What if warfare was reinvented and nobody bothered to tell the Pentagon?
That is the thesis to John Robb’s Brave New War. Globalization, the Internet, cellphones, etc. have created a world in which information spreads very fast, can not be contained, and is available to all. This allows small, highly mobile groups working in loose networks with others to not only create open source software that benefits everyone, but also to create open source warfare whereby just a few can effectively block and cripple nation-states they oppose.
Most of the web servers on the planet run on the open source Apache software. Open source is developed for free by teams of those interested. Anyone can change the code and use it. Changes to the code are voted on by the group, then put into the next release where they benefit all. The profit motive is absent, and the software teams group, dissolve, and re-form at will, bringing their knowledge with them.
Open source warfare follows the same pattern. Using Iraq as an example, there is not one monolithic insurgency but dozens of groups with widely differing beliefs who team up, share ideas, attack a specific target, then disband and plan something else. The organizational structure here is a bazaar, not a cathedral, with lots of “trading, haggling, copying, and sharing”, something which may look chaotic to an outsider, but isn’t really at all. But the dynamics of the bazaar are probably impenetrable to rigid hierarchies like the Pentagon.
OSW also swarms when it attacks. The swarms can be massed but in Iraq are usually dispersed. That’s the key to their power. The attacks are often on the electrical grids and pipelines, where just a few people acting quickly can cause substantial damage. Repeat this often enough, and the government and the US soon appear to be completely inept (not to mention it costing them millions and maybe billions in lost revenue and repairs.) This hollowing out of the state by slow bankruptcy and loss of legitimacy is a precise goal of OSW. Insurgent attacks in Iraq may appear random, but it’s almost a certainty that most of them are deliberately planned to create maximum disruption.
Robb documents something I’ve not seen elsewhere: that Saddam, after the Gulf War, made contingency plans for another US invasion. The plans included stashing huge arms supplies in the countryside, embedding small teams of guerrillas in the cities to destabilize the government and attack US troops, and engaging in systems disruption by assaults on the infrastructure. When the invasion happened, these teams activated and were the leading edge of the insurgency. Robb’s crucial point: given the nature of OSW, what those guerrillas knew quickly and freely spread to anyone interested, who then added their own improvisations and spread it further.
Such systems disruptions can be used to bankrupt an opponent, as well as to discredit them on the world stage. It’s not just Iraq where this is happening. Robb also discusses the rise of transnational gangs, organized crime cartels, homegrown militias, and others who use similar tactics.
That the Pentagon and US government doesn’t understand OSW can be shown by reading the headlines. You’ll often see news stories about how the US has “to cut off the head of Al Qaida” and that’ll end the insurgency. No it won’t. Nor will an Orwellian security apparatus like HSA, which “will prove unable to isolate and defuse threats against us.”
Robb sees the US electrical grid as especially at risk. It’s mostly unprotected. Destroying a few key switching points could cascade much of the grid into collapse. He uses this as a metaphor for what could be done to protect as well as enhance our lives in general. Decentralization. Let every home have the capacity to create its own energy, with the excess going back into the grid. Also, open up the entire electrical system, let it become a true open source platform for all to use. Changes like these would make the entire system more robust and better able to absorb the attacks he assumes are coming.
Robb sees a open source model to be used by all as the best possible way to avoid the alternative: “knee-jerk police states” and “preemptive war,” all of which will be failed strategies anyway.
The resulting highly decentralized world, I think, will be much less a place of predatory capitalism because the interconnectedness of the networks we will live in will preclude that from being so. Also, for those of us on the Left who think socialism has much to offer, a decentralized world where nation-states have lost their power means there will be no state that can control an economy. I suggest this is something Lefties need to start thinking about now, as that decentralized world is coming.