By Puong Fei Yeh
Best Defense future of war contest entrant
The future of war scares me.
It scares me the most when I think about the world we live in — the long-standing threat of nuclear weapons and proliferation, the rise of unmanned combat platforms, cyber weapons, and not-yet-invented or imagined ways to conduct war. Some of the earlier posts in this blog have touched on the inviolate laws of war, and therefore what we can expect war to look like in the future, but if there is one law that gives me pause it is the power law of war.
I’m not referring to the capacity of countries or groups to wage war, but rather Lewis Fry Richardson‘s insight in 1948 that wars exhibit a power law relationship.
Richardson discovered that the magnitude of wars as measured in how many people die is inversely proportional to the frequency with which those wars occur along a smooth curve. At one extreme end of the scale are the First and Second World Wars, in which tens of millions of people were killed, and at the other end of the spectrum are greater numbers of conflicts in which the number of causalities range from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands. Conflicts like the Vietnam War (1965), Iran-Iraq War (1980), and the Taiping Rebellion (1850) lie in the upper range of the curve. Since Richardson’s discovery, scholars have duplicated his results using larger datasets and subsets of conflict-related data, including fatalities attributed to terrorism. Power law explains a diverse range of natural and human phenomenon, from the magnitudes and frequency of earthquakes to the population of cities.
Are we (or our kids) due for a high magnitude event? One of the most frustrating things about Richardson’s discovery is the complete lack of predicative power. Simply put, power law is nice, but as many others have pointed out, so what? Knowing in the aggregate that a lot of people die in a few wars and not as many in many more wars doesn’t help us plan for the future. Although that’s true, I believe Richardson’s insight is useful in providing some perspective and humility about the future, both near- and long-term. First, wars will continue: People, in large numbers, will continue to die. Second, the unthinkable — the risk of another world war or even a more localized, regional war — should not be unimaginable. Power law suggests events of intense severity will occur more often than random chance. Unfortunately, we lack of a good sense of where we lie on the curve.
So whether we think the next big one is an all-out war between China and the United States, a global cyberwar, a regional nuclear war between India and Pakistan, or a terrorist organization detonating a nuke in one of the world’s top 10 cities, managing the risk that stems from any of these wars occurring is just as important as reducing the risk that these deadly conflicts will start. Borrowing from Nassim Taleb’s theme of antifragile and other works on resiliency, what series of steps can we begin to take to mold our system today — political, military, economic, and social institutions — to withstand devastating shocks? Ideally, you’d like to take a series of short-term steps towards solving what is hopefully a long-term problem, because if you don’t, you’re screwed when the high-magnitude event arrives.
If I’m going to make a bet on the future of war, I will bet on the country that is most adaptive and most resilient as the one to survive and prevail through the next series of shocks.
Puong Fei Yeh is an analyst at the Department of Defense, specializing in WMD and arms proliferation. The views expressed here are his own and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Defense or the U.S. government.
Tom note: You’re smart, you can do things. When you get back from taking Michael to the airport, why not jot down your own views of the future of war? Consider submitting an essay. The contest remains open for at least another few weeks. Try to keep it short — no more than 750 words, if possible. And please, no footnotes or recycled war college papers.
Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tags: Military, National Security Slider
More from Foreign Policy
I hope to live life to the fullest
1st place $50
By Nguong Le, San Gabriel HS
When the final sunset comes, will I be able to walk away knowing I had completely enjoyed the days of my life? I often find myself thinking and reflecting. However, at the end of it all, I realize that my fear about the future is not having a future.
I’m worried that in the blink of an eye my life would end. I would not have experienced everything life has to offer or accomplished all my goals. My life would be lived without ever having a purpose. I need to live a life with a purpose, the purpose of improving and impacting others’ lives. I don’t want to close my eyes, with the millions of things in my life left undone, not experienced, not achieved, running endlessly until my last breath is a painful regret.
I have not yet brought joy to my parents. The many expectations they have for me have not been met. I want to make them proud; the love they have given me is beyond words. To bring happiness to them by fulfilling the expectations they have for me, will be the first step in living a fulfilled life.
I have not yet become the role model I want to be for my younger siblings. I want to be the person they look up to, the person that they turn to for guidance. However, I have not yet been through enough of life’s hardships to be wise enough to give them the advice they need. I love the innocence in their smiles, but I also know with time that will fade. I want to be the person who protects them and the one who shows them the right way when they’re lost in peer pressure or their own depression.
I have not yet experienced true friendship. Life has given me many friends, but it seemed with time, people changed and so did the relationships. Friends, it seems, come and go. I value friendship, but so far in life distance or another factor always comes in the way of maintaining a friendship.
I have not yet had my heart broken. I want to live life until I am able to be in love. I want to be able to trust a boy enough to give him my heart, and yet not be afraid to get it broken. I want to feel the warmth of being in love and the sorrows of having my heart broken.I fear my future will never come, my life ending unfinished. I am not ready for my final sunset. I want to continue my days in the sun, to experience the happiness of the sunshine and the pain of the sunburn. My life is not ready to end; it is barely beginning. I have just started to learn the meaning of life, my wants and needs, my goals and dreams. I want to be able to live long enough to live a fulfilled life, a life that will be remembered, a life that made an impact. As of now, I am enjoying the sunrise, hoping the sunset will come when I will be able to walk away knowing I completely enjoyed the days of my life.
I fear losing my father
2nd place $30
By April Lee, Gabrielino HS
Everybody worries about the future. That’s because there are so many things to worry about: that math test next week, global warming or the rising prices of gas. But we believe that there will be time later to solve these problems, and sooner or later, we forget them. Other concerns, however, are far more important—they are not just worries about the future, but fears. I believe that everybody has something that they dread deeply about the future. And my greatest fear about the future is that someday, a day far too soon, I will no longer have a father.
My father means a lot to me and my family. He is the breadwinner of the household. He has a skill for fixing things. Computers and printers revive and start working beneath his fingers, and small plastic toys re-assemble with the help of his Krazy Glue. He can cover a book, paint a house and design a landscape. But he is so much more than a handyman or a source of income; he is the more understanding of my parents. After school, he’ll let my sister and I play games or read, while my mother makes us do homework right away. But he has one serious flaw.
My father began smoking at the age of 16, when he was recruited into the Taiwanese army. He always goes outside the house for his cigarette breaks, but he smokes more than a pack each day. I can’t remember a time when he didn’t. I distinctly remember one night when I was still a third grader, and I was trying to go to sleep. I had thought so hard about his smoking that I ended up crying into my blankets. Afterwards, I just couldn’t go to sleep, so I walked out to my father’s study. When he noticed my red eyes and asked what was wrong, I replied, "Nothing."
I didn’t tell my father what was wrong because another of the traits he has is stubbornness. He won’t listen to my mother, my sister or me when we tell him to quit. Once, my sister made a list of the hazards of smoking and put it where my father could see it. He paid no attention. When we ask him about it, he either ignores us or tells us gruffly to leave him alone. And he’s kind of scary when he’s angry. So we stop. And maybe we shouldn’t, because what could he really do to us if we continued to pester him? But he refuses to listen, and we are tired of trying to make him.
My deepest fear about my father is that he cannot stop smoking and never will, and someday he may die because of this. I know my father loves me. In spite of everything I do, how much I procrastinate, or what I say, he loves me unconditionally, simply because I am his daughter. So for my sake, for my sister’s sake and my mother’s sake, I wish that he would make an effort to quit smoking.
I can’t even imagine living life without him—typing this essay in his study without hearing his chair creaking and his mouse clicking a few feet away, or eating dinner without the rustle of his newspaper. He is my one and only father, and I love him unconditionally. And I hope he knows, before he makes the choice to smoke another cigarette, that I do.
When will my life end?
3rd place $20
By Samira Husein, Gabrielino HS
I’ve always been afraid of death. Ever since I was a mere child, I imagined the pitch darkness, the eerie silence, the loneliness of being six feet under. Even the thought itself that I could die tomorrow frightens me. The scary thing is, you can’t escape death. It’s always there, lurking somewhere in the future. Death will come eventually, but what I dread most about the future is that my life could end sooner than expected.
My little brother died when I was 3 years old. He was both mentally and physically disabled and he didn’t live for more than about an hour. At his funeral, I ran around the cemetery picking the bright yellow daisies that grew among the gravestones. Then, I was too young to know what "death" was, so I wasn’t really affected by it. Innocence protects you from fear, but as a teenager, I no longer have this pure mind. Growing up in a world full of suffering and destruction taught me about death, and why I should be scared for my life. This very idea of death makes me feel so helpless, when I’m used to staying in control.
Inevitable as death is, I’m afraid that I won’t accomplish all that I want to before I die. I want to experience all there is to life: high school prom, graduation, college parties, and most of all, someday I want to get married and start a family. Death, however, could prevent me from having all these great experiences. Unfortunately, everything we do can lead to death. One mistake, like forgetting to look both ways before crossing the street, could result in a fatal accident. I could die before graduation or before my freshman year of college, before life truly begins, without any idea of what it really means to live.
Death is everywhere. It’s in my future and Jennifer Aniston’s and President Bush’s. However, we can’t be afraid of death, because, like crying, that won’t help anything. What we can do, is live our lives to the fullest and appreciate our friends and family, and every moment that we have with them on earth. Furthermore, if we try hard enough, we can achieve our dreams and accomplish our goals before it’s too late. Too many people miss out on life whether they’re afraid to live or just don’t care to. If we continue to have this attitude then really, what’s the point of living? Life is short, yet we still continue to take it for granted. Consequently, it’s important to be grateful for every aspect of life whether good or bad, because once you’re gone, you’re never coming back. Live every day as if it were your last; for all you know, it could be.
What our readers dread the most
As we selected the three winners to the essay contest, we noticed that our readers shared many of the same concerns about their futures. These are the most common responses among the 300 essays that we received, with the number of times each topic was picked in parentheses.
I dread …
That I won’t be successful (20)
The death of a parent or loved one (19)
My own death or dying at a young age (14)
Not graduating from high school (10)
Not being accepted into college or the college of my choice (8)
The end of the world (7)
A terrorist attack (5)
Global warming (5)
Being responsible for myself
After I graduate (5)
Such as cloning (4)
A major earthquake (3)
Not making my parents proud (3)
Making the wrong decision (3)