Dune, le mégafilm de Denis Villeneuve, fait un tabac sur les écrans américains, mais Wired rappelle que le livre dont il est tiré, le chef-d’œuvre de science-fiction de Frank Herbert, publié en 1965, fait toujours le bonheur d’un groupe particulier de lecteurs : les agents de la CIA et la foule des analystes des douze agences de renseignement américaines. Pour une simple raison : l’œuvre, bourrée de génie et de superpuissances interstellaires acharnées à occuper de lointaines planètes désertiques, offre la description la plus prémonitoire et la plus pertinente qui soit des conflits d’Irak et d’Afghanistan, et de leur issue : la défaite des géants technologiques contre, oui, des vers de terre géants et carnassiers, mais surtout contre “des autochtones spartiates” adeptes des embuscades et de la “guerre asymétrique”. Dune, selon l’article, est au programme des lectures obligatoires dans certaines classes d’écoles militaires. - Présentation de Courrier International
Just before his deployment to Iraq in 2003, Ryan Kort spotted a paperback copy of Dune in a bookstore near Fort Riley, Kansas. The 23-year-old second lieutenant was intrigued by the book’s black cover, with an inset image of a desert landscape next to the title and the silhouettes of two robed figures walking across the sand. Despite its 800-plus pages, its small print made it a relatively compact cubic object. So he bought it and carried it with him to the Gulf, the only novel he packed in his rucksack along with his Army manuals and field guides.
Kort read the book during moments of downtime over the next weeks, as he led his platoon of 15 soldiers and four tanks through the Kuwaiti desert, and later when they took up residence in a powerless, abandoned building in Baghdad. It told the story of a young man who leaves a lush green world and arrives on the far more dangerous and arid planet of Arrakis, which holds beneath its sands a critical resource for all of the universe’s competing great powers. (“At the time, when people said ‘This is a war for oil,’ I would kind of roll my eyes at them,” he notes regarding the Iraq War. “I don’t roll my eyes about that anymore.”)
The parallels felt uncanny, he remembers. As the call to prayer rose up around him one afternoon in that darkened building in Iraq’s capital, he says he sensed a connection to Dune. Reading the book felt almost like seeing into a larger story that mirrored the one in which he was playing a small part. “Something in the book really clicked,” he says. “It transcended the moment I was in.”
Kort would become a Dune fanatic, reading and rereading Frank Herbert’s entire six-book series. But it was only years later, after his second deployment to Iraq—a far tougher tour of duty in which he was stationed in a hotbed of Sunni insurgency, with his troops repeatedly hit by roadside bombs—that he began to see deeper similarities.
After all, in Dune it’s the native Fremen whose insurgent, guerrilla tactics ultimately prove superior. Not those of the Atreides protagonists, the Harkonnen villains, or even the galactic emperor and his spartan Sardaukar warriors. No matter which analogy you choose for the United States—or whether the Fremen in that analogy are Iraqi or Afghan—the insurgents outmatch or outlast the superpower.
“You look at it now and you think to yourself, well, of course the lessons are there, right? We’ve learned that a preponderance of technology doesn’t guarantee success. That the military element of national power alone can’t secure your objectives at times,” says Kort, who today serves as a strategic planning and policy officer for the Army. “There are these messy human characteristics in there, where people have honor and interest bound up into it. And the adversary is sometimes willing to pay higher costs.”
In the decades since Herbert published Dune, in 1965, the book’s ecological, psychological, and spiritual themes have tended to get the credit for its breakout success beyond a hardcore sci-fi audience. In his own public commentary on the book, Herbert focused above all on its environmental messages, and he later became a kind of ecological guru, turning his home in Washington state, which he called Xanadu, into a DIY renewable energy experiment.
But reading Dune a half century later, when many of Herbert’s environmental and psychological ideas have either blended into the mainstream or gone out of style—and in the wake of the disastrous fall of the US-backed government in Afghanistan after a 20-year war—it’s hard not to be struck, instead, by the book’s focus on human conflict: an intricate, deeply detailed world of factions relentlessly vying for power and advantage by exploiting every tool available to them. And it’s Herbert’s vision of that future that is now revered by a certain class of sci-fi-reading geek in the military and intelligence community, war nerds who see the book as a remarkably prescient lens for understanding conflict on a global scale.
Written even before the advent of America’s war in Vietnam, Dune captures a world in which war is inherently asymmetric, where head-on, conventional military conflict has largely been replaced with all the subtler ways that humans seek to dominate one another: insurgency and counterinsurgency, sabotage and assassination, diplomacy, espionage and treachery, proxy wars and resource control. For the military officers and intelligence analysts who still read and reread Dune today, it presents an uncanny reflection of the state of geopolitical competition in 2021—from the pitfalls of regime change to the terra incognita of cyberwar.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, I brushed the dust off of an original Dune board game I had found in my late father’s house, a pristine cardboard relic released in 1979 that sat untouched on a shelf in my office for two years. The game, whose object is to conquer the entire territory of Arrakis, seemed like a helpful way to understand Dune’s microcosm of galactic conflict. So I persuaded some unsuspecting friends to try it.
It quickly became clear that, rather than simplifying Dune’s dynamics, the game aggressively leans into the book’s Talmudic complexity. Opting for the “basic” rather than “advanced” version of the rules, it still took two and a half hours for us to get through the first turn. Understanding any card required consulting a reference sheet that read like the fine print on a credit card statement. Rules had caveats, caveats had exceptions. And every player seemed to be able to break the rules in different ways. The Atreides player could look at cards that remained face down for the rest of us. Sandworms destroyed all the armies they touched, except the Fremen’s, who could ride them around the board. The Harkonnen player periodically revealed that other players’ characters were actually traitors secretly working for him.
A spartan native population disillusioned with invaders after a previous superpower's incursion: The parallels between Dune and Afghanistan were difficult to avoid.
Different sides even had their own paths to victory: The Fremen could win by preventing anyone else from winning. The Bene Gesserit player, representing Dune’s genetically engineered order of psycho-manipulative illuminati, wrote down a prediction before the first turn, guessing which player would win and when. If that prediction came true, they would win instead. The conflict wasn’t merely asymmetric; each player was in some sense playing a different game.
Dune’s vision of human struggle might appear on its face to be the opposite of the world in which Herbert lived in 1965, when two superpowers seemed locked in an existential stalemate. But the Cold War’s threat of mutual nuclear annihilation set the stage for the era of unconventional warfare that Herbert saw so clearly. In Dune, the Great Houses have signed a convention against the use of atomic weapons. That results in warring powers—namely the Atreides and Harkonnens—resorting to exactly the sort of restricted, covert, deceptive tactics that defined modern conflict during the Cold War and ever since.
“You have two parties that have no recourse but violent conflict. But you also have norms that mean violence must be as narrowly constrained through as tight an aperture as possible,” says Alex Orleans, a threat intelligence analyst at security firm CrowdStrike and a former analyst under contract at the Department of Homeland Security, who arrived to our interview with seven single-spaced pages of notes about Dune’s lessons for national security. “And so the idea becomes to engage in very limited, discrete, clandestine operations.”
In Dune, Herbert creates a term for that not-quite-war: kanly, defined in the book’s glossary (yes, it has a glossary) as a “formal feud or vendetta under the rules of the Great Convention, carried on according to the strictest limitations.” Just as the Harkonnens plant hunter-seeker assassination bots in the Atreides compound and the Emperor hides his Sardaukar supersoldiers in Harkonnen uniforms, Orleans sees kanly today in everything from US drone strikes to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine with “little green men” wearing no insignia.
The term kanly itself gives one hint of where Herbert pulled some of his ideas of unconventional warfare: It’s a word for “blood feud” used for centuries by some Islamic tribes of the Caucasus, which Herbert read about in historian Lesley Blanch’s 1960 book The Sabres of Paradise, an epic chronicle of those tribes’ brutal and mismatched war with Russian imperialist invaders. Herbert explicitly borrowed from that history: His Fremen speak Chakobsa, named for a language from the Caucasus, and entire lines from Blanch’s text end up in the mouths of Dune’s characters.
But in the Caucasus, the Russian invaders eventually won. In the Vietnam War, which Herbert would cover as a reporter for the Hearst newswire only years after writing Dune and its first sequel, Dune Messiah, the insurgents did. In Dune, Herbert placed his bet on the insurgents. “If you’d said in the wake of World War II that the United States would lose a war to guerrillas who didn’t have an air force or navy or even really heavy weapons, people would have just thought that you were insane,” says Major General Mick Ryan, commander of the Australian Defence College and author of the forthcoming book War Transformed. “But Dune did kind of presage that, didn’t it?”
For Ryan and other Dune-reading soldiers, the two wars in Iraq and the war in Afghanistan were even clearer echoes of Herbert’s vision. When Ryan describes serving as the commander of the Australian Army’s Reconstruction Task Force in Afghanistan’s Oruzgan Province in 2006 and 2007, he finds the parallels with Dune difficult to avoid. A spartan native population disillusioned with invaders after a previous superpower’s incursion, with the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan standing in for years of Harkonnen rule on Arrakis. Young locals whose tribal code of honor dictated that every casualty among them be avenged. The same cultural divisions—and the wholly different games each side was playing—always making victory more elusive than it first appeared.
Today, even in the wake of the Taliban’s victory in Afghanistan, Dune reads just as much like a parable about the growing tensions between China and other world powers, says Lieutenant Colonel Nate Finney, a former lead China planner for the US Army in Hawaii who’s now getting a doctorate in history at Duke University. In that analogy, it’s the Chinese who are the Atreides, a rising power threatening to shuffle the galactic order but trying to do so carefully, within the bounds of its rules. “When I started to see the interstellar politics of Dune and why certain houses are doing certain things, it just jumped out at me,” Finney says.
Compared to other works of sci-fi popular among military thinkers—he cites Ender’s Game and Starship Troopers—Finney says Herbert’s invented universe uniquely captures the human messiness and sheer complexity of conflict in the real world. “It’s really about the interesting, hard part of war. It’s not ‘a nuclear bomb goes off and this many millions of people die’ or ‘this plane can fly this far and drop this type of munitions’ or ‘this is the size of the army we need to hold a country.’ What Herbert was looking at was the human aspect,” Finney says. “When it comes to that human experience of war and politics and human interaction, in my mind, it’s Dune.”
Ryan, the commander of Australia’s Defence College, says he has included Herbert’s novel on his recommended reading lists for years for the same reason. “I think Dune is a very complete story for those who want to study war and human competition as a phenomenon,” he says. He compares its lessons to those of Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War in their timelessness. “It looks at big strategic ideas and it looks at motivators for people, whether it’s ideology, whether it’s greed, whether it’s the old Greek ‘fear, honor, and interest,’” Ryan says, quoting Thucydides. “Dune represents the world as it is: a very complex, sometimes beautiful, sometimes awful thing.”
Amid all its predictions, Dune avoids thinking about how computers, the internet, and AI would reshape the world 25,000 years in the future. Herbert skirts that question by inventing a rebellion against an all-powerful sentient computer thousands of years before the events of Dune, leading to a galactic ban on “thinking machines.” The book sums up that future history in a single aphorism: “Once men turned their thinking over to machines in the hope that this would set them free. But that only permitted other men with machines to enslave them.”
But the contemporary era of cyberespionage and cyberwar has, in reality, provided yet another domain for Dune’s kanly to play out. That domain has, in some senses, proven to be the one where Herbert’s lessons about nonconventional tactics are the most apt of all, where deception, deniability, and asymmetric warfare thrive outside strictures of global conventions.
In 2014, cybersecurity threat intelligence firm iSight Partners discovered a group of Russian-speaking hackers carrying out what appeared to be a widespread espionage campaign focused on Eastern Europe. In their malware, the hackers had included strings of text to identify victims: arrakis02, BasharoftheSardaukars, SalusaSecundus2, epsiloneridani0. All references to Dune. Drew Robinson, an iSight analyst who worked on reverse-engineering the malware, remembers thinking, “Whoever these hackers were, it seems like they’re Frank Herbert fans.”
The analysts at iSight gave the hackers a fitting name: Sandworm, after the giant subterranean monsters that roam the deserts of Arrakis. Over the next four years, members of Sandworm planted their malware in the US power grid, targeted Ukrainian electric utilities with the first- and second-ever cyberattacks to trigger blackouts, attempted to sabotage the 2018 Winter Olympics while framing North Korea for the deed, helped carry out hack-and-leak operations against US and French political candidates, and unleashed a strain of self-spreading destructive malware known as NotPetya that inflicted $10 billion in damage globally, the most destructive act of cyberwar ever seen.
In their malware, the hackers had included strings of text to identify victims: arrakis02, BasharoftheSardaukars. All references to Dune.
In 2018, after iSight Partners had been acquired by the security giant FireEye and I was a year into tracking Sandworm for a book about the group, FireEye’s director of intelligence analysis, John Hultquist, sat at his kitchen table and laid out the evidence identifying its members: All signs, he said, pointed to Sandworm being Unit 74455 of the GRU, Russia’s military intelligence agency, a theory that would be confirmed by US and UK intelligence only last year.
In the same conversation, Hultquist also explained what he, after four years of analyzing Sandworm attacks, had come to believe were the group’s motives: They were carrying out a kind of guerrilla warfare much like what he’d faced while serving in Iraq and Afghanistan more than a decade prior. Rather than declare open war on the international order, Russia was using digital means to undermine it with brazen but deniable acts of cyber sabotage. “The reason you carry out terrorism is rarely to kill those particular victims,” Hultquist told me. “That’s never why someone tried to hit me with an IED. It’s about scaring the shit out of people so they lose the will to fight or change their mind about the legitimacy of their own security service, or overreact.”
In other words, Russia’s Sandworm hackers were experimenting with a fresh form of asymmetric warfare against a dominant power. After 50 years, Dune’s ideas had found new life again—not in the minds of that ruling power’s military analysts but in the minds of those seeking to topple it.