One thing I really miss from my pre-blog days was writing reviews of non-fiction books. I try to avoid off-topic posts on here, but I do want to write more reviews of relevant non-fiction, like the post I did on Frank McLynn’s Genghis Khan and the post I will eventually get around to doing on Dan Jones’ The Wars of the Roses.
Those posts are most likely to be on history books, but I read something a little different for me this time—Future War: Preparing for the New Global Battlefield by Robert Latiff. Any science fiction writer should keep an eye on the cutting edge of tech, especially in the military. And Future War does mention a lot of cool tech. And the focus on ethical issues is welcome. But Future War is ultimately unsatisfying because, while it raises questions, it doesn’t deal with them in a serious way.
Latiff has the right background on paper to write on these issues. He has degrees in physics, engineering, and history/strategy/international economics and had a long military career. And the book is well timed. The general public in America IS extremely disassociated from the U.S. military. We are on the cusp of major changes in tech at the same time that power is sliding from the “few and complex” toward the “many and simple.”
Latiff talks about a lot of tech, some possible now, some likely in the near future, and some more theoretical. Some highlights:
- Identification based on “the shape of the ear, the individual’s gait, fingerprint scanners that work at a distance, chemical markers in sweat, and the specifics of a heartbeat”
- Soldier body modifications—“exoskeletons to improve strength, drugs to improve cognition or alter memory, and surgery to implant microelectronic neurological aids,” “contact lenses that would allow a soldier to see in the infrared spectrum”
- Artificial intelligence replacing intelligence analysts
- Quantum computing that makes cryptography impossible
- “Black biology”—genetically engineered biological weapons, including externally triggered viruses and “individually customized genetic” weapons
- Underwater drones
- Lethal cyber capabilities (“interfere[ing] with the flight controls of an aircraft or to cause a bomb to detonate prematurely”)
- “Pain rays” for crowd control
- Hypersonic weapons
- Antisatellite systems
Many of these have the potential to fundamentally change how we fight wars, much as GPS and night-vision did. They also bring risk. Lethal cyber capabilities and antisatellite systems have the potential to sharply change the dynamic between the “few and complex” toward the “many and simple.” We have become highly reliant on technology and may become more so. Thankfully, the military is giving that risk at least some thought. After a ten year break, the U.S. Naval Academy reinstated the requirement that midshipmen learn to use a sextant for navigation.
All of this raises ethical issues and creates risks. One of Latiff’s major arguments is that the military and the public don’t give nearly enough attention to the ethical issues (though he does note that, for example, the military is not yet comfortable with completely autonomous lethal systems). I have to agree with this, and I like that the book takes ethical considerations into account.
He also notes that there are not just known risks but unknown risks. For example, we didn’t foresee the psychological toll that drone strikes would take on drone pilots. Latiff attempts to raise some questions. Automated weapons will reduce casualties. What does the removal of fear mean for constraints on unethical behavior? I doubt fear plays that great a role, but the point is we can’t KNOW how automated weapons systems will change behavior until we have them and start using them. We need to consider it now.
Oh, and these issues are a big deal financially too. The U.S. spends close to $200 budget on research, development, testing, and procurement out of a roughly $600 billion defense budget.
Latiff is taking the right approach, and he is very good at raising questions. What he isn’t very good at are answers. Especially toward the end, he tends to throw out sometimes radical ideas without developing the argument for them or providing any evidence. A few that were the reading equivalent of a poke in the eye for me:
Regarding the merits of attempts to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons, he says “if we have nuclear weapons, how can we tell others they can’t…?” I recognize the utility in considering ethical questions under the assumption that the parties start from the same position. But it has limited practical use. The United States et al. have nuclear weapons. That is hardly an argument for throwing the barn doors wide open and inviting everyone to take them. One, if disarmament is the end goal, adding nuclear countries gets us farther from that, not closer. Must we disarm before we can work to disarm others or prevent nuclear proliferation? As the statement by the United States, Great Britain, and France refusing to sign the 2017 Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons noted, unilateral disarmament would be “incompatible with the policy of nuclear deterrence, which has been essential to keeping the peace in Europe and North Asia for over 70 years.”
Two, can Latiff argue that the world isn’t worse off with a nuclear North Korea? That it wouldn’t be worse off with a nuclear Iran? He can argue it is “fair” that they get the bomb, or that it is hypocritical for us to try to stop them, but even if those ethical considerations have any weight they simply have to be outweighed by the risk posed to liberal democracies like South Korea, Japan, and Israel. A simple test: no country that thinks another country should be wiped off the face of the map should have the bomb. Five of the nine nuclear countries are democracies. Does Latiff seriously believe that those five countries pose the same threat as the other four and Iran? That matters.
Latiff criticizes our response to the dissolution of the Soviet Union because we viewed it “as an opportunity to encourage capitalism, not democracy and human rights,” not grasping how the three are inextricably linked.
Latiff complains of movies “romanticizing the military and conflict” and “represent[ing] only one side of the conflict and glorify war.” I’m not sure if Latiff and I are watching movies by the same Hollywood. TV Tropes has an entire page devoted to the Obligatory War-Crime Scene. (He has a better point about their depiction of “unerringly accurate weapons.”)
Latiff presents the primary argument for an all-volunteer military as being that “for the military to reflect society is unimportant” as “long as the force is professional, efficient, and overwhelming.” But the better argument for an all-volunteer military is that conscription doesn’t actually reduce the support for war, that it lowers the quality of the military, and that it leads to higher casualties.
He describes the public response to the Iraq War as “muted” and “almost insignificant.” The former I might grant. But the latter? The Iraq War was the most significant political event of this century, including 9/11. It led to the Democrats retaking the Senate and the House in 2006. It led to Barack Obama, instead of Hillary Clinton, winning the Democratic nomination in 2008 and then the presidency. It led to a 60-seat Democratic majority in the Senate (and thus allowed Dodd-Frank and Obamacare). It left George W. Bush without political capital, ruined any chance Jeb Bush had at winning the Republican nomination, and destabilized the GOP, opening the door for Donald Trump. It led Obama to not seek congressional approval to intervene in Libya and prevented any chance that the U.S. would intervene in Syria. If it doesn’t seem like a big deal, blame the media. Believe me, the public responded plenty.
Latiff claims that “[w]e are so enamored with military capabilities that we have experienced repeated budget crises in recent years because many in Congress could not bear the idea that social programs might be funded at a level equal to or greater than weapons and the military.” There are two separate, albeit interrelated arguments there. One is that military spending should go down. The other is that spending on social programs should go up. Even if we accept the first argument, the second argument by no means follows. In fact, some of the same arguments that Latiff makes in favor of reducing military spending counsel in favor of reducing spending on social programs. He says the public would quickly restrain the military if they were forced to cover the full cost. He is right, I think, but he might find the same about the social programs he would rather money be diverted to. He notes that “a large number of systems are mismanaged and far exceed their budgets and schedules.” Sure. The same is true for social programs. Latiff also repeatedly harps on the lack of attention that the public pays to military issues. Might they pay more attention, though, if the federal government didn’t spend so much time and money doing things it was never authorized to do by the Constitution?
Latiff notes that service contractors outnumber active duty soldiers. He asserts that is bad. Maybe it is. But he doesn’t tell us why. The use of contractors rather than employees is hardly unusual. And if some of those contractors are, as he notes, used for lawn mowing, the number alone doesn’t tell us very much. Latiff throws out nutty ideas like relying more heavily on National Guard and Reserve for foreign deployments. First, did he not notice the enormous strain we put on the National Guard and Reserve over the course of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan? Second, if contractors are bad, why are reservists good? He also advocates for changes that “will allow far greater flexibility in allowing military personnel to move between military and civilian life and will allow outside experts, like technical experts from industry, to enter into service as more senior levels.” Sounds good. Will they be contractors?
This might still be a good book to pick up if you are particularly interested in these issues. But I have to believe a better book is out there. I wholeheartedly agree with Latiff that Americans need to think more about their military, its future, and the ethics issues that come with that. But this book is too poorly written and reasoned to be a spark for that fire.
3 of 5 Stars.
Disclosure: I received a review copy of Future War through NetGalley.