Discover more from NeoNarrative
Ukraine’s Top General On The Limits of Modern Warfare, And The Narrative Constraints of Science Fiction
A few far flying thoughts
Side Notes before today’s post: I highly recommend reading the recent subscriber post on Napoleon if you missed it. We talk about the criminally under-discussed reason for Bonaparte’s success, which turns out to be the same reason Elon is the richest man in the world. They are both pathologically detail-oriented
Check out our recent update on the war in Gaza to get an overview of the situation and some perspectives on the future
Consider becoming a subscriber to NeoNarrative to support further research and future posts and access subscriber posts both past and future.
I’ve been reading a lot about warfare lately ever since the war began in Israel. It’s an interesting topic for a number of reasons. For example, the development of war over time highlights the generally overlooked but altogether central role of engineers and tinkerers in history. Before the outbreak of the First World War, besides the gentlemanly and limited field conflagrations involving infantry, calvary, artillery, and the like, warfare in Europe was mostly waged as sieges, with one force trying to break down the walls of a castle, and the castled force either waiting out its attacker or launching attacks of its own from the safety of its strong and high walls.
Lighter, more efficient, and more powerful artillery developed between the 15th and 18th centuries made sieges that would normally take months to years last only days to weeks, and traditional castles like the ones seen in Game of Thrones and other popular period media became obsolete, for a time. Until the development of the trace italienne, a star-shaped fort with a large number of angled walls that could deflect oncoming cannon fire. Some of these bastion forts are very beautiful:
Tech Tom and Jerry, A Story Of Entrenched Equilibrium
Artillery made forts obsolete, and in response engineers of the trace italienne made forts great again, quickly reviving the need for longterm sieges. But innovators, of course, never sleep, and the world soon saw the development of new and vastly more destructive artillery that was used to flatten the battlefield in the first Great War. Engineers of the time responded in kind with the brilliant development of trench warfare, which cut down artillery losses significantly, continuing the perennial game of cat and mouse.
Subsequent conflicts saw the rise of armored warfare to breach the deadly rain of artillery fire, and combined arms warfare as well as aerial combat came to dominate the battlefield. For a time the equilibrium of war turned into Total War, with each side of the conflict absorbing terrible losses. Hitler destroyed London in The Blitz, killing at least 40,000 civilians, the allied forces destroyed 60 cities in Germany and killed tens of thousands more; war achieved an until then unknown level of death and destruction.
Innovators, of course, never sleep. Today they’ve erected forts in the sky like the Iron Dome used to destroy missiles fired at Israel, they’ve built eyes above the firmament that can see you, your enemies, and their mothers. They’ve done a lot since the Second World War to mitigate disaster. The game of cat and mouse continues.
Builders Are Gonna Build
War has almost always been an existential theater of hide and seek played between the best builders of opposing forces, hiding their friends away from violent threats, and exposing enemies wherever they are to violent greetings. For this reason wars have not always been decisive, and one of the most interesting problems we face today is the same problem faced throughout most of post-Roman history: how to change this reality, how to create decisive asymmetries.
It’s the problem that Israel faces against the tunnel threat presented by Hamas, it’s the problem Ukraine faces against the seemingly equal defensive capabilities of Russia. The problem of war boils down to being smart enough to figure out how to upend extremely fixed and annoying equilibriums.
“FIVE MONTHS into its counter-offensive, Ukraine has managed to advance by just 17 kilometres. Russia fought for ten months around Bakhmut in the east ‘to take a town six by six kilometres.’ Sharing his first comprehensive assessment of the campaign with The Economist in an interview this week, Ukraine’s commander-in-chief, General Valery Zaluzhny, says the battlefield reminds him of the great conflict of a century ago. ‘Just like in the first world war we have reached the level of technology that puts us into a stalemate,’ he says. The general concludes that it would take a massive technological leap to break the deadlock. ‘There will most likely be no deep and beautiful breakthrough.’
The course of the counter-offensive has undermined Western hopes that Ukraine could use it to demonstrate that the war is unwinnable–and thus change Vladimir Putin’s calculations, forcing the Russian president to negotiate. It has also undercut General Zaluzhny’s assumption that he could stop Russia by bleeding its troops. ‘That was my mistake. Russia has lost at least 150,000 dead. In any other country such casualties would have stopped the war.’ But not in Russia, where life is cheap and where Mr Putin’s reference points are in the first and second world wars in which Russia lost tens of millions.
An army of Ukraine’s standard ought to have been able to move at a speed of 30km a day as it breached Russian defensive lines. ‘If you look at NATO’s text books and at the maths which we did [in planning the counter-offensive], four months should have been enough time for us to have reached Crimea, to have fought in Crimea, to return from Crimea and to have gone back in and out again,’ General Zaluzhny says sardonically. Instead he watched his troops and equipment get stuck in minefields on the approaches to Bakhmut in the east, his Western-supplied equipment getting pummelled by Russian artillery and drones. The same story unfolded on the offensive’s main thrust, in the south, where newly formed and inexperienced brigades, despite being equipped with modern Western kit, immediately ran into trouble.
‘First I thought there was something wrong with our commanders, so I changed some of them. Then I thought maybe our soldiers are not fit for purpose, so I moved soldiers in some brigades,’ says General Zaluzhny. When those changes failed to make a difference, the commander told his staff to dig out a book he once saw as a student in a military academy in Ukraine. Its title was ‘Breaching Fortified Defence Lines,’ It was published in 1941 by a Soviet major-general, P. S. Smirnov, who analysed the battles of the first world war. ‘And before I got even halfway through it, I realised that is exactly where we are because just like then, the level of our technological development today has put both us and our enemies in a stupor.’”
I said it in a recent update on the war in Gaza: one of the most important things to know for the future is how to win wars. The world is becoming increasingly unstable, and it’s not clear to me that the west can win another Great War if one breaks out in the near future. This is a problem we all need to face sooner or later.
Side thoughts about science fiction
As a side note, I realized after reading the above account of the Ukraine war that the same problem has always been at the crux of making science fiction interesting. The further technology advances the more frequently war is waged at a distance and the faster munitions delivery becomes (hypersonic missiles are the challenge of tomorrow, apparently), and the cheaper it gets to mount highly effective defenses, and the more detailed and precise operational reconnaissance gets.
Warfare in 1,000 years or less may become entirely pointless, or entirely impossible. Frank Herbert recognized this possibility and made high tech warfare basically obsolete in the Dune universe, with high energy laser weapons being canceled out by high energy force-fields, and thus depicted a world where knives were a primary weapon of combat. Which is both smart and really cool. George Lucas recognized this possibility and surmounted it via the Jedi Order, who have precognition and a bunch of other cool Force Abilities they can use outside of technology.
Science fiction doesn’t have a solution to the war equilibrium problem, but it does understand it really well, and the fictional ways around it are why I think the genre has been so successful. Technology makes a lot of things that involve your body obsolete, I mean it seems like bodies are becoming less important every second of every day. I think this drives us crazy.
You can date someone without ever being in person, you can work at one of the largest, most important tech companies in the world without ever going inside an office. I think this causes low level stress in most healthy people. We like using our bodies, it makes things interesting. Science fiction tends to create high tech worlds where bodies still matter. This is why I think the genre will always be one of the most interesting, it’s inherently optimistic. That’s what I hope for this world, and most people in tech today seem to want the same.
In warfare, in business, in dating, in science fiction writing, all humans have the same under-discussed goal: to make bodies great again.
Opening up comments section to everyone to hear your thoughts and opinions.
NeoNarrative is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.