#Reviewing The Future of War: A History

The Future of War: A History. Lawrence Freedman. New York, NY: PublicAffairs, 2017.

Historian of science Richard Rhodes tells how Niels Bohr viewed physics not in terms of universal principles but as “a way of asking questions about Nature.” Similarly, Lawrence Freedman portrays history as a way of asking questions about the Future, particularly the future of war. What makes his compelling book different from the chattering volumes about futurology is that it provides usable insights from how our predecessors have perceived and misperceived future conflict. Freedman reminds us that history “is made by people who do not know what is going to happen next.” People in every age were woefully inept at predicting the future since they, like us, were imprisoned by their own experiences, anxieties, and biases. Sometimes they asked the right questions; often they made spectacularly wrong assumptions. So, this is a valuable book for those interested in how people in the past have thought about the future of war and how those thoughts guided and misguided their actions then and, perhaps, now.

Freedman scopes this project from the middle of the nineteenth century until today. Although a longer perspective would add even more value, the last 150 years amply support his argument that “the future of war has a distinctive and revealing past.” In the first of three parts, he portrays the “progressive importance of the civilian sphere,” a phenomenon largely owing to technological changes in how societies fight. The second part might be interpreted as a critique of the realist project of international relations, since it describes the numerous and unpredictable conflicts that followed the fall of the Berlin Wall, a surprise to realists and non-realists alike as the whole Cold War “intellectual and policy effort ground to a shuddering halt.” Our 21st century future—not the futures of the past—dominates the third part of the book. Freedman wields his earlier insights not to predict the future, but to assess the return of great-power politics in a new milieu of technological change, “idealized models of future combat,” and the tension between futuristic promises and the enduring realities of classical warfare.

A striking and instructive element of this book is the story it tells about the role of science fiction in shaping popular expectations regarding future war. This is no surprise to sciience fiction fandom, but Freedman aptly illustrates its popular impact and how “science fiction was a natural place to go for insights” regarding conflict in the Industrial Age. Jules Verne’s 1887 The Clipper of the Clouds and its 1904 sequel Master of the World depict mysterious machines capable of great speed (and destruction) through the air, water, and on land. The 1908 tale of strategic aerial attack by H.G. Wells, The War in the Air, illustrate “that what was truly shocking about future war was that so-called civilized people might suffer the same fate as the colonized.” Technology—both predictable and unpredictable—could render vulnerable the civilian populace as never before. Such ideas stoked the fears and expectations of civilians and fired the imaginations and speculations of planners and policy makers alike. A century after Wells’ story of how “quiet people go out in the morning and see air-fleets passing overhead—dripping death—dripping death!” we still imagine a techno-scientific future swiftly visiting destruction upon the unprepared.

Freedman also emphasizes how the fiction of past eras tended to imprint contemporary anxieties on anticipated conflicts. Fiction writers often relied on the standard plot of how a “cunning enemy, free from democratic constraints, surprises feckless Western countries that find themselves in a war for which they are unprepared.” Such works span from the 1871 magazine serial “The Battle of Dorking” to Tom Clancy’s Cold War thrillers The Hunt for Red October and Red Storm Rising to the recent novel Ghost Fleet, a popular account of a surprise, high-tech attack by China. Fiction’s power to shape expectations and strategies also emerges among think tank prognosticators and in such things as the Atlantic Council’s Art of Future Warfare Project, designed to stimulate new visions and shake us out of entrenched assumptions.

While the dangers of new technologies are a staple for fiction writers past and present, Freedman also examines various other aspects of technological change. This includes what I label technomilitarism, the excessive reliance on military technological solutions to solve strategic problems. Accordingly, Freedman notes how past technology often “encouraged a fantasy of a war that was fast, easy, and decisive” despite history’s thin record of such outcomes. And—perhaps in an oblique nod to horror fiction—he exhumes H.R. McMaster’s vampire fallacy, the pernicious notion that technology will cause future war to be “fundamentally different from all historical experience.” The idea, like Dracula, possesses a hypnotizing allure and is nearly “impossible to kill.”

Such endemic dangers of technology also include a tendency to narrow our thinking. Freedman rightly criticizes acolytes of the 1990s Revolution in Military Affairs whose predictions overlooked the asymmetric countermeasures of clever adversaries and overestimated the utility of precision-based operational campaigns in urban battlefields. This relates to a key point of the book: the contingency and volatility of war still confound predictions despite immense advances not just in kinetic warfare, but also in our exploitation of the information environment. For example, few anticipated the nation’s involvement in numerous types of warfare at the same time in nearly the same space, an idea captured in General Krulak’s concept of the “Three Block War” and artfully assessed in Freedman’s chapter on hybrid wars. This aligns with the general complexity of war, a fiendish three-body problem whose chief Clausewitzian constituents—the people, the government, and the military—are constantly interacting in a manner that defies prediction despite technological virtuosity.

If people in a given era assume their ethical standards will remain unchanged, how does that affect their ability to imagine and predict new forms of warfare?

One area Freedman could amplify in his discussion of technology’s effects on attitudes, assumptions, and actions involves what philosopher of technology Shannon Vallor terms ethical and moral “de-skilling.” If people in a given era assume their ethical standards will remain unchanged, how does that affect their ability to imagine and predict new forms of warfare? Few in the 1930s, for example, would have foreseen the general acceptance of firebombing cities in the 1940s. One wonders what the interrelationship is between ethical standards and emerging technological capabilities and how such standards might shape future conflict or perhaps crumble during fearful changes in the security environment.

Fear forms the basis of what Freedman identifies as a common strategy in war: the desire to strike a crippling blow at the outset, preferably by surprise, to permit rapid achievement of political objectives and the return of peace. This is the dream of starry-eyed commanders and statesmen throughout history. The allure of bold strikes, however, served to limit farsighted strategic imagination and encouraged fantasies of game-changing technological superiority. In thinking about modern war, planners rarely ignored the lure of the knockout blow or the threat that one’s nation would be on the receiving end of it. The security dilemma, animated by mutual suspicion and mutual fear, thus persists. Modern personalities, Freedman argues, possess no immunity to this malady, as they consider ideas of future warfare.

Freedman’s argument complements Colin Gray’s observation that assessing the future requires “two virtues above all others: prudence and adaptability.” Good strategists possess the practical wisdom to anticipate change and adapt swiftly when the predicted future doesn’t materialize. As evidenced in this book, such skills have always been at a premium. Historian Marc Bloch, for example, observed firsthand the failure of the French military in 1940 and lamented how we ignored “the quickened rhythm of the times…our minds were too inelastic.” Sagacity and elasticity remain precious commodities in a modern world in which boundaries are increasingly blurry and warfare “won’t be kept separate from wider social forces.” This book usefully cautions modern thinkers about such complexities and arms them with a way of asking questions about the future to avoid historic pitfalls.

Freedman also equips readers with some enduring warnings that emerge from “the history of the future of war.” First, predictions are typically infused with advocacy—bias slinks in and corrupts critical reasoning as academics, technologists, lobbyists, military brass, and policymakers seek to realize their preferred visions of the future. This results in flawed appraisals of adversaries and allies alike, and perhaps even of the very nature of a future conflict. A second warning concerns the tendency to “assume that the recent past can be extrapolated into the future” and that trends and momentum will prevail. Many observers predict, for example, climate change will drive future conflict, but Freedman argues this ignores potential innovations in technology and resource management and also overlooks the classical reasons why humans fight: “power, territory, money, revenge, etc.” 

These classical reasons relate to a final warning: the tendency to believe “we are on the verge of a great, transformational discontinuity.” Although seismic shifts—revolutions—dot history, we cannot forget history’s continuities in warfare. Such are the ways to think about the future as it slips into history. This delightful, insightful book will greatly aid our perspective of that future.

Tim Schultz: Why this book, and why now? What do you value most about this book?

Lawrence Freedman: I was asked to write a book about the future of war, and I accepted, because I thought this would be a good way to address the current range of security issues. I decided to start with a look back at how people had treated the issue in the past and how well they had done. The more I looked the more I could see the record was poor, and I saw no reason to suppose that I would do any better. The question of why people had struggled to anticipate the future then intrigued me, so I decided this was a novel angle to pursue, and I should concentrate on that. In the end, I was still able to address the current security agenda, but with the context provided by an historical approach.

Has your thinking changed regarding how people perceive the future? Have you developed a “Lawrence Freedman approach” to thinking about the future?

I came to the view a long time ago that attempts to predict the future were likely to fail, because the predictions depended on decisions yet to be made, including those of one’s own country. My interest in strategy was prompted by studies of policy-making at times of crisis and war. Governments may be ready to take desperate measures to survive and prevail, yet their choices still depend on assessments of how their actions are likely to affect the actions of enemies or even allies. My point about many of the predictions covered in the book is they are strategic, in that they were designed to influence current decisions. Do this and the future is bright; do the other and a terrible fate awaits.

What surprised you about the “history of the future of war” in your creation of this book?

I suppose the most surprising thing was the persistence of the idea of surprise. There is a search for a way to get wars over quickly with a knockout blow, despite the fact that such blows only rarely succeed without a lot more subsequent effort. Unlike my strategy book, in which I was constantly moving into quite unfamiliar areas, I began this one reasonably well-acquainted with the literature I would be covering, so the task was largely one of continuing to test and develop an argument.

You portray science fiction as “a natural place to go for insights” and something that can feed the “strategic imagination,” particularly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Do you recommend science fiction as “a natural place to go for insights” today? Do you see any modern versions of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne?

I have never been a massive science fiction fan, but I read quite a bit for the book. I am always struck by how much good science fiction illuminates enduring features of human affairs. Although Verne and Wells had extraordinary imaginations, most fictional writing about future war has tended to claim to be describing events that could happen quite quickly and avoids looking too far ahead.

Marc Bloch said France failed in 1940 because “we ignored the quickened rhythm of our times…our minds were too inelastic.” Arguably the rhythm is even faster now—in what ways is our thinking about the future too inelastic?

It is hard to imagine major discontinuity even though the recent past has been full of events for which we were unprepared. One point I make is there are normally political reasons why some issues acquire salience rather than others—because, for example, it fits in with the core mission of a particular service. It can be awkward to be too elastic, because training and tactics are so geared to a particular set of expectations that to change the approach would be disruptive. One should never underestimate the effects of inertia and institutionalization.

What would you say to a defense minister as you pressed this book into his or her hands?

What I would say to anyone else: "I hope you find it interesting." I am a bit loath to lecture policy-makers on what they should think, although I'm always happy to answer any questions. Academics must always recognize they are not the ones taking decisions that may cause individuals to die and societies to suffer. If we get it wrong, reviewers and our peers may not let us forget our mistakes...but it is rare that anyone dies.

Is there a substantial relationship between ethics and the way people perceive the future of war? Do you think technological change invites a sort of unforeseen ethical “de-skilling” or numbing effect on traditional ethical standards?

I have rarely found people directly involved in the business of war, either as practitioners or commentators, who have not thought about the ethics of war. In some ways the new technologies are forcing people to think harder about ethics—for example drones and targeted killings from a safe distance. The prospect of autonomous systems raises all sorts of issues about the extent of human intervention. Paul Scharre’s new book, Army of None, for example, is largely an exploration of ethical issues.

In our era of neural networks, cyber exploits, autonomous systems, hypersonic weapons, quantum computing, etc., in what form will classical warfare prevail?

I just don’t know. It is very hard to imagine how there will be battles between two essentially similar systems and with one side prevailing through force of arms, but exactly the form that military confrontations will take with all these advanced systems is hard to imagine without knowing more about the respective capabilities of the belligerents or the circumstances of the conflict. It is always important to keep in mind, though, that most wars most of the time are fought in ways that are often crude and unsophisticated, with whatever firepower and cover comes to hand. It is natural to ask what the most technically advanced regular forces will be able to achieve but it is always important to keep in mind the irregular militias.

Have historians and war studies scholars been dismissive of how people thought and talked about the future?

I don’t think so. War Studies types are regularly asked about the future, and sometimes historians, not always wisely, are asked to offer their own prognostications. I want to be clear that I am not dismissive of the people I write about. Of course they often get things wrong—we all do—but it gets the conversation going. It is very hard to operate without some idea of what the future may hold, and once there are propositions on the table they can be challenged and developed. My interest is in what shapes these ideas and their influence as much as how they turn out in practice, because I assume that only rarely will they be exactly right.

Who inspires you, and are they part of this book in some direct or indirect way?

The book is dedicated to Sir Michael Howard, who was my doctoral supervisor at Oxford and set up the Department at King’s, which I eventually went on to run and which has been such a big part of my life. Michael was always my role model—he was a good historian but with a natural interest in the social sciences, an ability to communicate to any audience, and a readiness to engage with policy-makers without ever compromising his integrity. He is frail now but—at 95—his mind is as sharp as ever.

Tim Schultz is the Associate Dean of Academics at the U.S. Naval War College and the author of The Problem with Pilots: How Physicians, Engineers, and Airpower Enthusiasts Redefined Flight. The opinions expressed are his alone and do not reflect those of the Department of the Navy, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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Header Image: “Study for Returning To The Trenches” by CRW Nevinson (War Art)