“Future War” by Christopher Coker
Polity, 2015, 248 pp.
A few years ago, I found myself at a lecture with Professor Christopher Coker from London School of Economics and Political Science on current and future forms of warfare. It was quite interesting not only due to the topic but also because of Coker’s angle. Coker drew upon philosophy, literature and much more in his approach to international relations (IR) which set his message apart from many other voices within IR.
As I recall, he opened his lecture with a description of the “Corrupted Blood Incident”, an event which transpired within the World of Warcraft in 2005. A number of players had found a way to exploit a bug in the game which enabled them to spread the Corrupted Blood plague to the major cities of Azeroth, killing countless of unsuspecting players. Coker’s somber point was that war and terrorism always finds its way – even into the realm of online gaming.
Future War is a fine example of Coker’s interdisciplinary approach to IR. It is full of references to sci-fi novels I had never heard of and hardly ever has Star Trek been mentioned so frequently in an academic piece. These references are then combined with a host of philosophers and their conceptualizations of war and technology throughout history. The book does not present a clear cut theory or a stringent argument. Rather it embarks on a journey through some of the cutting edge technologies of today and how they might in time transform the way we think about war and conflicts.
The main quality of Coker’s work is that it gets you thinking. Having read the book, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly what I’ve learned. However, I have several times caught myself thinking “Why are we not talking about this?” as Coker shows new problems and perspectives for the future.
War in space
Multiple states are already preparing for a possible future where warfare is moving into space, “the ultimate high ground”. By targeting the satellites of rival powers, states will be able to effectively shut down an enemy’s means of communication and information gathering (p. 98), thus crippling their ability to project power anywhere. Anti-satellite weapons are however not only a concern to the possible targets of such a strike, but to everyone since the resulting space debris could render outer space unusable for the next 100 years (p. 43). That means no cell phones, no GPS, the ruination of digital infrastructure and potentially a global economic collapse. As a consequence, a number of powers are already trying to develop weapons that may render satellites unusable without breaking them apart (p. 100).
This point goes to show the possible vulnerability of our digitalized system, relying heavily on technological assets such as satellites. It underscores that while new technologies are enabling states to project power in new and increasingly precise ways, it is also making them – and the entire economic system – more fragile due to a “complexity overload” (p. 43). Space may be the final frontier, but as war moves into it humanity might find itself sent 100 years back in terms of technology. As Coker later states: “There was even an idea, quite popular in the 1950s, that the main reason we had not made contact with Alien species was that no planetary civilization that had invented atomic physics had survived the invention” (p. 162).
The future is already here
Whether we human beings a running fast toward our own extinction is yet unknown. The question remains unanswered by Coker which is one of the qualities of Future War. Coker does not engage in fanciful speculation on what might theoretically be possible. Instead he takes a good look at what is already happening and ponders the ethical and practical implications of the current developments. In support of this method, he looks back over the last decades and makes a number of interesting points, such as the “Star Trek effect”: “If you can show a younger generation ‘cool’ technology in a film, it will try its hardest in later life to make it come true” (p. 29), which has indeed been the case for many of the gadgets of the Star Trek universe (though not for human teleportation (yet!)).
In other words, today’s works of fiction are mirrors for the future. However, it remains to be determined whether the future belongs to the robots of the Matrix, genetically enhanced super-soldiers such as Captain America, or lightsaber wielding sci-fi monks.
Reviewed by Nikolaj K. Andersen