Peter W. Singer and August Cole's new novel, Ghost Fleet, about the next World War charges a new path. Unlike many fiction writers, these two come to the game from a different perspective than most: reality. While many novelists undertake research for stories they create, Singer and Cole are going about it the other way around. In Singer's case, for example, he has already undertaken years of research and written two best-selling books on the realities of emerging weapons technologies and security concerns. For this pair, the research came before the story. One might ask then, is the story any good?
As an academic who also studies similar things, like war, security, weapons, and foreign policy, I can say that I thoroughly enjoyed reading Singer and Cole's work. Their representations of the foreign policy relationships between the United States, Russia and China are spot on, and what is more, they have managed to tap-into many of the Beltway's pathologies regarding defense spending, budget kerfuffles and procurement. Indeed, they have even managed to not-so-subtly comment on social shifts occurring in Western culture. My favorite of these is a reference to not only gay marriage, but the gay marriage of officers in the US military.
The story, however, provokes deeper thoughts than whether the US will resolve the gay marriage debate. It cuts to the heart of questions of fairness, sacrifice, and virtue in combat, as well as to those deeper values at play in the American psyche. As the novel is a story about what the next World War is going to look like, it begins from a place deeply marked in this psyche: Pearl Harbor.
While the US military may concern itself with contemporary problems, such as ISIS, it has not forgotten its first surprise attack, one that drew it (and many others) into World War II and shaped much of America's technological future. World War II and the technological advancements made by the Allies (and really Germany) provided the groundwork for the way the US fought (and may still fight) war. From drones to submarines and ultimately nuclear weapons, World War II created our present and future strategic realities. It generated the balance of power and shift to the Cold War, and the technologies developed during this period underwent a 40-odd year refinement during the US-Soviet arms race.
All of this history plays a serious, if understated, role in Singer and Cole's book. What is more, they have an adept and nuanced grasp of Cold War history and weapons technologies and how those political relationships and old weaponry can shape the future. Thus for those unaware of Reagan-era "Star Wars" technologies, this read will be informative as well as entertaining.
What of the story then? Well, it is a tale about American hubris, but also American fortitude, and it is also a story of how military virtue will begin to change but stay the same. For example, how women in combat may finally become a non-issue. Moreover, the technological advancements Singer and Cole note are already in the pipeline for development, so they are not far out ideas of fiction, and the battle scenes seem eerily plausible to me. China and Russia's ability to deny an adversary access and maneuverability in battle is a present worry, and future weapons developments may only exacerbate this fact. Thus Singer and Cole's use of autonomous and semi-autonomous weapons as force multipliers and responses to anti-access area denial threats are in lock-step with US military thinking on the subject.
The use of such technologies will change the face of battle to some extent, but not completely. This is the heart of the book. Singer and Cole weave a realistic, but in some ways fantastic, story of how the US can be brought to its knees. Technological advancements, and what I have called elsewhere "the ideology of technology," have vulnerabilities, and Singer and Cole home in on those with guided precision. They catalogue in detail how the militarily mighty will be left with useless weaponry and little ability to fight back. Only through old tactics, relationships, and "ghost fleets" will they be able to thwart their adversaries. It is, therefore, an old tale of grit and guts.
The narrative also asks us to stop and think a moment not merely on the use of high and (relatively) low-tech weapons, but on the use of particular types of tactics. In particular, it probes us to think about the morality of using asymmetric guerilla tactics against an occupying force. Such tactics are as old as war itself, but over the last several decades, increasing opprobrium has been attached to their use. The US's losses in Iraq and Afghanistan, the "Global War on Terror," the rise of ISIS and all of the rest of it, have placed a certain disdain for insurgent-style warfare. However, this is because the US has always been the occupying force, and the losses were directed against its men and women. In Singer and Cole's tale, the tables are turned, and thus the strategies and tactics the US so long fought against are now its greatest asset. What is the moral of the story here?
I cannot begin to unpack the complexities of insurgent tactics, and the moral dilemmas associated with civilian casualties, human shields or targeted assassinations, but I can point to their moral importance. These problems are old ones, for they call into question ideas of fairness and moral courage. Indeed, they make us think, or at least this reader think, about where morals go when one's back is against the wall. Indeed, as Winston Churchill so eloquently stated, when one is faced with a "supreme emergency," where one's nation is at stake, what rules are there to go by other than "by any means necessary"?
The only complaint I might have, though, is that the story isn't necessarily one of a "supreme emergency" in Churchill's sense, and it isn't apparent that the war itself is really World War III, but rather a limited war between major (nuclear capable) powers. The parties do not go to the extremes, yet this leaves us with the question: why the restraint? I cannot answer this here, but only implore you to read it for yourself. Maybe you can find these answers.
If you are an avid reader of fiction, suspense, love Ian Fleming and his famous Agent Bond, or you are an academic interested in science, technology, military affairs, strategy, war, or moral philosophy, this is a great book. It tugs at us in different directions, and it prompts us to question what we will value in the future and what we should value. So, when you are perusing the stacks looking for a good summer read, pick up Ghost Fleet, you wont' be disappointed.