Thursday, January 3, 2008
The Network Next Time
It's a military truism that an army often prepares to fight the last war. According to this theory, a large part of what went wrong in post-invasion Iraq and Afghanistan was that the American military applied the lessons it learned from Vietnam and El Salvador in an environment where they did not especially apply. Now, although the end of hostilities can't be easily foreseen in either Afghanistan or Iraq, the operational lessons the American military will take out of those conflicts are becoming codified. For better or worse, these are the counterinsurgency tactics that will be applied in the next war.
One theme that seems to be emerging is that of networks, and the Provincial Reconstruction Teams being used in both Iraq and Afghanistan -- described in this Parameters/Army War College monograph -- are illustrative. Whether it's interdisciplinary (anthropologists working as part of military units engaged in humanitarian projects) or inter-agency (State Dept and Pentagon interface), the teams embody a networked, as opposed to parallel/vertical, approach.
It seems intuitively obvious that this is in some way a reflection of the medium with which the Iraq War will almost certainly be identified. In the same way that Vietnam was inseparable from the medium of television, down to the reflective black "screen" of its memorial, so the Iraq War will almost certainly be known as the "internet war".
And unlike the Vietnam War, where the flat dividor of the screen separated what was shown from those watching it, polarizing the choice between supporting or opposing the war, the Iraq War has instead spawned more nuanced networks. Sites like Small Wars Journal bridge the gap between military professionals and engaged civilians. The countless political blogs, while perhaps polarized along the faultlines of American political culture, nonetheless consist of participants, both analysts and commenters, tracing a tangled web of hyperlinks across the internet.
Significantly there is symmetry on both sides of the conflict. Both terrorists and insurgents have become skilled in the use of this medium that not long ago they condemned or outlawed. They now use the same networks for communication links and propaganda purposes that we use for political debate and dialogue. As if to remind us that the lessons we learn today will have to be adapted in turn to the circumstances of tomorrow.