Book Review: THE FUTURE OF WAR

THE FUTURE OF WAR, by Lawrence Freedman, Public Affairs, 2017, 376 pages, $18.99

Our regular assumption was that the odds of success might be shifted decisively as a result of some new technology. Gunpowder to musket, steam turbines to aircraft, missiles to digital networks, all changed the character of warfare, opening up new possibilities while closing off others. But the technology was rarely monopolized or else, if one side enjoyed superiority, adversaries found ways to limit their effects. Even for modern Western forces, technology encouraged a fantasy of a war that was fast, easy, and decisive: yet still they found themselves facing ‘slow, bitter, indecisive war.’ 

War has a future. It will remain a main staple for states large and small, for non-state actors fighting for an ideology, and for ethnic groups fighting over territory believed to be theirs.

Future wars have been guided by the experiences of past wars. No sooner than a war ends, a future war is lurking around the corner. As we have seen from Margaret MacMillan in WAR (reviewed here), this has been so since humans began organizing into groups, societies, and nations. As civilizations advanced technologically, so have the means of waging war. Looking back to see what worked and what did not – as well as our works of imagination from “academic papers, military appreciations or fictional thrillers” – informs on how future wars are likely to be waged. According to Lawrence Freedman:

These tendencies so evident in the history of the future of war are therefore likely to persist in the future. As in the past there will be a stream of speculative scenarios and anxious warnings, along with sudden demands for new thinking in the face of an unexpected development.     

The Future of WarFreedman’s THE FUTURE OF WAR is not about how the next wars will be fought. Anyone who has been following the news can predict that in future warfare, artificial intelligence (AI) will play a major role as will cyber-attacks on financial institutions to utility grids and military installations, to weapons-systems reliant on the internet, with conventional weapons remaining in use. Rather, THE FUTURE OF WAR is about the history of the future of wars. Freedman looks at past wars and conflicts, in context, showing how future wars were imagined and planned, virtually always with the misguided expectation that innovative thinking and new weapons-systems unavailable to the opposing side would lead to a swift and decisive victory, with the victor dictating the terms and the vanquished suffering as they must.

THE FUTURE OF WAR has it all. Much like MacMillan in WAR, Freedman serves a tour d’horizon by looking at how wars of the past sparked the imagination for wars of the future. It is a fascinating and rewarding read, replete with references from historians, chroniclers, military theorists, novelists, film makers, and others – all of whom, informed by the past and guided by imagination, predicted, conceptualized, and shaped how future wars will or should be fought, sparking innovative thinking and technologies to dominate the military theater offensively and defensively.

THE FUTURE OF WAR is divided into three parts. Part One covers the middle of the 19th century to the end of the Cold War in the early 1990s, where we see an impressive development of technology and warfare during the two World Wars and the possibility of “an even more cataclysmic third,” with the development of nuclear weapons. Here Freedman treats us to the then prevailing “idealized model of warfare geared towards decisive battles that could be used to regulate relations among the great powers.” Over time, this model fell short of the expected goal, as it became evident that wars were difficult to keep short – even with a massive initial and often unsuspected attack (Japan’s sneak attack on Pearl Harbor is a fine example).

This is a fascinating part of the book, laying the groundwork for what is to come. We learn, for instance, that the decisive battle model of warfare thinking was based on an influential theorist who served in Napoleon’s army, Baron Antoine de Jomini, a contemporary of Carl von Clausewitz, who’s seminal work The Art of War was more celebrated than Clausewitz’s On War. Sir Edward Creasy thought somewhat otherwise in his 1851 published work, The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World: From Marathon to Waterloo. The tipping point, if you will, was to be found in “the undeniable greatness in the disciplined courage, and the love of honour, which makes combatants confront agony and destruction” – qualities “to be found in the basest as well as in the noblest of mankind.” One passage quoted by Freedman from Creasy is as incisive as it is seemingly obvious and timeless. In battles what mattered was whether:

the chain of causes and effects, by which they have helped to make us what we are: and also while we speculate on what we probably should have been, if any one of those battles had come to a different termination.

We next meet Polish banker Ivan Stanislavovich Bloch, who in 1898 published a six-volume study: The Future of War in its Technical, Economic and Political Relations. He theorized that the next wars would be won or lost defensively, that is, by entrenching and waging a war of attrition, wearing down combatants, draining economic resources, and contributing to social collapse.

But perhaps the first to conceptualize the contribution that science would bring to future wars was novelist and historian, as well as social commentator/essayist, H.G. Wells. Much of what he imagined has turned out thus far. And as we have come to experience, new technological and scientific advances made to meet future wars will, in turn, germinate more innovative ideas or lessons from those future forms of warfare.

Lawrence Freedman (@LawDavF) | Twitter
Sir Lawrence David Freedman, KCMG, CBE, PC, FBA

Freedman shows that with innovation comes new thinking on how future wars will be fought and what might it take to avoid such wars which, since the invention of nuclear arms would have such devastating effects, gave rise to the Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) theory during the height of the Cold War. According to Freedman, MAD “was not so much a deliberate policy choice as recognition of a condition which confirmed the risk in an attempt to achieve a decisive victory through a knockout blow.” While conventional warfare would still be waged, technological advances (especially with the use of cyberspace and AI development) would accelerate the need for more and more innovative ways of warfare. Even before the future becomes the present, the next future is being conceptualized and theorized.

Part Two covers the period after 1990 with the astonishingly rapid collapse of the Soviet Union and the Warsaw Pact alliance. Here Freedman focuses on the civil wars that ensued, not so much because of the perceived absence of threat of future war between the two super/nuclear powers, but because civil wars began to draw in Western Powers. No war theory to speak of emerged, other than perhaps that there is no discernable pattern of future wars, and that the causes of these civil wars were complex and difficult to fully grasp.

The 9/11 al-Qaeda attack on the US ignited an imperative for the US and its allies to intervene in Afghanistan and then Iraq. In both instances, an attempt at nation-building followed the war, in part to avoid future wars. What seemed simple and was naively welcoming, has proved disastrous. Hubris to assume that as occupiers, the US and its allied forces on the ground could garner the support of local population, find determined and incorruptible indigenous political leaders, help create a modern and disciplined armed forces to protect against fanatical and ideologically driven insurgents, and build a sustainable liberal democracy with a vibrant civil society. After 20 years of nation-building and fighting in Afghanistan (few can readily recall why the US and allies went there in the first place), it took a week or so for the American-backed Afghan armed forces and government to collapse.

Freedman engages us with a sobering reality drawn from the annals of history on war-making:

The quarter century after the end of the Cold War thus combined an improving academic appreciation of the sources of conflict in non-Western conflicts, deeper and more realistic than anything available in 1990, with an arc of Western engagement. The arc began tentatively, fueled by greater commitment and ambition, until disillusion set in, confirming the early inclination to stay clear of these conflicts. There had been a search for a new type of future for war, but it had not been found.            

Part Three gives us a modest glimpse of what is in store for humanity in future wars dominated by technological advances, cyber-systems, and information warfare. The dystopian imaginations played out in novels such as Ghost Fleet by P. W. Singer and August Cole (2015) and 2034 by Elliot Ackerman and Admiral James G. Stavridis (2021) are not so farfetched as we might have thought. In fact, aside from the small and protracted conventional wars, the face of future wars – at least among the big players – is likely to be dominated by surprise cyber-attacks without much use of conventional armed forces. Freedman warns:

[A]ny thinking about future war geared to prevention should look to innovation in diplomacy and international communications as much as to military strategy. Problems could emerge not out of the blue with some all-or-nothing attack but instead out of an assertion of rights in contested territory, a principled stand that embraced a rival, probing action to explore weaknesses that came up against strength, military maneuvers to ‘send a message’, or displays of resolve that turned into actual clashes and escalated quickly.

Freedman displays a remarkable mastery of facts, analysis, and source material in THE FUTURE OF WAR. As we look around the globe and reflect on the ongoing conflicts and future potential conflicts, such as the control over the South China Sea, not to mention relatively recent events such as Russia’s annexation of Crimea or the hacking into IT companies with clients such as political parties and major businesses (interfering with a state’s electoral process or causing financial disruption), or the virtual possibilities of some states crippling another state’s grids from public utilities to military hardware, Freedman offers us an opportunity to learn from the past as we reflect on the future.

So, if you are interested in looking back to view the future of warfare, if you are a history buff, if you are looking to enhance your library with books on war that range from military theory to literature to dystopian fictional and sci-fi thrillers, or if you are a serious student of war, then look no further. In any event, let’s hope political leaders, especially the super and sub-superpowers heed Freedman’s sage advice to pay as much attention to innovation in diplomacy and international communications, as they do to searching for innovative military strategies.


Read the introduction to this Book Review Series.

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Author: Michael G. Karnavas

Michael G. Karnavas is an American trained lawyer. He is licensed in Alaska and Massachusetts and is qualified to appear before the various International tribunals, including the International Criminal Court (ICC). Residing and practicing primarily in The Hague, he is recognized as an expert in international criminal defence, including, pre-trial, trial, and appellate advocacy.

One thought on “Book Review: THE FUTURE OF WAR”

  1. Or, as I used to say back in my information management days, when I came across a particularly egregious piece of software engineering: Full lifetime employment!

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