Former U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has been known to quip that Washington’s predictions about its future wars have been one hundred percent right, zero percent of the time. In early 1950, officials said that the United States would not fight in Korea. In 1964, U.S. President Lyndon Johnson promised that he would not send American troops to fight wars in Asia. Iraq was not on any American’s list of enemies in 1990; after all, the United States had assisted that country in its war against Iran just a decade before. And few people—not even Khalid Sheik Mohammed, one of the architects of the 9/11 attacks—anticipated the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in 2001.
So why bother thinking about the future of war at all? The answer, for better or worse, is that there is no other choice. If bureaucracies do not carefully consider possible future scenarios, they will make choices that merely reflect their implicit or explicit assumptions about what kinds of wars they will fight. Worse yet, they may simply carry on doing what they know how to do with no regard for the future. It is not enough to follow U.S. President Barack Obama’s injunction “Don’t do stupid shit.” Policymakers must be able to choose among alternative ideas.
In The Future of War, Lawrence Freedman, professor emeritus at King’s College London (and a member of this magazine’s panel of regular book reviewers), comprehensively examines how people have done this in the past. But his analysis will disappoint those seeking practical advice. Although Freedman offers a useful corrective to current tendencies, he may have overlooked some of history’s more useful lessons.
FUTURE WARS: A RETROSPECTIVE
To survey how Americans and Europeans have thought about the future of war over the past 150 years, Freedman consults many different sources, discussing fiction writers such as Tom Clancy, H. G. Wells, and Jules Verne and Vietnam War movies such as the John Wayne classic The
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