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Guest Post: Recommended readings, real and imagined for Military Leaders—Part II. Timothy R. Furnish, PhD

Friday, June 11th, 2021

Zen here – today we continue a series by Dr. Timothy R. Furnish, a longtime friend of ZP blog. Timothy Furnish is an Army vet and former civilian consultant to Special Operations Command with a PhD is in Islamic history. He’s written five books and runs the website Occidental Jihadist.

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Pournelle’s “Future History” Setting and Politics

by Dr. Timothy R. Furnish

Forty-seven years ago Larry Niven and Jerry Pournelle published The Mote in God’s Eye. It’s not about religion, but about humanity’s first contact with aliens in the early 31st century. (I consider it one of the three greatest sci-fi novels ever—along with Frank Herbert’s Dune and A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.) A sequel by the same authors, The Gripping Hand, came out in 1993. Since then, some 22 volumes have been published dealing with that universe’s millennium-long backstory. The books are “hard” science fiction—that is, in the genre that strives for scientific accuracy and avoids mysticism, magic, and the like. (Star Trek is usually classified as “hard,” Star Wars as soft—if not downright squishy.) They could furthermore be classified as “military” sci-fi, which speaks for itself. 

A website with info on the stories and novels, as well as the Secondary “World” (more properly, universe) itself, is complete up through 2018—although another volume came out in March, 2020 (with even more to come, according to series chief John F. Carr, with whom I’ve been in contact). Many writers have contributed, although the heaviest hitters have been Pournelle (before his death in 2017), the aforementioned, and prolific, Carr, and S.M. Stirling (author of the superb Dies the Fire and its many “Emberverse” sequels). Larry Niven, the original co-author, largely parted ways with the series after the two seminal novels. But Pournelle—whose doctorate was in political science—had a great deal to do with shaping what has come to be known as his “Future History.”

In brief, this alternative history starts with the USSR surviving and joining with the USA in the 1990s to create the “CoDominium:” joint Soviet-American rule of the planet, carried out by the Grand Senate composed of American and Soviet politicians. CoDominium military forces, notably a Space Navy and Marines, are created. In the early 21st century an instantaneous interstellar drive is invented and by 2020 colonies are founded outside our solar system.  Before the century is up, there are at least 70 of them, many established by various countries on Earth, and/or by separatist and religious groups. The most important are Sparta, St. Ekaterina and Sauron. The first was founded by American professors who set up a dual monarchy with representative government. The second is Russian more than Soviet and eventually allies with Sparta. The last is run by “English separatists from Quebec and South African white expatriates” who soon embark on a program of genetic engineering to create a master race. By the beginning of the 22nd century, the US and USSR break their alliance and engage in nuclear war on Earth—making the stage of human activity the former colonies.  There are, arguably, four crucial aspects to this Future History.

First, although interstellar travel is possible, it has drawbacks. The Alderson Drive can only move ships between star systems, and is useless within one. There is no “warp drive” or ability to travel even close to light speed. “Starships,” whether commercial or military, take weeks or months to move within extrasolar systems in order to reach the “Alderson Point,” which is a “tramline” to another system. They then travel there instantaneously, but must repeat the slow process to reach the planets within the destination system. Ships do have powerful lasers, and nuclear weapons, but they fight each other at sub-light speeds. And most importantly in terms of military tactics, at least for the first few centuries of this history, armed forces that can be moved instantaneously between star systems still have to fight as infantry with rifles, artillery and the like on distant planets. 

Second, from the early 21st to early 31st centuries, there are no alien foes. All of the battles and wars take place between humans, albeit spread across hundreds of light-years. In this regard Pournelle’s universe resembles that of Frank Herbert’s Dune, in which homo sapiens is the sole sentient measure. Man’s inhumanity to Man is spread to the stars, but is thus that much more fathomable. 

Third, this Future History is cyclical. Dr. Pournelle was known to be a  fan of C. Northcote Parkinson. Parkinson’s primary thesis (besides his famous law) is that history “reveals…a sequence in which one form of rule replaces another, each in turn achieving not perfection but decay” (The Evolution of Political Thought, p. 9). Indeed, “there is no historical reason for supposing that our present systems of governance are other than quite temporary expedients.” The Western arrogance that “the development of political institutions has progressed steadily from the days of Lycurgus or Solon down to the present day” with “the ultimate achievement being British Parliamentary Democracy or perhaps the American Way of Life” is just that that (Ibid., p. 8).  In sum, drawing on anthropology as well as history, Parkinson sees the human cycle of political systems running thusly: monarchy, oligarchy, democracy, dictatorship. The final then institutionalizes into monarchy, and the process starts all over again. There are variations on each of the four types (see Parkinson, p. 12, drawing on Aristotle), but in toto those are adequate. Across space (literally!) and time, humans try each of these—sometimes more than one, simultaneously, on the same planet.

Fourth, the series is rife with Great Power conflict. The CoDominium initially serves as a hegemon, not an imperial power—the single most powerful polity, but unable to directly rule all the colonies. (See here for a succinct analysis of hegemony v. empire.) It’s largely a unipolar interstellar system, then. After the nuclear war on Earth, the system becomes multipolar, with various colonies—now independent planets—vying for the upper hand via their own fleets and military forces (both planetary and mercenary). Eventually Sparta emerges as the next hegemon, thanks in main to the fact that the bulk of the CoDominium Navy swears allegiance to the Spartan throne. Over the course of 150 years, Sparta then creates an Empire by consolidating—both peacefully and violently—most of the other human-settled planets into its rule. Pax Spartanica then lasts until the 27th century, when the First Empire falls mainly after exhausting itself in defeating the Nazi-like, genetically-engineered Saurons—during which human-occupied space was bipolar in conflict terms. Not until the early 30th century is the Second Empire (once again ruled by Sparta), proclaimed, consisting of over 200 planets, all human; that is, until 3017. 

[Up next: how these political divisions played out in various wars, on various planets and moons, across the centuries.]

Guest Post: Recommended readings, real and imagined for Military Leaders—Part I. Timothy R. Furnish, PhD

Sunday, May 30th, 2021

Zen here – today we start a series by Dr. Timothy R. Furnish, a longtime friend of ZP blog. Timothy Furnish is an Army vet and former civilian consultant to Special Operations Command with a PhD is in Islamic history. He’s written five books and runs the website Occidental Jihadist.

Fictional novels about war have been around for quite some time. Millennia, in fact, if we include The Iliad in the category (although Homer likely thought he was recounting actual history). The genre, more realistically, began with La Chartreuse de Parme by “Stendhal” in 1839, who wrote about the Napoleonic Wars in Italy. Such proliferated in 19th, then 20th century, with realistic novels such as All Quiet on the Western Front, about WWI, or The Thin Red Line, set in WWII’s Pacific theater. Military science fiction kicked in the genre’s door in 1959, with Robert Heinlein’s (in)famous Starship Troopers. The following decade alternate military histories began to proliferate, thanks in large part to Philip K. Dick’s famous The Man in the High Castle (which was made into an arresting Amazon Prime TV show, 2015-2019). Perhaps the most famous, and influential, military fiction books of recent years have been Stephen Pressfield’s Gates of Fire, about the Spartans at the battle of Thermopylae; and Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game, set several centuries in the future, during an interstellar war humanity is waging to survive.

I am a big fan of historical fiction in my world history courses, and always assign a relevant novel, such as Gore Vidal’s Creation. In military history courses, I have used Robert Graves’ Count Belisarius, Michael Shaara’s Civil War classic The Killer Angels, and Gates of Fire. 

In recent decades, such books have found their way onto some professional military reading lists. And why shouldn’t they? As genre author David Webb has said: “military science-fiction is science-fiction which is written about a military situation with a fundamental understanding of how military lifestyles and characters differ from civilian lifestyles and characters. It is science-fiction which attempts to realistically portray the military within a science-fiction context. It is not ‘bug shoots.’ It is about human beings, and members of other species, caught up in warfare and carnage. It isn’t an excuse for simplistic solutions to problems.” Certainly, a nation with a Space Force might find it worthwhile for future military leaders to study thoughtful, intelligent, well-written military fiction, set in the future as well as the past. Yes, there are some who would not deem it wise—for the danger exists that military fiction “confirms existing thought patterns of political and military leaders about future military conflict.” That is, “rather than fighting the last war, as the old axiom goes, military leaders may be more susceptible to fighting the fictional wars of their imagination, fueled by war fiction, instead of the conflict unfolding in front of them.” This same critic contends that “future war fiction, especially in the English-speaking world, tends to use super-weapons and surprise attacks as the two major plot devices.” 

As for the first objection, methinks it’s more contrived than concrete. The examples offered are unconvincing, and in fact one of them—that President Reagan, because of The Hunt for Red October, increased military spending—proves just the opposite, since Reagan’s defense build-up was largely responsible for the Cold War ending sans nuclear war.  Also, this objection presupposes that an educated leadership cannot distinguish between reality and fiction. Finally, not all futuristic military fiction in the Anglosphere utilizes “super-weapons and surprise attacks.” In fact, one major, largely-ignored series of such books employs the former rarely, and the latter not at all: Jerry Pournelle’s Future History.

Before examining the books and stories set in the universe created by Dr. Jerry Pournelle and further elaborated upon by S.M. Stirling, John F. Carr, and Don Hawthorne, as well as other contributors, let’s take a look at the fiction books on several major military institution’s recommended reading lists. In 2017 the Army Chief of Staff recommended professional reading list included 98 books, five of which were fiction: The Aeneid, The Iliad and The Odyssey (lumped together as one work), Gates of Fire, Singer & Cole’s Ghost Fleet (about a future world war between the US and Russia + China), and Marlantes’ Vietnam novel, Matterhorn. The most recent list from the US Army Chief of Staff includes only one fiction book, Anton Myrer’s Once An Eagle. That’s one more than the Air Force CoS recommends, however. Ditto for the JFK Special Warfare Center and School. Neither the Air Force chief, nor the folks who educate our special ops, think much of fiction, it appears. In 2019 the Commandant of the Marine Corps put out a list with dozens of books, including four fictions ones: The Killer Angels, Gates of Fire, Starship Troopers and Ender’s Game. But those are recommended only for junior enlisted, not at all for officers. And the 2020 list from the same office had removed even those. The Chief of Naval Operations does recommend some fiction, notably the aforementioned Matterhorn, as well as Singer and Cole and Starship Troopers. But the CNO also wants sailors to read Ibrahim X. Kendi’s How to be an Antiracist—which might well qualify as fiction, come to think of it. 

Contrast these with the 131-page list, nay volume, of approved books promulgated by the Chief of the Australian Army. A full 25 of those are fiction. These include the usual suspects: Pressfield, Heinlein, Card, Shaara. But also ones on the Romans, the British in India, the Napoleonic wars and even a few alternative histories, such as Robert Harris’ Fatherland (another “Nazis won WWII” take) and the even more surprising, and little-known, Years of Rice and Salt by Kim Stanley Robinson—in which Europeans were wiped out by the plague, and the modern world is dominated by China, India and Islamic states. Last year two Marine Corps officers even suggested that The Lord of the Rings be read “because of the focus…on alliances, coalition building, and strategy.” (As the author of a book on the political history of Middle-earth, I strongly agree.)

I have read many (but not all) of the fictions books mentioned herein. And I can still say that Pournelle, et al., stands with—or above—any of them in terms of potential value to the professional education of military leaders.

[Up next: a detailed look at the politics- and war-riven interstellar setting, 2020-3018 AD, which grew out of Pournelle and Larry Niven’s famous novel The Mote in God’s Eye.


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