Money for old rope?

by Maria on June 16, 2010

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.

{ 88 comments }

1

PHB 06.16.10 at 3:01 am

There is a huge tendency for people to look at issues they think are emergent and assume that they are new because they are ignorant of what went before.

Bin Laden’s tactics are not particularly new. Only the scale is slightly different. 9/11 was an order of magnitude more deaths than in the Bologna Railway Station bombing or OKC. But still rather fewer deaths than caused by the invasion of Lebanon he was purportedly inspired by.

There are new factors at work due to the new media but open source organization probably isn’t one of them. AQ is a highly hierarchical organization led by people with a Napoleon complex.

2

Substance McGravitas 06.16.10 at 3:12 am

3

PHB 06.16.10 at 3:15 am

Oh and I should point out that many of my own prognostications on Internet crime, proposing that they were modeled in a new economy, decentralized fashion are quite probably bogus as well.

Criminals have always laid claim to implementing fashionable concepts from the business world. Witness the Mafia and ‘the commission’. But did the mafia families really adopt Sloan School theory of management? Heck no, it was mostly B/S. And most of what the Internet criminals tell journalists if B/S as well.

At the end of the day most open source projects fail unless you have a particularly charismatic person pulling the pieces in together at the center. People like to imagine they are participating in practical libertopian anarchy, but look at what they actually do and a different pattern emerges.

The reasons the US did badly in COIN in the early years of Iraq are no mystery. The war was being run by arrogant fools who simply didn’t want to bother with any of the nation building stuff. The reconstruction plan was to ship in a bunch of college students whose only qualification was that they had applied for a Heritage Institute internship. The original plan was to install Chalabai as a puppet and use the oil money to pay for the invasion don’t forget.

It is pretty hard to manage any situation when you are deliberately trying to avoid finding out the facts for fear they might conflict with your ideology. Even now the GOP has still not figured out that the rise of Iran was an entirely predictable outcome of the invasion of Iraq.

Or how about the most basic lesson of modern warfare: Enemy troops are much less likely to surrender if they are likely to be tortured or murdered. Instead there was a top-down commitment to torture and the commission of war-crimes.

4

Doctor Memory 06.16.10 at 4:47 am

Call me parochial, but isn’t this just the sort of thing Michael Collins was doing 90 years ago?

I suspect Judah Maccabee might have found the general theory pretty familiar as well.

5

Bill Kristol 06.16.10 at 5:26 am

But you all don’t understand. You’re academics. You with your Maccabees, and Collinses, but people who matter, see, they don’t care. People who matter make reality. They only need someone to tell them what to make.

It is like a cooking show, only with a teleprompter (they use them too, now? huh.). And countries, instead of eggs. But that is the arc of history, my friends.

I loves me some history making.

6

ajay 06.16.10 at 8:45 am

Call me parochial, but isn’t this just the sort of thing Michael Collins was doing 90 years ago?

No. Except in the most general “fighting a global superpower” sense.

Collins a) led a force that was organised along traditional, hierarchical grounds with a strong central command; b) generally used firearms in murderous attacks and ambushes, rather than using explosives etc in system-disruptive and economic attacks (though he had planned to do so); c) did not rely to any serious degree on modern communication networks; d) used centralised QM systems rather than locally improvised or constructed weapons.

Also:
COIN wasn’t needed in US interests in the last few decades of cold war

Apart from in Vietnam, El Salvador, and Colombia.

AQ is a highly hierarchical organization led by people with a Napoleon complex.

AQ, in this sense, has very little connection to the cells that carry out attacks like the July bombings in London and the Madrid railway bombings. These are largely self-starting in terms of tasking, supply, planning, intelligence, recruiting and administration.

7

sanbikinoraion 06.16.10 at 9:40 am

ajay appears to often be wrong here (sorry) but today is very right.

8

ajay 06.16.10 at 10:24 am

No, fair enough.

9

Chris Williams 06.16.10 at 10:34 am

The 1939 IRA plan was a systems disruption one, though.

10

floopmeister 06.16.10 at 10:37 am

Also have to agree with ajay. Robb is frankly a bit of a tosser, but that’s no reason to dismiss some of his insights (secondhand or otherwise!) out of hand.

Before you dismiss it out of hand I’d check out some of the stuff by Stephen Graham, particularly three pieces published in City from 2004 to 2008 (Postmortem City, Switching cities off and Robowar™ dreams) in which he examines the military importance of disrupting urban networks to destroy the legitimacy of the governing authorities of the city (this has been US Airforce doctrine for some time now) and discusses the Pentagon’s focus on technological tools for overcoming the resilience of cities.

So yes, this stuff is nothing new in many ways. But the difference now, compared to the time of Collins (or the Maccabees!), might well be that some of these ‘Master’s Tools’ are much easer to access and/or use. Our industrialised cities and societies are more technologically complex than pre-industrial ones and this increasing complexity of technological systems or social organisation implies less resilience. Tainter looked at this in ‘The Collapse of Complex Societies’ – and increasingly you could argue that individuals, simply by inhabiting such a complex system, have more connected opportunities to disrupt it in more broadly effective ways.

The other interesting intersection happening here is between the ‘security-industrial complex’ represented by Robb (Resilience) and the more traditional counter-cultural elements (the whole ‘Think Global, Act Local’ idea – sustainability). The two concepts of ‘resilience’ and ‘sustainability’ seem to be coming closer together in some interesting ways – I actually agree with Graham “that, for the most part, the social sciences are in denial” about “the militarisation of urban space”, and I’m hoping this may be starting to change.

Finally, Robb brings an annoying libertarian slant to the whole thing, which you can take or leave as you fancy.

11

ajay 06.16.10 at 10:45 am

The 1939 IRA plan was a systems disruption one, though.

Oh yes, they’ve got into systems disruption and so on since then. But Collins’ campaign plan was fairly traditional.

disrupting urban networks to destroy the legitimacy of the governing authorities of the city

This concept, and its stupidity, were discussed by HG Wells a century ago. Apologies in advance for the longish quote, which describes the aftermath of the German Zeppelin attack on New York.

“The difficulty of the Germans in both these cases came from the impossibility of landing any efficient force or, indeed, any force at all from the air-fleet. The airships were quite unequal to the transport of any adequate landing parties; their complement of men was just sufficient to manoeuvre and fight them in the air. From above they could inflict immense damage; they could reduce any organised Government to a capitulation in the briefest space, but they could not disarm, much less could they occupy, the surrendered areas below. They had to trust to the pressure upon the authorities below of a threat to renew the bombardment. It was their sole resource. No doubt, with a highly organised and undamaged Government and a homogeneous and well-disciplined people that would have sufficed to keep the peace. But this was not the American case. Not only was the New York Government a weak one and insufficiently provided with police, but the destruction of the City Hall—and Post-Office and other central ganglia had hopelessly disorganised the co-operation of part with part. The street cars and railways had ceased; the telephone service was out of gear and only worked intermittently. The Germans had struck at the head, and the head was conquered and stunned—only to release the body from its rule. New York had become a headless monster, no longer capable of collective submission. Everywhere it lifted itself rebelliously; everywhere authorities and officials left to their own initiative were joining in the arming and flag-hoisting and excitement of that afternoon. “

In other words, if you destroy the effective government, who do you expect to surrender to you?

12

Chris Williams 06.16.10 at 10:46 am

Ta for the refs, Floopmeister.

13

Cian 06.16.10 at 10:48 am

The trouble with analysing things like the London/Madrid bombings [1], is that all they seem to have shared with Al-Quaeda Sr is a shared ideology/inspiration. And while Bin Laden may consider himself to be an evil mastermind at the centre of a giant web of evil, blah, blah; the crime for which he is most famous probably had very little to do with him or his organisation (9/11). He provided some money. Mohammed Atta did the rest, and he’s dead, which is fortunate for the rest of us.

I guess the better analogies would be the kind of dispirate stuff you used to get in the 60s and 70s. Some inspired, often quite loosely, by Marxism. Others connected to the Palestinian struggle in some way. While others were US based. The one significant change suicidal element which is probably a step backwards tactically 90% of the time.

[1] Madrid bombing IRA. Nothing particularly new there, except the technology was a little more advanced.

14

Cian 06.16.10 at 10:56 am

Tainter looked at this in ‘The Collapse of Complex Societies’ – and increasingly you could argue that individuals, simply by inhabiting such a complex system, have more connected opportunities to disrupt it in more broadly effective ways.

I’ve seen this argued in lots of places and I think its bollocks. Its probably strongest if you’re talking about “efficient” JIT supply systems which are easily disrupted, but that’s not a factor of complexity but cost cutting. However, they can also be reconfigured given enough time. It would be annoying, but you’d need a huge scale of disruption to cause more than inconvenience (a shortage of exotic fruit in Tescos, low supplies of oil for maybe a couple of weeks) and do it for long enough and redundancies would start to be built into the system.

It works in Iraq because the authorities are/were quite small, there are large numbers of saboteurs and the infrastructure was crap to start off with. But then it also worked 2000 years ago for bandits. Its not that new.

15

Maria 06.16.10 at 10:59 am

Ajay. I was actually thinking of the dominant thinking *since* Vietnam when I wrote ‘last few decades’ of cold war, but that’s not very clear. I know that anti-guerilla tactics were in play in Central America, but what I was trying to get at was that COIN was in no way a dominant idea until very recently. My writing may not have been very clear on this, but I’d like to know if you disagree with the main thrust.

As to Michael Collins, one of the pioneers of guerilla warfare, to say his ‘flying columns’ and locally organised and run militia groups were a ‘traditional, hierarchical centralised command’ is wishful thinking indeed! Collins didn’t pioneer the cell network of organisation, but rather tried with limited success to impose order on a group of self-forming, semi-autonomous units. As a former employee of the British post and telegraphs service, he was a an effective user of the communication networks then available, and was an avid disruptor of the roads network. His and (largely) DeValera’s fundraising abilities, using the Irish diaspora network, were on scale that dwarves AQ’s.

Whether his guns were home made is a small point. When I read Robb’s breathless account quoted above of what makes an ‘open source’ warrior, Collins fit the bill beautifully. And so, I’m sure, would many other guerilla tacticians from the last century and before.

16

ajay 06.16.10 at 11:01 am

12: generally true, but I think 9/11 is really the last effort of the original AQ – it was planned and funded by the central command (Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and bin Laden) after all. (Other similar efforts: the Kenyan and Tanzanian bombs, the assassination of Ahmed Shah Massoud). Since the invasion of Afghanistan, AQ hasn’t really had the ability to run stuff like this from the centre.
What we’ve now got is “AQ2” – limited to survival, inspiration and propaganda, with most of the actual attacks done by the self-starter cells I described. This is good from a security point of view – you can’t roll up the whole network if there isn’t a network to roll up – but bad from an operational point of view because there’s no surviving skill base or infrastructure. Successful attacks like Madrid and London involved or were closely followed by the destruction of the cell that carried them out. That’s why the level of competence is so abysmal compared to, say, the IRA.

“Eating Soup with a Knife” is a good read btw.

17

Cian 06.16.10 at 11:02 am

His and (largely) DeValera’s fundraising abilities, using the Irish diaspora network, were on scale that dwarves AQ

There’s an argument to be made that AQ is largely a fundraising/distribution network for conservative Gulf sheikhs. Probably an exaggeration, but I’d guess the scale of monies available would likely dwarf that available from the Irish diaspora during that period.

18

Cian 06.16.10 at 11:11 am

12: generally true, but I think 9/11 is really the last effort of the original AQ – it was planned and funded by the central command (Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and bin Laden) after all. (Other similar efforts: the Kenyan and Tanzanian bombs, the assassination of Ahmed Shah Massoud). Since the invasion of Afghanistan, AQ hasn’t really had the ability to run stuff like this from the centre.

Its been a while since I read up on this stuff, but my interpretation was that AQ had very little to do with the planning, but claimed (for obvious propaganda reasons) otherwise afterwards. They just funded it, and maybe helped with some of the networking/contacts. AQ planned attacks are very crude (get suicide bomb close. Press bang). 9/11 was very sophisticated. It just doesn’t seem like the same MO.

The Madrid guys were far too sophisticated to be Al-Quaeda, and the MO has never been replicated by anyone else. Which I think was generally the opinion of the Madrid investigators, no?

What Al-Queada are good at is propaganda.

19

ajay 06.16.10 at 11:17 am

14: fair enough, since Vietnam COIN has been sidelined.

I wasn’t aware that Michael Collins did a lot to disrupt the road network – unless you’re counting ambushes on the roads of troops and police, which aren’t really system-disruptive attacks in the sense John Robb is talking about.

Yes, no doubt he used modern communications – but in order to put a centralised model of command into place (even if not entirely successfully; but then there were plenty of failures of command and control on the British side too). Overseas fundraising, as you say, was also fairly centralised, through Collins and De Valera. There was a Dail in place from the start of the war of independence which served as a central civilian authority. (Flying columns? A small, independent, rapid raiding force is not a new idea, or one exclusive to guerrilla warfare.)

I’m not meaning to denigrate Collins as a guerrilla commander here; he won, after all, just like other heavily-centralised guerrilla forces like the PAVN/VC won. Just to say that he wasn’t one in the mode which Robb is describing. In a conventional military, information flows up the pyramid, and orders and supplies flow down it. And I think that’s a much better description of how Collins and the Irish side in the War of Independence worked than the open-source model that Robb is describing.

20

alex 06.16.10 at 11:20 am

Defining ‘AQ’ would be a start, if you’re going to have these kinds of discussions. One definition implicit in some of the above is the rather Taoist ‘The real AQ is not the AQ that commits any particular act’.

21

floopmeister 06.16.10 at 11:52 am

“In other words, if you destroy the effective government, who do you expect to surrender to you?” ajay

Exactly.

Cian – not sure that throwing more money at complex systems (ie stopping ‘cost cutting’) will ‘crash proof’ them. In a sense you’ve proposed exactly what Tainter argued some complex societies did when faced with increasing complexity; increase the complexity.

Keep that up long enough and you end up with Windows Vista.

You mention exotic fruit in Tesco (no doubt a reference to the volcanic ash?) but I’m less confident in the resilience of industrial societies. M15 argued in one of their reports that the UK “is two meals away from anarchy”. The food supply is both seriously important and complex system – what is new is not that people can disrupt a food supply (been done for thousands of years) but that it is an increasingly cheap and easy thing to do, with a corresponding amplification of the effects of any such disruption.

Its also worth remembering that in the end all disruptions and problems are small ones until they’re not; and I feel you might be overestimating the ability of such complex systems to ‘build redundancies’ as any sort of failure that threatens to be a cascading failure occurs. You know, instead I’d expect most organisations or societies to do exactly the opposite in any seriously challenging situation – they’d spend valuable resources plugging holes in the dike as they arose rather than ‘building redundancies’. If you don’t have the redundancies existing in the system before a crisis hits you’ll never have them.

Sure this ain’t an earth shaking revelation, but the cross-fertilisation between the military/security and sustainability crowds is interesting. It’s there in the Transition Town movements, for instance.

22

Chris E 06.16.10 at 11:57 am

I’ve seen this argued in lots of places and I think its bollocks. Its probably strongest if you’re talking about “efficient” JIT supply systems which are easily disrupted, but that’s not a factor of complexity but cost cutting.

I don’t think it can be completely ruled out; A lot of the the complexity of supply chains is driven by cost cutting anyway and so I’m not sure it can be neatly divided out. Kenyan flower growers affected by a volcano in Iceland? Due to cost-cutting yes, but also hard to insure against.

However, they can also be reconfigured given enough time.

To a certain extent – but then, we haven’t really seen an attack on the systems used to reconfigure such things – the various b2b commerce sites that are used to assemble supply chains as an example.

23

floopmeister 06.16.10 at 12:11 pm

Maria,

Thanks for an interesting thread! Just one question about Collins, who I don’t know much about. You said that:

“Collins didn’t pioneer the cell network of organisation, but rather tried with limited success to impose order on a group of self-forming, semi-autonomous units.”

So did his limited success in imposing order on the disparate groups make the overall campaign more or less successful?

If I understand your description of Collin’s campaign correctly this is still somewhat different from the tactics of a group such as Hezbollah in the most recent Lebanon war, during which they apparently relinquished as much central control over the military response to the Israelis as possible. It’s almost counter-intuitive – there was no ‘Collins’ figure using the communication networks to coordinate the cells. Instead, they were deliberately on their own, responding to the situation as it occurred. That’s where the figure of the hydra comes in and where AQ is more likely to be at the moment.

The only historical analogy I’ve been able to come up with is the proposed hedgehog defence of England in the dark days of 1941 – turning each village into a defence ‘cell’, each completely undirected by the British military authorities. Their only instruction was to hold out as long as possible and attack any German that came near them.

In this sense the Collins analogy doesn’t quite match what Robb is talking about.

Although he is most definitely ‘breathless’ :)

24

Clay Shirky 06.16.10 at 12:13 pm

“Apart from lower coordination and communication costs and bigger, juicier systems to disrupt…”

Those are two awfully big things to set apart, no?

While I agree with the “marketplace of ideas drives the packaging of ideas” thinking here, that doesn’t mean aggressively advertised ideas are necessarily wrong; not all salesmen are hucksters. The tragedy, as with all advertising, is the degree of orthogonality introduced between the quality of ideas and their expressions.

Where Robb might counter you (or, since I don’t know him well, where I, donning his cap, will do so) is to say that the question “Is this a difference in degree or a difference in kind?” is unhelpful in thinking about systems. One could ask, of webservers “Are they not, at base, merely a faster, cheaper version of a printing press?” or assert, of social networks, “People have always had real social networks, so Facebook is a mere adjustment of same.” The telegraph is just a fast messenger, cities are just big villages, and so on.

In systems affected by which feedback loops become homeostatic and why, differences in degree can be mere adjustments to the current system, or they can alter the system dramatically. The presence of historical antecedents doesn’t correlate with predictions that present events won’t lead to dramatic change.

In particular, society is often re-shaped by lower communication and coordination costs, whether from the invention of the webserver or the standard shipping container, and it takes people who understand the new possibilities to create the new systems. (Elizabeth Eisenstein is instructive on this point: Gutenberg was the single least imaginative user of movable type, having as his goal ecclesiastical mimesis, so that his Bibles would be as beautiful as hand-copied ones.)

To make the comparison between Collins and bin Laden, the question isn’t “Did they have the same goals, or tactics?” It’s “Did they have effects on the same or different scales? Were the adaptations required to counter the former adequate with only minor adjustment to the latter?” Transformative is as transformative does, and evidence that the past pre-figured the present only matters if it then follows that we can predict future outcomes will be similar to past ones.

It’s easy to wish Robb had less of the flavor of “it’s all new!” in his presentation, or that he’d throw in a reference to Rani Laxmibai every now and again; those seem like fair cops. But to conclude, because he doesn’t do those things, that a global group of belligerents with “lower coordination and communication costs and bigger, juicier systems to disrupt” (a fortiori, in both cases) _doesn’t_ constitute a revolution in military affairs, as theorists and prosecutors of war understand it, is too dismissive of Robb’s thesis.

25

ajay 06.16.10 at 12:45 pm

10: I should have said that the quote is from Wells’ “The War in the Air”, published 1909. Sorry. (It’s an interesting read: you can ignore pretty much the first five chapters, which have a great deal of comedy Cockney, but after that it gets rather good.)

what is new is not that people can disrupt a food supply (been done for thousands of years) but that it is an increasingly cheap and easy thing to do, with a corresponding amplification of the effects of any such disruption.

Hmm. Cian@13 has a good point here, I think. Certainly it’s much easier to affect the food supply. But to disrupt it, to the point where people were actually going hungry rather than simply going without mangoes, would I imagine be much more difficult for a complex system. Cut one link in the net and others will take up the slack. Drench England’s fields in rust or blight and she’ll simply draw on grain from overseas.

26

Cian 06.16.10 at 12:52 pm

Floopster: Modern supply chains have very little redundancy in them to save money. This is called “efficiency”. The flipside to this (as any engineer will tell you) is that its very vulnerable to problems. The solution to this is to build redundancy into the system. Its basically a tradeoff between resilience and expense. Supply chains used to be a lot more resilient than they are now, but they were also more expensive to run (there are other factors, but I’m bracketing those).

At its simplest redundancy simply means smaller regional warehouses, more being stored in supermarkets and a move to more locally (EU, rather than African) sourced food products. Yes it would impact our lives, but we’d be unlikely to starve. Knocking out ports, lots of roads and warehouses would have that effect. But then it would have had that effect in the 1300s, and requires rather more in the way of resources than we’re talking about here. Knocking out IT management systems would seriously impact profit margins at supermarkets, and the efficiency of supply management, but I have a hard time believing it would result in anyone starving. Unless nobody knew where the warehouses were, which seems unlikely.

You mention exotic fruit in Tesco (no doubt a reference to the volcanic ash?) but I’m less confident in the resilience of industrial societies. M15 argued in one of their reports that the UK “is two meals away from anarchy”. The food supply is both seriously important and complex system – what is new is not that people can disrupt a food supply (been done for thousands of years) but that it is an increasingly cheap and easy thing to do, with a corresponding amplification of the effects of any such disruption.

I mention exotic fruit simply because its probably the most vulnerable type of produce. Yes Britain imports a lot of food (it also exports a huge amount), but its imported a long way for reasons of cost, or consumer prefence, rather than necessity.

And you say that it is a cheap and easy thing to disrupt the food chain. Okay, how do you do it such that a modern developed society has serious calorific food shortages? S.t. people could jury rig appropriate responses (e.g. people can and do cope with broken IT systems).

Its also worth remembering that in the end all disruptions and problems are small ones until they’re not; and I feel you might be overestimating the ability of such complex systems to ‘build redundancies’ as any sort of failure that threatens to be a cascading failure occurs.

Define a cascading failure? Details? This is currently way too vague. How would this operate? What’s different about small terrorist cells and natural disasters?

27

PHB 06.16.10 at 12:57 pm

@ajay

But when you look at what modern terrorist groups actually do, the difference between theory and practice is at least as great as with Collins.

AQ is not a covert group. It was formally structured and had training camps, a command structure, offices. It was not remotely cell based. Every member swore a personal loyalty oath to Bin Laden or Al Zawahiri. What remains of AQ attempts to conceal its activities from the authorities, but the names of the membership and leadership are widely known.

What are being taken for ‘cells’ are in fact entirely autonomous groups that are independently founded, recruited, and trained. They use the name AQ but they have no direct contact with Al Zawahiri’s group from start to finish. To all intents and purposes they are a completely separate terrorist organization. This was also a feature of the 70s left wing radical groups. Action Directe was a totally different group from the Red Army Faction (Baader-Meinhof). Their members may have had contact and even planned joint operations, but they were separate entities.

AQ may have a role as financier. But I suspect even that is overstated. Bin Laden’s wealth was never really great enough to fund an army. His business activities in Sudan were not exactly self-sustaining and are unlikely to continue to provide ongoing income. What money AQ does have coming in today must come from the drugs trade.

28

dsquared 06.16.10 at 12:58 pm

Just to note that “just in time” is a manufacturing concept and not really applicable to food distribution networks. Nearly all food is bought “just in time”, in the sense of being just in time for you to eat it, and inventories can’t be built up in the same way that they can in manufacturing because food is mostly perishable. The question of supplying cities with fresh food is one of the very earliest to have been addressed in economics textbooks – it’s in Cantillon.

I also wholeheartedly disagree that the shipping container did actually change society all that much. And asking the question about whether Michael Collins and Osama bin Laden had effects “on the same or different scales” is a bit odd given that Collins did actually succeed in creating an independent country which is today an OECD state with four million people.

29

Cian 06.16.10 at 12:58 pm

Chris E:
It would have a short and possibly even medium affect. But if one of the costs of business was constantly disrupted supply chains, those supply chains would become more resilient. Disruption is expensive, so it would become something to manage/insure against through mitigation. The mistake is to think that we have modern supply chains out of necessity, rather than due to convenience/profitability. If the environment changes, so would the infrastructure. And I suspect we’d do just fine without Kenyan flower growers. The interim would be inconvenient and disruptive, but we’d probably survive, just as we survive all the other inconveniences/disruptions.

30

Cian 06.16.10 at 1:00 pm

#26. I agree with 99% of what you say. However Bin Laden was for a long time a bagman for gulf money -> Muslim insurgencies. That may well have continued.

31

Kevin Donoghue 06.16.10 at 1:04 pm

This CIA study of Collins is worth a look. He was a one-off, really. But Ned Broy might have inspired Ahmed Chalabi.

32

Cian 06.16.10 at 1:06 pm

If I understand your description of Collin’s campaign correctly this is still somewhat different from the tactics of a group such as Hezbollah in the most recent Lebanon war, during which they apparently relinquished as much central control over the military response to the Israelis as possible. It’s almost counter-intuitive – there was no ‘Collins’ figure using the communication networks to coordinate the cells. Instead, they were deliberately on their own, responding to the situation as it occurred. That’s where the figure of the hydra comes in and where AQ is more likely to be at the moment.

Well no, but that was mainly because the Israelis never reached the formal military. It was a fairly standard guerilla/resistance strategy, carried out by local militia. Nothing terribly new or innovative about this, except for some of the tactics/infrastructure used.

33

alex 06.16.10 at 1:08 pm

Never mind food, cause a cascading failure in the electricity supply that can’t be fixed for a few days, and watch mere anarchy on the loose…

34

Cian 06.16.10 at 1:09 pm

DSquared: Piggly Wiggly -> Toyota. Not the other way round. And its what Tesco call it, at least informally. Piggly Wiggly don’t get enough respect really given that they invented the modern supermarket system, kinda.

35

Cian 06.16.10 at 1:10 pm

Never mind food, cause a cascading failure in the electricity supply that can’t be fixed for a few days, and watch mere anarchy on the loose…

It didn’t happen in the US, did it?

36

ajay 06.16.10 at 1:28 pm

Piggly Wiggly don’t get enough respect really given that they invented the modern supermarket system, kinda.

Yeah, well, you try going into the business schools and trying to get them to buy “Restructure Your Business The Piggly Wiggly Way”. Japanese businesses are easy, you can make samurai references and quote Sun Tzu (Chinese, but hey, same area) and rely on an image of remorseless inhuman efficiency. Piggly Wiggly doesn’t have quite the same semiotic heft.

26: this is quite right. See 15. AQ at present is a very different entity from the state-within-a-state of the late 1990s and 2001. I doubt it has much money coming in these days from anywhere. There’s probably a fair amount moving Gulf-ISI-Quetta Shura, though, and maybe Gulf-ISI-Hikmatyar, along with their take from the drug trade, the logging trade and the lapis trade.

37

mds 06.16.10 at 1:29 pm

It didn’t happen in the US, did it?

In 1965 and 2003? No. In 1977? Yeah, somewhat. So it’s somewhat situational. Blackouts would still be treated with aplomb. Another major terrorist attack? Chaos, and probably local armed insurrections.

38

PHB 06.16.10 at 1:35 pm

@Shirky 23

As one of the people who wrote the HTTP specs and a security professional who has spent a good part of the past few years looking at this specific issue, I think the problem with Robb’s thesis is that he does not really know anything about either of the things he is talking about.

AQ is not a product of the new information technology.The history of AQ is very well known: the group is the merger of Bin Laden’s money and Al Zawahiri’s rhetoric. Al Zawahiri has been in the terrorist business since the murder of Sadat in ’81. Bin Laden was running money and guns for the Saudi’s into Afghanistan in the same period. Their objective is to re-establish the medieval world order with themselves at the top.

Equally, the Iraqi insurgency is a totally old-world phenomenon. If people want to find an analog, I suggest they look at the British occupation of Iraq in the 1930s which pretty much went the same way. The Bush administration invaded with an old-world colonial world view and they received an old-world colonial response. The situation only improved after the defeat of the GOP in the 2006 election made clear that the US was not going to support the long term occupation the neo-cons planned.

The Tea Party and the new radical right on the other hand very much is a new media affair. And it has become a magnet for pretty much every kook and wannabe across the whole political spectrum.

At this point the Tea Party folk are merely talking about terrorism and working themselves up to provide a justification. But it won’t be very long before some of them do start throwing bombs.

If you want to trace a terrorist back to the net, take a look at Timothy McVeigh and his discussions in talk.politics.guns. He was by no means the nuttiest kook in tpg. Unlike some of the other tpg people his messages were always polite, he never sent me a death threat. But anyone who read the garbage circulating in that group could see the kooks all winding each other up and egging each other on.

The same rhetoric is now circulating in forums like little green footballs and the hatemongering Fox News. They spend their time giving each other justifications for acts of terror. It is only a matter of time before someone acts on them. Though given the way they are talking I suspect that their first victim is probably as likely to be a Republican who deviated from orthodoxy.

I doubt that Robb’s political commitments would allow him to see this particular application of his thesis. Much easier to apply it to a bunch of foreign fundies who know how to milk a goat and clean an AK-47 than to a bunch of domestic kooks who spend all day every day online talking about big government and big guns.

39

PHB 06.16.10 at 1:45 pm

@dsquared

The shipping container is the reason that the docks have closed in every major port in every Western capital since the 1970s. That alone would be a major social effect.

The cost of shipping ‘stuff’ is about two orders of magnitude cheaper than it would be without the box. Without the box there would be no super-cargo carriers. The largest ship that could be economically loaded would be one small enough that it could be unloaded in a couple of weeks.

Without the box the throughput of the ports would be about an order of magnitude less. It would not be possible to manufacture most goods in the east and ship them into western countries. The ports could not handle the volume. It certainly would not be possible to manufacture goods from component parts that have been shipped as many as five times since extraction as raw materials.

Without the shipping container outsourcing manufacturing to the far east would not be economic. Living standards in the west would be considerably lower. Manufacturing would have remained a much higher proportion of the economy.

It is hard to see how the effects of the shipping container could be overstated. The change to society it has caused is much greater than that of the Web.

40

Substance McGravitas 06.16.10 at 2:11 pm

To make the comparison between Collins and bin Laden, the question isn’t “Did they have the same goals, or tactics?” It’s “Did they have effects on the same or different scales? Were the adaptations required to counter the former adequate with only minor adjustment to the latter?” Transformative is as transformative does, and evidence that the past pre-figured the present only matters if it then follows that we can predict future outcomes will be similar to past ones.

It seems to me that the “transformative” elements here are in the ability of AQ’s targets to panic.

41

MPAVictoria 06.16.10 at 2:15 pm

Come on. This man is an obvious crank. Look at some of these quotes from the interview:

“In short, MEND’s disruption campaign, yielded tens of trillions of dollars in global economic damage for tens of thousands of dollars spent on making the attacks. That’s a return on investment (ROI) of 1,000,000,000%”

Really? Tens of trillions? Tens? That is a gross over estimate. And that is if you buy that the oil disruption in Nigeria, and not corporate greed and mismanagement, really caused the economic downturn.

“Most of what we consider normal in the developed world, from the middle class lifestyle to government social safety nets, will be nearly gone in less than a decade. Most developed governments will be in and out of financial insolvency. Democracy, as we knew it, will wither and the nation-state bureaucracy will increasingly become an enforcer for the global bond market and kleptocratic transnational corporations. Think Argentina, Greece, Spain, Iceland, etc. As a result, the legitimacy of the developed democracies will fade and the sense of betrayal will be pervasive (think in terms of the collapse of the Soviet Union). People will begin to shift their loyalties to any local group that can provide for their daily needs. Many of these groups will be crime fueled local insurgencies and militias. In short, the developed democracies will hollow out….. You will soon find you are on your own, if you haven’t already. If you do nothing, you will suffer the predations of gangs, militias, and corrupt bureaucracies that will fill the void left by retreating nation-states.”

Does anyone here really think that this person’s Mad Max fantasies of rival gangs and militias will occur in less than a decade? If so why are you wasting time online? You need to be out stockpiling ammo, rice and penicillin.

42

ajay 06.16.10 at 2:28 pm

40: I agree that the MEND-recession link is not very sensible. But in terms of the total economic cost of the recession, trillions is not ridiculous. World economic growth was running at roughly 3% a year overall. In other words, if the world economy had kept growing at trend, world GDP would now be $73 trillion. It’s actually only $70.3 trillion, thanks to the recession. And no one expects growth to accelerate any time soon to catch up with the long-term trend – so if that $3 trillion gap in annual GDP remains constant, you’re looking at “tens of trillions” by about 2015.

As for the predictions of a crisis of legitimacy in the developed democracies, Robb’s not the only one to be making that sort of forecast…
http://crookedtimber.org/2010/05/08/like-piigs-to-the-slaughter/

43

ajay 06.16.10 at 2:30 pm

I should add that the unlikely part of Robb’s prediction is not “this will happen” but “this will happen in the rich nations of the English-speaking West”. The passage you quote is a pretty good description of day-to-day life for a significant number of people already.

44

MPAVictoria 06.16.10 at 2:36 pm

ajay 40:
Tens of trillions implies 30 or 40 trillion to me and he seems to be talking in the present tense as if the damage had already occurred. And besides if he is correct by 2015 we will all be living in walled villages, wearing vaguely BDSMish outfits and killing each other over the last remaining liters of oil. This guy is a crank and as I said ajay if you think he is correct why are you wasting you time here? You should be out learning how to blacksmith and weave your own clothes.
(Just to be clear that comment is meant in good humor)

45

MPAVictoria 06.16.10 at 2:37 pm

ajay 42:
In the quote he makes it clear he is talking about western style democracies. That is what I am responding to.

46

ajay 06.16.10 at 2:40 pm

You should be out learning how to blacksmith and weave your own clothes.

Well, who says I can’t already? :)

47

MPAVictoria 06.16.10 at 2:45 pm

“Well, who says I can’t already? :)”
Ha! Any room in your post apocalyptic commune for a lowly policy analyst who couldn’t nail two boards together if his life depended on it? I am willing to negotiate on price. ;-)

48

Clay Shirky 06.16.10 at 2:47 pm

@dsquared I’d argue with you about the shipping container, but @PHB has said it better than I could in #38.

As to the comparison between Collins and bin Laden, I don’t mean to say that the comparison will have a simple, obvious answer, but rather that that question, and not “Are there historical antecedents?” (which, duh), is the thing worth arguing about.

The thing Collins has is the very success you described. It was, however, a success within the grid of 1650, where being a stable country with well understood borders was the goal. AQ and it’s fellow travelers, on the other hand, sometimes express non-/post-Westphalian goals. Their success on this score is so far limited to Somalia, which has been turned into a state-shaped hole in the Westphalian map, and I hope they fail in their larger project, but I’m unwilling to think of them as just another in a long line of irregular belligerents wanting to draw the geographic boundaries of certain ethnic polities differently.

@PHB 37, I’m right there with you about the Tea Party — I grew up with radical Christians, and they worry me far more than radical Islamists, and I don’t mean to defend Robb’s hyperbole about AQ or the Iraqi insurgency as being created by IT.

I do, however, mean to suggest that new tactics adopted by old actors acting on old grudges can still lead to dramatic change.

Setting aside Robb, what I’d say is that tactical improvements in creating local conditions of ungovernability, both in the havoc that can be wreaked and in the ability to franchise operations and thus mitigate the “they blew up headquarters” problem, not only could have a profound effect on geo-politics, but already seems to me to be underway.

Twenty years from now, we may refer to the last five as the “the time of attacking hotels”, and have moved on to some other set of problems, or we may look on it as our Crimean War, the event that shadowed a future set of conflicts conducted on quite different terms than in the past.

I’m hoping like hell for the former scenario, but I think that the ancientness of anti-/colonial nature of the struggle shouldn’t make us assume the latter is off the table.

49

Clay Shirky 06.16.10 at 3:03 pm

@Substance McG 39

‘It seems to me that the “transformative” elements here are in the ability of AQ’s targets to panic.’

Yep, with only the asterisk that that panic should either a) deliver the panicking population into the hands of leaders who will behave as the attackers want, and/or b) cause a willingness to cap short-term losses even if it means abandoning long-term goals. (arguably a: WTC/Pentagon attacks/Madrid bombings; arguably b: the Lebanon barracks bombing; the Algerian Cafe Wars; substitute other events to taste.)

One of the issues around b is that there is no bright line between “we should have stayed the course” and “the cost was higher than the value”, and it is this indeterminacy, generally answered by point of view rather than brute facts, that made the end of US involvement in Viet Nam such a cultural touchstone, even though the predicted disaster from abandoning that conflict never occurred.

50

dsquared 06.16.10 at 3:11 pm

Without the shipping container outsourcing manufacturing to the far east would not be economic. Living standards in the west would be considerably lower. Manufacturing would have remained a much higher proportion of the economy.

yes, ie, presuming a halving of the growth rate, society in the West would look more or less like it did in 1985, ie very similar indeed to how it actually does but utterly unlike the world in 1906 (fifty years BSC).

51

mds 06.16.10 at 3:14 pm

You should be out learning how to blacksmith and weave your own clothes.

I blacksmithed and wove this chainmail shirt all by myself.

52

ajay 06.16.10 at 3:16 pm

48: society in other countries, though, would look very different indeed.

53

Natilo Paennim 06.16.10 at 3:21 pm

As an anarchist, I thought the Robb interview seemed far too optimistic. The notion of the US (to say nothing of the UK or Germany or Japan) becoming a “hollow state”, while comforting, does tend, pace #2 above, to make Robb seem like a sort-of grumpy mirror-image of Tom Friedman. Federalism in the US, at least since the end of Reconstruction, works pretty darn well. As vicious as some of our politicians are, even Joe Arpaio is no Ulises Ruiz. Any significant drop in the national governments power/scope is very likely to be met with a corresponding growth in state and municipal power.
I think we see the same sort of error frequently in alternate history fiction, the “what if” scenario that fails to take into account all of the actual material facts of the situation. Sure, aspects of our infrastructure and economy are vulnerable to disruption, but there’s a reason the US has so much power — natural resources are abundant, good ports and natural transportation routes abound, there’s a deep base of knowledge and theory about how to get things done, and there are lots of people willing to do things.
If we’re specifically not talking about things like “rogue nukes” or whatever Clancy-esque doomsday scenario is current, then whatever hypothetical technically sweet campaign might take place is going to have to, like 9/11, mostly rely on psychological effects rather than purely material ones.

54

Peter 06.16.10 at 3:33 pm

Collins did control a centralized money, arms and communications apparatus but didn’t have a grand strategy apart from a belief in the necessity of violence to achieve ideological ends, and a doomed desire to use it in a limited, utilitarian way. No one really controlled local IRA units, which were very largely self-funded, organized, armed and led. They did respond to some orders, like the July 1921 ceasefire, but made up their own minds about the subsequent Treaty with Britian. Most of the money raised went to non-military projects – like a very expensive land bank – or stayed in the US as a reserve. There was a cellular secret society involved, the Irish Republican Brotherhood, which Collins also ended up heading, but his attempts to use it to run the IRA didn’t really work. Finally, the huge difference here is that the IRA was allied to/overlapped with a political party, Sinn Fein, whose electoral successes created the political basis for guerrilla success.

55

dsquared 06.16.10 at 3:53 pm

I don’t see why Piggly Wiggly would get the credit. In 1825, tonnes of fresh produce were brought in from the countryside to Covent Garden and Les Halles every day, “just in time” to be bought, put onto barrows, transported a couple of miles, sold and eaten. Any large food retailing operation is going to operate on a restock-when-sold basis, simply because food is perishable.

Piggly Wiggly’s specific innovation was the self-service grocery store, which made it more difficult for them to know what was being sold on a frequent basis. But generally running with lean inventories is intrinsic to being a supermarket – if the Toyota visiting team had walked into a Kroger’s or whatever, it would have been that which got cited in the book.

56

Cian 06.16.10 at 4:13 pm

Or to quietly rot if it wasn’t sold that day.

The trick is to have just enough inventory so as to:
a) minimise spoilage
b) minimise storage costs where its expensive (the store typically)
c) maximise cash flow (so as not to have lots of money tied up in unsold inventory).

Those are all trickier, though conversely its hardly the apocalyptic vision of Ajay/Robb if it falls apart. It just increases distribution/retail costs.

(b) and (c) were what impressed Toyota and are intrinsic to any business that involves distribution.

57

ajay 06.16.10 at 4:32 pm

Cian: I think he has some interesting points to make on guerrilla warfare, but I don’t actually think we’re due for a Robbpocalypse… he’s on his own there.

58

Cian 06.16.10 at 7:10 pm

Clay: AQ had very little to do with Somalia. Whether the US was making stuff up, or has started to believe its own rather bizarre propoganda is open to question, but the Islamic courts are not/were not AQ, nor did they run the country.

Ajay: fair enough. He has his moments, but I think he badly needs to read some history to get some perspective.

59

Barry 06.16.10 at 7:51 pm

PHB 06.16.10 at 1:35 pm

“The Tea Party and the new radical right on the other hand very much is a new media affair. And it has become a magnet for pretty much every kook and wannabe across the whole political spectrum.”

No, the Teabaggers are a replay of the temper tantrums the US right threw after Democrats ‘stole’ their rightful presidency back in 1992. And a preplay of 2024.

60

mds 06.16.10 at 8:07 pm

And a preplay of 2024.

Ooh, an optimist.

I’m not expecting a Robbpocalypse per se, but I’m also not entirely sanguine about how many more systemic shocks the body politic will stand. (I used to qualify this with “at least in the US,” but that was before the Neo-Hooverite Wanktasticans seemed to become ascendant throughout the West.)

61

Chris Williams 06.16.10 at 10:44 pm

Enough of the ‘Westphalian’ already. It makes sense to some political scientists, but not to many historians. You want total, credible, claims to sovereignty? Look at (some) Great Powers. But not elsewhere.

62

Chris E 06.16.10 at 11:11 pm

@47

“where being a stable country with well understood borders was the goal. AQ and it’s fellow travelers, on the other hand, sometimes express non-/post-Westphalian goals.”

Their aim is indeed non-Westphalian, but pre-Westphalian, rather than post-Westphalian – Somalia writ large is not what they see as their end goal.

63

EWI 06.17.10 at 9:26 am

@ ajay

Maria and Peter are correct. I don’t know how you arrived at (a), (b), (c) and (d) from the accepted understanding of how the War of Independence IRA (“Old IRA”) operated.

Collins a) led a force that was organised along traditional, hierarchical grounds with a strong central command;

While it may have had in theory such centralisation, in practice orders were more often honoured in the breach, and such instructions were typically general in nature (i.e. “ramp up activity over the next month to take pressure off Cork” or such).

b) generally used firearms in murderous attacks and ambushes, rather than using explosives etc in system-disruptive and economic attacks (though he had planned to do so);

System-disruptive attacks took place, but through the political activities of Sinn Féin and the first and second Dáils. Elected offices and authorities were taken over by what I’d guess we would now refer to as “a Lee-Enfield in one hand, and a ballot-box in the other”. And any Crown offices which weren’t democratically-elected were supplanted by shadow structures (with popular support) such as the Dáil courts.

Your “murderous” is subjective and quite open to rejection, given how the RIC was first and foremost a heavily-armed colonial police force for holding the country, and the British Army barracked here in such numbers for the same reason. And generally, Volunteers tended towards mercy on prisoners and some restraint in targets (the exceptions being spies and the occasional tit-for-tat feuds with the Crown forces).

c) did not rely to any serious degree on modern communication networks;

Arguable. The use of (then) modern transport allowed couriers and weapons to be transported quickly when they needed.

d) used centralised QM systems rather than locally improvised or constructed weapons.

I’m surprised that you’re making this claim if you’ve read any reasonable history of the conflict. The decentralised local arms-gathering activities of the Volunteers are well-known (local units armed themselves mainly with what they could capture off the RIC and British Army). Indeed, Collins and GHQ couldn’t force local units to elaborate truthfully on (never mind pool and share) their hard-won weapons and ammunition with others.

64

Chris Williams 06.17.10 at 10:09 am

“the RIC was first and foremost a heavily-armed colonial police force for holding the country, “
No. Not by 1919 it wasn’t. Check out Lowe and Malcolm’s research on this topic, for example.
I think that Robb’s elision of the distinction between ‘leaderless resistance’ and ‘systems disruption’ really isn’t helping this debate: perhaps because there’s no necessary connection between them.

65

ejh 06.17.10 at 10:30 am

I can’t speak for ajay but I might observe that “murderous” doesn’t necessarily incorporate a meaning of “murder” in the moral or legal sense.

66

Alex 06.17.10 at 10:38 am

One of my issues with J-Ro is that he’s never fully articulated why the operational art he proposes is different from airpower theory (and it must be remembered that he’s a USAF Academy graduate). Basically, he suggests destroying the infrastructure so the masses will rebel – the difference between this and traditional airpower doctrine is just that the explosives are hand-delivered rather than dropped from a plane. And we know that Harris/Douhetian strategic bombing was a really expensive way to kill civilians and not much else.

Also, he tends to insist that classical counterinsurgency can achieve nothing against his systems disruptors. But he is also very big on the importance of repetition – constantly repeated harassment of the infrastructure, and tactics and technology that can be productised and easily repeated. These are obviously sensible in themselves, but if you’ve got to keep blowing the same thing up, you evidently need to win and retain the support of the people who live around it – or else they’ll tout you to the enemy. (Note that cutting off their ‘leccy isn’t obviously the road to popularity.) And we’re back in the world of classical Marxist insurgency and counterinsurgency.

That does actually appear to be what happened in 2007 in Baghdad, Anbar, and Diyala provinces; they couldn’t go on blowing up pipes because they lost the support of the people who lived around them.

67

Alex 06.17.10 at 10:39 am

In general, Robb is good on technology and tactics, worse on strategy.

68

ajay 06.17.10 at 10:53 am

62: I don’t think that taking office and/or setting up shadow administrations counts as system-disruptive attacks in that sense either. It’s SOP for lots of guerrilla movements, from the Spanish guerrilleros through the Viet Cong and the MRLA right up to the Taliban today.
“Murderous” may have been the wrong word – I’m not trying to give a moral judgement here – what I’m trying to get across is the sense that the OIRA in general used a force-on-force approach. They went after kills, specifically security force kills, and the methods they used were largely conventional ambushes and attacks. They didn’t go after infrastructure hits. They went out and tried to kill policemen and soldiers.

The question to ask is: what would the Irish War of Independence have looked like if it were fought in the style Robb describes?
System-disruptive: setting fires in dockside warehouses (considered but not carried out by Collins); hitting telephone exchanges, bridges, railway tunnels on the mainland, destroying port infrastructure.
Leaderless: no Dail, no Michael Collins, no Dev, or at least serving only as inspirations rather than operational commanders; the fighting in each county or even each town run entirely by the locals, using found, captured or improvised weapons.

Yes, in reality, the local commanders had a good deal of autonomy and ignored orders from time to time. But that’s just a fact of life.

63: another good point. There’s no reason that the two have to go together. You could have a systems-disruptive approach with a centralised movement – that’s what the IRA’s mainland campaign in the 1980s was, pretty much. Or you could have a leaderless movement that goes force-on-force. I suppose the Hizbollah defence of southern Lebanon in 2006 would count here.

69

ajay 06.17.10 at 11:01 am

One more point: The use of (then) modern transport allowed couriers and weapons to be transported quickly when they needed – no doubt, but this rather undermines the claim that the OIRA was a leaderless cellular network that didn’t pool supplies or take orders from the top, doesn’t it?

70

Richard J 06.17.10 at 11:08 am

These are obviously sensible in themselves, but if you’ve got to keep blowing the same thing up, you evidently need to win and retain the support of the people who live around it – or else they’ll tout you to the enemy.

This is why, in a nutshell, there’s been very few successful purely urban insurgencies that didn’t rely on inaccesible rural hinterlands, or elements in a neighbouring country offering safe-harbour. As a Savage War of Peace points out, the French did occasionally manage to shut down the Algiers operations of the FLN, which just meant that the footsoldiers suffered, while some of the key cadres retreated, licked their wounds, and came back again in a few months.

71

Chris Williams 06.17.10 at 12:43 pm

Well, that’s that settled. Now back to Blood and Treasure. In your own time, comrades…

72

ajay 06.17.10 at 12:48 pm

We can’t help it, Chris, this stuff is like blood in the water.

73

Maria 06.17.10 at 8:45 pm

Wow. Thanks all for a fascinating and informative thread.

Clay commented at 23 that lower coordination and communication costs and bigger, juicier systems to disrupt are two awfully big things for me to just set apart rhetorically, since the question is not whether these are differences in degree or in kind, but rather how much effect differences in degree can have immediately and over time.

It’s fun to think about whether guerilla tactics and targets of a century ago are ‘like’ or ‘not like’ those of today, but much more interesting to consider what, if anything, it means, and where the future direction is – which is at least what Robb is trying to do.

74

EWI 06.17.10 at 10:44 pm

@ Chris Williams

I’m sure that a paramilitary force (armed, drilled, dressed as such, and housed in barracks) isn’t usual for the UK, now or then (and neither was the RUC, its successor). I’ve never seen a Bobby in military garb and carrying a rifle, and I’ve heard no tales of murderous gangs of demobbed Army officers recruited to the Boobies and then set loose to terrorise the population.

75

EWI 06.17.10 at 10:45 pm

(Bobbies, even, boobies being spelling mistakes from carrying on a conversation while typing)

76

EWI 06.17.10 at 10:50 pm

no doubt, but this rather undermines the claim that the OIRA was a leaderless cellular network that didn’t pool supplies or take orders from the top, doesn’t it?

Munitions were moved around locally, but extremely rarely (I cannot think of a single incident off-hand) shared around by the units who had taken the deadly risks to obtain them in the first place. And “orders” were, as I’ve already said, of the rather vague setting of priorities type, and were ignored where it suited the locals.

77

EWI 06.17.10 at 11:06 pm

I don’t think that taking office and/or setting up shadow administrations counts as system-disruptive attacks in that sense either. It’s SOP for lots of guerrilla movements, from the Spanish guerrilleros through the Viet Cong and the MRLA right up to the Taliban today.

I don’t think that’s the right analogy. To take the most recent – if senior Taliban were actually elected officials (pursuing democratic politics in opposition to the US/Karzai) by day, and by night going back out with armed militants to attack the Afghan army and NATO forces – that would be close to it, I think, but that’s clearly not what’s happening.

“Murderous” may have been the wrong word – I’m not trying to give a moral judgement here – what I’m trying to get across is the sense that the OIRA in general used a force-on-force approach. They went after kills, specifically security force kills, and the methods they used were largely conventional ambushes and attacks. They didn’t go after infrastructure hits. They went out and tried to kill policemen and soldiers.

I don’t think that the objective was to “kill policemen and soldiers” per se, but rather to put maximum political pressure on in support of the Dáil (they were doing a rather poor job of executing prisoners otherwise, given how many were released under personal parole). And as I mentioned, it appears from the biographical evidence at least there was usually an understanding in place locally between both sides as to the acceptable level of violence.

(I, by the way, have antecedents who were involved in the war, as do the Farrells)

Yes, in reality, the local commanders had a good deal of autonomy and ignored orders from time to time. But that’s just a fact of life

We’re not talking about a ‘proper’ command structure here. “Brigadiers” were just a short step above Volunteers, and often the same age. The fracturing of the Volunteers over the Treaty into the two military sides of the Civil War is grim enough evidence that central control was an illusion (Collins’ fame comes from his being the local commander in Dublin, the rest of it being nothing much to do with him at all).

78

Chris Williams 06.18.10 at 7:57 am

EWI, go away, read Lowe and Malcolm’s article _The Domestication of the Royal Irish Constabulary_, then come back and tell me what you think. By c. 1900 your average RIC man was a Catholic who had married into the local community. He kept his carbine in the ‘barracks’ (that’s a 5-man police post) and often patrolled with one revolver between two. He spent lots of his time on dog licenses and very little on gathering or acting on political intelligence.

NB: this is not an accurate picture of the (R)IC in Belfast, nor in 1840, nor during the Land War, nor 1920, nor of the black and tans (if the RIC was a ruthless and tooled-up army of occupation, why were these necessary?) but it works for the early twentieth century, and for the RIC of 1919.

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Chris Williams 06.18.10 at 7:58 am

Oooh, hark at the auto-correct. Does it work for (c) as well?

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Chris Williams 06.18.10 at 7:58 am

Another winner.

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EWI 06.18.10 at 9:02 am

EWI, go away, read Lowe and Malcolm’s article The Domestication of the Royal Irish Constabulary, then come back and tell me what you think.

A link would, indeed, be nice.

By c. 1900 your average RIC man was a Catholic who had married into the local community. He kept his carbine in the ‘barracks’ (that’s a 5-man police post) and often patrolled with one revolver between two. He spent lots of his time on dog licenses and very little on gathering or acting on political intelligence.

…probably on account of their having been no ‘troubles’ for a generation (the last at that stage was what, the Land War?). Yet when push came to shove, the paramilitary role very quickly came to the fore again, and a large number of (as you say) the Catholic RIC quit rather than be involved (would the old overwhelmingly Protestant staffing of the RIC balked at being asked to fulfill that role once more? Very doubtful). and your “carbine in the barracks” was still a carbine that the RIC man was armed with by HMG, and expected to use.

NB: this is not an accurate picture of the®IC in Belfast, nor in 1840, nor during the Land War, nor 1920, nor of the black and tans (if the RIC was a ruthless and tooled-up army of occupation, why were these necessary?)

Because, as is we have established, there had been “Catholic capture” of the various apparatus of the British State, and the RIC were no longer reliable to carry out the dirty work (and the British Army would have a very hard time justifying practices such as pitchcapping to the emerging democracy that Britain was trying to become at that stage). And there were, incidentally, still quite a number of remaining hardline Unionist elements in the RIC willing to do the job required of them (as well as the Heavy Gang-types – including Catholics – that every police force throws up). These were the ones who tended to get marked for assassination during the war.

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Chris Williams 06.18.10 at 9:59 am

” the RIC were no longer reliable to carry out the dirty work “

We appear to agree.

‘The domestication of the Royal Irish Constabulary, 1836-1922’ WJ Lowe & EL Malcolm – Irish Economic and Social History, 1992. I’m not sure what paywalls, if any, it’s behind.

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Erik Vanderhoff 06.22.10 at 6:23 pm

While applicable to and informed by COIN Open Source Warfare is a bit of a different beast than Counterinsurgency.

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Citer 06.23.10 at 3:43 am

PHB@38: I think you misread Robb’s “political commitments”. See his remarks on the two parties, the Tea Party, and potential violence: THE TEA PARTY

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mittelwerk 06.25.10 at 3:55 pm

god, you academics are stupid.

the relevant difference: collins and his antecedents wanted to take over the state and to lead; aq and its iterations do not.

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mitteljerk 06.30.10 at 10:42 pm

waaaaaaaaaah somebody is taking a potshot at my favorite unfalsifiable theory: global guerrillas.

You John Robb nutriders need to wake the hell up.

The guy is a postmillennialist nutball, in the same vein as the Puritans, Diggers, Ranters, or any other English Reformation sect, he peddles millenarianist disaster rhetoric and offers a utopian collectivist solutions. It’s basically the Oneida Community 2.0.

Yawn.

I’m also surprised Robb’s loyal bulldog Shloky hasn’t commented here with one of his vague one liners.

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franco 07.09.10 at 10:30 am

It’s seems obvious to me from these comments that very few of you here have read John
Robb’s book and his blog. My advice: read first, talk later.
Cheers

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franco 07.09.10 at 10:30 am

It’s seems obvious to me from these comments that very few of you here have read John
Robb’s book and his blog. My advice: read first, talk later.
Cheers.

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