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Military Futurism

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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 on 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.19 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.20 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.21 Chardin’s conceptualization of the “noosphere” also informs much of today’s writing about the Internet and information-mediated politics.22 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.

Toward a Brave New Military Futurism

Dynamic models of the future, however, are useless without the social context needed for futurist thinking to really thrive. Groupthink futurism is a product of organizational conditions that stifle alternative views of the future in favor of consensus visions that reflect conventional wisdom. Instead of closed hermetic loops of Beltway policy analysts, we would do well to embrace a more ludic structure where we can construct meaning from the play, competition, and the continuous exchange and modification of narratives about the future. Small Wars Journal is a kind of ludic space existing in the boundaries between the military, academia, and the media. It drives discussion on military issues because it provides a freewheeling, multi-dimensional exchange from individuals of many different backgrounds.
      Along these lines, former Defense Intelligence Agency analyst Michael Tanji has called for a more nimble “Think Tank 2.0” that bridges geographies and disciplines.23 Such an approach is more likely to produce solutions than the insular world of Washington. The tragedy of such insularity was demonstrated during the Vietnam era, when the “best and Brightest” foreign policy and national security thinkers found themselves outwitted by a “bamboo Pentagon” of Vietcong and North Vietnamese. Years later, in the documentary The Fog of War, Robert McNamara, the whiz-kid defense intellectual and Secretary of Defense during the Kennedy and Johnson years, marveled at how greatly he and his compatriots had misunderstood the motivations, strategies, and basic nature of his adversaries.
      In the defense field, a “Think Tank 2.0” that matches civilian national security thinkers with serving military officers also would go a long way towards improving the quality of defense thinking. Without such rank-and-file military input, the men and women who are tasked with implementing a foreign policy guru’s grand plan often become pure abstractions to the national security thinker. Hearing criticism, suggestions, and advice from a military officers would do much to take a Beltway national security thinker out of the world of Georgetown cocktail parties and give them more incentive to formulate sounder policies. The officers also benefit by gaining the ear of powerful figures able to influence national security policy. Down the line, if the officers attain high rank, they will have strong civilian allies in pushing their visions of defense policy.
       There are already promising signs to wider cooperation. The intelligence community is also attempting to broaden its outreach to academics, whose subject-matter expertise is crucial to improving analysis of future situations. Civilian academics, including anthropologists and human rights activists, also played crucial roles in the crafting of counterinsurgency strategy.24 Yet the government and private sector need to go farther in opening up the defense conversation.
      Another means of improving futurism is to copy from anthropology, and sociology to create meta-theories of future warfare. The key to unlocking the hidden assumptions, ideologies, and values embedded in strategic narratives lies in examining doctrine as intellectual history. Utilizing the tools of the humanities is not trivializing war nor imposing some kind of academic claptrap on it—it allows us to look at the roots, assumptions, and flaws of certain military doctrines and theories. It would also be a good supplement to the Delphi planning methods and assumption-based planning strategies already pioneered by the RAND Corporation.25
      Overall, we should aim for a reflexive mode of strategic analysis seen in such intellectual histories as Brian McAllister Linn’s The Echo of Battle, Antulio J. Echevarria’s Imagining Future War, John Mearsheimer’s Liddell Hart and the Weight of History, Azar Gat’s Fascist and Liberal Visions of War, Antoine Bousquet’s The Scientific Way of Warfare, and Frans Osinga’s Science, Strategy, and War, works that critically examine the cultural genealogies of defense thought.
      The current debate over counterinsurgency is a case in point. Andrew Bacevich wrote an article in The Atlantic Monthly that established a binary between two differing schools of doctrine—“Crusaders” who were enthusiastic about irregular warfare and favored expeditionary operations abroad and “Conservatives” who sought to keep America out of damaging quagmires through a focus on preparing for conventional war.26 Soldiers, bloggers, and writers deconstructed this duality, debating the accuracy of Bacevich’s categories as well as the assumptions and narratives behind recent strategic theories. The most interesting part of this dialectic was the individual debate between Lt. Col Gian P. Gentile and other authors on the Small Wars Journal, who battled to define whether the narrative of counterinsurgency success in Iraq was real or a construction designed to facilitate policy agendas.27
      Similar debates have occurred over Maneuver War theory, Boyd’s OODA loop, and the definition of irregular warfare. Looming over the debate is the question of the future of war: do we face a future of “small wars” that we must prepare our forces for? Or by doing so are we making a premature judgment about the end of conventional conflict that will proved wrong by rising conventional powers such as China and Russia? Or is this a false choice of two extremes?
      Such debates on futurism can also help us understand the present. Every policy that a nation undertakes is based on a assumption—conscious or not—of the future. It is better that we consciously think about the future’s impact on policy rather than deal with it in an ad-hoc manner. We can use the future as a heuristic device to reflect on the issues of our time, as future worlds provide a remarkable canvas for the construction and illustration of alternate possibilities and present problems. They are unknown, unpopulated, and seemingly unconnected to present problems—a kind of simulation room that we can project ourselves into. This is the opposite of presentism, which seeks to extrapolate the present to the future—instead we are using the future to change the present.
      Charles Dunlap Jr.’s 1992 essay “The Origins of the American Military Coup of 2012,” while controversial, beautifully illustrated its point about the danger of military overreach into civilian life by reporting back from a dystopian fictional future world.28 A staid policy paper, on the other hand, would have most likely ended up molding away in the archives. The irony, however, is that Dunlap’s literary device for explaining the radical future he imagines—a long letter to an old friend explicating the change—is more reminiscent of 18th century literature than Star Wars. It just goes to show that futurism, if anything else, is exceedingly old-fashioned.

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Adam Elkus is a contributing editor at Red Team Journal and an analyst specializing in foreign policy and security. His articles have been published in Small Wars Journal, Defense and the National Interest, Foreign Policy in Focus, SWAT Digest, and other publications. His work has been cited in reports by the Center for Security Policy and highlighted by the Arms Control Association and the Project on Defense Alternatives. He has contributed chapters to The John Boyd Roundtable: Debating Science, Strategy, and War (Ann Arbor: Nimble LLC, 2008) and the compilation Threats in the Age of Obama, now on sale from Nimble LLC. You can read his blog here.

  1. 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. []
  2. John R. Searle, Mind, Language, and Society: Philosophy in the Real World, New York: Basic Books, 1998. []
  3. See Herbert George Wells, World Brain, New York: Doubleday, 1938. World Brain is also available online for free, courtesy of the University of Michigan. []
  4. David Ronfeldt and John Arquilla, “The Promise of Noopolitik,” First Monday, August 2007. []
  5. Michael Tanji, “The Think Tank is Dead: Long Live the Think Tank!” Haft of the Spear, February 27, 2008. []
  6. Sarah Sewall, “He Wrote The Book, Can He Follow It?” Washington Post, February 25, 2007, p. B03. []
  7. James A. Dewar, Carl H. Builder, et al, Assumption-Based Planning: A Planning Tool for Very Uncertain Times, Santa Monica: RAND, 1993. []
  8. Andrew J. Bacevich, “The Petraeus Doctrine,” The Atlantic Monthly, October 2008. []
  9. Jason Fritz, “On The Future and Options,” Small Wars Journal, December 22, 2008. []
  10. Charles J. Dunlap Jr., “The Origins of the American Military Coup of 2012,” Parameters, Winter 1992-93, pp. 2-20. []