Why We Get It Wrong: Reflections on Predicting the Future of War


Editor’s Note: This is an excerpt from “Book Review Roundtable: The Future of War from our sister publication, the Texas National Security Review. Be sure to check out the full roundtable.

I love the concept of Lawrence Freedman’s The Future of War: A History. Freedman looks at how individuals in the past have expected conflicts to unfold, and explores why they so frequently — and often spectacularly — got it wrong. It’s a terrific prism through which to see how little the present has to say about the future.

Freedman is the very best kind of tour guide, convivial and informative, seeding well-known stories with unexpected facts to savor. The chapter headings alone jostle the imagination as they trace the evolution of thinking about war, highlighting Freedman’s ability to harness examples from newspapers of the 1890s, Walt Whitman’s lamentations of the infringement of war on civilian populations, movies about the Vietnam and Iraq wars, and Los Angeles gang wars — a domestic example of low-level insurgencies that fray governance in urban settings.

Futurists of warfare suffer from the same failures of imagination that frequently shackle their brethren in other professions: They overemphasize present trends and assume that their society’s cultural norms will similarly bind their adversaries. Futurists are often mistaken in their predictions because they draw straight-line projections from current data. As Freedman writes, projections are “about the present as much as about the future.” Projecting accurately into the future requires imagining discontinuous behavior — wars that decimate China’s economic development, or perhaps propel it; breakthroughs in technology that radically reshape the supply and demand curves for energy; dramatic reversals of public attitudes that expand or contract the political space.

Perhaps predictors of war read too much history and not enough evolutionary biology. Stephen J. Gould’s idea of contingent evolution may fit intellectual development even better than it does the process of natural selection. Gould posits that in any scenario there are many potential trajectories, perhaps even many diversions from the current path, yet people tend to draw a straight line from the starting point to the current location — they don’t account for dead ends or butterfly routes that meander. Nature and strategy may be more profligate in their development than straight lines capture.

 The Decisive Battle Narrative

But if futurists have it wrong by projecting current trends forward in time, those who believe in victory stemming from a decisive battle have it wrong because they project nostalgically into the past. They imagine a mystical time when armies formed and fought, and durable political settlements were struck as the dust from the battle settled. Military professionals festooned with breakthrough technologies and unhindered by politicians’ interference dictated the plans and produced politically salient results with a minimum of civilian casualties.

It’s a delight to see Freedman tackle the mistaken expectation of a decisive battle in his enormous body of work. If Geoffrey Blainey is right that Occam’s Razor shears away all other explanations of why states go to war, leaving only that they believe they can win, Freedman’s corollary is that strategists wrongly anticipate one key conflict that will decide the fate of the war. In his previous work, Strategy: A History, Freedman traces that mistaken theory of conflict to the Napoleonic Wars, where strategists focused on Jena and Waterloo rather than the grueling Iberian and Russian campaigns. In The Future of War, he uses the 1870 Battle of Sedan between Germany and France to pound the last nails into a coffin he’s been constructing across much of his work in the past fifteen years.

Freedman instead supplants decisiveness with duration as the critical factor in war, “because if the enemy proved to be resilient then over time non-military factors would become progressively more important.” This is the essential lesson of his book: Efforts to strike the first blow “were not taken as warnings of the folly and futility of aggression, but instead of how the unwary might get caught.” In reality, according to Freedman, the ability to absorb a surprise attack and draw out a war — what in Eisenhower administration debates about national security policy was discussed as broken-back warfare — is the winning strategy. It is, however, a lesson triumphalists of decisive battles from Austerlitz to the American shock and awe theory of war have had to relearn with depressing regularity.

What makes Freedman’s latest book, and so much of Freedman’s recent work, so powerful is that he gives full sail to the breadth of his knowledge on so many topics and brings them to bear on the subject of military strategy. He is especially good at exploring the ways literature has been used to shake the establishment out of complacency, from Sir George Tomkyns Chesney’s The Battle of Dorking to August Cole and Peter Singer’s Ghost Fleet. It’s such a pleasure to watch the finest academic strategist writing today craft the trajectory of this story.

Yet, Freedman glides lightly over the failures of contemporary military and civilian strategists to confront the botched current U.S. wars, which is surprising given that Freedman was the intellectual force of the Chilcot Report that so scathingly assessed the Blair government’s Iraq War mistakes. While Freedman chronicles the blind spots and shortcomings of war prognosticators and strategists, I would have liked to read more of his thoughts about other possible choices those individuals might have made and where they would have taken the United States and the United Kingdom. I also would have enjoyed reading him celebrate more of the astringent outliers, the lone voices who have gotten the future right, like Charles J. Dunlap, the military lawyer whose dark foreboding of how the United States would lose future wars was a shock when he wrote it in 1996.

The Challenges and Benefits of Quantitative Analysis

Like other reviewers, I found Freedman’s extended survey of the quantitative analyses of political scientists discordant with the first half of the book. I agree with Freedman’s assessment that the mania for quantitative studies is often devoid of the context needed to understand the causes and consequences of war. As Freedman has elsewhere emphasized, interstate wars are both rare and their circumstances particular. Otto von Bismarck summed it up well when he stated that politics isn’t a science, it’s an art. Constructing coded data sets risks making the same mistake Graham Allison made in his book on the “Thucydides trap”: forcing a problem into a political science framework wherein n must be greater than one. In reality, each interstate war is utterly unique, thus n can never be greater than one. The joke among baseball fans about whether there is a 162-game season, or 162 one-game seasons gets at the heart of the problem. The history of war is surely made up of 162 one-game seasons.

However, I’m less convinced that political science’s penchant for quantitative studies has prevented an understanding of the conflicts prevalent after the Cold War, because such an assertion would seem to give one branch of largely inaccessible academic study much more influence than it merits. University political science departments prejudice hiring in the direction of quantitative political science, but those works have very little effect on either public understanding or policy choices. Just to take the example of democratic peace theory, the academic obsession with proving it lagged more than a half century behind the policy relevance of the idea. Nor has this field prevented regional specialists and historians from having sway.

That excessive quantification can obscure rather than enlighten the study of war has been clear since Thomas Malthus’ 1798 Essay on the Principle of Population. Yet, that much quantitative work is obscurant rather than enlightening isn’t sufficient to merit ignoring its contributions. First, because, historically speaking, quantitative political science is still in its early stages, and refinements are improving the numbers and providing more robust insights. Freedman’s criticisms, however well founded, may underestimate the evolution of the form — perhaps the best parallel is the use of sabermetrics in baseball, where number crunching once seen as an affront to the studied judgment of seasoned scouts has now become an invaluable aid to them.

The second defense of quantitative political science comes from Theodore Sturgeon’s Revelation. The science fiction writer was once challenged about the low quality of the genre. He responded that what was relevant was not that 90 percent of science fiction writing was crap, but that “ninety percent of everything is crap.” That is, the problem was not unique to the genre, but could be applied to all genres. Just so, Freedman’s critique of quantitative political science can be responded to by noting that much of history writing is likewise unenlightening — the work of accountancy, or overloading the reader with excessive facts and citations, rather than the lively storytelling characteristic of Freedman’s work.

A Well-Rounded Discussion of The Future of War

Because Freedman’s work is so broad ranging, and the question he poses is relevant across so many fields of study, this roundtable has gathered experts from several different fields to share their thoughts on his latest book. All of them are, in different ways, in the business of imagining the future: by guiding politics, pulling technology forward, utilizing technology to advantage in warfare, or establishing boundaries for its ethical use. Each contributor sinks their teeth into different aspects of The Future of War, illuminating warfare from their unique perspectives.

Mike Gallagher, a veteran of the U.S. Marine Corps, represents Wisconsin’s 8th district in the U.S. House of Representatives and serves on the Armed Services Committee. His essay focuses on the failure of technology to prevent adversaries from finding creative ways to stymie success — despite optimism that technology would change the fundamentals of warfare. He also expresses disappointment, as an elected official responsible for preparing American military forces for the future, that Freedman doesn’t offer more practical advice for how to improve predictions of warfare. Gallagher explores the “internal constraints that can explain forecasting failure,” in particular the continuing failure of the United States to marshal regional and cultural expertise in its national security establishment.

Heather Roff is senior research analyst at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab. She was previously the ethicist at Deep Mind, Google’s artificial intelligence arm, and has been on the faculties of Oxford University and the University of Colorado at Boulder. In her review, Roff challenges Freedman’s exclusion of the Korean and Vietnam wars from his discussion of how past conflicts can lock future strategists into fixed “scripts,” as those wars cast the longest shadows across contemporary foreign policy and technology challenges. In particular, she discusses the expansion of power of the presidency in times of war and the failure of the United States to understand the Vietnam War from its adversary’s perspective.

Sakunthala Panditharatne is the founder of the company Asteroid Technologies that designs 3D graphics and animations for augmented reality applications. Her exploration of ideas on Twitter is the intellectual equivalent of setting sail with Columbus. Her review of Freedman’s latest work draws parallels with economic historian Carlota Perez’s Technological Revolutions and Financial Capital. Panditharatne sees that “trends in technology and organizational dynamics have led to the increasing complexity and hybridization of warfare, much like the increasing complexity in business known as the ‘knowledge economy.’” Particularly interesting is her exploration of how personal computers and internet connectivity are shifting power from large and centralized organizations toward small networked organizations — both in businesses and militaries — and the role that legitimacy now plays in the wake of that shift. I ardently hope she proves right in her assertion that “Hybrid warfare should lend an advantage to nations with lots of soft power, which are able to attract and retain top technical talent both in industry and in the military directly, an encouraging conclusion for proponents of liberal democracy.”

Pavneet Singh and Michael Brown are with DIUx, the Department of Defense’s scouting arm for commercial technology for military use. Brown is the former president and CEO of Symantec, and has led numerous other tech companies, including Quantum and EqualLogic. Singh has worked on the National Security Council, the National Economic Council, and at the World Bank. Their essay explores some of the “signposts” for predicting war that they argue Freedman missed. This includes suggesting expanding the analysis beyond the United Kingdom and America to understand how other cultures, which take a longer view of history than the Anglo-American culture and political systems, view the future of warfare; delving more deeply into the link between economic trends and the outcomes of war, because of warfare’s reliance on economic strength; and recognizing “the role and decisiveness of superior technology.” Brown and Singh argue, “There is no disputing the fact that whoever has significantly superior technology will emerge as the victor in a future conflict.” They also see important differences between great power wars and regional wars, distinctions that Freedman fails to consider in his analysis.


The Future of Warfare serves as a reminder that strategists must relentlessly reevaluate their analyses, searching for where their assumptions may have been wrong or where they no longer capture the critical elements of the problem. Good strategists also ought to be desperate paranoiacs, constantly fearful a trap door is going to open underneath them, always crafting back-up plans for how to prevent being dumped into the sewer that waits below.

Freedman cautions that the most dangerous and destabilizing contemporary factor would be “a decision by the United States to disentangle itself from its alliance commitments.” This is particularly poignant given President Donald Trump’s recent disgraceful behavior toward America’s NATO allies. The world may now be seeing unfold the future that this great scholar of warfare worries most about. Freedman’s exploration of the attitudes, art, and scholarship of individuals from history suggests that it may not be long before these years are referred to as the inter-war period.

Sir Lawrence Freedman is the most incisive and influential academic writing about warfare today. He took the profession by storm with his Ph.D. dissertation on U.S. intelligence and the Soviet strategic threat, wrote the official British history of the Falklands War, built the renown War Studies Department at King’s College London, made seminal contributions to both the 1999 Blair doctrine and the Chilcot report, and has been a mentor to practically every young scholar in the field. This book shows him a strategist in full, drawing on a career of thinking carefully about warfare to ask why it is so difficult to see coming the kinds of wars that are actually fought? At a time when much of academia has narrowed its focus, his work is a clarion call to ask big, important questions. I’m so pleased and grateful that this interesting group of thinkers from different fields gave their time to look at The Future of War. And I’m delighted they didn’t defer to his stature or become intimidated by the vastness of his knowledge in critiquing his work. Instead, they paid him the highest professional honor: engaging seriously and critically with his ideas and arguing about their applicability to — and beyond — warfare.


Kori Schake is the deputy director general of the International Institute for Strategic Studies and the author of Safe Passage: The Transition from British to American Hegemony.

Image: Wikimedia Commons