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“For the Soldiers of the Future”

Thursday, December 26th, 2013

(by Adam Elkus)

One of my favorite television shows when I was younger was the Japanese sci-fi anime Gundam Wing. The characterization was awful, the giant robots were kind of lame, and the fights often were not all that suspenseful. However, it had a very interesting social and political universe that was far more sophisticated than your average Toonami fare. I remember one episode in particular, now that discussion has turned to the ever-topical future of war and technology.

In a Earth Sphere Alliance military base on Corsica, an special operations officer named Walker greets Gundam‘s antagonist Zechs. Zechs has come to inspect an old prototype mobile suit that Zechs and Walker both believe holds the key to understanding the terrifying new and poorly understood Gundam mobile suits that have been annihilating Alliance bases left and right. The base’s foolish commander, having been forced to cease production of mobile suits due to a terrorist attack on the facility, stages a large display of force with base units to demonstrate that he is in control. The implied purpose is to grandstand to the special operations group that Zechs and Walker belong to, demonstrating that the regular army can do hold the base without the help of the “specials.”

At one point, Walker asks Zech to take the prototype suit from the base with him. Zechs, knowing that the Gundam will likely attack, asks Walker if he is going to die for him. Walker responds that he is following Zechs’ example and fighting for the soldiers of the future. Sure enough, a Gundam does arrive and Walker and his special operations unit suicidally fight to allow the base commander and Zechs to escape. Walker, in commanding his men to fight on despite the certainty of destruction, quite literally casts it as a struggle for the soldiers of the future. The combat data that the fight will produce will help the military fight the Gundams later. And Walker also wants Zechs and the prototype to escape for similar reasons. Zechs himself sorrowfully departs, knowing that he has effectively doomed Walker.

When thinking about World War I, I often see a lot of Walkers. Many of the military theorists, soldiers, and technologists could see nearly all of the challenges of future warfare stemming from C3I, logistics, campaign design, and tactics. Walker most reminds me of Ardant Du Picq, both in his interest in the future of war and untimely end. The problem all of the prewar era’s military theorists faced was that they were caught between something very old and familiar and something new and terrifying — much like the juxtaposition of the proto-Gundam Zechs inspects and the actual Gundam that kills Walker and his team (thus generating combat data). The familiar is tangible, the future is patchy and a black box. Still, that isn’t exactly why WWI was such a slaughterhouse.

An interesting contrast to Gundam is seen in another anime I watched recently, Night Raid 1931.  Set in the 1930s, the anime’s antagonist is a supernaturally empowered Imperial Japanese Army military officer who forsees World War II and the use of the atomic bomb. Prophecy is a very big theme throughout Night Raid — a oracle-like woman is used by the closest echelons of the Japanese government and military to make decisions about war and peace. There is something fitting about the idea that the prime source of information for decision is an esoteric and religiously based strategic forecaster.

The antagonist, afraid of the consequences of world warfare, attempts to enlist the peoples of Southeast Asia in revolt against both Japan and the colonial powers to produce a new order. He takes drastic measures to create his own prototype atomic weapon — which he plans to utilize on Shanghai in order to force the world powers (all of whom have settlements there) to take actions that will demonstrate the deterrent power of his new weapon. He is foiled, but the protagonists all understand that they have only postponed the inevitable.

The perspective in Night Raid is one in which the future is deterministic — even if it cannot be predicted completely. The initial conditions are clear — some sequence of events is on the horizon, ending in the usage of the atomic bomb. The antagonist only can glimpse a very hazy outline of this vision, and he tries and fails to prevent it. Undoubtedly the fact that he tried and failed influenced the outcome somewhat — but the anime implies WWII happens anyway (and the bomb presumably does as well).

The deterministic perspective in Night Raid is contrasted with Gundam 00, in which a Hari Seldon-like figure creates an organization for carrying out a 200-year plan designed to result in a desired future and a massively powerful biological artificial intelligence agent to help plan and direct the process through the centuries. However, after he puts himself in suspended freeze to wait out the future, the components of his organization begin to develop different ideas about it. Factions develop and feud and 200 years later the desired future is very much in doubt.

Though the good guys win in the end (it’s TV), it is by no means implied that the initial conditions are sufficient to produce a deterministic outcome. The end outcome is an emergent product of contingent decisions by all of the anime’s political, military, and economic entities as well as the specific decisions and personalities of the main characters. In fact, there are many points in the anime in which complete derailment of the desired future are very plausible. The fact that the end leads to the heroes triumphant doesn’t necessarily say much about the probability of it occurring. The story tries to present it as such, but this can be dismissed as a narrative contrivance designed to impose a comfortable sense of signal to noise.

The question of what the future holds for war depends in part on how you view the nature of social systems. The key idea of Night Raid is a teleological climb to some higher mountain. Exactly how high no one really knows, but by the end of the anime they are sure that there is some peak much higher that they will ascend to. In contrast, Gundam 00 seems to imply that there are micro interactions that produce fleeting intermediate structures. Furthermore, the interaction between micro and intermediate levels produces a macroscopic outcome that then affects the micro level again.

The challenge is always to avoid the Black Swan problem. It is easy to impose a spurious coherence on past events that you believe gives them teleological order. Much of what Lynn Rees talks about is the problem of imposing such coherence with fuzzy and value-laden ideas about strategy. But as some commenters have noted in the legibility thread, legibility is at heart any process that we use to try to force the world to fit our own mental models. Every time we write history, we inherently distort reality into a soda straw view because no history can capture the complexity of the world as it once was. It is often ironic to see humanities thinkers make this very criticism about mathematical modeling and statistics, when if anything the process of imposing conceptual order on the past is far more fraught with peril than building a clearly specified computer model.

With this in mind, we can see another interesting distinction in the various anime series surveyed in this post. In Night Raid 1931, the antagonist attempts to force the future to fit his own mental model, and fails miserably. The deterministic nature of events is implied by his failure to get the anti-colonial groups to trust him and cooperate — something that could only happen after World War II. However, in Gundam 00 the very act of changing the future also imperils that future — the creation of a large organization to carry out the Foundation-esque dream inevitably splits into factions and personalities that try to twist the plan to fit their own ends.

To return to the Walker-WWI parallel in the beginning — what I’m coming to believe about WWI is not that the greatest risk is failing to see the future clearly or of not collecting the right data. It is that we do not give enough reflective thought to how our anticipations of the future also change it. The preparations of the various powers for war they knew would require large armies, mobilization networks, and speed famously complicated prewar diplomacy. And preparations for Cold War turning “hot” and the scientific and technical spawn they generated in turn also created the roots of American dominance and profitable technological industries today.

Much discussion about future war involves banning or regulating technologies, taking steps to insure that X or Y capability is preserved or scrapped, etc. But that focus renders invisible the problems involved in trying to force the future to be legible, as well as the interesting lack of reflexivity about the combination of predicting the future and seeking to alter it.

Coercion and Social Cohesion

Thursday, December 26th, 2013

(by Adam Elkus)

Reader PRBeckman left a very great comment on my “Legibility at War” post, placing the WWI draft effort in perspective:

The federal government wanted to conscript millions of eligible men, but it had no information about those men and it lacked the institutions and money to gather that information so it depended upon private, voluntary organizations to fill the gaps. This is where the culture of voluntary associations reveals its dark side. The army’s estimate suggested that perhaps 3 million men never registered at all. This illegibility was a great dilemma and that’s where voluntary associations came in. Americans of this era are famous for their prolific creations of associations of every kind. You would think that would be a good thing except that they too often veered into vigilantism. These organizations were populated by people who weren’t themselves eligible for the draft, but they saw it as their duty to ensure that those who were eligible weren’t shirking. Organizations were formed all over the country, the most prominent being the American Protective League which counted 250,000 members. In 1917 and 1918 the APL and these other organizations, in collaboration with federal, state & local gov’ts, ran “slacker raids” to try to find those men who were eligible but who hadn’t registered. The accounts of these raids are frightening. The raids varied in size but they culminated in a massive operation in New York City on September 3-5, 1918:

“The APL later estimated that somewhere between twenty thousand and thirty thousand men participated: city police, government agents from the Department of Justice, more than two thousand soldiers and one thousand sailors, and thousands of American Protective League operatives. For three days they scoured the city’s streets and public places interrogating somewhere between 300,000 and 500,000 men. A man who lacked a draft registration or classification card found himself escorted by these self-appointed authorities to the nearest police station.”

They surrounded the “exits and entrances of every train, ferry, subway” station, “cordoning off whole blocks and interrogation men on the street. Later they raided theaters, saloons, billiard parlors, and boarding houses. Sailors wandered through the city’s restaurants moving from table to table inspecting the cards of diners.”

All the consequence of trying to achieve ’legibility’. And it would have an impact on concepts of citizenship, changing how citizens interacted with their government. The WW1 period was the transition era from the “illegible,” “wild and unruly forest”-era of citizenship to one that has taken on “a more legible shape.”

It’s worth pondering this when we hear endless appeals from pundits about how if our politicians and partisans were only forced to abandon their substantive political differences and get together, if our populace was regimented by a peacetime draft unconnected to urgent military danger for the purpose of social cohesion, we would somehow be a more perfect union. John Schindler rightly dispenses with these ideas:

A Swiss-style mass reserve force would make a great deal of sense if the United States worried about actual invasion from Canada or Mexico, something which even Sheriff Joe Arpaio doesn’t think is a realistic threat. Otherwise, not so much

Moreover, what would the U.S. military do with all those people? Since, unless you want to replicate the worst features of the pre-1973 draft, when flimsy exemptions abounded that privileged the privileged, the Selective Service system would have to direct millions of young men (and women too? how, in gender-equal 21st century America, could they be excluded?) into the forces. Even allowing that a high percentage of young people would be kept out on grounds of rising obesity and general idiocy that are spreading in wildfire fashion among American youths – many place that number at seventy-five percent unfit for military service these days – the Pentagon would need to find lots of make-work work for many big battalions of teenagers.

I don’t hear anyone suggesting a draft period of two years, as it was before 1973, so we’d be talking about a one year – twelve months – service period at most (Austria is down to six months coerced service, as a reference point, which has limited functional utility for the active forces.). Which would mean the U.S. military would have to invest in a vast training system resulting in lots of units filled with half-trained troops plus many others counting the days until they get out. It’s not difficult to see why you hardly ever meet career military types, of any rank, with any enthusiasm for restoring peacetime conscription.

Schindler acribes this to the utopian dreams of pundits that never had to endure military discipline themselves but want someone else’s sons and daughters to do it. However, even this is actually too charitable. I wrote and scrapped a column for War on the Rocks that analyzed this at length (it was getting too dense for a typical op-ed format) and I came to the conclusion that there is actually an strong element of authoritarianism in this.

The idea is that, in essence, with a regimented body of Americans we have cohesion again — cohesion, however, defined by the pundit’s own views about what politics America ought to have. What Dana Milibank’s column (which Schindler’s column rebuts) amounts to is the idea that a regimented America is one that will be more likely to agree with his own subjective political beliefs. Key is his sentence at the end that the ultimate goal of this would be to do undo the damage of “self-interested leaders” and the fact that the shutdown was the impetus for his column:

It’s no coincidence that this same period has seen the gradual collapse of our ability to govern ourselves: a loss of control over the nation’s debt, legislative stalemate and a disabling partisanship. It’s no coincidence, either, that Americans’ approval of Congress has dropped to just 9?percent, the lowest since Gallup began asking the question 39 years ago.

If partisanship is what regimentation seeks to cure, than the unspoken assumption is that a drafted public is one more likely to share Dana Milbank’s view of American governance. Let us be direct: his view of governance is one that conflates ideological disagreement (combined with the particularities of the US system) with pettiness and flaws of character. And the implication is that regimentation, authority, and discipline will reduce disorder and make American politics legible to him and other observers — like the China-fetishizing New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman.

Don’t get me wrong, I found the shutdown disturbing too. I dislike partisanship as well. I think that the shutdown was also a failure of American governance. But it had complex structural causes,  not some sudden and simplistic deprecation in the character of Americans raised on butter instead of guns. Structure, particularly when combined with ideology, matters. And we should start being very careful when an intellectual avoids existing structural analysis, warns of societal decadence , and declares that we must regiment ourselves and quash disagreement to save the polity. We should particularly be concerned when said intellectual creates a mono-causal explanation for a complex set of social problems and declares we must regiment ourselves and quash disagreement.

In any event I’d rather have vigorous partisanship and democracy (even if it results in gridlock and partisanship) than the kind of America Milbank seemingly wants to build. And knowledge of history should make us very cautious about the constant of the intellectual proposing coercion for the sake of order, cohesion, and discipline in society. Diversity builds robustness and strength, and centralization and regimentation can have substantial costs.

A Shakespearean concept? Merry Merry!

Wednesday, December 25th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron — to all our readers, with seasons greetings from all of us at Zenpundit ]

The great French director Jean Renoir decided to cast himself as Octave in his film The Rules of the Game, widely considered to be among the greatest works in that medium. The effect was liberating — Renoir himself, playing Octave, has a greater knowledge of the director’s wishes than any other actor in that remarkable film, and this gives him a joyous freedom and spontaneity that delights us, his audience.

Jean Renoir, left, as Octave, in his film Rules of the Game

And all the world’s a stage, eh? with every film a play within the greater Play?

Nativity scene, from Jean Renoir's film, Grand Illusion

Is it too much to suppose that a director of Worlds, having seen Rules of the Game, might decide to try the same trick — setting aside the director’s chair to play the role of a small child, born homeless in some obscure corner of a minor galaxy?


Wishing all at Zenpundit bright Zen, decent punditry, and a merry Christmas…

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

Wednesday, December 25th, 2013

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

On behalf of Charles Cameron, Scott Shipman, Lynn Rees and Adam Elkus I’d like to wish all the readers a Merry Christmas and Happy Holiday today!

Legibility at War

Monday, December 23rd, 2013

(by Adam Elkus)

Apropos of a conversation I had with infosec provocateur The Grugq last night and a previous conversation with Nick Prime, a short comment on this piece on US covert aid to Colombia (mostly quotations from others):

Only then would Colombian ground forces arrive to round up prisoners, collecting the dead, as well as cellphones, computers and hard drives. The CIA also spent three years training Colombian close air support teams on using lasers to clandestinely guide pilots and laser-guided smart bombs to their targets. Most every operation relied heavily on NSA signal intercepts, which fed intelligence to troops on the ground or pilots before and during an operation. “Intercepts .?.?. were a game changer,” said Scoggins, of U.S. Southern Command. The round-the-clock nature of the NSA’s work was captured in a secret State Department cable released by WikiLeaks.

In the spring of 2009, the target was drug trafficker Daniel Rendon Herrera, known as Don Mario, then Colombia’s most wanted man and responsible for 3,000 assassinations over an 18-month period. “For seven days, using signal and human intelligence,” NSA assets “worked day and night” to reposition 250 U.S.-trained and equipped airborne commandos near Herrera as he tried to flee, according to an April 2009 cable and a senior government official who confirmed the NSA’s role in the mission.

The piece mainly focuses on the use of intelligence, precision weapons, and targeting to kill off key FARC leaders, even if the quoted paragraph talks about a drug lord. I included it because it was the most succinct summary of the methodologies used. What the piece really shows is the exporting of “industrial” counterterrorism and counter-guerrilla targeting methods pioneered in Iraq by special operations forces. These methods differ from older ones in Vietnam in their speed and technological sophistication, and they differ from the “Killing Pablo” mission the sheer scale of the problem (a resilient insurgent group, not just a drug kingpin). And it’s based in large part on metadata, as Jack McDonald argued:

For me, the importance of Prism, and like efforts, isn’t the question of government invasions of privacy, but rather the ability of the government to use violence against a population. Regardless of the strategic end, analysis of metadata allowed the American government to pull apart Baghdad bomb networks in a way that would have been far more difficult without it, if not impossible. If a couple of thousand special forces soldiers could do that in a foreign country, think what the same capability could do in a domestic context. This capability, I think, is what re-writes the social contract in favour of the government. The reason for this is that it alters the latent balance of violence between the state and the population. I think, however, that this takes place alongside another changing relationship, which is the balance of violence between individuals and the population. In the security/liberty debate we tend to focus on the former, sometimes forgetting the latter. We don’t like big states because they can oppress us, but at the same time, these days, individuals can do that, too.

The NSA caper is one outgrowth of the increasing legibility of social systems (in one respect) that the rise in graph analysis technologies, databases, and improved intelligence collection techniques brings. Here’s a bit on legibility, with Venkatesh Rao riffing off James C. Scott’s Seeing Like A State: 

The book is about the 2-3 century long process by which modern states reorganized the societies they governed, to make them more legible to the apparatus of governance. The state is not actually interested in the rich functional structure and complex behavior of the very organic entities that it governs (and indeed, is part of, rather than “above”). It merely views them as resources that must be organized in order to yield optimal returns according to a centralized, narrow, and strictly utilitarian logic. The attempt to maximize returns need not arise from the grasping greed of a predatory state. In fact, the dynamic is most often driven by a genuine desire to improve the lot of the people, on the part of governments with a popular, left-of-center mandate. Hence the subtitle (don’t jump to the conclusion that this is a simplistic anti-big-government conservative/libertarian view though; this failure mode is ideology-neutral, since it arises from a flawed pattern of reasoning rather than values).

The book begins with an early example, “scientific” forestry (illustrated in the picture above). The early modern state, Germany in this case, was only interested in maximizing tax revenues from forestry. This meant that the acreage, yield and market value of a forest had to be measured, and only these obviously relevant variables were comprehended by the statist mental model. Traditional wild and unruly forests were literally illegible to the state surveyor’s eyes, and this gave birth to “scientific” forestry: the gradual transformation of forests with a rich diversity of species growing wildly and randomly into orderly stands of the highest-yielding varieties. The resulting catastrophes — better recognized these days as the problems of monoculture — were inevitable.

The picture is not an exception, and the word “legibility” is not a metaphor; the actual visual/textual sense of the word (as in “readability”) is what is meant. The book is full of thought-provoking pictures like this: farmland neatly divided up into squares versus farmland that is confusing to the eye, but conforms to the constraints of local topography, soil quality, and hydrological patterns; rational and unlivable grid-cities like Brasilia, versus chaotic and alive cities like Sao Paolo. This might explain, by the way, why I resonated so strongly with the book.  The name “ribbonfarm” is inspired by the history of the geography of Detroit and its roots in “ribbon farms” (see my About page and the historic picture of Detroit ribbon farms below).


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