The Future of War (entry no. 24): The key tool we will need to prevail is … empathy

The Future of War (entry no. 24): The key tool we will need to prevail is … empathy

By Major Daniel Leard
Best Defense future of war essay entrant

I have always been a fan of science fiction. My father raised me on the greats: Heinlein, Hubbard, and Asimov. Each story brought a unique twist on future possibilities, but these literary pioneers, who were among the first to view the future as radically different from their own time, contained a common theme: Human history will always be human.

No matter how alien, mechanical, or fantastic the future might be, human empathy would remain among the most influential forces in the world. The history of warfare and its future are no different. Empathy has always been vital in battle, and it is our empathic capacity that will determine our success in future conflict. With some evidence suggesting that empathy in America is in decline, renewing our understanding of empathy and its role in warfare, acknowledging our shortcomings in empathic reasoning, and increasing our empathic capacity are vital concerns for military leaders.

Empathy is the ability of human beings to understand each other. This understanding begins with self-awareness and radiates out toward others — friends and foes alike. It is the ability to see through another’s eyes and understand the world as they see it. It was empathy (not Styx’s waters) that made Achilles immortal with sword and spear. To feel his opponents’ passion, fear, and perspective attuned him to strengths and vulnerabilities, imminent blows and opportunities for attack. Empathy stood at the heart of Sun Tzu’s missive to generals: “know your opponent and know yourself, in a hundred battles you will never be in peril.” And empathy gave Otto von Bismarck the foresight to make peace with a defeated Austria following the Battle of Koniggratz when conventional wisdom advised a pursuit to annihilation. In war, no other skill has been so vital to all — soldier, strategist, and statesman.

However, as the range of our weapons increased, the perceived utility of empathy on the battlefield diminished. No longer did the soldier have to hold his fire until he saw “the whites of their eyes,” and the days would not be far off when soldiers could pull triggers that killed men on other continents. In time, empathy for the enemy among U.S. strategists and policymakers would also disappear. Gaetano Ilardi observed that immediately following 9/11, empathy was categorically absent and unwanted: “To empathize was to sympathize. To sympathize was unimaginable, and unforgivable.” This mentality generated much of the political and military hubris that led to a number of the blunders in Afghanistan and Iraq. To make matters worse, some studies indicate that empathy among young Americans has steadily declined for the last three decades. If this is true, even our most senior military leaders may be among the affected population.

Though empathy may be lacking, a decade of conflict has reminded us of its enduring value. Even now, we desperately want and need it. We call for it with ideas such as cultural competence and emotional intelligence. We create doctrine and concepts for human domains and dimensions and engagement warfighting functions. Old lessons and habits, once forgotten, can appear novel when rediscovered. Our efforts to quantify and codify this skill of understanding and influencing people demonstrate just how far empathy has slipped into clouded memory. In our search for empathy in the force, it is essential that we appreciate its importance in our future. As discussed, empathy is not sympathy. It does not produce a “kinder, gentler” force. Rather, greater empathic capacity will improve our ability to employ lethality with increased precision and discern the value of restraint in any given situation.

Energetic theorists, like science fiction writers, give us varying ideas of what tomorrow may look like, and in some cases, they may be correct. Future war may in fact be more urban, dominated by cyberspace, or shaped by drones, robotics, or improvements in human performance. The cult of big data promises that computers will understand and predict our adversaries’ actions far better than mere mortals can. These promises have their allure, but at its core, warfare — even the wildest visions of cyber-powered, push-button warfare — has always been and will always be subject to the complexities of the human mind, and the human mind can only be reliably interpreted in kind. Regardless of how sophisticated (or simple) a sword our future enemies may wield — a rifle, roadside bomb, tank, or keystroke — the quality of our defense will owe more to our understanding of ourselves and our attackers than our technological prowess. This is a talent that only empathy can provide, and most importantly in these financially lean times, it is a talent that costs relatively little to engender.

Major Daniel Leard is a U.S. Army infantry officer who is currently a student at the Command and General Staff College. He holds a bachelor’s degree in history from West Point and is currently completing a master’s program. The views presented in this essay are the author’s and do not represent those of the Department of Defense.