Slog News & Arts

Line Out

Music & Nightlife

« Conversations About Presidenti... | I Appreciate Those Cups »

Monday, December 10, 2007

The Most Important Networks Aren’t Electronic

posted by on December 10 at 8:57 AM

With apologies to Anthony Hecht. Wired is still writing good articles.

It’s the “You guys should’ve watched The Battle of Algiers” critique all over again, but Noah Shactman’s thoughtful article in this month’s Wired magazine takes it further with a direct hit on the root of the problem: Our 21st Century Technology.

Featuring poignant interviews with Gen. Petraeus and “Network-Centric Warfare” guru John Garstka, it’s one article I’ve read in 2007 where (finally) the aphorism “The more things change, the more they stay the same” successfully calls the bluff on 2007.

About time. Be it hype about “the end of books” or “the end of newspapers” or “the end of the record industry” or “the end of traditional political campaigns,” we’ve all been believing our own press releases about the new digital age. I always tried to come at the new gospel with some “The more things change…” cynicism. But I could never make it stick.

Leave it to the Iraq War to bring us down a peg. From the Wired article:

The US military could use battlefield sensors to swiftly identify targets and bomb them. Tens of thousands of warfighters would act as a single, self-aware, coordinated organism. Better communications would let troops act swiftly and with accurate intelligence, skirting creaky hierarchies. It’d be “a revolution in military affairs unlike any seen since the Napoleonic Age,” they wrote. And it wouldn’t take hundreds of thousands of troops to get a job done that kind of “massing of forces” would be replaced by information management. “For nearly 200 years, the tools and tactics of how we fight have evolved,” the pair wrote. “Now, fundamental changes are affecting the very character of war.”

Network-centric wars would be more moral, too. Cebrowski later argued that network-enabled armies kill more of the right people quicker. With fewer civilian casualties, warfare would be more ethical. And as a result, the US could use military might to create free societies without being accused of imperialist arrogance. It had a certain geek appeal, to which Wired was not immune. Futurist Alvin Toffler talked up similar ideas before they even had a name in the magazine’s fifth issue, in 1993. And during the invasion of Iraq in 2003, my colleague Joshua Davis welcomed in a “new age of fighting that combined precision weapons, unprecedented surveillance of the enemy, agile ground forces, and above all a real-time communications network that kept the far-flung operation connected minute by minute.”

As a presidential candidate in 1999, George W. Bush embraced the philosophy, as did his eventual choice for defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld. At the Pentagon, Rumsfeld instituted a massive program to “transform” the armed services. Cebrowski was installed as the head of the newly created Office of Force Transformation. When the US went to war in Afghanistan, and then in Iraq, its forces achieved apparent victory with lightning speed. Analysts inside and outside the Pentagon credited the network-centric approach for that success. “The successful campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq took far fewer troops and were executed quicker,” Rumsfeld proclaimed, because of “advanced technology and skills.” The Army committed more than $230 billion to a network-centric makeover, on top of the billions the military had already spent on surveillance, drone aircraft, spy satellites, and thousands of GPS transceivers. General Tommy Franks, leader of both invasions, was even more effusive than Rumsfeld. All the new tech, he wrote in his 2004 memoir, American Soldier, promised “today’s commanders the kind of Olympian perspective that Homer had given his gods.”

And yet, here we are. The American military is still mired in Iraq. It’s still stuck in Afghanistan, battling a resurgent Taliban. Rumsfeld has been forced out of the Pentagon. Dan Halutz, the Israeli Defense Forces chief of general staff and net-centric advocate who led the largely unsuccessful war in Lebanon in 2006, has been fired, too. In the past six years, the world’s most technologically sophisticated militaries have gone up against three seemingly primitive foes and haven’t won once.

RSS icon Comments


Network conflict is really an interesting concept. The RAND Corporation, though they be all about the military complex, have a book that explores the concept and how it can be used not only in military campaigns, but protests, such as the Free Burma campaign or the WTO riots in Seattle.

Posted by Jaye | December 10, 2007 9:01 AM

No, the network lovers were right. They did lead to swift military victories that minimized civilian casualties and the number of troops required to conquer a country. What they didn't do was transform the needs of an occupying force. If our goal is to destroy an opposing military, we are set. It's just everything that comes after that's still hard.

Posted by Gitai | December 10, 2007 9:05 AM

off topic:

Thank you for mentioning the wonderful poet Anthony Hecht, a fellow sufferer in the tradition of stridency.

Posted by Simone Weil's Ghost | December 10, 2007 9:21 AM

Gital is absolutely correct.

Much as we all love to tease our idiot president for declaring victory several years ago, he was actually right. We did win the initial war, quite quickly, decisively, and easily. We marched our army right to Baghdad with minimal casualties in less than 2 weeks. That part of the war went spectacularly. And all that high tech gear and networking were a big part of it.

The problem is that we are still calling it a war. We are not at war any longer. We won years ago. We are now occupying a country that largely doesn't want us. That's where it all falls apart. All our high tech gear and networking is of limited usefulness in an occupation.

Networking can be a very effective tool on the battlefield when fighting a large army. It has very little use when occupying a hostile country after the invasion has been won.

Posted by SDA in SEA | December 10, 2007 9:29 AM

Comments Closed

In order to combat spam, we are no longer accepting comments on this post (or any post more than 14 days old).