Gaza, Ukraine, Syria, the Central African Republic. Given the ongoing violence in those parts of the world, the name given to World War I at the time—the war to end all wars—could hardly feel more ironic a century later. And Steven Pinker’s recent thesis that humanity is becoming less violent, articulated in 2011’s The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, seems increasingly counterintuitive. But it’s beyond dispute that the United States continues to devote considerable resources and thought to its military. The lessons to be drawn from recent conflicts, and to be applied to future ones, are the focus of a number of forthcoming books, including two by former high-ranking, and high-profile, members of the U.S. military establishment.

Gen. Tony Zinni’s credentials lend weight to Before the First Shots Are Fired: How America Can Win or Lose Off the Battlefield, which he co-authored with Tony Koltz (Palgrave Macmillan, Sept.). Zinni, a past commander-in-chief of U.S. Central Command, or CENTCOM, and a special envoy to Israel and the Palestinians under George W. Bush, pulls no punches in his critique of the campaigns launched by his former boss, writing that in “Iraq and Afghanistan we have seen too many mistakes that eerily remind us of Vietnam. And we also hear similar excuses.”

Zinni is not optimistic about the changes he believes are needed to bridge what he sees as a widening gap between political and military leadership. “Decisions need to be made on a strategic basis, not on the basis of what resources flow into a congressman’s district,” Zinni says, not that pork projects will disappear any time soon.

He links that lack of a strategic approach to national security to a wider societal phenomenon: “America is a transactional society that mostly just deals with the here and now.” From his perspective, even the catastrophes of the U.S.’s last two wars have not been shocking enough to convince the country to choose a smarter path.

Zinni is hardly alone in considering Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom disastrous. Jack Fairweather, a veteran foreign correspondent for the Daily Telegraph and the Washington Post, has written The Good War: Why We Couldn’t Win the War or the Peace in Afghanistan (Basic Books, Nov.). His gripping and detailed narrative, based on upwards of 400 interviews with more than 100 main players, offers fact after depressing fact—for example, of the $100 billion of American aid for the Afghan people, “only an estimated 15 percent of this money reached the intended recipients.” Fairweather breaks new ground with a number of assertions that challenge conventional wisdom, such as a reappraisal of Afghan president Hamid Karzai, long blamed by Washington for the war’s failings: “I suggest that one of the West’s major errors was to ignore his advice early on.”

Fairweather may also make headlines with his sections on why Gen. David Petraeus escalated the conflict against the recommendations of his advisers or the bizarre stories about the time “the U.K. unwittingly helped Osama bin Laden escape, and the CIA efforts to win over their enemies with Viagra.” And for those who hold firm to their vilification of former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Fairweather asserts that he was “right all along when it came to Afghanistan—the U.S. military should [have] stay[ed] clear of nation-building and entanglement in the country,” and goes on to tell how Rumsfeld was lured into changing his mind and supporting the military’s engagement in nonmilitary objectives.

Perhaps most notably, Fairweather contradicts the accepted wisdom that the failure of Western effort in Afghanistan is due to a lack of resources and manpower, and that Iraq distracted the Bush administration at a critical time. He writes, “In fact, Afghanistan had plenty of funding—the problem was it was being spent on overheads for the international humanitarian mission, rather than given to the Afghan government to spend.”

One Million Steps: A Marine Platoon at War by Bing West (Random House, Sept.) complements Fairweather’s journalistic assessment. West, too, has worked as a reporter, but his résumé also includes service as a combat Marine in Vietnam and a stint as assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs in the Reagan administration. His book views the Afghan war through the lens of 50 Marines in the third platoon of Kilo Company—half of whom did not return home—whose experiences he considers to be emblematic of the wider conflict: “determined grunts pursuing a failed strategy that put American lives at unnecessary risk.”

The title derives from the two-and-a-half-mile circuit the platoon patrolled every day for six months—a total of one million steps. West offers a chilling look at the futility of the Marines’ mission. “They patrolled the poppy fields until no Taliban dared to shoot at them. But once the Marines left, the Taliban again took over the district.”

West regards the widely lauded counterinsurgency strategy named after Petraeus as “bankrupt” and a doctrine that “our future leaders must understand to avoid repeating. Sending Marines into places like Sangin, expecting that the population and the Afghan army would then hold what the Marines dearly gained was an illusion.” West also accuses the generals in command of “persisting with a nation-building strategy they knew was not working and wasn’t necessary to keep out al-Qaeda.”

John Nagl, a retired lieutenant colonel who coauthored the military’s counterinsurgency field manual with General Petraeus, understandably presents a different view of the “surge” strategy in Knife Fights: An Education in Modern War (Penguin, Oct.). Nagl’s assertion that the U.S.’s greatest future threats will come from asymmetric warfare made him an outsider in the Army. He had the opportunity to put his ideas about counterinsurgency to the test when he was deployed to a particularly unsettled quadrant of Iraq. Despite his belief in the value of counterinsurgency for today’s U.S. military, he notes that “when it comes to war, there are only bad choices; the question is only which ones are better and which worse.”

Nagl believes that the American people would be “surprised that the U.S. military is deeply wedded to a conception of war that is increasingly irrelevant to the kind of wars we are actually fighting and are likely to fight in the future.” He notes that “[t]he military is organized, trained, and equipped to fight conventional war against other states with tanks, ships, and airplanes—but hasn’t fought a war like that since Desert Storm. We’re already turning away from the hard-fought capability in small wars that we’ve purchased at such a high price. This is a mistake we’ve made before; shame on us for doing it again.”

Dan Bolger, commanding general of the combined security transition command in Afghanistan and commander of the NATO training mission in Afghanistan, offers his take in Why We Lost: A General’s Inside Account of the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars (HMH, Nov.). Reforming U.S. military strategy is also the focus of The Right Way to Lose a War: America in an Age of Unwinnable Conflicts by Dominic Tierney (Little, Brown, Feb.).

2004 presidential candidate Gen. Wesley K. Clark also has an impressive military résumé that will make his book, Don’t Wait for the Next War: A Strategy for American Growth and Global Leadership (PublicAffairs, Sept.), a catalyst for serious debate. As the supreme allied commander in Europe, Clark led NATO in the 1999 war in Kosovo, and he retired from the U.S. Army as a four-star general. He is less concerned about whether the U.S. would prevail in the next war than in creating a reality in which national policy is not crisis-driven. Clark writes, “America has a hard time with long-term strategy. In the past it’s taken war to bring America together to work strategically. But we cannot afford to wait for war today—the challenges are too pressing.” His list of those challenges, which include “terrorism, cybersecurity, financial system stability, the ascendance of China, global climate change,” is certainly daunting, and Clark is under no illusions as to the very real obstacles to solving them, such as the U.S. national debt and the bitterly partisan political landscape. For him, national security is vitally connected with nonmilitary objectives, such as a rejuvenated economy, which he views as a prerequisite for getting a handle on the issues confronting America.

Contracts for America

The September 11, 2012, attack on the U.S. diplomatic compound in Benghazi, Libya, continues to loom large in the American consciousness. 13 Hours: The Inside Account of What Really Happened in Benghazi by Mitchell Zuckoff in collaboration with the Annex Security Team (Hachette/Twelve, embargoed until Sept. 9) offers personal accounts of the attack told by the five surviving contract operators who fought to repel the attackers.

At one point in Iraq and Afghanistan, private contractor casualties exceeded those of the armed forces. That surprising fact comes from the Wall Street Journal’s Ann Hagedorn’s The Invisible Soldiers: How America Outsourced Our Security (Simon & Schuster, Sept.), one of two major books that examine the growth in the use of private military contractors. Hagedorn reveals “America’s increasing reliance on private firms for its security both domestically and internationally.” In its most disturbing sections, the book shows that, although the U.S. played a major role in the proliferation of these companies, some of which are multibillion-dollar enterprises, “they do not belong to America and have effectively become global wild cards.”

Hagedorn’s book tackles the broader implications. She believes that “the shaping and development of this industry highlights major shifts we are witnessing globally—such as changes in the conduct of war, the shift in strategies from military missions to security operations, and, by some accounts, the fading of the nation state.” She cautions, “If a nation becomes dependent on the private sector for its defense and security, as we have, then policies are inevitably influenced by the fact that such on-call companies exist. Part of the danger is the emergence of defense policies that could be shaped by the profit motives of the well-connected private sector.”

Money’s not the only reason reliance on these companies can increase the chances of conflict, Hagedorn continues: “There is a psychological cost to privatizing a nation’s defense and security. The more the citizens of a nation are removed from the job of its defense and do not see the ramifications of war, including all casualties in any given conflict, the easier it is for policy makers to engage the nation in conflicts.”

Sean McFate worked in Africa for just such a private contractor, DynCorp International, and he relates his experiences in The Modern Mercenary: Private Armies and What They Mean for World Order (Oxford Univ. Press, Aug.). McFate warns that the world is at a crossroads, and that “left on autopilot the industry may morph into a situation similar to medieval Italy of perpetual contract war.”

And as if questionable U.S. strategies—and results—in its last two major wars, and the trend toward outsourcing national defense aren’t disturbing enough, Foreign Policy senior writer Shane Harris weighs in with @War: The Rise of the Military-Internet Complex (HMH/Eamon Dolan, Nov.).

As the subtitle indicates, the object of President Eisenhower’s fears has evolved with the times. With cyberspace now viewed as the fifth domain of warfare, and with the vast majority of computer networks privately owned, a “military-Internet complex” that makes the defense against cyber assaults from countries such as China a cooperative venture has emerged. Harris writes, “The military-Internet complex is like the military-industrial complex articulated by Eisenhower insofar as the government has always outsourced national security to some degree. But the government has always had a monopoly on the use of force. And that’s where the military-Internet complex takes a screaming turn off the road of history. Corporations’ intelligence-gathering capabilities today are as good as if not better than the [U.S.] government’s.”

Those superior capacities raise concerns that go a step beyond Hagedorn’s fears. According to Harris, “companies will not only defend their networks.

Today, cybersecurity professionals are debating about whether they can legally ‘hack back’ at foreign intruders and the governments that employ them. There’s a growing cadre of cyber mercenaries working for big U.S. companies, protecting their networks and their proprietary data, and in some cases selling cyber weapons to the highest bidder.” He predicts, chillingly, that the “first major exchange of cyber weapons won’t be between nations, but will result from one U.S. company’s cyber mercenaries attacking another government, either in retaliation for an attack like the one we saw by Iran on U.S. bank websites in 2012, or to retrieve stolen intellectual property from spies, likely in China or Russia.”

Harris also believes that it will take a major cyber attack in the United States to focus the attention of lawmakers and the administration onto our cybersecurity vulnerabilities. “We’re going to have a 9/11 kind of moment, where a big attack that all the experts said was coming forces new, sweeping laws. And history tells us that those laws will go too far, will be bluntly designed, and will end up causing collateral damage to civil liberties that we’ll be dealing with for years.”

In assessing the range of viewpoints on where the U.S. military is today and where it is headed, perhaps Nagl summarizes it best: “There are no guarantees in war except that it will be longer and harder than you think, and will have unforeseen consequences for generations to come.”

Check out our full fall announcements listing of military titles here.