America Needs Futurists and Traditionalists to Think Clearly About War

America Needs Futurists and Traditionalists to Think Clearly About War

A creative, well-balanced military that fuses the acumen of prophets and historians will get results on the battlefields of tomorrow.

Recent developments in historical research may present opportunities to nurture such thinking elsewhere. One of these developments is the increasing popularity of applied history and the study of social or cultural military history as opposed to purely operational military history. Founded in 2016, Niall Ferguson and Graham Allison’s Applied History Project at Harvard University is a prominent example of the growing interest in the field. At the very least, applied history provides the contextual framework to help leaders close the cognitive gaps between what is possible and what is probable. Military unit historians and local university faculty, for example, are woefully underutilized resources in creative defense initiatives.

There is already a foundation of nexus-type programs within the U.S. military. Commanders simply need to expand upon them. At the service level, the Association of the United States Army’s annual Leader Solarium, inspired by President Eisenhower’s creative approach to wargaming Cold War strategy, is one example. The U.S. Army Mad Scientist Initiative’s Back to the Future conference is another, one that seems to be closest to the mark in terms of bringing traditionalists and futurists together. Yet most service members are unaware of these valuable platforms and therefore uninterested in any potential benefit provided by their existence. Some units have pursued their own innovation programs, such as the XVIII Airborne Corps’ Dragon’s Lair concept and the 82nd Airborne Division’s new-founded Innovation Lab. Many of these platforms, however, tend to attract a certain type of leader, namely, the futurist—which places them at risk of turning into self-licking ice cream cones. What these venues lack is an anchor point of deep historical knowledge that prevents them from descending into echo chambers of futurist wish lists where every attendee becomes a hammer in search of a nail.

In the spirit of Dr. Leonard Wong’s “fashion tips for the field grade” paper, there is value in questioning popular assumptions about future war because the evidence suggests that as a species we are not very good at it. Yet certain truths related to the nature of war are timeless. Integrating traditionalists into these events and others, such as digital and physical training domains at the tactical and operational levels, could better position the United States to exploit the creativity shortfalls of its pacing challenge, the PLA.

China’s Creative Capacity Woes

Despite China’s Central Military Commission elevating the status of its Science and Technology Commission in 2020, creativity is not a typical pillar of Beijing’s political system. Historical analyses comparing free nations to authoritarian ones indicate that the latter tend to stifle creativity because they see it as a threat. Divergent thoughts might challenge the legitimacy of the ruling party’s methods. Outside of procuring creativity from western democracies, there is likely a cultural terminus to the PLA’s innovative potential. When coupled with recruiting challenges, a fledgling noncommissioned officer corps, and the Biden administration’s recent embargo on semiconductor sales to China, Beijing’s creative capacity could lead to stagnation at war.

Lacking battlefield experience this century, it is hard to assess China’s ability to wage combined arms warfare, but its highly regimented, top-down command structure may provide clues as to how it would adapt in combat. Indeed, despite China’s efforts to improve its joint military capabilities, the Pentagon’s 2021 report on the matter highlighted several consistent shortcomings, including the inability of Chinese commanders to “understand higher authorities’ intentions” and “manage unexpected situations.”

The war in Ukraine might offer some insight as well, where a similarly rigid leadership model contributed to Russia’s poor performance. A supposedly capable modern army driven by New Generation Warfare and the military mind of Valery Gerasimov struggled in the face of a motivated, well-organized, and well-supported Ukrainian defense. Distributed mission command and flattened communications allowed low-level leaders in the Ukrainian Army to seek out creative solutions and test them in battle. In addition to myriad other problems, the Russian army had trouble adapting to an influx of Western arms packages, the rapid loss of its general officers, and a creative, resilient opponent. These vulnerabilities may not be exclusive to Russia.


The United States is uniquely positioned to use creativity as a mechanism that targets the weaknesses of its pacing challenge. A nexus camp could link futurists and traditionalists in joint force transformation with creativity as its nucleus. The U.S. defense enterprise has the human talent and the organizational capacity to turn creativity into a force multiplier through a program that brings these two camps together.

Finding this balance is critical to operationalizing U.S. strategic documents. It prevents the joint force from running so far ahead of itself that its aspirations become dislocated from reality while maintaining an anchor point in the form of what history tells us is humanly possible. After all, future war conditions are not often apparent until war is present, at which time those in the fight must adapt to them. A creative, well-balanced military that fuses the acumen of prophets and historians will, like the Ukrainian Army, get results on the battlefields of tomorrow.

Michael P. Ferguson is a U.S. Army officer with experience in various combat, staff, and security cooperation assignments throughout Europe, Africa, and the Middle East. His analysis has been featured in more than a dozen publications and he is co-author of a forthcoming military history of Alexander the Great.

Nicholas A. Rife is a U.S. Army senior intelligence technician with a wide range of global intelligence experience. He is currently the Army’s all-source intelligence functional lead and senior technical instructor at the U.S. Army Foundry Platform.

The views expressed in this article are those of the authors alone and do not reflect the policies or positions of the U.S. Army, U.S. Department of Defense, or U.S. government.

Image: Reuters