Slouching Toward Baghdad

Sat, 01 Mar 2003 11:57:35 -0500

just a couple of decades behind....


Imperial Washington, like Berlin in the late 1930s, has become a 
psychedelic capital where one megalomaniacal hallucination succeeds 
another. Thus, in addition to creating a new geopolitical order in the 
Middle East, we are now told by the Pentagon's deepest thinkers that the 
invasion of Iraq will also inaugurate "the most important 'revolution in 
military affairs' (or RMA) in two hundred years."

According to Admiral William Owen, a chief theorist of the revolution, the 
first Gulf War was "not a new kind of war, but the last of the old ones." 
Likewise, the air wars in Kosovo and Afghanistan were only pale previews of 
the postmodern blitzkrieg that will be unleashed against the Baathist 
regime. Instead of old- fashioned sequential battles, we are promised 
nonlinear "shock and awe."

Although the news media will undoubtedly focus on the sci-fi gadgetry 
involved - thermobaric bombs, microwave weapons, unmanned aerial vehicles 
(UAVs), PackBot robots, Stryker fighting vehicles, and so on - the truly 
radical innovations (or so the war wonks claim) will be in the organization 
and, indeed, the very concept of the war.

In the bizarre argot of the Pentagon's Office of Force Transformation (the 
nerve center of the revolution), a new kind of "warfighting ecosystem" 
known as "network centric warfare" (or NCW) is slouching toward Baghdad to 
be born. Promoted by military futurists as a "minimalist" form of warfare 
that spares lives by replacing attrition with precision, NCW may in fact be 
the inevitable road to nuclear war.


Military "revolutions" based on new technology, of course, have come and 
gone since air-power fanatics like Giulio Douhet, Billy Mitchell, and Hugh 
Trenchard first proclaimed the obsolescence of traditional armies and 
battleship navies in the early 1920s. This time, however, the superweapon 
isn't a long-distance bomber or nightmare H-bomb but the ordinary PC and 
its ability, via the Internet, to generate virtual organization in the 
"battlespace" as well as the marketplace.

Like all good revolutionaries, the Pentagon advocates of RMA/ NCW are 
responding to the rot and crisis of an ancien regime. Although Gulf War I 
was publicly celebrated as a flawless victory of technology and alliance 
politics, the real story was vicious infighting among American commanders 
and potentially disastrous breakdowns in decision-making. Proponents of 
high- tech warfare, like the 'smart bomb' attacks on Baghdad's 
infrastructure, clashed bitterly with heavy-metal traditionalists, while 
frustrated battlefield CEO Norman Schwarzkopf threw stupefying tantrums.

The battles continued back in the Pentagon where the revolutionaries -- 
mostly geekish colonels bunkered in a series of black-box think tanks -- 
found a powerful protector in Andrew Marshall, the venerable head of 
research and technology assessment. In 1993, Marshall - a guru to both Dick 
Cheney and leading Democrats - provided the incoming Clinton administration 
with a working paper that warned that Cold War weapons "platforms" like 
Nimitz-class aircraft carriers and heavy tank battle groups were becoming 
obsolete in face of precision weapons and cruise missiles.

Marshall instead proselytized for cheaper, quicker, smarter weapons that 
took full advantage of American leadership in information technology. He 
warned, however, that "by perfecting these precision weapons, America is 
forcing its enemies to rely on terrorist activities that are difficult to 
target." He cast doubt on the ability of the Pentagon's fossilized command 
hierarchies to adapt to the challenges of so-called "asymmetric warfare."

The revolutionaries went even further, preaching that the potentials of 
21st century war-making technology were being squandered within 19th 
century military bureaucracies. The new military forces of production were 
straining to break out of their archaic relations of production. They 
viciously compared the Pentagon to one of the "old economy" corporations -- 
"hardwired, dumb and top-heavy" -- that were being driven into extinction 
in the contemporary "new economy" marketplace.

Their alternative? Wal-Mart, the Arkansas-based retail leviathan. It may 
seem odd, to say the least, to nominate a chain store that peddles 
cornflakes, jeans and motor oil as the model for a leaner, meaner Pentagon, 
but Marshall's think-tankers were only following in the footsteps of 
management theorists who had already beatified Wal-Mart as the essence of a 
"self-synchronized distributed network with real-time transactional 
awareness." Translated, this means that the stores' cash registers 
automatically transmit sales data to Wal-Mart's suppliers and that 
inventory is managed through 'horizontal' networks rather than through a 
traditional head-office hierarchy.

"We're trying to do the equivalent in the military," wrote the authors of 
Network Centric Warfare: developing and leveraging information superiority, 
the 1998 manifesto of the RMA/NCW camp that footnotes Wal-Mart annual 
reports in its bibliography. In "battlespace," mobile military actors 
(ranging from computer hackers to stealth bomber pilots) would be the 
counterparts of Wal-Mart's intelligent salespoints.

Instead of depending on hardcopy orders and ponderous chains of commands, 
they would establish "virtual collaborations" (regardless of service 
branch) to concentrate overpowering violence on precisely delineated 
targets. Command structures would be "flattened" to a handful of generals, 
assisted by computerized decision-making aides, in egalitarian dialogue 
with their "shooters.'"

The iconic image, of course, is the Special Forces op in Pathan drag using 
his laptop to summon air strikes on a Taliban position that another op is 
highlighting with his laser designator. To NCW gurus, however, this is 
still fairly primitive Gunga Din stuff. They would prefer to "swarm" the 
enemy terrain with locust-like myriads of miniaturized robot sensors and 
tiny flying video cams whose information would be fused together in a 
single panopticon picture shared by ordinary grunts in their fighting 
vehicles as well as by four-star generals in their Qatar or Florida command 

Inversely, as American "battlespace awareness" is exponentially increased 
by networked sensors, it becomes ever more important to blind opponents by 
precision air strikes on their equivalent (but outdated) "command and 
control" infrastructures. This necessarily means a ruthless takeout of 
civilian telecommunications, power grids, and highway nodes: all the 
better, in the Pentagon view, to allow American psy-op units to 
propagandize, or, if necessary, terrorize the population.


Critics of RMA/NCW have compared it to a millennial cult, analogous to 
bible-thumping fundamentalism or, for that matter, to Al Queda. Indeed, 
reading ecstatic descriptions of how "Metcalfe's Law" guarantees increases 
of "network power proportional to the square of the number of nodes,'" one 
wonders what the wonks are smoking in their Pentagon basement offices. 
(Marshall, incidentally, advocates using behavior-modifying drugs to create 
Terminator-like 'bioengineered soldiers.')

Their most outrageous claim is that Clausewitz's famous "fog of war" -- the 
chaos and contingency of the battlefield -- can be dispelled by enough 
sensors, networks, and smart weapons. Thus vice-admiral Arthur Cebrowski, 
the Pentagon director for "force transformation," hallucinates that "in 
only a few years, if the the technological capabilities of America's 
enemies remain only what they are today, the US military could effectively 
achieve total "battlespace knowledge."

Donald Rumsfeld, like Dick Cheney (but unlike Colin Powell), is a notorious 
addict of RNA/NCW fantasies (already enshrined as official doctrine by the 
Clinton administration in 1998). By opening the floodgates to a huge 
military budget (almost equal to the rest of the world's military spending 
combined), 9.11 allowed Rumsfeld to go ahead with the revolution while 
buying off the reactionaries with funding for their baroque weapons 
systems, including three competing versions of a new tactical fighter. The 
cost of the compromise - which most Democrats have also endorsed - will be 
paid for by slashing federal spending on education, healthcare, and local 

A second Iraq war, in the eyes of the RNA/NCW zealots, is the inevitable 
theater for demonstrating to the rest of the world that America's military 
superiority is now unprecedented and unduplicable. Haunted by the 1993 
catastrophe in Mogadishu, when poorly armed Somali militia defeated the 
Pentagon's most elite troops, the war wonks have to show that networked 
technology can now prevail in labyrinthine street warfare. To this end, 
they are counting on the combination of battlefield omniscience, smart 
bombs, and new weapons like microwave pulses and nausea gases to drive 
Baghdadis out of their homes and bunkers. The use of "non-lethal" (sic) 
weapons against civilian populations, especially in light of the horror of 
what happened during the Moscow hostage crisis last October, is a war crime 
waiting to happen.

But what if the RNA/NCW's Second Coming of Warfare doesn't arrive as 
punctually promised? What happens if the Iraqis or future enemies find ways 
to foil the swarming sensors, the night- visioned Special Forces, the 
little stair-climbing robots, the missile-armed drones? Indeed, what if 
some North Korean cyberwar squad (or, for that matter, a fifteen-year-old 
hacker in Des Moines) manages to crash the Pentagon's "system of systems" 
behind its battlespace panopticon?

If the American war-fighting networks begin to unravel (as partially 
occurred in February 1991), the new paradigm - with its "just in time" 
logistics and its small "battlefield footprint" - leaves little backup in 
terms of traditional military reserves. This is one reason why the Rumsfeld 
Pentagon takes every opportunity to rattle its nuclear saber.

Just as precision munitions have resurrected all the mad omnipotent visions 
of yesterday's strategic bombers, RNA/NCW is giving new life to monstrous 
fantasies of functionally integrating tactical nukes into the electronic 
battlespace. The United States, it should never be forgotten, fought the 
Cold War with the permanent threat of "first use" of nuclear weapons 
against a Soviet conventional attack. Now the threshold has been lowered to 
Iraqi gas attacks, North Korean missile launches, or, even, retaliation for 
future terrorist attacks on American city.

For all the geekspeak about networks and ecosystems, and millenarian 
boasting about minimal, robotic warfare, the United States is becoming a 
terror state pure and simple: a 21st century Assyria with laptops and modems.

Mike Davis is the author of City of Quartz, Ecology of Fear, and most 
recently, Dead Cities, among other works. He now lives in San Diego.