Finally, A Blank Page


Editor’s Note: This is the latest article in 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.


For a writer, there are few things more terrifying than a blank page. How many painters freeze when faced with a white canvas? The potential and promise amid deep doubt and nagging conformity can be debilitating.

That is worth keeping in mind as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel prepares to step down from his post, and his deputy Robert Work is left to tackle one of the Pentagon’s biggest challenges: how to evolve the U.S. military from its roots in the past 100 years into a force that will become more effective, not outmoded, with each passing decade of the 21st Century.

Now with the equivalent of a bureaucratic blank slate, the Department of Defense is in the midst of casting far and wide for new ideas and approaches to figure out how to preserve and increase America’s strategic advantage. One of the more promising measures, as Secretary Hagel recently told a gathering of defense heavyweights in California, is the creation of the Advanced Capability and Deterrent Panel, which “will invite some of the brightest minds from inside and outside government to start with a clean sheet of paper, and assess what technologies and systems DoD ought to develop over the next three to five years and beyond.”

If the Department really wants to break with the traditional approaches to figuring out the future, they should take this as an opportunity to remake the composition of the advisory panels tasked with cracking some of the country’s toughest national security problems. They should set new standards for creativity and insight by adding artists to the Advanced Capability and Deterrent Panel.

A focus on the “beyond” in beyond offset

By extending an invitation to a group of thinkers whose bias is to professionally disrupt and provoke, the Department would truly be able to look at the key element in the panel’s mandate: “the beyond.” Strategists, budgeteers, and planners are rooted in the near future of three to five years from now, and understandably so.

Artists whose work has them spending their professional existence in future worlds a century off have a unique perspective on the arc of technological and commercial progress. Many will have spent thousands of hours thinking not only about game-changing technologies themselves, such as man-machine hybridization or practical fusion power, but what the human costs and benefits of these advances will be. Or put another way, they know by touch where the rough seams lie in the tapestry of our future. These outside voices are not wed to protecting a particular program of record or advancing a doctrine. That makes them invaluable right now.

The perfect panel

Building these policy groups and advisory committees is an art itself, and the inclusion of artists is not meant to trivialize the accomplishments of former military officers, business executives, and academics that traditionally make them up.

There are enduring themes around creativity that can be applied here. The Advanced Capability and Deterrent Panel’s purpose, as stated by Secretary Hagel, makes that clear:

I expect the panel to propose important changes to the way DoD diagnoses and plans for challenges to our military’s competitive edge, and I also expected to break with many of our usual ways of doing business, encouraging fresh thinking that is focused on threats and challenges to our military superiority, not simply adapting what is on the books today.

This calls for considering some of the science fiction writers whose work deals with more far-out conflicts on a time horizon than the U.S. government’s own futurists. Visual artists whose graphic novel panels and paintings focus on the most important details of a particular vision can bring a balance of nuance and minutiae. Video game designers create visceral first-person experiences where the adolescent children of today’s fighting force already have exoskeletons and rail guns at their fingertips.

While there are already visionaries and artists who from time to time are rightly engaged by the government, this is a perfect opportunity to bring more in at a crucial time on a regular basis.

One of the things that can make the blank page so menacing for artists is the fear of not living up to our own expectations. Yet that is exactly what is needed to bring out our best.


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: morebyless