Best Defense

‘The Information’: Reading it makes me think about power and the military

What are we clinging to today that we should abandon?


There are some books outside the strict field of the military that I think tell us a lot about the future of war. One such was Martin Ford’s Rise of the Robots. Another, which I am now in the middle of reading, is James Gleick’s The Information. It came out some four years ago, but I am just getting to it.

One thing I’ve learned: Charles Babbage, called by some the father of the computer, concluded that knowledge is power, in the most literal sense. “It is itself the generator of physical force,” he wrote. His example was steam power, which could combine water and heat to make big things move. Electric power would soon follow.

Knowledge — human thinking about experience — had turned air into mill power and sail power. It turned water into mill power and later into electricity. It captured steam to begin the Industrial Revolution. It split the atom to generate nuclear power.

So: If military operations fundamentally are about the exercise of power to enforce one’s will on another human being, then knowledge — especially in the way it powers a society — must be at the core of military thinking.

Hence: Military power must change with the times. A military that clung to steam power would have been successful in the mid-19th century, but laughable today.

Question: What are we clinging to today that we should abandon?

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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