If the whole United States active-duty military, excepting strategic nuclear weapons, disappeared tomorrow in a puff of smoke, would Americans be less secure, more secure, or about the same? That the answer is not self-evident points to the biggest military secret of our time: conventional armed forces are following the knight’s road.

Knights in shining armor lasted for several centuries after they had become militarily obsolete. In fact, the armor got ever more splendid (and expensive). What was it for? Show. It was worn for tournaments, which remained a popular form of entertainment at court. It was donned for portraits of kings and noblemen well into the 17th century. To the public, nothing said “military might” quite so loudly as a parade of men in beautifully engraved and ornamented suits of armor.

My city of Cleveland, Ohio was honored by just such a grand entertainment in early June in the form of “Marine Week.” Each year, the Marine Corps picks a lucky city to host it. Uniformed Marines, all looking good, paraded about the town. Public Square was full of tanks, artillery pieces, and Light Armored Vehicles. Fighter planes screamed overhead, and for the grand finale the Marines did a full amphibious assault on Burke Lakefront Airport. Cleveland enjoyed the Marines, and to judge by those I talked to, the Marines enjoyed Cleveland.

But against non-state opponents, those Marines are 0-4. They, along with the rest of our armed services, lost in Lebanon, Somalia, Iraq, and Afghanistan, a war that is decided if not yet over.

Real wars with important outcomes are now fought and won by ragtag militias, gangs, and tribes. They fight not for raison d’état but for God, honor, loot, tribal pride, women—war’s age-old, pre-state causes. They define the Fourth Generation of modern war.

In a fair fight, the U.S. Marines would beat any of them, except perhaps Hezbollah. But what we think of as fair fights are jousting contests, tank against tank, fighter plane against fighter plane, preferably staged where we get it on video for the folks back home. Of course we want jousting contests: we’re knights. Not being knights, nor possessing suits of armor, the forces of the Fourth Generation avoid them. We are left to tilt at windmills—or Burke Lakefront Airport.

Military theorists began to perceive this change in the conduct of war, the greatest since the state asserted a monopoly over conflict in the Peace of Westphalia of 1648, sometime in the late 1980s and early ’90s. As usual, Washington didn’t get it—and still won’t talk about it. But subtle signs suggest that the Establishment is slowly coming to recognize reality.

One such sign, a phenomenon for which we should all give thanks, is a growing reluctance to commit the U.S. military to overseas conflicts. (This applies more to the Army and Marine Corps than the Navy and Air Force, but the latter are irrelevant to Fourth Generation war.) Reasons include cost and fear of casualties, but the biggest reason may be the one that is never spoken: the Establishment knows we will almost certainly lose.

Another sign is the push to open all positions in the military to women. The Army recently decided to allow women to serve in some jobs in infantry battalions, though not the infantry itself—yet. The Marine Corps now lets women attend Infantry Officers School, even though there are no infantry billets for them when they graduate—yet. No state that took its military seriously as a fighting force, as opposed to an “equal opportunity” jobs program, would put women in combat units. Not only does their presence damage unit cohesion, which is vital for military effectiveness, but in combat the men will abandon the mission to protect the women. Of course, if the armed forces are really just for putting on displays, why not have women?

The almost total orientation of U.S. defense policy toward equipment also points to an unconscious acceptance of military irrelevance. As the first slide from the briefing of the congressional Military Reform Caucus in the 1980s said, “For winning in combat, people are most important, ideas come second, and hardware is only third.” That reflects the lessons of history. But on Capitol Hill, in the White House, and in the Pentagon, equipment comes first, people are a long way second, and ideas about war aren’t even on the list. That is one reason why we keep doing the same things over and over, even though they never work.

That fact points in turn to what may be the clearest sign that our armed services are following the knight’s road: a failure to reform. The Military Reform Caucus said its goal was reform without defeat. Left unspoken was the assumption that defeat would bring reform. But we have suffered one defeat after another, and within the Establishment there is not so much as a whisper about military reform. What could say more clearly that our armed forces no longer exist to fight and win wars?

And so Cleveland and other fortunate cities enjoy Marine Week. The tournament was splendid. It left all the gawkers well entertained. But I couldn’t help thinking about the time the commander of the Strategic Air Command invited me to lunch in his Pentagon office. He was the rarest of birds in jobs like his, a realist. He asked me, “What the hell am I supposed to do with 18 B-2 bombers?” I replied, “Tow them around to county fairs and charge admission.” Have we reached the point where that is all our active-duty forces, except the nukes that keep the peace, are good for?

William S. Lind is director of the American Conservative Center for Public Transportation.