The Big Idea: Mick Ryan
There are many people who have written about war in the future, including the proprietor of this particular site. But Major General Mick Ryan (ret.) may have, by profession and inclination, a unique insight into the matter. In this Big Idea for White Sun War, he explains how his insight is married to a now-classic speculative vehicle for imagining conflict.
War is the worst invention of humans.
That might sound strange coming from a retired soldier, but there it is. War is the most terrible, complex, bloody endeavour that we have – so far – managed to think up during the short existence of homo sapiens on this planet. Despite our knowledge of how awful war is, we have managed to engage in warfare for at least 5000 years. While our conflicts have taken many different shapes and forms, and have been conducted on nearly every continent in all forms of natural and human terrain, we have yet to rid ourselves of this scourge.
Most recently, the Russian invasion of Ukraine – replete city destruction, murder, rape, torture and large scale killing on the battlefield – reminds us that war is not yet done with the human race. And in the western Pacific, the re-emergence of China as a global power has been accompanied by the greatest military peacetime buildup in recorded history. Accompanied by bellicose statements about Taiwan being part of China, and the Chinese coercion of its neighbors, it is this environment in which “White Sun War” is set.
The military techno-thriller genre has a long history. Books such as Shute’s “On the Beach”, Hackett’s “Third World War” and Clancy’s “Red Storm Rising” were notable Cold War explorations of what future war might look like. While technology played a crucial role in these stories, these remained books about how people responded in the ambiguity and horror of war.
But long before these novels, the military fiction genre emerged in response to the technological developments of the 2nd Industrial Revolution in the last decades of the 19th century. The first great military thriller about future war had the odd title of “The Battle of Dorking”. Written by a British Army officer who had become exasperated with his nation’s under-funding of the military, it described an invasion of England. The invaders, whose nationality is never confirmed, just happened however to speak German. Serialized in 1871 before being published as a novel, it was a massive hit and could perhaps be described as the first military thriller best seller. Other authors soon followed suit in France, Germany and the United States. A new genre was born, and it helped citizens and military leaders to explore the possibilities of new technologies – radio, internal combustion engines, flight – and their applications in peace and war.
The dawn of new technologies such as robotic systems (in the air but on the ground and at sea), artificial intelligence, quantum computing, competition in space, and hypersonic weapons means that once again, advanced new technologies must be explored for their application and impact in war. It is part of the reason why I wrote White Sun War. There are many new technologies that will change the character of warfare, and thinking about their impacts before conflict is always better than finding out about them when the enemy uses them against you. The dual revolutions in robotics and artificial intelligence suggests a near future of algorithmic warfare, and an environment where parts of the the battlefield become too deadly for anything but autonomous systems.
But, the heart of this story is not technology. It is people. Drawn from a variety of occupations and nations, “White Sun War” explores normal, everyday Americans, Taiwanese and Chinese characters who find themselves in a bitter struggle for the island of Taiwan, and how they deal with the terrors and opportunities of war. Each has different motivations, as well as character strengths and weaknesses.
Because ultimately, war is a human endeavour. It can only be understood when viewed through the eyes of the human belligerents, whether they be politicians in capitals, citizens on the home front or military personnel serving on the front line. It is humans who decide to war, who fight them on the ground, air, sea and cyberspace, and it is ultimately humans who decide when it is time to terminate a conflict.
My hope is that all who read “White Sun War” will find an old soldier’s description of future war too catastrophic to contemplate. That is a good thing. Because in understanding just how ruinous such a future war could be for all of us, we plant the seeds for exploring creative ways that we might use to prevent it.