In the first post of this year I started out with a bit of video by Adam Curtis, which mentions Russia’s use of “nonlinear war” to create confusion in its enemies. I said it reminded me of the ideas of John Boyd, because he talks about mismatches a lot: The importance of minimising mismatches between your perception of external reality and its actual nature, and maximising same for your enemies.
After writing that post, Alper shared an article criticising Adam Curtis. In it, Dan Hancox says Curtis imposes his (overly simplistic) world view on us, while dressing it up as revealing journalism. Along the way he mentions this LRB article by James Meek on the British campaign in Afghanistan’s Helmand region. It makes for an intriguing read. To mention two things:
- Meek talks about how there was a mismatch (my words, not his) between the concepts that made up the British doctrine, and the nature of the reality they encountered. For example, they were unable to account for a large part of the population resisting them.
- Meek also talks about the British army’s inability to learn in peacetime. There seems to be a lack of interest for intellectual analysis and the development of new ideas.
The same day I finished reading Meek I watched Restrepo, a documentary about a US platoon in Afghanistan’s Korengal Valley. One of the things that stood out for me was the apparent mismatch (again, my words) between how the US forces we follow in the doc conceptualise their opponent, and what we know about their true nature. They often talk about Al-Qaeda as if it is some well-organised army mirroring their own, when as with British in the Helmand, we can see that more often than not they are being resisted (while sometimes simultaneously being exploited) by a local populace who does not consider them bringers of freedom and prosperity.
The feeling crept up on me that part of what is going on with those US soldiers may also be wilful ignorance, because for them that almost seems the only way to be able to keep fighting. (They go home broken men regardless though, it is terrible to see the change in them wrought by such violence.)
All the same, conceiving of your opponent as a well-ordered force which can at some point be decisively defeated, plays into the enemy’s hands. It also misunderstands the nature of contemporary warfare, which isn’t a contest of technology, but a war of ideas. This is also what is mentioned in Curtis’s film, when he talks about Surkov’s nonlinear war.
I later dug up a Foreign Policy article which delves even deeper into the nature of Russia’s approach to warfare. Reading it, a picture emerges that the Kremlin may very well understand nonwestern perspectives on the current world order better than the west does, which they leverage to their benefit. Or, if this understanding is present in the west, then the Russians are simply better able at acting in accordance with it.
Peter Pomerantsev, the article’s author, says we can compare the Kremlin’s view of globalisation as a sort of corporate raiding, “the ultra-violent, post-Soviet version of corporate takeovers.” Even if Russia is weak, technologically speaking, through nonlinear war it can leverage its relative weakness. And if we think Russia is isolated, we might be too eager to stick to our own view of globalisation as (again) a liberating influence which brings prosperity to less developed nations. According to Pomerantsev, BRIC countries see the “global village” as a rigged game (justifiably so, I would add), thus they have no issues with Russia not playing by the (that is to say the west’s) rules.
In short, Russia seems to have a more sophisticated grasp of contemporary warfare as a war of ideas than the west does.
Circling back to Boyd, in the final section of Osinga’s book on the Mad Major he refers to a 1989 article by Bill Lind, one of Boyd’s associates, which talks about idea-driven fourth-generation warfare. Its practitioners wage protracted asymmetric war. For these actors it is a political, not a military struggle.
Lind says the battlefield has shifted from one of order, to a battlefield of disorder. But western military organisations are still organised on first-generation principles, operating in an orderly fashion, in stead of being structured so that they can deal with and leverage disorder.
Osinga also talks about Van Creveld, who makes the point that for these 4GW practitioners, war is an end, not a means. Western rules do not apply to their conception of the struggle. War does not serve a policy, it is policy. In addition, war is not fought in the technological dimension but in the moral dimension.
All of this leaves me even more conflicted about contemporary warfare than I already was. (And let me say here that my interest in the subject comes not from bloodlust but an almost naive desire for world peace, or at least an ever-increasing diminishment of suffering. But I try to face reality regardless.) Perhaps one of the most troubling implications is that for us to have a chance at “winning”, we need to abandon our old rules of conduct.
This is the type of essentially illegal war being engaged in by the US, as documented in Dirty Wars. I was and still am appalled by the practices of remote warfare described therein. But having read all of the above it now also makes a perverse kind of sense. If you’re at war with non-state actors, you are at a severe disadvantage if you must adhere to international laws and the sovereignty of states.
The alternative—if we accept that for us war is a means towards an end but for our adversaries war is an end in itself—is to exercise a much larger amount of restraint as nations, even in the face of all manner of terrorism, than we ever have before. Sometimes Obama’s drone program is framed as this more restrained, controlled response to terror, but I can’t help but think that any kind of violent response plays into our enemy’s hands, as today’s drone strikes clearly do.
And anyway, remote warfare misses the point about the shift from technology to ideas: We’ll never “win” if we don’t start to make convincing arguments about the morality (but not moral supremacy) of our way of life to those populations effectively being held hostage by those actors benefiting from perpetual war.
Because, if we hope to win by abandoning things that made us who we are (the rule of law, democracy, economic and social justice) in many ways we are already defeated.