Small Wars Journal

A Message from Hjolmara

Fri, 02/23/2018 - 1:40pm

A Message from Hjolmara

Eric Hovey

The following is presented as part of the TRADOC G2's "Soldier 2050" Call for Ideas. This material will form a compendium of thoughts and ideas that will support the exploration of future bio-convergence implications on the Army of 2050 at the Mad Scientist Conference 8-9 March 2018 at SRI International. The conference can be livestreamed at

From: Kinsey Capt Hjolmara G
Sent: Friday, October 28, 2050 19:55 PM
To: “Ma” Kinsey <>
Subject: Marlins ready for Cubs in the NLDS – watch on HoloNow


If you can read this, then by some miracle of bureaucracy the distro from Division cyber worked and the standard platitudes about ‘family care plans’ are not meaningless.  Figured you would appreciate the “subject” line too - I wanted something that would grab your attention, but not necessarily arouse the censors’ scrutiny.  Nothing more noteworthy than the Cubbies going for two World Series titles in a century!

How weird is this though?  I am in a room…at a desk…clunking away at this POS computer (as in PC – no implants or even tablets to write) and I cannot remember the last time I actually sat down to write a deliberate email.

“Email is so prosaic,” the haters say, “if you want to be so plain, why not write a   letter?”
“The Armed Forces Worldwide (AFW) commercials say how remarkable it is that you can still send paper letters home for an old fashioned surprise for loved ones…”

Suuuuure – that’s all well and good, until you consider that snail mail has to get reviewed up to the first O-6 in your chain of command.  Meanwhile, the Colonel’s thinking,
“If Capt Kinsey has time for letters, she probably has time to be the action officer for that Sino-American 2020 War PME I was planning, or better yet, my new ‘fun and games officer!’”

(I know I’m preaching to the choir Ma, but suffice it to say that while the DoD has changed since you were in, dodging collateral duties as a JO has not!)

Then you realize that a hand-written letter still needs to be digitally transcribed (after all, the Colonel does not have the approval authority to authorize letters, merely to certify that the physical letter matches the digital transcription), but that is lower on the priority list than finding a new FAG-O.  Oh no – this administrative encumbrance falls, as paperwork so often does, squarely on the shoulders of the Regimental Adjutant, or “Radj.”

And because the universe does not hate me, it would not be the same creepy Radj who was in my platoon at Basic and was always asking me if I “needed help” in the field (I didn’t – and I’m not the one who got stuck as a Radj)…and that got barred from laundry duty after multiple complaints to the staff about AWOL items (again, creepy).

Nope, not the same guy that would have to read all my messages home before submission to the digital censors…those software Gods that must approve the physical letter for release.  It’s just that easy – thanks for the hot tip, AFW…

On the subject of misleading folks back home though, things here are great and it’s not at all upsetting to only be able to write a singular email to my family before we go “dark” on comms.  Want to make sure the censors understand that everything’s totally good, and that I don’t know that the software is cen-sititve and will flag your message for human-screening if you use the “C” word more than three times.  To that I say:

Bring on the bowdlerize, up the expurgate!

Please forgive my snarky comments, but you know how it is…sometimes you have to vent a bit upfront to clear the mind.

The reality is that those sappy “I love you more” stories that you and Pops used to share to make our lives miserable growing up…the ones where you would email each other cat memes on classified servers to make work su-k less, those are sea stories from a bygone era.  We are so locked down nowadays that even searching for “keyboard cat” on a government computer would get your workstation shut-down…and that is the best case scenario.

True story:

One of the Chief’s here (won’t say who, for obvious reasons) was doing an after-hours visit to check-up on some of the Marines last week, we’re talking 2100’ish on a Thursday.  The Chief’s not looking for trouble–far from it, just wants to check up on the shop before weekend liberty and make sure everyone’s doing alright.  Chief is in the barracks, on the top deck floor where the section’s at, and hears shouts and screams coming from down the hall.  Not like roughhousing screams, but hysterical, “Joker killed Robin and it’s hilarious because Batman couldn’t do anything about It” screams.

Terrifying.  Chief is frozen. 

The envisioned worst-case scenario for a pre-barracks walkthrough was that “Thirsty Thursdays” might have started early, requiring timely intervention to prevent Marines from showing up to Friday’s moto-run hungover (again)…but insane-person laughter was something else entirely.  The Chief tiptoes down the hall in a state of great trepidation – the hysterics having subdued somewhat – and locates the room where the offending noise is coming from.  If it had not been for the fact that the door was dead-bolted open, Chief might have just crept away (really, Chief?!) rather than face this unnerving situation. 

Thankfully for our story’s sake, curiosity carried the day, and when Chief slowly opened the door, a truly remarkable panorama was on display:

A gaggle of young Marines were crammed into the room, huddled around a single, non-government issue holopad (strike one), which was streaming a commercial holo (strike two) of a morbidly obese cat sitting in a too-small box.  The hapless holo-tabby cast a baleful glance at the recorder, as if disproving of the Marines howling at its predicament.  No sooner had the Chief registered this initial scene, but the holo changed to what appeared to be a pocket beagle struggling down a flight of stairs in a lobster outfit.

Gleeful shouting roared forth with renewed intensity until–

“WHAT THE - ?!!!”

The holo disappeared and was replaced with an uncomfortable, frozen silence.
Unsure of what he had just seen but knowing some action was required – the Chief laid into the Marines as only Marine staff NCOs can…I wish I could have been there. 

Hearing this story over a beer at the O-club, I realized that there was more catharsis and less comedy in the telling than either of us intended.  Nonetheless, it reveals a side of the war in 2050 that you won’t see in the official records.  You can stop the contraband and you can crush alcohol abuse, but good luck keeping junior Marines away from their media…more beer for us old folks. 

I lead with that story for two reasons:

1) Because even in this horrible war there are still moments of levity.  We ask the Marines to kill (they do, well), but that does not mean they are not like their brothers, sisters, trans, etc. back home that get a kick out of inane holos.  This ties to point two…

2) …we still haven’t learned our lesson about the perils of media tech from the 2020’s .
Don’t get me wrong, I love my Marines and being a company commander has been the most challenging (and rewarding) experience of my career to-date, but explaining the fight to a younger generation is a challenge.  If the average PFC-LCpl is 18-20 years old, that means they were born in 2030-2032 and were a decade removed from the painful lessons of the Sino-American War (read as:  debacle) of 2019-21…they cannot fathom the banal danger of an unsecured holo-projector in the barracks.

It’s like how a century ago, scientists were just learning how to split the atom and how X-rays work.  Took a few years before folks realized that the same ‘miracle’ technology that helped you spot a broken bone on a screen would later kill you with cancer.  Fifty years ago, our parent’s parents were still in the halcyon days of the internet, when “smart” technology was in its infancy and units could publish social media content with minimal scrutiny.

I had to explain how Pops, in his role as the original Capt Kinsey, could “post” deployment pictures back in the early 2000’s (Oh yeah, post-WWII Okinawa was actually a non-combat deployment?!) snorkeling, doing unit runs, eating sushi or whatever, in order to make families back home feel safe and happy about their forward-deployed Marines. 

Harmless, good PR, no?

Too bad for the Marines of 2020 that they never realized the digital vulnerabilities they were creating for themselves until it was too late.  When the troops had deployed for stability ops to the “Pen” in 2019, they expected some interference from the Chinese, and nobody was massively surprised when myPay got hacked, or that attacks spread to the major banks serving military members (USAA, Navy Fed, etc.). 

In hindsight, the clumsy efforts against financial institutions were a deliberate ploy to take the ball off of the real target:  an increasingly fractured American public.  As our nascent Cyber Command focused efforts on reinforcing major infrastructure (financial institutions, power grids, etc.), it diverted focus from a much more insidious campaign against public opinion.  A spouse in San Diego received an anonymous email from a “sister in the silent ranks” showing what appeared to be her husband in relations with an Asian prostitute; meanwhile, her husband’s battalion commander tried to console his straight-A student daughter who had applied (electronically) to several universities and was accepted to none.  Startup viral media outlets were able to generate quick media revenue when they displayed convincing, albeit raw, grainy, footage of apparent atrocities by U.S. forces along the Korean/Chinese border.  It didn’t matter that AFW could quickly broadcast video footage to dispute these claims – the only people that watched those videos were the military families who had more immediate crises to deal with on the home front. 

So the Korean misadventure ended almost as quickly as it began, a relatively bloodless opening victory from an assertive China, emboldening future military victories that would become anything but.  Yeah I’m preaching to the choir, but I sometimes wonder how much could we have stopped before Hawaii, andddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddddd
Fang’s brow furrowed.

For an eighth time the woman, or machine, or whatever it, was froze in the middle of its tedious writing, requiring emergency action to prevent a full synaptic failure.  His team would review the attempt (45 minutes, 37 seconds, almost five minutes longer than the previous session!), the coders would take diagnostics and reset the sequence, learning a little more with each repetition.

As a grad student at MIT in the interwar years Fang had seen some pretty impressive research on positronic AI, but this blew it out of the water…well beyond theoretical.  He had justified his little experiments on detainees that the Ministry of State Security felt had outlived their usefulness with vague promises of learning more about the enemy.  Never had he considered that the Party’s briefings about casualty-adverse Americans turning to synthetics was anything more than propaganda.   This woman-thing seemed so real though, her concerns so authentic.  Perhaps the only remaining salient difference between proper AI and an enhanced human was how best to exploit it...


Fang was startled from his reverie. 
“Sir, we estimate we can get three, perhaps five more evolutions before full synaptic degradation, but the risk of irreversible nerve dam-”
Fang cut him off with a wave of his hand.
“Prep the subject, inform me when we are ready to test again.”
He was already walking towards the exit, and had seen enough to know that the reports of growing desperation by the American enemy might have merit.  More importantly, his future within the Party was all but secure.  He was already imagining the triumphant message he would send home to his wife, and by extension the web monitors who policed the holonets.  He would be sure to highlight his contributions, but couch them in terms that would convincingly demonstrate his devotion to the cause, removing any lingering suspicions from his time studying abroad…
“Oh what a miraculous day for the Party and our loyal family!”

About the Author(s)

Eric Hovey is a Marine intelligence officer who has deployed with both the air and ground combat element.  He earned his undergraduate degrees in Anthropology and Philosophy from the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign) and a Masters in Program Management from the Naval Postgraduate School.  He is forever grateful for his wife, Nancy, who indulges his reading and writing habit and is excited to be a new dad.