Debating the Future of War: Change and Continuity After the Invasion of Ukraine

Professor Christopher Coker, who died last week, was one of the seminal historians of modern warfare and the author of six books published by Hurst. Shortly before his death, Christopher wrote for us a tour d’horizon reflection on the state of war studies.

Christopher Coker

Professor Christopher Coker, who died last week, was one of the seminal historians of modern warfare and the author of six books published by Hurst. Shortly before his death, Christopher wrote for us a tour d’horizon reflection on the state of war studies, tracking its evolutionary phases in parallel with his career as a scholar, which was spent largely at the London School of Economics.

As a tribute to a dear friend and ally of Hurst Publishers, we reproduce it here.

Michael Dwyer


Debating the Future of War: Change and Continuity After the Invasion of Ukraine

By Christopher Coker

Submitted 15 July 2023

Our relationship with war is so long and deep that we could, if we wish, tell the story of humanity entirely through the lens of conflict. As the political theorist, Michael Walzer writes, arguments about war are probably endless for they bear upon our own humanity, the name we give not only to a particular species but also the behaviour we have come to expect of it. 

Until Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 it had become commonplace to ask: do we really need to think about war at all? Optimists like Steven Pinker and Yuval Harari were in denial. We were much more likely, or so Harari told us, to die from eating too many burgers at our local MacDonald’s than we were from an Al-Qaeda attack. In his book Enlightenment Now (2017) Pinker too insisted that war was now largely only of historical interest. But remember, he also told us in the same work that it was now much easier to identify pathogens and invent vaccines; as a result, pandemics had probably disappeared from history. It is a great story to tell and on the face of it, it is one that is almost too good to be true. Easy to forget that the phrase usually means ‘not true’. 

There are many reasons why we should devote some serious thinking about the future of war.

All we escaped and then briefly in 1989 was a sub-set of war: Great Power conflict. In truth the rest of the world never escaped war’s iron grip on life. Think of the wars that were waged between 2001–19: there were 06 involving more than a hundred nations.[1]

Secondly, we have arrived at a time of dramatic transformation in our understanding of war itself. Military analysts are forever declaring the onset of a new age of warfare, but it has already arrived. The point is that war is a shape-shifting phenomenon; ‘new’ wars arise as swiftly as the old disappear. Periodic plot twists arise all the time. One way to think about war, to invoke a timely metaphor, is to regard it as a virus which produces many different variants. In the last few years academics have rebranded war as ‘surrogate’, (Krieg and Rickli, 2019), ‘Fourth Generation’, ‘irregular’ (Rid and Hecker, 2009), ‘proxy’, (Hughes, 2012), ‘hybrid’ (Hoffman, 2007), ‘non-linear’ (Galeotti, 2016), ‘grey zone’ (Echevarria, 2016), ‘shadow’ (McFate, 2019), and ‘vicarious’ (Waldman, 2021). It is in its nature of any virus to produce variants; in the case of war, they are shaped by culture and technology as this book makes clear. 

A third reason why we need to think about war is perhaps the most significant. Whenever we think of cyber-attacks against Estonia in 2007 or information warfare against the West—the constant assault on our democratic systems by troll factories in Russia that are discussed in Nina Jankowitcz’s book, How to Lose the Information War, we find ourselves living in what Lucas Kello calls an era of ‘Unpeace’, a new era of mid-spectrum rivalry which is especially visible in cyberspace. It is becoming increasingly difficult these days to tell war from peace; the border between them seems to be far more porous that it once did.

Finally, in the past 20 years thanks to the War on Terror we have tended to look only at the western understanding of war. That war ironically reminded us that there are very different cultural understandings of war—to quote Sweijs and Michaels in their forthcoming volume Beyond Ukraine: Debating the Future of War, “to the extent one can speak in terms of ‘western’, ‘eastern’ or ‘Global Southern’ clearly there is a great diversity of outlook.” 

We must be constructively sceptical of the pace of technological change. A recent report for the European Parliament, Innovative Technologies shaping the 2040 battlefield (EPRS 2021) advises that whenever thinking about how technology will shape the future, we should adopt an agnostic approach. Futurists tend to measure trends and their implications and then offer persuasive suppositions about what comes next. Yet the future is rarely the end of a trend line. 

Clausewitz talked about the ‘mystery’ of war, a word he invoked more than once in his work. We often labour under the misguided idea that war is rooted in the political realm, but we cannot hope to understand its appeal, or resilience, or even universality by exploring that dimension alone. The existential dimension is no less important for it also involves power, or more correctly perhaps, the empowerment, both material and spiritual of those who do the actual fighting. This probably animated many of the young men and women who went to Syria to fight for ISIS. As a terrorist tells his American hostage in the Lebanon in Don DeLillo’s novel Mao 2: “Terror makes the new future possible. We live in history as never before.” 

The existential realm whatever the cause or country for which one is fighting involves lived experience. What form will the existential take in future? Theatricality to cite one example, has always pervaded war. From the Iliad to Saving Private Ryan, poets and film directors have refashioned the ugliness of war into art and alchemised suffering into a unique art form. Even so, the desire to glamorise violence dates back much further than Homer. The compulsion to process brutality, writes Dan Jones, is the oldest theme in art and can be traced back 45,000 years to the first cave paintings which were discovered in Indonesia as recently as 2017. There is no human culture that doesn’t have some sort of art and none that hasn’t fought wars; both are fundamental to who we are—a disturbing enough thought. To take war seriously is to take art seriously and to take art seriously is to take storytelling seriously, especially when the stories have mythical status like the Iliad and the Mahabharata. Perhaps, this is what gives war its cultural appeal: its extraordinary tonal range. What we have today are videogames and the metaverse is coming, and immersive virtual reality will offer entirely new opportunities for people to experience war in a way no one has done before. These are themes that are well worth exploring. 

There is also the metaphysical dimension of war which involves sacrifice— the willingness to die, rather than kill. It is that willingness that makes war sacred in the eyes of civilians and soldiers alike. Without a willingness on the part of its citizens to put themselves in danger, or to sacrifice themselves for the few, neither state nor non-state actors could wage war at all. The war in Ukraine shows this very clearly. In her book, Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit writes that an unexpected and widespread response to disaster seems to be joy, not only at having survived an ordeal but at being provided with an opportunity to put our heroic selves on display, such as the rescue of a neighbour whose house has been blitzed. Possibly this is because only in times of crisis do some of us feel more fully alive. Rates of anxiety, depression, and even psychosis, we are told by psychologists, seem to decline when a society finds itself at war. It seems that many of us also want to experience the heroic at least once in our lives. The very act of overcoming adversity and the recognition that some of our fellow citizens are willing to sacrifice their lives for the rest of us can reinforce pride in our own humanity. But what will people be sacrificing their lives for in the future?

A more immediate question is what impact positive or negative will future technology have on us ontologically? To write of ontology is to write of our humanity, what make us the distinctive species that we are. Today it is increasingly common to speak of the next stage in our development, the ‘post human’ condition. The use of the word ‘post’ allows us to remain agnostic about what comes next (AI) but it also retains a hint that the future will be better (we humans will in greater control of our lives than ever.) But will it? Ontologically, technology can shape our lives in ways that are so familiar that we no longer recognise how it does so. A weapons-system for example can change the way its users think about war. Every technology for that reason has a social history. Take the machine gun which changed the way the Western powers conceived war in the late 19th century. It was seen to be the product of industrialisation, a process restricted at that time entirely to the West. It was seen to embody such modern principles as productivity and efficiency—more output for less input. It also followed that the machine gun could be used to make people who didn’t have it to ‘see reason,’ to see that resistance was futile. If they continued to resist, they were clearly being ‘unreasonable’. 

But changes can also result not only from an attitude of mind (as in the case of the machine gun); they can also be produced by changes in the brain itself as the neuroscientist Susan Greenfield has discussed. Some neuroscientists expressed concern that an online screen life would encourage them to regard war as a computer game. James Williams’ book Stand out of our light (2018) highlights the role of technology in redirecting human attention. It was feared that drone pilots might become prone to ‘dissociation’ or ‘moral de-skilling’. This hasn’t happened. Even so, it is likely that the new technologies with which we be interfacing more and more will make us not only more machine-readable but by default more machine friendly. Indeed, the real danger is not that computers begin to think for us but that we begin to think like them. The real threat is that one day the artificial intelligence we are creating may turn out to be our own. All of this begs the question of the post human condition and the prospect of ‘post human war,’ 

For me the filter that is missing in this study of the future of war is science fiction. The future is imagined long before it is realised. Today science fiction is now prescribed reading in the military. The novel Ender’s Game has been on the syllabus of the Marine Corps University at Quantico for some time. It is also on the USN’s Professional Leadership Program along with Starship Troopers. In France, the Defence Innovation Agency has set up a team of science fiction writers to propose scenarios that might not occur to most military planners. In Germany Project Cassandra, a recent collaboration between the military and the Literature Department at the University of Tubingen asks professors to imagine the future of war; aren’t they well equipped precisely because the fictional world they write about is a world of the imagination? 

Although Margaret Macmillan’s recent book on war, for example, was well received it was criticised by some writers, notably Edward Luttwak for being entirely deaf to the existential dimension of war.

To go back to Steven Pinker’s speculations about the coming end of war, I am reminded of a phrase that was applied by some battle-hardened communist party members to George Orwell after his death. In the late 1950s they took to condemning him retrospectively. In writing Animal Farm and 1984 in which he had warned of the horrors of totalitarianism long before Stalin’s crimes were known to the world, they accused Orwell of having been ‘prematurely correct.’ Hopefully Pinker may be vindicated but I doubt it, as do most of the experts in the field. 

[1] Total number of wars calculated from 2 Wikipedia entries: for 1990-2002; for 2003-present

Christopher Coker was Director of LSE IDEAS, the London School of Economics foreign policy think-tank. His recent books include Rebooting Clausewitz; Men at War; and The Improbable War: China, the United States and the Logic of Great Power Conflict, all published by Hurst.

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