Review: The Future of War: A History

Sir Lawrence Freedman seems to be intent to write history books on subjects usually considered to be outside of the scope of the discipline. His recent book The Future of War: A History, exemplifies this tendency perfectly, tempting the reader to pick it up if only to understand how a history may be written of the future.

The book is divided into three parts. The first charts the progress of modern war from the late 19th century to the end of the Cold War. The second addresses contemporary changes to how wars are fought with special emphasis on the multitude of theories which have emerged seeking to describe civil wars and counterterrorism strategy. Only the third and shortest part of the book is devoted to what may be termed “the future of war” a fast-paced investigation which covers cyberwar, climate change, drones and gang violence in the span of some 62 pages. This may strike some readers as laconic, especially for a book which advertises itself to be focused on war’s future. However, it is the brevity of the final section which drives home Freedman’s central thesis that predicting the evolution of war will always be an imprecise science, and we must settle for understanding broad contours, constantly reminding ourselves that everything is susceptible to change.

The Future of War is preceded by Freedman’s authoritative work, Strategy: A History, a nearly 800-page magnum opus that makes The Future of War seem like pulp fiction by comparison. Nevertheless, Freedman has superbly showcased his ability to render complex historical questions intelligible to the non-expert without losing depth or intricacy. The Future of War is thus becomes a book suited for both the dedicated military historian and casual reader alike.

The book opens with an excerpt from Margaret Atwood’s poem “The Loneliness of the Military Historian,” a somber passage seemingly foreshadowing for a dreary examination of human barbarity. However, it is Freedman’s choice of author that sets the tone more so than the title of the poem itself. Margaret Atwood is renowned for her writings on pseudo-futuristic society, rejecting the label of science fiction for her novel Oryx and Crake since it does not deal with anything “we can’t yet do or begin to do”. Freedman seeks out similar writers throughout time in his writing, constructing his history in part through speculative fiction.

The Future of War is peppered with references to fiction, ranging from the 19th century The Battle of Dorking through to contemporary works such as Ghost Fleet. In one delightfully uncommon introduction to a chapter Freedman gives a brief outline of the plot to the original trilogy of Star Wars. His relentless commitment to injecting fiction in the typically facts-dominated realm of historical writing serves not only to entertain the reader, but to drive home a crucial point about how we think of war’s evolution. Our understanding of what the future of war may hold has largely been the domain of novelists. However these supposed visionaries are fundamentally guided by the anxieties, opportunities and technologies of their times. Hence, in the aftermath of the lightning-fast Franco-Prussian War, authors raised alarm bells of the susceptibility of their respective countries to a surprise attack. Similarly the Cold War birthed narratives of failsafes gone wrong and the peculiar logic of peace through mutual annihilation. Today, the focus of writers and policymakers alike has shifted to the possibilities of instantaneous global connection and the growing dangers of an attack on our most vulnerable infrastructure through cyberspace.

However, while science fiction works may not have exactly been prescient, the majority have not necessarily been intended as forecasts of events to come. Attrition and trench warfare — not the decisive first strikes of The Battle of Dorking and its kin — characterized the military campaigns of World War I. The Cold War did not end in a fiery cataclysm born from misunderstanding as Dr. Strangelove and its contemporaries warned. Rather, speculative fiction has always depicted narratives deeply rooted in and drawing from agitations of the present. At times authors will be ahead of their time, but more often than not their worlds are more a mirror for their own societies than a crystal ball to the future.

Freedman simultaneously arrays the narratives of fiction against the works of prominent thinkers and historical analysis. He proceeds through the history of modern warfare quickly, highlighting nuclear weapons as the turning point away from great power conflict. But the book truly shines in its analysis of how we think about war today. In particular, he highlights the role of data collection has played in helping construct modern theories of war, both a blessing and a curse. Although present-day researchers have a greater well of information to draw upon, the difficulties of appropriately classifying war and the casualties associated with it run the constant risk of improper inferences being drawn. While these assumptions may be grounded in data at least partially, statistics on war are rarely straightforward. Freedman takes aim at a number of theories, from the assertion that humanity has become less warlike to the statement that civilians rather than combatants now constitute the primary casualties of war. Categorizing conflicts and differentiating noncombatants from fighters especially in the civil and hybrid wars which dot today’s landscape invites a degree of arbitrariness which can result in a wide array of misconceptions. Freedman utilizes the Correlates of War (COW) database as a key case study in this regard. The COW has struggled with a number of methodological challenges, from questions of where the threshold for war ought to be, to the difficulties of properly assessing war-related casualties. Data from conflicts even a few decades ago tends to be unreliable and based on a small number of sources of questionable validity. The result, in Freedman’s own words, is the analysis of conflicts “in an artificial manner in order to facilitate comparisons that only had any validity at a high and often banal level of generality”.

Ultimately, The Future of War offers questions and context but no solutions, leaving the reader unfulfilled. Predicting the future, Freedman reminds us, is not the job of the historian. War in a multitude of dimensions lies before them, the notion of the arc of history bending towards peace is shattered and the various theories meant to explain modern conflict revealed to be severely lacking. Freedman, however, gives no closure: his concluding chapter rings hollow, as instead of actually concluding his argument he chooses to remind the reader that predictions fail more often than not, and that he is in no better position to present an authoritative forecast than anyone else.

Despite the skeptical approach Freedman takes to prediction, The Future of War is not a nihilistic work. The book advances important explanations of historical phenomena and rightly problematizes a number of theories. If Freedman can be said to make one prediction in this work it is that war will in all likelihood continue to play a significant role in human affairs. Stories of a progressive decline in warfighting overlook important new aspects such as gang violence, civil strife not approaching the threshold for war and the constant risk of both civil and interstate conflict. Additionally Freedman deconstructs the “Ancient Hatreds” and “Mineral Curse” arguments that violent conflicts are determined by irresistible historical forces. Finally, he challenges both the efficacy of humanitarian aid and the realist argument for wars being a natural, even desirable element of state formation.

As Freedman demonstrates time and time again, while theories may have poor predictive power, this is no excuse for declining to try and understand one of the oldest human practices more fully. The author of Strategy knows better than anyone perhaps that policymaking is driven by stories, not empirical truth. False storytelling that fails to approximate reality therefore produces bad policies. While the historian cannot be called upon to divine the shape of the future, they can and should endeavor to expose misconceptions of the past and present.

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