The Short Story From Arthur C. Clarke Every Officer in The Military Should Read and Heed

Like so many others in the national security domain I am tracking what I can about the new US Space Force, the newest US military force. I believe their mission is important and establishing Space Force was the right move.

Space is, by definition, a domain that will require deep technological expertise to enable mission success. But we should heed the lessons our military has learned in other domains and understand that victory is never just about technology.

This should not be a surprise to any student of war. This same lesson about war not being about technology is consistent, wether we are reading the ancient writings of Thucydides and Sun Tzu or analyzing our own operations in combat through the years. An over reliance on technology can contribute to feelings of arrogance. If you start relying too heavily on your technology and allow arrogance to set in, you open yourself up to defeat by a technologically inferior force.

We can learn this lesson by reading our own history and the extensive reporting done from current military operations. But here is another way, tailor made for members of US Space Force. In 1951, Arthur C. Clarke wrote an incredible short story he titled “Superiority” (available in the collection: The Collected Stories of Arthur C. Clarke).  This short story is such a great read because it captures some key, apparently enduring qualities of militaries that become seduced by their technological superiority. The result: Even though the story was written almost six decades ago Clarke gave us all a lens perfect for the viewing of technological arrogance.  And he gave us warnings that apply across the full spectrum of technologies, including the technologies enabling our move into Space.

From the short story:

“The situation was now both serious and infuriating.  With stubborn conservatism and complete lack of imagination the enemy continued to advance with his old-fashioned and inefficient but now vastly more numerous ships.”

More on the story:

  • The setting is a SciFi future, where battles occur in space. But the human drama was actually based on Clarke’s observations of Allied victory in Europe in WWII.
  • In the story, A losing Admiral has a request of his captors.  He hopes to clear up the record on a few things, and especially wants to be sure he is not forced to share a cell with the CTO-type person who got them into the mess he is in (Professor Norden, Chief of the Research Staff) .
  • Failures were not due to lack of bravery or the fault of operational decisions.  Failure was due to the inferior science of the enemy.  Clarke reveals how in a way that is laughable but also causes anyone with military service pause (I believe most veterans have seen situations that the story will remind them of).

So, consider this my nomination to the reading list of every officer in US Space Force. It is a short, fun read, but provides plenty of food for thought that might inform your operational decisions.

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