Once we entered the clan’s dead zone we lost all comms and our direct link with the rest of the fire team. No choice, though—we couldn’t lose the target. I could swear my two FireLance ’bots hesitated right before they went full autonomous after crossing that invisible Rubicon somewhere between a puddle of something biological and a crushed silver carton of U.N. Refugee Agency pure-water. I sure flinched as my faceplate display glitched then rebooted as I formed a local network with my two ’bots. Just keep my helmet-cooling fan on, that’s all I ask, because a Marine can’t get much hotter than an off-grid underground Lagos rez in July. I’d vampire their batteries to do it, which was the first wireless power hack Gunny showed us on board ship on the way over.
Weapons up as Caesar and Brutus, my two FireLance ’bots, each took a knee to cover what looked like a tin door in a blue plastic shipping container. Some kind of porch. The hand-painted sign above it was in Chinese, but without my network tie-in I couldn’t translate it. Both ’bots pushed a full bio-chem-energy scan to my faceplate: The fighters had taken the hostages—two Red Cross robots—through that door less than 90 seconds ago. I gave the breach command to Brutus, while I spun to cover our rear. My mics picked up sighing hydraulics and buzzing servos right before Brutus tore directly through the container wall like it was tissue paper. Caesar trained his weapon on the flimsy door, then he went next. My knees ached as I sprang up to follow them inside.
One step inside the door my visor went dark. Near blind. I started to trip on the robots’ tangled limbs. Both down! I tried to keep my weapon up as I fell, barely able to make out the small boy holding the Russian EMP rifle with a look in his eye like he could hold back the entire Corps.
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.