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Meet the armored soldiers and nuclear artillery of a future war that never was

The first half of the 20th century saw war unlike any that had transpired before. Elements were the same: people still fought over ideas and land, and it was still infantry on foot and civilians that did most of the dying. But the weapons! Fantastical, horrific weapons, like the machine guns that turned trench warfare from protracted stalemate to meat grinder, and fighters and bombers that burned through the skies. Or the armored tanks, which lumbered into history in the Western Front and then defined history from 1939 to 1945, changing centuries of prior thinking on how best to seize victory. From the vantage point of the middle of the 20th century, the coming decades of war seemed almost certain to be a new bloody spectacle, powered by technological marvels.

We have a prescriptive document from that era, just into the second decade of the Cold War, imagining exactly what future wars will looks like. This snapshot is “Soldier of the Futurarmy,” an essay published in the November 1956 issue of ARMY, a magazine from the Association of the United States Army. Its author was Robert B. Rigg, a Lieutenant Colonel in the U.S. Army who was sent as an observer to watch Soviet forces in World War II and as an advisor to the Nationalist army in China in 1947. “Futurarmy” doesn’t appear to draw much from either of these experiences, except for when it envisions one foe of the future as communist guerrillas. Instead, “Futurarmy” is a direct look into ways war might change, written specifically for an audience familiar with modern war. And, taken as a whole, it serves to answer one big, unsettled question: is there still a place for infantry in a nuclear war?

Yes, Rigg answers enthusiastically, and devotes the rest of his story to explaining exactly how infantry fit into tomorrow. Key to this will be modern technologies, and Rigg is fast to propose them; there are at least 80 different new machines, vehicles, weapons, rations, and other pieces of equipment invented entirely for this future vision. Yet the heart of the soldier remains the same: it is still a person, wearing effective but lightweight armor, carrying a gun into battle. Some of those technologies are realized today: while Rigg imagined a medieval-inspired helmet with special visors for night vision or telescopically looking at a distance, modern soldiers have infrared and night-vision goggles they can wear over their modern helmets, giving the same advantages. Others are more fantastical, like the ten-inch “foxhole digger” bazooka like-contraption, which a soldier could use to dig himself a safe spot in a moment’s notice.

And then there is the question of tactical nuclear weapons.

“The only thing [Rigg] got wrong in a tactical concept sense is that we would use nukes in a tactical way,” said Brett Friedman. Friedman is veteran, who now works as a civilian wargame analyst at the Marine Corps Warfighting Lab. His new book “On Tactics” examines continuity between…

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