NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Sunday, December 3rd, 2017

Book Review: “The Future of War: A History” could be a bit more forward-looking

The say­ing “all is fair in love and war” has become a cliche, but it’s true that with romance as well as blood­shed, we pre­pare for the next one main­ly by wor­ry­ing about the mis­takes of the last conflict.

Lawrence Freedman’s The Future of War: A His­to­ry is only about the more mar­tial of the two human endeav­ors, but there’s a lot to love in it.

Book cover of The Future of War

The Future of War: A His­to­ry, by Lawrence Freed­man (Hard­cov­er; Penguin)

Across two hun­dred and eighty-sev­en pages of prose, Freedman’s book is part retro-futur­ism, part dis­ser­ta­tion on the dif­fi­cul­ties of deter­min­ing what actu­al­ly is a war and who died in one, and, final­ly, part look­ing for­ward at the sort of armed con­flicts yet to come.

It doesn’t all fit togeth­er seam­less­ly, or read equal­ly engag­ing­ly, but Freed­man shows his home­work regard­less of top­ic, and there’s an addi­tion­al forty-five pages of notes and twen­ty-eight pages just devot­ed to bib­li­og­ra­phy if war­fare of the recent past, present, and future pique your interest.

For non-spe­cial­ists, the most enjoy­able por­tion is, thank­ful­ly, the first bit.

Retro-futur­ism is imme­di­ate­ly enjoy­able for the ways peo­ple in the past missed the mark. In Part One, Freed­man piles up exam­ples of how pop­u­lar mil­i­tary-fic­tion authors and pro­fes­sion­als in the late 19th and ear­ly 20th cen­tu­ry imag­ined the next wars — and how they imag­ined it wrong.

The Bat­tle of Dork­ing by George Tomkyns Ches­ney in 1871 posit­ed a rapid, suc­cess­ful sur­prise inva­sion of the British Isles by the Ger­man Empire; in 1902, a fore­think­ing H.G. Wells imag­ined tanks before their inven­tion but also thought war bal­loons would dom­i­nate the skies and sub­marines would kill their crews.

Freed­man doesn’t give many exam­ples of peo­ple who got their pre­dic­tions right. There’s a short sec­tion on the Pol­ish banker Ivan Stanislavovich Bloch, who pre­dict­ed in 1898 that an upcom­ing major war would favor defense and have sol­diers rely­ing on their spades more than their rifles, but acknowl­edg­ing his fore­sight is the exception.

So Freed­man pick­ing out past mis­steps comes across a bit cheap when hind­sight doesn’t need spec­ta­cles and when Freed­man nev­er, even at the end, goes out on a limb to make his own pre­dic­tions. It’s pos­si­ble that may have been a con­scious choice by the author based on the influ­ence that past off-the-mark pre­dic­tions have had on deci­sion­mak­ers and the wider public.

And that is ulti­mate­ly the most engross­ing aspect of Freedman’s book and one I wish had been the whole sub­ject. As much as some folk might sin­cere­ly like cur­rent stu­dents to be taught noth­ing but engi­neer­ing or cod­ing, art huge­ly impacts life because it shapes the imag­i­na­tion of the peo­ple living.

Geopol­i­tics mat­tered in 1914, but so did a gen­er­a­tion of books assum­ing the British and Ger­mans would be on oppos­ing sides of a future war.

Nuclear tech­nol­o­gy and pol­i­cy mat­tered, but so did Peter George’s 1958 nov­el Red Alert and Stan­ley Kubrick’s black com­e­dy adap­ta­tion “Dr. Strangelove” in turn­ing pub­lic opin­ion, includ­ing elite opin­ion, against the accept­abil­i­ty of a ther­monu­clear exchange between Cold War super powers.

Ronald Reagan’s appre­ci­a­tion for Tom Clan­cy books and the Matthew Brod­er­ick film “War Games” had a real influ­ence on U.S. pol­i­cy in the 1980s.

A Cas­san­dra is some­one giv­ing a warn­ing no one heeds, but Freed­man, in tone, treats peo­ple whose warn­ings were heed­ed as if they were inac­cu­rate rather than per­sua­sive as well as prescient.

The major prob­lem, and the hard­est part to slog through, is Part Two when Freed­man goes into defin­ing what war real­ly is and how one ought to count it.

This is not an unim­por­tant sub­ject; civ­il wars and sub-nation­al enti­ties inflict­ing casu­al­ties and deaths around the world are clear­ly not mere­ly seman­tic issues, but in the con­text of this book, it’s a diver­sion, and a labo­ri­ous one to plow through as a read­er when sand­wiched by the more inter­est­ing and imag­i­na­tive prognostications.

In Part Three, Freed­man gets into the dif­fi­cul­ty of dis­tin­guish­ing where wars start and end when a U.S. mil­i­tary pilot can remote­ly kill some­one halfway across the world and go home to their spouse, and an extrem­ist group can use online net­works to inspire their neigh­bor for a mass casu­al­ty attack.

More­over, is Afghanistan a dif­fer­ent con­flict than Iraq? Is Syr­ia a con­tin­u­a­tion of events in north­ern Iraq or some­thing distinct?

Is it a civ­il war in Brazil when the gov­ern­ment has lost direct con­trol of large sec­tions of São Paulo to crim­i­nal orga­ni­za­tions and has to send in thou­sands of police offi­cers and mil­i­tary ser­vice­mem­bers to retake it?

What about in Mex­i­co, where vio­lence relat­ed to the flow of nar­cotics north and attempts to stop it have led to an esti­mat­ed 120,000 deaths?

Is what Rus­sia has done — assault­ing demo­c­ra­t­ic elec­tions through online pro­pa­gan­da and send­ing orga­nized “vol­un­teers” into neigh­bor­ing coun­tries like Ukraine — a new mod­el for war­fare or some­thing pecu­liar to that nation? These are inter­est­ing ques­tions, but Freed­man doesn’t def­i­nite­ly answer them, or attempt to.

He brings up Paul Kennedy’s The Rise and Fall of the Great Pow­ers as an exam­ple of a failed attempt to pre­dict the future because, in 1989, Kennedy expect­ed a weak­en­ing Sovi­et Union to last into the pro­ceed­ing decades and Japan to rise in the 1990s, but Kennedy at least both­ered to make pre­dic­tions, and his larg­er the­sis — that spend­ing resources on mil­i­tary efforts to expand or main­tain empire inex­orably weak­ens it — doesn’t look so bad right now.

Kennedy thought that the Sovi­et Union and Unit­ed States would decline rel­a­tive­ly while the then-Euro­pean Eco­nom­ic Com­mu­ni­ty and East Asian nations of Japan (and Chi­na) would rise because they didn’t have to spend as much mon­ey on their mil­i­taries. Pre­dic­tions like that have the poten­tial to be embar­rass­ing, but can also turn out to be insight­ful and prescient.

Freed­man doesn’t have this courage, and it’s a shame because he might have syn­the­sized the sec­ond sec­tion into some­thing worth­while and for­ward-look­ing had he been braver. His the­sis, such as I can tell, is that peo­ple are often wrong when they attempt to pre­dict the future. That’s true, but it’s also ter­ri­bly boring.

So if you’re a his­to­ry buff, you’ll prob­a­bly enjoy this book and learn some things, and have the notes to fol­low all sorts of rab­bit holes.

Whether or not you’re already inter­est­ed in such mate­r­i­al, though, you won’t walk away feel­ing you’ve gleaned any insights about the decades to come beyond what you already know: the future is blur­ry and always tough to foretell.

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