The Future Of Warfare

In the second of a regular series inviting prominent members of academia to address key questions of global governance, international politics and the evolution of the international system, Christopher Coker – a leading scholar of international security and military philosophy – reflects upon how recent technologies are changing the face of war. As we enter a brave new world of cyber attacks and unmanned drones, Coker warns that in a bid to make war more humane, we are increasingly relying on machines to automate human virtue.

“Fifteen years after taking flight, Orville Wright predicted the airplane would make war impossible. Guglielmo Marconi thought the coming of radio would make war “ridiculous” – a variation on Oscar Wilde’s idea that it would end once it became vulgar, rather than wicked. My favorite example is that of Hiram Maxim, inventor of the machine gun, who when asked whether the invention would make war more wicked replied: “no, it’ll make war impossible.”

It was not the case that these failed to promise a better, or even safer, world. But each new development created more problems than it solved. Unfortunately, argues the great technology guru, Kevin Kelly, problems are the answers to solutions. Once a machine is built, we soon discover that it has ‘ideas’ of its own. Technology not only changes our habits, but also our habits of mind.

The Maxim gun was a case in point. Far from making war impossible, the weapon in fact made it all too easy for those who possessed this technical advantage to occupy the moral high ground. Because it originated in the West, the gun was deemed to be the product of a rational society. It followed that those who did not have access to such weaponry (for instance Native Americans) were being irrational in continuing to resist the onward path of westward expansion. Inevitably, American settlers used their newly acquired weapons to make the natives ‘see reason.’ And of course, it often worked.

By 1890, the American frontier was officially closed and Geronimo, the last ‘renegade’ Indian leader, finally captured. Fifteen years later – after authoring two commercially successful autobiographies – he rode in Teddy Roosevelt’s inauguration parade. Yet, it was all to end badly. Once Western societies turned machine guns against each other, they found themselves in a moral no man’s land of their own making.

The question we should ask, writes Kelly, is this: what does technology still want of us? Let’s be clear – unlike human beings, technologies do not have needs or desires. But when new technologies are aggregated they acquire a collective property, just as we talk of the market ‘wanting’ things. And technological advances and insights often occur at about the same time in more than one place. The evolution of technology converges in much the same manner as biological evolution. Kelly’s question can also be seen as a variation of Richard Dawkins’ influential idea of the extended phenotype. Dawkins suggests birds and nests are one and the same. Without nests, birds could not reproduce. Poorly constructed or poorly placed nests reduce birds’ chances of reproductive success. Conversely, well-built nests dramatically increase the evolutionary odds. Likewise, we are what technology makes us. No other species has such an extensive phenotype, or, more specifically, its own imprint on the planet.

Technology is simply the further evolution of evolution, and technological evolution results in a variety of gadgets, machines, tools and techniques, which increase again this ability to advance. The latest technologies are becoming smarter and offering new choices – not only in co-operation with human beings, but for the first time in possible competition. Technology is boosting human intelligence and innovation at the very time it may be about to develop an agenda of its own. Ray Kurtzweil calls it “the Singularity” – the day computers become self-conscious (the Skynet scenario for fans of the Terminator franchise).

Until that day arrives – if ever – technology will continue to give us choices. Choices without values yield little but new choices. Yet they may also ‘revalue’ old values, or devalue those qualities that have traditionally been held in high regard in war, such as sacrifice and heroism. It is simply too early to tell, although in my book Warrior Geeks I argue that this is precisely the direction in which technology is taking us. New developments are devaluing the sacramental ideal of war and persuading us to overvalue technical proficiency.

© U.S. Marine Corps/Sgt. Pete Thibodeau