Brave New War, some comments regarding (slightly expanded)

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John Robb’s book Brave New War is out, for awhile now, and I’ve just read some excerpts and reviews. I have every expectation that it is an excellent book, but of course I do have to read it first. I had enjoyed being a frequent commentator over at Global Guerillas and I enjoyed very much discussing the links between sustainability and war processes, and the new topology of globalization. I also think the cover art is exactly right, a cloud being generated from a part of a network (pipeline). The subtitle:The Next Stage of Terrorism and the End of Globalization is also dead on.

One criticism that I don’t agree with, though, is contained in William Lind’s otherwise excellent review, excerpt below:

Following a useful and well-written introduction to Fourth Generation war, Brave New War offers four observations of strategic importance. The first is that the “global gorillas” of 4GW will use “systems disruption” to inflict massive damage on states at little cost to themselves. Modern states depend on the functioning of numerous overlaid networks – fuel pipelines, electric grids, etc. – which have critical linkages that are subject to attack. Robb writes:

To global guerillas, the point of greatest emphasis is the systempunkt. It is a point in the system … that will collapse the target system if it is destroyed. Within an infrastructure system, this collapse takes the form of disrupted flows that result in financial loss or supply shortages. Within a market, the result is a destabilization of the psychology of the marketplace that will introduce severe inefficiencies and chaos.

Our problem is that the global guerillas we see in the long tail of this global insurgency are quickly learning how to detect and attack systempunkts.

Here, I think John Robb’s Air Force background may mislead him to an extent. Air Forces have long believed that the bombing of critical nodes in an enemy’s military, communications or economic systems can win wars; American air raids on German ball-bearing plants in World War II are a famous example. In reality, it seldom works because the enemy’s re-routing, redundancy and repair capabilities enable him to work around the destruction. Robb is right that such destruction can increase costs, but wartime psychology can absorb higher costs. War trumps peacetime balance-sheets.

Now it is true that the classic systempunkt attack has its very real limits. The example that I would would be 9/11 itself, which was clearly thought by AQ to be an attack on a systempunkt of the American economy. The economy proved much more resilient then expected though, and, outside of a few sectors, regenerated quite nicely.

However, the new systempunket attacks will clearly not be on the nodes themselves, but the controlling rules that govern how a network connects, and reconnects. I would emphasize the phrase “the psychology of the marketplace that will introduce severe inefficiencies and chaos.” in John’s quote above to show that John does in fact understand this.

In other words, certain parts of a network are rule generators, and determine the networks persistence. Examples would be the media, to the extent that it informs/influences group psychology and behavior. Another example is a societies belief system, which determines how data are interpreted and acted upon.

A concrete example of what I mean by ‘an attack on a rule generating’ part of a network would help explain this. The best example would be the case of the Tylenol poisoning. By changing the fundamental premise of an economic activity, the market for Tylenol was collapsed. The fundamental premise was that buying Tylenol was safe and a good way to get a pain killer. It was the information that this fundamental premise was undermined that caused the collapse of the Tylenol market. (See Paul Virilio’s Information Bomb concept for further elaboration of a similar theme.) This caused damage much more effectively than blowing up a factory that made Tylenol, and at much less risk to the attackers.

Italicized text added 31 May 2007.

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Brave New War, some comments regarding (slightly expanded)

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