war on the rocks

Summer Reading List: 10 Books You Overlooked in Your Quest to Predict the Next Great War

May 7, 2015

During a speech at West Point in 2011, then-Secretary of Defense Robert Gates offered a sobering account of the United States’ track record on predicting future conflicts: “When it comes to predicting the nature and location of our next military engagements, since Vietnam, our record has been perfect. We have never once gotten it right.”

Failing to predict future conflicts is nothing new — it is no doubt a systemic headache of leaders throughout history. Many have gotten it wrong, but a select few, such as Otto von Bismarck have gotten it right. But that begs the question: is predicting future conflicts an art, a science, or simply a lucky bulls-eye from a volley of shots in the dark?

Defining the next future conflict in detail may be impossible. But outlining a menu of scenarios that a future conflict could look like is indispensable to current policymakers and defense planners. As Dwight Eisenhower said, “plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

But good news for policymakers: Fiction can provide much-needed insight into future conflict scenarios.

Fiction offers a new and unique vantage point to examine current political and diplomatic issues from the comfortable distance of imaginary storylines yet with the intensity of a character-driven narrative. In this case, it offers defense planners and policymakers a way to step outside the confines of their own preconceived assumptions and biases they may not even realize they have. Science fiction in particular can stitch the lessons of history and today’s challenges into a vision of the future in a relatable yet thought-provoking way.

All this adds up to good news for those tired of bland professional reading lists that crowd out their riveting summer beach reads. Here’s a list of overlooked books that blends both:

1. Persona
by Genevieve Valentine

This creative political thriller is set in the near future, and centers on a young ambassador uncovering who was behind a plot to kill her. While it is soft on international relations, the book touches on many elements relevant to policymakers: resource scarcity driving geopolitical tensions; the subsequent rise of eco-terrorism; new media’s role in diplomacy and crisis management; and a thought-provoking vision of the future of diplomacy in an age where diplomats and celebrities are one in the same.

2. Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War
by P.W. Singer and August Cole

What Tom Clancy’s Red Storm Rising did for envisioning a conflict in the twilight of the Cold War, Singer and Cole do for World War 3. This forthcoming book weaves together global trends that already keep leaders up at night with flavors of the next great conflict between the United States and China: low-tech insurgencies, cyberwar, space combat, Silicon Valley mavericks and more.

3. Arctic Rising
by Tobias S. Buckell

Plenty of ink has been spilled on geopolitics creeping into the Arctic as the ice recedes. Buckell’s novel envisions what happens next. In Arctic Rising, the ice has all but melted, prompting an international race for newly accessible resources and stoking new political tensions. With flavors of James Bond novel, Buckell outlines hard geopolitical realities the international community could face if climate change is not managed properly, the rising influence of corporations in international relations, and the ever-present risk but unprecedented risk of a nonstate actor getting its hands on a nuclear weapon.

4. Cyclops
by Matz

During the Iraq War, private contractors made up 50 percent of the military’s workforce, compared to only 10 percent during World War II. Modern mercenaries and private military contractors’ roles in conflicts will only expand given the current trajectory, which is the central element of Cyclops, an edgy graphic novel set in the near future. In the year 2054, a future analog of the UN Security Council decides to outsource its peacekeeping missions to private military contractors. One such company, with big profits in mind, sends their contingent of peacekeepers into a warzone in Turkey with micro-cameras in their helmets, turning the footage into popular primetime television. Cyclops offers a glimpse into the future of international peacekeeping missions, from how publicity and mass media impacts policy and military strategy to the rising role of private military contractors, in the midst of a not-so-farfetched conflict in Turkey.

5. The Shape of Things to Come
by H.G. Wells

H.G. Wells, one of the forefathers of modern science fiction, wrote a book outlining the second major world war in the 1940’s, with elements including greatly increased use of airpower, the targeting civilian populations, the destruction of major cities as a new tactic in warfare. The kicker? He wrote it in 1933. This is not Wells’ best work, and his disillusionment with modern society and socialist leanings are at best thinly-veiled. But despite its pitfalls, this eerie forecast of World War II serves as a model of how science fiction writers can do a better job than government experts of predicting the next great conflict.

6. Solution Unsatisfactory
by Robert Heinlein

The second, and arguably better, example on the list of a science fiction writer who got it right. In Solution Unsatisfactory, a short story written in 1940 at the outset of World War II, Heinlein predicts a world where the United States develops nuclear weapons, uses them to end the war, and afterwards incites a global nuclear arms race. Heinlein’s work is perhaps the finest prophetic work of speculative fiction, introducing readers to the embryonic concepts of mutually assured destruction, deterrence, and arms races that would come to define the contours of the Cold War in the decades to follow.

7. Feed
by Mira Grant

Few reading lists today are complete without a token zombie novel, even in this case. Feed tells the story of two bloggers on the campaign trail of a presidential candidate of a post-apocalyptic United States where almost all human interaction takes place online, lest a group of uninfected attract the flesh-eating hordes that rule the streets. Read it for the fast-paced and entertaining plot first (zombie giraffes probably aren’t at the top of defense planners’ future threat assessments). But also read it for the well-researched background on bioengineering, how the media impacts our responses to disease-driven threats, and what the nascent influence of new media means for 21st century political leaders.

8. Station Eleven
by Emily St. John Mandel

A Russian flight full of passengers infected by a deadly virus lands in the United States, triggering an unstoppable pandemic that spells the end of humanity as we know it. Mandel’s critically acclaimed post-apocalyptic novel, lauded as “Shakespeare for Survivors” by the New York Times, conveys the visceral fear we all have of a deadly virus effortlessly moving across the world in the globalized and interconnected 21st century. Policymakers confronted the potential threat during the 2014 Ebola outbreak. While it was luckily contained in West Africa, the Chief of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Dr. Thomas Frieden, ominously warned that the next pandemic the world will face is “hiding in plain sight.” This book gleans insights into how a virus could spread, and what the remnants of society will look like in the aftermath. It also offers insights into how pockets of society react to catastrophic events, invaluable for those working on post-crisis management.

9. Code Zero
by Jonathan Maberry

If World War I was “the chemist’s war” with chemical weapons and World War II was “the physicist’s war” with nuclear weapons, then World War III could be the biologist’s war. Bioweapons don’t engender the same level of fear or notoriety that nuclear weapons do in today’s society, but they should. Enter Code Zero, the sixth novel in a series following the fictitious “Department of Military Sciences’” action-packed quests to stop terrorists and other enemies of the homeland from using bioterror weapons. This is a formulaic thriller in the spirit of Lee Child or James Patterson, but it highlights the growing threat of bioterrorism in the 21st century and hopefully spurs serious thinking about how the U.S. government works to prevent these threats from materializing.

10. Notes from the Internet Apocalypse
by Wayne Gladstone

What happens to society when the Internet just suddenly stops? This doomsday scenario, however unlikely, keeps many cyber security experts up at night. Wayne Gladstone’s answer to the question is a profane comedy satirizing our society’s Internet addiction. But reading this story tacitly raises important questions about how society and government would react to a major cyber catastrophe. Hopefully someone out there has a good answer…


Robbie Gramer is Assistant Director of the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. He tweets at @RobbieGramer. All views are his own.


Photo credit: Michelle Brouwer