Shock and Yawn

Foreign Policy is a terrible magazine. As of today I promise to never, ever link to another FP article (yay!) and it is officially being de-listed from my reader (hip-hip!). This is all for my personal health, you understand. In a world increasingly characterized by violence, chaos, and genocide, to say nothing of persistent poverty and “reality” TV, I need to find small ways to tap the ridiculousness of this planet, offer a geographic perspective that “elevates the discipline”, but in a way that won’t see me dead of a heart attack by 35. Challenge ACCEPTED!

But first, I need to comment on “Silicon, Iron, and Shadow” or as I would sub-title it: “We learned nothing in a decade!” The author, educated at the U.S. Military Academy (grad. ’76) and born in 1954, betrays the biases associated with that earlier generation. This isn’t necessarily bad, but to project these biases forward as the “three wars that will define America’s future” is short-sighted and probably, wrong. The three wars are, wars of Silicon, of Iron, and in Shadows (couldn’t continue the “of, sad). Of course, this tells you nothing and keeps with the long “Western” academic and political tradition of coining phrases and sound-bites that are catchy, but short on substance.

Besides bias for glitz and show, the article focuses on American’s penchant for glitz technological fixes. Need to win a War of Silicon (i.e. cyber)? Ensure (through “aquisition” – read new toys) access to long-distance standoff for naval, ground, and air forces. Not just “cyber” though, Wars of Silicon are a “deadly trifecta of cutting-edge technology, advanced military capabilities, and substantial financial resources.” Isn’t that every new conflict, ever? Harnessing and promulgation of gun-powder? Sail? Steam? Rail road? I could imagine a similar sentiment issued at the birth of the “tank” in World War I – a new cutting-edge technology, an new advanced military capability, that happened to require substantial financial resources. My point is that this definition of Wars of Silicon is a truism, not good analysis or prediction. If I were to say that the U.S., or anybody’s military, needs to be ready to confront new technology, capabilities, whilst maintaining financial resources you’d probably say “duh.”

Then there’s the “Wars of Iron” which are supposedly different from Wars of Silicon, but aren’t really. I suppose its a different focus of the more general War. Whereas Silicon Wars could include cutting-edge tech (Silicon), Iron wars are all the stuff we’re “familiar” with tank battles, division, brigades, and so on. Think Operation Desert Storm. That our military leaders continue to emphasize that this will be the “bulk of potential conflicts” is alarming. In a human activity driven by the need for asymmetry (which is why “asymmetric” always bugged the shit out of me), to think that we’ll have something like Desert Storm in the offing is wishful thinking. I’m sure there are plenty of crazy tin-pot dictators who think their military can go toe-toe with the U.S. military in a stand-up fight, but that’s not who we should be concerned about. After all, by this very scenario we have little to fear except the casualties (of which war produces an abundance). Certainly other militaries are going to go toe-toe with each other (Georgia-Russia, 2008) but is that going to persist with U.S. involvement? Perhaps, until the conflict changes to account for U.S. superiority in a “war of iron.” The problem of our predominance is, of course, presented in material terms. We’re not investing in fighting “other wars” notably the silicon one.

Finally we have the “Wars in Shadows”, popularized by the movie Zero-Dark-Thirty. The first utterly farcical notion is that we are “well-prepared” to fight in this domain. I suppose it depends on your definition for “fight”. Can we go in and gun down folks, cowboy-style, at midnight, from helicopters, producing scores of new “terrorists” overnight without regard for implications of our actions at a more strategic level? You betcha. Can we address the roots of why we’re there in the first place? We could, probably, but it doesn’t look we’re trying very hard. There’s a counter-insurgency manual (FM 3-24) that’s a great cultural geography resource (not kidding, its in my thesis!), but given our lack of sticky success in Afghanistan and Iraq we either haven’t applied its lessons or, worse, don’t care to refine and update it. Part of the reason lies in this FP article. We’re obsessed with tech. In this example the focus is on “drones”, though it makes the case for “special operators” with actual human skills, it caveats this with adding planes and helicopters and conventional forces. And finally, this who “wars in the shadows” are presented as reactive, rather than proactive. You see the problem, the author wants you to pay for stuff to fight other states (wars of silicon/iron), while maintaining a capability for preemptive wars in the shadow.

Rather than repackaging this model of state-state conflict with the occasional state-actor conflict, the author missed an opportunity to actually tie all of these things together.

Let’s start with definitions. War, you think of World War II or Vietnam. Easy, identifiable, fits into a nice little box. This isn’t historically accurate. So I abandon that in favor of something more historical, conflict. What do you think of? Perhaps the French or American revolutions, perhaps Darfur, Rwanda or Bosnia. But let’s expand it further, include the cyber “warfare”, the Silicon war, into this conflict. We can add in things like the Abbottabad raid and other one-off sorties. Conceptualizing conflict in this way we can break out of the out-dated (from World War II) model of warfare. That model witnessed the “West’s” superiority, so its understandable why we would want to cling to it (irrational, but understandable). But since every, rational, state seeks to gain unfair advantages in conflict (asymmetry) we should expand our own model to account for, let’s face it, the things we suck at: cyber (Silicon) and insurgency (not really shadow). That the article doesn’t even address this type of warfare leaves me speechless, perhaps they couldn’t figure out a catchy name?

Wars of the Flea, to borrow the book title. Could you imagine one military, say the U.S., facing off against another state’s military with an established policy to immediately go insurgent? States built upon previous insurgencies, like China, have literally written books on that method of warfare. THAT should be a future war of concern to the U.S., because it combines the resources (economic, political, demographic) and power available to a state (which isn’t typically available to a non-state entity) with the novelty of being a method of warfare that we not only have demonstrated ineptitude at dealing with, have now disavowed as a possible future. Appalling is one word to describe it. Part of the problem, moreover, is that the article’s (and the U.S.’s) fascination with techy fixes. Insurgency isn’t solved with techy fixes. The “hearts and minds” approach does. But one wonders if the U.S. military is the right organization to engage in this approach, or if it even wants to.

The U.S. needs to figure out what the military does, or doesn’t. After this the government needs to figure out a unified conflict strategy that accounts for the various levers of American power and how it can be used to bend another country’s political will, at least in situations when negotiations and direct engagement (diplomacy) fail. Violent conflict using the military is just one facet of U.S. power. For a unified conflict strategy to work, it needs to have the right components to apply the various forces. If the U.S. decides that the military is for killing and maiming, only, then so be it. But will such an organization beat an insurgency? Yes, if it breaks the Geneva Conventions. Since the U.S. isn’t looking to break those documents, it won’t. So some other organization needs to fill that role. Taken one way, the FP article doesn’t talk (at all) about things like development. Yet “development” exists within the military, there are doctors, corpsmen, and civil affairs, not to mention the “special operators.” One wonders if the author is silently agreeing with the point that the U.S. military can’t, and doesn’t want to, deal with non-combat aspects of insurgency.

In my thesis I talk about the need for development and security to solve an insurgency puzzle. The application here is obvious. The U.S. military needs to be involved in counter-insurgency, at least in what it does best, killing and maiming (read: provide security). But perhaps USAID and the State Department need an expanded role in counter-insurgency? The practical application of that question is more money for non-security “counter-insurgency” operations.

Conflict, to include “war,” is the application of multiple levers of state power, to include new military technologies and tactics, to bend another country’s government to a desired political outcome. The funny thing is, this has been war/conflict all along. But we’ve forgotten or unlearned that (very old) lesson. The U.S. wanted its independence so colonists refused to fight on-line with the British. Why would we stand toe-to-toe with drilled regulars? If your people know the land, are better shots, and there’s fewer, play to your strengths. In the end this new “tactic” bent the British political will to our desired outcome. In the next war, perhaps a government threatens to shut off the power in New England during Christmas, or Russia decides to switch off the oil to the Baltic (wait a second…), aren’t these acts of aggression? To illustrate our unlearning this lesson, see Vietnam. Militarily the U.S. and its allies smashed the Tet Offensive, yet ultimately lost the war. Why? Because North Vietnam “won” American hearts and minds. They understood, after all they beat French years before, that shaking the political power in the “West” isn’t through a military defeat, which would be largely impossible, its through making the public believe it was plausible. With the Tet Offensive, North Vietnam convinced Americans that it was a pointless, fruitless affair.

The Geography of Conflict (War) has changed, the Vietnam War exemplified this. And the U.S. still hasn’t caught on. It hasn’t caught on to the real geographic meaning behind Abu Gharib, it understands that people are upset with the atrocities there. But it doesn’t grasp the geographical and temporal implications. Those pictures got out and immediately reached eyes from Los Angeles to Phnom Phenh. A singular tactical engagement, say an attempted bombing of the British High Commissioner in Sylhet, Bangladesh, can be disseminated throughout the known world, immediately. These incidents might seem to be militarily, tactically insignificant. But a string of these “minor” events, have meaning at a much smaller (wider) scale. Drawing back on the Bangladesh example, the 17 August 2005 countrywide bombings (a bomb went off in almost all 63 districts) resulted in 2 deaths and limited damage to businesses or anything else. Militarily these bombings were completely insignificant. But the coordination to make them all explode within 30 minutes of one another, across the entire country, was an obvious strategic statement. What about less obvious things? Examining the wealth of data (which simply takes time, a pair of eyes, and half a brain) bombing patterns emerge. In Bangladesh, bombs typically targeted one of only a few venues: the main (at the time) opposition party, the Awami League, movie cinemas and local celebrations, and offices of Bangladeshi-run non-governmental organizations. Of course, this data was only available in hindsight and the bombings themselves occurred over years. But the lesson was still there: whoever was doing it had a strategic goal in mind. The group was targeting the center-left, most “secular” political party. It was targeting symbols of a “decadent” Bengali culture, films and “obscene” village plays. It was targeting NGOs working for the advancement of… women.

None of this made it into the Foreign Policy article. So let’s compare. One scenario of America’s future war is three different conflicts characterized by high-technology enabled warfare, top-down state-state fights, and limited brush-fire engagements. The other scenario is an actual revolution in military affairs, where America finds itself drawn (against its isolationist tendency) into another internal conflict, we’ll arrive late (like Kuwait) but confident of a quick victory. After all, we have technology! We arrive, but the Marines land unopposed. The Air Force enforces a no-fly zone on no one in particular. And the Navy sits, at harbor, bored. Where 50,000 enemy combatants should have at least provided something of a greeting, there are crickets instead. Except they’re not crickets, they’re fleas. And these “fleas” look suspiciously like the locals. They’re militarily-trained but the tactics are completely unfair, they should stand in line! Fight in red, I mean digital camouflage, uniforms like we do! And the U.S. public shall know, via Twitter and Facebook, that there is no hope to fight this enemy that I shall call North Chirania. And we shall leave.

And then like every good insurgency eventually does, they fill the power vacuum. They don their uniforms, and establish their insurgent state which makes use of the existing infrastructure and state apparatuses but isn’t the state.

And the U.S. asks questions of itself, and buys another Joint Strike Fighter.


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