June 25, 2024
We're back with another visit to the Dusty Shelves with a look at Alvin and Heidi Toffler’s 1993 book “War and Anti-War.” J. Overton examines how the Tofflers applied their particular brand of futurism to the military and political environment of the then-fresh post-Cold War world. The book’s 30th anniversary is a perfect opportunity to review the failures, successes, and unfulfilled promises of its predictions and prescriptions, and to highlight ways this work could be applied to contemporary preparations and operations.

“The crisis the world faces today [1993] is the absence of a Third Wave peace-form that corresponds to the new conditions of the world system and to the realities of the Third Wave war-forms.”

War and Anti-War was among the many relatively popular military and national security books of the very fresh post-Cold War geopolitical landscape that claimed to explain and offer suggestions for managing life in this this “New World Order.” It also attempted to restrain some of the early-1990s ecstasy caused by having apparently woken up from history: depending on the edition the subtitles were either “Making Sense of Today’s Global Chaos” or “Survival at the Dawn of the 21st Century,” neither of which implies a rose-colored outlook on the present or near future.

The book’s 30th anniversary this year is an opportunity to review its predictions and prescriptions, and in particular, to reflect on whether its Anti-War/Peace Form recommendations have been tried and found wanting, or as GK Chesterton wrote of the Christian ideal, have been found difficult and left untried.

Riding Waves

Alvin Toffler came to international attention in 1970 with his book Future Shock, defining the phenomenon that people were (and are) perceiving that they are experiencing too much change in too short a period of time. Later writings, which added his wife Heidi as co-author, included 1980s’ The Third Wave. It posited that “First World” societies had in the 1950s transitioned from a Second Wave industrial economy into a Third Wave information- and knowledge-based economy (both following a very long First Wave agricultural economy), and that many of the cultural norms and governments of those societies hadn’t yet adapted to this change. Their books were international bestsellers, establishing the Tofflers as household-name futurists, and influencing business and political leaders. By the early 1980s, the Tofflers’ work had also begun to influence the thinking of some influential members of the U.S. military. And by the early 1990s, the transforming U.S. military had begun to influence the thinking of the Tofflers. Much of War and Anti-War is taken up applying, or speculating about, how the Toffler’s Third Wave concept would impact the U.S. military and those it would have to fight with and against.

The book works well enough in 2023 as an easily digestible peek into the intellectual ferment happening in the early 1990s U.S. military. Its real value to the modern reader is in its framing of the problem with winning wars, accomplishing objectives, and more importantly, keeping peace during an era of dramatic change.

War and Anti-War makes the case that for the past two centuries or so, First Wave societies had, when fighting or competing with Second Wave societies, usually lost both wars and wealth. The authors argued that that with the coming of the Third Wave, “Second Wave war, like Second Wave economics, was racing towards obsolescence.” Nations – or organizations, or corporations – make war the way they make wealth, and thus the models and thinking based on the armies of Napoleon, Grant, and Eisenhower, and the industrial output of 1940s shipyards in Brooklyn, Yokohama, and Bremen, were losing their relevance and utility. Nation-states – including the United States, and international organizations composed of nation-states – were no more prepared for this ongoing change in war than older corporation giants were for the similar processes.

A New World Order and Matching Peace Forms

 “Welcome…to the new global system of the 21st century,” the Tofflers write. “In it we can see the powerful process of trisection at work, reflecting the emergence in our lifetimes of a new civilization with its own distinct survival needs, its characteristic war-form, and soon, one hopes, a peace-form [a new set of tools … for preventing war or mitigating violence] to match.” First Wave peace forms included tribal champions fighting one another – think David and Goliath – with their respective sides abiding by the outcome and thus stopping at a duel as opposed to a war. Second Wave forms included legal restraints and norms applied toward non-combatants and medical professionals. The authors argue that the world is still collectively stuck with peace forms of earlier waves, while the U.S. and much of the globe are already riding the next one. The most important ideas within this book are contained within its list of proposals for these updated peace forms. Grouped broadly, they are:

In the decades since War and Anti-War was released, all of these have been attempted in part – at times like the wars they try to stop in conjunction with peace forms from older waves – with varying results. Some of that variance lies in the Tofflers’ analysis of this “New World Order” and how some technologies would evolve, some in the form’s piece-meal execution.

Certainly less assured of the end-of-history than some of their futurist peers, in this book the Tofflers promote the conventional wisdom that connecting technologies will promote peace. We’ve since learned that videos of beheadings and disinformation campaigns can run on public, free software come with that connectivity, too. “Poverty is no friend of peace,” the author’s quote. True, but wealth is not always an enemy of violence. Third Wave nations, unlike agricultural societies, have no need to acquire new territory through violence, the Tofflers write. But one of the current great powers with which the United States is currently competing has invaded the land of a neighboring, non-threatening country, and the other competing great power is continuously planning and threatening to do something similar to one of its neighbors. Taking other nations’ real estate by force may be perceived by leaders – not countries, necessarily, but at least of few of their leaders – as being a reasonably valuable object to pursue.

It’s difficult to count the number of wars that didn’t happen in the last 30 years, and peace forms, however well they’re executed, don’t promise a total absence of conflict or violence. The actual amount of state-based conflicts – which doesn’t speak to amount of violence or suffering per conflict but does at let us know that prevention has failed–tells a disheartening story. According to one source, there were 37 civil conflicts without foreign intervention, six civil conflicts with an intervening foreign power, and no wars between states or those that could be called “imperial” as War and Anti-War first arrived on booksellers’ shelves. Twenty-eight years later, there were 25 conflicts with foreign intervention, 28 without, and three between states. The depressing trend continues into 2023: the headline for a story about  the UN Security Council meeting of January, 2023  read “With Highest Number of Violent Conflicts Since Second World War, United Nations Must Rethink Efforts to Achieve, Sustain Peace, Speakers Tell Security Council.” 

Found Wanting or Left Untried?

The Toffler’s would not be surprised by this record of the UN’s impotence in peacemaking and peacekeeping, nor by the need to “rethink efforts.” The UN was called out by the authors in a subsection of the book for its decidedly Second Wave ways, and despite the claim cited above, peacekeeping operations since 1993 have had mixed effectiveness at best. As of this writing, the UN’s largest such mission is ending, partially due to its inability to counter Third Wave War forms. In the decades since War and Anti-War, the U.S. military’s record at winning wars and maintaining peace has also been, to be generous, inconsistent and indecisive. Not all of the world is riding the Third Wave, of course: it’s here already, just unevenly distributed, and the challenges with war and peace-form transitions are still apparent, and lend validity to the war and anti-war theme.

The Third Wave peace forms which have been used have also yielded mixed results. If their purpose, however, is to stop short of war, even those forms used by malign or rogue actors for criminal reasons could be deemed successful.  Politics by other means involving violence, yes, but a general mobilization, invasion, or bombing campaign is avoided. Anti-War is not exactly peace: it may however be better than some of the alternatives, including continuing the steady trend of more conflicts each year than the last. As such, a review or revisit of this old book still has the potential to help in surviving in this dawn (now “midmorning”?) of the 21st Century, making sense of ongoing global chaos, and in reminding the reader to keep working towards some admittedly difficult ideals.

J. Overton is the editor of Seapower by Other Means: Naval Contributions to National Objectives Beyond Sea Control, Power Projection, and Traditional Service Missionsand a former Non-Resident Fellow with the Modern War Institute at West Point.

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: Heidi and Alvin Toffler in Japan in 1990

Photo Credit: Photographer unknown.


  1. This is a valuable piece, would love to see author continue this as a serious series, and begin now to address the New Peace thesis of Pinker, Cohen, Zenko, et al. Well done, excellent writing.

  2. If, in the 1990s, the U.S./the West had “looked back” to better understand “the future of war,” we might have realized that it was — and still is — the “revolutionary” political, economic, social and value changes that — demanded by such things as capitalism, markets and trade — (a) threatened the status quo ways of life, ways of governance, values, etc., of the peoples of the world both here at home and there abroad and which, accordingly, (b) determine the future of war:

    “In this new world disorder, the power of identity politics can no longer be denied. Western elites believed that in the twenty-first century, cosmopolitanism and globalism would triumph over atavism and tribal loyalties. They failed to understand the deep roots of identity politics in the human psyche and the necessity for those roots to find political expression in both foreign and domestic policy arenas. And they failed to understand that the very forces of economic and social development that cosmopolitanism and globalization fostered would generate turbulence and eventually resistance, as ‘Gemeinschaft’ (community) fought back against the onrushing ‘Gesellschaft’ (market society), in the classic terms sociologists favored a century ago.” (See the Mar-Apr 2017 edition of “Foreign Affairs” and, therein, the article by Walter Russell Mead entitled “The Jacksonian Revolt: American Populism and the Liberal Order.”)

    “Jacksonians drew their support from Northern laborers and yeoman farmers in the South and in the West. These groups, which Jackson dubbed the ‘bone and sinew of America,’ worried that the market economy would force them into the dependent class. The Jacksonians told the farmers and the laborers that they would do everything in their power to prevent this from taking place. In essence, the men and their rank and file voting allies, along with Jackson, fought a rear-guard action against encroaching industrialization and market economy. Although they won the pivotal battles, they lost the war, because their notion of a pre-capitalist agrarian society succumbed to the industrial economy after the Civil War.” (See the ‘Encyclopedia of U.S. Political History’ by Andrew Robertson, et al., and the section therein entitled ‘Jacksonian Democracy,’ Page 194.)”

    Q: In such “revolutionary change in the name of such things as capitalism, markets and trade” circumstances,” why are such entities as the U.S./the West — and the UN for that matter — so incapable of/so impotent when it comes to such things as making and/or keeping the peace?

    A: Because, in these such “revolutionary change” circumstance, the U.S./the West — and the UN (see its Millennium “Development” Project) it would seem — have taken the side of those who see political, economic, social and value change (i.e. “development”) — in the name of such things as capitalism, markets and trade –as being more important than peace.

    (Samuel P. Huntington, in his famous “Political Order in Changing Societies” [see Page 41], explained this prioritization of “development” over “peace” as follows:

    “The apparent relationship between poverty and backwardness, on the one hand, and instability and violence, on the other, is a spurious one. It is not the absence of modernity but the efforts to achieve it which produce political disorder. If poor countries appear to be unstable, it is not because they are poor, but because they are trying to become rich. A purely traditional society would be ignorant, poor, and stable.”)

    Bottom Line: As in the past — and likewise today — neither the U.S./the West — nor the UN it would seem — is prepared to sacrifice “development” for “peace?” (Thus, the past — and future — of war?)

    1. Note that — from the information that I provide above — there may indeed be a path toward peace. Explanation:

      The cause of conflict, as noted above, is the revolutionary political, economic, social and value changes which constantly and never-endingly occur (for example, as per the Tofflers, from an agricultural economy to an industrial economy, from an industrial economy to an information economy and from an information economy and what comes next); these such changes being required so that various nations might (a) constantly and never-endingly remain economically competitive and thus might (b) constantly and never-endingly remain able to provide for their nation’s national security.

      Logically, therefore, the manner by which one might provide a better chance for “peace” — in these such difficult, constant and never-ending “transformative” times and circumstances — this by constantly and never-endingly providing adequate training, “buy-outs” and other accommodations; this, for those individuals and groups — and for those states and societies — whose ways of life, ways of governance, values, etc., will be most adversely effected by these such required — constantly and never-ending — political, economic, social and value changes.

      Minus this such logical step, then you simply must expect — and thus simply must constantly and never-endingly be prepare for — what now is being called “forever” (civil and international) “wars?”

  3. War in the Digital Age: Can AI and Creative Approaches Avoid the Horrors of the Past?
    The Tofflers’ work offers an optimistic approach to the future of human society in the evolution of war. They argue that we are clearly still in the Third Wave, a post-industrial society characterized by the rise of information technology and the decline of manufacturing. In this new world, war as it was before is obsolete. Conflicts will continue, but war will not be the way to overcome them. A digital world has the chance to be a more intelligent one, and the consequences of war can be avoided through AI and creative and loving approaches.

    The Tofflers’ love story surely influenced their vision of the future. They saw the potential for technology to bring people together and create a more peaceful world. They also understood that war is ultimately destructive and that it is better to focus on building positive peace.

    As technologies evolve, there will be more chances for people to become aware of the horrors of war. Propaganda to encourage war as the solution to conflicts will become increasingly ineffective. The military-industrial complex (MIC) has been the hegemonic power for war, but it faces socioeconomic collapse in the face of new technological developments that could develop situations where war cannot be justified.

    The lessons for positive peace have taken long to be learned, but hopefully it is not too late to do so. For example, the Afghanistan war lasted for 20 years and achieved nothing. Was Desert Storm fought to allow Saudi Arabia to join BRICS? Could it not have been better to set the bases for economic development in the region and create a sustainable and balanced world economy?

    War could be important for some at some point, but it is becoming increasingly clear that the only war that is justified is the war against war. And this is won by building positive peace, not destroying all.
    PS. The book is a great one, and it is now available for everyone to think, everywhere, anytime. Is not it great? https://ia801301.us.archive.org/6/items/WarAndAntiWar-Toffler/War-And-Anti-War_-_Toffler.pdf

  4. Given that nuclear deterrence is now utterly demolished by modern nuclear winter research, perhaps we need a longer look at the rational bases for changing our current conflict paradigm (si vis pacem, etc.) to something more rational.

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