Authorlab: Dr. Antoine Bousquet

CTlab recently hosted a public lecture at University College London that brought together, in the best spirit of eclecticism and multidisciplinarity, architectural writer Geoff Manaugh of BLDGBLOG fame, and Dr. Antoine Bousquet, of Birkbeck College, London. The transcript below is the result of an e-mail exchange cum interview with the latter half of that duo.

Bousquet’s forthcoming book, based on his PhD dissertation at the London School of Economics, is soon to be released, and will be the subject of a virtual symposium here at CTlab. It’s an important text, synthesizing a wide range of sources, and covering  the big issues in broad historical strokes. Spatial thinkers, from architects, geographers, and digital theorists, to historians or art, memory, and war, will find it to be an engaging and informative read.

We wanted to gain some additional insight into the research and writing of it, and to follow up on some of the issues raised in the public lecture. Read the results.




CTlab: You’ve written a book, The Scientific Way of Warfare: Order and Chaos on the Battlefields of Modernity, which is about to be published through Hurst & Co Publishers in the UK and Columbia University Press in North America. It offers a pretty broad historical sweep, exploring how scientific metaphors have shaped the way military planners conceptualize the battlefield and manage the chaos of war. What inspired the project?

Bousquet: The starting point of the project was a general interest in the role of technology in the development of warfare, notably in the context of the debates over the revolution in military affairs that have agitated policy and academic circles in recent decades. However it soon became apparent to me that technology could not be taken as a given to which military strategy and tactics has to adapt, as is often the case in the existing literature, but rather that it could only be understood with reference to the conceptual frameworks and broader forms of social organisation within which various technologies are enmeshed. With this in mind, I chose to focus on four distinct technologies (the clock, engine, computer, and network) which seem to have played particularly central roles in both organising the military and supporting distinct scientific worldviews through their material and metaphorical effects.

CTlab: So, through these specific technologies and their social symbolism, you’re essentially exploring paradigmatic forms of social organization as a way of understanding the changing character of war.There’s a tension in the book, between the conduct of war per se, on the one hand, and the expectations of military thinkers and planners, on the other. Was this deliberate?

Bousquet: Following Clausewitz, if there is a changing character of war, its basic nature is invariant. The practice of warfare necessarily entails the maintenance of order among one’s troops in the midst of an inherently chaotic environment. There are two possible approaches that can be taken to this perennial problem.

A first one aims at complete predictability and control over the battlefield and seeks to banish chaos altogether. This has been the dominant approach within the Western military in the modern era and has been particularly enamoured with the certainty and unambiguity which science and its predictive laws of nature seems to provide. It has generally manifested itself in attempts to plan and predict all possible outcomes of battle in advance and to devise military systems which will either carry out a series of predetermined actions or automatically react to previously defined occurrences or signals. I argue in the book that, notwithstanding the successes such methods have occasionally garnered, the dreams of omniscience and omnipotence they rest upon have been consistently disappointed, sometimes disastrously so, and in all likelihood always will be.

The second approach to order on the battlefield entails an acknowledgment of the irreducible chaos inherent to warfare and thus recognition that control and predictability will be necessarily limited and partial. Rather than being an ‘unscientific’ opposition to the aforementioned approach, this disposition to armed conflict can in fact draw on its own set of scientific resources which also underline the limits of knowledge and control (such as is revealed by the study of probabilistic or non-linear phenomena). Militarily, this translates into the organisation of armed forces in a manner such as to build in a tolerance for uncertainty and contingency, and cultivate a capacity for adaptability and creative response to the unforeseen. This approach is in my view more in tune with the nature of war and therefore more likely to be successful.

To answer specifically your question, there is indeed a tension between the desire for order of military planners and thinkers and with what can be truly achieved on the battlefield. But this is a tension at the very heart of war (and science!) itself. Any attempt to finally resolve this tension is probably destined to fail. Paradoxically, order is best maintained by embracing chaos.

CTlab: You’re especially critical of cybernetic approaches, Boyd’s OODA loop, and the like…

Bousquet: Cybernetics, along with its associated computer sciences, proved a powerful methodology in developing automated devices (guided missiles, early warning systems, etc), expanding command and control structures, and modelling conflict. In the Cold War era, it was instrumental in harnessing the fearsome energies unleashed in the thermodynamic epoch that preceded it and contributed to a deterrence policy that probably averted nuclear war. However, with it came a marked tendency to reduce war to its abstract models and fantasise about fully automated battlefields in which a frictionless war machine is able to target and instantaneously destroy all enemy forces. The U.S. debacle in Vietnam should have constituted a rude awakening all round but in fact this vision persists to this day as can be seen in various plans for invulnerable missile defence shields and recurrent claims that the ‘fog of war’ is about to be permanently lifted.

I am not critical of Boyd himself (on the contrary, I think he is one of the most insightful military theorists of recent times) but of the hasty reading of him that is done in many parts of the military. His OODA loop is commonly reduced to an observe-orient-decide-act sequence of actions which the military should cycle through as rapidly as possible. This misses the primary emphasis Boyd placed on the ‘orientation’ phase of the loop, in which existing frameworks of interpretation are tested and if necessary taken apart and reassembled. In reducing the OODA loop to a mere cybernetic loop in which the emphasis is on the speed at which responses to information from the warfighting environment are initiated, the military is depriving itself of the adaptability and creative destruction which Boyd saw as essential to success.

CTlab: This is your most striking argument: that military organization, despite paying lip service to notions of chaos and complexity, is still largely in thrall to cyberneticism. One consequence is heightened capacity for faster, more fine-grained micromanagement of the battlefield. Another, as you explain with the case of Vietnam, is that it may be poorly equipped for – or that it’s just been poorly applied to – counterinsurgency. Where does that leave us, in places like Iraq and Afghanistan?

Bousquet: In the first phase of the war in Iraq, the network-centric juggernaut proved highly effective at toppling the Baathist regime using the hi-tech cybernetic systems it had previously deployed with crushing results in the first Gulf War. When faced with a military styled on the mass modern armies which dominated the last century, cybernetic warfare can still be spectacularly successful, all the more when the opposition is already demoralised and not particularly tactically astute. Yet in the second phase of the war, one which the Coalition only belatedly even acknowledged as war, this same mode of operations premised on overwhelming firepower and centrally directed operations has been unable to cope with the hit-and-run swarming tactics of a diffuse networked insurgency. The recent reduction of violence in Iraq has been generally attributed to the ‘surge’ and a greater number of boots on the ground. However, for netwar advocate John Arquilla, the reason is primarily to be found in a change in tactics that has included a move towards smaller flexible operations around outposts located outside large military garrisons and the granting of authority to negotiate with tribal and insurgent leaders to officers lower down the chain of command. I haven’t myself studied closely enough operations in Afghanistan and Iraq to draw any final conclusions in the light of my study but it does seem probable than the outcome of these campaigns will have a lasting impact on military thinking and doctrine. I am particularly interested to see whether this leads to a chaoplexic-inspired (i.e. networked and decentralised) counter-insurgency doctrine or simply to a decision to avoid such future conflicts in order to preserve cybernetic certainties, as was the case after the Vietnam War. As long as the U.S. remains intent on waging its ‘war on terror’ and in the context of a growing influence of the scientific ideas of chaoplexity on military thinking, I am inclined to think the former is more likely but it is still too early to tell.

CTlab: You mentioned John Arquilla. The Scientific Way of Warfare is an intellectual history, but it also engages actively with numerous contemporary authors, among them Manuel DeLanda, Paul Edwards, and Manuel Castells. Martin van Creveld figures prominently.

Bousquet: Martin van Creveld’s Command in War and Technology and War were major influences. Van Creveld writes on military affairs with remarkable clarity and incisiveness while painting large historical canvasses I naturally feel an affinity to. These two books are full of luminous insights which sparked off many ideas for me. There are too many authors in addition to those you have just mentioned that were crucial in shaping my intellectual development and informing the content of the book to list them all. These are sometimes visible through the footnotes and direct references to them, on other occasions their presence is more subterraneous in moulding my broader intellectual outlook, and on still others they have no doubt influenced me in ways I am not even aware of. In covering such a broad historical period of scientific and military change, I have necessarily had to absorb the work of many authors to assemble my central arguments. I therefore see a lot of the work as essentially synthetic, the value added of which I will leave up to the reader to decide.

CTlab: Like Thomas Kuhn? You mention his ideas briefly in the opening pages of the book. Your own work on paradigmatic tilts in the management of war, from Frederick the Great’s clockwork Prussian forces to contemporary net centric warfare, appears to trace a structure of scientific revolutions all its own.

Bousquet: One could think of the different approaches to military organisation in terms of paradigms although I have generally privileged the notions of regime, metaphor or abstract machine (the last drawn from DeLanda’s own major study of war, another important reference point). While Kuhn’s notion of paradigm has now been stretched to refer to almost any coherent set of ideas, in its original formulation it refers to incommensurable conceptual frameworks which successively structured the practice of scientific enquiry. A new paradigm can only emerge with the rejection of a previous one and their incommensurability precludes any direct comparison or communication between them.

While it is possible in the context of war to point to periods in which certain ideas and practices dominate, none of those embodied in the regimes of the scientific way of warfare I distinguish are ever completely retired or replaced. Rather the rationalities and techniques developed within a particular regime remain available and commonly employed under successive regimes, even if they are subsumed under a new overall disposition to warfare. Thus the close order drill exercises so beloved of Frederick the Great and with it more broadly the conditioning of troops to perform certain actions as quickly and as efficiently as possible remain central components of military training. And if I suggest that decentralised networking promoting emergent self-organisation is the direction the military is moving in, it seems clear that cybernetic mechanisms of self-regulation will necessarily endure in many areas. There is a certain complementarity of the different scientific approaches to warfare which I don’t think is adequately captured by the notion of paradigm.

CTlab: Conflict in complex urban environments presents some unique challenges – legally, demographically, architecturally. How would you relate – or reconcile – cybernetic and chaoplexic forms of warfare to the increasingly difficult spaces in which they’re fought? I’m thinking especially of Eyal Weizman’s work on Israeli military approaches to the built environment.

Bousquet: I haven’t looked closely enough at Weizman’s work yet to respond directly to it. However it strikes me that urban environments are likely to be major battlespaces in the 21st century. For the first time in history, a majority of the world population lives in urban areas, including in the developing world. Furthermore, the asymmetric forms of war that we are increasingly seeing being waged are particularly suited to this kind of environment. Within relatively simple environments such as deserts, the seas or the airs that are ideal for the operation of sensors and precision guided munitions, cybernetic warfare performs closest to its ideal model. Enemy targets can be easily located and targeted with overwhelming destructive force. However, the effectiveness of such technologies is seriously hampered in complex environments such as jungles, mountains, or urban areas, the latter particularly complicating operations because of the high risk of civilian casualties. Any smart opponent of hi-tech militaries such as the U.S. or Israel will seek to operate in urban terrain
where it can easily conceal itself and strike using swarming tactics (as have done Iraqi insurgents and Hezbollah in Lebanon). There is an obvious match between urban battlespaces and the decentralised networked approach of chaoplexic warfare and in all likelihood they are fuelling one another. This underlines the fact that the different approaches of the scientific way of warfare are highly contextual and were each developed to meet specific strategic and tactical challenges. Any attempt to mechanically apply them to other situations generally courts disaster.

CTlab: As follow-up to that question, I’d like to revisit your earlier comments, about two basic approaches to managing and coping with the inherent uncertainy of war. Identifying the edges and limits of where the battle takes place – where it begins, where it ends, what dimension it occupies, how its occupants are categorized – has become as much of an issue as managing what happens “within” the battlespace. You allude to this spatial dynamic in your references to Paul Edwards’ “closed worlds”, and in your comment here about collateral damage. How would you relate these spatial influences to chaoplexic warfare? Can we speak of “chaoplexic architectures”, of “chaoplexic geographies” – of “chaoplexic space”?

Bousquet: Each regime of the scientific way of warfare produces its own conceptions of space and modes of occupation of military assemblages within it. Mechanistic warfare organised armies in linear geometric patterns and dictated its manoeuvres within a delineated striated space of Cartesian coordinates. Thermodynamic warfare is somewhat more ambiguous since the energies unleashed by it tended at first towards the constitution of large static fronts determined by the availability of railways necessary to satisfy the voracious logistical demands of industrial war but the introduction of motorised land and air vehicles and a generally more dynamic understanding of conflict subsequently restored vectors of speed and flexible operations behind enemy lines. Cybernetic warfare brought all these new dynamic forces under overarching architectures of control which progressively enclosed the entire globe in a mesh of geocentric satellites and command and control structures (a new and even more totalising striation of space – hence Edwards’ ‘closed world’). In emphasising local and relational situatedness as well as the porousness of boundaries between system and environment, chaoplexity develops a much more fluid and relativistic conception of space as shaped by its occupation rather than as an empty immobile Newtonian canvas within which entities are positioned and displaced. As my terminology indicates, Deleuze and Guattari’s theories of smooth and striated spaces and the constant interplay between them have greatly helped me in thinking about this dimension.

CTlab: Weizman writes about “elastic geographies” in Hollow Land. He’s also noted, famously, how Deleuze and Guattari informed Israeli military reconceptualizations of the battlespace…

Bousquet: On the basis of what I do know of Weizman’s argument, there do seem to be obvious connections between his notion of ‘elastic geographies’ and chaoplexic spatiality – this is something I need to look into more. The use of Deleuze and Guattari by the Israeli military is fascinating and goes to show that if you produce a ‘conceptual toolkit’, you never know how and by whom its different tools will be employed. In this specific case, it does not otherwise surprise me since I see clear links between their philosophy of decentred rhizomic assemblages and the scientific theories of chaoplexity. To me this is all part of a broader chaoplexic cultural moment we are in the midst of.

CTlab: What sort of project do you think you’ll tackle next then – can we expect another book exploring other aspects of the “chaoplexic cultural moment”?

Bousquet: I am currently working on thinking through the implications of applying chaoplexity to the study of international relations, notably the reconceptualisation of the main categories and assumptions of IR which chaoplexity might entail for a discipline which frequently rests on impoverished and outdated scientific methodologies. The impulse for this is not in any way science envy from the vantage point of an ‘inferior’ social science – there seems to me to be very good reasons why the social world cannot be appropriately studied through the sole methods of the natural sciences. However, it strikes me that the concepts and theoretical frameworks of chaoplexity could provide a common language in which to talk about a variety of problems and issues that are being discussed within a range of literatures, from historical sociology and critical realism to ‘relationism’ and post-structuralism.

Beyond that, I think I’ like to return to a broad historical enquiry in the mold of my present book. I’m particularly interested in questions of surveillance, the relation of power to optics, and the constitutive distinctions between visible and invisible. Some of it would likely relate to military issues but as part of a wider concern with social assemblages at large.


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3 thoughts on “Authorlab: Dr. Antoine Bousquet

  1. Any smart opponent of hi-tech militaries such as the U.S. or Israel will seek to operate in urban terrain where it can easily conceal itself and strike using swarming tactics (as have done Iraqi insurgents and Hezbollah in Lebanon). There is an obvious match between urban battlespaces and the decentralised networked approach of chaoplexic warfare and in all likelihood they are fuelling one another.

    I think we have to be rather careful here about what Hizbullah did, and didn’t do, in Lebanon in 2006, since it has fairly significant consequences for any analysis of either insurget operations or the balance between cybernetic and chaoplexic management of both military forces and the battlespace.Hizbullah did not typically seek to lure the IDF into urban areas, and transform these into kill-zones with the use of swarming tactics. Such an approach would have been a poor use of its limited number of fighters, its familiarity with the terrain, and its access to long-range precision-guided (ATGM) weapons. Instead, the majority of kills against the IDF were in hilly/broken but relatively open terrain, in which ATGMs could be fired from prepared and concealed positions into established kill-zones, sometimes in conjunction with closer-range RPG ambushes, or covering fire from small arms or even the odd mortar or two. Certainly, IDF intel collection was offset in the case of some Hizbullah assets (such as MRLs) by placing them in urban areas both to confound sensors and complicate targeting. An awful lot were simply concealed in rural areas with traditional CCD (camouflage/concealment/deception) techniques, however, that differ little from those used in the World Wars.What was "chaoplexic" about this was that many Hizbullah battles with the IDF were fought by small units operating together yet semi-autonomously, with established fallback and shelter positions identified to allow a relatively fluid use of the battlespace. Considerable authority for tactical operations was devolved to local commanders.What wasn’t very chaoplexic about this was the high degree of reliance on fixed positions and prepared fortifications, the tight fire discipline exerted by the senior leadership over units with "strategic" implications (heavier and longer-ranged SSMs in particular). Indeed, in many ways Hizbullah is a very Leninist organization in its politico-military hierarchy—much. much more so than any of the Iraqi insurgent groups. This degree of control allowed Hizbullah to choreograph the IO and diplomatic battlespace in ways that would have not have been possible were combat operations fully decentralized.Of course, it should also be said that Hizbullah’s successes, as in any combat, were also a function of their relationship to IDF campaign strategy. As well as it all worked out for Nasrallah in 2006, a different IDF response (either more limited, or involving major ground operations from the outset à la 1982) could have had markedly different political and military outcomes.

  2. Hehe—next time I’ll remember to log in before posting!

  3. Thanks for these valuble insights, Rex. I confess I have not studied in great depth the recent Lebanon war and should perhaps have spoken more carefully. Your post adds a lot of nuanced empirical context to relate to my broader theoretical arguments. There is indeed a whole spectrum of more or less decentralised approaches to warfare with all real warfighting forces constituting their own specific combination of these approaches. A fully chaoplexic force could hardly be reconciled with definite political goals in the absence of a chain of command and an ability to convert military successes on the ground into political when time for negotiation comes. I see the different regimes of warfare I distinguish as different poles of attraction for military organisation rather than descriptions of actually existing entities.Finally, you raise the important point that the effectiveness of any strategy or tactics is always a function of those employed by the opposition. This inherently relational and contextual nature of armed conflict is what to my mind precludes the elaboration of a set of technological or organisational systems that can deliver victory everywhere and at all times.

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