In our world, the Pentagon and the national security bureaucracy have largely taken possession of the future. In an exchange in 2002, journalist Ron Suskind reported a senior adviser to President Bush telling him:
“that guys like me were ‘in what we call the reality-based community,’ which he defined as people who ‘believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.’ I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. ‘That’s not the way the world really works anymore,’ he continued. ‘We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality… We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.'”
Slowly, step by step, the present White House has found itself forced back into at least the vicinity of the reality-based community. This week we may, in fact, get to hear one of the last of this President’s great Iraqi fictions.
The same cannot be said of the Pentagon and the Intelligence Community (IC). They have settled into the future and taken it in hand in a business-like, if somewhat lurid, way. It’s the Pentagon that, in 2004, was already producing futuristic studies about a globally warmed world from Hell; it’s the Pentagon’s blue-skies research agency, DARPA, that regularly lets scientists and other thinkers loose to dream wildly about future possibilities (and then, of course, to create war-fighting weaponry and other equipment from those dreams). It’s the National Nuclear Security Administration that is hard at work dreaming up the nature of our nuclear arsenal in 2030.
Typical is the National Intelligence Council, a “center of strategic thinking within the U.S. Government, reporting to the Director of Central Intelligence.” In 2005, it was already expending much effort to create fictional scenarios for 2010, 2015, and 2020. Someone I know recently attended workshops the Council’s long-range assessment unit organized, trying to look at the “threats after next” — and this time they were deep into the 2020s.
The future — whether imagined as utopian or dystopian — was, not so long ago, the province of dreamers, or actual writers of fiction, or madmen and cranks, or reformers and journalists, or even wanna-be war-fighters, but not so regularly of actual war-fighters, or secretaries of defense, or presidents. In our time, the Pentagon and the IC have quite literally become the fantasy-based community. And yet, strangely enough, the urge of our top policy-makers (and allied academics and scientists) to spend their time in relatively distant futures has been little explored or considered by others.
A couple of things can be said about this near compulsion. First, it’s largely confined to the arts of war. There is no equivalent in our government when it comes to health care or education, retirement or housing. No well-funded government think-tanks and lousy-with-loot research organizations are ready to let anyone loose dreaming about our planet’s endangered environment, for instance. The future — the only one our government seems truly to care about — is most distinctly not good for you. It’s a totally weaponized, grimly dystopian health hazard for the planet.
Of course, future fictions are notorious for their wrong-headedness. All you have to do is check out old utopian or dystopian fiction, if you don’t believe me. The scandal here is not that, like most human beings, our soldiers and spies are sure to be desperately wrong on most aspects of their future fictions. The scandal is that we’re mortgaging our wealth and our futures, whatever they may be, to their bloodcurdling, self-interested, and often absurd fantasies. After all, they’re running a giant, massively profitable business operation off fictional futures, while creating their own armed reality at our expense.
For a peek at the Pentagon’s vision of how to fight in Baghdad 2025, check out Nick Turse’s latest piece at Tomdispatch.com.