Special - Art & Artists Impact National Security

By August Cole

This isn’t a scene from an upcoming science-fiction novel. Rather, it could be a vignette from an official Marine Corps strategy document, the Marine Corps Security Environment Forecast , envisioning the world of 2030–2045.

That is because of all the risks the U.S. national-security community faces right now—ISIS, a resurgent Russia, an emboldened China, bio-engineering, or cyber catastrophe—perhaps the biggest and most underappreciated is not being bold enough in envisioning the future.

This is where artists—such as writers, directors, illustrators, and designers—come into play.

As General Martin Dempsey, former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, wrote in the Atlantic Council’s Art of the Future Project 2015 short-story anthology War Stories from the Future : “By provoking us to free our minds of constraint and convention, worthy science fiction allows us to create a mental laboratory of sorts . . . . It sparks the imagination, engenders flexible thinking, and invites us to explore challenges and opportunities we might otherwise overlook.”

Science-fiction novels such as Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers , or Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game , form part of the military reading canon. Yet there are new voices and media to explore, from video games such as “The Division,” about a megacity collapse after a terrorist attack, to recent films like Her that go right to the heart of the our relationship with artificial intelligence in ways that no white paper ever could. That is the Art of the Future Project’s mission: to use art and artistic methodology for insight into the future international security environment.

The challenge today is how to render the threats and challenges of the coming decades in a credible and compelling way so as to start doing something about them. This means engaging America’s talents to the fullest, particularly the artists who are far more competitive, collaborative, and dedicated to service than most people realize.

Such diversity is needed given the scope of the challenges: thwarting the next movement like ISIS or preventing a future war’s undiagnosed combat-related traumatic brain injuries or mapping moral and legal boundaries as human and machine intertwine on the battlefield. Artists can augment conventional approaches to foresight, checking blind spots and pushing back on closely held assumptions about the future we want versus the future as it will be.

Technology is advancing with a commercial-sector metabolism. Yet America’s most important next-generation weapons and systems are going to be developed over decades. Demographics and cultural norms are shifting under our feet as well. Moreover, the global threat environment reflects adversaries’ rapid development of fifth-generation fighters and emboldened innovative hybrid-warfare campaigns that, had they been covered on the front page of a major newspaper a decade ago, would have been laughed at as works of fiction.

As the Marine Corps found during its February writing workshop at Quantico, there are extraordinary talents already at hand—in uniform. Led by the Atlantic Council’s Art of the Future Project, the workshop featured science fiction writers Max Brooks (Atlantic Council Fellow and author of World War Z [Three Rivers Press, 2006]), Charles E. Gannon (author of Trial by Fire and Raising Caine [Baen, 2014 and 2015 respectively]), and yours truly, August Cole, coauthor of Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2015), who teamed with small groups of selected Marines, also proven writers. Their task was to develop a foundation for actual fictional narrative vignettes to make this summer’s update to the Marine Corps Security Environment Forecast document more engaging, impactful, and interesting to the entire force.

How much of an impact art and artists can have on the national-security community only will be limited by one thing: our imagination.

Mr. Cole is a Nonresident Senior Fellow at the Brent Scowcroft Center on International Security at the Atlantic Council. He is the director of the Art of the Future Project, which explores creative works for insight into the future international security environment. He is also a Nonresident Fellow at the Modern War Institute at West Point.




Conferences and Events

View All

From the Press

23 February - Seminar

Sat, 2019-02-23

David F. Winkler

3 March - Lecture

Sun, 2019-03-03

Stephen A. Bourque

Why Become a Member of the U.S. Naval Institute?

As an independent forum for over 140 years, the Naval Institute has been nurturing creative thinkers who responsibly raise their voices on matters relating to national defense.

Become a Member Renew Membership