Image of Image of “Where the Wild Things Are” (by Maurice Sendak) courtesy of Muddying The Waters.

By Major Matt Cavanaugh

For some, this title might seem a bit strange – what could anyone learn about war from a three year old?  I’d categorize those people as “non-parents.”  Anyone who has regularly faced a small child knows that there are direct parallels between child-rearing and human conflict.  And, though the Spartans started training at the age of seven, our daughter has taught my wife and I a lifetime of lessons on war and strategy at the relatively advanced age of three.  Here are a few, in no particular order: 

1. If you do not pick the right battles, you will lose.

Sometimes, her will is greater than ours – as with anything pertaining to her “blanky” (AKA “blanket”).  Tony Stark doesn’t care as much about his Iron Man suit’s power source than my daughter does about that blue rag.

2. Strategies of exhaustion.

Fabius couldn’t slow down scooter traffic at an old folks home compared to our daughter; Ho Chi Minh would look impatient next to her.  Or, as the Taliban likes to say, my wife and I may have the watches (and wallets), but our daughter has the time (and our money).

3. The nature of terrorism.

Children often perform conversation terrorism. Like a grenade, they roll into the middle of a stimulating conversation, indiscriminately throwing shrapnel at innocent bystanders.  This detonation often induces mental paralysis in adults; victims typically survive if medevac’d to naptime within the “golden hour.”

4. Countering (and losing to) an insurgency.

No material resources, just loads of soft power and will.  As an insurgent who sometimes employs terrorism and criminal enterprise, our daughter could be classified as a hybrid threat.  Later in life, I can envision having roughly the same conversation with my daughter that Colonel Harry Summers had with a Vietnamese counterpart in 1975. Our version: “You know, you never defeated your mother and I.”  She’d ponder the statement and respond as the Vietnamese officer did: “That may be so but it is also irrelevant.” In this version of the dialogue, the Melians usually win.

5. War is an instrument of policy.

I’ve literally been madder at our daughter than I was at an insurgent firing an RPG at me in Iraq.  With the insurgent, I thought: “well, he’s just doing his job.”  With her, it’s personal.  Much as I want to yell, Clausewitz directs us to subordinate the passions of the battlefield to the policy objective.  We want to develop a happy, healthy, positive contributor to society; cursing at her would work against this.

6. Explosive Ordinance Disposal?  Bunch of sissies.

Let me tell you: the things I’ve done.  The things I’ve seen.  What I’ve gotten on me.  Toys or feces, take your pick; as at Shiloh, you could walk across my living room without touching the ground.  While potty training, my wife and I took to calling our bathroom “The Hurt Locker.” And we do it all without those giant protective suits.

7. War is non-linear.

Like the battlefield, children are inherently unpredictable. In both, 1+1 = apple.  Time does not function as expected either, particularly when cleaning a blown out diaper.

8. All life is now impacted by friction.

Clausewitz did his best to define “friction” in war as the “force that makes the apparently easy so difficult.”  However, if I had to teach this concept to a student, I wouldn’t assign Clausewitz’s book, On War.  I’d tell him to take my kid to Target to buy some dental floss, crayons, and a pair of pink socks (Why pink? Because, really, “Is there another kind?”).  By the time he gets home – if he gets home – he’ll have a PhD in “friction.”

9.  The paradoxical nature of strategy.

Edward Luttwak famously described the logic of strategy as paradoxical.  For example, a “good” road is “bad” due to the very fact that it is a “good” road (as the enemy will anticipate this).  Or, what worked today on the battlefield will not work tomorrow precisely because it worked today.  Similarly, for example, a recent book title on the paradox of parenting: All Joy and No Fun.  My description? I prefer “blissful inconvenience.”

10. The nature of allied relationships.

I love my wife with every fiber of my being, and we have a mutual interest in raising our daughter.  Still, cracks inevitably develop in what is obviously the closest allied relationship I’ll ever have. How will this ever work with a bunch of French guys?

11. Airpower matters…

Airpower in parenting is the ability to properly affix an iPad to the seat in front of you while on a long flight.  As with airstrikes, it may not be permanent, but it matters significantly (especially to those within the blast radius, or, that dude in 22A).

12. But landpower decides.

To paraphrase JC Wylie, the ultimate determinant is the parent on the scene with the binky. This parent is the final power. This is control. This is who wins.

13. Deterrence works…sometimes…though I can’t prove it.

Deterrence is discouragement through fear; some blend of capability, credibility, and communication.  And there’s the problem – communicating with a three year old. In fact, I’m not sure we speak the same language: she occassionally lapses into barking threats like a North Korean general (until we feed her).

14. The Era of Persistent Conflict.

As with much in the sad, tragic history of war, our daughter shares the same geography yet has radically different interests (like breakfast popsicles).  In this contest, though, there will be no tidy surrender ceremony on a ship. Assuming the combatants health, this may be a second Hundred Years War.

15. Opportunities for heroism abound.

My wife deserves a Medal of Honor – Sal Giunta would have winced if he had seen her pregnant and refusing painkillers that might harm the baby while undergoing emergency root canal.  Together, we’ve walked into the “valley of death” – baby immunizations at the doctor’s office. This is the functional equivalent of Leonidas at Thermopylae, where the best outcome includes blood and a lot of screaming. This was our “crowded hour”; we went through the “storm of spittle,” were baptized in drool and snot, and came out steel.

16. War made our family, and our family makes war.

As an Army officer, I live an itinerant existence that enabled me to meet a ballerina in San Francisco. Loosely interpreted – war made my family. Like a deployment, this is an incredibly meaningful experience, full of hard work, and you gain a sense that your life matters more to others than it ever has before. We’re all in a foxhole together (most of the time). We really count on each other; we are inseparable.  And, though I may not have an interest in cloth diapering – cloth diapering has an interest in me.

Maybe that’s why I can’t wait for our second daughter to be born in October?