The introductory chapter outlines the co-option of aesthetics by military institutions. It gives an overview of the ways in which the military has appropriated aesthetic media and technologies as well as aesthetic ideas throughout history, from ancient horoscopes to the contemporary discourse of military design. Discussing established conceptions of "aesthetics," the introduction proceeds to define the concept of a "martial aesthetics" and argues for the need to acknowledge the aesthetic and creative dimension of warfare while keeping in view the dire ethical consequences of the militarization of aesthetics.
Chapter 1 examines one of the most important premodern war media—the celestial orbs. For more than two millennia, astrological war media decisively shaped the conduct of warfare. Military commanders relied on the imagined futures that astrologers elaborated from astrolabes, horoscopes, and star charts. Devised as tools to handle uncertain futures and as guides for decision-making within the military realm, these contingency media were also at the center of heated debates. A famous exchange between Johannes Kepler and Albrecht von Wallenstein spells out the disagreements about the reach and the force of such projective imaginaries and the media that subtend them. Taking Schiller's war play Wallenstein as its point of departure, chapter 1 charts the rise and demise of astrological war media along with the emergence in the eighteenth century of a set of ideas within philosophical aesthetics that effectively disconnected art from any practical engagement with warfare.
The second chapter examines how a group of military thinkers challenged the new conception of art as a self-contained, autonomous realm, by inventing a self-contained artifact whose imaginary scenarios and projections of potential futures served the practical purpose of waging and optimizing war—the wargame. Transplanting foundational ideas from aesthetics to the realm of war, these inventors sought to unite creativity, play, sensuous perception, and cognitive as well as emotional interpellation into an autonomous artifact, a self-contained imaginary world that would allow them to invent, to test, and to realize the optimum bellum—the best of all possible wars. The chapter traces their endeavors as they begin to incorporate aesthetic concepts and objects into the field of war.
In chapter 3, I show how military inventors and designers moved to the forefront of a new "operational aesthetics." Breaking down the wall that philosophers of aesthetics had sought to erect between art and craft, between autonomy and functionality, and between the imaginary and the real, the military inventors effected a collapse of these distinctions. Against this background, the chapter outlines a theory of the operational aesthetics they brought into being. The chapter shows how the new artifactual military worlds straddle war and aesthetics and unite them as a liminal phenomenon. They form the site for a demiurgic production of war, for the invention and implementation of factitious futures in a process of martial worldmaking.
Chapter 4 unearths the origins of the provocative idea within military theory that war is an art form in its own right. Turning to the Prussian military thinkers Carl von Clausewitz and Otto August Rühle von Lilienstern, the chapter shows how writings on aesthetics and war effect a transfer of concepts from the realm of art to the military realm. They begin to associate genius, artistry, virtuosity, intuition, and creativity with soldiers as much as with artists. Indeed, they cast officers and commanders as "war artists" and war itself as "a work of art." Tracing the development of this aesthetic theory of war in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, the chapter discusses the epistemological and ethical dilemmas that pertain to the transfiguration of collective violence into an art form.
Chapter 5 traces the return of the aesthetic frame of war in the twenty-first century in the discourse on military design. Ostensibly a method for problem solving and managing the complexity of contemporary warfare, military design inscribes itself in the deeper historical trajectory as the current manifestation of the aesthetic theory of war. Modeled on the figure of the free artistic genius, military design projects a vision of liberating self-realization and creative martial worldmaking that lends war the aura of a noble, even desirable activity. The chapter traces the emergence of design thinking and its adoption by military institutions around the globe, and it discusses its ethical shortcomings.
The epilogue explores the future of martial aesthetics in the realm of technology and in the realm of ideas. It first analyses One World Terrain, the basis for the most advanced contemporary synthetic training environment to date and then discusses the militarization of literature in the form of so-called useful fiction—novels that straddle the divide between fiction and nonfiction—as well as graphic novels written by soldiers and supported by US military institutions. Finally, it offers a critical assessment of the failures of imagination that beset the most recent versions of martial aesthetics.