#Reviewing Ghost Fleet: The Successes (and Shortcomings) of Informed Fiction and Strategy

Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War. P.W. Singer and August Cole. Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015.

The field of strategy has, in recent times, encountered what some might call the catalyst for a renaissance. The Strategy Bridge itself has given voice to a new, diversified breadth of thinkers with the ability to communicate to new segments of the military, public, and policy-making communities. The military community is embracing innovation in new and exciting ways. Sure, there will always be talk of the next offset technology, but initiatives like Secretary of Defense Ash Carter’s “Force of the Future” hope to drive that innovation through the individual servicemember. Lastly, in a world that continually prioritizes numbers and quantification, there has been a recent surge in the use of creative elements in the field of strategy.

One of the programs that utilizes creative elements with the end goal of strategic insight is the Art of Future Warfare Project, sponsored by the Atlantic Council and led by August Cole. The project, broken into subject-matter blocks, uses individuals inside and outside the national security community (including yours truly) to discuss modern and future conflicts with insight from a multitude of creative angles. Having encountered the project before I finally placed a complete, marked-up copy of Ghost Fleet on my desk, I encountered few surprises.

The novel is the first full-length work of literature from Cole and P.W. Singer. Much like Cole, Singer’s background is equally impressive for a thinker in national security issues. Currently, Singer works as a Strategist and Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation. Previously, he has served in a number of roles dedicated towards modern conflict both in public and private realms.

Not unlike a great number of modern-day video games, Ghost Fleet details a future world war. With that fact in mind, the work is undoubtedly one of fiction, only confirmed by its disclaimer at the beginning saying as much. However, I simply wouldn’t be doing my job to leave it there.

It’s an entirely different and more impressive exercise, however, to look just one step beyond current capabilities…

After all, it’s one thing to dream up a future conflict that takes place in unearthly environments with extraterrestrial beings and dropships. It’s equally reasonable to detail World War III in the form of an all-out nuclear war — one that leaves the irradiated foundations of buildings and windswept plains where there were once cities. It’s an entirely different and more impressive exercise, however, to look just one step beyond current capabilities — taking into account geopolitical realities and bleeding-edge technologies — and generating a believable depiction of the next great military crisis.

In this sense, Cole and Singer perform the quite literally far-sighted and insightful task in a way few have or could have accomplished before this point. Due to the pair’s background, I hope that my taking of the small hop from fiction to, at the very least, informed fiction is justified. When considering the work in this way, Singer and Cole flesh out a number of key issues and concepts that would, in fact, be at the forefront of policy-makers’ and generals’ minds in the next great war. The fact that this book is, at its core, a work of fiction only benefits the writers who can paint a more comprehensive and intimate picture of the decision-making process and broader effects of such issues.

Where the Book Succeeds

Warfare has always been linked to technology. There is little doubt that technology will continue to influence warfare well into the future. In recent times, technology has even played a role in the definition of threats to the United States. I won’t launch into an argument debating the merits and shortcomings of a “cyber Thucydides’ trap,” but the fact of the matter is that it is no longer unreasonable to see conflict escalation rooted in actions taking place in cyberspace. Technological superiority is something that can no longer be taken for granted by first world nations.

It’s no wonder, for that reason, that the theme of technology pervades the heart of Ghost Fleet. One of the most exciting aspects of the use of technology in the book is not the absolute creativity or ingenuity of each technology used, but the use of past, current, and future technologies and their interactions with one another on the battlefield.

Commanders, enlisted soldiers, and insurgents alike display an acute awareness of tactics and strategy, undoubtedly stemming from the experiences of the authors.

Unlike many of their contemporaries, the authors don’t fall into the strategic trap of blindly following technology wherever it may lead. Technology is not an omnipotent force in the world of Ghost Fleet and this fact is effectively used not only as a plot device, but also as a realistic indication of what could very well occur in future conflicts. Occasionally, some technologies strain the believability of the scene surrounding their use, but these items are typically tempered in functionality and do not detract from the promise of the larger plot.

Furthermore, the authors’ background as thinkers in 21st-century conflict shines through in the depiction of specific battles over the course of World War III. Commanders, enlisted soldiers, and insurgents alike display an acute awareness of tactics and strategy, undoubtedly stemming from the experiences of the authors. When combined with the superb use of battlefield technology, there’s a richness of conflict scenes that isn’t typically found in comparable works.

Is a Book Just a Book?

As I alluded to in the introduction, Ghost Fleet disclaims itself as anything more than a work of fiction. However, that does not necessarily undermine the value of such a work in the strategic field. Even now, those who are considered the “old guard” of strategists do not discount abstract or creative fields in their relevance to the field of military science. After all, it was Mahan who stated in his inaugural essay as the President of U.S. Naval Institute regarding the training of officers that:

“[he] scarcely [thinks he] can err in assigning to the foremost place moral power…no amount of mental caliber, far less any mere knowledge, can compensate for a deficiency in moral force in [his] profession.”

This moral force wasn’t something that came from a solid backing in engineering, geography, or the host of other technical specialties relevant in a military education, but by a solid backing in the humanities.

With this fact in mind, it’s not such a far leap to consider the combination of the humanities and realistic elements of technology, international relations, and the military to hold a relevant place in the minds of strategic thinkers. Of course, an examination of this way of thinking must first be prefaced by the fact that this is, at its core, a work of popular fiction. In some ways, this fact is particularly noticeable. At times, these concessions made in the name of broad relevance work in favor of the reader’s enjoyment. Other times, however, they detracted from the larger work.

The most notable of these concessions is within the characters found in the work. By and large, the characters in Ghost Fleet fit within archetypal roles common in works of popular military fiction, or even popular media in general. For someone whose favorite works have largely stemmed from a richness found within characters, this was a difficult point to reconcile.

However, due to my interest in the overarching subject of the work, I could temper this sentiment. After all, it is well-known that some of our most cherished authors have lacked in the development of certain characters, but made up for it in the comparatively well thought-out plots (the women of some of Hemingway’s works come to mind). Whether it is by describing U.S.-based counterinsurgency efforts or by the use of the futuristic Zumwalt-class, Cole and Singer take no issue with showing off their knowledge of modern-day conflict, and I mean that in the best possible manner.

Finding My Mental Footing

Ghost Fleet is a great many things for a person with a keen interest in strategy. It does, after all, detail the entirety of a World War, leaving few stones unturned in specific pieces of the conflict. For some, including myself, this fact alone is enough to make the book an absolute pleasure to read. It contains much of the same storytelling as a work by someone like Tom Clancy, but with an intensity, depth of knowledge, and vision infrequently found in those books. It is an expansive work in its scope, and one that will undoubtedly retain its relevance for years to come.

It is an expansive work in its scope, and one that will undoubtedly retain its relevance for years to come.

However, the book, from a literary perspective, is not perfect. While its strength lies in the multitude of factors stemming from the authors’ backgrounds, this very same thing might turn-off the average reader, particularly when combined with the fact that certain general elements of literature are lacking. I will leave that judgment to more popular, well-versed critics.

After all, Ghost Fleet is an enjoyable book. It is a fun book. What’s more, it is an insightful and prescient book, without forcing the reader to ever acknowledge that fact. Sure, it suffers, as many popular works do, with things that literary critics will nitpick over. But if there’s one thing that’s been made abundantly clear to me over the course of reading the work and discussing it with colleagues, it’s that Cole and Singer have accomplished the difficult feat of merging knowledge with storytelling, insight with invention.

Adin Dobkin is a national security and defense technology analyst. He currently splits his time between Capitol Hill and the management of a non-profit policy organization, the Kant Institute. Adin is also the Communications Director for the Military Writers Guild. The views represented in this article are his alone and do not represent the views of his employers.

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