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Military Futurism

Heavy force or light? Counterinsurgency or conventional warfighting? Airpower or ground pounders? Current strategic debate is marked by dispute over what lessons should be drawn from Iraq and Afghanistan and what kind of force structure should be employed in future warfare. 1 Some argue that a focus on irregular warfighting is yet another case of the Army preparing for the last war, endangering needed conventional skill sets.2 Advocates of counterinsurgency accuse opponents of “next war-itis” ignoring a world of low-intensity conflict out of love for high-tech toys.3 The current debate is another example of an ancient art–military futurism.
      However, current approaches to military futurism erroneously treat it as a scientific tool of policymaking and ignore its manifold flaws. Unless we re-conceptualize the way we think about future conflict, our crystal balls will shed no light on current debates over strategy and force structure.

Forecasting Future Slaughter

As long as human beings have killed one another, theorists have struggled to forecast the nature of future slaughter correctly. Military futurism, however, is different from more popular forms of futurism. Speculation about future warfare inevitably garners more attention than debates over the nature of technological change and human civilization. One reason may be that people are particularly attuned to matters of life and death. But an emerging technology or social change may have just as much long-term impact as a new kind of weapon or tactic. So why does Patton always flatten Schrödinger and his cat under his tank treads?
      Few can dialogue with intelligence on population statistics or particle colliders, but many fight in wars, become “collateral damage,” or observe conflict from afar. War is omnipresent in popular culture in such forms as videogames, movies, and comic books. Theorists from Sigmund Freud to Martin van Creveld have also argued that attraction to conflict is a part of the human condition.4 This assertion is debatable, but it underscores the undeniable fact that war holds an enduring place in the public imagination. Philosopher Paul Virilio, military analyst Robert J. Bunker, and political theorist Philip Bobbitt have all argued that the future of war is the future of humanity, as conflict acts as driver of larger social, technological, and political trends.5 Theories of war are not just predictions about, say, the accuracy of a certain rifle. They are philosophies that use war as a vehicle for both contextualizing the present and predicting radical future social-political challenge.
      The universality of military theory accounts for the many diverse theories of “new” war. In the last two decades alone, military theory produced the Tom Clancy techno-thriller of the revolution in military affairs (RMA), the apocalyptic “nomadology” of left-wing critical theory, and the networked criminal-terrorist “global guerrilla” of irregular warfare.6 Military theory transcends service, political affiliation, ideology, race, class, and time. Everyone who has seriously thought about human conflict has developed his or her own idea about future warfare. Even those who would nominally consider themselves anti-war and have a dim view of the military engage in speculation about future war, though it may be cloaked behind political rhetoric. But for every brilliant prediction of future war, there are at least ten embarrassing misfires.
      Many people are justifiably skeptical when they hear of some new all-encompassing vision of future conflict. Many strategic theorists hold a strong view that the basic principles of conflict have not changed at all, and that new theories of war are just shoddy attempts to dress up old stratagems as revolutionary insights. So are grand predictions of future war of any value to the soldier, academic, or policymaker? Or are they abstract theories with potentially dire consequences for national defense? This is not a mere academic question. Ideas have consequences, and an inaccurate prediction of future warfare could bring a nation to ruin.
      Military futurism, despite its manifold flaws, can help us survive the future as long as we recognize the flaws that distort our view of the horizon. The kind of grand ideas that futurism provides challenge conventional wisdom, giving us glimpses of epochal changes that often are overlooked by policy analysis overwhelmingly focused on the short-term. Futurism has retained the imagination, creativity, and enthusiasm for big, messy ideas that a balkanized academia has largely forsaken in their quest for scholarly rigor. But in order for military futurism to serve the public interest better, futurists must change the way they prognosticate.
      Visions of the future should be recognized as narratives rather than works of predictive social science, making futurism a kind of carnival of competing analytical tools that can be used to build a larger synthesis. This does not mean that predictions of the future shouldn’t be informed by empirical information. It cannot be emphasized strongly enough that any work of strategic forecasting must flow from a solid understanding of the present operational space. But any theorist must recognize the difficulty in extrapolating from present trends, the instability within our concepts of past and future, and our propensity for masking narrative as science.

Past, Present, and the Art of the Anti-Explanation

The chief difficulty in predicting the future is the immense amount of variables (many of them unknown) that the futurist must account for. To even conceptualize these variables requires a diverse intellectual toolkit–hence the stereotype of futurist as lonely autodidact. Narrower thinkers are often trapped by their political, cultural, and institutional biases. Others fall prey to what Colin S. Gray calls “presentism,” the tendency to extrapolate the conditions of the current milieu into the future.7 One need only look to the 1990s as an example of presentism’s problems with analysis. The Soviet Union, expected by many in the intelligence community to endure for the foreseeable future, had devolved into a third-rate power that couldn’t even crush a few partisans on its periphery. The United States, seen by many as a great power on the verge of decline, became a hyperpower in a unipolar world. Why did so many smart people in the intelligence community fail to anticipate this? The Soviet Union had been a monolithic threat for over forty years, a devil that America grown used to, so much so that the idea of its demise was as plausible to many analysts as aliens suddenly landing on the White House lawn.
      The tendency to contextualize the future within the present is common in everyday life. Much science fiction, for example, comments on the present. The movie Blade Runner is not just about our uneasy relationship with technological change, represented by the rampaging “replicants” that Harrison Ford chases. The film’s chaotic and decaying urban landscape reflects a deep anxiety over growing diversity, environmental degradation, and national decline. The Japanese character of Blade Runner’s future metropolis is testimony to the widespread fear that Asia was about to leave America in the dust (or, to be more precise, a Toyota’s exhaust fumes). Such fears receded in the 1990s but have recently returned, as the popularity of recent bestsellers warning of a “post-American world” indicates.8
      Another problem of presentism is the issue of “legacy futures.” As futurist Jamais Cascio writes on his blog Open the Future, erroneous futures informed by presentism create a dead-weight drag on futures theorizing:

“We get legacy futures in business from old strategies and plans, legacy futures in politics from old budgets and forecasts, and legacy futures in environmentalism from earlier bits of analysis. Legacy futures are rarely still useful, but have so thoroughly colonized our minds that even new scenarios and futures models may end up making explicit or implicit references to them.”9

      The “Cold War thinking” that cutting-edge strategic theorists disparage routinely is an example of a “legacy future.” The debate over terrorism is still marked by the use of Cold War terminology, perhaps suggesting a desire to revive a Cold War-esque ideological struggle against a monolithic threat. This vision bears little resemblance to the reality of loose, decentralized, and theologically fragmented terrorist cells that former CIA analyst Marc Sageman describes in his book Leaderless Jihad.10
      More pernicious than presentism is the problem of the past. History is the basis from which futurists extrapolate future trends, but history’s interpreters often suffer from a variety of biases and preconceptions. Chief among these problems is the fallacy of rational, linear explanation. A good portion of futurism deals with disruptive, world-changing events such as wars and revolutions. Historians often retroactively explain these epochal disturbances as the natural result of linear structural processes, and those who failed to notice those processes are often castigated. With every disaster comes the inevitable orgy of finger pointing over who “lost” a certain country or failed to see “the warning signs.” But were those signs really so clear? Or, more importantly, was the disruptive event really inevitable?
      Charles Kurzman’s book The Unthinkable Revolution in Iran rigorously examines each mono-causal explanation offered for the revolt that launched the revolution, finding that none of them accurately explains the nature of the uprising. In times of tumult, human actions decisively deviate from otherwise constant social, political, and cultural models. Structures that often provide excellent indicators of behavior break down, and new realities are created.11 Instead of looking at social science to provide linear, comprehensive explanations, we may be better off searching for what Kurzman calls “anti-explanations.” These explanations eschew retroactive rationalization in favor of “recognizing and reconstructing the lived experience of the moment.” Kurzman’s idea of anti-explanation moves anomalies to the foreground, recognizing the power of confusion, the instability of the moment, and the disruption of routine in disruptive events.12 Why is this important?
      When we analyze revolution, we often forget that social structures do not persist through inertia, as even stasis takes work to maintain. The old often persists because it gives itself an air of self-fulfilling inevitability, as people will not commit to courses of actions they believe will fail. In moments of great change, people rapidly assess and reassess their behavior based on the fragmentary information available to them and the actions of others. This emergent process of assessing the often ephemeral viability of change produces a kind of viral action that can change the course of history. 13 If a dictator who seemed stable a week ago is overthrown, there is no contradiction in noting that the prior analysis of his strength wasn’t entirely incorrect.
      As Nicholas Nassim Taleb argues in The Black Swan, some events also are so unlikely that their very randomness lowers all obstacles to them occurring. Taleb argues that we are moving toward a more random world where “black swans” may become the norm rather than the exception.14 Again, this causes severe problems for analysis. On one hand, people often construct post-hoc rationalizations for these occurrences or otherwise erroneously claim that the disruption could have been prevented. Such an action, merely by being willed into existence, becomes more likely in the future and seems retroactively plausible. On the other hand, it could very well be a one-time occurrence. Either way, the “Black Swan” plays havoc with our logic.
      This poses a particular problem for red teaming and threat analysis. How can we plan for every conceivable scenario? Or, to take a different tack, should we? Being strong everywhere means being weak everywhere. One can easily drain organizational resources planning for “movie-plot” WMD terrorism only to be surprised by a group of men with machine guns. But protecting the national interest is task that must be accomplished regardless of human weakness.

The Narrative Function of Futurism

Just like the past, the future defies easy explanation. But it doesn’t stop us from trying to predict it. We are all futurists in that we base important choices off an expected idea of the future, and many public figures assert a particular future as a means of justifying radical changes. These figures often cast their projections as scientific, but are they? The future is not a fixed state that can be divined through an astronomer’s telescope. Rather, it is the sum of a chaotic mixture of social forces, ideas, and the actions of those determined to change it. The future changes from day to day, defying many attempts to divine its path by extrapolating from supposedly objective criteria. Many radical predictions are projected through political and cultural prisms. Futurism should not be thought of as a scientific enterprise but as a wild carnival of differing narratives, ideas, and perspectives.
      For example, the narrative of the revolution in military affairs (RMA) describes a future in which high-tech conventional warfare is the deciding factor of future conflict. The extreme endpoint of modern irregular warfare theory—a Mad Max world of collapsed states and warlords—is another kind of narrative about the future.15 States may be collapsing and non-state actors may be dramatically increasing their power, but it is not churlish to point out that failed state literature forms a coherent–and sometimes exaggerated–vision of the future.
      Both have policy implications–technowar necessitates forces that can conquer the digital battlefield, and “New Middle Ages” requires more specialized infantry and constabulary forces to combat terrorists, insurgents, and criminals. Struggles to define the narrative of future conflict often morph with struggles to define policy because the two are inseparable from each other. It’s important to note the use of the term “narrative” here is not intended to be pejorative. Just because certain theories of future conflict are narratives doesn’t mean that they aren’t true, and their social construction doesn’t render their insights science fiction. One can agree with the overall thrust of a narrative while still recognizing its artificiality.
      Likewise, calling something a narrative does not mean subscribing to the extreme relativism and nihilism of some postmodernist thinkers who see all facets of modern life as a series of master narratives battling for dominance. It becomes necessary once in a while, as philosopher John Searle does, to assert that an external world exists–not everything is socially constructed, despite what you might hear from English departments these days.16 But recognizing that beliefs about the future are narratives emancipates us to consciously craft better visions of the future–visions we have largely forsaken.
      The poet John Keats may have been wrong to suggest that Newton destroyed the beauty of the rainbow by explaining it, but the specialization of modern science has hurt “horizontal” thinking that produced the grand theories of the past. While we should aim for exaction in science and politics, an obsessive-compulsive battle over minor errata will surely cause us to lose track of the big picture.
      The greatest futurists, such as H.G. Wells and Teilhard de Chardin, came up with huge, messy ideas of the future that challenged the conventional wisdom of their time. Wells wrote with remarkable prescience about aerial warfare, and his ideas about a coming “World Brain” predated the Internet.17 Chardin’s conceptualization of the “noosphere” also informs much of today’s writing about the Internet and information-mediated politics.18 Granted, both got many things wrong too, as Wells also forecast a world state that never came to pass (among many other things). But the basic idea behind their methods is correct: we should aim for big, messy ideas, as long as we are conscious of our fallibility.
      When we think about the future we are telling ourselves stories, and perhaps we should balance the objectivity of the policymaker with the playfulness of the storyteller. This doesn’t mean we should adopt the ahistorical, fantastical approach of science fiction–where scenarios are dreamt up for dramatic rather than practical effect–but it does mean we can use the differing narratives of the future as intellectual frames that we can swap, switch, and fuse as necessary to constantly revise our perceptions based on the flux of events and fortunes. In essence, our model of the future should be as dynamic and diffuse as the future itself, a living map that constantly shifts its display in response to world events. If reporting is the first draft of history, prediction is the first draft of the future. But like any other draft, it must be endlessly revised.

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  1. Charles J. Dunlap Jr., “Forget the Lessons of Iraq,” Armed Forces Journal, January 2009. []
  2. ibid. []
  3. Julian E. Barnes, “Gates Urges Military to Focus on Needs in Iraq, Afghanistan,” Los Angeles Times, May 14, 2008. []
  4. See Sigmund Freud, Civilizations and its Discontents, New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2005, Martin Van Creveld, The Culture of War, New York: Ballantine Books, 2008, and John Keegan’s A History of Warfare, New York: Vintage Books, 1994. []
  5. See Paul Virilio, Speed and Politics, New York: Semiotext(e), 1977, Philip Bobbit, The Shield of Achilles: War, Peace, and the Course of History, New York: Knopf, 2002, and Robert Bunker, “Epochal Change: War Over Social and Political Organization,” Parameters, Summer 1997, pp. 15-25. []
  6. For the RMA, see Colin S. Gray, Strategy for Chaos: Revolutions in Military Affairs and the Evidence of History, London: Frank Cass, 2004. Although every left-wing thinker since Marx has discussed war, the most prominent left-wing theorists of war today are Michel Foucault, Gilles Delueze, Felix Guattari, and Paul Virilio. James Der Derian’s Virtuous War: Mapping the Media-Industrial-Media-Entertainment Network, New York: Basic Books, 2001, has an excellent overview of their writings. John Robb is one of the most prominent theorists of network warfare. See, for example, his book Brave New War: The Next Stage of Terrorism and the End of Globalization, Hoboken: Wiley, 2007The RAND Corporation’s John Arquilla is another prominent commentator; his book Networks and Netwars: The Future of Terror, Crime, and Militancy, Santa Monica: RAND, 2001, is also a seminal text. []
  7. Colin S. Gray, “Stability Operations in Strategic Perspective: A Skeptical View,” Parameters, Summer 2006, p. 4. []
  8. Fareed Zakaria, The Post-American World, New York: W.W. Norton, 2008. []
  9. Jamais Cascio, “Legacy Futures,” Open The Future, December 8, 2008. []
  10. See Marc Sageman, Leaderless Jihad: Terror Networks in the 21st Century, Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2008. []
  11. Charles Kurzman, The Unthinkable Revolution In Iran, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2004, p. 6. []
  12. Kurzman, p. 166. []
  13. Kurzmann, p. 171. []
  14. See Nicholas Nassim Taleb, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, New York: Random House, 2007. []
  15. For a look at the world some predict, see Dr. Phil Williams’ Strategic Studies Institute monograph From the New Middle Ages to the New Dark Ages: The Decline of the State and U.S. Strategy, Carslie Barracks: Strategic Studies Institute, 2008. []
  16. John R. Searle, Mind, Language, and Society: Philosophy in the Real World, New York: Basic Books, 1998. []
  17. See Herbert George Wells, World Brain, New York: Doubleday, 1938. World Brain is also available online for free, courtesy of the University of Michigan: []
  18. David Ronfeldt and John Arquilla, “The Promise of Noopolitik,” First Monday, August 2007. []