Damage, Unincorporated*, Part Two: War Studies in the Shadow of the Information Bomb

I’m thinking about something much more important than bombs.
I am thinking about computers.

John von Neumann, 1946 (via The Scientific Way of Warfare)

Modern war has become too complex to be entrusted to the intuition of even our most trusted commander. Only our giant brains can calculate all the possibilities.

John Kemeny, 1961 (ditto)

‘Extreme science’ – the science which runs the incalculable risk of the disappearance of all science. As the tragic phenomenon of a knowledge which has suddenly become cybernetic, this techno-science becomes, then, as mass techno-culture, the agent not, as in the past, of the acceleration of history, but of the dizzying whirl of the acceleration of reality – and that to the detriment of all verisimilitude.

Paul Virilio, The Information Bomb (1998)

Non-Consensual Hallucinations

A recent spate of cyber-attacks, and the civilian-military responses to them, have pushed questions of collective violence, technological complexity and the very relation between war and peace into a more mainstream arena. Alongside diagnoses of the political impact of Web 2.0, the analysis of contemporary technoscience and its militarised uses seems less neophiliac marginalia than urgently-required research program. As previously indicated in Part One of this review, a number of recent works have broached this subject, and in the process have addressed themselves to the very relation between bios and technos, sometimes with the implication that the latter is on the verge of overwhelming the former. Skynet gone live!

Critical engagement with the boundaries and possibilities of Network-Centric Warfare (NCW) thus opens a range of complex problems relating to the co-constitution of war and society, the place of ethics in military analysis (and military practice) and the adequacy of standard categories of social science to world-changing inventions. To expect answers to such broad questions is perhaps to overburden with expectation. Yet it is interesting to find that both Guha and (Antoine) Bousquet, who are most concerned with the radical newness of contemporary war, implicitly operate within a rather traditional understanding of its boundaries. For both, ‘war’ means the restricted arena of battlespace, and in particular that battlespace as viewed by the soldiers and generals of the United States of America.

James Der Derian is intrigued by many of the same questions, but his view is more expansive, and his diagnosis of the connection between NCW and international politics generally more comprehensive. The second edition of Virtuous War is an update of a text first released in 2001 and, despite most of the content being more than a decade old (there is a new prologue and several fresh chapters), it stands up extremely well to the challenge of later works.

For Der Derian, new technologies of war are best conceived of, following Dwight D. Eisenhower’s designation of a Military-Industrial Complex, as part of a wider system: a Military-Industrial-Media-Entertainment Network. Virtuous War chronicles more than a decade of investigations into this ‘MIME-NET’, and Der Derian quite explicitly sets the book up as a montage of methods and styles: part travelogue; part introduction to French ‘virtual theory’ (Virilio, Baudrillard, Deleuze); part personal history; part political critique. It is, he says, “as much a detective story as a cautionary tale”, one built on the twin figures of Friedrich Nietzsche – for recognising the nihilistic and the virtuous in the relation between real and virtual – and Walter Benjamin – for recognising the power of mimesis in virtuality and war. As well as several extended interview transcripts, there are also pictures and admissions of where the recording equipment malfunctioned or notes scribbled on a cocktail napkin got lost.

So we follow him to places that are not usually touched by traditional war studies: to Operation ‘Urban Warrior’, a grand virtual war staged in the Bay area in 1999, complete with faked (as well as real) protests; to the 2000 Republican and Democrat National Conventions and to collaborations between Hollywood producers, military planners and academics in Southern California. Der Derian most often directs us to training exercises and the rhetorics of military revolution as set out by figures like Cebrowksi, and so involves the reader in a series of overlaps between ‘real’ and ‘virtual’ war. A pair of partner videos expands the journey appropriately, and captures well the feel of the book (even if some may find the cut-aways and effects a little clumsy).

In addition to this larger set of units and levels of analysis, Der Derian wants to establish the relevance of virtuous war in the age of MIME-NET. For him, virtualization is perhaps revolutionary, but only in combination with “new ethical and economic imperatives for global democratic reform and neoliberal markets”, elements which push it ‘higher’ (the scare-quotes are Der Derian’s) from mere virtual war to virtuous war. This is, citing Walter Benjamin, “a correspondence of modern technology and the archaic symbol-world of mythology”, in particular the alignment of awesome and overwhelming military power with a strong sense of ethical superiority. So a figure like Richard Holbrooke emerges as a virtuous diplomat par excellence who “practiced power politics while preaching moral responsibility”.

The approach taken by Guha and Bousquet cannot but invoke epochal and ontological shifts, new worlds conjured from the dawns of new ages through new technologies. Der Derian, by contrast, surfaces a stranger, more composite picture through his melange of sites and stories. Two-thirds of the way into Virtuous War, this approach is fleshed out as ‘a virtual theory of the global event’. Inspired by Clifford Geertz’s endorsement of ‘thick description’, virtual theory “seeks to interrogate and interpret rather than intervene or explain” and is thus:

thin on explanation and thick on description; instrumented for interpolation rather than framing; more concerned with shifting events and speculations than fixed structure, and double-blind proofs; more interested in consequences than causes; and not so much interested in how a problem is solved as why an event goes – or fails to go – critical and global.

This approach allows for the foregrounding of strange amalgamated complexes and highlights the frequent gaps of NCW: between the rhetoric of full-spectrum dominance and its reality; between ideas of the future and the surprises thrown up by accidents and events; between new model armies and “the angry global hive of real-time TV”; and in the experience of war itself: the “dirty secret of war-cum-game…that combination of fear and fun that allows the soldier to espy yet deny death, their own as well as others”, as one of the more compelling phrases has it. Of particular relevance to contemporary world order is the discussion, in the wake of Kosovo, of how the MIME-NET works in ‘Operations Other Than War’ (OOTW), a jargon recognisable in the various forms of ‘intervention’ spoken of in contemporary security discourse (and which chimes with Antoine’s comments on Kosovo and Libya).

The resulting journey is rich and suggestive, although not without gaps of its own. Questions are tabled but generally left hanging. Should we replace talk of superpower without those of cyberpower and hyperwar? What are the implications of force disparity? Can we reliably speak of revolutions in military affairs? What ethics check the use of such powers? As a text intended to gently insert us into the morass of contemporary infowar, this works well, but while the theoretical and personal tensions ratchet up other central concerns are circumvented.

For example, human suffering under MIME-NET is briefly referred to as “deferred”, rather than avoided, but this interesting ethical problem is itself then deferred. At points Der Derian worries about his positionality, or has a visceral reaction to the discourse of war ‘games’ or the situations in which he finds himself, or shows a generalised concern about the potential sanitisation of war in media-state propaganda, but declines to pursue these anecdotes into more systematically theoretical territory. In the very last lines he concludes that the ‘multiple pathologies’ of MIME-NET and the global war on terror are not worth the cost, but this is never really translated into a sustained analysis of harm in the age of information. This is all the more puzzling because of the role of the virtuous in the set-up of the book. Virtuous War thus provides neither a full-blown ethical account of NCW nor a sociological account of how the actors involved think about and deploy the language of virtuosity. Perhaps they don’t. But this in itself would be something interesting to pursue, since it would suggest that the discourses of honour and duty and human rights are rather empty and general signifiers, covers and decoys for some rather more banal and brutal activities.

The Mechanical Gods of Modern Warfare

Taken together, Reimagining War, The Scientific Way of Warfare and Virtuous War offer a crash-course in NCW and its effects. Bousquet and Der Derian in particular offer a series of compelling genealogies and unsettling provocations to those who would dismiss the technoscience of violence as so much gushing over the new, a burgeoning subfield reliant more on grand statements of immanent transformation that hard assessments of military reality. But at least five problems persist across the three volumes.

Nancy Burson’s ‘Warhead One’ (1982), reproduced in Der Derian’s ‘Virtuous War’

First, there is the question of how NCW connects with political, economic and military realities in contemporary intervention and statebuilding. All three books gesture to the failures of techno-fetishism but leave relatively unexplored conflicts both within military paradigms and between them and their competitors. What, for example, does NCW mean for the practices of development? The case for a transformation in the conduct of war is solidly made, but the integration of those processes in more global patterns of contestation and control demands a further analytical move. This is not to say that a wider perspective would render NCW less important. It is entirely plausible that the radical dimension of speed and the advent of ‘coercive diplomacy’ is undermining the more high profile fora of negotiation and hegemony but, particularly for Guha and Bousquet, a strong distinction between war and politics still seems to hold.

Second, and relatedly, the shared interest in technological progress tends to cloud an analysis of distinctly traditional forms of intervention and their return. This is most notable in the case of Der Derian, who has recently worked on the Human Terrain System of the US army and makes some mention of it in Virtuous War (as in the biting aside that US soldiers require “culture reduced to a story that could be carried in a cargo pocket”). The last years have seen a distinct turn away from the solutions of technology to a heavily-criticised policy of academics embedded within counter-insurgency policy and engaged in a kind of cultural pedagogy in order to – in the hackneyed phrase of the day – ‘win hearts and minds’. This reversal, or complication, of NCW’s triumph is barely mentioned. Nor is there much discussion of the ways in which technologies that fall short of our standard expectations of them or machines which resist our desires for them.

Third, there is the spectre of modernity, post-modernity and their relation to an imagined ‘West’. Given the technologies under scrutiny, it is no surprise that Guha, Bousquet and Der Derian focus almost exclusively on the policies and experiences of the American military. More than that, it is entirely appropriate for them to do so. But the corollary is that other putative ‘ways of war’ are neglected. Following Sankaran Krishna, this is most sharply put in the charge of postmodern amnesia, which is to say that for all the criticality of the authors under examination, the lives and bodies of those on the receiving end of NCW seem to have somehow vanished in the night.This leads to a fourth problem, which is the almost complete absence in these accounts of counter-hegemonic or anti-systemic forces. Antoine opens his book with the reversal in fortunes of NCW, from ecstasy at its success in April 2003 to the come-down experienced later when the American military released that ‘the enemy’ was more networked and more decentralised than they were. All three authors make reference to Vietnam and the ways in which Robert McNamara’s fantasy of high-tech control foundered on some older modalities of combat and strategy. But beyond these asides, there is little consideration of how the same techniques and principles in the hands of actors complicates the story. How does NCW fare in a world of asymmetries where the hierarchical advantage of state power is somewhat nullified? What does NCW have to do with the recent scandals and shut-downs elicited by the activities of Wikileaks and Anonymous? And does the strategic character of NCW not undermine, rather than reinforce, the more conventional military superiority of the US?

Fifth and finally, the ethics of NCW are only hinted at. In one sense, they are present at every stage, since a good number of engineers and planners appear to have been motivated by minimising casualties (principally on their side, but sometimes among the enemy too) and figures like Cebrowski and General Wesley Clark seem firm on the need for military power to be controlled by civilian authorities. Yet Guha, Bousquet and Der Derian do not themselves push this angle or address the normative questions in any depth. Should we, as some suggest, seek to limit the uses of technoscience? How radical are the implications for rights of privacy, free speech and civic freedom? And what is the proper posture towards these spreading connections for academics concerned with war and peace?

These are not questions easily settled. But they do indicate a series of disconnections, often in spite of the explicit commitments of those working on the new ways of killing and dying. Nor are these new problems. In 1946 John von Neumann, one candidate for father, or maybe just uncle, of the nuclear age, pinpointed the nature of the shift in the relationship between bios and technos: “I am thinking about something much more important than bombs. I am thinking about computers”. The challenge for analysing the information bomb in contemporary world politics is to move not just beyond bombs to computers but further to networks and conflict in a still broader sense, one that encapsulates human needs and human horrors without reproducing a naïve anthropomorphism, and without eschewing it in favour of the gravitational pull of techno-fetishism.

* Still with apologies to Hetfield, Ulrich, Burton and Hammett.


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