BoingBoing has an interview with John Robb, a security consultant whose book, ‘Brave New War; the Next Stage of Terrorism and the End of Globalization’, is about the idea of open-source warfare. Robb comes across as a classic, Washington idea-salesman, tarting up what may still be sharp insights into the kind of gee-whizz, tech-determinist hyperbole that might result from a drunken gene-merge of Wired and Jane’s:
“Back in 2004, the US military was getting trounced in guerrillas in Iraq. Worse, the US military establishment didn’t know why. Didn’t have a clue. To correct this, I began to write about how 21st Century warfare actually worked on my blog, Global Guerrillas. Essentially, I concluded that guerrilla groups could use open source organizational models (drawn from the software industry), networked super-empowerment (freely available high tech tools, network information access, connections to a globalized economy), and systems disruption (the targeting of critical points on infrastructure networks that cause cascading failures) to defeat even the most powerful of opponents, even a global superpower.”
Call me parochial, but isn’t this just the sort of thing Michael Collins was doing 90 years ago?
Apart from lower coordination and communication costs and bigger, juicier systems to disrupt, is there a substantive difference between the ability of a small, clever and determined group of people to humble a global super-power today as compared to 1919? Or, as we might say in the language of my current employer, are the modern and forward-looking insurgents of today “utilizing south-south networks to share best practice and enable technology transfer and empowerment at the grassroots to forge alternative development pathways”?
It seems a bit of a self-serving stretch for Robb to claim that in 2004 no one in the US military understood how to deal with guerilla tactics – plenty did. It’s just that counter-insurgency wasn’t as fashionable an idea as it is now, so people talking about it within the organisation weren’t being heard. (In my experience, known and useful ideas need to be reintroduced by outside ‘experts’ to have much effect on management.) COIN wasn’t needed in US interests in the last few decades of cold war and is not a useful way to motivate and organise industrial procurement. COIN went out of fashion, but it didn’t go away.
The BoingBoing commenters are curious but also skeptical about Robb’s idea of open source warfare. One of them calls Robb’s style self-important, to which the guest editor quite reasonably responds;
“Davin, the interviews I’m posting are necessarily brief, aiming mainly to expose the work of people like Robb. Read his book, go to his blog, or take any number of other steps to research his prognostications for yourself. Also, note that Robb is an independent consultant and has to promote himself in order to make a living, ie self-promotion can be confused with self-importance.”
The marketplace of ideas is just that, and we can’t all have tenure or soft landings in a thinktank. In Washington they may just move the intellectual merchandise a little faster, and sell it a little harder. Ideas go in and out of fashion quickly around here, and careers zoom upward or stall forever based on their association with what’s hot. And it’s not just in security circles that the most prominent people are fashion-forward.
Upward-trending ideas in the World Bank include ‘the multi-polar world’, the not exactly revolutionary concept that after the global financial crisis, the US and Europe can no longer dictate economic terms to, for example, the BRICs. Another idea that’s bubbled up in the past couple of years is the notion of ‘political economy’.
The term has a peculiar meaning within the Bank. Here, political economy is shorthand for the notion that big loans to governments take place in a local political environment, and this can be counter-productive and even lead to graft. It’s amazing to a contractor like me that this presumably heretofore unacknowledged fact of life requires the prosecution of a managerial and intellectual agenda by some very talented and committed people to introduce it explicitly into the decision-making calculus. But in an institution where ‘reform’ still means ‘Wolfowitz’, the currency of a perfectly good idea can be of the kind you carry around in wheelbarrows.
So, good luck to John Robb. I’ve not read his book and I must honestly admit I don’t plan to buy his idea, literally or metaphorically. If I do decide to bone up properly on COIN, I’ll probably read the one about eating soup with a knife. Now there’s an idea.