The Future of War: A History, with Lawrence Freedman

October 16, 2017

Detail from book cover

JOANNE MYERS: Good evening, everyone. I am Joanne Myers, director of Public Affairs Programs here at the Carnegie Council, and I would like to thank you all for joining us.

Our guest this evening is Lawrence Freedman. Sir Lawrence's reputation as one of the most brilliant military and strategic historians of his generation precedes him. Having spoken here on previous occasions, we are delighted to welcome him back to this venue. Transcripts of those earlier talks on his prize-winning books Strategy: A History and A Choice of Enemies: America Confronts the Middle East can be found by visiting our website at

This evening he will be discussing his latest work, entitled The Future of War: A History. In it he takes us on a historical journey as he describes how assumptions, anxiety, and the fear of future wars have influenced the thinking and planning of military strategists and writers such as H. G. Wells, Jules Verne, and the filmmaker Stanley Kubrick.

Today, as government officials will tell you, a vision of the future without warfare is almost unimaginable. Yet, planning for wars is to enter a world full of fog and gross uncertainty. Even so, nations are constantly preparing for new conflicts. A major part of that anticipation is predicting what the next war will be like and how best to be victorious. But in the world of known unknowns and unknown unknowns, the looming questions are how often—or not—did these individuals who conjured the future get it right, and did it make a difference?

While no two wars are ever the same, our guest notes that there are aspects of previous battles which can be immensely valuable to planners. But his main aim in writing this book "is not just to assess how prescient different writers were or whether they could have done better given what was known about new weaponry or the experience of recent wars, but to explore the prevailing understandings about the causes of war, their likely conduct, and the course of those wars when they finally arrive."

As we will soon learn, preparing for the future is complex, especially in a world where old definitions about war no longer apply. For example, how do you define war today? Will insurgency remain the number one threat, or will cyberwarfare take its place?

So that we can begin to better understand this world of war and warfare, please join me in welcoming our guest today, Sir Lawrence. Thank you for coming back.

LAWRENCE FREEDMAN: Joanne, thanks very much. It really is a pleasure to be back here. You can watch earlier podcasts, and I look younger. But there you are. It is one of the things that you cannot escape on the Internet these days.

The book is called The Future of War: A History, and it is one of those books in which the subtitle is really quite important. I was going to write a book on the future of war—that is what I was asked to do originally, and I was working on that, and I thought it would be quite fun to do a first chapter on the history of the future of war because people have tried this before. As I did this, first, there was just a mass of material, so it became immediately apparent that I was not exactly stepping boldly into somewhere where nobody had gone before, there are numerous books entitled The Future of War. Second, by and large they got it wrong, and therefore, why was it likely that I would get it right?

That led me to wonder whether or not there were patterns and tendencies in the way that we talk about the future of war that lead one to common mistakes possibly, certain assumptions, but actually it was not the problem of prediction, which is what I thought it would be. There are obvious problems with prediction, people tend to extrapolate trends, or they want to imagine some great and utter transformation, and things often happen more slowly, or there is more continuity than you might imagine, even when we are in the midst—as we feel we are at the moment—of great changes. What struck me most of all is that actually when people were talking about the future of war, they were not making predictions, they were making prescriptions. They were talking about the future of war in order to warn about what it could be like if the right steps were not taken.

Let me just give you an example—you may have even have had him here to talk about it —Graham Allison has just brought out a book called Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides's Trap, which is about the relationship between the United States and China. [Editor's note: Allison will be discussing this book in a public event at Carnegie Council on November 2. He also recorded an interview about it in July 2017.] We can talk about whether the Thucydides's Trap is a useful construct or not, you can actually take that away and you still have quite an interesting book about the problems of the relationship between the United States and China.

But the basic theme of the book is that these two countries are headed for war. The idea of the Thucydides's Trap is that there is a point where one power is challenging another, and it is highly unusual—he takes many instances—where this is not resolved by war. But fortunately, he has some prescriptions that if only we follow that a war between the United States and China can be avoided.

In 2004 Graham Allison brought out another book. This one was on nuclear terrorism. And it was exactly the same formula—different topic, but the same formula. Nuclear terrorism—which according to the book could well have happened by now because his book came out in 2004, and he said "the next decade"—is a real danger, "almost inevitable," he said. However, it is not inevitable because here is a series of prescriptions that if only we follow, then we can avoid this terrible event. [Editor's note: For more on Allison's book Nuclear Terrorism, check out his 2004 Carnegie talk.]

So it is a way of making a policy point. And to be fair to Allison, he does it rather effectively. You can quibble whether this was the biggest danger, whether the policies that he was pursuing would actually be the ones that would stop this happening, or even if they were pursued, would they stop it happening, but that was the point.

This is not unusual. Take H. G. Wells, who as Joanne mentioned is one of the authors I talked about. Wells is remarkable really in terms of the things he talked about that came to pass: the tank, aircraft at war—he was not the only person who talked about these things, but because of his prominence and worldwide audience, he was always the most important—and the atomic bomb. The reason the atomic bomb is called the "atomic bomb" is because of H. G. Wells. He wrote about it just before the First World War because of the breakthroughs in radiation.

Leo Szilard, the scientist who probably saw the risks of the bomb before anybody else, had read a book [by Wells] called The World Set Free in the early 1930s, when according to the book the breakthroughs in nuclear science would be made, so he called it the atomic bomb. That is where it came from.

Wells' agenda was to demonstrate that war would dominate humankind and be terrible until such time came that it had become so awful that world peace would break out. That was how the world was "set free," the title of the book, because after all this horrific destruction, humankind realized that nationalism, nation-states, were bad ideas, and what was really needed was world government. You can argue that, though he was not prescient in terms of seeing the solution to the problem he had identified as a world government, because we do not have that, and the United Nations does not quite fit the bill, nonetheless the deterrence factor of nuclear war, having seen two nuclear weapons in action—we have not seen any since—demonstrates something of the value of the point he was making then.

One of the themes of the book is that the future of war becomes a way of talking about policy, basically saying, "Unless you do this, these are the terrible things that can befall you." The opening story in the book is about a pamphlet that came out in 1871 called The Battle of Dorking: Reminiscences of a Volunteer. Those of you who know England will know that Dorking is a very unlikely place to have a battle; even in 1871 it was a pretty unlikely place to have a battle. But the basic quote—this was written just after the Franco-Prussian War—is that a resurgent Germany could challenge Britain, and he worked out this rather unlikely scheme by which they would cross the Channel, because his real point was that the army was unprepared to resist an invader. That was the Battle of Dorking, where despite fighting as you would expect very bravely, the British lost. That was the point of the book.

So it starts there. And there is a mass of literature, which many people have written, called "invasion literature" that came out before the First World War, all full of one scare after another, and though this, for example, a panic about spies developed. MI5, our counter-espionage agency, was developed as part of one of the war scares about how German spies had infiltrated everywhere and were reporting back to Berlin on all sorts of sensitive information. So there is a long history of this.

The other thing that struck me as I was writing it was that if you look back at the literature of the 19th century, it is geared toward assuming an ideal type of warfare, even in The Battle of Dorking. The ideal type of warfare is a war fought between professional, regular forces, not militias, not really conscripts, but forces—maybe they had been dragooned into service—whose job is to fight, they have been trained to fight, they are disciplined to fight, they fight battles. And battles will be decisive. So it assumes that the point of warfare is to decide a political dispute through force of arms, and we will know who has won by who has won the battle. And battles were over in a day.

The Battle of Dorking followed the Battle of Sedan, which was in September 1870, the critical battle in the Franco-Prussian War, in which the Prussians beat the French in a day. The Emperor Napoleon III surrendered and put himself on the mercy of the Kaiser. Except he was deposed, and the French people decided to fight on.

That in itself was an indication of the problem with decisive battles. It is a moment I am going to come back to in a moment because it leads into one of the themes of the book up to the present day, which is the role of civilians in warfare and how one deals with civilians in warfare.

Although there was popular resistance and it led eventually into the Paris Commune, it was overthrown. There were many consequences of that resistance, one of which is that the peace terms were far more severe than they would have been if there had just been a simple surrender after Sedan. This is the cause of a lot of the troubles that carried on into the First World War.

But what was left over was the view that battle could be decisive. The methods that von Moltke the Elder had used to win Sedan were deeply ingrained in German thinking and led to the attempt to beat the French again in August 1914, again through a decisive battle, except that time, as we know, it did not work. But what we do know is this idea that battle could make all the difference never went away. It still is very strong amongst professional armed forces to this day.

If you follow that logic through, then how you fight the first battle becomes crucial, and if you follow that logic through another step, then the way to be sure you are going to win is to get the maximum surprise over your opponent, which meant at that period mobilizing before your opponent. That was obviously important in August 1914 as well.

But the idea of surprise attack is a prominent theme in the literature. It is the worst fear. You think you are at peace, you think you are secure, you think you are safe, then all of a sudden this bolt from the blue, all of a sudden you find yourself caught out by a cunning and deceptive enemy that catches you totally by surprise, and you are left helpless.

There is a logic in a surprise attack. If you are going to take the initiative, then it makes sense to get the maximum surprise, so that is not preposterous. What is difficult, of course, is making it work. In the Second World War, you have the Germans with blitzkrieg apparently doing very well with surprise attacks.

Then, in 1941 you have two historical episodes in which surprise is central. First, Operation Barbarossa, Hitler's attack on the Soviet Union of June 1941, and second, of course, Pearl Harbor in December of 1941, the Japanese attacking the Pacific fleet. Both of those cases caught first the Soviet Union and then the United States napping. Both in their own terms were pretty successful, both led to the complete defeat of the perpetrator.

The lesson one might have thought that one might take from both Barbarossa and Pearl Harbor is that initiating a war against a stronger opponent on the assumption that the initial move can make all the difference—that surprise attack can be decisive—actually is foolhardy. It does not work. Or, if it does work, it is probably going to be as much by good luck as by good management. Yet the experience for both the Soviet Union and the United States of those surprise attacks was searing, and the consequence in both cases was that after the Second World War when they were thinking about future threats, the Soviet Union continued to think about land wars that were launched from Germany and the United States continued to think about bolts from the blue along the lines of Pearl Harbor.

Even with nuclear weapons, the dominant debates of the 1950s and early 1960s were about the possibility of a nuclear first strike, about being able to disarm your opponent effectively by launching a surprise first strike and taking out their missiles while they are still in their silos, the bombers while they are still at the bases, even eventually finding a way of taking out submarines at sea. And a lot of this was just far too much for anybody seriously to contemplate as a practical problem. For only one moment in the early 1960s was it even conceivable.

But the issue, and it was spoken about as a "nuclear Pearl Harbor," remained dominant. Even when we look now at cyber, you will find lots of references to an "electronic Pearl Harbor." So rather than think about cyber as a ubiquitous problem—it is there, it is going on all the time, there are little cat-and-mouse games going on, sometimes denial-of-service (DoS) attacks, sometimes, as we have seen, interference in elections, all sorts of stuff going on—but the fear that dominates a lot of the literature is the sort of cyberattack that is almost like pulling a gigantic plug out so that all the systems suddenly go off—the power goes, air traffic control goes to pot, the banking system is down, cars are crashing into each other because everything upon which we rely digitally has been lost. And the worst thing is that this is going to come from your kettles and your fridges and the Internet of things (IoT), which is a particularly devilish way by which you can bring your country down. This notion of surprise attack is incredibly strong.

Yet the historical evidence is—not only from Pearl Harbor and Barbarossa—it is an incredibly difficult thing to accomplish because countries recover, because popular resistance develops. Because even when you have defeated the armed forces you still have to cope with the society that is left.

This brings me back to the point I mentioned before, about the role of civilians in warfare, because during the course of this book, in the telling of the stories, this became to me more and more of a prominent theme. The idea was, as I mentioned, that wars would be between regular forces. There was not even a lot of consideration of how civilians might be involved. If civilians were unfortunate enough to be in the way of invading armies, their land would be plundered, and there might be some pillage because armies would live off the fat of the land. There could be sieges, there could be blockades. These are specialist forms of warfare.

But the idea that civilians were targets in themselves was assumed to be out of court, not how it should be done. The development of the laws of war was actually not about battles, they were largely about what you do with prisoners, what you do with the injured from the battlefield, rather than a civilian issue.

But actually that was always a bit of a myth because if you are looking at the colonial wars of the time or the wars in this country against the Indians, the native population, of course they did attack civilians. They were directed against civilians. Sherman got his ideas about the march on Atlanta from his experience dealing in the Indian Wars, and he wrote explicitly before the march on Georgia and afterward that we see the equipment that has been fighting us, attacking us, made in Atlanta. "Where do these people come from? They come from their homes. They are supported by their population. Until the population realizes the folly of the rebellion, how is it that we're going to stop it?" He was quite explicit in his logic.

This was quite unique. Very few people remarked on it at the time, first because at the end of a war in which there had been a lot of death and slaughter this seemed to be a way of getting it over quickly, and that was always the argument for this sort of maneuver, and there was a lot of hatred and bitterness around—and still to some extent is.

One of the generals from the Civil War was Philip Sheridan. In late 1870 he was in Berlin advising Bismarck when the French resistance developed after the victory at Sedan. And he reported how the Union had dealt with this matter in the Civil War, and Bismarck was impressed. He was having a bitter argument with von Moltke at the time about how this should be done because he wanted it over quickly. He was worried that the longer French resistance continued the more potential there was that somebody else might come in on their side. So he urged a ruthless strategy.

By the time you got to the First World War, this idea that at times it was expedient and propitious to attack civilians as a way of getting a war over quickly was in evidence. The turn of the century, the United States in the Philippines and the British in South Africa resorted to methods designed to make life uncomfortable for the populations.

At the start of the First World War, when the Germans moved into Belgium, they rounded up potential members of militias because they did not want the same thing to happen again as had happened to them in France in 1870. And that is where a lot of the stories, which were not all inaccurate, about German atrocities in Belgium which fired up the British debate and so on, occurred.

After the First World War, the idea that civilians were legitimate targets, good targets, had taken root. The thing that made this even more likely was the development of air power. The zeppelin raids and the later air raids on Britain seemed to indicate that there was a new vulnerability that could be exploited, and that was the civilian population, whom it was assumed—without any evidence at all from the First World War itself—would panic and demand that their government sue for peace immediately.

By the time you get to the Second World War, the idea that you are now in total war was quite ingrained. The argument is not only, "Is the civilian population a vulnerability that can be exploited?" but it is also the case that they are munitions workers, they are the people who demanded the war in the first place. It is total war. You cannot separate the armed forces out and away from the wider society of which they are a part. And if that is the case, then the wider society is a legitimate target.

After the Second World War, after the terrible air raids—never mind just the atomic bombs, it is worth keeping in mind that the worst raid on Japan during the war was the incendiaries that fell on Tokyo in March 1945the Blitz, Dresden, and Hamburg, people recoiled from it because it was not clear despite all that had been said in the interwar years that it did make a difference. So you moved to a conclusion that you might argue is ethically sort of comforting, that actually an inhumane way of conducting war did not actually give you a quicker victory; that in the end the war was won by defeating armies, by just having more power and undermining the economies and so on, but not by direct attacks on civilians.

It took time, but if you look at the thinking that developed in Western countries after the war, you cannot say immediately there was resistance to air raids because you look at what happened in Korea and look at what happened in Vietnam, and that is not the case. The air raids were still conducted. But as it became possible to attack targets with greater precision, there was no excuse.

One of the reasons why air raids had been conducted the way they had been in the Second World War, even by the U.S. Army Air Force, which did not want to do it that way, was that daylight raids, which would give you the accuracy, were literally killing the air crews. So nighttime raiding did not have accuracy. Liddell Hart wrote that "inaccuracy of bombing led to inhumanity of warring."

But as you develop precision weapons, then there were all sorts of opportunities. Now we have moved to the position where we do not expect civilians to be attacked as a strategy because we can avoid it. The idea is you attack only combatants, and if you attack noncombatants, that is "collateral damage," which is not much consolation to the noncombatants, but at least it means that it was not your intention. Over time, we have gotten even better at avoiding that.

This creates two issues. It creates a presumption that this is how technology tells us we should fight these wars. But actually, first it is worth keeping in mind that technology allows you to kill civilians more accurately just as it allows you to avoid civilians more accurately. One of the few modern air campaigns that has not been conducted by the United States and its allies, the one that Russia has conducted in Syria, sadly demonstrates that point.

Second, this question of whether attacking civilian populations is a way of forcing a conclusion has not gone away. It is not a strategy that we would see ourselves—Western countries—adopting. But look at Sri Lanka and how it dealt with the Tamils, look at any number of civil wars, look at the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), look at the Russian campaign in Chechnya and the way that was in a sense taken into their campaign in Syria.

The point—and this a point to conclude with, but hopefully it is some food for thought and questions—is that we have assumed through the development of thinking about future war that to some extent we are the ones who set the terms of it. It is true. A lot of the book is about British and then American thinking about what future war would look like, and German and French thinking as well, Western thinking.

But actually the everyday practice of war is not how we do it, it is how it is done in the innumerable civil wars that still go on, say, in sub-Saharan Africa; it is what is going on in the Middle East, where it is pretty clear that civilians are considered fair game. Indeed, as we saw with ISIS, even the whole point of war is to eliminate groups that you consider for some reason or another to be anathema.

So the practice of war is not wholly or even largely in many ways in our hands. We talk and worry about future wars with China or even North Korea, what are we going to do about Iran, and these are things that we really do need to worry about. But the best prediction of the future of war is that it will follow the recent practice of war for the past, which is endless civil wars that never quite conclude, which take apart societies that are already—even before the fighting starts—not in great condition.

I think this poses challenges not only to the way we generally discuss and debate war, but actually to academia, because it is quite striking how even a lot of the databases and ways of thinking about conflict in the international relations field also are very poor at evaluating and assessing the civilian dimension. The main databases, and some of you will know of the Correlates of War, does not record civilian deaths unless they occur in battle, which is normally not very many. The consequences of war, disease and famine and ruined infrastructure, are not part of the equations, yet these are in many cases as important as the conflicts themselves in determining the casualties.

The point that I in a sense wish to conclude with because the ethical dimension is important I know to Carnegie—and I think it is a really troubling ethical issue—is that the way that our technology has developed and our practice has developed, the way we fight counterinsurgency campaigns, for example, is population-centric but in a good way. We want the populations to feel positive about the future, to feel that they have a stake in the people that we happen to be supporting prevailing, and that they could lose if the bad guys win. That is the way we think it should be done. Whether we always do it that way is another question, but that is the way we think it should be done.

But in practice, it is very often very different. Whenever people are fighting their insurgencies in a population-centric way, that just means killing large numbers of the population, and there are a lot of examples of it being done. We like to think, as I mentioned with strategic bombing after the Second World War, that it is comfortable if we can think that the ethical thing to do is also the most efficient thing to do. Torture is a very good example. Torture is bad, it is unethical, it also produces poor information that you cannot always rely upon. Strategic bombing creates popular resistance, it is counterproductive, it leaves bitterness, it does not seem to produce the military breakthroughs you want.

But what if it did? That seems to me to be where the dilemmas start to come in. The research that has been done suggests that actually it does leave bitterness, it is often counterproductive. But if you are desperate, it can still produce a victory even if it is one that is going to leave a legacy.

That, I think, is one of the issues. There are lots of issues in the book, but that is one that came through to me as one trying to chart this development. Though most of the literature you will read on the future of war certainly talks about war as between regular armies, as proper fights, now with drones or with autonomous vehicles or robots or whatever, or even painless—cyber and so on—yet actually the reality of war is as it has always been: it is vicious, and it is nasty, and it kills the wrong people, and it does so in considerable numbers.

Thank you very much.


QUESTION: It seems to me that you did not address in your discussion the overriding issue of Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD), which has guided the operation of war since the end of World War II. For example, in the Korean War, both the Chinese and the United States—who were fighting proxy wars with South Korea and North Korea—had nuclear weapons, but they were not used primarily because if one side used it, they knew that the other side would retaliate, and Armageddon would result. The same seems to me to be projected out into the future as far as we can see.

If you would also comment on whether this applies to ultra-cyberwarfare, too, where you would immediately take down the electrical grid or other facilities of your neighbor or your enemy. Would that also prevent the use of that type of cyberwarfare?

LAWRENCE FREEDMAN: I promise you in the book Mutually Assured Destruction is discussed at great length. I would question whether it was that effective in Korea. After all, the Chinese came and attacked American forces when American forces got close to the Yalu, and the Chinese did not have their own nuclear weapons then, nor did the Russians really have very much, and the Americans were not sure how to use them.

But Korea was taken to develop the possibility that you could fight a limited war without fighting a World War III. The idea of Mutually Assured Destruction—the term came into use in the 1960s, and it was because, what I did mention, the idea that a nuclear first strike would not work. The whole point about Mutually Assured Destruction—the term is very explicit—even if you have been struck, you can retaliate. That was how you could assure destruction.

So it is about mutual deterrence, and it certainly is very important. I am one of those who believe it was a big reason why the Cold War did not turn hot. I think you can still see it at work with the Korean issue now. The risks of retaliation, even if you could work out ways whereby you might be able to do something about it, are just still too great. It is not worth the effort, so you hope that produces caution.

I think with cyber there are similar issues of mutual deterrence, the possibility of retaliation, but it is not as serious. There were proposals before the Second World War, which were honored to start with, not to use air war. Like many people expected, the Second World War did not start with massive air raids, but over time those restraints got lost and that, I think, is the risk with cyber.

One of the problems with a defensive cyberattack is being absolutely sure what you will do—if you are using a weapon, you know what the risks are of it being shot down, but also what will happen if it hits. There is a lot of uncertainty with cyber as to exactly how prepared the opponent is, whether they know what you are up to, and so on. So it is not as straightforward as it is assumed.

Nonetheless, every time there is a conflict now, there is a cyber element to it. I just do not think it is necessarily going to be decisive.

QUESTION: Susan Gitelson.

To continue in a way, most of what you discussed about war was war between great powers. Yet today there are tools that smaller entities use, one of them being cyberwarfare as with Korea attacking banks and so forth, but also I did not hear the word "terrorism."

LAWRENCE FREEDMAN: No, you did not.

QUESTIONER [Ms. Gitelson]: And unfortunately, we have to deal with this—not the great powers, small groups who can create great havoc.

LAWRENCE FREEDMAN: Yes, and again, I deal with terrorism in the book. When I talk about civil wars, obviously these are not between great powers. They are the most common source of war.

There is an interesting question about what small powers can do to big powers. Of course, one of the issues after 9/11, which eventually led to the Iraq War, was whether a group like al-Qaeda really could do it by themselves or whether they needed a state sponsor of some sort.

I think we have moved along since then, because the difficulty—I think Joanne mentioned in her introduction—is that there is a great blurring now. Even with al-Qaeda, you could argue that the Taliban was sponsored by al-Qaeda at the end. The interaction between states and terrorist groups is complex, it always has been. It is very rare that a terrorist group does not have some support and resources elsewhere, especially if it gets really serious.

What we have now, if you look at many civil wars, is a complete blurring of the lines, not only between civil and military and peace and war, but between militias and terrorist groups and criminal groups. A lot of terrorists fund themselves through criminality, and then even when they cannot quite remember the cause for which they took up arms in the first place, the criminality still seems quite a good idea. And that is one of the reasons why these wars are very hard to end, because people develop a stake in them.

It is one of the features of contemporary conflict that it is not bounded by states. All sorts of people can get involved. One final example: Some of the worst violence in the world takes place in cities in Latin America. It is not mentioned in the databases on war because it does not involve states fighting states or even somebody trying to take over a state, it is within cities. It is gangs. But it looks like a war, and for those involved it feels like a war, and the casualties are war-like.

Another one of the trends that is worth remarking upon is the extent to which the old model of state-centric war does not work anymore, and it is not just terrorists; it is criminal gangs, it is militias, it is local warlords. It reflects the fact that many states are quite weak, quite fragile, and do not have the ability to impose discipline and law and order once it breaks down.

QUESTION: My name is Eve Gleeson. I'm a student.

How do you think that multilateral security organizations are going to implement institutional change to reflect what you think is the future of war?

LAWRENCE FREEDMAN: Badly, I think, at the moment. It is not a very optimistic time. We have had a problem really since the late 1990s in poor relations amongst the five permanent members of the Security Council, and unless they are working together it is very hard to get things done.

There are a variety of reasons why it broke down. Russia felt that the West was taking advantage of the post-Cold War situation, the West thought it was trying to deal with instability in the Balkans and so on, but Russia did not like it very much. Then they worried that this was coming into the post-Soviet space, so they were concerned about that. But for whatever reasons, it broke down.

If you want more to be done to deal with these issues, then relations have to be repaired. Sadly at the moment, that does not seem to be the main priority of your country. We have just seen two examples of moving out of multilateral agreements; one you can argue about with UNESCO—there's also climate change, of course—but also potentially the Iran agreement. This is a new situation. It is new in one respect in that the United States is doing it alone. Its allies are not following. They will stay with the agreement and are going to try to make it work, like they stayed with climate change and will stay with UNESCO.

I think there is a problem here that if you want multilateralism to work, you really need the United States. The whole postwar order of multilateral institutions depended upon the United States, and it still does. Nobody else has got the same sort of network of alliances and treaties and so on as does the United States.

So if the United States loses interest in that, it is not altogether clear what replaces it. That seems to me a big issue for the moment that worries the allies of the United States quite a lot. I'm not very optimistic. It's a very gloomy thing.

QUESTION: Jacob. I am a student as well.

I would like to bring in an author who makes quite an interesting contribution to this conversation. His name is Paul Fussell, and he argues that basically all Geneva Conventions and all of the related norms regarding the conduct of warfare just make us think that war can be a civilized enterprise, that war can be something that is rational. And he states it cannot. I would like to see what you make of this, especially in the context of the new nature of war, which seems to be much more about civil strife rather than just great-power politics.

LAWRENCE FREEDMAN: I do not quote Fussell, but I quote Joseph Conrad, the author who wrote an essay in 1905 which was about war and autocracy. It is a polemic against the Geneva Conventions for precisely that sort of reason, that it normalized war and indeed legitimized war. The phrase was "turn the Earth into a house of strife."

It is an interesting and important argument. The Geneva Conventions, as I mentioned, were about—the Red Cross was set up after the Battle of Solferino, when Dunant, the founder, came across this battlefield and saw carnage. So it was about agreements on how you look after prisoners, how you look after the wounded. That is what it was about. It was about making battle more civilized, and that always carried the risk of legitimizing it.

The laws of war were essentially about that moment when, or more, the state of war was about that moment when you move from a state of peace to a declaration—a declaration was absolutely critical—and once you made that declaration that you were at war, activities that were previously considered criminal all of a sudden became heroic and noble and the right thing to do.

We do not declare wars anymore because it acquired lots of legal baggage and so on, so nobody declares; you have "troubles" or you have "emergencies" or you have "conflicts." We do not declare wars anymore.

In some ways, that argument has become less relevant because the nature of war itself has changed in ways we have already been discussing. I think it was a very powerful point when it was first made. The original intention was to contain war as a social institution so you could keep it as a political instrument, and if you could not contain it, then you would hope it would become objectionable. Unfortunately, what has happened is we have shown we cannot contain war as a social institution, but it still was maintained as a political instrument.

So it is an important issue to deal with, but I think it is to some extent of its time. I think a lot of the Geneva Conventions are important still just as a way of mitigating the effects. I do not think they actually make war in itself more palatable and make it happen. But when the argument was first made, I think it was a perfectly good one to make.

QUESTION: My name is Noa. I am a student at NYU.

So I wanted to take off from that question and ask, what is the role of ethics when war is often conducted between a state actor and a non-state actor which does not oblige to the same rules and international law?

LAWRENCE FREEDMAN: Which has become a very big issue. You get the phrase "lawfare" with the Geneva Conventions. A terrorist, an insurgent, somebody, knows that if they stand by a whole load of civilians, we feel restrained. There are lawyers sitting behind the drone operator—"No, you can't go for that"—whereas they have no compunction in attacking civilians in the other direction, so it produces an asymmetry and a sort of view that that is unfair, which it sort of is, but on the other hand, if we are going to get involved in conflict . . .

Let's assume that Western countries may get involved in conflict for traditional matters of state because great-power interests are involved. But the fact is a lot of what we have been doing is because of humanitarian reasons—some of the interventions in the 1990s—or because we think that a state has become so fragile that it is producing terrorist threats to us, and we have to stabilize it somehow in order that it stops doing that. That is an incredibly difficult thing to do, as we have found. Possibly we have been overambitious in that.

But it means that it is pretty hard if you are trying to do that to make a case why you should be allowed to kill civilians. You actually have to demonstrate that you are taking your own ethics seriously and put the pressure on those who behead people or attack helpless communities in the sense that they are the ones who should be put on the spot. It points to the extent to which a lot of what we are talking about with contemporary warfare—it is an overused word, people talk about "narratives"—the idea that actually what you are trying to do is to tell a story about the conflict in which you are seen by the local people as being on the side of future prosperity and security and so on, whereas the other lot are just threats to that.

The difficulty, of course, is it is very hard for foreigners to do that always convincingly, and that has been part of our problem. So that is where I think a lot of this comes through.

I do not think we get around that problem as seemed to be argued earlier in this century after 9/11, that somehow because vicious tactics were used by one group, that sort of says, "Well, why shouldn't we, too?" The fact that 9/11 got the reaction it did is an indication that these things can be pretty counterproductive.

QUESTION: Reed Bonadonna.

Sometimes you get up here and you realize your question may have been rendered partly irrelevant by the previous two questions, but I will go ahead and ask mine. I think maybe it can still be wrung out a little bit.

I was a Marine for a long time. I trained other Marines. Pretty recently I led a midshipman through a multiyear project on rules of engagement. One of the things I think that we tell to soldiers and Marines is that one of the things that separates you from being a thug and makes you a soldier or Marine is not because you use force, but because you use force in a restrained way.

Obviously, depredations have been visited by soldiers on civilians going way back before Sherman, and much worse in some cases than anything Sherman did in the South, but there is still this narrative that we try to plug them into that this, going back to Roman times, to the days of chivalry, this is part of your inheritance, and you are bound to live up to this, and if you do not, you are giving the whole game away, especially if you are the soldier in the service of a democracy and certain kind of ideals that should be embodied there.

I guess I am asking, I mean, there is international law, there is military law, but sometimes the most important element—this is a little Socratic, Socratic irony I think somebody called it—the codes that soldiers themselves hold to, the interior culture of military organizations, which, despite what Paul Fussell says, his ironic comment about "it all goes out the window"—it doesn't quite; that these organizations, because they are soldiers and not thugs, they are able to continue to fight with some restraint that would not have been there otherwise if they had not been soldiers.

LAWRENCE FREEDMAN: Yes. I think anybody who has been close to British forces or your forces knows actually the laws of war are important. They are taught. Our guys went into Northern Ireland with little cards telling them things that they could and could not do, and they were supposed to take that very seriously. In the aftermath of the Iraq War, Royal Military Police of the UK lost their lives because they would not shoot at a crowd. So, yes, I think it is important.

It is not just the ethos, though, it is the training. Where things went wrong, particularly in Iraq early on, is that people found themselves in a situation for which they had not been prepared and for which their commanders had not prepared them, for which their politicians had not prepared their commanders.

I was on the Chilcot inquiry in the UK, which was our inquiry into the Iraq War, and it was quite staggering that some basic things like the role of curfews, what you do about looting—there just was not preparation for that. And then when you get an army that was put into Iraq that was large enough, quite remarkably, to defeat Saddam's forces, but was half the size necessary to control a wary population, to just impose law and order, because once a regime falls all sorts of forces are let loose. Once that happens you need to prepare people for it.

And a lot of the things that went wrong at Abu Ghraib and so on were the result of soldiers finding themselves in situations for which they were not properly prepared and in which it was genuinely difficult to cope. You can see it in Israel, too. Despite what a lot of the propaganda says, the Israeli forces are given very strong guidelines, but you find yourself in a situation where there is a mob coming at you, and how you act with restraint in those circumstances is very difficult.

I think you are absolutely right about the code. I think it is important that this is hammered through, it is important that it is internalized, but it is also a question of training and preparation for these sorts of circumstances.

Because of Vietnam I would say more than anything else, because the U.S. forces decided after Vietnam, "That's the sort of war we don't want to do." When it came along again, they just were not really prepared for it.

QUESTION: Thank you for a great lecture, professor.

You started out the lecture by mentioning that the regulars were primarily actors during the warfare such as 19th century warfare during strong nation-states. Civilians were not involved, mostly. As time progressed, you began to see the civilian population getting involved in warfare. This partly coincided with a weakening of the nation-states, such as the United States recently.

The question is whether you see parallels to the pre-nation-state era, such as the Middle Ages, and whether a sneak preview of wars to come can be gleaned from the history of those times when nation-states were not the norm. That is number one.

A second really quick question is, in your view what would be the reason, again in your view, for the United States dropping the second atomic bomb in Nagasaki?

LAWRENCE FREEDMAN: Well, Nagasaki first. It is a good question. I just read a very good biography of James Conant, who oversaw the atomic bomb project. They were all steeled for Hiroshima, but they were quite shocked by Nagasaki. I think it is just once you put the weapons into the system they get used. There were not many more after that. Whereas there had been a lot of deliberation, which Conant himself had been involved with, about Hiroshima, there was remarkably little about Nagasaki.

On the other hand, it was after Nagasaki that the Japanese surrendered, and it may be that it persuaded them that there was a campaign, it was not just going to be a one-off. It comes back to this awful question of whether demonstrating the vulnerability of civilians can bring a war to a quick end.

Certainly a lot of those who were shocked enough by what happened to Hiroshima, because they did not think even Hiroshima would cause that number of casualties—which was in part, as many people know, because the residents of Hiroshima did not take one aircraft very seriously, so they did not go into their shelters—but they were shocked enough by what happened after that, so the second was a shock.

On the parallels with the Middle Ages, I am always a little nervous about historical analogies. I mean people talk about the Thirty Years' War and so on. When states fall apart, when societies fall apart and militias rule, it could look pretty similar in the 16th and 17th centuries to how it looks now. Those with the weapons beat up those without, and they will take what they need, and criminality runs rife, and so on. So the breakdown of society is scary, wherever it happens and in whatever circumstances.

But the state system still seems to be very different. The grandeur of political level is very different. And of course, there is this whole argument about the role of war in forging the modern state system. Because of the state system you developed administrations, you developed tax collection because of war. You got control of the means of violence. The famous line of Charles Tilly, that "War created the state, and then the state created war." I think history moves along. I do not think it goes in circles. So the grandeur of political level, I am not sure.

But in terms of human experience, watch a play like Mother Courage and Her Children by Brecht. The woman is trying to peddle her wares and exploit the war until the war eventually overtakes her, and you get a feel for the reasons civil wars rather than big wars continue is because for some people they are quite profitable.

JOANNE MYERS: I thank you once again for this very special evening.

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