Mike Davis on a 21st century Assyria with laptops

Posted on

[Note: the “Tomgram” indicates that the following piece was written for rather than picked up from another publication.]

Who can spot the apocalypse from farther off or make more provocative connections — here between the newest geekspeak in the Pentagon, the Wal-Mart revolution, and long dead Assyrians — than Mike Davis, author of City of Quartz, Ecology of Fear and most recently Dead Cities? He’s a national treasure and below he reminds us that no one in America is dreaming harder, wilder, in more vivid color, or over-the-top scifi imagery than the men whose job it is to turn us into a hyperpower of terror. They put Steven Spielberg to shame. And shame is what we may all feel if their “mad, omnipotent visions” come to pass. Tom

Slouching Toward Baghdad
By Mike Davis

Imperial Washington, like Berlin in the late 1930s, has become a psychedelic capital where one megalomaniacal hallucination succeeds another. Thus, in addition to creating a new geopolitical order in the Middle East, we are now told by the Pentagon’s deepest thinkers that the invasion of Iraq will also inaugurate “the most important ‘revolution in military affairs’ (or RMA) in two hundred years.”

According to Admiral William Owen, a chief theorist of the revolution, the first Gulf War was “not a new kind of war, but the last of the old ones.” Likewise, the air wars in Kosovo and Afghanistan were only pale previews of the postmodern blitzkrieg that will be unleashed against the Baathist regime. Instead of old- fashioned sequential battles, we are promised nonlinear “shock and awe.”

Although the news media will undoubtedly focus on the sci-fi gadgetry involved – thermobaric bombs, microwave weapons, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), PackBot robots, Stryker fighting vehicles, and so on – the truly radical innovations (or so the war wonks claim) will be in the organization and, indeed, the very concept of the war.

In the bizarre argot of the Pentagon’s Office of Force Transformation (the nerve center of the revolution), a new kind of “warfighting ecosystem” known as “network centric warfare” (or NCW) is slouching toward Baghdad to be born. Promoted by military futurists as a “minimalist” form of warfare that spares lives by replacing attrition with precision, NCW may in fact be the inevitable road to nuclear war.


Military “revolutions” based on new technology, of course, have come and gone since air-power fanatics like Giulio Douhet, Billy Mitchell, and Hugh Trenchard first proclaimed the obsolescence of traditional armies and battleship navies in the early 1920s. This time, however, the superweapon isn’t a long-distance bomber or nightmare H-bomb but the ordinary PC and its ability, via the Internet, to generate virtual organization in the “battlespace” as well as the marketplace.

Like all good revolutionaries, the Pentagon advocates of RMA/ NCW are responding to the rot and crisis of an ancien regime. Although Gulf War I was publicly celebrated as a flawless victory of technology and alliance politics, the real story was vicious infighting among American commanders and potentially disastrous breakdowns in decision-making. Proponents of high- tech warfare, like the ‘smart bomb’ attacks on Baghdad’s infrastructure, clashed bitterly with heavy-metal traditionalists, while frustrated battlefield CEO Norman Schwarzkopf threw stupefying tantrums.

The battles continued back in the Pentagon where the revolutionaries — mostly geekish colonels bunkered in a series of black-box think tanks — found a powerful protector in Andrew Marshall, the venerable head of research and technology assessment. In 1993, Marshall – a guru to both Dick Cheney and leading Democrats – provided the incoming Clinton administration with a working paper that warned that Cold War weapons “platforms” like Nimitz-class aircraft carriers and heavy tank battle groups were becoming obsolete in face of precision weapons and cruise missiles.

Marshall instead proselytized for cheaper, quicker, smarter weapons that took full advantage of American leadership in information technology. He warned, however, that “by perfecting these precision weapons, America is forcing its enemies to rely on terrorist activities that are difficult to target.” He cast doubt on the ability of the Pentagon’s fossilized command hierarchies to adapt to the challenges of so-called “asymmetric warfare.”

The revolutionaries went even further, preaching that the potentials of 21st century war-making technology were being squandered within 19th century military bureaucracies. The new military forces of production were straining to break out of their archaic relations of production. They viciously compared the Pentagon to one of the “old economy” corporations — “hardwired, dumb and top-heavy” — that were being driven into extinction in the contemporary “new economy” marketplace.

Their alternative? Wal-Mart, the Arkansas-based retail leviathan. It may seem odd, to say the least, to nominate a chain store that peddles cornflakes, jeans and motor oil as the model for a leaner, meaner Pentagon, but Marshall’s think-tankers were only following in the footsteps of management theorists who had already beatified Wal-Mart as the essence of a “self-synchronized distributed network with real-time transactional awareness.” Translated, this means that the stores’ cash registers automatically transmit sales data to Wal-Mart’s suppliers and that inventory is managed through ‘horizontal’ networks rather than through a traditional head-office hierarchy.

“We’re trying to do the equivalent in the military,” wrote the authors of Network Centric Warfare: developing and leveraging information superiority, the 1998 manifesto of the RMA/NCW camp that footnotes Wal-Mart annual reports in its bibliography. In “battlespace,” mobile military actors (ranging from computer hackers to stealth bomber pilots) would be the counterparts of Wal-Mart’s intelligent salespoints.

Instead of depending on hardcopy orders and ponderous chains of commands, they would establish “virtual collaborations” (regardless of service branch) to concentrate overpowering violence on precisely delineated targets. Command structures would be “flattened” to a handful of generals, assisted by computerized decision-making aides, in egalitarian dialogue with their “shooters.'”

The iconic image, of course, is the Special Forces op in Pathan drag using his laptop to summon air strikes on a Taliban position that another op is highlighting with his laser designator. To NCW gurus, however, this is still fairly primitive Gunga Din stuff. They would prefer to “swarm” the enemy terrain with locust-like myriads of miniaturized robot sensors and tiny flying video cams whose information would be fused together in a single panopticon picture shared by ordinary grunts in their fighting vehicles as well as by four-star generals in their Qatar or Florida command posts.

Inversely, as American “battlespace awareness” is exponentially increased by networked sensors, it becomes ever more important to blind opponents by precision air strikes on their equivalent (but outdated) “command and control” infrastructures. This necessarily means a ruthless takeout of civilian telecommunications, power grids, and highway nodes: all the better, in the Pentagon view, to allow American psy-op units to propagandize, or, if necessary, terrorize the population.


Critics of RMA/NCW have compared it to a millennial cult, analogous to bible-thumping fundamentalism or, for that matter, to Al Queda. Indeed, reading ecstatic descriptions of how “Metcalfe’s Law” guarantees increases of “network power proportional to the square of the number of nodes,'” one wonders what the wonks are smoking in their Pentagon basement offices. (Marshall, incidentally, advocates using behavior-modifying drugs to create Terminator-like ‘bioengineered soldiers.’)

Their most outrageous claim is that Clausewitz’s famous “fog of war” — the chaos and contingency of the battlefield — can be dispelled by enough sensors, networks, and smart weapons. Thus vice-admiral Arthur Cebrowski, the Pentagon director for “force transformation,” hallucinates that “in only a few years, if the the technological capabilities of America’s enemies remain only what they are today, the US military could effectively achieve total “battlespace knowledge.”

Donald Rumsfeld, like Dick Cheney (but unlike Colin Powell), is a notorious addict of RNA/NCW fantasies (already enshrined as official doctrine by the Clinton administration in 1998). By opening the floodgates to a huge military budget (almost equal to the rest of the world’s military spending combined), 9.11 allowed Rumsfeld to go ahead with the revolution while buying off the reactionaries with funding for their baroque weapons systems, including three competing versions of a new tactical fighter. The cost of the compromise – which most Democrats have also endorsed – will be paid for by slashing federal spending on education, healthcare, and local government.

A second Iraq war, in the eyes of the RNA/NCW zealots, is the inevitable theater for demonstrating to the rest of the world that America’s military superiority is now unprecedented and unduplicable. Haunted by the 1993 catastrophe in Mogadishu, when poorly armed Somali militia defeated the Pentagon’s most elite troops, the war wonks have to show that networked technology can now prevail in labyrinthine street warfare. To this end, they are counting on the combination of battlefield omniscience, smart bombs, and new weapons like microwave pulses and nausea gases to drive Baghdadis out of their homes and bunkers. The use of “non-lethal” (sic) weapons against civilian populations, especially in light of the horror of what happened during the Moscow hostage crisis last October, is a war crime waiting to happen.

But what if the RNA/NCW’s Second Coming of Warfare doesn’t arrive as punctually promised? What happens if the Iraqis or future enemies find ways to foil the swarming sensors, the night- visioned Special Forces, the little stair-climbing robots, the missile-armed drones? Indeed, what if some North Korean cyberwar squad (or, for that matter, a fifteen-year-old hacker in Des Moines) manages to crash the Pentagon’s “system of systems” behind its battlespace panopticon?

If the American war-fighting networks begin to unravel (as partially occurred in February 1991), the new paradigm – with its “just in time” logistics and its small “battlefield footprint” – leaves little backup in terms of traditional military reserves. This is one reason why the Rumsfeld Pentagon takes every opportunity to rattle its nuclear saber.

Just as precision munitions have resurrected all the mad omnipotent visions of yesterday’s strategic bombers, RNA/NCW is giving new life to monstrous fantasies of functionally integrating tactical nukes into the electronic battlespace. The United States, it should never be forgotten, fought the Cold War with the permanent threat of “first use” of nuclear weapons against a Soviet conventional attack. Now the threshold has been lowered to Iraqi gas attacks, North Korean missile launches, or, even, retaliation for future terrorist attacks on American city.

For all the geekspeak about networks and ecosystems, and millenarian boasting about minimal, robotic warfare, the United States is becoming a terror state pure and simple: a 21st century Assyria with laptops and modems.

Mike Davis is the author of City of Quartz, Ecology of Fear, and most recently, Dead Cities, among other works. He now lives in San Diego.