Nettime mailing list archives

<nettime> [RRE]Imagining the Next War
ryan shaw on Sun, 16 Sep 2001 14:06:31 +0200 (CEST)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> [RRE]Imagining the Next War

[from the red rock eater news service, url below]:

  Imagining the Next War:
  Infrastructural Warfare and the Conditions of Democracy

  Phil Agre

  14 September 2001
  4300 words

When political leaders refer to Tuesday's attacks in New York and
Washington as "war", what do they mean?  It used to be that our concept of
war was defined by a set of boundaries.  Nation-states fought wars to
defend their borders.  They fielded armies, and those armies fought along
front lines.  Soldiers were separate from civilians, and the military
domain was separate from the civilian domain.  Soldiers ran the war from
day to day; the civilian leadership gave the big orders and sat back.

Those boundaries no longer apply, as much evidence shows:

(1) If you want to destroy someone nowadays, you get into their
infrastructure.  You don't have to be a nation state to do it, and if they
retain any capacity for retaliation then it's probably better if you're

(2) Because the fighting is all on television, the fine details of the
fighting become political matters.  Soldiers complain bitterly about
politicians' interference, not understanding that technology has
eliminated their zone of professional autonomy.  The politicians are
*right* to be interfering.

(3) The US military thought that the Republicans would save them from the
Democrats' boundary-breaching conceptions of the 21st century world, but
Donald Rumsfeld's abortive reform efforts -- which are really attempts to
transpose the traditionally narrow view of military affairs into a
science-fiction key -- have only clarified how archaic the traditional
conception of warfare really is.

(4) During the campaign, George W. Bush harshly criticizied the
"nation-building" activities to which military personnel have been
assigned in Kosovo and elsewhere.  The truth was that nation-building is a
geopolitical necessity in a totally wired world, and that the soldiers
themselves *like* serving in Kosovo -- they know that they are doing
something useful for once.  The nation-building goes on.

(5) In the old days, the industry that produced military equipment was
almost entirely separate from the industry that produced civilian
equipment.  But economies of scale in the production of technology,
especially information and communications technologies, have grown so
great that the military must buy much of its equipment from the civilian
market, even though the civilian equipment is not hardened for military
purposes (or even, in the case of computer security, for civilian

(6) Even airplane hijackings have lost their old boundaries.  It is
becoming clear that the people in the plane that crashed in rural
Pennsylvania had extensive communications to the ground, and knew about
the first attack on the World Trade Center.  Boundarylessness in that
sense actually defeated the hijackers, at least to that small degree.  We
have become so accustomed to boundarylessness that we didn't find it even
faintly odd that people in hijacked airplanes were have complicated
telephone conversations with people on the ground, saying goodbyes to
their families, and so on.  The whole institution of airplane hijackings
now has a new script, replacing the one from the 1970s.

Thus far, however, we have not been compelled as a society to define what
we mean by "war" in this weirdly pervious world.  Of course, defense
intellectuals have not been short on definitions.  Many of them claim to
rue the loss of these boundaries, even as they embrace a conception of
military matters that includes absolutely everything. War, on these
expanded conceptions, no longer needs to be conducted between states.  
Privately funded groups can wage war, "asymmetric" to be sure but
destructive all the same.  Even lone individuals can engage in acts of
"war", and the individuals who released the Code Red worms may have
inflicted economic damage (at least according to reported estimates, and
not including of course the damage in human terms) comparable to that of
the people who attacked the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.  The
defense intellectuals have also expanded the definition of "war" to
include many domains besides the mutual killing of soldiers and blowing up
of ships and factories. One speaks, for example, of "cultural war".  Some
military experts even lecture on political opposition as a form of "war",
explicitly treating nonviolence within the same doctrinal framework in
which they talk about invasion and bombing.

War, in this broadened sense, is everywhere and everything.  It is large
and small.  It has no boundaries in space or time.  Life itself is war.  
The soldier's zone of autonomy returns, but nothing else is left.  
Notice, however, that the defense intellectuals' conception of
boundaryless war is not the only one possible.  It holds no place, for
example, for "nation-building" activities, or for the integration of
political and military concerns that military officers complain about.  
Far from replacing the traditional conception of the military, the new
conception generalizes it.

Referring to the attacks on the east coast as "war" gives expression to
our emotions about them, and feels proportional to the magnitude of the
atrocity.  But if the definition of "war" has shifted beneath us, then a
declaration of war is an even graver matter than it used to be.  Let us
take a moment, then, to ask what we are getting ourselves into.  The Bush
administration started using the language of "war" well before they were
willing to say who they thought was responsible for the attacks.  That in
itself is probably not unprecedented; the idea of something mysteriously
blowing up is hardly new.  What is less precedented is the lack of any
clear suspect who was either a foreign nation state or a domestic
organization.  Suspicion from the beginning has falled on a man named
Osama bin Laden, and reasonably enough given his involvement in earlier
attacks.  But even to assign responsibility to this one man is entirely
misleading, since bin Laden, at best, operates at the center of a
far-flung and loosely-knit network of individuals who are united more by
philosophy than by organization. They are certainly not a hierarchical
military along the traditional lines -- lines that Western militaries have
themselves long abandoned for many purposes.

The problem posed by this nontraditional terrorist "enemy" has often been
understood in purely military terms: how do you destroy something that has
so little connective tissue?  If you blow it up, it just grows right back.  
The United States has plenty of experience fighting loosely organized
opponents, for example in Vietnam, and that experience is not good.  Nor
was the Russian experience in Afghanistan any better.  But the new
situation is even worse, and in several ways.  We are not going to send
hundreds of thousands of soldiers to Afghanistan.  I'd be surprised if we
send hundreds.  And whatever we do, every step will be on television.  
Everyone involved will have cellular telephones.  We will be doing the
messiest thing in the world, and we will be doing it in the most visible
possible way.

But we should also understand the problem in political terms.  What does
it mean as a *political* matter to declare war on a network? This, it
seems to me, is the greatest danger of all.  The only moral justification
for war is to preserve the conditions of democracy. Revenge is not a
sufficient motive, except insofar as it preserves the conditions of
democracy by serving as a deterrent.  Otherwise the matter should be
treated as a crime and handled by the institutions of the police and
criminal courts.  Are the conditions of democracy in fact under threat?  
It is possible that they are, and I would expect the government to present
enough evidence of such a threat before placing the country in a condition
of war.  The question of justification is particularly important in the
present case given the dubious conditions under which George W. Bush
assumed the office of the president.  His continued rule is also a
significant threat to the conditions of democracy, even though his methods
were largely nonviolent.

Let us say, then, that George W. Bush commences a war against Osama bin
Laden, or even against the greater abstraction of "terrorism". What
happens then?  A state of war is a serious thing.  States of war have
routinely been used to justify censorship, the curtailing of civil
liberties, and the repression of dissidents.  States of war are also
understood to require the opposition in the legislature to moderate its
otherwise essential functions of criticism.  Calls are issued to stand
behind the political leadership and to display unity, with the implication
that the enemy is watching and that failure to unite is tantamount to
treason.  These are not healthy conditions for a democracy; indeed, they
are the opposite of democracy.

War in the old conception was temporary: the idea was explicitly that the
state of war would end, and that the normal rules of democracy would
resume once their conditions had been reestablished.  Civil liberties and
the institutions of democratic government are not entirely eliminated
during wartime; rather, they are reduced in their scope while retaining
their same overall form.  Even in conditions of total war mobilization,
clear boundaries between the military and civilian sides of society are
maintained.  But war, we are told, no longer works that way.  No such
boundaries are possible.  It follows, therefore, that "war" in the new
sense -- war with no beginning or end, no front and rear, and no
distinction between military and civilian -- is incompatible with
democracy, and not just in practice, not just temporarily, but permanently
and conceptually.  If we conceptualize war the way the defense
intellectuals suggest, then to declare war is to destroy the conditions of
democracy.  War, in this new sense, can never be justified.

In reality, the problem here does not originate with technology and the
military doctrines that respond to it.  It is in the nature of democracy
that its conditions are contested.  The conditions of democracy are
institutional, first of all, and institutions are human things.  They live
nowhere but in people's minds, and in the language, artifacts, and
practices by which people deal with one another.  Democracy, like every
institution, is something that people collectively learn to do.  It is a
skill.  Its central conditions are intellectual: people continually
reproduce the skills of democracy if they continue to believe in it.  
Democracy rests on beliefs.  Yet the beliefs at the foundation of
democracy are themselves controversial. They are reargued most visibly
when prominent legal controversies come before constitutional courts.  
But they are also reargued every time that the institutions themselves are
used.  Democracy is an institutional framework for the conduct of disputes
among organized interests, and the groundrules that this framework
provides must be interpreted and applied in the case of each dispute that
comes along.

The ideal of formal democracy as dispute within an agreed framework of
rules is taught in school, but in the real world of democracy the
combatants have fundamentally different visions of what that framework
should be.  Democrats believe that the people can and should govern
themselves, and that all institutions should be reformed to provide a high
degree of access and participation to the people whose lives they affect.  
Conservatives, by contrast, believe that society should be organized
hierarchically and directed by a narrow elite, and that institutions
should be invested with a high degree of authority to which the people
reflexively defer.  Conservatives differ on the question of whether the
formal institutions of democracy are valuable and should be retained, but
their main emphasis is on circumscribing those institutions in both their
processes and their powers.

Conservatism has come in recent centuries to be overlaid with a liberal
philosophy whose keyword is "freedom", and the conservative movement must
continually renegotiate the borderlines between authority and freedom as
organizing principles of society.  But the freedom that conservatism
dictates is first and foremost the freedom of the market.  And
conservatism in actual practice rarely conforms to idealized pictures of
the free market, given that large business interests tend to be central to
any conservative political coalition. The longstanding tradition of
business rent-seeking under conservative rule reasserted itself from the
opening days of the Bush government, in the guise for example of subsidies
to the oil industry to promote energy development that the market was
already providing for, and we can expect that rent-seeking to intensify in
the conditions of intimate government-industry relationship that
characterize war. Business managers, after all, have a fiduciary
responsibility to return profits to their stockholders by whatever means,
whether legitimate commerce or lobbying, represents the best return on
investment, and undermining the conditions of democracy has proven a solid
investment over many years.  Libertarians who join conservative coalitions
are simply trading one form of government interference in the market for

The almost inherent crisis of democracy, and the actual nature of
conservatism, become clearest in conditions of war.  The conditions of war
are almost identical with the social vision of conservatism, and it is no
surprise that conservatives are so eloquent when the possibility of war
arises.  Conservatism has always been profoundly opposed to the popular
exercise of reason, supposing it to lead inevitably to tyranny, and
wartime is ideally suited for the absolute, polarized, us-and-them forms
of thinking that are the opposite of rational thought.  In this sense,
democracy as such is profoundly threatened by an absolute evil such as
Stalin's regime in the Soviet Union or the attack on the World Trade
Center -- not because of the military danger it poses, real as that may
be, but because of the danger that it poses to the collective reason of a
democratic polity. Indeed, the depth of the danger was already clear
before the attack, for example in Rush Limbaugh's astonishing argument
that the leader of the democratic opposition, Tom Daschle, resembled Satan
simply because he opposed all of George W. Bush's policies.  And it has
become clearer since the attack in the argument by many prominent
conservatives that the coming wartime condition will require a diminution
of civil liberties.

The new military doctrine of war as a total phenomenon -- war without
boundaries -- is nothing except conservatism.  It is conservatism
expressed in different language, rediscovered starting from different
concerns, but it is the antithesis of democracy in the same way that
conservatism is.  Yet military officers in democratic countries are often
ambivalent about the new doctrine.  They understand that the legitimacy of
the military as an institution rests on its claim to preserve the
conditions of democracy, and they understand more clearly than most
civilians the potential for institutional catastrophe that can never be
far from the surface in a society with a standing army. That is why it is
especially unnerving that the United States military in recent years has
developed a culture that sees itself as separate from, and morally
superior to, the supposedly decadent society that it supposedly defends.  
Conservatives have energetically reinforced this tendency, portraying
democratically minded governments as hostile toward the military and
encouraging the military in its tendency to become a rent-seeking interest
group like any other, to the point that the officer corps now skews very
strongly Republican compared to even twenty years ago.

The danger of "total war" against the spectre named Osama bin Laden, then,
is that it will reinforce the worst tendencies in our society, and that
far from preserving the conditions of democracy it will undermine the
cultural and institutional foundations upon which democracy rests.  It
will be war without end, without boundaries, without even a coherent
conception of itself save as the expression of an impulse to vengeance.  
Far from the Gulf War image of televised war as a morbid video game, it
will be what the defense intellectuals call infrastructural war, and in
the most general possible sense: war that reaches into the finest details
of daily life, reengineering the most basic arrangements of travel and
communications in a time when everyday life in a mobile and interconnected
society is increasingly organized around those very arrangements.

The main precedent for this looming war is the boundaryless pseudo-war
against communism, and yet the precedent is misleading.  The Cold War was
a war of the mind at home and a war of the jungles in the distant locales
where conflicts were conducted by proxy.  Its foundation was the
intellectual control that, for a time and to a remarkable degree still,
prevented those proxy wars from registering in the minds of a populace
that otherwise was fairly free.  Infrastructural war is something quite
different.  The Cold War promoted a paranoia of a quite abstract sort: the
hidden traitors that supposedly lay behind the social ideals of reformers.  
Infrastructural war promotes a paranoia of a different kind: the ramifying
maze of blind spots in the security arrangements of a technological
society which a highly skilled enemy might exploit.  Thus the uncanny
sense of violation that compounds the sheer violence of the attacks on the
east coast, and thus on a less dramatic level the myth-making around
security vulnerabilities in "cyberspace".

The Cold War's most misleading legacy is an ideology that totally
misconstrues these dangers.  The great drama of the Cold War was a
supposed conflict between two organizing principles: centralization and
decentralization.  Never mind that the Cold War societies of the First
World were in fact highly centralized both in their industrial structure
and in the central role of their permanent-war governments; despite this,
the end of the Cold War is supposed to have vindicated a system of
self-organizing decentralization that is robust against dangers of many
types.  In reality, the infrastructure of our highly technological society
is centralized in many ways.  There are three economic reasons for this:
economies of scale, which tend to promote monopolies; economies of scope,
which tend to reorganize products and institutions in terms of
successively more generalized layers; and network effects, which tend to
create uniformity through the need for everyone in an interconnected
society to be compatible with everyone else.  In reality, the
decentralization that truly is one component of technological society
rests upon an institutional and infrastructural framework that is
necessarily uniform in many ways, and that is poorly suited to the kinds
of decentralized administration that the ideology of the Cold War would
promote.  The more sophisticated our society becomes, the more complex and
all-encompassing this framework gets.

So what to do?  First we need a new concept of war.  This is not easy,
partly because the world has changed, but also because our concept of war
is intimately tied to our concept of democracy.  It follows that we can't
get a new concept of war without getting a new concept of democracy, and
the process of getting a new concept of democracy is dangerous in itself.  
The military intellectuals' new concept of war is flawed because it starts
from the military and simply follows the logic of interconnection until
the military domain encloses everything else.  Instead, we need a broader
conception of security that has a number of dimensions, and that
incorporates the dialectical relation between the military and political
domains that is inherent in a world without clear boundaries.  Instead of
permanent, total war, conducted under rules that subordinate democracy to
an authority that draws its legitimacy from the absolute evil of its foe,
we need a conception of permanent, total security, conducted under rules
that keep the ends squarely in view.  Those ends are the preservation,
indeed expansion, of the conditions of democracy.

Total security, however, does not mean total control of society by
"security forces".  In an infrastructural world, security cannot be a
force, something exerted from the outside, a lid kept down or a shield put
up.  Instead, security is a matter of design.  Infrastructure is something
designed, in the sense that it is a human artefact, but the infrastructure
that our society possesses right now has not been designed with anything
approaching a full conception of its relation to a democratic order.  
When infrastructure is designed to serve a narrowly technical set of
requirements, or, worse, when it accretes haphazardly in layers like the
software code that we suddenly had to decompile en masse with the approach
of Y2K, it becomes riven with blind spots, with vulnerabilities that, in
the long run, only multiply the chaos that technology had always been
thought to solve.  The fact is, our current infrastructures are profoundly
insecure.  This has been documented over and over, and it is entirely
absurd that we have learned to tolerate the worms that swarm continuously
over the world's networked computers, trashing information and randomly
broadcasting sensitive files.  These worms have not killed anybody yet,
but the shoddy security systems in the country's airports are another
matter. The catastrophe at the World Trade Center provides an opening for
a period of real design -- design that adopts as its requirements *both*
of the conditions of democracy: the closing of security holes and the
protection of civil liberties.  The necessary designs are partly technical
and partly institutional.  The current arrangement of having the airlines
pay for the security personnel at airports, for example, has been
comprehensively discredited, and even the strictest of opponents of
centralized government appear to appreciate the need to federalize a
system whose incentives have heretofore been set up exactly backward.

But secondly, the conception of security that our democratic society needs
must take seriously the all-encompassing nature of modern industrial
society.  A technological society must be democratically legitimate, above
all, because it cannot afford to have an outside. The people who conduct
terrorist actions against the United States are fundamentally driven by a
need to make us feel their pain.  Along with natural human sympathy and
outrage, the people in many countries have responded to the attacks in New
York and Washington by observing that, at last, the United States knows
what it's like.  Media commentators in the United States have often
asserted, no doubt without thinking, that the magnitude of the recent
attacks has been without precedent in history.  This could not be more
false, as the people of Nanking, London, Dresden, or Hiroshima could
explain, or those of Hanoi, Baghdad, or Dili.  The United States'
consciousness has been shaped by its geographic isolation, but now
infrastructural warfare has provided an attacker of a way of piercing that
isolation, and thus of piercing that consciousness, forcing upon the
people of the United States the consciousness of a people who must fear,
at one level or another, that they will be invaded and killed.

Americans' imaginative distance from the rest of the world has been one
reason why it has been so easy to keep from American public consciousness
the nature and magnitude of the atrocities in which the American
government and its close allies have unquestionably been culpable.  A
large portion of the population of East Timor, for example, was
slaughtered by the genocidal regime that ruled until recently in Indonesia
with the active approval and support of the United States.  
Counterinsurgency against a small and primitive peasant rebellion in
Guatemala in the 1980s was conducted through a deliberate policy of simply
killing large percentages of the population, with the active support of an
American government that ridiculously claimed to have little knowledge of
what was happening and no power to stop it, even as prominent religious
conservative organizations in the United States praised the Guatemalan
leadership for its claims to be acting in the name of God.  Israel
constantly takes people's land away from them and treats them as
second-class citizens in their own land, and no amount of bad behavior by
them or their coreligionists in other countries can justify many of the
Israeli policies, nearly all of which the United States supports both
financially and diplomatically.

None of this mitigates the attacks on innocent people in the World Trade
Center, or even the attacks on military personnel in the Pentagon.  The
people who conducted those terrorist attacks are entirely responsible for
what they did.  They are evil, and they made themselves evil by choice.  
Nearly as evil are the religious authorities who provided the ideological
basis of this terrible self-making with their spurious justifications for
suicide bombings. Yet the call to war is precisely a call for us, formerly
citizens of a democracy, to remake ourselves in the image of that evil --
to ignore all evil deeds of our own, and instead to project all of our own
failings into an enemy who grows ever bigger, ever more inhuman, with
every exaggeration of the extent of the danger and the need for revenge.  
The call to war is not legitimate: it is not capable of delivering what it
claims to deliver.

Should we go out and get the people who blew up our buildings?  Of course
we should.  If we can't get them nonviolently law, should we start
dropping bombs on impoverished countries?  Maybe we should, if it will
actually achieve the stated goal.  A world that has graduated beyond the
traditional conceptions of war may not be able to avoid military action,
regrettable as it always is.  Evil is real, whatever excuse it might
present.  The important thing is to draw a distinction between military
action, as the exercise within a framework of international law of the
power of a legitimate democratic state, and war, as the imposition of a
total social order that is the antithesis of democracy, and that, in the
current technological conditions of war, has no end in sight.  We can
reorganize our infrastructure along more intelligent lines, and we
urgently should.  But more fundamentally, war will end only when the rest
of the world enjoys the same institutional conditions of justice and
freedom that we do.  We can hasten that day by supporting civil society,
education, reconciliation, institutional reform, Internet connectivity,
and nonproliferation throughout the world.  Or we can retreat into a
conservative conception of war as a way to live our lives.  That is our
choice now, in our policies and in our hearts, as we decide how to act on
the pain that we feel.


#  distributed via <nettime>: no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a moderated mailing list for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: majordomo {AT} bbs.thing.net and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  archive: http://www.nettime.org contact: nettime {AT} bbs.thing.net