Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today

The Future of War: A Farewell to Arms?

Are we hard-wired for war? Two experts discuss where war has been and where it's headed.

GENERATIONS OF WRITERS have described the horrors and exhilaration of war—from the ever-present fear to the intense camaraderie that binds fellow warriors. But for those of us who watched the Gulf War from the comfort of our sofas nearly seven years ago, Desert Storm looked less like the heroic battles of yore than an arcade-ready video game. Has the face of battle changed forever? Or is the essence of war the same, its new high-tech trappings merely disguising some immutable, dark impulse that lies at the core of human nature? how does war arise in the first place—and is it inevitable?

To find out, we brought together two authorities for what turned into a nearly four-hour debate. First to arrive was Jaron Lanier, the computer scientist and researcher who coined the term "virtual reality" and who has turned down military funding for his work. Joining Lanier was George Friedman, coauthor with his wife Meredith of The Future of War (Crown) and chairman of Strategic Forecasting, in Baton Rouge. Fittingly, Friedman and Lanier's exchanges occasionally seemed on the verge of escalating into warfare itself.

PT: Let's start with a big question. How is war changing, and how has it stayed the same?

FRIEDMAN: I think the personal and psychological aspects of war remain the same. War is about killing and dying. A man or woman stands at the post and there is a very real possibility of dying in the next five minutes. Whether he dies or not depends partly on him and partly on luck, and yet he must continue to function. It's an extraordinary condition to be in--to be, for example, in the combat information center of a warship [and behaving] as though you were merely processing credit card applications. [Instead,] the information you're processing is that an incoming missile is 15 kilometers away, now 10 kilometers away, now 5 kilometers. You have to separate yourself psychologically from the fact that your mortal existence may well end. That is the ancient reality of war.

PT: You've been in combat. What did you learn from your experiences?

FRIEDMAN: The important thing is that there is an element of rage, but you must remain very distant from it. If you lose yourself to rage in the complexity of battle, you are going to be lost. The warrior must continue to make decisions in the face of extreme circumstances. He cannot afford to get angry or frightened.

PT: You've told us what hasn't changed. What is different?

FRIEDMAN: There is a radical and unprecedented shift [in war] that is part of the general transformation of civilization. First, understand that the past 150 years of warfare are totally unprecedented in that we introduced a breathtakingly inefficient technology: guns. In the First World War, and this is not an exaggeration, it took 10,000 rounds of ammunition to kill one person. Any given shot had a one in 10,000 probability of ending someone's life.

The way we compensated for this inefficiency was to have a lot of people fire at the same time. So we made larger armies. Also, we had to build factories to produce the guns. By the 20th century, war ceased to be an encounter between two armies. It became an encounter between two societies, because a factory worker producing a gun or a bomb is as deadly as a pilot. The British bombed German cities [during World War II] to keep the workers awake at night. So instead of dropping one bomb, we sent a thousand planes and, yes, we took out the factory sometimes, but we also took out the city. It reached the point where we wanted more efficient ways to destroy a city. The result was nuclear weapons.

What is revolutionary today is that we're using precision-guided munitions. And instead of building individual weapons, we are building an industry and a philosophy, the culture of precision. You saw Desert Storm. Precision works.

LANIER: I have a question about that. There's been widespread disputation of the accuracy that's been claimed for these weapons, and allegations of fraud.

FRIEDMAN: The General Accounting Office (GAO) study?

LANIER: Yes.

FRIEDMAN: The General Accounting Office study is a typical accountant's study. The Air Force claimed that one out of every two weapons was on target, and the GAO said it was no better than one out of eight. That totally missed the point. For the first time since the introduction of explosive projectiles, it was possible to be almost certain that a particular target at a particular place and time would be destroyed.

So in the first days [of the war] we took out the [Iraqi] air defense system, the telecommunications system, their electrical grid...everything. The society collapsed. But there were hardly any civilian casualties. The General Accounting Office came in and said, It was not one out of two. That was a sort of cynicism: knowing the price of everything and the value of nothing.

LANIER: Where do you think the next major war will be?

FRIEDMAN: The important question is, will China break into civil war? The most horrible sort of war is civil war.

LANIER: Would a civil war be confined to China?

FRIEDMAN: Yes, for geographical reasons. There's not much around them. The Chinese have a long history of slaughtering each other without bothering their neighbors.

The real issue of the war will be that while certain coastal cities have become very prosperous, the rest of China has a per capita income of $200 a year. The coast wants to have nothing to do with the interior; it wants to work with Tokyo and New York. This is an old story in China. It is why Mao succeeded in 1927. He wanted [coastal] Shanghai to throw the foreigners out, but Shanghai was doing too well financially [to expel foreigners]. So Mao went to the interior and raised a peasant army. He came back to Shanghai and sealed off the country.

We're at exactly this position right now. I think that Hong Kong is going to be the trigger.

PT: How will this war be fought?

FRIEDMAN: Eventually the United States will be involved. I hope we won't, but the Chinese central government will slowly and steadily lose authority while regional armies [gain power]. The Western powers are going to take sides to protect their investments--they have put billions of dollars into Shanghai. Their fear is that [these investments] are going to be expropriated by a warlord from the interior who will sweep down on Shanghai. They will try to form alliances with warlords to protect their concessions, and there will be a huge flow of weapons into China. The warlords in the interior will find their own patrons, or they might try to amass a peasant army against a technological army.

PT: If this were to happen, how many casualties would there be?

FRIEDMAN: Horrendous. A hundred million? I'm pulling that out of a hat. And it'll take place outside of the sight of Western media. One of the great famines in human history took place during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. [At the same time] Western journalists were reporting how marvelously Chinese society was working. We know so little [about what happens in China].

LANIER: I want to talk about deterrents. About a decade ago I was on a panel at a NATO conference. All the other people on the panel were NATO generals, and then there was me. There was a question about whether computer simulations of war and its likely outcomes could serve as a deterrent in the future, and some generals thought it was viable.

Now there's a story that's been widely circulated that at the Wright Patterson Air Force base [in Dayton, Ohio], where some of the negotiations took place between the former Yugoslav parties, the Serbians were shown simulations of various battles [whose outcomes] were not very appealing to them. This was said to have influenced them. Is the story true? Is there potential in that direction?

FRIEDMAN: At Wright Patterson there are in fact various simulations taking place. It has a facility for rapid map generation; they need to be able to draw new maps very quickly and see what the consequences would be. The reason [the Serbians] wanted to be there was so they could say: "Well, what if I give you this village?"

[The Air Force] was able to show the Serbians that the United States could, in fact, defeat them and to convince them that the U.S. was prepared to defeat them. So there's an element of truth to this story.

LANIER: We should talk about the ultimate cause of war. It's a question we should never stop asking, because if we do, there's a chance, however remote, that we might miss an opportunity to reduce the occurrence of war.

So I made a list of various hypotheses about what the ultimate origin of war is. I don't really have opinions about any of these. I'm just trying to get them all out on the table.

First, there's no question that males are more violent and more prone to the type of hierarchical organizations that lead to war. War is largely a male activity. In fact, there is some correlation [between making war and] having an excess of males in the population.

Another one has to do with adolescent ritual and war. To what degree do people, when they go through adolescence, require a war-like experience?

A third has to do with the relationship between war and ethnic identity. All over the world today people have a very strong desire to find a sense of identity, and at the same time that's coupled with the rise of absolutely absurd wars that relate to ethnic identity. Perhaps there is something deeply ingrained in people that relates to a sense of belonging, and without that, identity doesn't seem as real as it should.

PT: Bosnia...

LANIER: Yeah, Bosnia is unusual because in the past you could use economic factors as a fairly good predictor of war. Things would get worse, people would rebel. Yet in Bosnia, an educated place where everybody knew exactly what was going on, people voluntarily worsened their circumstances knowingly for the sake of this ethnic ideal.

Another possibility is the systems approach. Is war an inevitable outcome of competing interests in a complex society? In other words, would war be the same even if human nature were very different? There are mathematical models of large groups working together that lead to conflict on a reliable basis. So there's a whole other view of war that is not psychological at all.

A related topic is to what degree the competition within cultures is a cryptic form of war. What is extraordinary is that in the United States the current culture desires feelings of machismo and power, but at the same time has absolutely no taste whatsoever for even the slightest loss or bloodshed or ickiness. That's a fascinating combination.

PT: The bloodlust coupled with the inability to absorb...

LANIER: Yeah, it's bloodlust with the heebie-jeebies in the same society. That, I think, may be unprecedented, and it may be a sign of good things to come. I can't help but notice that it comes at the same time that there's an increasing role of women in the society, and it might be related to that.

The next one has to do with human nature, as opposed to male nature. Are war and people simply inseparable, and should we acknowledge it rather than try to eradicate it?

The final idea has to do with "face of the enemy" research. There were studies that asked people in different cultures to draw pictures of their enemies, and the pictures all looked remarkably the same. They always had exaggerated canine teeth and a certain sort of expression. That led to speculation about whether at an earlier stage in the human experience we were hunted by some sort of carnivore. It might sound silly.

FRIEDMAN: The problem is when you say something like that, you reach a level of intractability. Sociobiologists have been criticized for posing explanations that are intractable. If you go down that path, you've got problems.

LANIER: It's not an intractable situation at all. In fact, I think there's a lot of hope in that one.

I have been around military technology people a lot because of my role in virtual reality I've seen weapons from conception to implementation. And there is an extraordinary gadget lust that drives the military. So it's possible that war is just the ultimate expression of creativity. That's not an intractable one, either. In fact, one reason I am interested in developing things in virtual reality is that they're so fascinating. I can come up with problems that are harder than warfare to take up people's time.

FRIEDMAN: War to me is very much like sex. You can develop a theory that says sex is primarily for the exchange of genetic material, or that it's a celebration of life, or you can make up 50,000 theories about why human beings have sex, all of which are in some sense true, all of which by themselves miss the point. Because the answer is extraordinarily complex. It may be for fun, it may be for reproduction, for financial reasons, any number of things. War and sex are what I call the two abysmal--by that I mean deep--parts of the human condition.

PT: War and sex?

FRIEDMAN: Think about it. Every theory I've seen that contains an explanation of war fails. I think they fail for the same reason that explanations of sex fail. War derives from things so deep and so complex, I'm thoroughly baffled by it at the end of the day.

When I went to war, I did not go making geopolitical calculations. I went to war with a lust, and I came out...

PT: What was the lust for?

FRIEDMAN: I don't have very good words for this. When you're young and going to war, it's a genuinely exciting moment. You are going to risk yourself. On the battlefield, you are suddenly free. You realize: I'm here, I'm in it. Exaltation. Suddenly you're hit by another extraordinary feeling: my God, I can be killed. And: will I embarrass myself? It's like you're in a kaleidoscope and all of these extraordinary feelings are zipping by.

LANIER: As hard as it is, we can certainly take the time to continuously examine the question of where war comes from and what might make it go away.

FRIEDMAN: The poets think about it more than the social scientists.

LANIER: Well, I think we all have to think about it. I don't think we can afford to leave any stone unturned. I would discourage a sense of cynicism about that.

FRIEDMAN: I was not attempting to be cynical. I'm simply saying that I have thought about it almost daily for 25 years, and the more I think about it, the more I'm uncomfortable with the eloquent responses.

LANIER: What you were just saying about your personal history is very provocative because one of my questions was, what does war have to do with maleness and the rites of passage into adulthood? I'll tell you a story from my history. When I was about 18, I was traveling in Latin America and I came across a situation where government troops were getting ready to kill some people in the opposition. I was suddenly really nutty and stood up between them, saying: "I'm an American! Stop!" Really nutty. And the strange thing is that it worked. And afterwards I thought, How can I have possibly done something so stupid? But perhaps there was a part of me on some level seeking that same experience, facing a certain amount of risk and being truly free for that moment.

If war stems from unmet needs related to male adolescent ritual, that's something that we need to examine. I'm interested in the possibility of simply getting rid of war. I'd be no more willing to let go of that than to let go of the possibility of eradicating cancer. That's not to say I'm certain we can, but I am willing to use any energy at all in the quest.

FRIEDMAN: You make a basic assumption that I don't share, which is that war is pathological. I cannot understand how something as ubiquitous as war can simply be dismissed as pathological. It is not clear to me that it is an unspeakable evil. If it is, I need proof of it. Now, you're prepared to say: "I know that war serves no purpose. I will dedicate myself to eradicating it."

LANIER: I caution you not to put words in my mouth. You've just plunged the conversation, though, to its most fundamental philosophical and spiritual issues. To me, to say that war isn't evil is to say that nothing is evil.

FRIEDMAN: Look at Nazi Germany. In that specific case, to refuse to fight a war is more evil than fighting, I think. The man who hates war more than he hates the Nazis is a wicked man. One reason I took it down to the question of a particular war is that when you speak about war in the universal, rather than war against this country or that person, I think you make it easy on yourself.

LANIER: I think that the Nazis represented a unique instance in this century--there was an adversary who clearly was evil. I think that one can seek a way to eliminate war, and still agree with you that fighting the Nazis was a good thing. To me, again, the metaphor is with cancer. Chemotherapy is a good thing even though it kills healthy cells. But we still hope for something better. We'd like to prevent cancer in the first place.

FRIEDMAN: It seems to me that unless you believe that wickedness can be eliminated altogether...

LANIER: Eliminating wickedness is a different project from eliminating violence. Eliminating violence--the destruction associated with wickedness--is a practical program that I'm very willing to pursue.

FRIEDMAN: One definition of the wicked is that they will resort to whatever means are necessary to achieve their ends. Therefore, if those who oppose wickedness don't learn the art of war, they will be helpless. The question then becomes, so what do you do in Serbia? I see no connection between your moral stance and any practical question that a statesman is going to ask.

LANIER: It's possible, without taking sides or playing the statesman game, to reduce destruction simply by reducing the development of technology of destruction. One thing that I have been trying to do is bring together in places like Bosnia technologists who create ever-more destructive land mines [and convince them not to build more dangerous mines]. And that has actually worked.

FRIEDMAN: But you're evading the question. Is war pathological? Does it require a cure? To me that's simply not clear. I'm still back at the question --even before "Is war good or bad?"--of "Why do human beings engage in this action?" My problem is that each explanation is plausible and yet I know I'm missing something.

LANIER: I haven't heard you endorse war, but I also haven't heard you endorse a program to try to rid the world of it. That's my concern.

FRIEDMAN: How can I endorse a program to rid the world of something that I don't know is bad?

LANIER: I knew that's what you were going to say.

PT: What if we study the possible causes and find that each one is insufficient by itself but eliminating a few of them is enough to avert or ameliorate a war?

FRIEDMAN: What if you decide not to fight a war and morally it should have been fought?

LANIER: Right now, in 1997, there is. . .

FRIEDMAN: ...no need for war. 1998 and beyond is my question. I think there are worse things than war. For example, injustice. We cannot anticipate the moral circumstances under which we will live. And therefore [I refuse] to say that I will not live in a moral circumstance that requires violence.

LANIER: It depends on where you decide to center your sense of morality. You choose to center it in one place and I choose to center it in a different place. I think mine is based on a sense of hope, and also maybe on statistical accuracy, because humans have also demonstrated a great capacity for peace.

LANIER: I'd like to mention another idea. In history, in most cultures, and at most points in time, if you want to find the most advanced technologies, you can look principally in two places. One is weapons and the other is musical instruments. My hypothesis is that instruments are usually ahead of weapons. In fact, I think you can find many examples of instruments being predecessors of weapons and very few in the reverse.

PT: Give us an example.

LANIER: Canons started out as bells that were turned on their sides. The first virtual reality-like device was the theremin, an early electronic musical instrument. The first flight simulator was built by a pipe-organ builder.

Also, the most common archeological opinion right now is that musical bows preceded bows and arrows, although that's certainly not certain.

There are some other examples.

FRIEDMAN: That's neat. I've never thought of it.

LANIER: I would argue that among musicians who work in technology today, the level of technological sophistication probably exceeds that of military programs, to be blunt. They are just really smart people attracted to making strange new sounds.

In the Sixties, the hippies said "Make love, not war," and that was naive. But it might be less naive to say "Make music, not war," in the sense that the people who create musical instruments are the same people who make up new weapons. If I were perhaps one percent different, I would be over at Los Alamos designing some incredible fusion thing.

FRIEDMAN: In a way, we can have a much easier discussion about the future of technology than we can about why a young man kills another man in a war. My frustration is...

LANIER: Yeah, but you hang out with philosophers. You should be hanging out with neurologists and biologists now.

FRIEDMAN: To me the moral question is fundamental. The importance of the question and the availability of an answer are two different things. I'm not willing to state that because the question is fundamental, therefore I possess the answer. And I'm certainly not willing to say that since I don't possess the answer, I'll pretend that I do.

LANIER: Okay. But I'm going to continue to seek a cure for cancer.

PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): A Farewell to Arms

PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): "WAR IS STILL ABOUT KILLING-AND THE VERY REAL POSSIBILITY OF DYING IN THE NEXT FIVE MINUTES."

PHOTO (BLACK & WHITE): moral circumstances