Requiem for the Battlefield

The third post in our series on Antoine’s The Eye of War (University of Minnesota Press), following an opening summary and Katharine Hall’s intervention on perspective and subjectivity. This next commentary comes from Dr Dan Öberg. Dan is Associate Professor of War Studies at the Swedish Defence University, where his research focuses on the ontology of war, critical military studies and the thought of Jean Baudrillard. Dan is author most recently of ‘Warfare as Design: Transgressive Creativity and Reductive Operational Planning’ in Security Dialogue and ‘Enduring War: Heroes’ Acre, ‘The Empty Throne, and the Politics of Disappearance’ in Critical Military Studies.


If we look closely, we see that the real world begins, in the modern age, with the decision to transform the world, and to do so by means of science, analytical knowledge and the implementation of technology – that is to say that it begins, in Hannah Arendt’s words, with the invention of an Archimedean point outside the world (on the basis of the invention of the telescope by Galileo and the discovery of modern mathematical calculation) by which the natural world is definitively alienated. This is the moment when human beings, while setting about analyzing and transforming the world, take their leave of it, while at the same time lending it force of reality. We may say, then, that the real world begins, paradoxically, to disappear at the very same time as it begins to exist. (Jean Baudrillard, Why Hasn’t Everything Already Disappeared?)

Antoine Bousquet’s excellent and much anticipated book The Eye of War: Military Perception from the Telescope to the Drone traces how the history of the rationalisation of vision and the mathematisation of space during the Renaissance have enabled an ever expanding martial gaze. Herein the reader, among many things, gets an in-depth look at the changing fields of military perception and the subsequent attempts to hide from its view. As the author notes, this development leads towards the dispersal and disappearance of the battlefield in its traditional sense.[1] In this intervention, I would like to put forward a complementary view of the battlefield in relation to the trajectory traced by the author. This view can be summarised as an insistence that from the end of the 18th century and onwards, the traditional battlefield starts to disappear as it is operationalised through military doctrines, planning, and conduct. Moreover, as a direct consequence, the battlefield reappears, refracted through military attempts to model space and time. Below I attempt to sketch out this dual process of disappearance and reappearance by engaging with the history of the military imaginary which both sees and targets, and which arguably corresponds to that martial gaze of which the book speaks so well.

As The Eye of War illustrates, often through fantastic pictures and drawings from historical times, the introduction of new weapon-systems and their social interpretation influence the possibility of targeting and the remits of the battlefield. Historically, we may perhaps argue that varying conceptions of the battlefield have been part of warfare for as long as there has been strategic dispositions in war, evident particularly in attempts to connect tactical means with strategic ends. At times such connections have been drawn on spatially and temporally demarcated battlefields. However, at other times, we find examples of how the conception of the battlefield challenges such remits. For example, in medieval warfare when a strategy of attrition was employed to starve an opponent, the target was crops and the tactics was to put your army in the field, aggressively devastate the countryside, and live off the land. Here the battlefield expands and the target shifts from the enemy soldier to the milieu in which a system of production is established. Or when the strategy was one of plunder, the target was likely to be a poorly protected enemy fortress and the tactics assaulting its walls and exciting pay, while avoiding surrounding armies through manoeuvre. Consequently, the attempt to operationalise the tactical means into strategic ends, that is, the attempt “to target”, potentially constitutes and challenges the remits of the battlefield.

That said, the characteristic of the classical battlefield was often a combination of disparate units, tactical conducts, and weapon-systems in gradual transition. One such transition during the Great Italian Wars (1494-1559) between two types of “targeteers”: the crossbowman and the arquebusier, is captured in Charles Oman’s classical work History of the Art of War in the Sixteenth Century. Oman (quoting Gascon Montluc) writes as follows regarding the French army:

Arquebusiers were known, but there were very few of them in the early years of the war: it was only in the second generation that the arquebus superseded the cross-bow. Montluc remarks that in 1523, when he was ensign in the company of Monsieur de la Clotte, he had only six arquebusiers with him, and they were all deserters from the Spanish army. ‘Encore en ce temps la il n’y avait point d’arquebusiers parmi notre nation’. He then proceeds to remark that he wishes that the arquebus had never been invented. ‘Would to God that this unhappy weapon had never been devised, and that so many brave and valiant men had never died by the hands of those who are often cowards and shirkers, who would never dare to look in the face those whom they lay low with their wretched bullets…’ The day had gone by when a certain commander used to order that quarter should never be given to men carrying firearms, but they were still hated and despised, and it took some time to teach French generals that they must rather be encouraged, and introduced on the largest scale possible.’

This quote illustrates the shift from when the arquebus was rare and firearms were seen with hatred and contempt, towards a gradual acceptance of “their wretched bullets”, until we reach the point where their use was encouraged as part of all major armies. Beyond the fact that methods of warfare change due to the introduction of new weapon systems, this historical example illustrates an important aspect of the constant contestation of the traditional battlefield. The arquebusier doing the targeting (and thereby efficiently killing “so many brave and valiant men”) is present at the field of battle and at the same time hated, accepted, and encouraged. That is, the character of the battlefield is negotiated through the direct relationship between targeteer and target and their corresponding tactical means.

Arguably, such negotiation between targeteer and target changes drastically in character from the Napoleonic wars and onward. With the risk of simplifying matters, we may say that from the medieval times up to the 18th century, the battlefield was characterised by a gradual homogenisation of units and their array. From a situation where warfare was dominated by disparate units and weapon systems, we move towards standardised infantry and cavalry based units and the use of firearms and bayonets. This is a homogenisation that mirrors the rise of modern society in a more general sense. However, it is not until the next century, with the French Grande Armée, particularly due to the administrative care of Lazare Carnot (1753-1823) and the military thinking of the likes of Comte de Guibert (1743-1790) that the military imaginary starts to view the battlefield as a consequence of military analysis and planning. That is, as an operational model. As is well known, the operational dimension of warfare comes up in part as a result of the levée en masse, responding to practical needs to oversee and manage a system of national mobilization with the training and movement of large-scale units. Technological innovations such as the railroad and the telegraph among others, also helped ushering warfare into this new era. It is from this time onward that the battlefield expands through logistics, new intelligence, new command structures, and the administrational machinery of which the most obvious examples are the improved staffs and corps and the divisional system.

While the culminating battle of the Napoleonic wars, Waterloo, was fought at a battlefield where 140,000 men and 400 guns were crammed into an area of roughly 3,5 miles, the latter half of the 19th century becomes characterised by the dispersal and implosion of the battlefield. As Bousquet has directed our attention to in his work, after the birth of modern warfare the battlefield dissolves due to the increased range of weapons systems. Its disappearance is also facilitated by how the military logistics of perception conditions the appearances of targets, particularly through how the “eye of war” manages to move from the commander occupying a high-point next to the field of battle, to being facilitated by balloons, binoculars, aerial reconnaissance, satellites, algorithms, and cloud computing. It is as part of this process we eventually reach the contemporary era where targeting is characterised by polar inertia, as targets arrive as digital images from anywhere on the globe in front of a stationary targeteer. However, I would like to argue that, parallel to this, there is a corresponding process taking place, which erases and remodels the battlefield as a result of the military disposition that is born with the operational dimension of warfare.

To grasp this disposition and its consequences we need to ponder the fact that it is no coincidence that the operational dimension emerges at precisely the time when the traditional battlefield is starting to disappear. As The Eye of War outlines, global targeting is enabled by a logistics of perception. However, the demand for maps and images as well as the attempts to make sense of the battlefield arguably receives its impetus and frame of reference from elsewhere. It finds its nexus in standard operating procedures, regulations, instructions and manuals, military working groups, administrative ideals, organisational routines, and bureaucratic rituals. And, as the battlefield is managed, coded, and homogenised, it simultaneously starts to become an external point of reference, enacted through operational analysis and planning far from the battlefield itself.

Let us not forget here that “to analyse” literally means “to dissolve”, as the perception of the operational analyst subsumes the field of battle into compartmentalised objects and relations. Moreover, as Carl von Clausewitz reminds us, operational planning is necessarily a reductive enterprise.[2] That is, it subtracts from the world, when reducing this said world to a theater of war. We may therefore say that the battlefield receives its force of reality through operational analysis and planning and appears as an “alienated” entity dominated by range, trajectories and a territory coded through a military grammar. Nevertheless, it seems that when the battlefield reappears as a concept or scenario, that is, as a model, it also starts to vanish. Therefore, it is arguably in the development of operational models of warfare: the doctrinal handbooks, the logistical apparatus, and the staff meetings on what to target, we find a corresponding erasure of the battlefield.

If we return to the introductory quote, particularly to the insistence that the real world begins with the invention of an Archimedean point outside the world, we may say that it is with the introduction of the operational level of war that military practice and theory find and substantiate its own external point of reference. It finds it at the start of the Napoleonic wars, in the introduction of an operational military machinery which gradually starts to think warfare independently of the army in the field. It substantiates it through a code that strives to make war an efficient and integrated version of its own programmatic execution. This code outlines how to arrange and rearrange, compose, coordinate, and manufacture targets and effects. It also works as a method through the tasking and employment of tactical units, the translation of rules and diagrams into select weapon systems, and the integration of protocols into a concentration of force, making fires and bomb drops preplanned responses to problem situations.

In the final chapter of The Eye of War we encounter a battlefield that is spatially and temporally boundless, what the author calls a “Global Imperium of Targeting”. What relationship between targeteer and target characterises this limitless battlefield? I will end by briefly introducing two alienating reference points that I have discussed elsewhere: the operational environment and the battle-rhythm as examples of a military modelling of space and time.

According to the military imaginary, the operational environment consists of: ‘the composite of the conditions, circumstances, and influences that affect the employment of military capabilities’ (see military doctrine). This term imposes a set of spatial relations that are conditioned through military concepts and functions: logistical routes and lines of communication, the range of weapon-platforms, perceived centres of gravity, the margining of targets, their weaponeering, and so forth. This spatial concept transmits relations through reductive doctrinal denominators such as “target-sets”, “undesirable systems” or “future end-states,” often visualised through PowerPoints.

Corresponding to the remits of the operational environment, the ‘battle rhythm’ is the ‘combination of procedures, processes, and actions which facilitates extended continuous operations’. It is synchronised zulu-time: a coordinated 24 hour universal clock time enabling warfare to endure in real-time and coordinate fires and manoeuvres into tactical effects. The battle-rhythm is anticipatory, relating to ideas of dynamic actions, particularly in so called dynamic targeting. But it is also pre-planned as it forecasts and codes future time to shape its unfolding and becoming in accordance with the preparation and execution of warfare.

So, as the traditional battlefield and its conceptualisation and contestation by crossbowmen and arquebusiers alike disappears due to the operationalisation of a martial gaze, what reappears is an abstract model of military space/time. This model perceives of the battlefield as that which facilitates military capabilities as extended operations as it targets for action. This means, I think, that in the Global Imperium of Targeting that The Eye of War portrays, the soldiers embodying the martial gaze assumes the roles of managers over our world as if it were this abstract and homogenous space/time. This points to a world that is indeed, a ‘battlespace in potentia’ watched over by ‘glacially indifferent machines’, as the author so eloquently puts it. However, it also points to the role of the military imaginary which oversees this gaze and which refines the modelling of space and time to impose a point of view on that which it sees.

In short, the traditional battlefield may be dead, but we continue to live under the eye of its operational model.


[1] In addition to The Eye of War, see also ‘The Battlefield is dead’ from Aeon and ‘The Disappearance of the Battlefield’, both from the author.

[2] The German version of On War reads: ‘So wird also der erste Gesichtspunkt beim Entwurf des Krieges der sein: die Schwerpunkte der feindlichen Macht auszumitteln und sie womöglich auf einen zurückzuführen. Der zweite wird sein: die Kräfte, welche gegen diesen Schwerpunkt gebraucht werden sollen, zu einer Haupthandlung zu vereinigen.’ (Carl von Clausewitz, Vom Kriege, p. 479 available here). Unfortunately the English translation fails to make this point sufficiently clear (cf. Carl von Clausewitz, On War, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1976, p. 619).

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2 thoughts on “Requiem for the Battlefield

  1. Pingback: Totalising the State through Vision and War | The Disorder Of Things

  2. Pingback: A Martial Gaze Conscious of Itself | The Disorder Of Things

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