Forecasting Future Wars is Hard

the title page of a book printed in black and red with a little print with the publisher's logo
The book that launched a thousand raids and burned the topless towers of Minas Tirith! H.G. Wells’ “Little Wars” the first modern wargame for civilians. Image care of

Since 1805, combat between well-equipped air and naval forces has become rarer and rarer. This is because states which can produce such forces have little to gain from fighting one another, and because it has become harder and harder to sustain such forces at all. In the 19th century, the Royal Navy was usually overwhelmingly superior to everyone else (although the French and the United States sometimes gave it a run for its money). Since the 1950s, the US air force has had a similar advantage over everyone else’s. Small states look at these navies and air forces, decide they can never defeat them, and either stop bothering with their own navies and air forces, or side with one of the big powers, or hide in harbour or in neutral countries when war approaches (the fleet-in-being strategy). Big states do some spectacularly stupid and thoughtless things, but rarely something as stupid as getting into a war with their allies or a nuclear power, and pretty much all the states with sophisticated air forces and navies are either each other’s allies or nuclear powers.

This means that stories about how a future naval or air war would go are fantasies based on speculation and imagination and peacetime tests, not observation and experience of actual warfare.

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Coiled Shields and Helmets

a coiled grass bowl wrapped with light brown and off-white fibres on a vanished wooden tabletop lit by a candle and an electric lamp
A little bowl like this was all my budget could afford, but its still handy for holding my sewing things!

One weekend in May 2023 I did two things on a weekend which involved spending several hours away from home doing things with people I did not know in 2013 other than the day job (!). When I was passing through downtown Victoria I stopped at a stall run by Journey House Actions, a Rwandan charity. They sell bowls, baskets, and jars of coiled grass ropes laced with dyed sisal fibres. As I worked my way through them, I was struck how much they were like the Turkish shields in Schloss Ambras.

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Just Another Grunt

a plain linestone statue of a god with a tall hat on his head, a club or axe in his right hand, and a tombstone-shaped shield in his left hand
A Statue of the Egyptian god Reshef from the Third Intermediate Period in the Metropolitan Museum of Art care of

Early on, the Indy Neidell World War Two documentary split off a series War Against Humanity from its narrative of the ground and surface naval wars. Their story presents the ‘Battle of the Bulge’ in December 1944 as a trivial thing, because the allies quickly put forces in place so that German forces could never break through to anywhere really dangerous, and because by the standards of winter 1944/1945 the forces involved were not huge. They even spend lots of time talking about how specific Anglo generals tried to take credit or shift the blame. I feel like that is the wrong story to tell, because the real story is all the ordinary people who ended up dead, or crippled, or frostbitten when they had started to think they would survive the war more or less intact. Here is one of those stories by the late Fred Pohl:

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The Triumph and the Tragedy of Atrocitology

To be honest, though, I’m sometimes embarrassed by where I have been forced to find my statistics, but beggars can’t be choosers. Very few historians have the cold, calculating, body-count mentality that I do. They prefer describing the quality of suffering rather than the quantity of it. Often, the only place to find numbers is in a newspaper article, almanac, chronicle or encyclopedia which needs to summarize major events into a few short sentences or into one scary number, and occasionally I get the feeling that some writers use numbers as pure rhetorical flourishes. To them, “over a million” does not mean “>106“; it’s just synonymous with “a lot”.

Matthew White,

Matthew White’s Great Big Book of Horrible Things (W.W. Norton and Company, 2011) lists 100 tragedies, but the 101st tragedy is the book itself. White worked very hard to find numbers for various atrocities, and noticed that often he could find no source for the number in the glossy magazine or the airport book. He noticed that some of the numbers seemed to be just made up, he noticed that some didn’t seem to be meant to be taken literally, and he noticed that often the new book or article relies on the old book or article without correcting its mistakes or asking whether we have learned anything since. When I look at the website which became the book, I see how he came close to agreeing with me that almost all of these numbers before the 19th century say more about other modern numbers than about the past. He could have written a good book about how we just don’t know how many people were killed by Tamurlane, or the An Lushan Rebellion, or the Crusades. But instead he wrote yet another book full of made-up numbers backed with footnotes, and he gave old nonsense a whole new audience when a very famous Canadian psychologist took his numbers and ran with them.

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Books Read in 2023

a polished stone statue of Buddha seated cross-legged on the coils of a serpent whose hood expands to seven heads which cover his head
The naga serpent protects Buddha from the rain for seven days, from the exhibit Angkor: Angkor: The Lost Empire of Cambodia (National Museum of Cambodia at the Royal BC Museum, 2 June 2023 to 14 January 2024). They say this is limestone but it seems awfully fine grained. Photo by Sean Manning, 4 January 2024.

Creating one of these lists is difficult, because scholars don’t read a lot of similar books end to end like novel readers, but dip into a variety of books looking for data. I reserve the right to skip some things I read and decide when a partial read ‘counts.’

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Google Forgets the Old Web

A senior Google Search staffer recently claimed that Google does not downgrade older pages in search results. For the record, it was Tim Bray in 2018 who demonstrated that Google was not returning the only page with a string if that page was more than 5 to 10 years old. He could find that same page with DuckDuckGo. As he put it, Google is losing its memory. He documented the same problem again in February 2022. A Marco Fioretti also found that Google was refusing to return some old pages in 2018.

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2023 Year Ender

group photo in a room with classicizing interior decor and lots of casts of Greek and Roman sculptures
Group photo from the conference on Stadtbelagerung in Innsbruck, October 2023

A lot of things happened in 2023! Because I am tired I am going to list them briefly.

I applied and interviewed for some professional jobs and found one last group of academic possibilities which still seems worth trying.

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Who Said “Technology Makes the World Smaller”?

an embossed terracotta with a gorgon's head with some of the gorgon's hair and headcloth broken away leaving only pairs of sharp fangs, almond-shaped eyes, and curled hair
An antefix (cap for the end of the peak of a tiled roof) with a gorgon’s head from around 580/570 BCE in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The technology of mass-producing terracottas in moulds goes back to Old Babylonian Mesopotamia about 1200 years before this was made, and the headcloth shows that this Gorgon is influenced by Egyptian art. (Accession Number 10.210.44)

Today I will put on my Quote Investigator hat to ask a simple question: where did the cliche that technology makes the world smaller comes from? Back in 2005 Thomas Friedman had to torture metaphors to declare that The World is Flat because ‘the world is small’ was too common a topos in the business press. As I was refreshing my memory of the Manifesto of the Ninety-Three German Intellectuals defending Kaiser Wilhelm’s invasion of Belgium, I noticed a familiar phrase in the pacifist counter-manifesto. That sent me to Google Books to look for parallels.

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Looking for Words on the Russo-Ukrainian War

a photo of the Innsbrucker Altstadt with the Goldenes Dachl, the Nordkette, a construction crane, and the golden arches of McDonalds
Once upon a time there was a very silly theory that no two countries with a McDonalds had ever gone to war therefore no two such countries would ever go to war. The wars in Nagorno-Karabakh and Ukraine pretty much disproved that, see also XKCD #1122. Photo by Sean Manning, October 2023.

In August I have been trying to think of anything worth saying about the Russian war in Ukraine. The only things I can come up with this August are Perun’s lectures, the odd talk by the Chieftain, some long-form reporting in the Kyiv Independent, and the BBC-Meduza estimate of Russian dead. In July Russia ended the agreement not to attack ships exporting Ukrainian grain. They hoped to reduce Ukraine’s income in foreign currency, and starve people in Africa and Southwest Asia whose UN representatives might push for a ceasefire to get the grain flowing again. Every so often the Ukrainians launch a new attack on Crimea (in September they used cruise missiles and unmanned surface vessels to sink ships in Sevastopol, other times they have attacked supply dumps and the Kerch Strait bridge). The drone attacks on Moscow and the mutiny of Wagner Group certainly show that the Russian government has limited military power everywhere other than the front. The Ukrainians have quietly resumed conscription, which could mean a lot of their soldiers are dead or wounded, or could mean they have trained up all their volunteers and have room in the training courses for conscripts again.

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Why Do Armies March through Gaza?

a line drawing of Palestine, Syria, and south-eastern Turkey with coasts, rivers, ancient cities, and dotted lines indicating roads
The roads of Palestine in the Achaemenid period, after Graf 1994: figure 1

On another site, someone asked why armies have been marching through Gaza for thousands of years. I don’t have anything useful to say about Hamas’ torture, murder, and kidnapping of about a thousand unsuspecting elders, civilians, children, and tourists, or the Israeli government’s blockade of water, food, and medicine to the several million civilians in Gaza in response to the murders and kidnappings, but I can talk about geography and ancient warfare.

My regularly scheduled post (about Vitruvius and the design of forts during the Roman Principate) will come out next week instead! When commenting, keep in mind that my site is not the place for people to share angry opinions about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and I will moderate accordingly. Because I will not have time to moderate or respond to comments until Tuesday 31 October, comments on this post will not be enabled until then.

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