December 7, 2021

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What the Military Can Learn From ‘Dune’

Carl von Clausewitz and Frank Herbert both understood the power of schwerpunkt. A 19th-century theorist revered among military geeks the way Paul Brown is revered among football coaches, Clausewitz wrote that each war has a center of gravity—which is how schwerpunkt is usually translated—and that victory often flows to the strategist who identifies and seizes it. Depending on the type of conflict, the center of gravity might be an enemy’s logistics base or field army, a nation’s capital, or even an individual (see: Osama bin Laden in the war with al Qaeda). Whatever form it takes, a schwerpunkt is “the hub of all power and movement, on which everything depends,” Clausewitz wrote.

In Dune, it’s the spice.

In a world where computers and artificial intelligence have been banned, the spice, or “melange,” enables pilots to fold space, traversing galaxies and time. The drug comes only from the planet Arrakis, and when Duke Leto Atreides ventures there to secure it, he’s quickly overthrown by Baron Vladimir Harkonnen. The Baron, though, understands spice only as a commodity. In a classic case of colonial shortsightedness, he exploits it to fund his empire, upsetting the Fremen locals in the process. But Paul Atreides, the Duke’s exiled son, knows a schwerpunkt when he sees it. Following his father’s ouster, he befriends the Fremen, becomes their messiah, gains control of spice production, reclaims Arrakis, and becomes emperor of the known universe.

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Military heads don’t consult Herbert nearly as often as they do Clausewitz, but sci-fi still influences those in the military. In the 2000s, cadets who picked up Dune might’ve found insight into wars in the Middle East; in 2021, the book warns them not to rely too much on technology.

In the age of digital warfare, combatants with the right gadgets can almost fold space. But when everything from GPS to power grids to comms systems is subject to being jammed, spoofed, hacked, or blacked out, relying on tech will get your ass blown up. This has caused the US military to adopt back-to-basics methods, relearning, as Paul did, how to fight analog. Maintaining log books. Using runners and field phones. Fighting off of handwritten orders rather than electronically transmitted ones. It’s a painful process for many, but it’s necessary. Because today, the schwerpunkt in most conflicts—the spice—is digital information itself.


Jonathan Bratten is a military historian and an officer in the US Army.