BOOK: The Future of War – A History, by Sir Lawrence Freedman

The Future of War – A History, by Sir Lawrence Freedman
Penguin Books

Don’t expect an easy read. This book is dense – in its writing, its footnotes (43 pages of them) and in its information. It is, however as gripping as any thriller and full of insights that have universal use.

Split into three parts, the first two, dealing with the concept of war and the way wars are fought, are revealing if somewhat tangential to the day-to-day job for the majority of us. The lesson is that things move fast – and that comes as no surprise, but it is illustrated by a well-researched account of past wars and past errors. Author Freedman, the Emeritus Professor of War Studies at King’s College, notes just how wrong predictions of the next threat have been.

The third section concerns how the changing patterns of technology and urban living are creating an increasingly fragile system, open to attack from states or other groups. This is the section that bares most relevance to the worlds of insurance and risk. The connected world with its risks of cyber attack, misinformation and climate change are singularly areas where it is worth attempting to judge the future, but they are also ingredients in a dangerous brew where one element reacts with another.

Cyber attack is the probably the most immediate threat, and here Freedman is wary of states acting like terrorists, or a coordinated attack by terrorists, borrowing the term ‘electronic Pearl Habor’ to describe a massive all-out attack on electronic systems that could cripple a nation without a single shot – although those could follow as the advantage of any technology the defenders had would be wiped away. Even away from any physical ‘invasion’, such an attack could rapidly lead to social and economic decline. The fragility of systems is rather underlined by the example used of an elderly woman in Georgia severing all internet services in neighbouring Armenia with a spade.

Another key theme is urbanisation and the creation of mega-cities that so large that they become ungovernable; and, as law and order break down as gangs and corruption take control, normal conditions (for the West) are swept aside. Even if the idea of a lawless ‘frontier’ city might seem dramatic, any action that increases risk and illegal activities must be considered.

This plays to the third part: the fear of climate change being ‘weaponised’ by groups to help with recruitment, or using it as a weapon in itself. Despite climate change already being a rather major concern, the reality is that nearly all wars are ultimately fought over resources, whether that be oil or water, and wars always have side-effects that create other risks. As said, the three ideas are certainly not mutually exclusive.

As is repeatedly pointed out (and here we can return to the military sections, too) there has been a long-held belief in a ‘decisive victory’, harnessing superiority in technology and strategy to create a single moment of victory. This is a cherished belief, despite the evidence that it is seldom the case. From generals preparing for war or politicians with a new campaign to businesses, the idea is appealing to the human psyche but, as Freedman notes, it is increasingly unattainable – all we can realistically achieve is ‘stabilising’ a situation. It is this philosophical view that perhaps encapsulates the greatest lesson: that we attempt to create Maginot Lines of security, but these things can never be a timeless defence, nor can they stop Hostility – all they can do is maintain a status quo in which things can be managed.

If all of this sounds a bit troubling, Freedman uses enough references to raise a wry smile, referencing Star Wars and Dr Strangelove along the way (he applauds the use of fiction to explore threats) and keeps delivering interesting observations. The book is dense, but that is because there is a lot to be drawn from it.

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