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Very Serious Fantasts

By Fredric Smoler

P.W. Singer and August Cole have just published Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War. They seem to have a lot in common: both have B.A.s and advanced degrees from various Ivies, both seem admirably well-connected in the think tanks and a number of adjacent worlds, both possess what seem to be glittering resumes, both advise Very Serious People and/or parts of the American government on security matters, in their book jacket photo they strangely resemble one another (both are trim, dark-haired, clean-featured, wear navy suits with blue open-collared dress shirts and no neckties), and their PR releases suggest that both are in their early forties. Singer seems the more widely published of the two, having four other books, all well received. Ghost Fleet is blurbed by (among others) two admirals, a general, the producer of The Hunger Games and an executive producer of Game of Thrones. One admiral alleges that Ghost Fleet is “a plausible, frightening, and pitch-perfect vision of what such a war could look like in the near future. This page-turning marvel is the best source of high-tech geopolitical visioneering” (sic), the other that it is “Thoughtful, strategic and relevant”. Several blurbs compare Singer and Cole to Tom Clancy, apparently under the impression that this is high praise for a book by two people who are elsewhere described as strategic analysts, and use the word techno-thriller. That doesn’t seem quite right, since techno-thrillers normally dramatize military technology that actually exists. A few of the blurbs and reviews say that Ghost Fleet is entertaining, more that it is important. So what sort of authors are Singer and Cole, within which genres are they working, and what can we make of the literary and sub-literary traditions within which they stand? On a less literary plane, does Ghost Fleet contain a useful way to think about the near-term military consequences of new technologies?

Ghost Fleet is what used to be called a tale of the next war, a genre with a long and interesting history, often commercially profitable but not without risk, since prophecy is difficult, and in some famous instances this particular variety of prophecy has provoked devastating parody. In 1909 James Blyth published The Swoop of the Vulure, recounting a bolt from the blue German descent upon England in 1918. The invasion, abetted by treacherous German Jewish immigrants, is doomed from the start, in the first instance by the pluck and quick wits of a fisherman, and results in the capture of the Kaiser by a British officer and the capture of Berlin by the French army. Posterity is indebted to Blyth for inspiring P.G. Wodehouse to expand an earlier pseudonymous short story into his first wholly successful and original comic novel. In immediate and direct response to Blyth Wodehouse published The Swoop! or How Clarence Saved England A Tale of the Great Invasion. We can already see the master’s hand at work: “When the papers arrived next morning, it was seen that the situation was even worse than had at first been suspected. Not only had the Germans effected a landing in Essex, but, in addition, no fewer than eight other hostile armies had, by some remarkable coincidence, hit on that identical moment for launching their long-prepared blow. England was not merely beneath the heel of the invader. It was beneath the heels of nine invaders. There was barely standing-room.” In the same year A.A. Milne, famous to us for Winnie-the-Pooh, published “The Secret of the Army Aeroplane”, a quietly hilarious response to William Le Queux’s The Invasion of 1910 (1906), in which the Germans invade Britain, possibly also to his The Great War in England, 1897 (1894), in which the French and Russians had invaded Britain. In 1910 the genre fell afoul of Heath Robinson, whose eleven cartoons on invasion novels were commissioned for The Sketch. While being pilloried by Gillray, Rowlandson or Hogarth might have been more immediately unpleasant, being the object of Heath Robinson’s gift for apparently genial ridicule was no box of chocolates:

Parody presumes familiarity, and by 1909 fictions of future wars, the genre Blyth was working in, was very familiar indeed, having exploded in the immediate aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War. The first English fiction about a near-future war appeared in the early 1640s, but follow-ups were only sporadic until 1871, when Lt. Col Henry Chesney published “The Battle of Dorking”. The memory of Chesney’s success outlasted the celebrity of his story, spurring a vast number of imitators both abroad and at home. First short stories and then novels (usually serialized) poured off the presses, first on the Continent and eventually in the United States. I .F. Clarke, the leading specialist on the genre, thought that “The Battle of Dorking” must have been the most discussed and imitated short story ever written, and I know no reason to doubt him, but across the Channel the nomenclature and the general tendency of the plots differed. Germans wrote about Der Zukunftskrieg, the Future War, in which they were almost invariably successful and sometimes the confident aggressors (but no more immune to mockery than the British originals, e.g. Carl Siwinna’s dryly witty Vademecum für Phantasiestrategen of 1909, available in both print and on line translations). The French wrote of La Guerre de demain, in which the French were also almost always successful, often against Britain. A much larger proportion of the British ‘tales of the next war’, however, imagined a crushing defeat, usually a bolt from the blue to which Britain succumbed.

Chesney had been impressed by the startling speed with which the centuries of French military primacy had been shattered at Sedan, and his story was intended as propaganda for conscription. German and French authors with policy axes to grind tended to propagandize for other things—they already had conscription—while British writers tended to dread their country’s complacency and what they took to be its indifference to a changing balance of power. The French efforts may have been in large part compensatory fantasy; at least initially, the German ones often instead suggested a happy consciousness of their relative power and what they took to be their destiny. The most common motive for writing something remains money rather than political enthusiasm—Dr. Johnson put it more strongly, with "No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money"—and a lot of the writers who imitated Chesney may have intended no more than making a buck. Le Queux, author of two commercially successful invasion fantasies, also published one hundred and fifty other novels, most of them with titles like Strange Tales of a Nihilist, The Hunchback of Westminster, Whosoever Loveth: Being the Secret of a Lady's Maid, and The Red Widow, Or The Death-Dealers of London, although it is only fair to acknowledge that the desire to make a buck does not preclude authors also being sincere jingoes and xenophobes, or for that matter intelligent (if not invariably longsighted) patriots. The genre thrived until 1914, resumed at first haltingly after the war, has never entirely gone out of style, and has boomed again after 1978, when General Hackett published The Third World War: The Untold Story. Hackett’s was the first of a long run of pseudo-histories of a war between NATO and the Warsaw Pact, some written by nominal experts, most not; the best was Ralph Peters’ Red Army (1989), written while Peters was a serving officer, and apparently for some years a cult classic within the officer corps. The genre has sold steadily ever since, and authorial motivations have as usual been various. At one level, Singer and Cole have written a tale of the next war, and their blurbs and reviewers claim that they have achieved three of that genre’s more common purposes: they are warning and informing readers about a real and unprecedented risk, they persuade readers that they know what they’re talking about, and they are capable entertainers. None of the blurbs and reviews I’ve seen suggest that there are possible hazards for writers attempting these three ends simultaneously.

There are some grounds for thinking that these two might know what they’re talking about: Singer began as an academic and a policy wonk, his resume is impressive, as is Cole’s, and people pay these men for their opinions on matters of strategy and military technology. In 2003, shortly before the Blackwater scandals became a hot story, Singer published Corporate Warriors, the best among a burst of books written on PMFs (private military firms). He’d expanded an essay he’d written for International Security while on a post doc at Harvard and published while he was at Brookings; the book went through a number of editions and publishers, and is still in print. His competition tended toward either dystopian scandal-mongering or academic aridity, but Singer was judicious, thorough and lucid. He also wrote clean academic prose that was almost wholly free of jargon, an increasingly rare commodity, and his book was widely and plausibly considered important for both interested citizens and policy makers. I had to read pretty widely for a review essay on books about PMFs for Dissent, and thought Corporate Warriors far and away the best of the lot.

Singer published three more works of non-fiction—on child soldiers, on the robotic revolution in weaponry, and on cyber warfare and cyber security—and all praised extravagantly by figures in the worlds of security policy, journalism and entertainment. The tone of the books became less academic, not necessarily a fault, since Singer was now writing for broader audiences. Very Serious People, a number of them in fact very serious people, blurbed the books as the ones all serious people ought to read, and if you were only going to read one book on a subject, Singer’s books might well have been the ones you ought to have read, and not only because they were probably the ones your peers had read. Singer is by training a political scientist, not a military historian, and it shows—this is not necessarily a good thing—but historians rarely write books aimed at the policy world. Simultaneously, Singer’s career zoomed. He was successively employed by a series of prestigious think tanks, wrote for both the higher journalism and the higher tier of not-quite-academic journals, made his way onto various Top 100 list—Global Thinkers, most influential defense commentators, etc.—was coordinator of a Defense Policy Task Force for Obama’s 2008 campaign, served on various government advisory boards, made the rounds at the networks, and got at least a toe into the waters in Hollywood, television and video games. Cole has comparable achievements and connections, although on what seems a smaller scale.

How should one weigh up Ghost Fleet’s blurbs? Very Serious People may or not mean their more hyperbolic praise—most people are charitable when blurbing books by folk they know. VSPs may not know too much about the genre these two are writing in, and may not have understood where they are particularly original (nowhere, in my view), nor where they are anything but. The blurbists may be praising the authors for their possible success at Chesney’s old ambition in “The Battle of Dorking”, for Singer and Cole seem to be warning us about various military threats posed by China to the United States, also a subject tangentially addressed in Singer’s last two books. On this score, it is of course too soon to have any idea of their insightfulness, but the odds are against them—the genre has an old record of failure, for as Yogi Berra observed, “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future”, and two other savants, Sam Goldwyn and Niels Bohr, expressed the same thought in almost the same words. But that there are threats is surely indisputable: China is rapidly building up its navy and military, it is investing in cyber warfare and by some definitions waging it, Chinese soldiers have blustered quite a bit about war with the US and a number of its allies, some people think that the Chinese are thinking very hard about a cyber-attack bolt from the blue as the heart of asymmetric warfare against our navy, etc. The initial effectiveness of tactical, technical and strategic surprise has been an agonizing and formative military experience for, among others, the United States (Pearl Harbor, the Ardennes, Korea), Britain and France (the Battle of France in 1940), the former Soviet Union (Barbarossa) Israel (the October War) and a number of Arab states (1956, 1967). The plausibility of any particular warning about any particular threat remains another matter.

Singer and Cole’s China war happens sometime in the near-ish but not immediate future—the date is indeterminate, but some of his protagonists, combat veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, are still in uniform. The first phase serves up some of the plot elements those turn of the century British and American tales of the next war relied on: the treacherous Chinese attack is a bolt from the blue, it is meticulously planned, and at least at first much—in this case, everything—goes wrong for the British or the Americans. To these elements they add a motif H.G. Wells made famous in the first great phase of the genre while also helping inventing another, which is why Ghost Fleet has been characterized by some reviewers as a techno-thriller. Future War writing did not always assume a radical breakthrough in military technology; the earlier tales of the next war instead assumed that military technology was pretty stable, which, after all, it had been for a couple of centuries. The Reign of George VI, 1900-1925, written in 1763, recounts a long series of British victories won with the military technology of the Seven Years War, which was not as absurd as it sounds, since the British conquered a fair portion of the globe using Brown Bess muskets…for one hundred and sixteen years. Well into the industrial age a fair number of the invasion novels assumed that foreign perfidy and British derelictions would suffice to destroy Britain with existing military and naval technology, just as the weapons of 1978 would save Hackett’s NATO. The large numbers of future war novels written in response of Hackett’s breakthrough book also generally restricted themselves to weapons already in service, possibly because like Hackett the best of those authors were either serving soldiers or veterans. In the early 1980s no American or Englishman had ever fought a war with the most modern NATO weapons, which was part of the reason why their revival of the tale of the next war was so compelling, but a number of them had trained long and hard to do so, they knew how their weapons were supposed to interact with Warsaw Pact hardware and doctrine, they had discussed their profession with a lot of combat veterans, and they sought to imagine and convey a strong sense and informed guess of what fighting in a modern war would be like. A number of them—Harold Coyle as well as Ralph Peters spring to mind—were writing war novels at least as much as they were writing polemical tracks, and sometimes writing pretty good ones.

But the tale of the next war did not always involve only current technology, because Wells and a number of others had added something new to the mix, the sudden arrival of a radically destabilizing military technology that would alter the balance of power. Wells wrote about tanks ("The Land Ironclads”, 1903), aircraft (The War in the Air, 1907) and nuclear weapons (The World Set Free, 1914). He often had a strong polemical purpose—“The Land Ironclads” seems to have been read and may have been intended as in part an optimistic allegory of the Boer War, The War in the Air as a dystopian, either racist or anti-racist and certainly an anti-imperialist vision of the effects of military innovation, and The World Set Free as a finally cheerful vision of the obsolescence of the nation state. Wells’ interest in revolutionary technologies was not unique, and writers working in this vein were very occasionally eerily prescient (although ignored). Arthur Conan Doyle wrote a brilliant appreciation of the effectiveness of using of submarines against the ships bringing in Britain’s food imports, (“Danger! Being the Log of Captain John Sirius”, 1914). Others, too, warned of both subs and military aircraft (although usually not of the reasons both would matter so much in the First World War). Conan Doyle aside, future war fiction authors who gave a technological rupture a starring role, a role that would be endlessly repeated in science fiction and post-war folk military history, tended to overestimate the frequency and effectiveness of radical innovation, which may both reflect and reinforce broad misunderstandings of the last two centuries of military history. The armies that fought the First World War are not famous for having swiftly and successfully worked out the implications of the new technologies that would so horrifically reshape the battles they had to fight, and as a result their generals are almost invariably condescended to with that easy scorn and perfect confidence the higher ignorance diffuses among non-specialists: even minimally competent Allied generals, it is assumed, would have done infinitely better.

Singer and Cole do something similar in Ghost Fleet, for while the First World War generals, like most people in most professions most of the time, did not immediately understand the implications of the new technologies almost all of them possessed, Singer’s Chinese and their Russian allies are at the start the only ones to possess devastating new tech, and they already understand its tactical implications perfectly. The authors give their Chinese not one but several such weapons, e.g. the means to launch devastating cyber-attacks while a series of high-orbit attacks launched by a Chinese space station on our satellites wholly blind the American forces, American electronics turn out to be built with sabotaged Chinese-manufactured chips that make our aircraft much worse than useless, so that our F35s are flying coffins, while the F35-clones and drones the Chinese have built with our stolen secrets all work perfectly; the Russians have given the Chinese a hitherto unknown but absolutely effective method for detecting submarines, so that our SSNs—the hunter-killer subs we currently assume will preserve our edge in blue-water naval combat—are instead sunk at will, while our ballistic missile submarines, in this future apparently our only nuclear weapons platforms, cannot be ordered to fire without being immediately destroyed, and such orders may only give the Chinese the excuse to destroy our cities; these and other tricks immediately cost us most of our surface navy; in a piece of very intricate but perfectly successful perfidy, the Chinese begin the war by successfully invading Hawaii, driving tanks off commercial cargo ships directly into combat, while a lot of Chinese infantry have arrived, if I remember correctly, disguised as tourists (a recurring ploy in the sillier fin de siècle tale of the next war, and one Heath Robinson ridiculed). And Singer and Cole have barely gotten started. In addition to the Russians serving as China’s willing junior partners, despite China being at the opening of the novel their feared and hated enemies, and also handing the Chinese their greatest and most secret weapon, all of our NATO allies other than the UK immediately desert us, whereas the Japanese abandon us within a day, and all of China’s other Asian rivals are immediately cowed into submission. The problem with this is not that none of it ever happens—the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact happened, nuclear weapons happened, Ultra, Purple and Magic happened, sonar and radar happened, and de Gaulle wisely noted that “treaties are like roses and young girls; they last while they last”—but that they all happen on the same day, they all work perfectly, and they all happen to the same people. In the history we know, by contrast, one belligerent gets the Me 262, another Ultra, a third turns out to have T-34s, and none of them work perfectly.

Another problem with Singer’s Chinese triumphs is that they are the inevitable victories won by the side possessing unobtanium—in Wikipedia’s splendid gloss, “aerospace engineers have used the term "unobtainium" when referring to unusual or costly materials, or when theoretically considering a material perfect for their needs in all respects, except that it does not exist.” Unobtanium does sometimes turn out to exist, but not very often, and then it isn’t unobtainium, e.g. if you lace graphite with boron, you can slow neutrons down to the point that you can get a chain reaction, which Allied scientists worked out in the 1940s, and German scientists didn’t. But while devastating new weapons possessed by only one belligerent became a standby of the less subtle science fiction—and one new technology did help win the Franco-Prussian War that kicked off the last century and a half of future war fiction—Krupp’s steel field artillery wasn’t the only thing that had mattered. The size of Prussia’s armies had also mattered, as had the defects of their enemy’s generalship. After all, the French also deployed a couple of greatly superior (and in one case absolutely secret and potentially devastating) new weapons, which turned out not to matter in 1871, in part because working out the tactical implications of a revolutionary weapon usually takes a lot of time. Tactical and strategic surprises have sometimes been devastating (although rarely decisive), but bolts from the blue made possible by radically new technology are rare enough that I cannot think of a pure example of one in military history as opposed to in science fiction, where they are ubiquitous. Ghost Fleet is thus at least as much a throwback to science fiction’s Golden Age pulps as it is a tale of the next war, and it follows pulp conventions when it recounts our eventual crushing victories as much as it does when it piles on our early catastrophic defeats. A mothballed American ship is refitted with a devastating new technology developed over the first weeks of the war (a rail gun powered by batteries using another hitherto-unknown isotope of unobtanium), and on its first use this single rail gun not only destroys fleets of enemy CVs but provides absolutely effective fire support for the re-invasion of Hawaii.

Another peculiarity in Ghost Fleet is the near-ish future’s economic and political situation. Oil is hundreds of dollars a barrel, China has secretly discovered the world’s largest underwater gas field in an American mid-Pacific economic exclusion zone, and is willing to fight a war to secure energy supplies we are already freely selling them. So far, so good: there is excellent reason to think that China’s current elites foresee a future of resource wars. Ghost Fleet's Chinese elites, however, are new, because three years ago a combination of military leaders and tycoons overthrew the Party—possible—and now rule with terrifying efficiency and no corruption. That last is a pretty good trick to pull off in just three years, not least because China’s generals are themselves exploiters of political privilege for economic gain on a very grand scale, as are, of course, China’s tycoons. The notion that an effortless replacement of one portion of a lawless, corrupt authoritarian elite by vast numbers of its own lawless, authoritarian and corrupt members, who are immediately free of two of these qualities, and thus supremely competent, seems an odd one for an author with a Harvard doctorate in political science assisted by another with a Harvard M.P.A. What do they teach people up there?

Not, it turns out, English: these gentlemen think the word "autarky" means "autonomy"—a particularly ominous mistake for people who affect to understand modern China—and also believe “I have abused your time” is how one makes a pro forma apology for a pretty terse presentation of a proposal for war to one’s colleagues and superiors. Ghost Fleet’s vision of American politics is also odd, happily full of deeply patriotic libertarian billionaires, deeply patriotic major stockholders of Walmart and deeply patriotic anarchist hackers, apparently the mass membership of Anonymous. Again, billionaires, brilliant corporate logisticians and anarchic free spirits are scarcely unknown in our history—they all chipped in to help us win both World Wars—but a lot of them also quarreled pretty savagely with the government and with one another. There’s none of that here—as in war, so in politics, and after those first reverses nothing important goes wrong. I am trying to guess what the admirals, generals, State Department folk and members of other elites who praise and employ Singer and Cole think of such a vision of war and politics. Maybe they simply think that a piece of genre fiction with twenty-two pages of footnotes must be worth something, but that possibility, however remote, is more credibly alarming than anything that happens in Ghost Fleet.

From August, 2015

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