Damage, Reincorporated: A Carbon-Based Author Responds

Paul has produced a couple of highly stimulating posts (here and here) reviewing three books concerned with the contemporary interface between war and technology (Manabrata Guha’s Reimagining War in the 21st Century, James Der Derian’s Virtous War and my own The Scientific Way of Warfare) and that involve both pointed comments on the respective texts and some wider considerations of the challenges posed by the study of present transformations in the exercise of collective violence. With so much to reflect upon, a full post is called for in order to respond to the rich lines of thought suggested by Paul and I will attempt to do so here, however incompletely, by taking on specific comments directed at my own work before offering some brief remarks on its relation to the two other books reviewed.

War is War, PERIOD

Paul points to the limitations inherent to the periodisation I propose and I would accept that, for all the caveats and qualifications I have sought to make, the neatness of the technoscientific typology developed inevitably leaves it open to a range of criticisms. It necessarily occludes or minimises the other influences that have impacted military change, it papers over much of the cultural and historical particularities of national military organisations, and it does not really allow for the ebb and flow of different doctrines that cut across different periods. The empirical evidence supporting such a periodisation is likewise obviously selective and, at their weakest, I think the connections I draw between scientific ideas and military practice are more impressionistic than as thoroughly substantiated as I could have wished. Sweeping as it does through four hundred years of history, the work is unabashedly a much more generalising and grand theorising undertaking than the careful and painstakingly detailed studies into the interplay of technoscience and war that have been produced within the field of science and technology studies on topics such as missile guidance or the origins of cybernetics and therefore may well have fallen prey to some of the pitfalls of such a perilous exercise. At the very least though, I would hope the typology is a useful heuristic device for thinking through various tensions inherent to the organisation and application of military force.

In its more forceful defence however, the typology is not intended to imply that in any given period all contemporaneous ideational and social constructs are ruled by the scientific and technological frameworks of the day (something which my use of the term “technoscientific regime” might unfortunately suggest – I remember agonising a long time over the terminology and never settled it to my entire satisfaction). Rather these frameworks act as pregnant sources of meaning among others but with the particularity that they are endowed with the special prestige granted to scientific rationality in modern societies (science in turn being shaped by its wider cultural and institutional settings). In this sense, the notions of metaphor and resonance I employ point to a much more partial and piecemeal role in the shaping of thought than the episteme presented in Foucault’s The Order of Things and in this more limited regard I think the periodisation continues to stand up quite well.

I notably continue to be struck by the extent to which the ideas of networks, decentralisation and self-organisation seem to endlessly proliferate in contemporary culture, providing interpretive lenses for current events such as the Arab Spring or the News International phone hacking scandal. Returning to military affairs, it is worth noting that the resurgence of counter-insurgency thinking prompted by the failings of network-centric warfare (NCW) in Afghanistan and Iraq and purportedly a break from NCW’s technocentrism has also received the chaoplexic treatment. Thus David Kilcullen, the most prominent contemporary theorist of counter-insurgency (COIN) and senior adviser to David Petraeus in Iraq, wrote in an influential 2004 paper that “modern insurgents operate more like a self-synchronizing swarm of independent, but cooperating cells, than like a formal organization.” The latest United States Counterinsurgency Field Manual FM 3-24 to which Kilcullen contributed consequently insists that:

Effective COIN operations are decentralized, and higher commanders owe it to their subordinates to push as many capabilities as possible down to their level. Mission command encourages the initiative of subordinates and facilitates the learning that must occur at every level. It is a major characteristic of a COIN force that can adapt and react at least as quickly as the insurgents.

So even when network-centric warfare is found to have failed to live up to its promise, the criticisms and alternative proposals are still couched in terms of decentralised networks, proof if need be of the pull that chaoplexity still exerts on our thinking today.

The Iron Cage of Technowar

Paul also legitimately asks about how my enquiry, that he correctly identifies as being essentially focused on the organisational and logistical aspects of war, fits in with wider issues of the political and social uses, functions and effects of organised violence. With regards to geopolitical developments, it might be tempting to put forward the succession of the clockwork balance of power of European dynastic state-system, the thermodynamic drive of nationalist and imperial expansion, the cybernetic Cold War equilibrium of bipolarity and contemporary networked global governance but these would have to remain at the level of suggestive musings if I am to avoid stretching my own framework to interpretive breaking point. If the technoscientific typology has some of the aforementioned limitations, I would only be further weakening it by hastily and indiscriminately applying it as a grid of intelligibility for all socio-political phenomena. I therefore accept my study does largely bracket out the analysis of the organisation of military force from a number of broader socio-political questions and ethical challenges. However, while concerns about the manageability of an already wide-ranging research project were admittedly a factor in the decision to circumscribe its remit, it is also at least in part a reflection of the very phenomenon The Scientific Way of Warfare is enquiring into.

The period covered by the study is that of the unfolding of an originally Western but increasingly global modernity characterised by the application of rational procedures (chief among which is the scientific method) and increasingly sophisticated technical contraptions to the understanding and marshalling of the world. Capitalism, industrial production, and bureaucracy can all be understood as an entangled set of processes at the heart of which is this ever-extending rationalisation of social life. One recognises here the instrumental rationality whose rise to the detriment of tradition or value-driven behaviour Weber saw as the hallmark of modern societies. Value-talk does not thereby cease (perhaps it proliferates even further) but vast swathes of human activity become increasingly understood and organised solely with regard to their efficient contribution to the ends postulated.

With regard to war, modernity has thus seen the rise of state institutions concerned with rendering military force as pliable and effective an instrument of policy as possible. In this respect, Clausewitz remains the cardinal thinker, formulating this drive for war to become a rational adjunct of policy while simultaneously recognising the human passions and irreducible contingencies inherent to conflict that always threaten to undermine such designs for control. While the various technoscientific attempts to bring omnipotent predictability and control to the battlefield have consistently failed to delivery such mastery, the framing of war as the obedient and reliable extension of political will remains the dominant regulative ideal of the contemporary organisation of military force, over and above any other significations attached to its exercise. Indeed, as Christopher Coker has argued, the ascendancy of the instrumental conception of armed conflict has seen the marginalisation of other understandings of war such as the existential meaning conferred upon the experience of battle by warrior classes.

Congenitally incapable of generating values or end-goals per se, technoscience can only tell us how to fight wars more effectively in terms of pre-determined criteria of performance but not why or to what purpose we should fight them. The upshot of this is that while war is still justified in terms of grand ideals, its actual pursuit becomes increasingly senseless, a mere means to an end that can only be grasped in utilitarian terms. In this sense, the limitation of my study is the limitation of the scientific way of warfare itself – one cannot find within it an answer to all the ethical quandaries posed by its deployment. This does not of course in any way diminish the urgency of grappling with these issues but a thorough engagement with the thorny questions raised by them are likely to require the honing of a whole new set of conceptual tools from those that were employed for the book, at least if we are to move beyond the “war is bad, mmmkay” level of analysis. My previous post on Libya was a modest attempt at beginning to think through the above dichotomy of means and ends in technowar but I realise that much still remains to be done on this.

Of the Temptations of Eschatological Reason

I will conclude with some brief comments on the two other books reviewed by Paul, namely Manabrata Guha’s Reimagining War in the 21st Century and James Der Derian’s Virtous War, so as to better locate my own approach in relation to these two significant works and in the process point to the ever-present risk of hyperbolic thinking involved in any engagement with the at times frankly mind-boggling developments of technowar.

Guha’s work is more metaphysically speculative than my own and, as I understand it, his focus seems to lie primarily in developing an ontology of war that endows it with immanent generative powers over and above the political and strategic uses that states or other such instrumentally-oriented actors make of it. This ‘pure’ or ‘intensive’ war is that which through Network-Centric Warfare threatens to wrench itself from the state capture of which Clausewitz is for Guha the key thinker. With much overlap in our areas of interest, our main difference (and the nub of Guha’s reproach to me) lies, as I see it, with the distinct approaches we have taken to the subject material. While Guha’s book is actively engaged in “reimagining war”, in The Scientific Way of Warfare I am primarily concerned with war as a historical and sociological phenomenon and so in that sense indeed a human all-too human phenomenon, even if the scientifically-informed ideas of humanity vary considerably. This also makes me more reluctant to endorse the grander claims about the transformation of war that Guha is willing to make. Self-organising networks may be in the ascendancy and the full deployment of the logic of chaoplexic warfare might well be a world in which post-human war machines run amok. But such logics rarely instantiate themselves neatly and unambiguously in reality and the implied demise of the state is a prophecy made too many times already to not be treated with a degree of scepticism. Whereas Guha sees NCW as heralding the emancipation of a self-instantiating polemos from an architectonic of control, I prefer to postulate the persistence of a constitutive tension that is always being reconfigured but is far from being overcome. For all this, I am certainly not averse to the wider metaphysical treatment of war proposed by Guha and his work remains of considerable interest to me, above all for the quite formidable conceptual inventiveness he deploys, as further evidenced in the two latest issues of the excellent philosophical journal Collapse.

Moving on to Virtuous War, I should as a preamble confess to finding Paul Virilio’s work which Der Derian has so keenly promoted in the English-speaking world both fascinating and exasperating in equal measure; the former because his trailblazing contributions on the subject of war and technology such as Speed and Politics and War and Cinema sparkle with theoretical insight and remarkable erudition (if unfortunately mostly in the form of passing observations rarely developed upon) but also the latter because he lapses all too often into the French postmodernist foible of hyperbolic pronouncements. In Virilio’s case, this manifests itself in his techno-catastrophist assertions of an imminent “global accident” through speed’s total annihilation of geography and exceeding of human response times. While Virilio does touch onto some real issues of concern, I remain sceptical of the benefits of such eschatological proclamations (Virilio’s professed Catholicism is here perhaps not incidental to this apocalyptic mode of thinking). While one might charitably choose to see in them a rhetorical strategy of excess designed to draw urgent attention to critical problems, I mostly find the resulting loss of nuance in analysis a price too high to pay.

While Der Derian in the main avoids in his own work the worst excesses of his intellectual poster-boy, talk of a cannibalisation of reality by simulation and virtuality tends to convey the notion of an unequivocal and irreversible disappearance from public view of the ground effects of war and a distancing of soldiers from the consequences of their actions. Such notions that may have seemed highly apposite in the wake of the 1991 Gulf War have been made far more ambiguous by the conflicts of the last decade. For one, the top-down media management that proved so effective in both the aforementioned conflict and the Kosovo war has been undermined by the proliferation of communication and media channels that increasingly bypass the previously hegemonic American news networks. If the first Iraq war was above all mediated by CNN reports, the second Mesopotamian conflict was conducted in a new media landscape occupied by both non-Western networks such as Al-Jazeera and the World Wide Web. While this new cacophony of voices does not in itself guarantee any direct or full access to the reality of armed conflict, it has greatly complicated and intensified the struggle for the imposition of meaning over it. The leaking of footage such as that of the “Collateral Murder” video by Wikileaks has given the wider public unprecedented access to the internal mechanics of organised killing, the technologically mediated images of which do not render any less chilling. Neither does the soldiering experience itself seem to conform unambiguously to Der Derian’s assertion that with virtualisation “one learns to kill but not to take responsibility from it, one experiences ‘death’ but not the tragic consequences of it.” Indeed it was reported in 2008 that drone pilots were suffering from war stress, notably because viewing the effects of bombing with low-altitude drones in high-detail resolution is a more visceral and traumatic experience of its effects than is dropping a payload from 15,000 feet.

In relation to Der Derian as to Guha but equally as a corrective to the broader brushstrokes painted in The Scientific Way of Warfare, I think it is therefore important to remind ourselves that the effects of technoscience on the conduct and experience of war are complex and multifaceted, even at times contradictory. Notwithstanding the criticality of challenges presented to the human species by the continuation of war in this new century after the devastation wreaked by it in the previous one, this complexity impels us to approach such developments in a careful and measured manner that is attentive to the heterogeneity of their various manifestations and the different tensions that inhabit them. We fail to do so at the risk of falling prey to the same kind of delusions of revolutionary presentism that seem to recurrently intoxicate so many of our civilian and military leaders and that are no less problematic for any dystopian inversion they may effect.


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