A Battlefield of Disorder

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.