The Fallacy of Presentism

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In March this year, I wrote an article for the Modern Warfare Institute at West Point with the snappy title, ‘Neophilia, Presentism, and their Deleterious Consequences for Western Military Strategy‘. It has been re-published on a number of websites and blogs, including the blog of the United States Navy, and has enjoyed a gratifyingly positive reception. The tide of presentism is, however, inexorable and requires constant challenge. Recently, Grounded Curiosity hosted an interesting article ‘The Rise of Cyber and the Changing Nature of War‘ which offers a good opportunity for rebuttal, this article is the response.   

Last December, in his annual RUSI Christmas Lecture, the British Chief of the Defence Staff, General Sir Nicholas Carter, used three interpretations of historical context to justify his vision for future British Defence policy. To summarise, he believes that we are experiencing an almost unprecedented period of technological advancement, a more dangerous international relations environment than experienced in living memory, and an era of ‘constant competition’ between nations. An alternative interpretation, shared at least in part by General Mark Milley, the Chairman of the United States’ Joint Chiefs of Staff, states that such a view risks the ‘conceit of the present’.  Such a perspective might argue that technological advance is at its slowest rate since before the Industrial Revolution, both the Cold War and twentieth century Inter-Bellum offered at least equal challenge, and that there is little new about constant competition in the modern nation-state system!

The opinions of the professional heads of armed forces matter. Their worldview is not benign; what they think today will inform the direction of their militaries tomorrow and, by extension, the likelihood of victory or defeat. But what is the potential threat represented by a mindset of presentism? First, we have to understand the cognitive direction of travel encouraged by neophiles. In general, presentism privileges belief in novel theories and interpretations, current examples of which are ‘hybrid warfare‘, ‘cyber warfare’, the proliferation of ‘domains of war‘, and theories of the changing nature of war. This belief in the superiority of novelty is often accompanied by a belief in technological determinism, a dependence on science to provide unknown solutions to current problems, just in time. Those who hold such opinions, and who occupy positions of authority, will quite naturally influence procurement, military concepts, and doctrine to reflect their positions.

The debate over the changing character/nature of war has been open for at least the last thirty years. It stems from the mistaken belief that the Clausewitzian definition of War is no longer fit for purpose, that times have changed, and developments have left the Dead Prussian’s words obsolescent. Clausewitz’s definition holds that War is organised political violence between states; criticism of that Napoleonic-era expression traditionally concentrates on the emphasis on the nation state system, notably by Mary Kaldor, but more recently there has been debate over whether violence is necessary for an act to be defined as war, indeed that would seem to be at the heart of Christopher Wooding’s piece. Both arguments are equally presentist, removing the context of history, and concentrating on the observed present. War is one of humanity’s oldest occupations, its nature – organised violence between rival political entities – is immutable.

It is clearly insufficient to decry an opinion without offering evidence, in this instance I will offer two other ancient human activities which provide useful analogies. Agriculture and medicine have existed for at least as long as war, their natures are clear: the nature of agriculture is the management of animals and the environment to provide food and resources, the nature of medicine to heal the sick and to save life.  Much has changed in the character of both activities over the last ten thousand years: in farming, metallurgy, mechanisation, chemical fertiliser, and genetic alteration have all altered the way agriculture is conducted, in medicine, drugs, surgical techniques, sensing equipment, and the computer chip have had a similarly evolutionary effects. Critically, however, for all the changes to the character of both, their nature is completely unchanged, so too is the nature of war. Any argument based purely on the observation of now fails the test of empiricism.           

The danger represented by a wholesale acceptance of presentist theories of war is not that they are wrong, and thus waste intellectual output, rather it is because their practical application may be fatally wasteful in terms of time and resource. Sir Michael Howard, the British military historian, once said that although it was impossible to know the future character of war, the trick was not to be far from the mark when it came, misrepresenting changes in character as changes in nature and misunderstanding the available evidence will act to almost guarantee that the trick is missed.

About the author

WO2 Paul Barnes the British Army Visiting Fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies (RUSI) in London until September 2019.  He is also employed as the SO3 Media Ops (Digital) at the Headquarters of the British Army.

He is the first non-commissioned serviceman to hold a Fellowship at RUSI and uniquely also holds a Chief of the General Staff’s Fellowship and a Chief of the Air Staff’s Fellowship from the Royal Air Force (RAF).  In 2014 he won the Henry Probert Bursary of the Royal Air Force Historical Society (RAFHS) and in 2018 he was the recipient of the RAF’s Salmond Prize.  

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect official policy.