A Greek writer taps away on his typewriter by candlelight,trying to make sense of the cyber war that started with a hacked pacemaker. AnAmerican major awaits trial for treason as the Pacificdescends into war. Russian forces attack adarkened Estonia. These aren’t science fiction stories — they’re entries in the Art of Future Warfare contest.

All art via Art of Future Warfare

The Art Of Future Warfare (AOFW) is a project sponsored by the Atlantic Council’s Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security. It’s based on the idea that writers, artists and game designers have a lot to offer policy wonks. So it’s launched a year-long effort to engagecreatives with a series of challenges about the future of conflict.

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August Cole, director of AOFW, believes the creative arts are essential to military and policy thinking. “Unconventional,imaginative thinking and expression can contribute meaningfully to the study and professional conduct of diplomacy, defense policy, and military operations,” he says.

A former journalist who covered defense for the Wall Street Journal, Cole became a fiction writer, and then entered the think-tank world. Cole’s own foray into the art of future warfare — GhostFleet, written with Peter Singer — comes out this year.

Several think tanks are taking a futurist tack to high-stakes issues, including the New America Foundation’s Future Of War project. But the Atlantic Council’s fiction-based approach reaches deep into the imagination to look ahead.

Art and the Art of War

Cole points to David’s Oath of the Horatii, Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, Picasso’s Guernica, and Coppola’s Apocalypse Nowas examples of art grappling with and informing martial subjects. And Wells’ and Menzies’ Things To Come, Heinlein’s StarshipTroopers, Haldeman’s The Forever War and the TV movie The Day After — amongmany other works — brought the creative imagination and process to bear on the future of conflict.

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Experiencing how creatives think — as much as what they think — candemystify the creative process for the national security community. “Writers, illustrators and filmmakers value process as much as content,” Cole says.“They’re very methodical when producing their work.”

Cole wants to bridge the two communities. He’s reaching out to game designers, writers and artists to get fresh perspectives, people who don’t know the “rules.” From the other direction, he wants military and policy professionals to get involved in imagining future war scenarios.

“Our vision [for the AOFW project],” says Cole,“sees an initial one year stretch from September 2014 to September 2015. Wehope to make the project ongoing. Our first output will be the e-book publication of our contest entries, and later possibly more books, games and design.”

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AOFW is organizing creative challenges, hosting live events with working artists and running a web site and campaign of social media outreach. “War On The Rocks has been a great partner,” Cole says. “andthe podcast Studio360 is a big inspiration.”

The creative challenges each focus on a specific thematic look at future warfare. AOFW’s first contest, “Great War,” asked contestants to imagine the next great conflict through fictional journalism.

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The 12 entries — some of them noted in this article’s opening paragraph — showcased the convergence of journalism, national security and imagination in lively and engaging fashion.

The winning entry “Coffee, Wi-Fi and The Moon,” by Greek naval officer Nikolas Katsimpras, spun current concerns over hacking, theInternet of Things and cyber conflict with Russia into a tale of day-after darkness.

“He handled the challenge well,” says Cole. “By addressing Russian aggression through the more abstract ideas of lunar mining and cyber war, he looked at what the stakes would be in the next great war.”

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The project’s most recent challenge, judged by Hugo winner David Brin, invited creative minds to explore space war at the end of this century. The rayguns, starships and alien invasions of classic sci-fi may take new and terribleforms in minds informed by the events and inventions of our own era.

Will cooperation or conflict frame humanity’s approach to the planets and stars? Cole looks forward to the entries’ tensions between optimism and pessimism. He also looks back to historical analogues.

Two more contests this year will focus on graphic novels and visual art, and veterans’ issues in future wars.

The Danger of “Presentism”

The challenges offer “creative cues” for entrants. But, Cole adds, “there’s a risk with offering cues or hints. They may bias the results.” Because the danger in turning to fiction to imagine the future is not that the ideas too wild, but that they aren’t wild enough.

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Adam Elkus calls out the danger of presentism — “the projection of the assumptions of the present out to the future in a linear fashion.” Elkus also points out that “[c]reative threat scenarios aren’t the same thing as likely defense scenarios.”

A propulsion breakthrough might occur in the next 80 years that gives our civilization interstellar flight. But a limited,resource-driven expansion into our own Solar System is much more likely.

A Starship Troopers scenario seems much lessprobable than analogies to past conflicts over sugar and spice islands, and remote, thinly populated territories for homeland prestige.

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And Cole emphasizes the human dimension. The technology of the future is always fascinating but it’s the humans who live there that drive the stories and the histories to come.

Elkus says games “have the power, if taken seriously, to move us and force us to re-examine our beliefs.” Games, and tales, and pictures moving and still — all draw us out of the grey worried present into new hopes and fears, and a larger vision of humanity.