EARLIER THIS year, West Point’s Defense and Strategic Studies Program invited me to participate in a panel discussion on the future of warfare. For historians, and particularly for Vietnam War students like me, such requests seem fraught with peril. Given the contentious debate that continues to surround America’s involvement in Vietnam, now fifty years after Lyndon Johnson’s fateful decision to send ground combat troops to Southeast Asia, commenting on the future of warfare obliges conjecture without much evidence. Yet for uniformed officers considering strategic issues and the use of military force, these questions surely are as sensible as they are unavoidable. How can soldiers prepare for future war without thinking about its latest incarnations?
The guidance for the panelists underlined two questions: “What will be the dominant trend in warfare from 2015–2035?” and “How should the U.S. military and government prepare for this trend?” Perhaps shying away from such an imposing query, I found myself dissecting the question itself. The prompt contained a host of assumptions and deeper questions. Would there be, for instance, only one dominant trend over the next twenty years? Could one find in the United States’ last thirteen and a half years of war a certain trajectory of technological or political developments hinting at the future of warfare?
Most importantly, the question seemed to assume, almost reflexively, that the United States would be at war over the next twenty years. (Peace, apparently, was not likely to be a dominant trend.) Such assumptions should give us pause. Yet preparing for war—even engaging in war—without asking why war is necessary has arguably become part of our national psyche. In a large sense, the United States has been at war for so long that, collectively, its citizens and leaders have become uncomfortable with, if not frightened by, the very idea of peace. After decades of being at war, we have come to the point where we can’t live without it.
This willing acceptance of perpetual war offers a congenial (and lucrative) market for national-security visionaries who glance into the future and offer advice on defense-related topics ranging from cyberwarfare to the use of drones. Pundits offer advice on the “militarization of cyberspace” and the likely arms race that will ensue given the United States’ reliance on drone technology in counterterrorism operations. Other oracles, such as David Kilcullen, have placed their forecasts within an operational environment they see as increasingly crowded, urban and connected, much different from the remote and rural Afghanistan in which Americans have been bogged down for over a decade. Still others, like former British Army officer Robert Johnson, have highlighted Western military officers’ concerns over the legal aspects of wars in which they “will be too constrained to maneuver at all in the future.”