- Imagining Future War: The West's Technological Revolution and Visions of Wars to Come, 1880-1914
This is among the first volumes in a new series of short books, aimed at an audience ranging from buffs, to scholars and serving officers, which focuses on the relationship between technology and doctrine, weapons and war. Works in the series, notes its general editor, Robert Citino, will combine empirical accounts of significant issues, with attention to questions such as "Does (technology) alter the nature of war, or is war based on timeless, unchanging principles?". The author of the present work, Antulio J. Echevarria II, considers one aspect of precisely that question: how commentators in the thirty years before 1914 gauged the impact of social and technological progress on the nature of future war. This period marks the start of the one we still are in today, when people began to realize that constant and cascading change would shape all coming struggles [End Page 582] for power. The commentators under review include military officers, offering technical analyses to both specialist and popular audiences, newspapermen and fiction writers, all working in different genres, especially science fiction, strategic studies, military studies, and journalism.
Echevarria's account of their commentaries is able. He understands both the literature, which was international in scope, and what has been written about it. He assesses, from the perspective of social and cultural history, but particularly of military history, topics which are best known from their treatment by a literary critic, I. F. Clarke, in his studies of the "future war" genre. Echevarria recasts these topics by strengthening the links between the earliest form of military science fiction, and speculative writings in the technical military press. He offers intelligent commentaries on all of these works, such as the limits to the predictions of Ivan Bloch, the degree to which any writer got things right, and the characteristics of their assessments. He briefly considers how these discussions illuminate broader social and cultural attitudes, and their impact on the events of 1914. Conversely, much of the book consists of one plot synopsis after another. It rests on simplistic analytical categories, such as dividing all writers into optimists or pessimists about the impact of technology, or civilians and soldiers. Echevarria is capable of shrewd analysis, but might have demonstrated that ability more often than he does here. Whereas, for example, one recent scholar, Matthew Paris, plausibly linked the origins of air doctrine to Edwardian science fiction, Echevarria contents himself with assessing matters such as how accurately H.G. Wells forecast the value of strategic bombing, and what ideas underlay the air policies of the powers. The biggest limit to the book, perhaps stemming from that to its size, is Echevarria's failure to answer the "so what?" question: why did I bother writing this work, and why should you bother reading it? This book will interest anyone already concerned with the topic, but is unlikely to convert anyone else.
Yet many people do care, or can be made to care, about this topic; the question being, why? Study of ideas about or forecasts of future war, or of how people imagine it, are popular in several academic disciplines, for many reasons. Such matters naturally arise from studies of intelligence and doctrine, which is where the so-called linguistic turn in academe, with its focus on the ideas and rhetoric about things, has most affected military history and strategic studies. The widespread discussion about a Revolution in Military Affairs during the 1990s, and the subsequent reconsiderations of the matter, has helped to make forecasts of future war a topic in their own right. Broader cultural assumptions also shape interest in that topic. Popular culture has become a matter for serious study. We conventionally believe that space invasion films of the 1950s, or pyscho killer movies today, can illuminate the zeitgeist : that Buffy the Vampire Slayer illustrates American thinking about preventative...