Objects in Mirror are Closer than they Appear: The Oncoming Wave of Conflict

October 15, 2019
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“There are only patterns, patterns on top of patterns, patterns that affect other patterns. Patterns hidden by patterns. Patterns within patterns.

If you watch close, history does nothing but repeat itself.

What we call chaos is just patterns we haven't recognized. What we call random is just patterns we can't decipher. What we can't understand we call nonsense. What we can't read we call gibberish.

There is no free will.

There are no variables.”
―Chuck Palahniuk, Survivor 

Patterns really do exist in the world. Gas prices are highest around Memorial Day. Humans historically settle close to navigable waterways. After a third glass of Thanksgiving chardonnay, Aunt Cheryl explains all the faults of Millenial society. Year after year, without fail, these trends hold true enough. Humans see patterns rather quickly, often without even realizing it. Social science builds upon the study of these trends, and macro trends provide indispensable value to the study of global politics. Importantly, these trends indicate that the current generation will soon face a major conflict.

Ancient Etruscans used the term saeculum to describe a complete cycle of the human race, in essence the period of time for every living soul to recycle. Each saeculum was approximately 90 years and consisted of four distinct periods, each lasting approximately 22 years. This term, and frame of reference, was adopted first by the Romans and later by nineteenth century historians and twentieth century sociologists who sought to model generational traits and attributes.[1]

Henry Adams seated at desk in study, writing, in light coat. (Marian Hooper Adams/Wikimedia)

American historians notice patterns in American political tendencies that started at the formation of the country. Henry Adams used comparative politics to study ideological waves in the latter half of the nineteenth century, theorizing the Pendulum model describing how American politics alternates between 12 year periods of centralization and diffusion.[2] Arthur Schlesinger, Sr. expanded on Adams’ work, suggesting that because the alternating conservative-liberal 16.5 year periods slowly moved in a central direction over time, these periods should be viewed as a spiral.[3] His son, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., published The Cycles of American History in 1986, which expanded upon his father’s work. Schlesinger, Jr. suggests that “each new generation when it attains power, tends to repudiate the work of the generation it has displaced and to reenact the ideals of its own formative days.”[4] He argues that a generation is approximately 30 years, representing two “fifteen year oscillations [that] roughly match Henry Adams' twelve years in the early republic (when life expectancy was shorter) and my father's sixteen and one-half years.”[5] Analyzing history through this lens enhanced the implications that could be drawn from academic research. Could a similar lens capture the patterns of conflict within the human race?

Russian economist Nikolai Kondratieff analyzed the effects of technological improvements on the global economy from 1780 on, suggesting that innovations came in 40-60 year cycles.[6] He further hypothesized that during upswings of innovation, societies will engage in war. Kondratieff met his demise during the Stalinist purges of the 1930s, because he believed communist economics would also form a wave. His wave theory remained current within economic discourse of the time and was soon adopted by sociologists as well.[7] Sociologist Pitirim Sorokin was also condemned to death in communist Russia in 1922, but Sorokin was released to start the sociology department at what is now St. Petersburg State University.[8] He was forced into exile soon after, and eventually the president of Harvard asked him to start a sociology department there. Sorokin used his time at Harvard to study humanist topics, assessing the trends of historical warfare using a meticulous catalogue.

American professor Quincy Wright proposed in his 1942 book, A Study of War, that every 50 years exists a period of conflict. These oscillate between heightened intensity and low intensity, forming a 100 year wave. He suggests that the reason for these fluctuations is the alternation of generations and the need for economic recovery to fund the next conflict. Shortly after Wright’s work, British historian Arnold Toynbee explored war using Kondratieff’s wave model.[9] He determined cycles of 115 years and suggested that the Kondratieff economic waves were influenced by political occurrences, rather than the cause of war. A watershed moment in the study of war was the establishment of the Correlates of War project at the University of Michigan in 1963 by Professor J. David Singer.[10] Inspired by earlier cataloging efforts by Sorokin, Wright, and others, this invaluable project continues to determine conflict indicators from its current home at Pennsylvania State University. The scope of this project is mainly to catalogue conflicts and their associated variables, rather than make predictive hypotheses. These and other believers in the long wave of cycles assess World War II as a continuation of the hegemonic order that fought World War I, therefore they are the same conflict period.

These theories and their debates were tied together and fact-checked by Joshua Goldstein, professor emeritus at American University, in his 1988 book Long Cycles: Prosperity and War in the Modern Age. After looking through various data sets and findings from earlier scholars, he determined that the most severe wars occurred at 50 year intervals with severe defined as the number of battle casualties. Goldstein neatly walks through the major theorists and their hypotheses about economic and trade trends using statistical analyses.

The current Millennial Generation is the Strauss-Howe heroic archetype, mirroring the GI Generation that fought in World War II and the Republican Generation that fought in the American Civil War.

The most well-known contemporary writing on historical generation patterns comes from the duo of William Strauss and Neil Howe. Their book The Fourth Turning, published in 1997, expanded on their earlier writing about generations and postulated four generational tropes in American history. These saecula began and ended during a crisis, often wars but sometimes compounded with other factors such as severe economic depression. The major takeaway of their research is there are clear rhythms of human behavior that remain represented in modern generations. The current Millennial Generation is the Strauss-Howe heroic archetype, mirroring the GI Generation that fought in World War II and the Republican Generation that fought in the American Civil War. An implication is that the current era is a conflict period starting around 2008, and history has slotted the current Millennial Generation to address current global crises.

Implications for the Next War 

“See that little stream—we could walk to it in two minutes. It took the British a month to walk to it—a whole empire walking very slowly, dying in front and pushing forward behind. And another empire walked very slowly backward a few inches a day, leaving the dead like a million bloody rugs. No Europeans will ever do that again in this generation.”

“Why, they’ve only just quit over in Turkey,” said Abe. “And in Morocco —”

“That’s different. This western-front business couldn’t be done again, not for a long time. The young men think they could do it but they couldn’t. They could fight the first Marne again but not this. This took religion and years of plenty and tremendous sureties and the exact relation that existed between the classes...You had to have a whole-souled sentimental equipment going back further than you could remember. You had to remember Christmas, and postcards of the Crown Prince and his fiancée, and little cafés in Valence and beer gardens in Unter den Linden and weddings at the mairie, and going to the Derby, and your grandfather’s whiskers.”
― F. Scott Fitzgerald, Tender is the Night

The work of these individuals is significant because they identify that humans as a group have a clear pattern of behavior for engaging in major conflicts. If the 50, 80, or 90 year cycles are accepted, they respectively imply that the next major conflict will occur around 1989, 2019, or 2029 based off World War II’s start year of 1939. Hearkening back to Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., the human lifespan cycle is significant, because it eliminates those who have first-hand experience with conflict. Therefore, our current cycle timeline is likely connected to the dying out of World War II veterans.[11] In this modern context, the individuals of the GI Generation have been among America’s most celebrated statesmen and would likely counsel against bellicose behavior that is only tangentially related to American national interests. Societies as a whole tend to forget the costs of war, and right now wars are fought by a warrior caste.[12] Humans need a break between conflicts to emotionally rest and economically refit.

The will to wage war has surpassed any technological advance thus far.

The suggestion that new tactics or technology are limiting factors for conflict is common in the immediate run-up to a conflict. This has consistently been disproven by the models detailed above. Currently, this is most represented by nuclear weapons and the concept of weapons of mass destruction, and to a lesser extent by cyber deterrence. However, this is just a modern iteration of the pattern of the traditional human reflection that they live in a post-conflict world due to technological advances―even though conflicts still end up breaking out again. The present patterns suggest that state regimes would refuse to employ weapons of mass destruction because of mutually assured destruction, so states will just carry out conventional war. The will to wage war has surpassed any technological advance thus far. Certainly, we are now seeing a variety of states engage in conventional war with other states. Two historical examples of post-conflict world orders that did not persevere were the Westphalian Peace and the Edwardian Era of pre-WWI European diplomatic and economic ties.

The models all suggest the next conflict will fulfill the requirements to be considered major. The goal of the models is to ignore the post-conflict literature and look at the trends―these are the only true predictor of future conflict.

We need to look at these patterns objectively―in that manner we can see the macro trends of human behavior and the tendency for major war after a set amount of peace. The next war will likely be along some sort of economic/systemic lines and include some major powers, but regional powers certainly will play an important contributing role due to globalization. The next war will involve all castes and classes; many households will be gravely affected. Current conflicts are simply the staging ground, and tactical laboratories, for whatever comes next.

If the historical cycles prove true, the next war will be a grand affair. Not in glory, but in bloodshed. We may be doomed to repeat history. Again.

Dylan Farley is a U.S. Army officer and current master's student at the Fletcher School at Tufts University. His professional and academic background focus on influence operations and hybrid threats as grand strategy tools. The views are his own and do not represent the views of the U.S. Government, Department of Defense, or the U.S. Army.

This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.


[1] Susan Bilynskyj Dunning, “Saeculum,” in Oxford Classical Dictionary, November 20, 2017, https://oxfordre.com/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199381135.001.0001/acrefore-9780199381135-e-8233.

[2] L. Patrick Hughes, “Cycles of American History,” Austin Community College, https://www.austincc.edu/lpatrick/his2341/cycles.html.

[3] Arthur M. Schlesinger, Sr., “Tides of American Politics,” Yale Review 29, no. 2 (1939): 217–30.

[4] Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., The Cycles of American History (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1986), 30.

[5] Ibid, page 30.

[6] Akhilesh Ganti, “Kondratieff Wave,” Investopedia, https://www.investopedia.com/terms/k/kondratieff-wave.asp.

[7] Kondratieff’s theory is now considered heterodox economics because it does not fit within traditionally accepted economic models.

[8] “Pitirim Aleksandrovich Sorokin,” American Sociological Association, June 8, 2009, https://www.asanet.org/pitirim-aleksandrovich-sorokin.

[9] Arnold J. Toynbee, A Study of History, vol. 9 (London: Oxford University Press, 1954).

[10] “History,” The Correlates of War Project, http://www.correlatesofwar.org/history.

[11] “WWII Veteran Statistics,” The National WWII Museum, accessed August 31, 2019, https://www.nationalww2museum.org/war/wwii-veteran-statistics.

[12] Amy Schafer, “The Warrior Caste,” Slate Magazine, August 2, 2017, https://slate.com/news-and-politics/2017/08/the-warrior-caste-of-military-families-that-fight-americas-wars.html.

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