Brave New War: The Next Stage of Terrorism
Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons. Foreword by James Fallows. 195 pp.
DNI Review by Chet Richards, Editor
Let me give away the ending:
Since the end of World War II, the world’s population has nearly tripled, the Internet has allowed anybody to network with everybody, nuclear weapons have made conventional war obsolete among major powers, and the fall of the Soviet Union has unleashed a witches' brew of armed non-state groups – global guerrillas – that operate in the cracks of the disintegrating state system.
This is just the static picture; the dynamics are even scarier. Global guerrillas practice something Robb calls “open source warfare,” which simply means that in the modern environment, people even on different continents can form or join groups, train, and carry out operations much more quickly than in the past or by the major legacy states today. As the groups learn from each other (and a sort of Darwinism selects out the unfit), a larger pattern forms, an “emergent intelligence,” similar to a marauding colony of army ants, no one of which is very sophisticated, but operating together according to simple rules, they are survivable, adaptable, and in a suitable environment, invincible.
As Robb summarizes it:
Such self-organization is not unusual in modern conflict – maneuver warfare is based on similar principles. What is new, however, is that the principle is now being applied not just to the tactics on the battlefield, but to the entire “ecosystem” itself – the creation, operation, interaction, survival, and growth of armed groups.
One could dismiss all of this as speculation except for a couple of facts:
To construct this model, Robb employs a number of concepts that may be new to people unfamiliar with modern systems theory: close-coupled systems, self-organization, emergent properties (particularly “intelligence”), stigmergy, and the concept of complexity arising from simple processes. He also introduces new tools for understanding how systems work in the modern world: open source insurgency, global virtual states, superempowerment, systempunkts, and “black swans.”
These are all powerful ideas and not in the least theoretical as Robb illustrates with events from the evening news. Whether you agree with Robb’s end position or his solutions, these are concepts that are needed to describe why today’s world is different from that of the Cold War. As with any rich theory, you may take these same ingredients, and others that are relevant to you, and come to different conclusions and different solutions. But you can be sure that none of the solutions will be bureaucratic hierarchies.
It’s brave and it's new, but is it “war”?
Although Robb makes a powerful – irrefutable in my opinion – case that armed groups of various motivations do form an “ecosystem” and operate in an open source fashion, he doesn’t make a strong case that we should consider it “war.” Does it make sense to talk about being at “war” with an ecosystem?
Is there anything wrong with calling it “war” anyway? Yes. Thinking we’re at “war” against a centrally controlled enemy creates the types of abuses, things like Abu Ghraib, that add recruiting and motivating ammunition to the groups attacking us. It leads the US State Department into looking for "critical enemy elements" to eliminate (as they phrased it in the latest terrorism report), as if we were still fighting the Third Reich.
Robb himself identifies another of the problems of using the war metaphor where it doesn’t apply – the “knee-jerk police state.” Justice Antonin Scalia, for example, told an audience at John Carroll University in 2003 that Americans have too much freedom, that in time of “war,” it is the government that grants right to citizens and not the other way around as specified in the Ninth and Tenth Amendments to the Constitution. We could also call this “doing Osama’s job for him.”
Thinking that we’re at war also gives some people the idea that the military might be the answer. So we outspend the rest of the world, combined, and wonder why, despite virtually breaking the Army, we can’t prevail against what appear to be a bunch of rag-tag guerrillas. Robb explains why, and if you read the paragraph that I opened this review with, you’ll see that we could double defense spending yet again and not accomplish our goals.
The war metaphor is powerful, though, and as if to illustrate its dangers, even Robb falls prey to it:
Robb got a little carried away with this one. No, Dr. No isn’t lurking under some Caribbean island. What is happening is the phenomenon of “emergent intelligence” among a dynamic and eclectic collection of armed groups that Robb so brilliantly describes in the second half of the book.
Robb proposes a modern version of survivalism. We won’t all be holed up in cabins in the woods, a la the Unabomber. But if we are living in a world that is “tightly coupled,” where a glitch in the power system in Ohio can cascade into a massive outage involving 50,000,000 people along the entire East Coast, then the solution must involve some loosening.
Robb's general strategy is to improve resilience by any means possible. I could imagine, for example, that instead of building new power plants that, along with their distribution systems, are vulnerable to disruption, the government provides market incentives to improve resilience. The government could increase subsidies to utilities and require all of them to buy electricity from homeowners during the day and sell it at reduced rates at night. As more people add power generation capability to their houses - solar, wind, geothermal, hydroelectric, whatever - resilience improves. This may not be the most efficient solution, but in the age of open source insurgency, too much efficiency can be dangerous.
Government or no government, market forces guide behavior. As Robb notes, private individuals with the means to do so are opting out of the public security system, similar to how they withdrew from public schools. Companies are springing up to compete for this business, and it’s not the same lowest-bidder rent-a-cop outfits that you see at airports and malls. As these new private security companies skim off the cream of the security business, governments will be left with the dregs: The poor will migrate to urban megaclusters where Big Brother will watch their every move (p. 186).
At the national level, private military companies (PMCs) are already providing defense-related services to governments, including protecting U.S. ambassadors. Chinese PMCs have contracted to provide security to Sudan’s oil fields and for the Chinese companies developing the Angolan petroleum industry. In the future, PMCs will be available to provide an instant military force to any Third World government that needs – and can pay for – it. If the US government won’t let them get into the business, there will be plenty who will (I’m indebted to TX Hammes’ recent article - 1GB PDF - on 4/5 GW for the ideas in much of this paragraph).
You may not like this trend, but it is here to stay. For one thing, it is certainly working very well for the groups we are fighting. To compete against a hostile ecosystem, Robb recommends using market forces as much as we can to build resilience into our own country, while learning to use the power of open source networks to provide the residual national security we do need – in cooperation with like-minded states and other groups. In this regard, the US Department of Defense is part of the problem, not the solution (pp. 163, 176-177) and, one presumes, will have to be decommissioned.
John has produced an important book that should help jar the United States and other legacy states out of their Cold War mindset. You can read it in a couple of hours – so you should read it twice, especially if some of the systems-related concepts are new to you. Then read (or review) Martin van Creveld’s 1991 masterpiece, The Transformation of War, which provides a lot of the theoretical underpinning for the specific concepts that Robb describes.
Whether you agree with his solutions is not important. However, the pieces of the problem are real and we are going to have to create ways to deal with open source conflict – an intelligence that emerges through the dynamic interaction of religious fanatics, street gangs, criminal cartels, and at times even other states – or face a series of disruptions that will severely degrade our quality of life.