Review of The Future of War: A History by

Book cover for The Future of War: A History

Not actually my cup of tea, The Future of War: A History is a massive data dump and analysis of what we used to think about the future of warfare. Lawrence Freedman has clearly Done the Research, and I have to hand it to him: there’s compelling stuff here. Thanks to NetGalley and Public Affairs for the eARC.

I love the premise of this book. It kind of merges my passion for literature and my mild interest in history. It is very easy for us to interpret the actions of people in the past through our hindsight and our own cultural lenses. Freedman reminds us what any good historian tries to remember: people in the past had a very different conception of the world, and as such, their motivations might be hard to unravel if they didn’t write them down. To us, the multitudinous causes of World War I and the line connecting it to World War II seem obvious. To someone living in 1920 or 1930, not so much. To us, the outcome of the Cold War and its influence around the world is just a matter of fact now—to someone living in 1950 or 1960, with the spectres of Hiroshima and Nagasaki still lingering in recent memory, it’s a very different story.

Freedman’s survey of the literature is thoughtful, perceptive, detailed, and critical. He intersperses the literature between arguments for an overall thesis—which basically seems to be that, following the end of the Cold War, we’ve reached a point where it is increasingly difficult to predict the “future” of war, simply because we have yet to settle on a redefinition of the word.

One part of the book that really jumped out at me is where Freedman explains the intense efforts put into statistical analysis of wars. In particular, he describes late-twentieth-century attempts to compile casualty databases. He points out all the assumptions that necessarily went into this work, since it is difficult to define what war is, how long it lasts, or what counts as a “death” or “injury” attributable to the war. As such, while these sources of information are invaluable for discussing war and the related politics, they are also flawed and biased. Freedman reminds us that methodology in these situations is so tricky—it’s not a matter of getting it right, but of understanding that there is no one right way to collect and interpret the data.

I also really enjoyed the first part of The Future of War, where Freedman analyzes what people were writing prior to and then following the First World War. I liked the glimpse at war fiction, from people like Wells and others whose names aren’t quite as well known today. And it’s interesting how Freedman draws connections between fiction and its influence on the population, as well as politicians. Later on, he recapitulates this by recounting President Reagan’s reaction to Tom Clancy’s first novels.

The last part of the book was less interesting, for a few reasons. By this point, I was getting fatigued. This is a long book, and more to the point, it is incredibly dense and detailed and technical. A student of history will find this a useful resource; the casual reader, like myself, might start feeling bogged down. Also, the incredibly globalized nature of warfare in the 1990s, the sheer number of internecine affairs, means that Freedman has to cover a lot of ground in comparably few pages. Like, entire books have and can be written about small parts of each of these conflicts. So it all starts to feel overwhelming, but rushed.

None of this is Freedman’s fault in particular. The Future of War is quite well-written and informative. It is a little drier and less engaging than I typically want my non-fiction to be, but I can’t really hold that against it. I’m just not quite the target audience. History buffs, though, particularly those who want to learn more about how we used to think about war, might have more patience and inclination to really dive deep into this.

Engagement

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