The Future of the Army

Military institutions could be on the front lines
in a very different kind of battle

One of the articles in Is Militarism Fading? (IC#20)
Originally published in Winter 1989 on page 38
Copyright (c)1989, 1997 by Context Institute

The borders between differing groups do not always fall on national frontiers. Donella (Dana) Meadows, author of the classic Limits to Growth and a weekly newspaper column called "The Global Citizen," ventured over one of these borders to meet a group of military planners charting the future for the U.S. Army. The result of this novel collaboration was a vision of a more constructive role for the military in the coming decades.

To get The Global Citizen into your local newspaper, write your paper’s editor or directly to Dana at P.O. Box 58, Plainfield, NH 03781.

When I was invited to a weekend workshop to help the U.S. Army think through its 30-year plan, I almost didn’t go. I live a peaceful, academic existence, and I had built up a set of prejudices about the Army of the sort that come from knowing absolutely nothing about it. I avoid things military. I am repelled by violence and by indoctrinating young people to a state of mindless obedience. If I had any idea about the Army of 30 years from now, it was that there shouldn’t be one.

I went to the workshop anyway.

I went because I was impressed that any organization, anywhere, was seriously trying to see 30 years into the future. And a number of colleagues I respect were going, so I knew I’d learn something. (It didn’t occur to me that I might learn something from the Army.) Mainly, I think, I went to be present at one of those rare moments when people from different worlds confront one another for positive purposes. At those times, something interesting always happens.

We outnumbered them, 12 academics to four Army officers. It was obvious the first time we looked each other in the eye that the soldiers were as nervous about the encounter as we were.

We had to start out with some translating. The colonel who briefed us on the current state of the Army was stopped every five minutes to explain terms. We could figure out who the "Sovs" were (rhymes with "stoves") but were unaware that we had been living all our lives in CONUS (the continental United States). TRADOC is the Training and Doctrine Command, the unit assigned to carry out this planning exercise, which has the code name Century 21. Airland Battle is the current planning doctrine of the Army. (The Army is the only organization I know other than the church that uses the word "doctrine" without embarrassment.)

Though the officers weren’t in uniform, you would have had no trouble distinguishing them from the intellectuals. The difference wasn’t only in their crisp haircuts, straight backs and good grooming (we academics run to the slouchy and the sloppy). It was in their attention control. Army officers know how to sit through briefings. They must have looked across the table at our doodling, nodding ranks and wondered if any of us could survive basic training. I looked back and wished that I could see such disciplined, alert faces in the classrooms of Dartmouth College.

I began to see the Army as a formidable educational institution. The education is not only in concepts and skills, it is in confidence and discipline. Those soldiers were personally "together" in a way few civilians are.

Army education is not, however, rich in information about the complexities of the world. These officers assigned a 30-year planning task, had done the best they could by reading the futures literature, but they were full of questions. How many 18- to 24-year-old males will there be in the year 2018? What new weapons will be on the battlefields? What will the Sovs be up to?

We didn’t answer their questions; we rejected the assumptions behind them. Why should armies be made up of 18- to 24-year-old males? Battles may not depend on weapons; there may not even be battles, or battlefields. Conflicts may be nuclear, or they may be societal breakdowns as in Lebanon, or countrywide rebellions as in Vietnam. The whole population may be combatants. Winning may be defined in terms of simple civil order or changing of hearts and minds, not domination of territory.

As for the Sovs, by 2018 they may be on our side. There may be four or five superpowers. The centers of conflict may not be Europe or the Middle East. Keep your eye on Africa, we said, where populations are soaring. Keep your eye on the drug empires of Latin America, which already have their own armies, passports and airstrips and act like sovereign nations.

These ideas caused uneasy stirrings – we were painting a picture of a future world far messier than a straight-line extrapolation from the present. The officers got especially nervous when we started thinking about new roles for the Army in this future world.

Suppose national security depends less on defending the Persian Gulf oil than on developing new energy technologies at home. Suppose the cure for unrest in the Third World is not riot control but nation-building. Suppose we work together with the Sovs to solve the environmental problems that threaten us all. Suppose the Army’s mission were defined not as fighting battles, but as helping to create real security, both abroad and right here in good old CONUS.

Suppose the future is not something to be predicted but something to be created, and the Army has a role in that creation.

Mind blowing. The TRADOC officers’ minds were blown and so was mine. I began to see the armed forces not as a last resort for times of breakdown, but as a resource for intervening in the causes of breakdown, for healing the poverty and the environmental destruction and mismanagement and misunderstanding that have always made armies an unfortunate and expensive necessity.

The Army is already more than a battle-fighting outfit, or a bottomless sink for $800 screwdrivers. It is an organization of people with unusual unity, discipline and energy. It has a research capacity, a training capacity, a capacity for getting things done. We could be a lot more imaginative in giving it a mission that is big enough, worthy enough, for its capacities.


It does not take much strength
to lift a hair,
it does not take sharp eyes
to see the sun and moon,
it does not take sharp ears
to hear a thunderclap.

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