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.

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