What Churchill Can Teach Us About the Coming Era of Lasers, Cyborgs, and Killer Drones

Editor’s Note: When asked what period in history provides parallels to today, many military leaders point to the 1990s. Peter Singer believes the most similar period may actually be the one surrounding World War I. Much like the tank, the submarine and the airplane changed the battlefield then, new science fiction-like technologies have become commonplace and are re-shaping war.

There’s a famous (though, as with all great quotes, perhaps apocryphal) line attributed to Mark Twain that is often quoted as a guide to world leaders: “History doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.”

With that quote in mind, for the last year I’ve been taking an informal poll of the joint chiefs who lead the U.S. military, asking each of them what period in history they think provides the most apt parallel to today. Interestingly, every single one of them has answered the same: the early 1990s, when the United States sharply pared back its military spending and drew down the personnel size of its armed forces following the collapse of the Soviet Union. These experiences were both painful for the military of that time (side note: most of the joint chiefs were midcareer officers at that time) and in many ways haunted the military a decade later in Iraq and Afghanistan, when the force had to be re-expanded as well as regain many skills and technologies that had atrophied in a procurement holiday.

With similar worries about force cuts and the utterly unstrategic nature of sequestration-fueled budget slashing, the 1990s are certainly an apt parallel, and indeed one widely shared in the defense establishment. But I fear it may fall prey to another one of those mistakes that recur in history. That is, in looking for rhymes, we too often turn to the songs we know best, not the tune that might be a better fit.

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