The Future of War: A History

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Release Date: 
October 9, 2017
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“should be required reading for anyone trying to understand or decipher the potential direction of war and conflict in what has already began as a violent and unpredictable century . . .”

What will the next war look like? How does a military ponder and prepare for this next war? These are questions that have been deliberated by generals, politicians, and even novelists since wars were first waged. Unfortunately, history has shown that most of the time these questions were answered incorrectly, with often disastrous results.

In this new book, Sir Lawrence Freedman, Emeritus Professor of War Studies at King's College London, offers a fascinating and enlightening look at how the “future” of war has been viewed over the course of history, concentrating on both the professional and amateur views of the direction of conflict since the end of the 19th century.

Sir Lawrence leaves no stone unturned, using the benefit of history to examine how the direction and potential for armed conflict were considered by armies and societies, and the book takes an expansive consideration of how changes to technology and society were considered or, more importantly, not considered to influence future conflicts.

Beginning with the use of machine guns and entrenching tools to defeat infantry maneuver which lead to the mass slaughter of World War 1, to the overblown promise of the potential of strategic bombing in World War II, to the outsized influence on nuclear weapons during the Cold War, the book offers a fascinating look at how pundits, politicians, and soldiers tried to predict what the “next military revolution” would be and how to leverage that to win wars.

What makes this book so informative is the examination of what gifted amateurs thought future war would be like as well. Science fiction and thriller novelists like H. G. Wells and Tom Clancy with their often out of the box viewpoints on future conflict are explored with the same rigor Sir Lawrence critiques the work of the post-World War II cottage industry of “think tanks” that try to prognosticate the next great influencer of conflict. Interestingly, it appears that often the professionals within the think tanks were no better at predicting the future than the novelists.

But Sir Lawrence doesn’t just exam war as an isolated phenomenon. He also includes myriad peace and disarmament movements that grew out of the carnage of the World Wars and the development of nuclear weapons during the Cold War, and how these predictors of disarmament and world government were just as wrong in predicting a utopian picture of a future world where war had been outlawed or rendered obsolete.

This book has many important lessons for both professionals and interested students of war and international affairs, and Sir Lawrence punctures a great number of myths about the influence of technology on warfare, in particular how the next great wonder weapon, whether the airplane, atomic bomb, or microchip driven guided missile will suddenly change the nature of war forever and render one side so powerful that it can easily defeat any foe under any circumstances.

This, of course, has never been borne out in history since, as Clausewitz noted, war is conducted against a thinking and reacting opponent that will quickly adapt to negate their opponent’s advantage, and technological innovations are seldom as decisive or enduring as their proponents believe.

Sir Lawrence ends the book with the most important chapters for current students of strategy and military thought, examining recent trends in predicting the course and nature of war with his discerning and skeptical analysis, sorting through the recent cluster of new factors likely to affect war, including climate change and the growth of world-wide urban areas.

As he notes in these chapters, a huge industry has grown since the end of the Cold War dedicated to predicting the next big war and its influences, and these prognosticators have almost always been wrong. But as he also notes, war as a political and societal event is not going away in the 21st century, just harder to predict and control. Unfortunately, as this entire book points out, wars almost never turn out as predicted.

This is the cautionary thesis of this book and why it should be required reading for anyone trying to understand or decipher the potential direction of war and conflict in what has already began as a violent and unpredictable century.