Center for Strategic Communication

(by Adam Elkus)

One of my favorite television shows when I was younger was the Japanese sci-fi anime Gundam Wing. The characterization was awful, the giant robots were kind of lame, and the fights often were not all that suspenseful. However, it had a very interesting social and political universe that was far more sophisticated than your average Toonami fare. I remember one episode in particular, now that discussion has turned to the ever-topical future of war and technology.

In a Earth Sphere Alliance military base on Corsica, an special operations officer named Walker greets Gundam‘s antagonist Zechs. Zechs has come to inspect an old prototype mobile suit that Zechs and Walker both believe holds the key to understanding the terrifying new and poorly understood Gundam mobile suits that have been annihilating Alliance bases left and right. The base’s foolish commander, having been forced to cease production of mobile suits due to a terrorist attack on the facility, stages a large display of force with base units to demonstrate that he is in control. The implied purpose is to grandstand to the special operations group that Zechs and Walker belong to, demonstrating that the regular army can do hold the base without the help of the “specials.”

At one point, Walker asks Zech to take the prototype suit from the base with him. Zechs, knowing that the Gundam will likely attack, asks Walker if he is going to die for him. Walker responds that he is following Zechs’ example and fighting for the soldiers of the future. Sure enough, a Gundam does arrive and Walker and his special operations unit suicidally fight to allow the base commander and Zechs to escape. Walker, in commanding his men to fight on despite the certainty of destruction, quite literally casts it as a struggle for the soldiers of the future. The combat data that the fight will produce will help the military fight the Gundams later. And Walker also wants Zechs and the prototype to escape for similar reasons. Zechs himself sorrowfully departs, knowing that he has effectively doomed Walker.

When thinking about World War I, I often see a lot of Walkers. Many of the military theorists, soldiers, and technologists could see nearly all of the challenges of future warfare stemming from C3I, logistics, campaign design, and tactics. Walker most reminds me of Ardant Du Picq, both in his interest in the future of war and untimely end. The problem all of the prewar era’s military theorists faced was that they were caught between something very old and familiar and something new and terrifying — much like the juxtaposition of the proto-Gundam Zechs inspects and the actual Gundam that kills Walker and his team (thus generating combat data). The familiar is tangible, the future is patchy and a black box. Still, that isn’t exactly why WWI was such a slaughterhouse.

An interesting contrast to Gundam is seen in another anime I watched recently, Night Raid 1931.  Set in the 1930s, the anime’s antagonist is a supernaturally empowered Imperial Japanese Army military officer who forsees World War II and the use of the atomic bomb. Prophecy is a very big theme throughout Night Raid — a oracle-like woman is used by the closest echelons of the Japanese government and military to make decisions about war and peace. There is something fitting about the idea that the prime source of information for decision is an esoteric and religiously based strategic forecaster.

The antagonist, afraid of the consequences of world warfare, attempts to enlist the peoples of Southeast Asia in revolt against both Japan and the colonial powers to produce a new order. He takes drastic measures to create his own prototype atomic weapon — which he plans to utilize on Shanghai in order to force the world powers (all of whom have settlements there) to take actions that will demonstrate the deterrent power of his new weapon. He is foiled, but the protagonists all understand that they have only postponed the inevitable.

The perspective in Night Raid is one in which the future is deterministic — even if it cannot be predicted completely. The initial conditions are clear — some sequence of events is on the horizon, ending in the usage of the atomic bomb. The antagonist only can glimpse a very hazy outline of this vision, and he tries and fails to prevent it. Undoubtedly the fact that he tried and failed influenced the outcome somewhat — but the anime implies WWII happens anyway (and the bomb presumably does as well).

The deterministic perspective in Night Raid is contrasted with Gundam 00, in which a Hari Seldon-like figure creates an organization for carrying out a 200-year plan designed to result in a desired future and a massively powerful biological artificial intelligence agent to help plan and direct the process through the centuries. However, after he puts himself in suspended freeze to wait out the future, the components of his organization begin to develop different ideas about it. Factions develop and feud and 200 years later the desired future is very much in doubt.

Though the good guys win in the end (it’s TV), it is by no means implied that the initial conditions are sufficient to produce a deterministic outcome. The end outcome is an emergent product of contingent decisions by all of the anime’s political, military, and economic entities as well as the specific decisions and personalities of the main characters. In fact, there are many points in the anime in which complete derailment of the desired future are very plausible. The fact that the end leads to the heroes triumphant doesn’t necessarily say much about the probability of it occurring. The story tries to present it as such, but this can be dismissed as a narrative contrivance designed to impose a comfortable sense of signal to noise.

The question of what the future holds for war depends in part on how you view the nature of social systems. The key idea of Night Raid is a teleological climb to some higher mountain. Exactly how high no one really knows, but by the end of the anime they are sure that there is some peak much higher that they will ascend to. In contrast, Gundam 00 seems to imply that there are micro interactions that produce fleeting intermediate structures. Furthermore, the interaction between micro and intermediate levels produces a macroscopic outcome that then affects the micro level again.

The challenge is always to avoid the Black Swan problem. It is easy to impose a spurious coherence on past events that you believe gives them teleological order. Much of what Lynn Rees talks about is the problem of imposing such coherence with fuzzy and value-laden ideas about strategy. But as some commenters have noted in the legibility thread, legibility is at heart any process that we use to try to force the world to fit our own mental models. Every time we write history, we inherently distort reality into a soda straw view because no history can capture the complexity of the world as it once was. It is often ironic to see humanities thinkers make this very criticism about mathematical modeling and statistics, when if anything the process of imposing conceptual order on the past is far more fraught with peril than building a clearly specified computer model.

With this in mind, we can see another interesting distinction in the various anime series surveyed in this post. In Night Raid 1931, the antagonist attempts to force the future to fit his own mental model, and fails miserably. The deterministic nature of events is implied by his failure to get the anti-colonial groups to trust him and cooperate — something that could only happen after World War II. However, in Gundam 00 the very act of changing the future also imperils that future — the creation of a large organization to carry out the Foundation-esque dream inevitably splits into factions and personalities that try to twist the plan to fit their own ends.

To return to the Walker-WWI parallel in the beginning — what I’m coming to believe about WWI is not that the greatest risk is failing to see the future clearly or of not collecting the right data. It is that we do not give enough reflective thought to how our anticipations of the future also change it. The preparations of the various powers for war they knew would require large armies, mobilization networks, and speed famously complicated prewar diplomacy. And preparations for Cold War turning “hot” and the scientific and technical spawn they generated in turn also created the roots of American dominance and profitable technological industries today.

Much discussion about future war involves banning or regulating technologies, taking steps to insure that X or Y capability is preserved or scrapped, etc. But that focus renders invisible the problems involved in trying to force the future to be legible, as well as the interesting lack of reflexivity about the combination of predicting the future and seeking to alter it.