The Best of All Possible Wars: Warfare, Worldmaking, and the Creative Imagination

May 6, 2023   •   By Anders Engberg-Pedersen

Some of the material in this essay is adapted from Anders Engberg-Pedersen’s Martial Aesthetics: How War Became an Art Form, available now from Stanford University Press.


IN 2009, General James Norman Mattis issued a memorandum that installed the “creative imagination” at the center of US military thinking. The memorandum landed in the midst of the seemingly never-ending wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. As these struggles in the Middle East indicated, the established concepts that organized US military efforts were failing.

EBO, ONA, and SoSA—military lingo for “effects-based operations,” “operational net assessment,” and “System of Systems Analysis”—all assumed a relatively stable world with a high degree of predictability. But, Mattis wrote, war in the 21st century was pervaded by such uncertainty, volatility, fog, and chaos that these concepts could no longer serve as helpful tools to manage the future of war. A year earlier, Mattis had already decided to banish them. As he put it: “The underlying principles associated with EBO, ONA, and SoSA are fundamentally flawed and must be removed from our lexicon, training, and operations.” Now, however, Mattis had found a solution to the problems that beset the US military: he introduced “design,” “creativity,” and, indeed, “the creative imagination” as guiding concepts of US military doctrine. Armed with these ideas from the world of art and aesthetics, officers and soldiers would be better equipped to overcome the complexities of modern warfare.

We don’t usually associate warfare with the creative imagination. War is a matter of politics, law, and military strategy. The brute realities of violence seem a far cry from the refined realm of creative aesthetic imaginaries. And yet, the 21st century has witnessed a pervasive militarization of aesthetics, with Western military institutions co-opting the creative worldmaking of art and aesthetics and merging it with the destructive forces of warfare.

Over the past 20 years, literature, films, and games have been operationalized to an unprecedented degree. They now serve as functional tools for military training and military operations. In California, the Institute for Creative Technologies (ICT)—a research collaboration between the University of Southern California and the Department of Defense—has been leading the way. The institute’s mission is, in its own words, to bring “film and game industry artists together with computer and social scientists to study and develop immersive media for military training, health therapies, education and more.” With this unique blend of creative imaginaries and advanced military technologies, the ICT has been the forefront of a growing multibillion dollar industry sponsored by the US military. Meanwhile, Mattis’s focus on creativity has spurred an expanding movement that promotes a theory of “military design,” steeped in Romantic notions of artistry, virtuosity, and even genius. If you attend a workshop on “military design,” you are likely to hear more references to Rembrandt and Mozart than to tanks and tactics.

This merger of war and aesthetics is curious, to say the least, and it raises a number of questions: When did military institutions begin to retool aesthetic imaginaries into practical tools of war? How can purely imagined possible worlds serve as engines of war? And who came up with the idea that warfare is a creative endeavor—even an aesthetic art form in its own right?

In my new book Martial Aesthetics: How War Became an Art Form, I try to answer these questions by tracing the 21st-century militarization of aesthetics back to its historical origins. This is an at once fascinating and disturbing history that involves astrologers, philosophers, inventors, literary authors, and military theorists, along with a range of media technologies from horoscopes and war games to synthetic training environments and fictional military scenarios. It shows how creative imaginaries and aesthetic concepts have been integral elements of war since the turn of the 19th century and today pervade military practice and military theory. Unearthing a more sinister story of aesthetics than we usually encounter, the book examines how military institutions have co-opted the power of the creative imagination to invent, frame, and manage an array of violent futures.

For over two millennia, however, the future of war belonged to the astrologers. Measuring the shape of things to come with astrolabes, star charts, and horoscopes, they sought to gauge the planets’ shifting constellations to advise the king or the commander on the propitious moment to undertake a military operation. From the Assyrian monarch Sargon II (reigning 721–05 BCE) in ancient Mesopotamia to Albrecht von Wallenstein, the ill-fated supreme commander of the Habsburg forces during the Thirty Years’ War (1618–48), astrology was an accepted science on par with physics or mathematics, and it was central to military decision-making. To be sure, the degree to which astrology could predict the future was the subject of often heated debates. Wallenstein, for example, had a protracted squabble with none other than the famed astronomer and astrologist Johannes Kepler. In 1608, Kepler had made a horoscope for the military commander, but as the years went by, Wallenstein felt that the predictions and the events of his life had fallen increasingly out of sync. Asking Kepler to update the horoscope, Wallenstein now demanded detailed predictions rather than the general tendencies the original horoscope had offered. Kepler would have none of it. In an angry letter, he lectured Wallenstein on the limits of the science of astrology: “It is an erroneous illusion to think that such Accidentia, which mostly follow from the workings of the human will, occur in accordance with concrete, calculated celestial events, and can therefore be predicted.” Even so, Kepler proceeded to predict a series of concrete events up to 1634, when “horrible disorder” threatened—the year, remarkably, when Wallenstein was assassinated.

For Kepler and for other astrologers, the future of war was to a large extent determined. Interpreting the signs in the heavens and drawing up horoscopes, astrologers tried to predict how the planetary constellations would impact the events on earth, but the powerful celestial forces left only a small window of opportunity for human agency. The future would arrive by itself, and all one could do was navigate it as best one could.

Around 1800, however, a new tool emerged that brought about a shift in the understanding of how martial futures could be handled—the Kriegsspiel or modern war game. Between 1770 and 1824, a group of mostly Prussian retired officers, inventors, and—as one of them self-identified—“washed-up gamers” built a series of increasingly complex war simulations. The first game, from 1770, was called The Wargame, or A Refinement of Chess. As the title indicates, it was essentially a slightly more elaborate form of chess, but from this humble beginning, the Prussian inventors developed ever more realistic virtual worlds of warfare. They expanded the playing board to simulate a large theater of operations and added a third dimension in the form of an elaborate terrain full of obstacles and hazards. One inventor even included dice to simulate the element of chance.

As the rule books grew thicker and the simulations more detailed, however, the games changed character. No longer merely a source of entertainment, they took on a serious purpose as it became evident that the creative imaginaries of these miniature playworlds could be transformed into military tools for concrete operational purposes.

No scene shows this transformation better than the demonstration, in 1824, of the so-called Reisswitz war game for the head of the Prussian military staff, General Karl von Müffling. At first, Georg von Reisswitz, the inventor, received a “somewhat chilly reception,” but, unfazed, he set up his game. Reisswitz’s friend Ernst Heinrich Dannhauer reports that, as two officers began playing, Müffling became increasingly fascinated by the virtual events unfolding in front of his eyes. “It’s fair to say that the old man, who had been so cold at the beginning, grew warmer and warmer with each move as the maneuver developed,” according to Dannhauer, “and in the end [the general] exclaimed enthusiastically: ‘That is no ordinary game, that is a war school. I must and will give it my warmest recommendation to the army.’”

The scene is striking because it marks the moment when an imaginary martial playworld is plugged directly into the military institution. With the adoption of the Kriegsspiel, the Prussian military merged the invented world of “as if” with actual operations, possible worlds with tactics, play with serious purpose, and the creative imagination with war.

It is this curious hybrid artifact that laid the foundation for the contemporary synthetic training environments and VR simulations that pervade warfare in the 21st century. Then as now, their purpose was to optimize the war effort. Generating a nimbus of possible martial worlds, the war game functions as a laboratory of hypothetical martial futures; it forms the site where the airy nothings of the creative imagination build the template for violent military operations in the field. The philosopher (and part-time war game inventor) Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz once argued that the world we live in is the best of all possible worlds, because God had chosen it from among an infinite number of potential alternatives. With the invention of the war game, soldiers and officers wielded a tool that allowed them to imagine, test, and choose the best of all possible wars.

But these martial imaginaries are curious artifacts that perform strange operations on the people that inhabit them as well as on the futures they are designed to manage. In 2018, Mattis suggested as much when he made the widely circulated statement that US soldiers should fight “25 bloodless battles” inside such simulation trainers before going to war. His colleague, General Stephen J. Townsend, put a different spin on it. Promoting one of the immersive technologies developed by the ICT, he said: “Our soldiers will become virtual veterans of 25 bloodless battles before the first round is ever fired in combat.”

These claims of virtual veterancy and bloodless battles reveal the underlying vision of war that contemporary war simulations have increasingly come to embody. While Kepler could claim to predict but not fundamentally change the future, the contemporary war simulation is governed by a radical constructivism, according to which the future does not arrive naturally but is invented, tested, and trained to perfection before it is finally implemented. Generating strange loops in time, the war simulation seeks to transform the uncertainty of an open future into a mere repetition of a fully designed future from the past—a repetition of events that have never taken place but have nevertheless already been experienced and played through multiple times. Blending creative imagineering, virtual experience, and violence, the war simulation forms the site for a creative worldmaking that suggests that the future as a natural temporal phenomenon can be abolished—what can be made up can be made real.

These virtual dreams of what Nick Montfort has called “future-making” keep growing. Probably the most ambitious vision at the moment is a project called One World Terrain sponsored by the US Army Futures Command. In a collaboration with, among others, the ICT, Maxar Technologies, and Bohemia Interactive Simulations, they aim to build a comprehensive, highly detailed 3D digital world map—a military Google Earth—and integrate it with all the simulation trainers across the US military as well as the army’s operational systems. Training for war and waging war will integrate fully and take place on the same digital platform. If it succeeds, One World Terrain will realize what even the old Prussians could never imagine—a fully operational global war simulation.

Given the vision of creative worldmaking folded into these martial technologies, it is perhaps not surprising that they have been accompanied by the theory that war constitutes an art form in its own right. When Mattis sought to install the creative imagination as the key element of US military doctrine, he invoked several concepts from perhaps the most influential work of military theory to this day—On War (1832) by the Prussian general Carl von Clausewitz. The book has acquired the status of a classic also in the somewhat unfortunate sense that it is always quoted, but rarely read. And even if readers make it through all eight books of the nearly 1000-page tome, few are aware that Clausewitz also had a deep interest in architecture, painting, poetry, and novels (Tristram Shandy was a favorite). While writing On War, Clausewitz penned several essays on aesthetics with titles ranging from “On Art and Art Theory” to “On the Concept of Corporeal Beauty.” But Clausewitz did not keep the two fields neatly separated. Rather, he transferred several concepts from the realm of art and aesthetics to the military field and began to associate artistry, creativity, intuition, and form-giving as much with soldiers as with artists. In the third chapter of On War, titled “On Military Genius,” for example, Clausewitz casts the commander as a “war artist” whose originality lies in his transgression of established rules and in the creative invention of new ways of shaping the material of war. Indeed, war itself becomes “a work of art.”

At one point, however, Clausewitz has second thoughts. The enemy is evidently not a passive material that can be shaped as a sculptor forms clay, but is instead composed of other human beings who themselves think, feel, strategize, and act. While seductive, the aesthetic framing of war is misguided, and in the end, Clausewitz places it among the many “false analogies” that military theory has fostered. More disturbing from a contemporary point of view, however, is the transfer of values from aesthetics to war. Since the 19th century, few figures have acquired the prestige of the Romantic artist. Speaking of war in aesthetic terms performs not only an erasure of brutality, suffering, and death, but also a troubling transfiguration of collective violence into the noble, creative endeavor of art—the enchantment of war as an art form.

These conceptual and ethical pitfalls, however, have not stopped the aesthetic theory of war from cropping up at regular intervals. Clausewitz’s contemporary, August Otto Rühle von Lilienstern, concluded his decidedly unsavory text “Apologia for War” by inducting war into the temple of the arts on par with “the beautiful arts of Apollo and the Muses or the useful arts of Hermes.” Later in the 19th century, Max Jähns, another Prussian military thinker, gave a lecture in Berlin titled “The Art of War as an Art” in which he goes all in on the aesthetic analogy. Jähns argues that warfare has its own period “style” that can be traced directly to the stylistic features of the fine arts: from the phalanx and the Doric columns of ancient Greece via the Renaissance’s virtuosity of the condottiere to Napoleonic mass warfare and the affluent aesthetics of the style Empire. For Jähns, violence is a form of “martial creation,” and the commander serves as the very emblem of artistry and genius. While Rühle von Lilienstern inducted war into the pantheon of the arts, Jähns ends his lecture by crowning the war artist with the laurels of Apollo.

The apotheosis of war as an art form had its heyday in 19th-century Prussian military theory. But it is not just a Prussian affair. Nor is it a mere historical curiosity—a dark chapter in the history of martialism that we have long left behind us. For the idea that war is an aesthetic art form has returned in the 21st century. Following Mattis’s promotion of the creative imagination in US military thinking, a group of officers, educators, and military theorists have pushed Romantic notions of art as part of a theory called “military design.” Ostensibly a method of problem-solving and planning, military design consistently evokes the skills of intuition, creativity, imagination, rule-breaking, and genius associated with the artist and claims them for the military designer. The Planner’s Handbook for Operational Design issued by the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 2011 stresses “the importance of the underlying creative process” and of “the creative imagination” to meet the unpredictable and uncontrollable nature of contemporary warfare. Chris Paparone, one of the early proponents of military design, states explicitly that he mines the “creative processes of painting, composing music, [and] poetry” in order to seize hold of “aesthetic metaphor[s] borrowed from the humanities and fine arts.” Military interventions, he claims, should be interpreted as “artfully crafted and aesthetically pleas­ing.” They are “artful actions” with “aesthetic qualities,” and they involve creativity and “improvisation-in-action.” Indeed, for military designers, the figure of the liberated artist has become the model par excellence for modern soldiers. Once released from the constraints of rigid military discipline, bureaucracy, and regimentation of thought, the soldier is elevated to a war artist who is finally free to unleash their inner creativity. As Ben Zweibelson, another leading design proponent, puts it, the ultimate goal is for soldiers to get “in touch with their true creative potential.”

From a niche movement in the United States, military design has today found a foothold in numerous Western militaries, from Sweden and Australia to Great Britain and Canada. Without giving much thought to the radical disjunction between warfare and design, the theory projects a vision of liberating self-realization and creative martial worldmaking. Even if it serves as a method for solving real and difficult military problems, this type of aesthetic martialism lends war the aura of an artistic, noble, and even desirable activity—not a means of last resort. But the rhetoric of aesthetics in no way changes the fundamentals of war. Evidently, the principles, logics, and effects of violent force remain in place. And if we briefly try to connect abstract romanticizing with the grim realities of war, we are faced with a truly monstrous artwork, shaped out of blood and bones, nightmares and traumas, destruction and loss.

One World Terrain and “military design” form the temporary endpoints of a trend that began over 250 years ago with a handful of seemingly quaint board games and a few all-too-cultured theorists of war. But even if Carl von Clausewitz has been a favorite reference in recent attempts to merge war and the creative imagination, generals and military designers in the 21st century may wish to give him a second read. They would then come across his warning that framing war as an art form is, at best, a category mistake.


Anders Engberg-Pedersen is the author of Martial Aesthetics: How War Became an Art Form (Stanford University Press, 2023).