Complicated History

A couple of months ago, I went to the Sullivan Museum and History Museum at Norwich University for a talk by one of the history professors, Dr. Steven Sodergren, as part of an exhibit series on the Civil War. His talk was about the specific motivations for individuals on each side of the Civil War, refuting the idea that there was a uniform block of support behind both the Union and Confederate governments. Some Southern states, when the decision came to vote on the decision to split from the United States, had a close majority: no more than 55-60% of the population supporting the idea, leaving a substantial chunk in opposition.

The idea behind the talk was a sound one, taking on the idea of the very nature of taught history: it’s not as simple as it’s made out to be. History is a difficult topic to convey to a large audience: big, complicated and multi-facetted, the very instruction of the field is just as enlightening as a separate topic. The Civil War was never quite as clear cut when it came to the motivations of the soldiers on the field: according to Sodergren, it was a deeply personal and difficult choice for everyone who took up arms. More recently, a talk on VPR with Vermont Historian Howard Coffin noted that looking at enlistment numbers is important: high initially, support dropped off following the first major battles when bodies began to return home.

I recently presented a paper at the New England Historical Association, where I talked about Norwich University’s efforts during the Battle of the Bulge. My panel’s commentator noted that between the papers, there’s a high level view of history, with the strategy and big decisions, and the ground level, with the individual soldiers fighting: my paper bridged the gap, telling the story of the Bulge through the soldiers who fought there, but also how their actions played into a much larger story. Their own actions were far from singular: they spanned the entire command structure, from a Private First Class to a Major General. In our continued study of Norwich History, my wife and I have found soldiers who enlisted in foreign militaries prior to the United States’ entry into the Second World War, while others were drafted.

A recent article by Slate Magazine caught my eye: How Space-Age Nostalgia Hobbles Our Future: Contrary to popular belief, public support for space exploration in the 1960s was far from universal. It’s an interesting read, presenting a very contrary view to the supposed popularity of the Apollo program during the 1960s-1970s. Far from the major popular support that we perceive, the public approval rating for the program only hit a majority around the time that Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon, and individual accounts from around the country shows that there was a wide range of opinions as to the value of the program. Support for the space programs also varied wildly depending on age group, and undoubtedly, on location as well.

Looking at political records from the time, there’s also an important story when it comes to how Congress approved wartime funding: the public easily remembers President John F. Kennedy’s speech at Rice University. The reality of actually funding the space program is far more complicated, with competing national priorities. Even Kennedy’s speech, while influential, isn’t so clear cut: it was designed in the aftermath of the failed Bay of Pigs Invasion, and was issued to help divert attention away from the administration’s blunder.

A book that I particularly detest is Victor David Hanson’s Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power, an enormously popular and reviled book on the nature of culture and war: he outlines that the very nature of democracy makes a standing military inherently stronger, because the individual soldiers have a stake in their government and by extension, their destiny. It’s a very appealing, straight-cut assumption, and one that breaks down when one considers the enormous complexity inherent in a democratic nation: no sane person makes the decision to take up arms for their country lightly, and Hanson’s text does a disservice to the historical community by overly simplifying a situation that shouldn’t be simplified.

In a lot of ways, this falls under the same public mentality that spawned the Greatest Generation from the Second World War and the Lost Cause line of thinking from the Civil War. Looking even further back into our nation’s history, the War for Independence was likewise far from universally supported! Another specific example from one of my instructor’s talks was the Boston Tea Party: essentially a rebranded name in an age of nostalgia to smooth over the fact that the ‘Destruction of the Tea’ was committed by political radicals.

I often wonder as I hear political reminiscing about the space age or the greatest generation or of Lincoln’s efforts, whether people throughout the ages understand that the rosy memories upon which we build the future on is really nothing more than a shared fabrication, and why we reject the complicated story for something that has been watered down to the point that it’s contrary to the original message.

History is our most wonderful, complicated Mandelbrot set that continues to bring out new levels and stories. Dr. Sodergren’s talk highlighted a key point in how we approach history: it becomes defined by its major outcomes, as opposed to the actions that lead up to them, and increasingly, it feels as though the lessons that we can learn are missed, overlooked or simply ignored.

Who knows, though? Maybe we need the simple stories.

Depictions of History

(Click for a larger version)

War has a universal impact on the world: travel to any town or city on the planet, and you’ll likely find a stone engraved with various wars that the place has witnessed, and the citizens that they lost. We count our experiences by our losses, and I try to make it a point to look at one of the memorials if I happen to go near one. This past weekend, I came across one of the best ones that I’ve ever seen, located in Hardwick, Vermont.

Where most that I’ve seen around Vermont are simple affairs – a polished granite slab, etched with names – Hardwick’s is a fascinating one to behold. The names are carved on the back of five blocks, each depicting five of the conflicts of the 20th century: World War I, World War II, Korea, Vietnam and the Middle East (presumably, the current wars in Iraq / Afghanistan). Each panel holds with it a similar theme: a depiction of their surroundings, the tools with which they used, but most importantly, the profiles of the soldiers who served.

In and of itself, the memorial is an outstanding depiction of the evolution of war in the 20th century, without losing the key focus: those who served and died for their country. The tools of war have changed drastically: rifles were replaced with machine guns, while the aircraft overhead have grown ever more faster, flown higher and have served numerous purposes on the battlefield. The terrain has shifted from the ruins of Europe to those of Iraq, from the Pacific islands to Vietnam and Korea. The people, however, remain constant, faceless.

History begins at the personal level. For all of the major reasons for which a war is fought; Axis aggression in Europe, the spread of communism in Asia, or the threat of state-sponsored terrorism, there is the ground level view from the people who served. What I take out of this memorial is the focus not on the politics and reasons for the war, but for the simple reminder that the people who carried out the will of their country shouldered one hell of a burden. Beyond that simple message, it’s elegantly executed, a visual story that sums up almost a hundred years of military history at a glance, a powerful image to take in.

Memorials are worth taking a look at, connecting to, because the stories of history are literally set in stone here: not the individual stories, but hard data, showing who really paid the ultimate price, and when.

Battlefield Doctor: Dr. Chris Coppola

Norwich University’s Colby Military Writer’s Symposium is an annual event that gathers military writers together in Northfield, where a series of panels and presentations help to educate the student body and general public on relevant and pressing matters in today’s military. I’ve looked forward to the event each year, and once again, I’ve been impressed with the quality and information this year.

The first presentation of the symposium was held in the Kreitzberg Library’s multipurpose room, featuring Dr. Chris Coppola, author of the book Coppola: A Pediatric Surgeon in Iraq, where he recounted his experiences as a surgeon in Iraq during his two deployments. In years past, where the symposium has discussed larger issues such as counterinsurgency doctrine or civilian interactions in the battlefield, this represented a bit of a departure, because it shed a bit of light on a major combat element: the casualties.

Dr. Coppola noted that the casualty infrastructure that has been put into place in Iraq during the invasion and subsequent occupation was an unprecedented one in the history of warfare. At any point in the country, a soldier or casualty was never more than twenty minutes from a hospital: once a soldier was injured, a helicopter was flown in to the scene, and the casualty was evacuated to a hospital system. A system had been put into place, with hospitals numbered with a certain level, which would allow for a certain amount of treatment. The wartime hospitals ranged from a level one to a level three center, which would allow doctors to treat and stabilize the wounded. For more serious cases, people were evacuated to Germany by plane, to level four hospitals, and eventually, to level five hospitals in the United States.

According to Dr. Coppola, this was a key element to saving lives on the battlefield. His hospital, he told us, had a survival rate of 98%: if people went in with a pulse, they had a very good chance of surviving their visit. The short trip after being wounded helped: this wasn’t always the skill of the doctors there, (although with the internet, they had access to a lot of information and the cumulative experience of prior doctors), but the fact that a wounded soldier with serious injuries could be treated very quickly. Another factor, he noted, was new equipment, such as body armor and vehicles engineered to redirect blast energy if hit by an IED.

However, doctors faced new types of wounds in addition to bullets: blast wounds from explosives, were common, and resulted in numerous types of injuries. As Dr. Coppola said: anything on the body can be hurt. When he received his first patient in Iraq, he saw that he had to treat five of the most serious wounds that could be done to a person.

Civilians were another major problem that they faced, as his hospital received far more civilian casualties than they did US soldiers or even enemy combatants. This was compounded by a couple of problems: the Iraqi healthcare system was broken, with numerous doctors killed or known to have fled the country, as well as being behind the times. As a result, when word got out that there was a pediatric surgeon in the area, people began to bring their children to the hospital, where doctors worked to fix other long-standing issues, such as birth defects, injuries, and other problems that treatments simply weren’t readily available for families. While the primary mission of the doctors was to treat soldiers to return to the battlefield or stabilize them for further treatment, doctors played to their strength and helped within their specialties.

One particular anecdote, Coppola recounted a story of where a known insurgent had been brought in, who had talked about killing former patients. It was an incredibly difficult thing to have to do, treating the person, but they followed through and fulfilled their mission: treating patients who came through the door. Undoubtedly, this will be an ethical question that doctors will continue to face in the future.

Coppola wrapped up by addressing the affects of warfare long after the battle is over. He acknowledged some of the problems in the system at home, in the treatment of soldiers after they have returned home. Despite the issues, he said, we owe them the care. A 20 year old amputee, he said, has a better chance of rehabilitation, and incredible advances are being made in post-injury treatment. Other problems might come up in the near future, long after we’ve left the battle: soldiers who are using legal drugs, such as energy drinks and sleeping pills, might have an increased risk of mental problems, with undesirable problems after the fact: there’s been a rise in suicides, fratricides, and long standing problems such as Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome. That’s a legacy of the war that we’ll need to cope with, and learn to handle as the years move on.

Coppola’s talk was an enlightening one: I have a feeling that it’s something that should be seen by everyone, because of the graphic nature: it’s a vivid demonstration of war’s effects on the people fighting it, and the people unlucky enough to be in harm’s way during the conflict. Coppola seemed optimistic, though, noting that where doctors had learned from their experiences, he learned from their experiences, and that he regularly consults on cases with doctors overseas, putting his own experiences to continued use.

Warfare for the Crowdsourcing Age: Adam Robert’s New Model Army

New Model Army, by Adam Roberts, takes an interesting look at the function of warfare and society with the question: What if a hierarchical military, such as ones set up along the lines of the British or U.S. Armies, and pitted it against an army that was fully democratic in its organization?

The concept is an interesting one, and the book as a whole is a perfect example of something that I’ve wanted to see in the subgenre: a world in which the military itself is examined, not only in the tactical side of things, but also in its ideology. Roberts puts forth an interesting idea that blends together the changing states of technology and warfare: militaries have adopted a new organizational structure: rather than the strict chain of command that defines the military lifestyle, they have brought together a large group of people, connected them through secure wikis and use the power of the crowd to fight. Tactical decisions are voted upon, and each soldier updates the battlefield map with the needed information: where they are, where the enemy is, and so forth.

The concept is one that is already in the earliest stages of implementation in the real-world battlefield, on a couple of levels. With the advances in technology, military leaders have been able to reduce the ‘fog of war’, the so-called elements of the battlefield, where commanders can’t see what’s happening, and are forced to rely on planning extensively. As the abilities of the military to watch the battlefield increases, from cameras mounted on soldiers to drones flying overhead, major changes have been seen, both in the leadership and organizational structure of the military, but also in how tactics are put forth.

Indeed, the connection between the ability to wage war and the relative ease to which technology is available has already begun some major changes. In 2008, insurgents entered the city of Mumbai, armed with cell phones and the internet, and were able to coordinate their attacks, using Google Earth to help plan the attack. Other examples of similar uses have been used across the various conflicts around the world. As the world becomes more connected, it’s far easier to coordinate attacks with individuals across country borders and continents.

New Model Army, while it puts forward an interesting story on the military, there’s a number of things that make the story a bit more implausible, technology advances aside. Currently, the United States and her allies are into their ninth year of waging a counter-insurgency battle in the Middle East, one that will likely leave lasting impressions on the organizations of all involved, and are lessons that would not be easily forgotten. As such, the New Model Armies (NMAs) are essentially a form of insurgency warfare that seem to plague the regular British military wherever they confront them, inflicting heavy losses and forcing surrenders at several battles. For a nation that’s largely been involved with counterinsurgency warfare for longer than the US (if one can consider the problems in Ireland), it seems strange that they would be unable to counter said forces, not to mention not adopting some of the methods in and of themselves. The successes of the NMAs seem to come from the ineptitude of the British military. Political motivations or opinions notwithstanding, it are a situation that annoyed me as I read the book.

The British NMA, soldiers were instilled with a sense that a pure form of democracy, and carried such an air of superiority amongst them that I can’t help but thing that their role was satirical, at least at points. It’s not until into around two thirds of the book that the main character is confronted with any sort of counter-point to his philosophy that democracies are inherently better than any other form of self governance.

When it comes to military powers, democracy is something that really doesn’t exist, and for good reason: the style of warfare that has evolved over the course of human history ultimately relies on a large presence of soldiers, acting in concert, to achieve a goal that’s determined by someone higher up in the chain of command. The ability to work together as a unit is a key element for the battlefield, and discipline is drilled into soldiers early on. The evolution of uniforms and mass-produced weapons helped to support this. The outsider viewpoint of a the military as a close-knit group of people follow orders, are yelled at and depersonalized (The term G.I. means General Infantry), is somewhat accurate, but the full meaning and reasons behind this type of training needs to be taken into consideration. The role of the soldier is to fulfill national priorities: in this case, by force, and essentially, they are willing tools of what is determined needed to be done.

Looking at a group such as a New Model Army, it’s hard to imagine that a force composed of individuals, with a bottom-up organizational method would be as successful in the real world: individuals might be disciplined, but military actions require the coordinated efforts of a group to accomplish their goals: hence the depersonalizing training to get people to not run away from being shot at. Similarly, in the NMA, people hold no rank, nor do they carry any sort of specialization, which in and of itself causes issues. Militaries are groups of specialists, whether it be in a certain weapons system, as medics or as leaders, and I don’t believe that the simple availability of information through the cloud can replace an individual trained and specializing in something as important as lifesaving. (I know I wouldn’t want a surgeon trained from Wikipedia in heart surgery). Militaries are likewise structured (when they work properly) with individuals skilled in leadership and planning are promoted, and are able to recognize, carry out and accomplish their goals.

Furthermore, military actions recruit more than just tactical (on the battlefield) planning to accomplish their goals: there is far more long term planning when it comes to carrying out national goals, which in turn, inform the tactical requirements of a battlefield. Once again, in a crowd sourcing environment, I don’t see that this would be an effective style of fighting. People in a large group might have their own goals, methods of fighting that run counter to national goals. In the book, the NMA uses a nuclear ‘bullet’, a sized down nuclear warhead that surprises everyone. Similar actions exist in real life: groups such as Freedom Watch or the Minuteman Project, which advocates or utilize force outside of national interests and policy. Undoubtedly, said crowd groups would utilize similar behavior in their actions, especially in a war zone. A U.S. Officer who captures the story’s main character makes such a point, noting that while his British NMA is a good example of where this sort of thing works, there’s other groups that are essentially mobs.

Insurgencies around the world utilize social networking and crowd sourcing elements right now, and in all likelihood, there will be moves towards this future that Roberts has predicted. However, as they do so, their opponents will do what the militaries in this book haven’t done: adapt to the new styles of fighting, and find ways to counter them, but also understand how and why such measures are being put into place.

While there are real issues with the style of fighting in the book, Roberts has done what I’ve really yet to see another Military Science Fiction writer do with the genre: look at how people fight, and how things might work. This is a military science fiction book that goes beyond the action; it goes straight to the heart of how militaries function, speculative in and of itself. I see the fighting that occurs in the book as an afterthought, used to support the real character elements that go into the story, and as such, New Model Army is an interesting, fascinating book that annoyed me thought out, but it frequently made me stop and think about how such a thing might actually work in reality. Because of this, this book stands out from a lot of other miltiary science fiction stories.

One thing is for sure though, if there is a rise in this sort of style of fighting, it will be a very bad thing for all of us.

Learning to Understand


Earlier today, the former Chief of Staff of the U.S. Army, Gen. Gordon Sullivan, spoke at the museum at Norwich University’s campus that bears his name for a brief talk to students. As he opened, he noted that he didn’t have a plan for what he wanted to talk about, but pointed out objects in one of the rooms that related to his experience within the time that he had spent in the military. Over the course of his 36 year career, Sullivan has seen a lot: he volunteered to go to Vietnam and served for a couple of tours there, while his career culminated in his presiding over the transition of the U.S. Army after the fall of the Soviet Union, and the massive changes that came as a result of that. A number of points that Sullivan brought up stuck with me over the course of his talk.

General Sullivan is a person that I personally admire greatly, and I’ve had the pleasure of meeting him a couple of times: the first was in 2007, shortly after I graduated from Norwich with a B.A. in History. Several short days after I walked, I boarded a plane for England, then France, and found myself in Normandy with a contingent from Norwich, with Generals Sullivan and Nelson leading the tour of the battlefield, providing a rich amount of historical context for the battlefield, but also an incredible amount of information on the value of good leaders. There is no better place to highlight that issue than on a battlefield, and over the years since, I’ve become fascinated in how this can be applied to everyday life.

One topic that he touched on has particular significance in the modern face of warfare. “It takes troops on the ground, not technology, to solve problems.” To illustrate this, he picked up a piece of metal, a tool that was used in gun, and pointed out that it took over a hundred people to make that part: it was a high tech piece of machinery, and is likely the cumulative result of thousands of hours of research and development, testing and deployment. He then took our attention to a wooden cowbell on the wall of the exhibit, noting that we (The U.S.) were operating in an area where this was a level of technology, and that the combatants on the battlefield could face the United States and come out victorious.

During his tenure of the U.S. Army Chief of Staff during the Clinton Administration, he was working to transition the military after the end of the Cold War, when the operation at Mogadishu resulted in a number of U.S. casualties. The point that he made seemed to wear on him, and he noted that every soldier that died represented a huge loss, losses that the rest of the army, and himself, as the top of the chain of command, were responsible for. And, he noted, this was in a time of peace. His attitude towards the current operations is fairly clear: “You can’t kill your way to victory”, and through this, the U.S. has to work with people, get them to change their minds, in order to succeed in this new battlefield.

At one point in his talk, Sullivan noted that he was proud to be a Norwich graduate: “I am proud to say that I took an oath in 1955… I’ve been part of this for 50 years, and it started here.” (paraphrased), and that Norwich was an important place in his life. This has gotten me thinking all afternoon about the value of the two educations that I’ve earned here. The world, and military affairs are incredibly complicated businesses, and a certain level of comprehension brings about a different understanding of the situation.

The military affairs that are going on now are not as cleanly cut as portrayed, and winning is simply not as it was fifty years ago. The military has an ongoing change as its mission shifts from one enemy to others, and with different styles of fighting. Leadership, of the highest caliber, is required to guide these transitions, and I believe that the education that I’ve gotten here, and since earning the official stamps of approval, have given me the mindset that is really required of understanding (at least in part) some of these elements, which I feel will become even more important to our lives. However, as it grows in importance, there needs to be a greater importance in comprehending said events.

I personally count my time in Normandy as one of the most formative educational experiences of my life. I hope that others will follow.

Droning On

One of the significant elements of the ongoing ‘War on Terror’ in Afghanistan and Iraq is the continual use of Predator Drones, and other unmanned systems that allow for the remote control of weapons to minimize casualties amongst American forces overseas, while still achieving their objectives. Interestingly, the soldiers who pilot them have been suffering from Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome (PTSD) , essentially experiencing warfare in similar ways, despite operating in vastly different conditions.

According to Military.com: “But that whiplash transition is taking a toll on some of them mentally, and so is the way the unmanned aircraft’s cameras enable them to see people getting killed in high-resolution detail, some officers say.” (Source) This is further explained at the relatively up close and personal view that soldiers piloting the Drones get of the action, as opposed to that of a fighter pilot, far above the action, who might not see the impact that their actions have.

The situation that these pilots find themselves in bears much resemblance to some of the actions in Orson Scott Card’s classic Science Fiction novel, Ender’s Game. In this book, Andrew ‘Ender’ Wiggin, is training aboard an orbital facility, designed to bring out the best tactical leaders in a fight against an alien race. At the last act of the book, Ender has graduated from school, and tasked with what he believes are further training simulations against the aliens, when in reality, he is directing military assets, time and time again against the alien’s defenses, destroying them at the end. Upon realizing what he’s done, he has a sort of nervous breakdown, and while hailed as a hero, moves to live a secluded life off planet.

Now, in 2010, we are living in what a lot of people would consider a fantastical, science fiction-styled world, where computers fit in the palm of one’s hand, and where militaries have the ability to strike against militants and foreign militaries with fairly automated devices. A 2009 book, Wired for War, by P.W. Singer, of the Brookings Institute, looks closely to the developments of military hardware in warfare, and looks to the very nature of automated weapons and the extent to where people will be in control of said weapons. The machines that go to war now are not the machines of science fiction literature and films: they’re more like remote controls, with a person ‘in the loop’ at the end of the communications console, who directs the craft against targets and basic functions. The move to a more robotic system will occur as the human controllers are released from more controls, with a computer that’s able to take over more functions. Some robotic systems, such as the ones that are designed to shoot mortars out of the sky, can react much faster than a human operator, and in order to effectively operate, they are more automated. Some drones can largely act on their own, with their mission programmed into them, with a human looking to push the button to start it up.

However, like in Ender’s Game, operators are still on the front lines, abit virtually, carrying out their commander’s intent and subsequent orders in a way that helps to deliver their mission, much like soldiers on the ground, operating in ways that might not be as appropriate for drones. At the end of the day, however, there is a central mission that needs to be carried out, issued by a commanding officer, whereupon, the details of the mission should be carried out in the most appropriate manner. This often depends upon the quality of the leader at the top, the resources that are available at their disposal, and the abilities of the people underneath them to carry them out. In this way, the story of Ender’s Game and that of a Drone Pilot could easily be reconciled with one another. The same can often be said for any other military science fiction book out there, and the quality of the novel or film will not depend upon the technology that is present, but the world surrounding military events.

This is why, when reading about Predator Drones, I’m reminded of the events that take place in Ender’s Game. The specific technology, governments and people don’t necessarily matter in these contexts, but the framework laid out and put together in a largely rational and logical fashion endures, lasting far longer than technological predictions that will likely date the book. As such, Ender’s Game is an interesting read in the science fiction universe, and has applications during the present day. Indeed, a number of these lessons can be applied, no matter the time period and technology present: ancient Roman militaries would act in the same general way that a modern commander would: locate the problem, determine a mission, find the right way to overcome said problem and execute a plan to achieve one’s goals.

However, what does change, is the methods in which soldiers interact with the battlefield. In the instance of Drone pilots and Andrew Wiggin, both deal with the realities of war remotely and virtually. Indeed, one of the biggest issues that one might face with operating said machinery would be the emotional impact and power associated with the ability to strike without reprisal. As the battlefield becomes more automated, warfare becomes fare more effective, cleaner, and potentially quicker, at least on the tactical level. Yet, soldiers are still at war.

In the end, Drone warfare is essentially another tool available for military commanders, and as such, the soldiers who operate them will come under the same stresses, conflicts and moral issues as any other soldier assigned to a mission. This circumstances change as soldiers are further removed from the battlefield, but it should be remembered that despite the distance from the actual conflict, there will still be repercussions, as these soldiers fall within far larger strategy and operational plans, and are thus still at war, as has been carried out for thousands of years.

Fighting in the Future

Earlier this week, the Russian metro system was hit with two suicide bombers, who detonated their explosives in the midst of rush hour, killing 39 people. It is a tragedy, and a reminder that it is not just the United States that is under threat from fundamental forces, but any large organization that has displeased factions around them. It also helps to underscore the ridiculous nature of any sort of ‘War on Terror’, the American brand or otherwise, because this is a type of warfare that will remain with people for a long time to come. In the future, there will be war, conflict and any number of atrocities committed against people.

Terrorism is an act of warfare, and as such, is a calculated political statement that is designed to attract the maximum amount of attention as a way to promote their cause, and to show that they feel that they have had no other way to legitimately protest their actions against whomever they are fighting against. I was surprised when the Chechen rebel leader Doku Umarov took over a day to announce his participation in the bombings, to either preempt any sort of group attempting to take advantage of the atrocity, and to establish their anger against the Russian government.

The science fiction world pushes into the future, often using warfare as a backdrop for a number of different stories. Very rarely, however, is the nature of warfare really discussed within these definitions, where war is a political entity. Terrorist-centric warfare, with attacks against civilians (who in turn, represent a larger organization or government), is something that has not really taken to the speculative fiction genre, but it will undoubtedly influence future works, as World War II influenced classic books during the Golden Age of Science Fiction. The major battles fought in the Pacific Ocean, mainland Europe or in the sands of the Sahara Desert provided fantastical and dramatic backdrops in which larger stories could be told or adapted for what might come for the future. Certainly the Second World War provided a number of elements that were almost unthought-of of by the average person on the streets. Massive bombing forces to lay waste to a country, soldiers dropped in by aircraft, submarines that could paralyze an entire navy, unstoppable bombs that could reach countries in a very short amount of time and the splitting of the atom. Still, with all technology aside, World War II proved to be an advanced war in how these technologies were implemented into the major strategy and tactics of the day, a departure from the prior major war.

Reading over the first couple of chapters in Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars recently, I was struck at how similar the opening was to some elements of real life, where one of the main characters, astronaut and colonist John Boone was assassinated by fundamentalist agents under another character, Frank Chalmers. In a way, this is an exceptionally similar event, with a number of parallels to the modern day: a political entity, frustrated by the actions of a legitimate government, acted out using violence as a way to demonstrate a political point. The innocence of those targeted does not matter, in events like this: they become an object, and that’s what has happened in this regard.

Frank Herbert’s Dune is another book in which militant fighting is demonstrated as a way for groups to illustrate their issues with a larger established authority. Following the Arakis takeover by House Harkonnen, the survivors of the family ally themselves with the Fremen, a nomadic group in the desert. As they regard him as a prophesied messiah, he uses their power as a fighting force to take on the Harkonnens. This aspect of the Dune story has a number of other connections to modern day events, where religious extremism and political philosophy blend together to the point where they are inseparable. In this modern day, the global Jihadist movement isn’t so much of a religious statement; it’s a political statement on the part of a radical/religious government, which uses the beliefs of its followers to enact terrible acts. The suicide bombings in Moscow or Iraq aren’t religiously motivated: they are conducted on the behalf of people seeking to institute some sort of political change, using religious rhetoric to get their base fired up. In a way, these are the tactics of any major political party, even here in the United States, especially during campaign season, when there is a lot of misinformation and statements. Fortunately, people don’t go and blow themselves up in support of any candidates.

Fundamentalist warfare is not at the heart of military thought and theory, but the tactics and motivations are generally the same as any larger authority going to war with another nation, and in rare occasions, this sort of mentality and plotting is really looked at and used by a speculative fiction novel or other project. Red Mars and Dune exemplify the issues surrounding war-like conflicts and actions, where a number of other books really look at other, elements of warfare – the effects of combat on soldiers, morals, and so on, as well as the technology that is used as the main point of these sorts of novels.

The clear lesson of military science fiction of this sort shouldn’t be what types of technology we should be looking for. There are no good inherent lessons in that realm of thinking. Technology and tactics are dependent upon the environment in which they are created and subsequently used against an enemy. The tactics of airborne soldiers during the Second World War would have been elements of science fiction to ancient Roman generals, but it represents not only the technology but the tactical and strategic thinking behind it. No, the lessons that should be learned (if one is looking for lessons) are the fundamental underpinnings of what brings two political entities against one another in violence. It’s not the technology; it’s the people behind it.

Unit Cohesion in Warfare

Over this past weekend, rather than watching the overpriced millionaires hitting each other, a couple of friends of mine and I spend the weekend gaming, where a particular argument broke out over the role of discipline in the armed forces, over leadership style and just how people should be managed in warfare.

A basic element of warfare is a military that is able and willing to carry out the orders as an extension of that nation’s will or foreign policy. This is a consistent part of the practice of war, an element that is seen throughout the world when it comes to effective forces, and is often a key element in why militaries succeed in their goals. As far back to Egyptian times, early warfare utilized massed infantry tactics, involving large numbers of soldiers working in concert to obtain their objectives, and backed up, usually, by cavalry and archers.

A good example of this would be the Assyrian military, under Assurnasirpall II in the 9th century BC. He put together a “formidable Assyrian army [that] was well organized in its infantry and siege arms, but the mobile arm was in transition. The infantry was forced into two main groups: the spearmen and the archers.” (Archer, World History of Warfare, 20) The mobile arm of this military was one of the first introductions of cavalry in warfare, and together, each element represents a significant change in tactics from one to the other, but all must be used in concert with one another, especially as the cavalry forces transitioned from chariots to regular cavalry forces. (Archer, 23.) Furthermore, Archer attests that “It appears the most important reason for Assyrian success was that Assyrian rulers were progressive in importing, incorporating and improving military ideas, expertise and weapons from neighboring and often hostile societies.” (Archer, 23) Thus, an army that is able to improvise and adapt to changing tactics and techniques when it comes to war fighting, seems to be on better footing, not only in incorporating the ideas by adding in new classes of soldiers, but also finding ways in making them work together. Moving across the world to China, one sees that this is much the same, with the Ch’in army from around the same time, which utilized a mainly infantry force, one that adapted to changing conditions.

John Lynn, in his book, Battle: A History of Combat and Culture, notes early on that there are similarities in the conduct of Greek soldiers as well: “The aspis protected more than the hoplite who carried it, because it overlapped with the others to form a shield wall that covered the front of the entire phalanx… Other parts of the panoply protected the individual hoplite, but in a sense, his aspis guarded his comrade and the phalanx as a whole, because a gap in the line could prove fatal in battle.” (Lynn, Battle: A History of Combat and Culture, 6) This helps to reinforce the nature of organized combat and speaks to the necessity for such an organized force. On one hand, it helps to protect the soldiers in the line as they carry out their mission. Soldiers who fled from battle were considered treasonous, and would be punished for letting their comrades down. However, another element of this is purely practical on the part of the commanders: a force that is able to work together and not break down under the stresses of battle is a force that can ultimately succeed in battle, and depends upon the soldiers working together in a unified fashion to protect one another.

There are other dissenting opinions of this, such as through Victor Davis Hanson in Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Ride of Western Power, who asserts that democratic nations are better able to succeed in battle because they have a stake in what they are fighting for. While this certainly can play into part of this argument, as in how the soldiers are motivated for fighting prior to a battle, it seems far more likely that soldiers who are best able to work together are the ones who can best succeed – the Persian military was certainly able to achieve much throughout their military reign, and were bested by soldiers who were simply far more cohesive, using better tactics.

Similar traits continued through the sixteenth century, as firearms and gunpowder began to supplant archers and conventional foot soldiers. Not only did gunpowder weapons revolutionize warfare at that point, it helped to reinforce the need for a disciplined fighting force. While archers could fire at higher rates, firearms themselves utilized chemical power stored within the weapons, allowing soldiers to fire a continual rates without tiring, but also allowing these soldiers to be less skilled, meaning larger armies could be raised. However, the routine steps that were required to utilize these firearms were applied to units as a whole, and thus, the need for an organized military force remained. In this instance, because of the slow rates of fire from soldiers, orchestration from the unit commanders was needed in order to protect the unit, as well as to make that unit an effective offensive force on the battlefield. This so-called gunpowder revolution had a major impact on the battlefield as a whole, with large-scale militaries operating through to the 20th century.

The lessons that can be learned from this are seen through the militaries that have succeeded throughout time: a superior military utilizes a strong, heavily disciplined military that can respond to orders and innovation at the same time. Throughout history, massed infantry units were frequently used, and this discipline and adherence to orders was used to keep these units together in formation. Failure in some cases of even just one person to follow orders and their training could mean problems with the formation as a whole, and the entire tactic and battle could be placed into jeopardy because of that. In modern times, militaries train their soldiers to work as a unit to protect and support their fellow comrades for the very same reason – battles are a complex being that requires coordination on a larger scale, and every part must operate as planned to reach a desired outcome.

Sources: World History of Warfare and Battle: A History of Combat and Culture.

Veteran's Day

Today is a day to remember the sacrifices of those who had died for one’s country. In the United States, November 11th has been designated as a day to reflect and celebrate the sacrifices of American Servicemen, while in the Commonwealth, Remembrance Day likewise commemorates the those who made the ultimate sacrifice. November 11th was selected because of a worthy anniversary: the end of the First World War, on November 11th, 1918, the conflict that had shocked the world so much, that many hoped that it would be the last.

Sadly, this never came to fruition, as humanity has continued their destructive streak across the century, and will likely to far into the future. In many ways, the trials of soldiers in the far future have provided some of the more interesting science fiction tales.

When thinking to military science fiction, the first book that often comes to my mind is Starship Troopers. Robert Heinlein‘s masterpiece has the right tone and the right messages throughout about not only the plight of the soldier, but the responsibility and honor that veterans upheld because of their service. In one particularly early scene in the book, when Johnnie and Carl go to join the service, they are bluntly told that military service isn’t the romantic adventure that seemed to have been the perception. This doesn’t come too much as a surprise, as Heinlein himself was a Veteran, having graduated from the United States Naval Academy in Annapolis in 1929, and served as an officer until 1934, when he was discharged. As the Second World War roared into the lives of Americans, Heinlein worked once again for the military as an aeronautical engineer, alongside two other notable science fiction authors, Isaac Asimov and L. Sprague de Camp. Starship Troopers realistically and in a relatable fashion, sums up the soldier’s experience in wartime, and demonstrates that Science Fiction can be used as allegory in a number of instances.

Another remarkable example of military science fiction is Orson Scott Card‘s Ender’s Game and related books that take place during and after. Card’s character, Andrew ‘Ender’ Wiggen, a tactical prodigy and statistician, is a prime example of a soldier who has a varied experience with warfare – and a mixed legacy in the years following his and humanity’s successes over the Buggers at the end of the book – a nearly complete and utter destruction of the alien homeworld. Ender’s Game is brilliant in its use of characters – Ender proves himself in Battle School, where he uses unconventional tactics to ultimately succeed and demonstrate that he has a superior mind for this style of warfare. A second series of supposed tests are designed to prepare Ender for the invasion of the Bugger’s homeworld, only to find that there was no tests – his battles were real, and he was ultimately responsible for the destruction of an entire race. Ender’s story is an interesting one, compared to other soldiers, in that he never hit the front lines – rather, he was orchestrating the war from light-years away. Despite this, the war had a profound impact on Ender for his actions – a similarity that is shared with American soldiers who pilot UVAs, according to P.W. Singer in his book Wired for War.

The franchise that embodies warfare in space is Star Wars. Love it or hate various elements of it, I’ve been greatly impressed with the stories that have been told about the Grand Army of the Republic, through a couple of different sources. The first is the Clone Wars television series, for really emphasizing on the troopers who fought on the part of the Republic. However, the real person who deserves attention for the portrayal of the troopers is Karen Traviss, with her fantastic Republic Commando series. Traviss had quite a lot of experience with the military to draw upon. As a result, Traviss goes far more into the mentality and motives of the soldiers, bringing them far more into view as people, not merely clones. Even better, the events of Order 66 seem very relevant throughout, and Traviss works hard to not only ensure that their motives for following those orders are explained in a logical fashion, but as to the intentions of the soldiers entire existence. The Clones are in a unique position here – bred only for the purpose of war fighting. For them, they’re not volunteers, and they aren’t expected to live beyond the war – something that the TV series touches on a little bit as well.

While thinking of Traviss’s Star Wars books, another good look at war comes with her book City of Pearl and the follow-up novels in the Wess’Har Wars, which examines interstellar conflict over several systems and many thousands of years. Two of her races, the Wess’Har and the Isenj, have been at war over conflicting lifestyles – the Isenj are rapid colonizers, due to a high birthrate, and did so at the cost of their environment, while the Wess’Har believe heavily in the natural world and literally applied a scorched earth policy to planets that they felt were out of line – there’s a heavy environmental message here, but it does help to reinforce a point that theorist Carl von Clausewitz made, that Warfare is an extension of policy, and thus, fought on the terms of one’s society. The soldiers here are deeply affected by the conflict, as several are essentially immortal, because of a parasite that they had picked up, one that ensures their survival. The long term toll of warfare on these soldiers is an interesting one, and several are noted to have killed themselves (prior to the events in the books) because of the stresses associated with their condition.

When it comes to interstellar warfare, as well as the potential for long term and dedicated purpose, John Scalzi‘s Old Man’s War is another prime example of this sort of Science Fiction. This book, the first in a series (I have the follow up book, but haven’t gotten around to reading it yet), sees a world where old men and women are taken, because of their life’s experiences thus far, and had their minds transferred to a new, enhanced body. There are many similarities to Starship Troopers and The Forever War (another one that I have, but have yet to read), and Scalzi has an interesting take on the enhanced soldiers and their purpose. One argument in the novel is that these soldiers have been given an artificial lease on life – the best that they can do is to continue to fight. However, in this instance, they aren’t necessarily fighting for any particular cause, just the broad, overarching idea of ‘humanity’, as their citizenship on earth has been terminated by joining the fight in space. This somewhat bothered me, and a couple of the main characters, but highlights another, important aspect in warfare – soldiers, foot soldiers, are trained to fight for one another, to preserve their squad and fellow soldiers, and that message rings heavily through Old Man’s War.

Timothy Zahn has also addressed the idea of enhanced soldiers, through his books Cobra and Cobra Two, where a group of soldiers have been enhanced with a number of internal improvements – better skeletons, weapons, a sort of commando unit that are nearly unstoppable in urban combat on alien worlds. However, what really struck me with these books is that the focus is not necessarily on the fighting, but the lives of the soldiers afterwards – these soldiers, with permanent enhancements, had to adapt to civilian life where they were mistrusted and abused because of their abilities, enough to cause conflict in their homes and enough to force the entire Cobra population off world to better offerings.

Military Science Fiction has its share of veterans, and examines, as a whole, not just the cool elements of science fiction, such as powered armor, lasers, epic ship to ship combat and the like, but also the impact, and continued impact that warfare will have on those that are asked to do the fighting, for whatever reason. The concept is such a large one that it is interesting to find a number of different themes – all of which might be found with any given soldier in a real military – have essentially been separated out amongst a number of novels, and examined in depth. The overall message that can be taken from this is that the hopes following World War I were unrealistic, and that humanity will continue to fight – wars large and small will continue, and no doubt, that will continue when we reach the starts. However, it is important to remember the human cost of warfare, not just on society, but upon those who ask to serve their countries, or even worlds.

It's Gonna Be The Future Soon

One of the main elements of the science fiction genre is the future. Looking to the future extends far beyond just the world of Science Fiction, but to speculative fiction, religion, the business and military worlds, and indeed, is a question that everyone inevitably asks, can we predict what will happen next? George Friedman’s latest book, The Next 100 Years: A Forecast for the 21st Century purports to just that. While Friedman makes a number of interesting, and at times, good points, the resulting work is deeply flawed in its reasoning. I’ve since reviewed this book for io9 – much of the summary for the book can be found here.

There are three major points that I took issue with when it came to this book, which are instrumental to the book’s findings: lack of sources, an overemphasis and reliance on history and the assumption that the world will return to similar political connections that characterized the Cold War. However, while this is the case, Friedman imparts a very important lesson through this book, reminding the reader that history and nations work with a sort of cause and effect mentality, where x event causes y reaction over z time. Major events take years to build and grow, and an essential thing for the reader to keep in mind is that the world and political structure can change over the course of twenty to thirty years.

This book has no index, notes or sources anywhere in the book, which is odd, considering the number of places that there should be some sort of citation, such as a UN report citing declines in birthrates, or historical information on the political stance of a country. The result of this is a lengthy opinion piece that gets stranger and stranger as the decades pile up. Unfortunately for the book, this does nothing to help with the book’s credibility, despite the author’s credentials, and essentially turns it into an extended op-ed. With no scholarly information to back up the author’s assertions, the book rests on the idea that the author knows just what he is talking about, and given some of the things that he comes up with, I am more inclined to file this under fiction, rather than non-fiction.

Much of the book’s reasoning seem fairly flawed to me. Friedman, right off the bat, suggests that what he terms the US-Jihadist war (This should probably be Western-Jihadist war, in all actuality) is merely a small problem that will go away within a couple of years. I’m not well versed in the intelligence community or up on the current information, but I would imagine that that’s as far from the truth as you can get. The conflict that’s ongoing in the Middle East is one that has been brewing for years, even decades. Israel, Palestine, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan and others close by have long-seated issues with the United States and the Western world, fueled by extremists who believe that our way of life is detrimental to theirs, and have literally been killing themselves to try and stop us. This is not a problem that will vanish without many of those underlying problems being corrected, which I don’t see happening. Furthermore, Friedman fails to take into account how things will change with time – the importance of petroleum, for example, which is not a sure thing. What will the effects of climate change legislation have on nations, and how will changes in these resources affect countries. Furthermore, South America, Oceania and Africa are barely mentioned throughout the book.

Friedman hangs his hat on this one assumption – that the global war on fundamentalist terrorists will go away, and that the world will resume tensions that were in existence during the Cold War. He predicts that Russia will consolidate its power and a Russian bloc in Europe. While there are indications that this is happening, I don’t believe that it will be anything like what happened before, and that the US will essentially enter another Cold War. Furthermore, down the road, he predicts that the eventual demise of Russia will lead to the rise of Japan, Turkey and Poland, which I find somewhat more unlikely, at least with Poland and Japan.

Much of his reasoning in these instances depends upon historical record and what has gone on before with these countries. He notes that Japan, despite its recent pacifism, will return to warlike routes and eventually challenge the United States. Turkey will do the same. I find Turkey’s case slightly more reasonable, because of its diplomatic ties, stability and economy. In addition to these two countries, he also cites German and Russian tendencies to war. This to me is a particularly dangerous assumption, because countries and cultures are redeemable, as seen with Japan. Countries will not go to war or suddenly become aggressive simply because they have done so in the past. Japan has become incredibly tame, with a culture and multiple generations of people to support that. Germany similarly. Warfare, as Clausewitz notes, is an extension of political policy, and with a culture that is largely against war and conflict supporting a political structure, a highly militant Japan rising again seems unlikely. Friedman’s assertions that by the middle of the century, with lunar bases and ‘Battle Stars’ operated by the United States, are on the face ridiculous. (The cost alone of creating the International Space Station, which houses 6 scientists is in the trillions – the prices for stations that house people in the hundreds is magnitudes higher. Even then, with a mindset of defense against other nations, this still doesn’t fly.) But, even then, the idea that the Japanese will bomb these US facilities in a Pearl Harbor-esque attack on Thanksgiving evening is just nothing sort of laughable. History certainly has its place, but it cannot be used reliably to predict the future with an instance such as this. Analyze trends and motivations, yes, but using a country’s prior methods of warfare, in this manner, is pure fiction.

This is unfortunate, because the book is presented as fact and not necessarily as an exercise in history or how to think about how these events might work in the future. The result is a ridiculous and absurd argument for a return to older political thinking from people who were immersed in that world for so long.