'The Future of War: A History', by Lawrence Freedman - Review

By Gulliver, Katrina | The Spectator, September 30, 2017 | Go to article overview

'The Future of War: A History', by Lawrence Freedman - Review


Gulliver, Katrina, The Spectator


Planning for the 'war of the future' is something generals and politicians have been doing for the past 150 years. The first and second world wars were the most anticipated conflicts in history. Military strategists and popular novelists all published the wars they envisioned in the decades before. Whether in the spycraft of Erskine Childers or the science-fiction of H.G. Wells, the reading public was warned of the carnage to come in many imaginative forms. But all that anticipation did little to avert the bloodbaths.

In this book, Lawrence Freedman offers a detailed analysis of how we have planned (or failed to plan) for conflict. Into the 20th century, military planning suffered from still focusing on the model of the Napoleonic wars, with the notion of the decisive battle. But warfare itself has moved on. From serried ranks of uniformed soldiers engaging on an open field, under rules of battle understood by all, we now have asymmetric warfare of nonstate actors and irregular skirmishes, or unending occupations.

And that's only in the conflicts we acknowledge as wars. Of all the people who die violently each year, only a minority are killed in part of a recognised war. Freedman points out that even defining 'war' is difficult. For instance, the traditional concept of war as interstate hostility means that the Falklands conflict (death toll 900), involving two sovereign state belligerents, is classed as a 'war', while the Rwandan genocide (death toll 500,000+) is not.

The next war is also not always one of our choosing, but often someone else's conflict we end up stepping into. Of the various civil wars and insurgencies taking place at any time on the planet, we can now watch what is happening in real time. Instead of reading news reports of something that happened weeks ago, we now have human rights abuses livestreamed on Facebook. The immediacy of humanitarian crises makes us demand that our leaders 'do something'. What the 'something' ought to be remains open to debate. To not intervene is to be callous, disregarding the suffering of the helpless civilians of Whereveristan. But to intervene is imperalist, colonialist, and all the bad ists. The awkward truth is that 'peacekeeping' troops can never be truly neutral (their presence affects the outcome of a conflict, even by preventing anyone from 'winning'), and NGO involvement can serve to prolong a conflict, distort the local economy, and keep a country in a state of dependence on external control.

Most of the conflicts of the last 50 years were civil wars or rebellions, rather than interstate wars. Knowing they are playing to an international audience also motivates warlords to use civilians as sympathetic victims -- using them as human shields, or allowing massacres to take place, to cement their side's image as the 'injured party' in the conflict. For the first time, there is advantage to be gained in playing the victim rather than the victor. …

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