Comedy is an essential tool to understand everything from global trends to local politics for multiple reasons: the comedic process requires a rigorous understanding of your subject, similar to that of an analyst. It is the product of non-linear thinking, usually using narrative and dialogue, to open minds to new ideas and to see the world around them more clearly. In his history of American comedy, The Comedians, Kliph Nesteroff says that “[t]he struggle of the funny performer has remained a symbiosis of drive, jealousy, heartbreak, and triumph.” Comedy can offer the same and sometimes better insights than policy analysis. And let’s face it, no matter who you supported in the election, we all need a laugh now more than ever.
US Pacific Command recently added Ghost Fleet to its professional development books and film list, which in the words of PACOM commander Admiral Harry Harris “is a selection of good books — novels and non-fiction — and movies that tries to reflect the breadth and depth of issues that cover what we all do at United States Pacific Command.” It’s an honor to have our novel added to professional military reading lists, particularly for the combatant command focused on the future of the Asia Pacific region. Ghost Fleet features in the list’s fiction section, alongside Asia-focused titles such as The Orphan Master’s Son and War Trash.
What Ghost Fleet can do is help open up conversations about some of the uncomfortable gaps between how the US defense establishment has viewed the future of conflict and what it might actually be like in the coming decade. In the past, such comments and conversations could be a professional liability, but today they are a strategic necessity. That is how the book’s value is described: “This novel, about future war, challenges some sacred assumptions about the composition of our armed forces, the strengths of our new systems, and even the way we fight.”
To really capture any senior leader’s attention requires more than white papers or Power Point slides, however. That is why the Atlantic Council’s Global Risks 2035 report includes short stories from the Art of the Future project as “Fictional Interludes” to help officials not just understand but to experience possible tomorrows. To fully consider possible futures featuring super-empowered individuals coalescing into supranational groups with state-like power or game-changing technologies like behavior modeling that can reshape entire generations it is useful to read more broadly — fiction.
There is a paradigm shift underway in the international defense marketplace, and it’s led by nations evolving from longtime Western customers and production partners into worldwide sellers. Nations such as Israel, South Korea, Brazil, as well as Russia and China, have enormous potential to rewrite the rules of the twenty-first-century defense business—and America’s military relationships.
It’s true that the biggest defense exporter remains the United States, accounting for 45 percent of $175.5 billion in global arms purchases in 2015, according to Avascent Analytics. As well, Western European firms from allies such as the United Kingdom and France contributed 14 percent globally, according to Avascent data, giving America and its closest European partners a majority position at 59 percent of the market.
Yet for how much longer, though, can the United States count on holding sway over allies—and influence the balance of power in entire regions—through arms sales as it did during the twentieth century?
Like a lot of great short science-fiction stories, Discards is born out of a desire to understand a technological question on a human level. In this case, it is exploring the worth — and worthlessness — of new military inventions. What will the aftermath of a future war in Europe fought with game-changing weapons look like? What will happen to the machines and humans caught up in the chaos and destruction? You can read the full story at West Point’s Modern War Institute.
Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap.
“You hear that?”
Banging like a hammer on a nail. Then three more precise taps. Faster this time.
“Kick the ball again, at that one container, Wiz, just like you did,” said Lieutenant Evelyn Guerrero.
Tap. Tap. Tap.
The Army lieutenant nodded her helmet at the rows of dark green Conex shipping containers lined up next to the burned-out town’s soccer stadium. A banner for the Finnish national team – 2026 World Cup finalists — somehow had survived the past six months of fighting but fluttered limply in the wind like a dirty bandage. The intel brief Guerrero downloaded on arriving at the depot site earlier that day indicated a dozen or so kids lived around the stadium, but the orphans hadn’t shown their faces.
Wisnowski dribbled the sagging orange ball back about ten paces, then he kicked it hard against the side of the container again. The impact left a faint smudge of chocolate-colored mud, joining dozens more on the matte olive paint. The ball flopped back onto the grass, air wheezing out of the bullet holes that robbed it of its bounce months ago.
Wisnowski shrugged. “Ma’am?”
“Take off your helmet, Private. It’s just us.”
“LT, that wise? Gonna be dark soon and milfeed said some Russian gnats around. I like my lungs just the way they are. No cheeseburger milkshake for me.”
“That’s why I started smoking, Wiz. Gnats can’t see through it,” Guerrero said. She wagged the unlit cigarette in the corner of her mouth. It was an unfiltered Chinese cigarette from a carton she’d found in a disabled Russian Armata tank back in the town square. That tank had the telltale snakebite impact holes from the double-barreled Derringer rail guns her unit towed behind its Strykers. It was a mess inside, but the smokes were somehow untouched. “Trust me, Wiz.”
Aviation Week and Space Technology asked me and Peter Singer to contribute an essay on the future of war to their centennial issue that explored the coming decades of aviation and aerospace. It was an honor to be asked, and to have our writing appear alongside aerospace greats Burt Rutan and Sir Richard Branson.
The wars of the future might start by accident, such as by a pilot hot-dogging and bumping into another plane, the loss and outrage from the accident escalating into outright battle. Or they might be driven by some crisis boiling over, a dispute over a new policy or even a new island, with other powers drawn into the fight by old alliances. Alternatively, the conflicts might reflect deliberate choices to go to war, perhaps to avenge an old wrong or remake a new world order to reflect emergent economic and military powers.
The cause and course of such future conflicts are unpredictable, but there are some things we can be certain of.
This week the paperback edition of Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War goes on sale. This is a big milestone for the book, and for me. Paperback thrillers and science fiction novels were a staple of my reading when I was young. This is the version of Ghost Fleet that a younger me would have nodded off with and cracked open at first light.
The impact a novel, particularly a sci-fi story, can have in the national security community is growing. Ghost Fleet is part of that shift. Adm. Harry Harris, who heads up US Pacific Command, said in a recent Foreign Policy article that “warfare novels like Ghost Fleet help us to question assumptions and prevent complacent thinking that inhibits innovation.” It is an entertaining story, but it is a story written with this purpose in mind.
As the paperback edition debuts, help spread the word. This can be in person or online. If you enjoyed the book as entertainment or education (as in 4- or 5-star rating enjoyed it), head on over to the Goodreads page or the Amazon.com page and share that positive feedback by rating it. Even a quick star rating will help.
Useful fiction like Ghost Fleet can start conversations that are otherwise difficult to have about what makes us strong, and what weakens us, as a nation. A year from now, when you see a dog-eared, marked-up and torn paperback edition sticking out of a backpack or wedged under a cot you’ll know those kinds of talks are well underway.
Once we entered the clan’s dead zone we lost all comms and our direct link with the rest of the fire team. No choice, though—we couldn’t lose the target. I could swear my two FireLance ’bots hesitated right before they went full autonomous after crossing that invisible Rubicon somewhere between a puddle of something biological and a crushed silver carton of U.N. Refugee Agency pure-water. I sure flinched as my faceplate display glitched then rebooted as I formed a local network with my two ’bots. Just keep my helmet-cooling fan on, that’s all I ask, because a Marine can’t get much hotter than an off-grid underground Lagos rez in July. I’d vampire their batteries to do it, which was the first wireless power hack Gunny showed us on board ship on the way over.
At the Atlantic Council 2016 Global Strategy forum on Monday, I’ll be talking with Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work about art, narrative and the Third Offset in a conversation tied to The Art of the Future Project’s recent short story and art contest on the promise and peril of man-machine, AI and other game-changing advances. The works by the contest finalists will help inform the conversation, which is the highest-level impact yet for the project’s crowd sourcing.
Award-winning writers Max Brooks and Ken Liu will also be speaking at the event about strategy and narrative — and signing books. Novelists and think tanks do go together.
Thanks to Daniel Y. Chiu for giving the project a central role. We’ll also have a design-thinking inspired idea wall for impactful films, games, TV shows and books to draw out the most entertaining and informative titles in order to produce a “must-read, must-watch, must-play” list for the project.