Slouching Toward Baghdad
Sat, 01 Mar 2003 11:57:35 -0500
just a couple of decades behind....
SLOUCHING TOWARD BAGHDAD.... By Mike Davis
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.
FROM DESERT STORM TO WAL-MART
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.
THE PENTAGON'S WHIRLING DERVISHES
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.