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Admiral Cebrowski’s Legacy is not Iraq

By now many of you have probably read the exchanges between Thomas P.M. Barnett and Noah Shachtman of WIRED’s Danger Room over Shachtman’s recent article “How Technology Almost Lost the War: In Iraq, the Critical Networks Are Social – Not Electronic“. If you haven’t, the exchange pretty much went like this:

Wired’s subpar Iraq analysis” -Barnett

My ‘Weird’ Article, ‘Well Worth the Read’ ” -Shachtman

Tom’s reply to Noah” – Barnett

Blog Fight? Zzzzzzzzzz” – Shachtman

File it under whatever you want” – Barnett

Admittedly, Network-centric Warfare today is a larger concept than the original theoretical ideas of Arthur Cebrowski and John Garstka; whenever a theory is accepted by a large and powerful bureaucratic organization- like, say, the Pentagon – it collides with reality. Some ideas get tested, tinkered with, discarded or adapted to existing factional agendas by people with more enthusiasm than understanding. Network-centric Warfare, an emerging doctrine, had more “legs” inside the DoD bureaucracy than did it’s main rival, the 4GW School, because it suited the intellectual needs of armed services planning to fight a future “near peer competitor” state military and to rationalize the U.S. military’s systemic coordination and use of emerging technology on the battlefield (“rationalize” in the sense of provide a coherent order – though NCW was also used as a justification in making budgetary requests). And as with any bureaucratic paradigm shift, factional partisans who had career and mission objectives became personally invested in deriding or advancing NCW’s ” transformation”. That’s a far cry from the complexity of the NCW ideas, as presented by Cebrowski and Garstka. Some examples:

Network-Centric Warfare: Its Origin and Future

Network-centric Warfare:An Overview of an Emerging Theory

Arthur K. Cebrowski on Transformation of Defense

Statement of Vice Admiral A. K. Cebrowski, Director, Space, Information Warfare, Command and Control, Chief of Naval Operations – Senate Select Committe on Intelligence Hearings 1997

The crux of the problem with Shachtman’s article is that his opener gives the impression that the botching of the occupation in Iraq should be laid at the door of two men who articulated strategic ideas with impressive intellectual celerity and subtlety, one of whom is no longer able to defend himself.  It’s a preposterous implication. When the  4 star grandees of the post-Vietnam War U.S. Army decided to “purge” COIN doctrine from the Army’s institutional memory, Admiral Cebrowski was a mere Navy fighter pilot. The creation of the CPA with the subsequent incompetence of Paul Bremer and a bunch of non-Arabic speaking kids just out of college, who interned at AEI, was above the pay grade of any uniformed officer of the United States. Dr. Barnett, who was very close to Admiral Cebrowski, was justly irritated by this cartoonish libel of his friend and mentor.

In fairness to Shachtman, as the WIRED article proceeds, he offered a more nuanced picture of the role of Network-centric Warfare in the larger scheme of things and backtracked somewhat during his exachanges with Tom. However, not all of WIRED’s readers are defense geeks who surf obscure PDFs from OSD.mil and understand the entire context of defense doctrine and policy; Cebrowski and Garstka are therefore, left tarnished by Shachtman in a way that’s sort of akin to blaming William Lind and 4GW theory for Pakistan and India brandishing nuclear weapons at each other.

9 Responses to “Admiral Cebrowski’s Legacy is not Iraq”

  1. historyguy99 Says:

    Your summation of Shactman’s article and the response it provoked, is right on point! 
    I think that those of us who have watched this unfold, and are familiar with the basic tennets of NCW, and with Tom’s work, know how much Admiral Cebrowski influenced Tom’s thesis.  Thank you for saying so eloquently what so many of us feel.

  2. Jane d. Says:

    Bravo Mark

    It’s been a busy post holiday week for many.  I, for one, was very agitated by NS’s piece and hoped people who appreciate Tom’s work (and by extension his mentors) would respond. Thanks to you for setting the record straight and helping to correctly inform a larger readership.

  3. zen Says:

    You’re welcome guys!

    We all enjoy Danger Room and no one believes Shachtman is a bad dude on a personal level, but I  think he dropped the ball here in a major way and the record needed correction.

  4. Galrahn Says:

    Thank you very much for this. Excellent work.

  5. Legacy of Arthur Cebrowski and Network-Centric Warfare « Kings of War Says:

    […] of Arthur Cebrowski and Network-Centric Warfare Over on Zenpundit you’ll find a useful round-up of a rather intemperate exchange between Noah Schachtman of […]

  6. 4GW vs. NCW « House of War Says:

    […] Zenpundit sums it up well: The crux of the problem with Shachtman’s article is that his opener gives the impression that the botching of the occupation in Iraq should be laid at the door of two men who articulated strategic ideas with impressive intellectual celerity and subtlety, one of whom is no longer able to defend himself. […]

  7. vimothy Says:

    No problems Mark.  I like The Danger Room and Noah (and WIRED), but his article was a bit silly.  Got the impression that Tom was too pi**ed off to explain it in words Noah could understand, but thought your post nailed the whole thing up with admirable brevity.


  8. vimothy Says:

    Apologies for stray "up"… never at my finest on Friday afternoon… 🙂

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