Implying War

I owe the Faceless Bureaucrat my thanks for blazing the trail on the topic of what constitutes a state of war. (1) Is Kings of War on something of an existential trip? I am not at all certain I am qualified to answer that, but at the very least there is an urge to get back to the roots of our subject to consider, what is war?

The overwhelming response to the “Casus Chaos” post (both on this comment board and off) hinged upon the issue of what followed. The scenario only amounted to war if it were accompanied by some declaration by a legal entity. I wonder at the strength of this requirement.  So I want to use this piece to explore further what constitutes war with respect to the role legal declarations play, as well as the intent and tactics of combatants. If we consider how these aspects of war can evolve as a shifting international landscape changes the terms of geopolitics it may in fact be that the casus chaos becomes war.


Addressing first the sense that a declaration of war was necessary to give meaning to actions and events, I understand and empathize with the historical logic of this. And I cannot deny that it is also rather comforting to rely upon the enemy to do us the favour of announcing his identity, location, and intentions.

But who really believes we can expect logic and comfort from war? These are not characteristics for which it is generally known. (2) Furthermore, the only constant in war is that it changes. As historians have chronicled the modern decline in the importance of set piece battles to war, perhaps it is time to consider whether a similar fate awaits set piece wars as well. Ramping up one’s economy and armed forces and sending the troops off to war is costly in every respect. More importantly, it also may be of increasingly less service to policy.

Thus, although the proper and formal declaration of war has been the norm for the past so many centuries, there is more than enough room to argue that this standard may be on the wane. Doubt this? When was the last American declaration of war? How many conflicts has the US been party to notwithstanding? Yes, let us be clear, declarations of war are not really the sine qua non of war, certainly not across its broad spectrum of types.

Clearly, then, we must accept that the absence of a formal declaration need not mean that war – the continuation of policy by other means – does not exist. Returning to the scenario put forward in “Casus Chaos,” there must be a point when such acts rise to the level of war, in fact if not in law. Were a country to discern the intentions of a state or other entity after six months of such a low level siege, where calculable economic and other harm has been done, it would be justified claiming them as acts of war and responding in self-defence. Nevertheless, in such a world where the line between war and peace is made faint or blurry, apprehending the proper state will be difficult.

To assert a changing character of warfare, generally, would argue for flux in the objective of war as well. Whereas, for example, territorial acquisition (or defence against its loss) will necessarily announce the state of war, such brazen intentions may no longer be the norm.

Undeclared wars of low level chaos would serve incremental objectives. War as an act of weakening the enemy could look very different than what we have come to expect. Moderated attacks upon infrastructure, markets, confidence, and so forth will not devastate, but over time they will shift the balance of international power.

Such warfare could be used to shift a negotiating calculus prior to treaty talks. It may also do nicely for political and regime change. (3) Or it may be that a small country wants to punish a larger, stronger one. Obviously it could not confront the other on the conventional field of battle – and has no theatre in which to conduct an insurgency. However, incremental warfare is well within the capabilities of any entity. (4)

If we alter the nature of war in these ways, then the tactics and strategies can change as well. Within undeclared incremental warfare, military activities will look different from what we are used to. Sorry, I can’t afford a cruise missile, so I’ll make my military point with ten Suburbans crashed at various critical nodes. Why spend billions building bombers or missiles when a vehicle – and a used one at that – will do? Arms races will become about who can do more with less.

The easiest and cheapest activity is havoc, particularly in urban terrain. As societies collect into heaving masses of soft targets with massive potential energy for injurious chaos, the potential strategic effectiveness of the activity increases. With chaos the city can be made to crush itself with relatively little effort.

And why not? Warfare on the cheap aimed at the critical strategic core of an opponent – its people, its home and its wealth – using the weight of its own fragile mega-cities against itself seems eminently sensible to me. It is a far more sophisticated application of precision to warfare than simply getting a bomb to land in the right place.

In sum, if historical trends are driving things to a point where declared war no longer serves the needs nor is necessary, perhaps it is because war no longer necessarily requires the clash of armies to serve policy, because war is becoming about incrementalism, moderate acts that shift and shape the behaviour of an opponent or those who might be watching. That is, we are in a paradigm shift. [Please, someone smack me for writing that.] If this is what war looks in then chaos tactics are in.

In which case, we need to rethink everything. (5)



(1)    The rise of the super-hero pundit is fascinating. I wonder if there is a secret annual conference? Does the Faceless Bureaucrat know Doctrine Man!!? The questions, oh the questions.

(2) No, war is smart, bitter, tempestuous (though also occasionally dull), and, perhaps I will be chastised for such lightness, it has a wicked sense of humour. You may definitely want to drink with war (once!), but you would never bring it home for dinner.

(3) Let’s be honest, I would do this to China – if my intent were to bring about regime change there. Historically the central authorities have not fared well in the face of dispersed chaos.

(4) Who doesn’t think it’s possible that Mexico or Columbia might consider allowing the cartels to survive because as bad as they are at home, they are a significant cost to the US. (Can Al Qaeda rent Cartel logistics?)

(5) If I seem giddy at the prospect it is only for the intellectual repast such a change would present, a Las Vegas buffet of material and issues to consider.


16 thoughts on “Implying War

  1. Ten suburbans cannot accomplish what a tsunami cannot. Japan seems to have recovered without great difficulty. A chaos strategy to be effective is just mass civil disobedience. But more importantly you cannot discuss contemporary political conflict outside of political economy. The transnational supply chains that sustain contemporary industry acts as channels through which instability in one part of the world is spread to others. In the late 90s when Andy Grove was asked what a cross straits war would mean for the IT industry he compared it to nuclear war. The industry as whole would be severely disrupted. Now if a state wanted to try and destablize China with a “chaos” strategy what would be the broader economic impact? It’s not a surprise that war is fought in the less networked parts of the world and even then it usually means taking sides in backing parties to an intrastate conflict.

  2. John says:

    ‘With chaos the city can be made to crush itself with relatively little effort.’

    I’m not convinced that modern societies are vulnerable to chaotic disruption. On the contrary, they are far more robust precisely because of their multiple networks. It is the unconnected, the ‘self-reliant’ and the autarkic that are vulnerable to chaos. Mega cities are the sorts of places where even sustained bombing campaigns fail to significantly disrupt economic activity.

    And what are the intelligence and law enforcement institutions of the recipient states doing if they have failed to identify the source of a sustained and, presumably, effective (really, who would care if it were not?) campaign for the last six months?

  3. Jill says:

    Vladimir – whether we can discuss conflict without considering the implications of political economy does not bear on whether conflict will continue to exceed and defy the bounds of logic. We may be scholars, but those who make decisions about war and the use of force do not necessarily care about being rational according to the requirements of theory. And again, whether war has followed a set of rules in the past is not proof that it will continue to do so.

    John – criminal syndicates and gangs exist and thrive despite the intelligence and capabilities of massive law enforcement efforts, so I’m not certain why you would assume that any enemy is going to be easily identified by the authorities. I take your point about the strengths of the city, but I’m not certain you’ve given due consideration to the inherent weaknesses and fragility – mass bombing raids would very much disrupt a city like NY, where the rubble alone would be devastating. The area around Ground Zero was devastated for months. Even just run of the mill problems like traffic – gridlock is the great unspoken fear, and that’s not even with nefarious intent as its cause.

    What OIF and OEF suggest is that the military battle, the confrontation of armies, does not determine the outcome of a conflict. The ability to rule and establish security for and loyalty from the people define victory. Chaos confounds this effort. And if the point of war is not going to be about “unconditional victory” but rather increments and nuances, then its chances to be a successful strategy and suggest effective tactics are increased.

  4. F. says:

    Your demonstration of changes in war is appealling. At the moment where many Western countries are looking for cuts in their defence budgets, a radical change could be of greater efficiency than merely disbanding units. However, in what extend are we ready to draw such conclusions?

  5. John says:


    Thanks for bringing up Criminal syndicates – in my opinion they undermine rather than support your argument. Criminal syndicates subvert the system clandestinely. They are well resourced (in some cases) and have good local knowledge, and yet their impact doesn’t bring society to its knees. On the contrary, we make a trade off between curbing their activity and the resources and freedoms we are willing to surrender.

    Now, of course criminal syndicates don’t tend do things like crashing ten suburbans into critical nodes – I assume you meant simultaneously, because I imagine that a metropolis like New York City experiences more than ten disruptive car crashes a day – but organisations that do that sort of thing would be a far higher priority for the resources of police and intelligence services.

    911 undermines your argument also. Apart from the direct impact around the site and to the people and companies housed in the immediate vicinity, how long did it take for people to reopen businesses, return to work and carry on with their lives, albeit with a level of disruption? I accept there was significant disruption, but there isn’t much doubt that 911 was a cassus belli: America went to war in Afghanistan with the support of most of the world, so it hardly falls into your category of action that a small nation can use to punish a large one.

    Perhaps the example of London on 7/7, a lower level of violence, offers a better analogy – but the resilience of London was amply demonstrated. There was disruption, but life goes on.

    I don’t accept your assertion that cities are inherently weak and fragile. What is your evidence?

  6. Jill says:

    F: Disbanding units while keeping a force structure and military strategy in place that ultimately requires those units is costly in its own way and potentially dangerous if those are not the sorts of capabilities that will be needed in the future. On the other hand, whether such a low impact warfare strategy make sense for a majority of a big power’s defense budget is uncertain in the short term, but I do think we need to come up with better responses. At this point warfare in this style crosses jurisdictional, institutional and intellectual borders.

    John – Criminal syndicates offer an excellent entry point for such warfare. Either you build your own and establish the resources on the ground or you leverage another’s existing infrastructure. A gang or syndicate in any big city is just a warlord waiting to happen. Narco-terrorism is only the first example of someone recognizing the cross-over security implications of criminal activity. So, far from undermining my argument, there is clearly a perspective from which this example sustains it.

    As for 9/11, the only reason that Manhattan rose and returned so quickly was due to massive reserves of will and resources. Nevertheless, the scope of the rubble is instructive — if you don’t have the resources to clean up very quickly, what happens to the city? Cities are fragile systems that rely upon daily maintenance and free circulation and a sense of their own future — just look at the long slow death of Detroit. Clog the works with rubble and things become more difficult. (Consider what happens when just the sanitation workers go on strike. NYC’s history supports this.)

    As for the 10 Suburbans. Certainly there are accidents on any given piece of road in or out of Manhattan all the time which do not turn over into complete chaos. However, when one corresponds with rush hour, I can assure you that the cascading effect even a single incident has is crushing upon the flow of traffic. Gridlock is a real fear in the city, and it would not be difficult to push a situtation that far. Look at the Sandy aftermath. All the information is out there and easy to put together. There is a very good reason I structured the original scenario as I did, because it would in fact be quite easy to bring the city to a standstill with a bare minimum of incidents, so long as they were time coordinated and hit the right points.

  7. John says:


    I’m not arguing that it can’t be done, merely that either the level of disruption will be no greater than the many types of disruption that cities already cope with: criminal gangs, accident, natural disaster (you haven’t responded to Vladimir’s example of the Japanese Tsunami, which created far more disruption than any human agents could) or, if it is significantly more disruptive, the cities will devote proportionately more effort to curbing or coping with the disruption.

    You keep asserting that cities are fragile systems, without providing any evidence that is the case.

    Of course vast amounts of rubble will cause disruption, but what sort of action is likely to cause vast amounts of rubble without involving large amounts of explosive or a couple of airliners? It isn’t easy to knock over a skyscraper. And its the sort of action that ends in massive amounts of airborne munitions marked ‘return to sender’.

    The long slow death of Detroit isn’t the result of terrorist disruption, but of a shifting economy: Detroit bet big on heavy industry, then doubled down when the smart money was moving elsewhere.

    Perhaps I am misunderstanding your scenario, because it appears to me that you are inventing what Bruce Schneider calls Hollywood plot lines: sure, we have to consider the security and resilience of our critical infrastructure but zero-day attacks that bring society to its knees are the stuff of Die Hard movies, not rational cost-benefit analysis of relative risks.

    People who genuinely fear gridlock can take the train or get on a bike. That most don’t reveals their preferences.

  8. Mike Wheatley says:

    Taking my cue from the light-hearted tone of your footnotes, let me start by commiting blasphemy and improving on Clausewitz:
    “War is a continuation of domestic politics by additional means.”

    (1) Domestic politics. I am wrong of course – it is possible to fight a war due to concerns about solely foreign politics. However, I submit that this is amazingly rare.
    The US support in Libya is an example, and instructive, as a lot of US politicians object to US involvement, on the basis that it was not in America’s interests.
    Which I think tells us something.

    (2) Additional means. Too often “other means” seems to be interpreted as “stop the politics, give the job to the army, wait for the war to finish, resume politics”. I don’t think that is what Clausewitz is getting at, either.

    So, Cyber, terrorist, special Ops, and “Casus Chaos”.
    If you are attempting to achieve a policy goal,
    and resort to non-political (non-dimplomatic?) means,
    then it counts as war.

    So if you use Cyber to add text to school history books in e.g. Japan – that probably counts as political means, and not War, since it is about altering perceptions and views.

    But if you engineer a currency collapse, or damage percieved safety of foreigners in a country highly dependent on tourism, for the purpose of weakening that nations ability to act,
    then wouldn’t that count as non-political means, ergo as War?

  9. Jill says:

    John –

    I was thinking further on 9/11. I don’t know where or what you were at the time, but I was a defense consultant on Pennsylvania Ave, almost across from the White House. Ironically, we were holding a future of warfare conference with Andy Marshall et al (later in the morning they would be utterly distressed not to be able to get back to the Pentagon). As we watched events unfold on the television, at the first there was no sense that it was an act of war. On the second, there was greater certainty of intention, but by whom and to what end was still unknown. After we were evacuated from the red zone and reconvened to beers and take out at a colleague’s apartment, the war gaming and scenario spinning was rampant. And, as I heard later, so too was the conversation at the highest levels. There was no immediate certainty.

    These were epic events, so there was no secret to be kept. But in my scenario, there is more room for ambiguity – as much as serves intent.

    I keep arguing that cities are fragile systems when under attack because that’s what the historical record so easily demonstrates. Mogadishu. Benghazi. London ’11. Mumbai. Fallujah (I’ll go with ’07, that’s the year I know best – and the one most others know least well, which I like.) What was the Arab Spring but the urban spark of revolution? The authorities lost control of the cities and it was lost. I’m pretty certain that I could lay effective siege to Manhattan…or make it ungovernable by others. That’s why there is a specific branch of warfare attributed to the city, Military Operations on Urban Terrain. Cities are different.

    Even without intent, issues abound. Gridlock is a common fear in NYC – look up Sam Schwartz. It is not that far to go to take that very real problem and make it so much worse. Fires, water mains, sewer systems, all create very real problems on a regular basis – again, it is not a wild leap to take them to another level.

    So, I’m not certain I understand why you stand on the position of robustness.

    The purpose of the Detroit example was simply to demonstrate what kills cities. In this case it has occurred over an extended period. There is nothing that says you can’t speed up that death. Again, I don’t need to proclaim my identity. I could also false flag it. But I can slowly strangle the New York economy. Take that down and you’ve altered the entire calculus of American power. Or just a few notches and I can dominate a conference.

    As for the “return to sender” point, we may have bounced some rocks in Afghanistan, but I would not say that the military response to 9/11 was entirely effective. Al Qaeda remains a potent enemy and the Taliban is still a potential force in the country. So, even where there was an easily identified target, that which was returned to sender was not so impressive. And, by the way, the US went on to spend its way into a massive deficit and an economic collapse with this and another military adventure. Who has won this war?

    Hollywood would hate my proposed scenario because in many iterations it exists without announcement. Or it’s Mumbai or Benghazi, and too chaotic for good storytelling. And nobody is a superhero or villain.

    And quite frankly, I think you are going a bit far with the Hollywood comment. I don’t know whether such a scenario becomes the future of conflict. But I do suspect changes are afoot. I am lobbing out unorthodox reconceptualizations of war because that process, thinking through the many aspects that might change, is a good practice. I don’t see why that troubles you so.

    By the way, I never proffered a policy prescription for this scenario, so I will decline the tab on the costs you’ve assumed, thank you. I’m not sure there is much that needs to be done in terms of spending or force structure and so forth. First responders know their jobs, and the armed forces can backfill various capabilities. What to do externally would have to await intelligence. It may be that the lesson for the west to learn is how to calibrate its responses downward. We may not have needed to mobilize a trillion dollars worth of armed forces expenditures in retaliation.

  10. John says:

    Okay, so more ambiguity than 911. I wasn’t there, I don’t claim special knowledge.

    ‘I keep arguing that cities are fragile systems when under attack because that’s what the historical record so easily demonstrates. Mogadishu. Benghazi. London ’11. Mumbai. Fallujah (‘07)’

    None of those cities demonstrated fragility as a result of the kind of ambiguous action you are postulating.

    London was anything but fragile. The riots in London were highly localised, massively sensationalised, dealt with very quickly as soon as the Police Service shifted some assets around and the local courts started running night sessions.

    Mogadishu and Fallujah were both knee deep in conflict, not much ambiguity about war there.

    Mumbai is a better example, and I agree with some of your analysis as applied to Mumbai, but perhaps we just disagree about the scale of what occurred, and the long term impact.

    ‘The authorities lost control of the cities and it was lost’

    Absolutely, the city proves more resilient than the state. Perhaps we are arguing at cross purposes because we haven’t agreed on our terms, but to me the city is a massive multi-layered network of people, living in a massive urban conurbation, interacting in myriad ways that, ultimately, defy centralised control. You appear to be equating the ‘city’ with the state-run institutions control of the city.

    One of the terrorist’s strategic messages is that the state cannot provide security, and in that sense Mumbai was a strategic success, for at least a few days. I have no problem conceding that point – but can you clarify what you mean by the city?

    ‘I’m pretty certain that I could lay effective siege to Manhattan…or make it ungovernable by others. That’s why there is a specific branch of warfare attributed to the city, Military Operations on Urban Terrain. Cities are different.’

    As any soldier will tell you MOUT, OBUA, FIBUA or FISH (my favourite acronym) chews up manpower. On both sides. Yes, you can make a space ungovernable, for a time, at a cost. You can do that better with lots of coordinated action, at a greater cost. Can you do so ambiguously? Not the scale of effect you are talking about, and certainly not over the long term.

    ‘…Fires, water mains, sewer systems, all create very real problems on a regular basis – again, it is not a wild leap to take them to another level.’

    It’s not a wild leap of the imagination – that’s what I meant by Hollywood scenarios. How much of what you think can be achieved is truly scalable? Think of the manpower requirements to achieve what you are suggesting. Is it the sort of action that could be done easily by the sorts of numbers of agents you could infiltrate into your chosen target city?

    ‘The purpose of the Detroit example was simply to demonstrate what kills cities.’

    Detroit isn’t dead. But then it was never alive. Nothing has killed Detroit, the people who live there have made choices about where they would prefer to live and work, based on changing economic conditions.

    ‘I can slowly strangle the New York economy’.

    I hope you will forgive my scepticism, I doubt whether any individual can strangle the economy of a city. I’d be interested if you would care to share some scenarios.

    ‘As for the “return to sender” point, we may have bounced some rocks in Afghanistan, but I would not say that the military response to 9/11 was entirely effective’.

    No argument from me on that point (although all the original ‘senders’ appear to be pushing up daisies). But you can’t always rely on your enemy to be as cooperative as the US has been during the last decade. I am merely highlighting the fact that large scale disruption, as you term it, often results in large scale retaliation. Ambiguity of an attack only has so much use. If your attack is so subtle that it doesn’t distinguish itself from the background noise, what political effect are you likely to achieve?

    ‘And quite frankly, I think you are going a bit far with the Hollywood comment.’

    The comment is not a suggestion that Hollywood would be interested in the script, it’s a referral to Bruce Schneier’s criticisms of security measures based on imagined fears. Here’s an old blog post that touches on the issue: (sorry, I slipped an extra ‘d’ in his name on my earlier comment). To be fair, you aren’t offering policy prescriptions.

    ‘I am lobbing out unorthodox reconceptualizations of war because that process, thinking through the many aspects that might change, is a good practice. I don’t see why that troubles you so.’

    I’m not troubled; I’m just not convinced by the catastrophists. Far too often such worst case scenario hypothesising gets turned into fear-mongering and calls for ‘something to be done’, followed by massive government spending on solutions to problems whose relative risk is dwarfed by your commute to work (with or without gridlock).

    More Americans die every month on US roads than died on Sept 11 2001, but the risk is one accepted by US society.

    I also am slightly reluctant to accept to broad a reconceptualization of war. I think Thomas Rid would argue that, like some of the cyber war scenarios, we are discussing sabotage rather than war. An act of sabotage may be an act of war, but it depends a great deal on the context and consequences.

    ‘By the way, I never proffered a policy prescription for this scenario, so I will decline the tab on the costs you’ve assumed, thank you’.

    I’m not sure if you’ve misconstrued my meaning here. Thefirst responders and legal measures that mitigate the risk of disruption are themselves a cost to the city (meaning the people in it, through taxes, or the freedoms they surrender). The level of response available to any form of subversion or disaster (terrorist, criminal, accidental, natural) depends on the costs the people in the city are willing to bear. And that cost is balanced, through politics, against the likely, or at least believed likely, cost of the disruption.

    I very much agree with you that spending a trillion dollars on expeditionary warfare is poor value for money if the ultimate objective is homeland security. ‘Stopping them over there before they come over here’ is pretty morally reprehensible even if it was a demonstrably effective tactic (I don’t think it’s worth the name strategy), because it requires impossible foreknowledge.

    But I may just be reading too much into your post. Sabotage, subversion and so on may indeed become more prevalent in the future, and an expansionist definition of the word ‘war’ is hardly something new (security studies are even more encompassing). So if I have unintentionally misrepresented you, please accept my apologies.

  11. John says:


    ‘If you are attempting to achieve a policy goal,
    and resort to non-political (non-dimplomatic?) means,
    then it counts as war.’

    I’d argue that force, or the threat of force would have to be involved, preferring a more restrictive use of the word war. Of course I have no control over the term but economic-war seems imprecise to me. Equally I think war-on-drugs, war-on-waste and war-on-[unpopular thing of the moment] are hyperbole.

    Perhaps we could use the term ‘grand-strategy’, which can happily encompass economic measures, sabotage, espionage, subversion, diplomacy, propaganda, soft-power and of course, recourse to force.

    • Mike Wheatley says:

      What do you mean by “force”?

      E.g. If group A is able to push country B into recession, by damaging distribution infrastructure (oil, electricity, gas, roads, rail,) then its military budget is likely to shrink; and its willingness to resort to the military, reduced.
      Has group A “forced” country B into a negotiated settlement, on terms more favourable to group A?

    • John says:


      Physical force, as in ‘the utility of force’, rather than force as in coercion.


  12. Jill says:

    John –

    Let’s be clear, I am speculating about a potential scenario for the purpose of thinking through the crossover point from criminal violence to war. My impression is that what war is (how it’s fought and by whom and for what ends) is in a period of transformation. I am not doing this to create policy prescriptions, per Schneier’s fear, or to argue for a particular force structure or security stance.

    As for my examples, it is easy be pedantic and find something wrong with any comparative. But that is less useful than faulty or imperfect comparatives. So, again, for clarity, none of the examples were meant to be an exact replica of my scenario. That would be quite impossible. If I am allowed some latitude, then I would submit that each served the purpose of illuminating the terms of the various weaknesses of the urban landscape under discussion.

    When I speak of Mogadishu, the fragility of concern is mobility – with very little by way of material or effort those confronting the American and UN forces were able to thwart the latter’s ability to move about the city. Fallujah’s pizza slice was a no-go for most logistics and many visitors during the first half of 07 due to IED and other activity (accidents of a particular cause, if you will). That’s transport communications fragility. When I spoke of Mumbai, the fragility was the vulnerability of cities to commando raids. No, not perfect replications, but they are pretty good sign posts of the vulnerabilities.

    You wrote: “London was anything but fragile. The riots in London were highly localised, massively sensationalised, dealt with very quickly as soon as the Police Service shifted some assets around and the local courts started running night sessions.”

    I never claimed that the riots of August 2011 brought London down. I am, after all, sitting right here, and I’m not exactly daft. But they did highlight significant issues in dealing with urban disorder. And with respect to taking those events seriously insofar as what they might portend for urban warfare, this is not exactly me running about all Henny Penny, cackling that the sky is falling. From the forward to “The Rules of Engagement,” HMIC’s review of the August disorders, on their perception of the event:

    ‘August 2011 saw a new departure in major public disturbances in England: widespread, fast-moving and opportunistic criminal attacks on property, loosely organised using social media, and sometimes involving alliances between normally rival gangs.

    ‘After a long period of relative peace, this presented an exceptional challenge for conventional police training, tactics and organisational capacity, which had been developed largely to deal with set-piece, single site confrontations between police and protestors.

    ‘But while these events might have been novel last August, history and research elsewhere strongly suggest that this pattern of criminality, or evolutions of it, will be seen again. Thus this review suggests an equally evolutionary response. It must be flexible and dynamic – and just as capable of working across force boundaries as last summer’s mood of incivility and criminality.’ (p. 4)

    From “Operation Kirkin: Strategic Review, Interim Report,” from the Metropolitan Police Service, on their perception of the event:

    ‘The events of August 2011 were unprecedented in the Capital’s history. The initial peaceful protest in response to the fatal shooting of Mark Duggan escalated to violent local protest and on to London and countrywide public disorder. The speed, geographical distribution and scale of this escalation set these events apart from anything experienced before.’ (p. 4)

    From “4 Days in August,” MPS, Final Report, on information overload:

    ‘The MPS struggled with the volume and task of identifying accurate intelligence during the disorder. The MPS could not comprehensively monitor social media in real-time and was therefore not in a position to be moving ahead of events.’ (p.8)

    From the same, on mobilization issues:

    ‘….However, in hindsight, the numbers were not enough and they did not arrive quickly enough to deal with the speed with which the violence escalated and its spread….

    ‘To assemble trained, equipped and fully briefed officers quickly the MPS recognises the need for a dynamic and flexible Service Mobilisation Plan (SMP). Since August the MPS has improved the process for assembling public order trained officers. They can now be mobilised more quickly. However there are still practical difficulties in getting significant numbers of public order officers on the streets. In order to overcome this, the MPS is addressing two key aspects; increasing the overall number of public order trained officers and ensuring a minimum number are available locally to aid speedy deployment.’ (p. 8)

    This last puts a bit of a different spin on the simplicity with which you asserted that the disorders were “dealt with very quickly as soon as the Police Service shifted some assets around.” You make it seem as though they were twiddling thumbs for the first few days until they decided that the time had come to act. Nevertheless, just shifting some assets around works well on a sand table, or perhaps Hollywood, but real world logistics are never so amenable.

    So, it’s too far to argue that I’m raving on based on hyper-sensationalized news reporting — never saw any of that. But I am thinking forward from the points I’ve come across thus far in my readings.

    We agree London didn’t fall apart in August 2011. The violence was driven by a short-lived but brightly burning anger, and the looting was simply opportunism and greed. But considering these weaknesses, law enforcement in those first moments was entirely over stretched. From the above we can begin to understand that the Met could not cover the three necessary blocks in the vicinity of Tottenham High Road on that first night. Or, that in the coming days, they were deluged by communications traffic via social media and other sources. Finally, that violence and looting were still effectively achieved in dispersed locations for several day. So, I look at that and think – with no planning or resources the achievements were significant. What happens if you put more into it? Turns out you can use just that sort of tool to cover an entirely effective attack on a consulate.

    Yes, I can’t prove my thesis – I really don’t want to, either – but that’s not the burden in such a matter. Without being overly dramatic and catastrophic, in cities it is possible to achieve much with limited resources and people. It’s really nothing more than insurgency, displaced from the home of the insurgents to the home of the foreign counter-insurgents. It doesn’t have to be immediately catastrophic it’s just as useful as a long-running, suppurating wound.

    Could this be achieved without having to announce oneself? Entirely possible. Whether it’s possible over a long period of time is less certain – but also less necessary. But ambiguity is definitely doable.

    Scalability? Cities themselves provide the scale. Just look at what happens when a water main breaks. Manpower requirements? These need not be too high, and certainly much can be achieved with blind labor.

    City death? Well, you can argue with all of the people who take this as a serious topic. However, as I understand it, the matter is not simply the departure of people but the slow undoing and ebbing of the life which those people, their needs, endeavors and interests create. You likened cities to layers of interaction – surely you must understand how interactions change when you reduce numbers. It’s not a straight line correlation.

    As for my definition of a city…it’s a city. I try to use words in their generally understood form. No good comes from adding complexity to a concept simply to make things more difficult to understand. I look out my window…ta-da, London, a city. And perhaps it is a difference between Europe and the US, but “state run institutions’ control of the city” is…awkward. Bottom line, New Yorkers or any western urban denizens expect the institutions to maintain control. Cities cannot exist absent governance, we are not ants. While no central authority can control all or even most activity, they do control the ones important to the citizens and to maintaining sufficient order. When they do not, it’s regime change or surrender, and urban dwellers are not ambivalent about either of those things.

    Nevertheless, at the end, I think we can agree that it is possible for the terms of war to shift such that what we once considered sabotage or crime might be war.

  13. John says:


    fine we were arguing at cross purposes. I am happy to concede that security forces can face significant challenges in imposing control, certainly in the short term, when faced with even relatively poorly resourced disruption. My criticism of your original post was aimed at the assertion:

    ‘With chaos the city can be made to crush itself with relatively little effort.’

    For a generally understood meaning of the word city, I think that is exaggerated.

    Acts of sabotage or other forms of subversion can all be considered acts of war – its in the eye of the beholder.

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