Here's What You Need to Know: Could-be history is a mode of inquiry that compels you to think.
Sometimes academics say the darndest things. To wit: I recently got in an exchange with a colleague about the upsides and downsides of applying fiction as a catalyst for strategic thought. My interlocutor dismissed the idea out of hand, insisting this represents an unserious endeavor for any serious scholar or think tank analyst.
I say you take your insight where you find it. You may find it in a tome about history, political science or economics. Oftentimes you do. But it could also burst forth from a novel, short story or even poem. Homer has more to say about war, strategy and the human condition than most of us do. Which is why new editions of the Iliad and Odyssey debut at a regular clip three millennia later.
You have to be cautious with historical fiction for sure. “Counterfactual” history involves changing one variable in some past set of circumstances—preferably one that could have plausibly been different—and extrapolating how changing it would have amended history. There does have to be some realism to the choice of variable and to the modification the author makes to it.
Good counterfactual: what if imperial Japan’s military rulers had rejected Adm. Isoroku Yamamoto’s plan to attack Pearl Harbor and the attack never took place? This is reasonable alt-history. Probing it helps illuminate enduring truths about diplomacy, the rise and fall of nations, strategy and high-seas war.
Bad counterfactual: what if Gen. Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia lay hands on a shipment of AK-47s during the thick of the fighting in 1864? Such a scenario can make for a rollicking good read. But chances are readers will learn little from such fanciful tales in the course of being entertained.
Some care is required with science fiction as well, although looking ahead constitutes more of a free-range undertaking than looking back. Whimsical sci-fi can teach. There is a reason the U.S. Marine Corps features the Orson Scott Card novel Ender’s Game on its professional reading list alongside weightier treatises about amphibious warfare and the like.
Ender’s Game is only superficially about space combat. In reality it’s about the importance of mental and physical dexterity amid changing tactical and operational surroundings. These are virtues the Marine Corps tries to instill in officers and enlisted folk. You take your insight where you find it.
More realistic science fiction projects trends already evident today into the foreseeable future, forecasts the impact of those trends, and often recommends how to avoid a dark future and reach the sunny uplands that await if readers embrace the writer’s sage counsel. This is future history with a purpose.
In that vein, both the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps include the novel Ghost Fleet on their professional reading lists. Back in October, I attended a lunchtime talk about “FICINT” given by August Cole, one of the Ghost Fleet coauthors. FICINT, or “fiction intelligence,” is Cole’s neologism for the use of fiction as a catalyst for imaginative thought.
Cole and coauthor P. W. Singer study military technology and developments for a living and posit the question: what would happen in a future U.S.-China Pacific war should present trends in strategy, doctrine and force structure continue for a few more years? Their answer is bleak, but the dystopian future they prophesy is far from irredeemable. No spoilers will be found here.
Could-be history is a mode of inquiry that compels you to think. Helping people think is what writing is all about.
And then there’s Capt. Dale Rielage’s prize-winning essay “How We Lost the Great Pacific War,” which appeared in the U.S. Naval Institute’s Proceedings last May. It falls squarely in the Ghost Fleet genre of future history. The author warns about the repercussions should the U.S. Navy fail to remake an institutional culture grown used to tranquil times for new—more forbidding—realities.
It’s a clever piece of work and well worth your time. By setting the narrative in 2025, now-retired Captain Rielage gets to critique present-day U.S. Navy practices without ruffling too many feathers among navy chieftains. The essay takes the form of a mea culpa from a U.S. Pacific Fleet commander who presided over defeat in the Western Pacific.
Think of it as a missive from a latter-day Adm. Husband Kimmel, the Pacific Fleet commander on December 7, 1941—or perhaps from Adm. Chester Nimitz had America lost its war against Japan. “Admiral W. T. Door” ascribes the disaster—presumably at Chinese hands—to the cultural malaise that came to permeate the service after the Cold War.
Winning too big against a hardy peer competitor is a mixed blessing. Permissive surroundings let an institution fall into bad habits. For instance, “just in time” thinking can take hold. If no peer foe looms just beyond the horizon, why stockpile spare parts or armaments, and why assign excess manpower to ship crews to hedge against battle losses? Like manufacturers, the thinking goes, the U.S. Navy can squeeze out waste and maximize efficiency.
Just-in-time thinking is just fine until you get in a fight—at which point it swiftly passes its sell-by date. Navies need a surplus of most everything in wartime. Trouble lurks when a fleet sails into harm’s way without it.
The basic insight that war costs lives and resources in bulk gets lost during good times, when efficiency tends to become a cult. Myopia toward the nature of martial strife makes the transition back to great-power strategic competition more wrenching than it might otherwise be. Built-up bureaucratic and cultural inertia weighs against efforts to adapt to the new, old reality of naval war.
Rielage’s essay sounds a cogent warning against complacency. Now, I do disagree with some of his fortune telling. For instance, he takes the U.S. Navy to task for failing to resurrect the “Asiatic Fleet” model for its forward deployment in Japan. A century ago the U.S. Asiatic Fleet was a force of misfit warships able to show the flag and do little else. The model worked then but wouldn’t now.
The Asiatic Fleet was a diplomatic force more than a fighting force—hence its dismal fate in 1942, when the Imperial Japanese Navy put paid to it. But the chief tasks assigned to the fleet were defending the Philippine Islands and keeping open access to China. Today’s U.S. Seventh Fleet, the Asiatic Fleet’s successor, cements America’s alliance with Japan. This is a mission of utmost gravity.
The Philippines were U.S. territory back then and had to make do with whatever military resources Washington cared to assign. Today Japan is the United States’ principal ally in the Far East—and the United States has no strategic position in the region without the alliance. Scaling back the Seventh Fleet to a neo-Asiatic Fleet would put Tokyo on notice that America is cutting and running.
In short, such a move would loosen relationships on which U.S. Asia policy is founded. Japan would make its peace with Chinese dominance, to the alliance’s detriment. Rielage’s prescription—bring home heavyweight forces to refit and experiment for a Pacific war—makes perfect sense in a material and operational sense.
The politics could spell disaster.
But see there? This is useful insight drawn from a short story. Agreement isn’t the point of ventures like Rielage’s, Singer’s and Cole’s. Fiction cannot predict the future any more than social science can. Setting intellectual ferment in motion is the point. Taken in that spirit, well-crafted storytelling can enlighten and disturb at the same time it entertains.
So get out there and read some fiction—and take your wisdom where you find it.
James Holmes is J. C. Wylie Chair of Maritime Strategy at the Naval War College. The views voiced here are his alone.
This article first appeared in December 2018.