The real-life plan to use novels to predict the next war

From The Guardian:

s the car with the blacked-out windows came to a halt in a sidestreet near Tübingen’s botanical gardens, keen-eyed passersby may have noticed something unusual about its numberplate. In Germany, the first few letters usually denote the municipality where a vehicle is registered. The letter Y, however, is reserved for members of the armed forces.

Military men are a rare, not to say unwelcome, sight in Tübingen. A picturesque 15th-century university town that brought forth great German minds including the philosopher Hegel and the poet Friedrich Hölderlin, it is also a modern stronghold of the German Green party, thanks to its left-leaning academic population. In 2018, there was growing resistance on campus against plans to establish Europe’s leading artificial intelligence research hub in the surrounding area: the involvement of arms manufacturers in Tübingen’s “cyber valley”, argued students who occupied a lecture hall that year, brought shame to the university’s intellectual tradition.

Yet the two high-ranking officials in field-grey Bundeswehr uniforms who stepped out of the Y-plated vehicle on 1 February 2018 had travelled into hostile territory to shake hands on a collaboration with academia, the like of which the world had never seen before.

The name of the initiative was Project Cassandra: for the next two years, university researchers would use their expertise to help the German defence ministry predict the future.

The academics weren’t AI specialists, or scientists, or political analysts. Instead, the people the colonels had sought out in a stuffy top-floor room were a small team of literary scholars led by Jürgen Wertheimer, a professor of comparative literature with wild curls and a penchant for black roll-necks.

After the officers had left, the atmosphere among Wertheimer’s team remained tense. A greeting gift of camouflage-patterned running tops and military green nail varnish had helped break the ice, but there was outstanding cause for concern. “We’d been unsure about whether to go public over the project,” recalls Isabelle Holz, Wertheimer’s assistant. The university had declined the opportunity to be formally involved with the defence ministry, which is why the initiative was run through the Global Ethic Institute, a faculty-independent institution set up by the late dissident Catholic, Hans Küng. “We thought our offices might get paint-bombed or something.”

They needn’t have worried. “Cassandra reaches for her Walther PPK” ran the headline in the local press after the project was announced, a sarcastic reference to James Bond’s weapon of choice. The idea that literature could be used by the defence ministry to identify civil wars and humanitarian disasters ahead of time, wrote the Neckar-Chronik newspaper, was as charming as it was hopelessly naive. “You have to ask yourself why the military is financing something that is going to be of no value whatsoever.”

In the end, the launch of Project Cassandra saw neither paint bombs nor sit-ins. The public, Holz says, “simply didn’t take us seriously. They just thought we were mad.”

Charges of insanity, Wertheimer says, have forever been the curse of prophets and seers. Cassandra, the Trojan priestess of Greek myth, had a gift of foresight that allowed her to predict the Greek warriors hiding inside the Trojan horse, the death of Mycenaean king Agamemnon at the hands of his wife and her lover, the 10-year wanderings of Odysseus, and her own demise. Yet each of her warnings was ignored: “She’s lost her wits,” says Clytaemestra in Aeschylus’ play Agamemnon, before the chorus dismiss her visions as “goaded by gods, by spirits vainly driven, frantic and out of tune”.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

17 thoughts on “The real-life plan to use novels to predict the next war”

  1. The track record of this sort of thing has never been great. For example, even as late as 1905, British popular literature was predicting that their upcoming war would be with Russia or France, not Germany.

  2. Just be sure to volunteer to get lunch for everybody … every day.

    ‘3 Days of the Condor’

  3. Not a bad idea, but I would say they chose the wrong writers. Academic writers are skilled at teaching writing, or studying literature. IMO they needed military writers, especially near future and SF ones. People who can think about what ifs?

    Though, again IMO, the German military would be better off with wargamers, especially those who study warfare and design rules. Jim Dunnigan famously known for his games that gave results that turned out to be close to real outcomes for what if games.

    • Having been on the inside of this sort of thing in the 1980s and 1990s, I can’t agree.

      Most “military writers” — no, not “most,” instead “virtually all,” and especially those associated directly with “consultancies” — have their heads in the past and not the future. At best, they’re ready to fight a version of the last war, or perhaps a few wars before that, probably tailored to the ideological/commercial needs of their employers/friends… and even then, only as to the aspects of that past that continue to interest them. This is perhaps most apparent in the adoption of the Napoleonic command structure for “space navies,” whether near- or far-future. That structure has implications all the way up and down the chain, and it simply doesn’t work when the guy turning the spanner has more education than the spanner. (Which is not to say that the iron men who manned wooden ships were stupid — merely that they were uneducated.) For all their faults, academic writers are usually more open to newer perspectives, as demonstrated by a number of anthologies of essay-like-stories discussing these issues; one example is the What If? series edited by Robert Cowley, which aren’t good fiction but are good, thought-provoking essays, even when focused on the past.

      Jim Dunnigan’s “accuracy” was limited to 20-20 hindsight, as he has stated himself. Dunnigan’s methodology can provide some insight going forward on mistakes not to repeat, but that’s about it. Just ponder the “accuracy” of Mech War ’77 and of Air War: Modern Tactical Air Combat, for example. And I didn’t even have to mention Mukden, or Oil War, or… The less said about “choose any reasonable supply rule” (which is, admittedly, from one of Dunnigan’s contemporaries, and appears in a then-acclaimed published game’s rules), the better.

      • @C. E. Petit quote, “Dunnigan’s methodology can provide some insight going forward on mistakes not to repeat, but that’s about it.”

        I think dismissing Dunnigan with “but that’s about it” is missing the point that insights into mistakes not to repeat is probably a lot more impactful than you are giving him credit for. I’m thinking how many old mistakes have been made in recent wars.

        Of course, you are right that commercial wargaming have there issues, but at least they are different issues. I’m not sure if you are aware that I write near future Mil-SF, and while I’m not ex-military, I do research and more importantly, I come from psychological perspective when assessing the military.

        Not that makes me any better at predicting things, but at least I understand my cognitive biases, and understand that they are driving my narratives.

        • I wasn’t perhaps clear enough; and that’s probably because I was on active duty when the Cold War could be seen as coming to an end, and fought for recognizing other paradigms, and… largely lost. The problem is far less with the “military mind” itself being unable to keep from fighting a war or two ago (over, and over, and over) than with the “rational expectations” of the military-industrial complex being unable to change from what led to successful war profiteering a war or three ago. And since the military-industrial complex is where the campaign donations come from… (The irony that Eisenhower’s invocation of “military-industrial complex” was at least a century late has escaped most commentators; just research the histories of Chase Bank and the Vanderbilts, and the US “versions” are actually less damning than in Europe and Japan!)

          My point remains: As ill-suited as historians and academics generally are to making actual predictions, they’re better than think-tank analysts and fiction writers. The think-tank analysts can’t say much that offends their bosses. The fiction writers… that’s for another time (which is sort of ironic in that my academic background in fiction is in utopian and political fiction!). Just do not get me started on “military heroes” unless you’ve got a spare monitor or three as the acid burns through the screens…

          P.S. That was Dunnigan’s own assessment, at least of the early 1990s when my involvement with the system took away any joy in the gaming.

          • It’s not you, it’s me. I’m as dumb as a bag full of hammers. And this is the internet, and we don’t really know each others quirks. And, my cognitive biases are running up against yours.

            In computer speak, we need to work on our communication protocols.

            That’s my not so subtle way of asking you to email me and talk about stuff, perhaps do the zoom thing, as I think I’ve discovered the the mother lode for things I need to know.

            That’s not meant to be flattery, or wheedling. Feel free to ignore this dumb person.

  4. In another time historians might have been a good choice but no longer.

    Doing a good job today would require a team with statistical economists, technology trackers, and actual combat veterans, battalion level or betterbut not high staff. A few academics in those fields here and there can contribute but not from the literary side. If anything, tbose are exactly the types you don’t want, along with academic economists, politicians, pentagon careerists, and financial types.

    There’s a few think tanks that do this regularly but their reports need a pound of salt and familiarity with their political bias. The real problem isn’t in identifying the driving forces and the motivations of the major powers, but in figuring out the delusions they labor under. Most of them believe their own PR these days which is why we haven’t been closer to a major all-out war since the 1930’s.

    Something not reported in the mainstream media:

    • Short form: Predicting future wars is a nonexistent field of expertise. Nobody knows how to do it, nobody has ever known, nobody is trained in it, and no matter how many disciplines you bodge together in an interdisciplinary committee, their collective ignorance will never add up to knowledge.

      Sometimes people make lucky guesses. (W. L. Mackenzie King, prime minister of Canada at various times from 1921 to 1948, predicted after leaving office that a major war was coming in Korea. He seems to have got this information from a séance.) Sometimes people in possession of particular bits of information make informed guesses. (Bismarck is supposed to have predicted that a big European war would be set off by ‘some damned foolish thing in the Balkans’, which was a reasonable guess considering that most of the major powers were meddling in Balkan affairs and the local rulers were notoriously belligerent and nitwitted.) But there is no systematic body of knowledge on the subject, and there are no experts on it.

      • I agree. Prediction is not a thing one can actually do. I’m not interested per se in predicting future wars. I write fiction, where the clue is in the definition of fiction: made up stories to entertain.

        However, I want to write reasonably plausible stories, Or at least ones where my readers can suspend their disbelief without having to switch their brain off.

        My other interest for this is driven by challenging my assumptions, and the cognitive biases. It’s my jam as the kids say. Assuming kids still say, “It’s my jam?”

  5. It depends on the time scale.

    People do predict the future accurately, a year or two in advance. Occasionally, as far out as five years. It’s not easy and it *is* a multidiscipliary (i.e, messy) business for the broader world where you have to worry about a dictator waking up to a migraine.

    Still, in many areas it is easy to look at trends and figure out whether you need to zig or zag. It’s a matter of required effort and desired detail and breath of focus. Can you accurately predict the whole world accurately? No. Can you accurately predict an entire industry a decade in advance? Very often. People make a living by being good enough at it. The only trick is to look both ways before crossing the street. 😀

    Mostly you have to be willing to believe what the data says. Call it the Cassandra Syndrome. Most refuse to believe but a few do and end up fabulously rich or powerful or both. Open minds are rare; makes them useful.

    In matters of war, the bigger the war and the closer it gets, the easier it is (for all sides) to predict. WWII was inevitable as far back as 1905 but the evidence wasn’t the ferment in the Balkans, it was the RusoJapanese war. It marked the arrival of a new player in “the great game” and one that didn’t play well with others. It also brought east Asia into play and marked the beginning of the end for the European hegemony. It was “noted with alarm” and an arms race. It did not go unnoticed but deprecated because th existing powers were unwilling to accept the new reality. A new epoch was coming and epochal change has always started with a major war. We’re due for another and soon.

    What hampers most “Cassandras” in projecting the broader world is their assumptions and neglect of human tribalism. This is usually parochialism and unwillingness to accept that other tribes might actually be smart, ambitious, and occasionally power-hungry. Most recently, the biggest handicap is the delusion that nationalism (another name for tribalism, from the days of the Nation-State) is no more. Hah! Tell that to DeGaulle, to name just one disruptor of “collective security”. Or Putin, Xi, Obama, Trump, Modi, etc. “All politics are local.” So is warfare.

    For fiction, paying a modicum of attention to the sociopolitical worldbuilding can provide the framework to facilitate the suspension of disbelief. It also helps to consider the strategic imperatives of the players. (I.e., What do they expect to get from war? What do they so desperately need that they will willingly court disaster by going to open war?) You don’t *have* to: two notable military SF series (David Drake’s REPUBLIC OF CINNABAR and Tanya Huff’s CONFEDERATION) both purposefully keep the antagonist faceless and undefined because their interest is narrow focus, on the individuals, not the bigger war itself. Both authors draw parallels with specific battles from history. Ancient history, in Drake’s case, where his CINNABAR is modeled on the Roman Republic. And its not just Cartbage that inspires him. The Republic had many conflicts to choose from.

    For broader fictional wars (Doesn’t mean they might not exist, just that I haven’t run into them.) I’ve yet to see any better framework than David Weber’s HONORVERSE. From the very prologue to the first volume he lays down the motivation of Havenite Legislaturist regime and the inevitable reaction of the smaller Manticore regime. Over the course of a dozen+ volumes he evolves both societies as their technology and warfighting evolves from analogues to the age of sail to analogues of WWII and beyond. Throughout it all, he never takes his eye off the combatants’ strategic imperatives: what makes fighting across lightyears and dying by the million *necessary* to the various societies. Good stuff. Nicely structured and fun. (Just be aware of regular infodumps and late volume redundancies. Too big to edit by now.)

    Pivoting back to the real world, the leaders of the various polities out there are driven by local economic and sociopolitical forces (yes, even the nutsos in NorKorea and Africa) that *can* be identified and to a degree be quantized. You just need to be dispasionate and leave wishful thinking behind, which most leaders (and wannabe analists like in the OP) don’t. (Short Victorious Wars like Crimea 2014 are sooo enticing when things aren’t going well at home.) Hint: they aren’t anywhere.

    Too much of today’s western outlook is stuck in WWII think, believing that anybody short of the housepainter can be dealt with rationally. Nope. That kind of thinking only hastens the conflict and makes your stating position more precarious.

    That too is worth keeping in mind for world building. Conflict between two (or more) expansionist powers do happen (Rome vs Cathage) but rarely: most others are between would be victimizer and likely victim. Absent a “soft” target, few regimes are willing to go to actual all out war. Not when other means exist. But every once in a while…

    Look around, tally the balances.
    Who looks weak? Who think’s they’re strong? What do the windows of action look like? Strengths, weaknesses, uncertainties, alternatives, and above all nonnegotiable imperatives.
    Near term prediction, to within a half-decade, is doable.
    But you have to be willing to stomache bad news.

    • As a side note: look at what the DOJ has been doing (as opposed to what politicians say) for the last 5 years.
      Railgun research is…pausing…
      …Hypervelocity shells are going into production for deploment in regular artillery…
      …LASERS are moving into limited shipboard deployment…
      …amphibious assault ships are being reclassified as small airfraft carriers for the F31…
      (similarly, Japan and others are turning their helicopter carriers into F35 carriers)
      …shore attack Littoral Combat Ships are being displaced by new, advanced Frigates, more guns, more missiles…
      …the Marine Corps is ditching its heavy armor and refocusing on classic island hopping…
      …more attack subs are coming. Even more if the pols ante up…
      …air launched hypersonic missiles are going into final development/early deployment, possibly *inside* B1s, that would then be retained…
      …drone swarms and drone tankers are being tested…
      …Tomahawk missile production boosted, qualified for the new “mini” nukes…
      …Four boomers were converted a while back to carry up to 154 Tomahawks each…
      …lots more. All public knowledge.

      None of it operational now, most due 2025-30.
      Rather defines a window of opportunity, doesn’t it?
      As do the upcoming elections.
      China has the nunbers and, in their eyes, the upper hand. But not forever.
      That isn’t a prediction. But it is a concern.
      That is the world we live in.

      • And every single one of the developments (and nondevelopments) Felix notes is about logistics more than anything else. Indeed, a number of them (such as the pause in railgun research) are very explicitly about logistics; in that instance, mechanism wear with current materials would require guiderail changeout so frequently, requiring off-ship resources and equipment, that the average deployment time would be below 60 days (compared to the ordinary 210 day capability required… and that’s one reason that US and Soviet vessels were so different, but that’s for another time).

        That primacy of logistics hasn’t changed since the fall of Constantinople (not Istanbul).

        • High command paper pushers only worry about logistics when the fan starts to splatter. Today tbey’re runing scared after a decade of meekly swallowing cuts…all in preparedness and supplies.

          What I found particularly interesting is that by adapting regular artillery to hypervelocity “shells” they cut a decade out of the deployment cycle for high speed projectile weapons. That along with everything else speaks to the urgency with which the millitary is ramping up. The scramble in all those areas shows they’re not expecting war in 2040 or even 2030.
          They’re expecting it sooner.

          Not heartening but by now unavoidable.
          Unless Xi “falls ill” or commits suicide by shooting himself in the back ten times he is tied to “Taiwan by 2025, the world by 2050”. The purges are all about holding back tbe CCP naysayers who say he moved too early. Maybe he did, maybe he read the moment correctly.

          About Istambul: The Four Lads had something to say about that. 😀
          It may yet turn back in a generation or two. Anotber future war to keep an eye for.

          • Can’t agree on one aspect: It’s not the high command that doesn’t think about logistics; it’s their political-appointee-captive-of-the-industrial-complex masters. Specific example: Neither the Navy nor the Air Force, nor the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wanted the F-22 (or F-35) to be shared between services. That was all about who was going to profit from the contracts, and where those with no expertise in actually managing logistics thought they’d be able to cut corners on operating costs later.

            It’s one thing to require common ammo and common other expendibles (like, say, lubricants) and common functional parts (like firing pins). It’s entirely another to require common trigger guards and sight mechanisms and manufacturer’s logo placement.

            Note: This is one of the prices of civilian control of the military. It’s an inefficiency, and an acceptable price… because the alternatives are much, much worse. Francisco Franco may still be dead, but the price the Spanish military paid for him continues today.

            • From what I hear, it varies by the cohort serving in tbe pentagon. Cyclical. Some staffs are more political that others. The Pentagon gets lucky when they get a cadre of good leaders who also understand politics and “manage” the pols. They’re less lucky when they get leaders preocupied with…other things. That’s when we get botched operations stuck in sandstorms and troops sent into deathtraps. And billions wasted on defective gear or good gear produced the wrong way.

              I’m not inclined to give the Pentagon a free pass because the pols *can* be managed. Mostly by scaring the pants off them. It’s a dangerous world out there and it is up to the JCS to do what the letter orgs won’t always do. Its a tough job but somebody has to do it and they volunteered for it.

              This is not the time for this:


              I don’t doubt the reality is more complex than the politicians on either side make it out to be but this is not the time (scrambling out if Afghanistan with the tail between the legs) for the troops to be dealing with this.

              We need better leaders and if tbe gerontocracy isn’t it, somebody needs to step up and say “not here, not now; Fix your house first.”

              Getting back on topic: those folks have the best data. They sure as heck can predict the near term. And they have the responsibility to prepare for it. In fact, they should have been planning for it since 2005.

              • This shark’s extensive pre-cartilaginous-ichthyoid-days NDA prevents him from further comment on this subject, except to lament that his oath was to support and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic — an oath that lacks any references to personal advantage, political ideology, etc. This shark nonetheless managed to maintain a professional appearance with several… individuals… who forgot their oaths (or, as I suspect of more than one of them, never knew it because Annapolis tended not to teach it during the depths of the Cold War).

                I thus continue to disagree, but in the citizens-disagreeing-on-details-while-equally-decrying-the-big-picture sense.

Comments are closed.