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The Weird and Eerie Battlefields of Tomorrow: Where Horror Fiction Meets Military Planning


This article intends to argue that techniques from the writing of horror fiction can improve military planning. By focusing on such literature’s capacity to unsettle the reader, this article argues horror fiction may provide a useful medium for the unconstrained exploration of future conflicts in ways current planning processes cannot. More specifically, the article focuses on leveraging two aspects of horror literature––the “weird” and the “eerie”––to expand ideation around future wars. Failing to imagine the unsettling potentialities of rapidly changing technology and its interactions with human agency puts us at risk of falling into conflict environments that are not only difficult but fundamentally horrifying. Challenging oneself to work through these thought-scapes as one is planning, training, and equipping is far better than when one is engulfed in a war that seems shocking and alien. The First World War, explored below, offers a sobering example of a conflict that truly horrified its participants due to their failure to grapple with the unsettling implications of their changing world.

Such a proposal should not seem that strange. The strategic use of science fiction writing by the military has already become mainstream. The U.S. Army and the Marine Corps have been recruiting budding futurists from among their ranks in science fiction writing contests for years, and August Cole and P.W. Singer’s Ghost Fleet––a fictional account of the impact of changing technologies on global war –– appears on many prestigious recommended reading lists. However, the limitation of military science fiction is its emphasis on working through the closely reasoned impacts of technological change. As such, it tends to neglect the interaction of a changing material world with the values, practices, and emotional responses of individuals and institutions. These are just as important as technology––arguably more so––and planners need new techniques to explore such implications.

Conceptualizing the Weird and the Eerie

The terms weird and eerie characterize unsettling moods created through the skill of horror fiction writers. In a slim monograph on the subject, the late Mark Fisher defined the weird and eerie concepts as:

The feeling of the eerie is very different from that of the weird. The simplest way to get to this difference is by thinking about…absence and presence. [T]he weird is constituted by a presence – the presence of that which does not belong… The eerie, by contrast, is constituted by a… failure of presence…there is nothing present when there should be something.[1]

These two fictional devices are used to unsettle the reader. For H.P. Lovecraft––the undisputed master of weird fiction –– it was an element of “outsideness” embedded in otherwise realist stories that catered to the “small percentage of persons…[with a] burning desire to escape the prison-house of the known.” In most common terms, this weird element could be some monster or otherworldly force that achieves its effect by disrupting an otherwise mundane landscape. The eerie is perhaps more subtle, as it succeeds in producing a similar impact on the observer by the nonappearance of some well-known, expected, or comfortable feature of the environment. Post-apocalyptic fiction frequently employs eeriness by dwelling on empty cityscapes––one can also access this feeling by simply looking out the window at the COVID-19 world over the last few months.

The Weird and Eerie on the Battlefields of World War I

How might the tools of the weird and eerie have been useful to the planners and strategists of the Great War before the war took place? We will never know for sure. Yet we can indeed explore the devastating impact that such a lack of forethought had in terms of inflicting incalculable suffering on the war’s participants. The conflict offers numerous elements that struck the participants as weird or eerie, despite the fact that the potential for many of these outcomes should have been anticipated by military planners.

The nature of the First World War horrified observers. Industrialization and advances in technology, coupled with nationalism and mass mobilization, produced a phantasmagoric environment that resembled nothing like the heroic arena envisioned by military leaders before the war. In December 1914, only four months into the conflict, one disillusioned cavalry officer wrote:

The merry, fresh war which we were all looking forward to for years has turned out to be quite different from what we thought! It is murder of troops by machines, and the horse has become almost superfluous… The cavalry can do nothing… we are deployed only as riflemen in the trenches… Artillery fire is inflicting enormous losses on our troops, and our best men have been laid to rest… the few remaining officers on the front are nervous wrecks… All the theories of decades have proved to be worthless, and now everything has to be done differently. We are all sick of the war; how long is it going to last?[2]

When initial expectations about the war were proven to be false, leaders on all sides struggled to make sense of the alien landscape they had come to inhabit and settled down for years of bloodletting––on weird and eerie battlefields.

The First World War was replete with the weird, due to the presence of things that did not seem to belong. Beyond the massive scaling up of firepower, several qualitatively new weapons were introduced that produced the unsettling effect of the weird. The German introduction of chemical weapons in 1915 –– codenamed “Operation Disinfection”––was described by one Canadian officer: “[it is impossible] to give a real idea of the terror and horror spread among us by this filthy loathsome pestilence…[it was a] great dread that we could not stand”. When the British introduced tanks in September 1916, one German described them in such weird language:

My blood froze in my veins.  Crawling along the cratered battlefield were two mysterious monsters.  The monsters approached slowly –– limping, staggering, swaying –– but no obstacle could stop them.  They moved ever forward with a supernatural force.  Our machine-gun fire and hand grenades simply bounced off them.[3]

These newly unleashed machines, such as tanks, submarines, and combat aircraft, added to the tableau of the war as a mechanized death factory, filled with weird horrors.

The First World War was also overshadowed by the eerie due to the absence of what should be there. As much as novel weapons populated it, the First World War was equally denuded of the humanity that had instigated the conflict. This was typified by the phenomenon of the “empty battlefield,” in which an unrelenting “storm of steel” seemed to sweep away any human that defied it. In the words of one scholar:

The crushing impact of mortars, cannon, and howitzers, the detonation of grenades, the rattle of machine guns, and the crack of snipers’ rifles forced soldiers to endure a troglodyte existence beneath the shattered landscape from whose surface all living humanity has been expelled… when they raise themselves above the parapets, to brave the full destructive force of modern firepower, perhaps the most palpable sensation was nakedness… the First World War was something new…it’s impact seems so total as to rupture all lines of continuity with what came before.[4]

This description is pregnant with eeriness. Not only has humankind been erased from the battlefield but has been replaced with a subterranean-dwelling simulacrum: the troglodyte. The systems and weapons designed to wage war now seem to have assumed command of it––becoming an omnipresent machinery that had taken on a life and logic of its own, thereby replacing political purpose or human agency.

IT WAS UNQUESTIONED ASSUMPTIONS ABOUT SOCIAL INSTITUTIONS AND IDENTITY SUCH AS THESE, THEREFORE, WHICH HAMPERED MILITARY LEADERSHIP FROM ENVISIONING THE TYPE OF WAR THAT THEY WERE ABOUT TO FACE AND TO PREPARE ACCORDINGLY.

Sadly, the nature of the First World War should not have come as such a shock. The Russo-Turkish War, the Anglo-Boer War, and the Russo-Japanese War had previewed the impact of rifled, breechloading infantry weapons and artillery. The American Civil War had previewed the scale of devastation enabled by industrialization and total mobilization. It should have been no surprise that technologies such as internal combustion engines, aviation, and advanced chemical processes would be enlisted for the war efforts. However, it was only outsiders, such as fiction writer H.G. Wells and the banker Jean de Bloch, who seem to have worked through the frightful implications of science and technology on the battlefield.

Gripping onto soothing visions of waving flags and flashing sabers––and hampered by biases and unquestioned assumptions –– the planners and strategists responsible for preparing forces for the conflict seemed to have been too uncomfortable to truly explore the trajectory of warfare, even as they prepared to plunge Europe into war. One core assumption of the war –– shared by all sides––was that national “character” or “spirit,” often thinly veiled racism, would determine outcomes on the battlefield. This delusion contributed to a massive blind spot for Western European militaries: a dearth of doctrinal development to keep pace with technology. Similarly, a classist and nostalgic officer corps refused to give up obsolete systems, such as the horse cavalry. Katzenbach’s seminal essay provides the following explanation for this illogical attachment:

…in virtually all countries the cavalry was a club, an exclusive one, made up at the officer level of those who could afford to ride when young, hunt, dress and play polo when older… The Cavalry was the home of tradition, the seat of romance, the haven of the well-connected.[5]

With this privileged sense of identity, cavalry units waited in the wings for a dramatic charge to crack the Western front that never came. It was unquestioned assumptions about social institutions and identity such as these, therefore, which hampered military leadership from envisioning the type of war that they were about to face and to prepare accordingly.

Recommendations for Leveraging the Weird and Eerie

Fiction writing allows us to explore the future of war through the force of imagination. When one ideates on future battlespaces, however, how does one move beyond simply taking potential technologies and bolting them onto existing ways of doing things? The First World War is a striking example of technological change moving beyond an entire generation’s capacity to foresee the implications. Today we are witnessing the rapid maturation of technologies like artificial intelligence, gene editing, and quantum computing. We –– both as a nation and a species –– would be well-served to reflect on the implications of these technologies that would make us most uncomfortable.

This article concludes with the following prescription: start from the weird and eerie and work backward. What does an unnerving future battlespace look like? What weird elements exist? What absences strike you as eerie? What assumptions does one have to make for such outcomes to occur? As one builds a story about future conflict, one has to put together an array of facts and well-reasoned conjectures to construct a pathway to the outcomes. Science fiction often tends to highlight the technological aspects of this process, but the human and social aspects of the future are often neglected. Values, institutions, and taboos that are implicitly held constant may turn out to be quite fluid. Working through unsettling, imagined battlefields will assist in rooting out the prejudices, hidden assumptions, and blind spots that hamstrung pre-First World War planners. Failing to do so today may leave our forces lost within comparably horrifying conflicts tomorrow.


Leo Blanken is an associate professor in the Defense Analysis Department at the Naval Postgraduate School. He is the author of Rational Empires: Institutional Incentives and Imperial Expansion and co-editor of Assessing War: The Challenge of Measuring Success and Failure. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of Defense or the U.S. Government.


This article appeared originally at Strategy Bridge.

Notes:

[1] Mark Fisher, The Weird and the Eerie (London: Repeater, 2016), 61.

[2] Alan Kramer, Dynamics of Destruction: Culture and Mass Killing in the First World War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 38.

[3] Lee Rimmer, “German soldiers’ first encounter with tanks – 15 September 1916,” At History – Ancient, Medieval & Modern, accessed June 5, 2020, https://www.abroadintheyard.com/german-soldiers-first-encounter-tanks/

[4] David Stevenson, Armaments and the Coming of War: Europe, 1904-1915 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 409.

[5] Edward L. Katzenbach, Jr., “The Horse Cavalry in the Twentieth Century,” in The Use of Force: Military Power and International Politics, 4th Ed., eds. Robert J. Art and Kenneth H. Waltz (Lanham, MD: University Press of America, 1993), 165.

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