Austin Bay

History changes -- historians make sure it does. Historians re-evaluate the past in the light of new events. That's the past reinterpreted, or history renewed. Strategists --and the best are well-grounded in history -- attempt to leverage history and an estimate of current conditions to speculate on "pending changes." In other words, the future.

Two books published this year admirably reflect history renewed and history pending -- Jonathan Reed Winkler's "Nexus: Strategic Communication and American Security in WWI" (Harvard) and Thomas M. Nichols' "Eve of Destruction: The Coming Age of Preventive War" (University of Pennsylvania Press).

Put both books on Barack Obama's Christmas reading lists -- put them in the stocking marked "Strategic Guidance Regarding Change."

Winkler's book provides a lesson in the evolutionary nature of technological change. Winkler explores the first global Internet -- the international telegraph cable system that began shrinking Planet Earth at the end of the 19th century.

Winkler illustrates that the "new" is rarely a radical break with the past. Undersea cables broke the great silence of strategic distance, establishing the first near-instantaneous global communications network. The hackers on this Internet literally hacked cables.

As the 20th century dawned, Britain emerged as the global information power. "The world's cable industry was almost entirely in British hands," Winkler writes. Britain had the cable-laying ships and controlled production of gutta-percha, the "latex wrap" for insulating long-distance cable. Britain had a lead in wireless radio -- the next-wave global link. Moreover, Britain had encouraged "countries to land their cables in Britain and overseas colonies ... ensuring ... their communications came under British control in wartime."

When World War I erupted, the British "hacked" German cables and intercepted both cable and wireless traffic. This produced an intelligence edge and gave Britain imposing economic and political advantages. U.S. international traders remained at the mercy of the British cable and wireless companies -- and got a harsh lesson in "the information economy." British dominance distantly echoes current U.S. Internet dominance.

Tom Nichols teaches at the U.S. Naval War College. "Eve of Destruction" is not a Beltway clerk's wonk tome about how fine the world would be if people with multi-syllabic vocabularies and the right friends were running it. This is a warfighter's book written by someone prepared to deal with 9-11, Mumbai and the next terrorist horror.

Austin Bay

Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
Be the first to read Austin Bay's column. Sign up today and receive delivered each morning to your inbox.

©Creators Syndicate