An Expert on Warfare Examines Centuries of Evolving Mayhem

An Expert on Warfare Examines Centuries of Evolving Mayhem


Gen. James Mattis, who leads the 1st Marine Division, leaves a tent after giving a briefing while stationed in Kuwait near the Iraqi border.

Rick Loomis/Los Angeles Times, via Getty Images

A History
By Lawrence Freedman
376 pp. PublicAffairs. $30.

When it mattered most, the next war was too awful to imagine. In 1933, the year Adolf Hitler took power in Germany, an influential French author warned what might happen: “A hundred planes each carrying a ton of asphyxiating shells would cover Paris with a gas sheet 20 meters high, all in an hour.” To a French public preoccupied with aerial bombardment and chemical warfare, much of the appeal of appeasing Nazi Germany was that the alternative was unthinkable. To justify selling out Czechoslovakia to Hitler in 1938, Neville Chamberlain played on similar fears among the British, emphasizing how “horrible, fantastic, incredible” it was that a foreign quarrel led to “trying on gas masks here.”

In “The Future of War,” Lawrence Freedman offers a field manual to how past generations of Americans and Britons envisioned their conflicts to come. Again and again, they were blindsided by the conflagrations that upended their societies and wrecked their orderly lives — much as people today would be dumbfounded by an armageddon exploding from the Korean Peninsula, the Taiwan Straits, the Persian Gulf or the Baltics. “History,” he writes, “is made by people who do not know what is going to happen next.”

The oracles usually got it wrong. It’s hard enough to understand wars when you’re in the middle of them, as demonstrated daily in Iraq, Afghanistan and Yemen; it’s tougher still to predict what future combat will be like. Freedman — an emeritus professor at King’s College London, one of Britain’s pre-eminent strategic thinkers and a former member of its official Iraq war inquiry — argues that the prognosticators often expect to limit the destructiveness of the next war through a surprise knockout blow. But they tend to overlook what happens if that first salvo doesn’t win a quick victory, underestimating the salience of demographics and economic capacity while overestimating citizens’ willingness to keep on fighting and dying in a prolonged struggle. Bloody stalemates at the front can spark revolutions, mutinies or civil wars at home.

Insightful and opinionated, Freedman charges from the interstate wars of the 19th century to the Cold War to attempts to make sense of civil strife in the 1990s, ending with current fears about clashes with great powers like Russia or China using high-tech weaponry. He expertly covers centuries of evolving mayhem, from brutal European colonial wars to present-day counterterrorism, cyberwar and urban gang violence. Two of the seers who pop up in Freedman’s fascinating pages are Defense Secretary James Mattis, then a Marine Corps general puzzling over how to fight against irregular forces, and Lt. Gen. H. R. McMaster, now the White House national security adviser, appearing as an acidic skeptic about military technology. Another one is Freedman himself: With no small British coyness, he quotes and praises a major doctrinal speech about military intervention by Tony Blair, burying in an endnote the fact that he helped the prime minister to write it.


Freedman is eclectically curious not merely about the predictions of generals, spooks and nuclear strategists, but also novelists, from Arthur Conan Doyle — who in 1914 wrote a prescient potboiler about German submarines sinking British civilian ships — to a chilling 1958 novel of nuclear annihilation that became the basis for Stanley Kubrick’s film “Dr. Strangelove.” The greatest of these futurist authors was H. G. Wells, an antiwar progressive who in the early years of the 20th century dreamed up a battle tank and imagined German airships bombing American cities. His famous “War of the Worlds,” about a Martian colonization of England, was a caustic parable denouncing European empires. After recently waging “a war of extermination” on outgunned Tasmanians, Wells wrote, how can we “complain if the Martians warred in the same spirit?”

Having spent a lifetime studying wars, Freedman doesn’t expect to see the end of them. Resolutely skeptical, he’s particularly tough on those who believe that war is becoming obsolete, from the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Norman Angell — whose popular book arguing that warfare was economically futile came out a few years before the outbreak of World War I — to the excellent psychologist Steven Pinker today. Sobered by the ferocity of nationalist passions, he’s wary of idealistic efforts to criminalize warfare and supplant power politics with international law. He’s unimpressed by the prominent conventions created at The Hague in 1899 and 1907, which to this day remain a foundational legal limitation on belligerents at war, arguing that their logic “was not to outlaw war but to make it more palatable by smoothing down its rougher edges.” Military necessity, he thinks, will override legal restraints.

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