Read HP Lovecraft to understand war
You take your wisdom where you find it. In 2020, on a whim, I incorporated the “strange fiction” of HP Lovecraft, the great master of the genre, in my recreational reading. I don’t remember exactly why. After all, this year has been scary enough without marinating in tales of monsters, demons, and gruesome people plaguing the towns and villages of New England. Perhaps it was a form of escapism, substituting crazy terror stories for the real terror stories that dominated the headlines that year.
Or maybe it was my bizarre form of virtual travel amidst lockdowns. Lovecraft was a native of Providence and a resident for much of his short life, living in a house just off the Brown University campus. In fact, his tombstone bears the inscription “I am Providence”. Much of his work takes place there. In 2020, the family and I went many months without venturing to this fair and nearby city, among our favorite places on the planet. Perhaps fiction provided a partial substitute.
In any event. So that was it.
In August, by chance, Leo Blanken, a professor at the Naval Postgraduate School, led a article at strategic bridge inspired in part by the writings of Lovecraft. Titled “The Weird and Eerie Battlefields of Tomorrow: Where Horror Fiction Meets Military Planning,” the article is inspired by a literary critic I had never heard of, the late Mark Fisher. After reading it, I downloaded and devoured a copy of Fisher’s monograph The strange and the strange through the wonders of the Kindle. Together, these books are a useful addition to your arsenal of tools for thinking about martial affairs, not to mention politics and life in general.
Fisher posits that Lovecraft and other purveyors of weird literature and movies—sci-fi author HG Wells and filmmaker Stanley Kubrick are also on his list of artists—catch less reader attention by rendering their horrible works than by making them strange. The strange and the strange have to do with things that are out of the ordinary. The weird, says Fisher, “is what doesn’t belong.” It “brings to the familiar something which is usually beyond it and which cannot be reconciled with the ‘familiar'”.
Strangeness, then, is about the presence – the presence of something weird and possibly otherworldly in a normal environment. Fisher, indeed, considers “the irruption into this world of something from outside” as “the marker of the strange”. He argues that “the weird is a special kind of disturbance. It implies a feeling of evil: a strange entity or object is so strange that it makes us feel that it shouldn’t exist, or at least shouldn’t exist here. But if the entity or the object is here, then the categories that we have used so far to make sense of the world cannot be valid. The strange thing is not wrong, after all: it is our conceptions that must be inadequate.
So weird fiction is as much about how human beings react to the presence of an anomaly as it is about the anomaly itself.
Today, Lovecraft is probably best known for his tales of cthulhu. According to a compilation of these stories, “The Cthulhu Mythos was H. P. Lovecraft’s greatest contribution to supernatural literature: a series of stories that evoked cosmic awe and terror through their tales of incomprehensible alien monsters and gruesome incursions in our world”. These supernatural forays take place in settings as familiar as Providence or Boston, or in small New England towns like the imaginary Innsmouthon the north coast of Massachusetts.
Thus, weirdness injects phenomena that are radically foreign to everyday life into daily life, while weird stories tell how ordinary people react to these phenomena. (Generally to dismay – at least at first.) Zombie literature and movies –The Walking Dead, World War Zand Pride and prejudice and zombies, to name just three recent entries, is probably the most popular weird fiction genre these days. Think about it. Reanimated, blind, murderous corpses, by definition, do not belong to ordinary life and cannot be reconciled with it. Their existence defies all natural laws. Yet their threat forces the living to accept something totally beyond everyday experience in order to fight it and try to restore some semblance of normalcy.
If the strange is a question of presence, the strange is more a question of absence. In particular, it is the absence of something familiar and expected – people in particular. Fisher writes, “A sense of the strange seldom clings to enclosed, inhabited domestic spaces; we more readily find the strange in landscapes partially emptied of humans. What happened to produce these ruins, this disappearance? What type of entity was involved? What kind of thing was it that emitted such a strange cry? An empty or ruined house, church or fortress is ominous. The same goes for a desolate cityscape in post-apocalyptic fiction. Think of the Statue of Liberty overlooking a secluded beach in old Planet of the Apesor the ruins of Washington DC in the 1976 science fiction film Logan’s Race.
HP Lovecraft excels in weird fiction because he skillfully weaves the weird with the weird. His stories tend to start out weird and reach a weird climax. My favorite of the Cthulhu stories – and apparently the last of his writings – is “The Haunter of Darkness.” The story follows the typical pattern. Horror author Robert Blake lives right next to Brown’s campus. From his office window, he can contemplate Providence in Federal Hill, today the Mecca of Italian cuisine. For Blake, it was an “unreachable spectral world”, teeming with “bizarre and curious mysteries”.
An abandoned and decrepit church pierces it. “A vague and singular aura of desolation hung over the place”, writes Lovecraft, “so that even pigeons and swallows avoided its smoky eaves.” The foliage on the church grounds remains stunted even amid the lush Rhode Island spring. It is a strange atmosphere par excellence. Blake drives through town to Federal Hill to investigate the building, only to discover evidence of past demonic practices. Worse, his presence seems to awaken a dormant malice of yesteryear, haunting darkness. Frightening events ensue. From there, the story progresses to its eerie and terrifying crescendo.
What does all this have to do with war efforts? Blanken posits – and I agree – that the consumption of weird fiction causes practitioners and military analysts to notice strange or disturbing anomalies in the profession of arms. Detecting a phenomenon is the first step in adapting to it or exploiting it. Weird fiction can help us make sense of the past, probe the world around us, and potentially glimpse the future. Fisher credits World War I with beginning a “traumatic break with the past” that allowed Lovecraft’s brand of weird fiction to flourish. Blanken examines the Great War through the odd/weird lens, finding anomalies – missing things that should have been there, or things obviously out of step with pre-war reality – that should have been obvious to the military at the time.
Let us examine the present through this prism. It helps us ask good questions. Unmanned, autonomous planes and ships? Claim; nobody. An artificial intelligence that learns faster than human beings and could outsmart and fight them? Weird; machines are meant to be our servants. A cyberspace that exists everywhere and nowhere? It’s both weird and sinister.
Or look at the ongoing Russian war against Ukraine. The images of Ukrainian cities emptied of their inhabitants following aerial bombardments or Russian missiles are disturbing. The inhabitants are supposed to be there but are not thanks to Russian aggression. It is disturbing and confronts the conscience. Such images win sympathy from outside supporters of Ukraine, prompting them to spend heavily on funding and military equipment of all kinds. The strange can have political ramifications.
The ability of Ukraine’s Armed Forces to oppose Russia is frankly odd given the lopsided disparity between the two fighters in every regard, whether it’s GDP, number of rigs and weapons or of the work force. Recognizing the strange nature of the conflict draws our attention to the importance of training, to the excellence of the armaments provided by the West and, above all, to the advantages which accrue to the combatant who straddles its territory. The weak might even win. Life imitates weird fiction.
Such information alerts us to the principles of operations and strategy.
Or look at China. Beijing’s claim to sovereignty over the South China Sea is strange, especially since it is part of a charter which specifically excludes such claims, and was rejected by a international court responsible for interpreting this charter. How do you explain and respond to something so bizarre? Photos of Chinese cities locked under the “” of Xi Jinpingzero lust‘politics is disturbing, as are photos of Hong Kong in the wake of Chinese Communist Party policies repression on democracy. Chinese citizens should be thronging the streets, but they are not. Why?
And so on. So grab some Lovecraft and experience the weird and weird around you.
Biography of the expert: A 1945 collaborating editor writing in his own capacity, Dr. James Holmes is the JC Wylie Professor of Maritime Strategy at the US Naval War College and served on the faculty of the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia. A former US Navy surface warfare officer, he was the last gunnery officer in history to angrily fire the big guns from a battleship, in the first Gulf War in 1991. He won the Naval War College Foundation Award in 1994, signifying the top graduate of his class. His books include Red Star over the Pacific, an Atlantic Monthly Best Book of 2010 and a staple on the Navy Professional Reading List. General James Mattis considers it “annoying”. The opinions expressed here are his own. Holmes also blogs at naval diplomat.