June 21, 2024
The Dusty Shelves series is back with a look at the 1968 classic Unless Peace Comes: A Scientific Forecast of New Weapons, a collection of essays written by several prominent scientists and thinkers and edited by Nigel Calder. Vivek Thangam shares his analysis of the collection looking at where these great minds got their future visions right and more importantly where their predictions fell short. He points out the importance of imagination while appreciating the limits of present and future technology. It's a great read that primes the mind for forecasting future needs and capabilities.

Not only did these authors expand human understanding of the natural world, but they also worked in academia and government to shape how such discoveries would be used.

Unless Peace Comes: A Scientific Forecast of New Weapons is a collection of essays written by several prominent scientists and thinkers published in 1968 and edited by Nigel Calder.

This book remains a fantastic read more than fifty years later both because of what the writers correctly foresaw and the limitations of their predictive analysis. It serves as a snapshot of the era, allowing a reader to understand how prominent thinkers at the time saw the world. With the benefit of hindsight, we can observe what they got right or wrong and how their ideas affect the way we see our own future. No other book contains such a group of influential theorists, scientists, and writers explaining their predictions for the impact new technologies would have on warfare

The star power of this book is unparalleled. All the authors included have had a profound impact on the way technology has changed the world. Some of the more recognizable names include Sir John Cockcroft, General André Beaufre, Dr. Harvey Wheeler, and Dr. David Inglis. Even those not as commonly known in military circles include Nobel prize winners and prominent politicians abroad. Not only did these authors expand human understanding of the natural world, but they also worked in academia and government to shape how such discoveries would be used. They thought deeply about the technologies of the day and their impact on humanity. The book is nothing less than a manifesto intended to shed light on the science being conducted at the time and what dangers it may pose to world peace.

The subjects covered include the following in order of appearance in the book: conventional warfare, guerilla warfare, nuclear weapons, aircraft missiles and spacecraft, computers in warfare, undersea warfare, chemical weapons, microbiological weapons, self-controlling weapons, and geophysical warfare. This analysis examines a couple of chapters which are representative of the full range of essays found in the text.

General André Beaufre, a French army officer and military strategist, focused on conventional warfare. Of the many predictions he made, one worth highlighting was that the “means of conventional anti-personnel fire—the rifle, machine-gun, mortar and artillery… have attained their definitive forms.” (19). He went on to explain that advancements in manufacturing, materials, and logistics will impact these weapons, but the weapons themselves will not fundamentally change. This opening insight showed that these thinkers were not blindly throwing around science fiction ideas. They carefully measured where the technology was and where it could reasonably be expected to go. As he continued discussing other domains of conventional warfare, he cautioned against romanticizing “good old” conflict, highlighting how destructive it was even without new technologies. The chapter did not contain many particularly explosive predictions but did continue well from the introduction into establishing the world of 1968 through the lens of a military practitioner. This essay serves as an example of how the writers correctly predicted in what ways the future would continue to look like the past.

The role computers have played in warfare and civilization cannot be overstated. Dr. Harvey Wheeler’s essay “The Strategic Calculators,” makes several key predictions on how computational devices would affect the future. Dr. Wheeler, a fellow at the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions and author of the novel Fail-Safe, described the three main areas computers would affect military operations: “the control of weapon performance, policy formation and decision making, and the administration of military programmes and operations.” (105) The focus on applications outside of the actual battlefield such as logistics and politics is highly refreshing. Within the weapon systems themselves, one example Dr. Wheeler describes could have been written today. He lists two types of control systems: direct digital control (DDC) versus supervisory control (SC). Under DDC, the system is completely computerized while under SC there is human intervention. The moral and technical implications discussed are broadly like the current discourse on drones and AI systems. The predictions in this essay are eerily accurate, making it feel anachronistic, like someone wrote a retrospective analysis on how computers would affect warfare.

Professor Meredith Wooldridge Thring, a British inventor, engineer, and author, wrote the essay “Robots on the March,” about the advent of self-controlling weapons. It is critical to remember this essay was written in the 1960s, well before the rise of drones and artificial intelligence. Science fiction’s influence on this essay is clear to see. The author was far too optimistic about the rates of improvement, for example claiming that the problem of object recognition would be solved within a decade of publication. For context, image detection technology remains limited more than half a century later, even with machine learning algorithms and large data sets. One representative idea worth highlighting here is a hypothetical robot called “The Walking Bomb.” As the author described it, the Walking Bomb would be heavily armed and would carry a nuclear device. It could be ordered to march towards a target city, its weapons firing at enemies while its armor protected the payload. When it finally reached its target, it would simply explode. The author explored the potential impacts of such a device: the horror of a slowly approaching impending death as well as the ability to “call off” the attack if a diplomatic solution was reached. Obviously, this type of weapon would not be effective for a variety of reasons, yet the sheer imagination involved in this technology makes this essay worth reading.

One of the final essays is titled “We Have Been Here Before.” It was written by Philip Noel-Baker, a British politician, diplomat, academic, athlete, and renowned campaigner for disarmament. He is the only person to receive both an Olympic medal and a Nobel Prize (for Peace). He correctly identified that the primary barrier to disarmament is political, although he acknowledged that new science could pose unique technical challenges. He discussed the history of disarmament as well as how technology was bringing the global community closer together even as ideological divisions continued. His final insight was the most poignant, primarily that there is no plateau where science will level off, forcing development to stop. The only logical conclusion for an arms race based on these new technologies would be the continued production of more advanced weapons, making any future conflict only more deadly.

This book underestimated the will of humanity, nation states, and individuals to limit the types of warfare used.

Many times, predictions from the past are read because the author accurately foretold the future. Unless Peace Comes is valuable because many predictions were incorrect. Two of the areas worth exploring are the political will to prevent the large-scale deployment of chemical weapons and the limited technological capability to modify the weather.

This book underestimated the will of humanity, nation states, and individuals to limit the types of warfare used. This can be seen most clearly in the essay on chemical weapons, titled “The Toxic Arsenal,” which was written by Marcel Fetizon and Michel Magat. The first author was a professor of thermodynamics who focused on the synthesis and mass spectrometry of natural products. The second was a professor of physical chemistry who served during the Free French Forces during the Second World War and later became a member of the Pugwash antiproliferation movement. Their essay provided a brief history on the use of chemical weapons, focusing on the technical improvements made in the 19th century. They wrapped up this retrospective discussion by highlighting recent nerve gases developed at the end of World War II. While some of their future predictions remain well grounded, their inaccurate predictions reveal much about the ideas of the time. In the 1960s, there was much excitement around the potential applications of psychotomimetic compounds, referred to in the military context as “incaps” or incapacitating chemicals. This new class of poisons was intended to produce “temporary mental disorder” (152) and could be deployed against enemy military or civilian targets causing a psychotic state across an entire country. A core assumption to this prediction was that since medicine would continue to receive funding, the weaponization of those discoveries would also proceed unabated. Yet despite large improvements in medicine, the use of mental poisons has not grown in tandem. Ultimately, the authors failed to capture the strength of the political will to prevent the development and spread of poison gases. Given how devastating their predictions were, they would certainly not be sad to be wrong. Only through a retrospective analysis can the horrors which have been avoided become clear. Ideally this realization can serve as inspiration for modern arms control.

This book also overestimated technological capabilities in several areas, most overtly in weather modification. Of the essays in this collection, by far the most speculative was Professor Gordon James Fraser MacDonald’s regarding the weaponization of the weather titled “How to Wreck the Environment.” Gordon MacDonald was an American geophysicist and environmental scientist. He was a member of the Jason Group, chaired the CIA’s MEDEA Committee, and was awarded the Agency Seal Medallion. It is important to keep in mind that he was highly respected in his career, was willing to call out bogus science, and made important contributions to humanity’s understanding of the natural world because many of his suggestions were so extreme. Gordon MacDonald started listing some of the geophysical technologies being proposed at the time and why those would not work, most notably the tilting of the earth’s axis. Yet he went on to completely overestimate how good humans would become at engineering other parts of the planet. The two examples which most exemplify the high concept would be flinging hurricanes at hostile nations or dropping hydrogen bombs on tectonic fissures to trigger earthquakes. Ultimately, MacDonald was wrong about humanity’s ability to intentionally change the weather. It is precisely this incredible faith in science’s ability to bring the natural world under the control of people that makes MacDonald’s essay so important in understanding how humans have a tendency to overestimate their control of nature.

What would be the point of reading this book more than 50 years after publication?

First, it is useful to remind ourselves just how bad people are at predicting the future. While some predictions were accurate, many completely missed the mark. Again, it is not that these thinkers were ignorant; if they were, then the correct predictions would not exist. Rather, human beings in general struggle to imagine the future accurately, in large part because many future predictions are based on the world as it exists at the time. Given how horrific some visions of the future were, these authors would celebrate being so wrong. Indeed, that might be the greatest value of dire predictions: their very horror helps forestall them becoming a reality.

Second, this book is an enjoyable read. Often when going back to older texts, there is a level of disconnect between the language used then and now which can make them inaccessible. In contrast, all of the essays here are still timely, and all of the various subjects are uniquely interesting.

Finally, this book prods the imagination in novel ways. Much like good speculative fiction, it prompts the reader to think about the ramifications of technology but unlike science fantasy, it remains grounded in the technology of the moment. Unless Peace Comes is an ideal example of futurist military writing, still valuable to readers over a half century since its publication. It is a model of how imagining the future might shape the coming world, ideally towards justice and peace.

Vivek Thangam is an engineer working at the Department of Energy, Office of Nuclear Energy. He studied Chemical Engineering with a minor in Global and International Studies at the University of California, Davis. His interests center on the intersection of politics and science.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Army War College, the U.S. Army, or the Department of Defense.

Photo Description: Lance Cpl. Brandon Dieckmann, infantryman with India Company, 3rd Battalion, 3rd Marine Regiment, and native of Las Vegas, leads the Legged Squad Support System through a grassy area at Kahuku Training Area, July 12, 2014, during the Rim of the Pacific 2014 exercise. The LS3 is experimental technology being tested by the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab during the Advanced Warfighting Experiment. It is programmed to follow an operator through terrain, carrying heavy loads like water and food to Marines training. There are multiple technologies being tested during RIMPAC, the largest maritime exercise in the Pacific region. This year’s RIMPAC features 22 countries and around 25,000 people.

Photo Credit: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Cpl. Matthew Callaha

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