America’s Overlooked Strategic Asset: Artists


Editor’s Note: We at War on the Rocks are proud to announce our partnership with the Art of Future Warfare initiative at the Atlantic Council’s Scowcroft Center. Check out the project and keep an eye on our Art of War blog for what we are up to. 

At a pivotal moment when the U.S. national security establishment is coming to grips with the fact that the country may not be truly prepared for a messy and dangerous future, we are overlooking one of the most important assets in the American arsenal: artists.

The pace, structure, and arc of the 21st Century’s armed and social conflicts lack predictability and structure. Surprises are the new normal and it is only going to get more challenging as disruptive technologies proliferate. For big organizations like the Department of Defense, this future likely exceeds the current limits of budgetary and planning capabilities. The years ahead promise the kind of ambiguity and chaos that inspires artists.

The Atlantic Council’s Art of Future Warfare project believes writers, illustrators, directors, videographers, and their creative methodologies deserve a valued place in the defense establishment’s planning and preparation for the future of warfare and social conflict. Unconventional, imaginative thinking and expression can contribute meaningfully to the study and professional conduct of diplomacy, defense policy, and military operations.

No one artist can exactly predict the future. Nor is that the goal of the Art of Future Warfare project. The project’s core mission is to cultivate a community of interest in works and ideas arising from the intersection of creativity and expectations about how emerging antagonists, disruptive technologies, and novel warfighting concepts may animate tomorrow’s conflicts.

Art can be instructional, shaping for decades or more how we understand what our future holds, even if the subject is not a deliberate forecast or a precise projection of the decades ahead. In the visual arts, Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now intertwined mission and madness amid an unconventional war. Pablo Picasso’s Guernica stood against Fascism and war itself while clearly foreshadowing the devastation to come just two years after the paint dried on the canvas. The Jacques-Louis David painting The Oath of the Horatii offers everything you need to understand the brotherhood of those taking up arms. In the literary world, Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on The Western Front showed the futility and despair on the muddy front lines of the first mechanized war. From the perspective of a Vietnam veteran, Joe Haldeman’s The Forever War projected how a future society and its military can grow out of phase fighting a poorly understood enemy in a war seemingly without end. From a British perspective, General Sir John Hackett’s The Third World War: The Untold Story imagined the Cold War turning hot and influenced a generation of U.S. soldiers peering into the early morning mist of Germany’s Fulda Gap.

Were the ideas and themes of these works broken down into the confines of a PowerPoint presentation, they would be forgettable, rather than offering enduring precepts that shape our understanding of how future wars begin, are fought, and will end.

The artist’s palette

Artists bring to bear observations derived from creative processes shaped by their own experiences – especially those whose work is anchored in the experience of war itself. Rather than working deductively from some greater observation or idea as much of the policy world does, many of the most successful storytellers have focused on the details first and built outward. Legendary science-fiction writer Frederik Pohl observed that the genre’s best works should predict the traffic jam, not the automobile.

It is easy to discount new voices as unschooled, treating them as a threat to the status quo. In a sense, these criticisms are not unfounded. Artists walk a fine line between knowing just enough and too much. They use what they know but are not bound by it. This approach and a risk-taking nature, help bypass process and tradition.

The best artists are also extremely mission focused because it is not possible to succeed without a powerful desire to move mind and body toward a hazy destiny glimpsed in the waking moments of a dream. Again and again. Day after day. Realizing that flicker of imagination requires drive to beat internal and external deadlines, and what writer Steven Pressfield calls “Resistance.” Pressfield, whose book The Profession is a compelling and credible look at the role of the mercenary in a near-future world of eroding centralized power and global conflict, views this struggle as a battle against the toughest foe of all: ourselves. It is a fight against the forces that want to slacken the grip on a paintbrush and keep a body in a warm bed before dawn instead of tapping out a stiff-fingered rhythm on a laptop keyboard.

Seeing a role

Many in the defense community are open to this kind of thinking and see the artistry in mission planning or the value in teaching design theory to America’s elite forces. Earlier this year, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff General Martin Dempsey told West Point cadets that Max Brooks’s World War Z, a novel about the zombie-driven breakdown of civilization, prompted him to check with his staff on what exactly the plan was if the very foundation of the current global order were so acutely threatened.

The growing informal network of national security professionals, such as the Defense Entrepreneurs Forum, encourage creative thinking and innovation, and have more in common with the artistic community than the military’s bureaucracy.

The Defense Department also maintains a back-and-forth of expertise and know-how with Hollywood. Recently, the company that brought the Iron Man suit to the silver screen has been working with the U.S. military on its next-generation powered fighting suits that will give soldiers the kind of exoskeleton combat capability currently experienced by gamers playing Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare. It is a start, but more deep, cross-cutting relationships should be fostered between the artistic and defense community. Remember that Iron Man began life in a comic book more than 60 years ago. Video games, graphic novels, and movies like Edge of Tomorrow are setting expectations for a generation that will come of military age when today’s dreams are tomorrow’s standard issue.

Looking to a particular film, game, or book as a roadmap to be followed turn by turn would be a mistake that betrays a real vulnerability for tomorrow’s wars: a lack of imagination. Yet with enough different artistic visions and an appreciation for how those visions came to be, America can finally count on one of its most underappreciated strategic assets when it is needed most.


August Cole is the director of the Atlantic Council’s Art of Future Warfare project and a non-resident senior fellow at the Council. He is a writer, consultant and analyst. His first novel, GHOST FLEET, co-written with Peter W. Singer, will be published in 2015.


Photo credit: Rodrigo Paoletti (adapted by WOTR)