David Barno and Nora Bensahel

Jan 8, 2021

Adaptation Under Fire

How Militaries Change in Wartime

Oxford University Press 2020

Few human enterprises are as complex, dynamic, and unpredictable as war. Armed conflict substitutes the relatively ordered reality of peace with the undeniably chaotic reality of combat. Militaries, by design, seek to make sense of and prepare for that chaos. And as long as there have been organized militaries, there have been military officers, theorists, and observers, like Ardant du Pique or B.H. Liddell Hart, who sought to predict the fundamental nature of the next war. But as Lieutenant General David Barno and Dr. Nora Bensahel observe in Adaptation Under Fire: How Militaries Change in Wartime (Oxford University Press, 2020), anticipating the complexities, subtitles, and character of the next war is no simple task. Warfare has a nasty habit of confounding pre-war assumptions and rendering impotent cherished pre-war doctrines, technologies, and leaders.

To successfully contend with warfare’s radical shifts and rampant unknowns, Barno and Bensahel argue, modern militaries need to be adaptable. They must build an adaptive capacity within their doctrine, cultivate an adaptive approach to technological implementation, and—perhaps most importantly—inculcate an adaptive mindset in their tactical, theater, and institutional leadership. Such adaptive capability, Barno and Bensahel contend, will only grow in importance as the resurgence in great power conflict, the effects of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and the expansion of warfare into space and cyberspace radically reshape the threat environment of the 21st Century.

Whether or not the modern United States military is adaptable enough to face and overcome these threats remains an open question—one that Barno and Bensahel seek to answer. Drawing upon a wealth of examples from the conflicts of the 20th century, Adaptation Under Fire powerfully illustrates what successful and unsuccessful adaptation looks like in relation to military doctrine, technology, and leadership. History, of course, is not predictive. Bensahel and Barno, however, deftly wield its analytic potential, revealing the factors that contribute to a potent adaptive capability, as well as the ways in which those factors manifest or fail to manifest within the United States military today. Lucidly argued and perspicacious in its diagnosis and prescriptions, Adaptation Under Fire makes a compelling argument for adaptability as a core competency in the modern United States military.

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Scott Lipkowitz

Scott Lipkowitz holds a MA in History, with a concentration in military history, and a MLIS, with a concentration in information technology, from Queens College, City University of New York

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