2014 is upon us, officially marking a century since the beginning of World War I. The thinkpieces should be intolerably thick on the ground around August and September. I worry that most of them will be ignored – which is a shame, because World War I was probably the single most important event in modern history. World War II was also a rather big deal, but at least the European component of it was pretty clearly a natural outgrowth of World War I.
It’s also tragically understudied. As a matter of history, World War II is too tidy – some mostly good people on one side, some very bad people on the other, and a narrative that even a child can understand. On the other hand, the story of World War I is a gigantic mess. Even a century later, people still have strong and basic disagreements on why the war happened and who was responsible. There are no evil men to lay the blame on, just people who were scared and nervous and trying to do what was best for their country.
Every single thing about the war is a numbing endless lesson that history is messy and complicated and horrible. The combat was monstrous and inhuman. The politics were messy and venal. There are no heroes, just old men who sent millions of young men to die for no clear reason. There were no great values at stake, no immortal principles at risk, just industrialized slaughter. The absurdities of the war are staggering – for example, the whole French army collapsed in 1917. Roughly half the divisions in the army decided to ignore all orders and squat down in their trenches for the rest of the war. Probably a good decision.
There’s a common myth that the fighting stopped in 1918. That would be tidy. The war ended for the Russian Empire in 1917 when the Empire fell and the USSR made peace. It started up again for the Russians (and Latvians and Ukrainians and Poles) in 1918 as the Germans started to retreat from the eastern territories they had conquered. The Soviets in 1918 actually set out on a mission of world conquest, one reason why the US sent the Army to Russia to fight them off in vain. Not a part of history you tend to learn in high school. Even before finishing the Russian Civil War the Soviets had decided it was time to bring the Revolution to the West, and they only stopped because they ground to a stop in Poland. Everything the war touched it destroyed.
Most importantly, World War I is a powerful reminder that policymakers should be humble and should fear war above all else. The lesson politicians take from World War II is simple and powerful – that every adversary is Hitler, and that it’s always Munich 1938. If more people truly understood World War I, they wouldn’t be so quick to get involved in things that might spin terribly, horribly out of control. The world of 1914 was far from perfect, but it was a world of peace and trade and rapid growth and rising living standards. It seemed as though nothing could shake Europe from the course it was on…until a few weeks in August when a few politicians decided to take some risks.
Then everything went to shit.
A provocative thought, from Cosma Shalizi via Brad Delong. The Singularity is when the pace of technological change becomes so rapid that it becomes essentially impossible to make clear predictions about the future; when phrased that way as opposed to formulations more focused on artificial intelligence, it seems clear it’s been here for a while. Shalizi calls it as the first Industrial Revolution, but I would personally disagree. The steam engine is pretty simple conceptually as a mere channel for physical forces that everyone understands – fire and water. For me, the clear Singularity event would have to be World War II and two technologies, the atomic bomb and the computer. Each are the embodiment of abstraction – for computers it is the ability to embody any expressible logical structure. And the Bomb is the harnessing of forces that can only be understood through total abstraction.
Either are so completely incomprehensible to pre-technological man that they are effectively magic on a much deeper level than a steam engine. There are no words to explain the Bomb, or a computer, to someone who has not grown up in a technological environment. I work in software and know basically what is going on inside a computer – how tiny flashes of electrical signal ultimately translate into what I see on a screen. But it’s still mostly magic to me, and I know it is effectively magic to 99.9% of the American population. As Shalizi puts it, we can all confidently predict exponential growth in technology – yet it is “basically unpredictable…rendering long-term extrapolation impossible”. Just witness the way that everyone, from policymakers to writers to just regular people, are trying to grapple with the slow collapse of privacy as the offline and online merge.
Anyone who confidently predicts how Google Glasses technology will affect everyday life is talking out his ass. At least if he gives an answer more specific than “a lot”.
The real leap into incomprehensibility and rapidity has to be marked as beginning in 1945. Especially as the fruits of all three Industrial Revolutions began diffusing to the Third World at the same time, things have started to get weird. Like Facebook being used to organize a peaceful revolution in Egypt. Or cast-off First World video game consoles being used to operate a homemade tank against a Third World army originally stood up as a Second World proxy. 3D-printed guns are being distributed over the internet. Foxconn exists. Before the war, the path of technology was clear – our Dumb Matter constructions like guns and planes and jeeps would get bigger, stronger, and faster. Instead…things got weird.
Results of the Singularity have been mixed so far but on the whole quite positive.
The ongoing debate over the sequester has gotten me thinking of software design. Some in the United States military have argued that the next war we need to prepare for is a small war in the Middle East, others a massive naval conflict with China. Failing to prepare for either would be disastrous, and so our military budget must forever expand as we prepare for both. Given the perceived threat environment, I can understand why the Pentagon is yelping so much at some relatively mild trims to their planned budgets. Yes, the sequester cuts are poorly planned and will incur financial/operational costs in terms of sudden contract disruptions – but the real reason the Pentagon is complaining is that they want this money in order to prepare for both these threat environments. Plus Iran, and rapid humanitarian deployments, and pirates off Somalia, and God knows what else.
Here’s a provocative counterargument for the Pentagon – stop trying to plan for the next war, because we know you’ll get it wrong. That’s okay – you’re only human. Everyone always gets the plan for the next war wrong. That doesn’t mean you have to stop running simulations and wargames – though sorry, our enemies will always come up with something we didn’t think of. Again – they always do. But stop trying to plan for the next war or any war because preparing for everything is impossible. Instead of preparing for everything, prepare for anything.
Preparing for anything means a priority on building a flexible infrastructure for response. The US’s greatest military challenges have been the Civil War and World War II, and we triumphed in both because we had the material and human infrastructure to develop appropriate responses to the threat environment and scale the responses really big, really quickly. It’s hard to know what exactly that means in the modern context – that’s the real utility of running those wargames, in the hopes that across all the scenarios some common patterns start to emerge. We’ll get it wrong, as we always do. But by prioritizing flexibility over optimization we’re less likely to be disastrously wrong.
A parable from World War II – the T-34 versus the Tiger tank. The Tiger was a massive piece of wonderful German engineering: the most armor, the most powerful engine, the most destructive main gun. The T-34 was much smaller, and in a confrontation the Tiger would win every time. Not even 1-on-1 – there are documented engagements where a single Tiger would wipe out 20+ T-34s without taking a scratch. Within the engagement, the Tiger was the unquestioned superior solution. Yet the Tiger never made a dent in the course of the larger war, and the T-34 is regarded as the highest achievement in tank design in the history of warfare. Why?
The T-34 was spectacularly well-suited to the actual problem at hand, whereas the Tiger was incredibly poorly suited. The powerful engine of the Tiger was precision-made by hand, limiting production speed and capacity enormously. It was also unreliable – and since there were so few Tigers and parts were handmade, parts were pretty darn scarce too. The T-34’s engine wasn’t built for raw power, it was built for reliability. Oh, and it was “precision-engineered” too – Soviet engineers worked tirelessly in order to reduce the number of parts and decrease the precision of machining required. In the tough conditions of a Russian winter guess which one was the dominant approach? Speaking of, there weren’t much in the way of roads out there. Well, having the best damn tank in the world doesn’t do you any good when it’s so heavy it sinks instantly in soft ground and breaks 90% of the bridges out there. The Germans built for the dominant solution, and the Russians built for the one useful in the most contexts.
I’m speaking in software terms here because they’re extremely relevant. We’ve all encountered the over-engineered solution many times. For any given mathematical task there are many solutions that provide the dominant solution for the problem you want to tackle right now. But if you asked everyone who uses numbers in their work the one program they couldn’t live without, it’s Microsoft Excel. Imagine a map of America where Excel sits in the middle of Kansas and your desired use case may sit anywhere on the map. Other solutions may be closer to your particular use case, but Excel has the shortest average distance to the destination.
This is just a long-ass way of saying that when the military tries to simultaneously prepare for a war in China with fancy stealth fighters and a war in the Middle East with COIN tactics, it basically guarantees building itself a Tiger. Procurement budgets with unlimited money want to look for the dominant solution to every single use case, and build themselves the ultimate versatile toolbox with a million purpose-built tools. To mix terms from two worlds, we don’t get to define our own use case – the enemy does. If we assume that we’ll be wrong about the use cases that we face, it shows us that the “build many Tigers” approach doesn’t guarantee failure, but it guarantees a lot of wasted money and a strong possibility of failure.
Not all is lost, however – there is one way to guarantee we’ll be less wrong, which is to lessen the universe of potential use cases. The relevant area here is political, not technological – the more America tries to do all things in all places, the larger the universe of things we can screw up in our preparation and the more wildly wrong we can be.