Leaning back against the HESCO, the smoke from his freshly lit Camel drifted into the Venezuelan night sky. With temperatures nearing the 110s during the day, chain smoking in the night was the closest John was ever going to get to self-care out here in the jungle. Besides escaping the heat, the view was worth staying up; you could see the stars here. Not just stars, but the occasional little blip of red light streaking across the dark expanse. Playing either the role of guardian angel or grim reaper, pilotless drones continuously circled overhead, watching. Always watching. Hunting. At least these were friendly ones, he knew that for certain. If they hadn’t been, he wouldn’t have been able to finish his cig without the impolite interruption of a thermobaric artillery round.

Lighting up another cigarette with the dying ember of the first, he began rubbing his shoulder, stiff for a young man aged by spending too much of his youth in distant foreign countries. This wasn’t his first war. Luck permitting, probably not his last either, especially given how expensive alimony was. As the wars in the Middle East began to cool off (for a bit) everyone had thought that future wars would look like the glory days of the ‘90s, dominated by main battle tanks and ending in quick victories.

This being his twelfth combat tour, that strategic bliss never happened. Given the number of festering conflicts around the globe, the aspirations of a return to “conventional” war looked pretty damn dead. Long-range missiles and air defenses (A2/AD if you went to private school) meant that most foreign soil was practically impenetrable. Countries couldn’t fight good clean wars anymore because most states could comfortably turtle in their borders and trust that no foreign aggressor dare test their defenses. Not to mention, moving armies across continents lost its appeal once the drone swarms started getting good. The conventional war fantasy of the 2010s went out of style quickly once it became apparent that large armies would get wrecked traveling to exotic locales that, even if they made it there, they probably couldn’t force their way into. Could it happen? Sure, but at a high price just for a bloodbath of robots waiting to slip their leash and begin commandeering motorcycles. Large-scale interstate conflict was now a test over who could fabricate the most machines with the lowest latency and cleanest dataset, machine fighting machine for a chance at a mostly symbolic victory.

This didn’t mean that “real” war was over, it just meant it happened on the down low like his ex-wife and her yoga instructor. While the Russians may have been the first to master these ambiguous dirty wars, it didn’t take long for other major powers to follow suit. Hacking elections, dank memes, and little green men got results when divisions of regular soldiers couldn’t. Wars still happened. Constantly. But instead of massing forces on each other’s doorsteps and fretting about 99 luftballons, the superpowers duked it out in the failed state flavor of the day. Perpetual World War III meant that a shifting clique of larger countries was constantly fighting alongside proxies to try and win the future of damaged smaller countries. Victory meant new remote bases, influence, and fodder for memes to drop the day of foreign elections. For the likes of Master Sgt. John Abernathy, these brushfire wars were known simply as “the scrum.” A brawl most of the world didn’t know about to give dudes with Georgetown townhouses talking points to drop at diplomatic negotiations.

He’d been smoking and daydreaming for a while, checking his watch. He knew it was almost game time. One of the Russian advisor geniuses had decided to message some friends via VKontakte so the boys of ODA 7516, 7th Special Forces Group were about to go on a hunting party. Venezuela had been a mess for years, but once the water really dried up and the fighting started, the Russians and Chinese decided they wanted a piece of the action. Alliances shifted like something out of Orwell, but tonight they planned to shatter Russian plans like a Fabergé egg.

As the ODA team sergeant, it was on him to check that his guys (and gal) had gotten their kit together and cloaked up properly. Assembled in a rough huddle in the middle of their outpost, John began to go through a series of deliberate checks while his detachment commander, Rick Tran, hit up higher on the quantum net. Every team member looked vaguely like a B-movie swamp monster, wrapped in fabric designed to defeat the various sensors on the drones above. Beyond camouflage, one of his most important checks was to ensure that everyone’s personal cooling vests were operational. Wearing thick, anti-thermal fabric in the jungle, staying cool took precedence over looking cool.

Beyond the insufferable heat and humidity, there was also some palpable anxiety in the air. Fighting had picked up on both Timor and Madagascar, two of the other theaters in the current stage of this global “cold” war. With negotiations over the future of an independent Balochistan rapidly approaching, SOCOM analysts were concerned that the Russians and Chinese were jockeying to improve their bargaining hand. When fighting picked up in one backwater, it often triggered reactions in the others as part of a global game of 4-D chess.

As soon as Capt. Tran gave the go ahead, the hunting party was off, moving in a staggered column toward the nearby river. After a short hike, the ODA was able to rendezvous with their Venezuelan paramilitary friends who staged at the river with the team’s kayaks. With the Russians suspected of fielding their new “Tugarin” hypersonic air defense system across the country, risk aversion meant that the only friendly assets allowed to fly currently were all unmanned. Kayaks had quickly become the Uber of choice out here. It killed him to think about how much Futures Command spent developing “stealth kayaks” as opposed to just taking a quick trip to Cabela’s.

As the kayaks moved down the river, the adjacent jungle hummed with the sound of wildlife enjoying its respite from the disruption of human conflict. The weight of the warm air and gentle murmur of the adjacent canopy eased John’s nerves as he paddled along the obsidian water. Surrendering to his thoughts, he had to admit he was tired. Tired of now having been to more countries in his Army career than states back home. Tired of being constantly told he was going to be replaced by a robot, released to a desk job in an air-conditioned office at Bragg, but never seeing that materialize. Tired of missing his kids’ birthdays and forgetting which emojis meant they were secretly mad at him. He was here, he was paddling, but he was tired of his time in the scrum.

Approaching their drop-off point, his alertness had perked up again. So far, neither he nor the ruggedized iPhone on his forearm had detected any Russian UAV activity. This made him almost suspicious; the Russkies liked to fly them nearly constantly. Large swarms were rare in these warzones—too much of a tell of a major power’s involvement and dangerously escalatory. Instead, their preferred method of fighting was to just unleash autonomous drones individually and give them free rein to call in artillery on anything their software deemed to be a likely target. Ranging from Cadillac upper-atmosphere platforms to nearly invisible quadcopters, it was still hard to escape their lethal panopticon. While the camouflage and occasional electronic misdirection allowed the ODAs to conduct operations, seeing nothing above was a little unnerving.

After disembarking and concealing the kayaks, the ODA began to move toward their objective on foot. With the threat of GPS or radios being geolocated, the team moved in digital silence, with their point man Russo guiding the team using an inertial navigation watch. While it was a decently long movement, they were covering ground much faster than usual without their Venezuelan counterparts, who remained with the kayaks. Most of the action in Venezuela, like the other scrum hotspots, was via proxy. With dozens of groups fighting in loose coalitions claiming to represent the legitimate government, there was no shortage of potential proxies here. ODAs like theirs had returned to unconventional warfare—training, arming, and embedding with locals to empower them to eventually own the fight. With tonight’s mission being treated as particularly sensitive by their command, the locals were limited to Kayak assistance duty.

After finally reaching their rally point, the ODA began making final preparations to hit their objective. Tran broke their digital silence, sending up a SITREP via the quantum, while their designated UAS operator Omotayo began prepping a micro-drone. After a couple of attempts, it became apparent that the Russians were jamming everything in the area. With waypoint navigation deemed too risky and larger ISR platforms wary of detection, they would have to hit this target largely blind.

Their manual recon showed a small, seemingly empty compound, more fitting a narco lord than a mercenary army. After Putin’s heart attack—under clearly suspicious circumstances—the Russian kleptocracy took greater direct control of the levers of Russian power and began outsourcing most of their sensitive foreign operations to state-affiliated mercenary conglomerates. Despite being used to increase ambiguity and maintain some deniability, most of these outfits were far from subtle. They liked designer equipment, a ready supply of booze, and contracts stipulating hotel-level amenities. They were, however, disciplined about personal electronics, an unusual breach of which had brought this encounter to fruition.

After Tran, their warrant Ramirez, and John were satisfied with their sight picture, the team began to move on their target. Their intelligence indicated that this was an additive manufacturing fabrication lab, used to constantly replace the cheaper Russian drones that American countermeasures swatted down. Kill or capture any hostiles, destroy the printers, snag anything that might yield further intelligence. One last kinetic operation for the ODA before redeploying back to the states. Simple and clean.

The only observable enemy combatants were some local militiamen smoking near a crude roadblock down the road from the compound. Kapoor and Backus were able to silence them without issue. Interestingly, there was nothing to indicate that any of their equipment was actually from Russian advisors. Their weapons were of Chinese origin, grenades were Turkish, and magazines looked like they were probably American. This war was as cosmopolitan as it was charmless, like a beer-tasting at Epcot.

Advancing on the main compound, the team detected no other immediate signs of life, even under the thermals. Taking a knee in one of the peripheral buildings, John was able to track individual team members from sensors mounted in their rifles. Looking at the scratched screen on his iPhone, he could see the dancing chevrons of ODA soldiers as they proceeded to systematically clear the compound’s buildings. As time crept on, the icons made their waltz throughout the compound seemingly unimpeded. John’s adrenaline nerves began to settle, but a new sense of uneasiness began to emerge. Their SIGINT had been consistently accurate so the relative calm signaled either an unprecedented error or an ominous change in the fabric of the scrum.

Before he could finish contemplating the situation, Ramirez urgently beckoned him over to the largest building in the compound. Walking over briskly, he noted immediately that this building was unique against the backdrop of its dilapidated surroundings. Entering the breached metal door, it had the laboratory feel that always came with print labs. With 3-D printers lining the walls like idols to the religion of technological progress, it seemed like this was genuinely their target after all. But unlike the Russian labs that teams had encountered before, this one was devoid of the ruggedized shipping cases that often doubled as a facility’s furniture. Glancing around, there was no indication it was intended to fabricate weapons at all.

Looking very concerned, Ramirez gestured to come and see the contents of the adjacent room. Expecting it to be the smoking gun, a pallet of killer robots awaiting their turn to haunt the skies, the actual sight was even more shocking. Instead, the room contained what looked like a biomedical laboratory with two men in lab coats on the floor, recently shot to death.

They didn’t look like Russian mercs. They didn’t look like combatants at all. As John looked around at the ODA members who cleared the room, the nervous and uncertain glances that met his eyes indicated that they weren’t the ones who shot them. He knelt to examine one of the ID tags affixed to a lab coat. They seemed to be local doctors. Looking up from that vantage point, John realized that in the upper corner of the room was a small camera, recording them.

It took several hours for the gravity of the situation to reveal itself. It had been a trap from the beginning. The trail of intelligence breadcrumbs had led them right to where the Russians could record them. Having presumably dumped the bodies immediately before the team’s arrival, the camera captured a scene of American operators seemingly raiding a biomedical 3-D print lab. While the video didn’t capture any actual shooting, the images of Americans standing over dead aid workers were sufficiently damning by themselves. It had been an ambush, decisively engaging them with Russia’s most casualty-producing weapon: information.

Just in time for the Balochistan negotiations, the Russians had new ammunition to blast across the news cycle. While American diplomats and press secretaries worked to repudiate the implication that US forces had committed a war crime, the Russian messaging strategy was working. It didn’t have to be true, it just had to fit a narrative well enough to go viral. With the video confirmed as real footage (as opposed to the abundant deepfakes that circulated) and conspiracy theories eclipsing official responses, the damage was irreparable. While the engines of American power churned at full volume to try and contain the fallout, the Russians walked into the final round of talks unhindered by a resolute United States.

Back in his spot, leaning against the HESCO, and with the heat of mid-morning inching in, John was in his head again. A perfectly executed operation meant nothing. Their consistent professionalism and restraint, to the rest of the world, meant nothing. The fact that they were originally set to go home, meant nothing. This was the scrum, the new state of the world. One night went bad, and wars on the other side of the globe might be lost. Taking a long drag of his last cigarette, everything else began to fade away. All John could think about was how he would find a way home eventually.

Capt. Andrew Shaughnessy is an Army field artillery officer currently serving as an advisor with 4th Battalion, 5th SFAB based at Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington. He commissioned through ROTC at Georgetown University and previously served in 3rd BCT, 101st Airborne Division.

The author would like to extend his appreciation to Carlin Keally for her invaluable assistance in reviewing and editing this story.

The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.

Image credit: Cristóbal Alvarado Minic (adapted by MWI)