BOOK REVIEW / Smart armour takes on soft-skin troops: 'War and Anti-War' - Alvin and Heidi Toffler: Little Brown, 16.99 pounds

WE TEND to think that human nature dislikes war, but history encourages the opposite view. There are many things we dislike even more: wounded national pride, ethnic, religious or economic humiliation, territorial setbacks and thwarted greed - just to name a few. A visiting alien, scanning recent newspaper headlines, might easily conclude that armed combat was our favourite hobby.

At times war is just, well, something to do. The 17th-century poet Thomas Traherne knew as much in relating the following story about Pyrrhus, King of Epirus: 'Having conceived a purpose to invade Italy, he sent for Cineas, a philosopher and the King's friend, to whom he communicated his design and desired his counsel. Cineas asked him to what purpose he invaded Italy? He said, to conquer it. And what will you do when you have conquered it? Go into France and conquer that. And what will you do when you have conquered France? Conquer Germany. And what then? said the philosopher. Conquer Spain. I perceive, said Cineas, you mean to conquer all the world. What will you do when you have conquered all? Why then, said the King, we will return, and enjoy ourselves at quiet in our own land. So you may now, said the philosopher, without all this ado.'

Traherne makes war seem majestically unnecessary but, as the Tofflers point out in their noisy new book, it is not quite so simple. They begin and end with a sombre text from Trotsky: 'You may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.' To be anti-war is morally satisfying, but if peace activists fail to keep up with new military habits, they risk being marginalised. The Tofflers dismiss the utopian idea that wars can be prevented only if its causes - famine, poverty, injustice, corruption - are solved. Instead they suggest some new strategies for peace.

In their previous books, Future Shock and The Third Wave, the Tofflers sketched a portrait of our brave new, fast new world. They identified the first wave of human history as agrarian, the second as industrial, and the third as electronic. In battlefield terms, this translates into the first wave being spears and sticks, the second being machine guns, and the third being snazzy computerised robots. The Tofflers concentrate their fire on their main thesis, which they repeat ad nauseam: the way we make war reflects the way we make wealth; the age of mass-production was also the age of mass-destruction. This seems shatteringly obvious, but never mind.

Our first glimpse of the new military culture was seen, they argue, in the special effects we saw on television during the Gulf war. The Tofflers have talked to generals and strategists, and paint a remarkable picture of warfare in the future; non-lethal intrasound generators that give the enemy weak bowels and a headache; pilotless planes; ant-sized robots that can swarm into sensitive installations and destroy them; 'dream mines' that can sense enemy machines and dart across the ground like rattlesnakes to blow them up; 'smart armour' that flies out to meet an incoming missile; eye-trigger gismos that shoot wherever the soldier is looking; special suits that allow troops to leap over buildings; anti-traction agents that slop lubricants on runways and railway tracks; bizarre glues and an expanding range of precise chemicals.

This sounds like science fiction, but is only futurology, Californian style: a special brand of frantic tabloid philosophy written in what I suppose we have to call third-wave prose. It is full of banner headlines; putting the book down for a moment is like switching off a raucous music video: 'We live at a fantastic moment of human history . . . For almost half a century the doomsday clock ticked . . . No country can create an omni-capable military . . . A single giant threat of war between superpowers is replaced by a multitude of niche threats . . . What is at issue is not simply dollars; it is human destiny.'

It would be easy to be put off by this hyperbolic claptrap, and the book will strike many readers as glib, unscholarly and too attention-grabbing by half. But there is plenty of sharpish speculative reflection, too. We are witnessing the rise of the 'soft-edged state', the Tofflers suggest; and with the rise of terrorism and separatist groups, the traditional nation-state is losing its 'monopoly of violence'. They quote Warren Christopher, the US Secretary of State, who once said: 'If we don't find some way that the different ethnic groups can live together in a country . . . we'll have 5,000 countries rather than the 100-plus we have now.' And they examine the blurring of national borders by quicksilver networks and intricate trade patterns.

Peace must keep up with all this. 'Second- wave anti-war activists,' they write, 'have spent generations campaigning against the military-industrial complex. But what happens when that converts into a civilian-military complex?' Modern armies need brains, not brawn; apart from anything else, future battlefields will be too toxic for what they call 'soft-skin' troops (that is, people). So modern peaceniks need to exploit aggressive modern tactics, or 'coherent knowledge strategies'. Most of these involve high technology: some involve space; others - such as the notion of million-dollar rewards for whistleblowers - are old-fashioned. The Tofflers, disenchanted with the United Nations, even suggest the privatisation of defence: the establishment of powerful 'peace corporations' under contract to the international agencies. Perhaps they could be quoted on the stock exchange, so we could all make a killing when the fighting starts.

Third-wave combat - 'cyberwar' - is a risky business. When the fate of an army depends on the functioning of a piece of software linked to a satellite, it becomes an easy target. Locked into what the Tofflers call a war of 'competitive knowlege strategies', you have only to take out the enemy's software to guarantee victory. As one of the experts in the book says: 'In information war you can have a hundred-to-one superiority, but it can all turn on a fuse.' This world sounds like a fragile and alarming place, but exciting, too. The Tofflers' description of it is broad, concise, provocative and close to the modern pulse. A pity about their shock-horror phrasing, but you can't have everything.