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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. Author of FREEDOM OF RELIGION AND THE SECULAR STATE (2012), HUMANITY ENHANCED (2014), and THE MYSTERY OF MORAL AUTHORITY (2016).

Sunday, October 13, 2019

Science Fiction as a Lens into Future War


(This is the written version of my presentation at a panel on “Science Fiction and Futurism – Philosophy and Ethics for a Global Era”. The panel was part of the Australian Defence College’s Profession of Arms seminar, “Science Fiction as a Lens into Future War”, held in Canberra on 3 October 2019. This written version contains considerably more detail than could be presented in the limited time available for the panel.)

First, thanks to all concerned at the Australian Defence College for organising this event, and for the invitation to take part. The topic that we’ve been assigned for this panel raises numerous issues and could sustain a lifetime program of research. My contribution today is intended as something of a conceptual map that is not meant to be controversial, but I’m sure some of it will be anyway. What isn’t? I hope, nonetheless, that it will be helpful as a starting point for thought.

1. Political leaders, military strategists, members of the armed forces at all levels, commentators on public affairs, and responsible citizens in democratic societies all need to consider:
  • When, if ever, is it ethically justifiable to go to war? (Just war theorists use the Latin term jus ad bellum.)
  • If it is ever ethically justifiable to go to war, how are we justified in fighting? (Just war theorists use the term jus in bello.) Are there limits that should apply, and if so what are they?
2. We would hope that any principles applying here would be consistent with our more general ethical principles. However, the consequences of going to war and waging war are especially serious, sometimes catastrophic. War may sometimes be justified, but it is a tragic option, never to be taken lightly. So, we want to follow principles that are consistent with our ethics more generally, but this is an area where our choices involve an exceptionally high level of responsibility.

3. Generally, three families of theories about the ethics of war have some credibility or prestige within modern liberal democracies. We can question whether the third is technically an ethical theory, but it plays the same role, and I think it does contain at least a residual ethical element:
  • Pacifist theories, which, with limited exceptions and variations, rule out acts of violence.
  • Just war theories.
  • International relations realist (or simply "realist") theories of war. These are basically theories of enlightened self-interest.
4. Before going further, it’s important to note that there are other approaches that now lack credibility among thoughtful people in liberal democracies. These approaches emphasize such things as empire, personal and national glory, spreading religion or ideology, the idea of war as a kind of adventure or grand game, or as character building, and so on. A whole range of such approaches were once popular, but are now commonly viewed with disdain.

Historically, that is a recent development. These approaches to war lost credibility as a result of the horror of trench warfare in World War I, the immense destructiveness of the atomic bombs used in World War II, and the hydrogen bombs developed soon after, and doubtless other historical developments. But at least until World War I, these older ideas had great currency.

Prior to that time, few narratives of future wars included warnings against the horrors of war as such, or against the horrors of a future form of war. Where they expressed warnings, as they often did, it was usually against geopolitical and military vulnerability, as with “The Battle of Dorking”, a novella by G.T. Chesney (1871), and, in the Australian context, The Yellow Wave by Kenneth Mackay (1895). The great exception here is The War in the Air by H.G. Wells (1908), which I’ll return to in more detail.

5. This is not the place to examine the detail of pacifist theories of war and violence, just war theories, and realist theories of war. That would require a course in military ethics – some people in the audience may have completed such a course, or even taught it, but we can’t do that today.

Briefly, however, it seems to me that pacifism is not viable, and at the same time something more than enlightened self-interest is needed here. That is, something like just war theory is needed to guide political leaders, serving military personnel, and other citizens of a democratic society. We all yearn for some guidance as to when going to war is ethically justified – not just prudentially wise – and when our methods of fighting in war, including the tactics that we employ and the weapons that we develop and use, are ethically acceptable.

Furthermore, I don’t see how we can send men and women into military operations without giving them some kind of intellectually respectable ethical basis for what is expected of them, and some kind of reassurance of what they are ethically entitled to do within limits.

6. Rather than trying to develop that basis today, I want to make two general points about all three somewhat credible approaches to the ethics – or whatever fills in for ethics – of war.

7. First point: all these theories face a problem. The traditional theories, and especially just war theories, were developed in very different circumstances from those applying today. Traditional just war theory works well and intuitively when applied to relations between nation states such as those of Europe following the Peace of Westphalia in 1648: i.e. nation states with similar cultures and military technologies, and with relatively little ability to harm each other by our current standards. (The Thirty Years’ War, which raged across Europe prior to the Peace of Westphalia, was immensely destructive. But the opposing sides were not armed with strategic bombers and nuclear missiles; they weren’t dependent on civilian infrastructure that could be destroyed by cyber attacks; they were not thinking about weapons and weapon systems controlled by autonomous Artificial Intelligence.)

Today, we possess immensely destructive weapons. We find ourselves involved in asymmetrical struggles against non-state actors such as revolutionary groups, insurgents, and terrorists. Our motives for going to war have broadened to include humanitarian issues that are often genuinely urgent, but also provide opportunities for cynicism and abuse. We’re now contemplating what amounts to posthuman warfare.

Any ethical basis for fighting wars – or for refusing to fight them – must take account of this altered technological and geopolitical reality.

8. Second point: All credible theories of war now have something in common that is emphasized by thoughtful pacifists, just war theorists, and realists.

The concept here is that you don’t know what you’re in for when you go to war. What looks like a straightforward, “clean”, war, with costs proportionate to its goals, may soon have endless unexpected ramifications, become uglier and dirtier than we ever thought it could, and have terrible costs that did not figure in our calculations.

We need civilian decision-makers and ordinary citizens, as well as the military, to understand this. I like to think that our military personnel, at least, do understand the point, but that can’t be guaranteed. We should worry about any developments that could reduce our vivid understanding of war’s meaning and its unpredictability, and so blunt our democratic engagement with decisions about war.

9. This finally brings me to fictional narratives about future wars and the future of warfare, whether or not those narratives are strictly science fiction. I propose to say something about what those narratives can accomplish, but also something about their limitations.

10. Broadly speaking, these narratives serve three main purposes, which I’ll summarise as follows:
  • Spectacle – i.e. the future – and with it, usually some kind of futuristic technology – is  imagined for entertaining depictions of spectacular battles.
  • Warning – this includes warnings about particular military threats that could arise, perhaps resulting from one country’s geopolitical and military weaknesses, and also warnings about the nature of future warfare
  • Justice – I’ll use this word as shorthand for anxieties about the justification or ethics of war, or the justification or ethics of developments in warfare.
11. For today’s purposes, it’s not necessary to establish a clear line between narratives about future war that should and should not be classified as science fiction. Any such boundary would be blurred. Nonetheless, there are reasons why literary historians at least hesitate to classify nineteenth-century stories of near-future invasions, such as Chesney’s “The Battle of Dorking”, as science fiction, and why the military technothrillers of, say, Tom Clancy, are not usually labeled as science fiction.

Perhaps some of these works should be considered science fiction. Marketing labels are often arbitrary from a formal or theoretical point of view. All the same, there is a very long history of stories and prophecies about future wars involving combatants with basically unchanged weaponry, tactics, and so on. By contrast, science fiction, as a literary and cultural phenomenon that arose in the nineteenth century, involves something more, as I describe in my 2017 book, Science Fiction and the Moral Imagination, and as I discussed in a talk that I gave at the Australian Defence College back in June:
  •  In large part, science fiction responds to a new understanding of the future that became possible, at least for most people, only as a result of the Industrial Revolution. That is, it responds to a conception of the future that emphasizes rapid, continual, visible social change driven and shaped by advances in science, and especially technology.
  • To remind us, Chesney’s “The Battle of Dorking” was published in 1871. It depicts a successful invasion of England by Germany in the wake of the devastating Franco-Prussian War of 1870–71. It’s a warning of British military weakness, but little in Chesney’s novella relates to the effects of science and technology. The Germans use basically the same tactics that they’d already used, historically, in defeating France.
  • To qualify that, the Germans do use the most advanced military methods of the time. They also use certain vaguely described secret weapons against the British fleet. But even these seem to be no more than mines and torpedoes of kinds already being developed in the 1860s and 1870s.
  • By contrast, H.G. Wells’s The War of the Worlds (1897) and The War in the Air (1908) are clearly science fiction.

12. I'm not interested today in exactly where we draw that line. I think it's more important to make other distinctions, such as between narratives that warn about specific wars that could happen now or very soon (with more-or-less existing methods and equipment) and narratives that imagine, and possibly warn about, new methods of warfare. Even here, there are grey areas, and we might come back to them before this panel concludes. However, “The Battle of Dorking”, which warns of British vulnerability to attack by the newly unified Germany, is one kind of narrative. The War in the Air is very different.

Thematically, “The Battle of Dorking”, like many other such narratives right up to the present day, warns us to prepare for war. By contrast, The War in the Air warns us about what future warfare might be and mean.

13. The War in the Air was first published in serial form in 1908. In his preface to the 1921 edition, Wells states that “war alters its character” when it involves flying machines. These alter not only the methods but also the consequences of war. He predicts that war will become far more destructive, and far less decisive, and consequently, war, as depicted in this novel, “means social destruction instead of victory as the end of war.” (The relevant passage in the 1921 preface reflects a similar passage in the novel itself.)

Thus, The War in the Air belongs to, or even establishes, a tradition of science fictional warnings about the methods of future warfare. It warns about the consequences of emerging military technology. In doing so, it depicts a vast, horrifically destructive war at sea, on land, and in the air.

14. At first, the narrative is rather light and comical in depicting the aptly named Smallways family, and it initially remains light even after Bert Smallways, through a series of misadventures, finds himself aboard a German military airship. Thereafter, however, the tone becomes increasingly serious and tragic.

At one point, Wells describes an attack on New York City by the German air-fleet. The Germans quickly destroy the city’s defences, and New York is forced to surrender. However, this leads to a popular insurrection that the airships can’t control, since they lack the personnel to occupy territory on the ground. As the situation worsens, the German air-fleet bombs the city, destroying it and massacring its inhabitants.

Then the Asian countries unleash their own secret air-fleets, the whole world is soon at war, great cities are bombed to rubble, and the global economic system collapses. The world is rapidly engulfed in anarchy, famine, and pestilence. Before he sees war for himself, we’re told of poor Bert Smallways, “Hitherto he had rather liked the idea of war as being a jolly, smashing, exciting affair, something like a Bank Holiday rag on a large scale, and on the whole agreeable and exhilarating. Now he knew it a little better.”

15. Most narratives of future war published before World War I could have been written by Bert Smallways, i.e. by people with relatively naïve ideas of what modern warfare really meant. Wells stands as the obvious exception, at least among writers in English, though an honorable mention should go to Arthur Conan Doyle for his 1914 novella “Danger! Being the Log of Captain John Sirius”, which predicted unrestricted submarine warfare not long before Britain was actually confronted with it during World War I (and notwithstanding claims at the time that Conan Doyle was engaging in alarmism and fearmongering).

16. In The War in the Air, Bert Smallways has a wake-up call when he observes war at first hand. The nations of the world had their own wake-up calls with the horror of the trenches in World War I; the terror and fury of aerial bombardment, and then the use of atomic bombs, in World War II; and the development of the hydrogen bomb and intercontinental ballistic missiles in the early phases of the Cold War. By the 1950s, serious novels about future warfare were more often in the mode of apocalyptic warnings against war, rather than warnings to prepare for war – though of course, many depictions of future warfare, especially those set in the distant future, still treated war primarily as spectacle.

Despite that last point, old ideas of war as adventure, glory, or justified conquest now lack credibility. They lost credibility during much the same period that the thematic balance of future war narratives shifted toward warnings about future warfare itself.

17. As a much more recent example, I’ll mention Lotus Blue (2017) by my fellow panelist Cat Sparks. This is a post-apocalyptic novel set generations after a worldwide conflict controlled and conducted by autonomous Artificial Intelligences. In the novel’s present-day, a dangerous AI general – the Lotus Blue of the title – is waking up, restoring its weapon systems, and planning new conquests. The question is whether it can be stopped.

This novel warns against posthuman warfare much as Wells warned about the potential of militarized flying machines and large-scale aerial bombing.

18. There are limits to what we should expect of these narratives. Generally speaking, they cannot replace ethical and philosophical argument about the traditional questions of jus ad bellum and jus in bello, and that is not their purpose. There are some clearly pacifist science fiction novels, such as Joan Slonczewsk’s A Door into Ocean (1987). Overall, however, it is not the job of novelists to teach ethical theories.

Consider The War in the Air again. If we knew nothing else about Wells, we’d see that he despises naïve ideas of war that make it seem like an adventure, and likewise he has no time for the idea of military glory. But we’d not be able to tell whether he is against these things from, say, a pacifist perspective, a just war perspective, or a perspective based on realism in international relations. All of these schools of thought emphasise the cost and tragedy of war.

Nor can a book like The War in the Air predict the detail of what it warns about. In 1908, Wells portrayed large-scale aerial bombardment, capturing much of its power and terror, but not exactly what it would be like in practice. The same applies to other works by Wells, such as The World Set Free (1914), which memorably describes atomic bombs, although real ones turned out to be rather different. A more recent novel, such as Ghost Fleet, by P.W. Singer and August Cole (2015), depicts what high-tech non-nuclear warfare between great powers – including cyberwarfare, advanced stealth technology, and operations in space – might be like, but the reality would probably look rather different if such a war actually happened.

In short, narratives of future war represent emerging or imagined developments in warfare, rather than describing them in advance with true-to-life accuracy. And again, they are not a substitute for more formal ethical and philosophical thinking about justification in going to war and waging war.

19. Fictional narratives of future war can, of course, provide entertainment and spectacle. They can warn us to prepare for specific threats. But beyond this, they can engage with the ethics of war in their own way. For a start, these narratives can remind us of the gravity of our choices in how we prepare for war, go to war, and wage war. There’s much in contemporary society that can disengage us from the seriousness of what’s at stake – though as I touched on earlier, I’d hope that those sworn to fight on our behalf would need less reminder than most.

Narratives of future war can remind us not only of the grave cost of war but also the unpredictable ramifications of our choices. Sometimes, as with Iain M. Banks’s Culture series of novels, beginning with Consider Phlebas in 1987, they examine the anxieties that surround even seemingly justified interventions, the likelihood that something unforeseen will go wrong, and the seriousness of choices to intervene even in moral catastrophe – and the seriousness of choices not to intervene.

20. Stories of future war are not a substitute or a rival for formal ethical thinking. In their way, though, they can engage with ethical questions about war and warfare, and they nourish our thinking. This is a broad claim, but one that could, I think, be developed and supported in far more detail.

Meanwhile, thank you again for having me here and for listening patiently. I look forward to your questions and observations, and I’m sure I’ll learn from them.

Russell Blackford is a Conjoint Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of Newcastle, NSW. He is the author of numerous books, including Strange Constellations: A History of Australian Science Fiction (co-authored with Van Ikin and Sean McMullen, 1999) and Science Fiction and the Moral Imagination: Visions, Minds, Ethics (2017).

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