Did H.G. Wells do a better job predicting the future of warfare than the Pentagon?

Illustration for article titled Did H.G. Wells do a better job predicting the future of warfare than the Pentagon?

H.G. Wells gave us many of our most beloved science fiction conceits — but did he also foresee how war would develop in the era of airplanes and advanced weaponry? And were his predictions more prescient than some of the Pentagon's attempts to forecast the changing nature of war have been?

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That's the conclusion reached by Micah Zenko, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, in an article posted over at the Atlantic Monthly. Zenko runs down many of Wells' predictions for the future of war, including more intricate types of rifles, and bomber planes. Unfortunately, not all of Wells' predictions were on the money — he predicted that citizens would all serve in the military, and that civilian casualties would be low.

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"He predicted that citizens would all serve in the military, and that civilian casualties would be low."

I think the first part is more accurate than the second part. Many countries, including the US, have had conscription measures of some sort in the past or currently—especially during major wars.

But yes, if the Twentieth Century is any guide, civilians deaths and casualties far outweigh military deaths.

But this is partially changing now, depending on where you look.

"This tendency to differentiate a non-combatant mass in the fighting state will certainly not be respected; the state will be organized as a whole to fight as a whole; it will have triumphantly asserted the universal duty of its citizens."

The Atlantic article claims this is a bad one but I think this is because they don't understand what Wells is trying to say here.

He's talking about total war, the guiding principle behind World War One, World War Two and the Cold War.

To really win a war against another major power with a well supplied, well supported and high tech military, you need to completely destroy their economy and political system too. Or at least threaten to do so—as is the case with nuclear weapons.

Yes, the number of actual military personnel is small in comparison to the population of a post-industrial state. That has always been obvious. But what Wells is really saying here is that a high technology country has a massive economy to support a very expensive and powerful military. You need to completely destroy that country's infrastructure before it destroys yours if you expect to win.

Or in the case of the asymmetric wars of today, the small, poor countries hide your guerrillas in the civilian population, get lots of hard to stanch outside support and then pester the high tech, rich country's military until their home populace loses interest and demands their troops come home.

Either way it is never just the military alone that you have to consider.

As an aside, the US Military, since Vietnam, has learned lots of ways to deal with the problems posed by asymmetric warfare. They've pretty much learned that the home population really doesn't care a lot about the deaths of civilian populations in enemy states if:

1) The press is kept out or very tightly controlled.

2) All outside sources of support for the enemy guerrillas you're trying to defeat are completely isolated and cut off. This is one of the hardest things to do—as Afghanistan is currently demonstrating.

3) The US military is to be made as bloodless as possible. The fewer coffins get sent home, the more a long protracted occupation can be carried out.

4) Try to get your allies, and more importantly, your allies' press on your side. You don't want any other press organizations that you can't control making you look bad in the country you're occupying.

These days, the Pentagon loves robots and the Pentagon loves proxies that will do our bayonet work for us. Look at how Libya and Afghanistan are being handled. Look at how hugely the use of robots and drones was massively expanded in Iraq. The Pentagon has figured out a way to deal with past failures of asymmetric war like Vietnam.

This is both good and bad.