How Tech Changes Our Thinking About War

By Michael A. Innes | Jan 13, 2009

Technological innovations – from the clock to the internet – don’t just change how armies fight their battles. They changed how those armies think about war, in the first place. That’s the subject of one of the more important new books of 2009:  The Scientific Way of Warfare: Order and Chaos on the Battlefields of Modernity (Columbia University Press, 2009).

Author Antoine Bousquet, a Lecturer in International Relations at Birkbeck College in London, offers a vision of modern Western military organization that draws its fundamental logic from the social artifacts of science and technology. “From the ascendancy of the scientific worldview in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries to present day,” he writes, “an ever more intimate symbiosis between science and warfare has established itself with the increasing reliance on the development and integration of technology within complex social assemblages of war.” Instead of debating whether war drives technological innovation or vice versa, it actually explains how key technologies in modern history evolved into metaphors for social organization — in turn enabling the military, as a consummate social organization, to regulate itself.

The Scientific Way of Warfare (“SWOW,” Bousquet calls it) is a remarkable work of synthesis, drawing on the contemporary writing of Manuel Castells, Paul Edwards, John Arquilla, and (especially) Martin Van Creveld. The book’s broad historical sweep doesn’t get caught up in the finer details, though, which might frustrate readers looking for a more detailed military history. Instead, it boils its subject down to “four distinct regimes of the scientific way of warfare, each of which is characterized by a specific theoretical and methodological constellation: mechanistic, thermodynamic, cybernetic, and chaoplexic warfare.” At the heart of each, he writes, “we find an associated paradigmatic technology, respectively the clock, the engine, the computer and the network.”

Clocks, with their precise parsing of time, gave us “mechanistic warfare,” characterized by linear, predictable, reliable geometries (think Frederick the Great’s archetypal Prussian forces). “Thermodynamic warfare” evolved from concepts of dynamic motion and energy, associated with newly developed mechanical engines, resulting in the sort of industrialized, technologically enabled slaughter that chewed up millions of human bodies in World War I. “Cybernetic warfare” came about in World War II, Bousquet explains, with the ascent of the computer technology needed to manage the data floods of the code-breakers of Bletchley Park and the bomb-builders of Los Alamos. It signaled the dominance of information in strategic thinking, and the ascent of the all-powerful systems analyst in war planning.

One stage of military practice doesn’t collapse under the weight of the next, however. In fact, new scientific regimes of warfare don’t necessarily improve how war is organized and fought. Instead, they get tripped up on the limitations of the previous generation, legacies of the old school preventing the next regime from fully taking hold and moving things forward. This might just be a fancy way of saying we always plan to fight the last war. But it identifies some important distinctions and helps explain things like the failure of Vietnam – Robert MacNamara’s pervasive quantification didn’t do much, in the end, to convince the Viet Cong that they were facing defeat.

It also sets the conditions for Bousquet’s fourth scientific regime of war, which looks to chaos theory and complexity science to understand and predict the networked threats of everything from L.A. street gangs to transnational jihadis and Russian hackers. Bousquet borrows the term “chaoplexity,” which first appeared in John Horgan’s 1996 book The End of Science: Facing the Limits of Knowledge in the Twilight of the Scientific Age, to coin his own terminology, “chaoplexic warfare.”

Chaoplexic war, likes its cybernetic predecessor, is information driven. But cyberneticism emphasized total control of the battlespace through information dominance; in theory, that was supposed to create a predictable, controllable warzone environment. Chaoplexity, on the other hand, understands the order hidden within chaos and complexity. It’s an understanding, translated to military thinking, that would theoretically enable soldiers to recognize, accept, and cope better with the uncertainties of combat. Characterized by “non-linearity, self-organization, and emergence,” the central metaphor of chaoplexic war “is that of the network, the distributed model of information exchange perhaps best embodied by the Internet.”

Pentagon has a doctrine of “network-centric warfare,” of course. But, despite paying lip service to chaoplexity, it’s still stuck in the cybernetic muck, Bousquet argues.  “Serious questions” remain as to whether network-centric warfare is really part of the new way of war – or just a “re-branding” of older approaches.

The book’s later chapters, on cybernetic and chaoplexic warfare, are mostly about the United States, which has had radically different experiences of armed conflict since WWII from almost any other nation on earth. Here, SWOW’s descriptions of networks and chaoplexity feel more like tactical cyberneticism than a truly new approach to war. New communications and surveillance technologies make it possible for the military to coordinate networked units right down to the squad level. But it also makes it possible to nano-manage them by remote control, second guessing every move they make, often under fire. That’s not the same thing as giving field units the autonomy to make their own decisions and accepting the uncertainty that comes with it. It’s also dangerous. SWOW doesn’t tell us much about where chaoplexic war will be fought, either – or more importantly, how chaoplexic armies will interpret and cope with the spaces in which they fight. When I pressed Bousquet on this, I had in mind the sort of urban worm-holing that Israeli Defense Forces have perfected for operations in and through Palestinian camps.
He acknowledge that wars of the future will likely happen, for the most part, in cities. And so it goes in Gaza.

Originally published at Wired.com (13 January 2009)

URL: http://www.wired.com/2009/01/how-tech-change/