FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

The Folly of Machine Warfare

Caveat emptor: Andrew Cockburn, the author of Kill Chain: the Rise of the High-Tech Assassins, is a friend of thirty-five years, so I am biased, proudly so in this case.  While I know what Cockburn can do, I must admit I was literally blown away by this book. And I am no stranger to this subject, having worked as an engineer-analyst in the Office of the Secretary of Defense in the Pentagon for 28 years.

What makes Cockburn’s book so powerful, in my opinion, is not only his sourcing and detail (which are amazing), but the fact that he has written a book that is at once overwhelming in terms of information, yet so well written, it is accessible to the general reader.  It is a page turner.  He dissects the rise of drone warfare and examines its conduct in excruciating detail from the point of view of the targeteers in the CIA and the White House, to the controllers in front of video screens, to the effects on the people at the receiving end of the attack.

In so doing, he shows how the ideology of drone warfare is really old wine in a new bottle: it is a natural evolution of (1) the flawed ideas underpinning the misguided theory of strategic bombing in WWII; (2) the disastrous all-knowing, all-seeing electronic battlefield (starting with McNamara’s electronic line of Vietnam); and (3) the naive targeting theories underpinning the drug war and the theory of killchain2precision targeted sanctions.  At the roots of all these theories is an unchanging three-part set of propositions woven together in the 1930s by evangelical instructors in the Army Air Corps Tactical School, who believed in the ideological theory of victory thru airpower alone.

They constructed a seductive tautological argument, based on the fallacious  assumptions of extensive a priori knowledge coupled to perfect intelligence.  It remains unchanged to this day and goes like this: (1) The enemy is a physical system or network made up of critical linkages and nodes, be they ball bearing works in Schweinfurt, or Salafi fanatics in Iraq with access to cell phones and the internet, or tribal warlords in the hills of Afghanistan. (2) The enemy system can be reliably analyzed and understood from a distance, making it possible to identify those specific nodes or links that are vital to the functioning of the adversary system, be it an industrial power like Germany, a tribe in Yemen, or the financial links of a terrorist network. (3) That we can attack and destroy these vital nodes or links with precision strikes and thereby administer a mortal wound to the adversary.

In short, the conduct of war is an engineering problem: In the current lexicon of the Pentagon and its defense contractors, the enemy is a ‘systems of systems’ made up of high value targets (HVTs) that can be identified and destroyed without risk from a distance with unmanned systems. The reasoning is identical to that described in the preceding paragraph.  Yet despite its constancy, from the days of the Norden bombsight in B-17s to those of the Hellfire missile fired by drones, this theory has failed to perform as its evangelists predicted and are still predicting.

That is because viewing war as an engineering problem focuses on technology (which benefits contractors) and destructive physical effects, but it ignores and is offset by a fundamental fact of all war: Machines don’t fight wars, people do, and they use their minds.  Physical effects can be and often are offset by mental effects, such as adaptability and unpredictability, and by moral effects, like resolve and the will to resist. This was true when ball bearings were HVTs in WWII; when bicycles carrying 600 pounds of supplies were used to by pass broken bridges on the Ho Chi Minh Trail; when the Serbs used microwave ovens to fool expensive anti-radiation missiles in Kosovo, and as Cockburn shows, it is true in the war on terror (and the war on drugs).

Any one who doubts that this truth applies to drones used in a counter terror strategy should be asked to explain the collapse of our drone-based counter-terror strategy in Yemen — a place where drones reached their apotheosis as being at the center of a counter-terror strategy.

Cockburn has provided a highly readable, and logically connected story, written from a bottom-up empirical perspective.  He explains why our strategy in Yemen was doomed to fail, as it has done so spectacularly in recent weeks. His multi-reference, empirical research makes this book hard to pick apart. No doubt, there are some small errors of fact.  For example, not all the drone/bombers deployed in ill-starred Operation Aphrodite  (which blew up JFK’s elder brother) in 1944 were B-24s as Cockburn incorrectly suggests; the operation also used B-17s.  But I defy anyone to find a single thread that can be used to unravel the whole tapestry.

Franklin “Chuck” Spinney is a former military analyst for the Pentagon and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. He be reached at chuck_spinney@mac.com

 

More articles by:

Franklin “Chuck” Spinney is a former military analyst for the Pentagon and a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion, published by AK Press. He be reached at chuck_spinney@mac.com

Weekend Edition
September 21, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Alexandra Isfahani-Hammond
Hurricane Florence and 9.7 Million Pigs
Andrew Levine
Israel’s Anti-Semitism Smear Campaign
Paul Street
Laquan McDonald is Being Tried for His Own Racist Murder
Brad Evans
What Does It Mean to Celebrate International Peace Day?
Nick Pemberton
With or Without Kavanaugh, The United States Is Anti-Choice
Jim Kavanagh
“Taxpayer Money” Threatens Medicare-for-All (And Every Other Social Program)
Jonathan Cook
Palestine: The Testbed for Trump’s Plan to Tear up the Rules-Based International Order
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: the Chickenhawks Have Finally Come Back Home to Roost!
David Rosen
As the Capitalist World Turns: From Empire to Imperialism to Globalization?
Jonah Raskin
Green Capitalism Rears Its Head at Global Climate Action Summit
James Munson
On Climate, the Centrists are the Deplorables
Robert Hunziker
Is Paris 2015 Already Underwater?
Arshad Khan
Will Their Ever be Justice for Rohingya Muslims?
Jill Richardson
Why Women Don’t Report Sexual Assault
Dave Clennon
A Victory for Historical Accuracy and the Peace Movement: Not One Emmy for Ken Burns and “The Vietnam War”
W. T. Whitney
US Harasses Cuba Amid Mysterious Circumstances
Nathan Kalman-Lamb
Things That Make Sports Fans Uncomfortable
George Capaccio
Iran: “Snapping Back” Sanctions and the Threat of War
Kenneth Surin
Brexit is Coming, But Which Will It Be?
Louis Proyect
Moore’s “Fahrenheit 11/9”: Entertaining Film, Crappy Politics
Ramzy Baroud
Why Israel Demolishes: Khan Al-Ahmar as Representation of Greater Genocide
Ben Dangl
The Zapatistas’ Dignified Rage: Revolutionary Theories and Anticapitalist Dreams of Subcommandante Marcos
Ron Jacobs
Faith, Madness, or Death
Bill Glahn
Crime Comes Knocking
Terry Heaton
Pat Robertson’s Hurricane “Miracle”
Dave Lindorff
In Montgomery County PA, It’s Often a Jury of White People
Louis Yako
From Citizens to Customers: the Corporate Customer Service Culture in America 
William Boardman
The Shame of Dianne Feinstein, the Courage of Christine Blasey Ford 
Ernie Niemi
Logging and Climate Change: Oregon is Appalachia and Timber is Our Coal
Jessicah Pierre
Nike Says “Believe in Something,” But Can It Sacrifice Something, Too?
Paul Fitzgerald - Elizabeth Gould
Weaponized Dreams? The Curious Case of Robert Moss
Olivia Alperstein
An Environmental 9/11: the EPA’s Gutting of Methane Regulations
Ted Rall
Why Christine Ford vs. Brett Kavanaugh is a Train Wreck You Can’t Look Away From
Lauren Regan
The Day the Valves Turned: Defending the Pipeline Protesters
Ralph Nader
Questions, Questions Where are the Answers?
Binoy Kampmark
Deplatforming Germaine Greer
Raouf Halaby
It Should Not Be A He Said She Said Verdict
Robert Koehler
The Accusation That Wouldn’t Go Away
Jim Hightower
Amazon is Making Workers Tweet About How Great It is to Work There
Robby Sherwin
Rabbi, Rabbi, Where For Art Thou Rabbi?
Vern Loomis
Has Something Evil This Way Come?
Steve Baggarly
Disarm Trident Walk Ends in Georgia
Graham Peebles
Priorities of the Time: Peace
Michael Doliner
The Department of Demonization
David Yearsley
Bollocks to Brexit: the Plumber Sings
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail