarious warfare, and has challenged the ADF to reconcile adversary concepts of ‘O-RMA’ resistance. The resultant security studies literature in Australia is seemingly replete with writers struggling to rationalise ‘Gerasimov doctrine’, ‘grey zone’ or ‘hybrid warfare’ concepts. A model which blends traditions and experiences of war may support a break-out from this doctrinal malaise.

Vicarious Warfare promises a readily accessible read for security strategists and policy analysts alike, introducing a powerful idea to military and political discourse. Pointing towards the importance of this work, Waldman notes that:

“Conceptualising vicarious warfare as a broader phenomenon and emergent ‘tradition’ of American war, we are able to better appreciate why, despite lacklustre results, it continues to exert a powerful hold over security elites and the wider public.” (p. 207)

The siren’s song that beckons a tradition of vicarious warfare will undoubtedly increase in volume as unmanned weapons platforms are fielded and operational experience in their employment accrues. Understanding the vicarious warfare tradition will be critical as it is emulated, countered and adapted by allies and adversaries alike.

[1] Colin S. Gray, ‘The American Way of War: Critique and Implications,’ in Rethinking the Principles of War, edited by Anthony D. McIvor, (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2005), pp. 27-33. This view is reinforced by Jeffrey Record, The American Way of War: Cultural Barriers to Successful Counterinsurgency, Policy Analysis No. 577, CATO Institute, (1 September 2006).

[2] Brigadier General Itai Brun, ‘’While You’re Busy Making Other Plans’ – The ‘Other RMA’’, The Journal of Strategic Studies, 33:4, (2010), pp. 536-550.

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

Using the Contribute page you can either submit an article in response to this or register/login to make comments.