"Backing into the Future"

  • Published
  • By Mr. Gene Kamena

“Nearly all modern cultures assume that the future lies in front of us and the past lies behind us. From this prospective, we are constantly moving forward into the future. However, the ancient Greeks and Mesopotamians thought of time in the opposite way—that we back into the future and face the past.”1 Whether facing or backing, I am certain the future exists and it, at some point, will collide with our reality. We can either prepare for it or be surprised when it arrives. I prefer the former.

The future is unknowable; however, one can study the present in detail. Today is perceivable, we can touch, see, and smell our surroundings.2 Just as the past provides insights for our current world, our current reality allows glimpses of what lies ahead. Unfortunately, clutter, dis-information, and partisan perspective makes discovering even contemporary truth difficult. Fortunately, there are events of such significance that bring the present and to some degree, the future, into focus.      

Russia’s war with Ukraine forms a different future and puts these two countries, and maybe the world, on a trajectory that did not exist just a few weeks past. Sadly, for the people caught-up in the violence, this conflict, has costs, with the outcome yet uncertain, the future is just coming into focus. Our professional duty is to observe, learn, and not repeat the mistakes and missteps of this struggle. With an eye towards understanding today’s conflict, one can visualize into a not-too-distant future. Here are six emerging patterns:

Reputation matters. America’s abrupt exit from Afghanistan sent messages, many unintended, to allies, as well as to our adversaries. It was not the fact that we left, it was how we left. In poor planning and chaotic execution our enemies sensed a lack of resolve and retrenchment on our part. Twenty years of blood and treasure spent in Afghanistan were overshadowed in a matter of days by the very public nature of the exit. The Vietnam-like withdrawal served to embolden our enemies; they see opportunity in our disorder.

Information creates reality. Information is key terrain. For those not directly involved in the conflict, cellphone videos, tweets, messages, and news reports create a digital reality of events. The battle for messaging and information is intense today and will only become fiercer in the future. In the past, information reflected war’s reality, today and going into the future, information will shape the reality on the ground. Influence and power shift as images of war crimes, civilian casualties, and mass destruction are captured in real time and disseminated globally.      

Crisis yields clarity. Future conflicts will be global and regional containment improbable. The current crisis in Ukraine brings to the fore linkages not previously understood between China and Russia. If China supports Russia with weapons and funds, then future reciprocity is certain at a time and place of China’s choosing. An “Axis of Evil”3 may be too strong a term at this point, but it is also not out of the question. Other bad actors such as Iran will take advantage of any conflict the United States participates in by drawing attention and forces back to the Middle East.   

I never thought it would happen to me. The world is harsh and there is no place for idealism when making policy. Months of Russian military force buildup along the Ukrainian border and in Belarus was not deterred by diplomacy nor threats of sanctions. The Russians showed their intent early on, and yet seized the initiative when time came for invasion. Impending violence is countered by equal force and swift action. Deploying troops in neighboring countries helped to send a strong message of containment, but we lost time, energy and the initiative thinking (hoping) Russia would not invade. Only clear-eyed understanding of reality keeps despots from doing what despots do.   

Energy and food - weapons of mass destruction. Energy and food possess immense power. Like having nuclear weapons, countries self-sufficient in energy and food have greater latitude of action than countries who import energy and food. Europe’s ties to Russian energy initially forestalled swift action. In a similar vein, United States energy policy affects national defense and must be considered in current and future national strategies. Energy independence is optimal.

The United States is a net exporter of food. We are on solid ground, but we must consider the impact of losing Ukrainian crops on other less fortunate countries. Can the free world compensate for loss of food shipments to countries not in conflict, yet dependent on food imports to feed their people? As with energy, food shortages and food dependence have global impacts.     

Nuclear weapons pardon many sins. Nuclear paralysis is real and inexcusable. No one seeks nuclear war, but we must have the ability to operate decisively below the threshold of nuclear exchange. Putin’s decision to place his nuclear forces on alert sent a powerful message of “do not interfere” to NATO and the United States.4 The threat to “go nuclear” affects the decisions of world leaders, as well as matters such as weapon shipments to Ukraine. More to the point, bad actors consider a nuclear umbrella as a shield underwriting aggressive actions not tolerated from non-nuclear players. Not wanting to escalate is one thing, indecision another.     

So what? Even though we cannot see into the future, what we do today shapes what will be. Reflecting on the six points above, three patterns immerge. First, future conflicts will not be isolated to specific regions of the globe. The interconnected nature of communications, economies, and alliances portend globally connected conflicts. Regional expertise is insufficient; we require leaders with global perspectives able to make connections between seemingly disparate events. Second, an over-emphasis on “competition” has left us flatfooted for conflict. Competition is not a strategy; in fact, competition is a reactive approach allowing our adversaries to set the situational pace and tempo. The transition from competition to conflict is swift, leaving no room for error. What we see as “strategic” or “great power” competition, our adversaries consider as pre-conflict operations. Third, once conflict begins, incremental responses fall short. Blunting aggression requires the synchronized and timely employment of national power, defined as Diplomatic, Information, Military, and Economic times (x) national will and leadership. Incremental use of sanctions, delayed weapons shipments, and poor messaging advantages our adversaries.

Finally, we, who are in the business of educating future leaders should reflect on what this means for our profession. Is our curriculum adequate? Three areas to ponder: 1) putting more emphasis on globally connected operations; 2) developing leaders who understand and can craft agile, relevant strategies; and 3) fostering leaders able to advise senior policy makers on the employment of all elements of national power. Just as in war, we educators must set priorities and cut the insignificant. Shakespeare, in his play The Tempest, (Act 2, Scene 1) wrote “what is past is prologue” meaning what has happened sets the conditions for the future.5 I would add, “what is past is prologue” if we take heed of the present.  

Gene Kamena serves as the Director for the Joint Warrior Studies Seminar (JWSS) at the Air War College

The views and opinions expressed or implied in Wild Blue Yonder are those of the authors and should not be construed as carrying the official sanction of the United States Air Force, the Department of Defense, Air Education and Training Command, Air University, or other agencies or departments of the US government or their international equivalents.

1. Ethan Maurice, “Backing into the Future: The Simple Reason Ancient Greeks Valued the Present More than the Us,” https://ethanmaurice.com/blog/backing-into , accessed on 14 March 2022.  

2. Ibid

3. George W. Bush, State of the Union Address, 29 January 2002.

4. PBS News Hour, “Putin put Russia’s nuclear forces on alert. What does that mean for the risk of nuclear war?” Putin put Russia’s nuclear forces on alert. What does that mean for the risk of nuclear war? | PBS NewsHour, accessed on 16 March 2022.  

5. Dr. Steve Wolf, “What does “Past is Prologue” mean: Psychologically Speaking?”, Wolf Training Institute, prologue.pdf (multibriefs.com) , accessed on 15 March 2022.