Warfare and Cliodynamics in Frank Herbert’s “Dune”

Cliodynamics is a field of study that attempts to understand history through mathematical modeling. Peter Turchin, who coined the term, thinks that Frank Herbert could have done a better job with the cliodynamics of his science fiction classic, Dune…

“I don’t know whether Herbert read Ibn Khaldun, but much of his cliodynamics, especially the aspects dealing with Arrakis and Fremen, could come directly from Ibn Khaldun. As a result, he creates a highly believable world (well, this is a science fiction novel), both ecologically and sociologically. This must have been an important reason why this novel was so successful.

There is one law of historical dynamics that Herbert discusses explicitly. This general rule may be formulated as follows: Harsh environmental conditions create a selective regime under which only the best survive, producing cultures with tough and capable warriors. This is the reason why the Emperor recruits his best shock troops, the Sardaukar, from the prison planet Salusa Secundus. Only the Fremen, evolving under equally harsh conditions of Arrakis, can match the ferocity and fighting ability of the Sardaukar.

What is particularly interesting about this hypothesis is that it is explicitly evolutionary. Nevertheless, I believe it is wrong. The problem is that it focuses on individual fighting ability, which is much less important than collective fighting ability. To give a single historical example, an average Roman legionary would most likely lose in a single combat against an average Celtic warrior. A Roman legion, on the other hand, would easily defeat an equal number of Gauls. Cooperation, discipline, ability to work as a team, willingness to sacrifice for the common good (in short, asabiya of Ibn Khaldun) is what wins battles and wars, not ferocity of individual warriors.

The selective regime that breeds militarily capable cultures is not harsh physical environment, but living in a ‘tough neighborhood.’ In other words, it is between-group selection, not individual selection, that creates aggressive expansionist cultures.”

It is true that Dune explores the “harsh environment → savage individual warriors” concept, but Turchin’s overall argument fails to recognize aspects of the Dune universe that negate his criticisms.

The first of these is the Holtzmann field generator, which was introduced by Herbert to elevate individual fighting prowess to primary importance. These generators, small enough to be clipped to a soldier’s belt, produce a field that converts the kinetic energy of anything striking it at above a certain low velocity into radiation which is then emitted from the field surface over time. Shields can be overwhelmed, but only through the application of an impractical amount of energy, equivalent to having to directly hit each individual infantryman with a howitzer-shell. It’s much easier to slip a a sword through the shield in close combat.

In modern combat many soldiers may attack a single enemy due to the prevalence of firearms. English researcher Frederick Lanchester showed that, all else being equal, this implies that while combat effectiveness is directly proportional to unit quality, it is proportional to the square of the number of units. Numerical superiority has an exponential advantage over qualitative superiority in firearms-based combat. Hence the modern age of mass armies.

The ancient battlefield was more linear: if both sides were playing smart it was difficult to bring multiple men to bear against any single enemy. This is partly why pre-modern battles tended to involve remarkably few casualties until one side broke. The best modern armies often take at least as many casualties in tactical victory as in tactical defeat, whereas exceptional ancient armies could go from victory to victory suffering only single-digit casualty percentages. Note that I’m referring only to tactically “fair” fights, none of this M1-Abrams vs. Toyota Hilux we’ve been dealing with lately.

The ways around this linearity, generally based on polearms like pikes that allow multiple men to attack a single foe, are invalidated by the “stickiness” of the Holtzman field; a long spear becomes very easy to parry with a sword if its mobility is hindered by a kinetic-energy-sapping shield. Combat in Dune is all about getting in close and personal with finesse-weapons.

In Dune, this effect combines with the Spacing Guild injunction against space-combat, the religious injunction against computers (and thus computer targeting systems that would make precision orbital bombardment possible), and the pragmatic injunction against atomic bombardment of habitable planets to render a galactic empire that can be ruled (or conquered) with no more than a few million exquisitely trained swordsmen.

Turchin also ignores the primary importance that Herbert places upon cohesion and discipline in his fictional fighting forces. The Sardaukar are described to be as brutally disciplined as they are brutally skilled, and they must be accepted into the Emperor’s service to leave the hellish prison world of Salusa Secundus. Thus they are strongly selected for obedience and are kept in line with a combination of material and social rewards. Similarly, the Fremen were nothing but desert raiders until Paul brought them the same degree of discipline under the flag of religious fanaticism.

In both cases it is not a case of environmental selection breeding superior individual warriors who then build empires at swordpoint, but of external and highly civilized leadership introducing a source of discipline that forges individually fearsome warriors into effective and loyal armies. Only then was it possible to leverage the effects of the Holtzman field technology to rule the Empire.

Tip ‘o the crysknife to Isegoria.

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