Declarations of War: The Real, Unreal, and Hyperreal

How do we know when something is real? The first, most direct way is to experience it with our senses. For concrete things, that does neatly.

But what about less concrete things, or even concrete things beyond our personal ken? How do we know that they are real? If we do not or cannot experience them, how do we know they are real? Our knowledge of these things comes from indirect means: someone usually tells us (even if that someone is a presenter on the evening news, or the seemingly omnipresent Mike Rowe on Discovery Channel.)

Clearly, this poses several problems, epistemological as well as practical. For one thing, it places a premium on things we actually experience. Our limited (and for some of us, we might need to add qualifiers such as ‘exceedingly’ before that last word) experience, made up perhaps of only the humdrum, the provincial, pedestrian and the banal, defines the universe of things that we regard as ‘real’. That this ‘first hand’ knowledge can therefore be simultaneously too narrow, too shallow and represent the totality of our catholic worldview can be debilitating. Just because we haven’t seen it, don’t mean it don’t exist. If we hew too closely to this line, we may find that the shopping mall and fast food outlets will soon define the boundaries of the real for most of the West.

Beyond this frightening prospect, being told what is real is also fraught with problems. Chief amongst them is that fact that it provides too much power to those who do the telling. Some of those doing the telling will, of course, be blindered only slightly less than those being told. Other tellers, though, may choose to manipulate what they say, in order to pass on the ‘unreal’ as the real.

Some may do so to spare the people from the agony of the real. Recall the words of Dostoyevsky’s Grand Inquisitor,

That deception will be our suffering, for we shall be forced to lie.

The reality (that Jesus was real and had returned to the world of man) was simply too much for the ordinary Christian to bear. Those in power have a duty to protect the rest of us from reality.

Other tellers, though, may not have our best interests at heart. Rather, they may choose to alter what they deem to be real in order to protect themselves from harm. What Orwell’s Big Brother told the people defined what was real—absolutely; there could be no alternative, not even at another time. Indeed, Winston is part of what used to be called “reality control”—later redefined as Doublethink. The Party knew the power of such control:

Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past.

They knew it, and they relied on it, and then ruthlessly enforced it, so that they could stay firmly on top.

If they are not any kinder, The Grand Inquisitor’s lies are more straight-forward than those of Big Brother. Orwell’s ideas of control resonate with the ideas of Wittgenstein’s 1922 Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus:

Language disguises thought. So much so, that from the outward form of the clothing it is impossible to infer the form of the thought beneath it, because the outward form of the clothing is not designed to reveal the form of the body, but for entirely different purposes.

The real is what is said to be real. The internal ‘reality’ of something is irrelevant.

Now, Dear Reader, I know what you are thinking: what on earth does this have to do with the usual King’s of War subject matter? Well, allow me to explain, by way of rephrasing the opening question of this already too long post (too long at least in accordance with the Rules of KOW).

How do we know when war is real?

Direct experience of war is nowadays—mercifully—not something to which many of us, especially in the West, have been exposed. Those who have such experiences know what war is, by dint of the sounds, smells, and feelings of combat, of waiting for combat, of losing comrades, of killing people, of being injured. For those who have been there, the warning provided by McGregor is not required: “war is very real and never should be envied.”

For the rest of us, we rely on being told what wars are real. The French told us recently that their war in Mali was real. Came right out and announced it—no ambiguity whatsoever. Served it up straight, without dissembling euphemisms. Theirs were not soldiers “conducting operations” or “engaged in activities”. They were fighting a war. Pointe finale. Tout fini.

That may be so, but clearly not everyone in Mali agreed. For some die-hard fanatics, the most real contest happening at the time was occurring on a very different champ de bataille. Against Nigeria. In the African Cup of Nations.

If Paris’s war represents the Real, then Pyongyang’s illustrates the unreal (not to mention the bizarre). Presumably for the purposes of convincing someone (although it is not clear exactly whom, given the ‘limited’ access to You Tube any North Korean might have) that North Korea has the ability to wage ‘real war’ on the United States, Kim-Jung Un released a representation of New York in flames, all to the tune of ‘We Are The World’ (Karaoke style, naturally).

Hamfisted as it might have been, the Hermit Kingdom’s attempt to portray a real war is a nod, not to Wittgenstein, but Baudrillard. Here we have not a lie, but a simulation: the ‘footage’ of a New York suffering from North Korean military prowess was pirated from a video game. As the French philosopher once said,

Simulation is no longer that of a territory, a referential being, or a substance. It is the generation by models of a real without origin or reality: a hyperreal.

Not to be outdone, and perhaps in keeping with some secret addendum to the Founding Charter of the Axis of Evil, Iran recently released its own simulation–Of their home-grown F313 stealth fighter flying past a cloud-enshrouded mountain, which taken from the gallery of a stock photo website.

It would be tempting at this point to blame Photoshop for all our woes. Who can properly discern the difference between what is real and what is faked in an age of virtual reality? (Visit any bar or club this weekend and try it for yourself).

The truth is, the past is replete with its own forgeries. The Second World War, for example, began on 31 August 1939 with a ruse: the German false flag raid on a radio tower at Gleiswitz, Poland. After a period of some ‘real’ fighting, an eight month ‘Phoney War’ set in, marked by an ‘absence’ of combat operations. Or at least that is how it felt to those not affected by the fighting that was going on: the Danes, Finns, and the Norwegians would protest that, for them, this period was altogether real. The same applies to the sailors and merchant seamen who fought in the Battle of the Atlantic.

Fast forward twenty-five years to another example of a phoney war, used this time to provide justification for engaging in real war. In the waters of the Gulf of Tonkin in August 1964, an American ship supposedly came under fire from Communist forces, providing President Johnson with the fig leaf he needed to ramp up U.S. warfighting efforts in Vietnam. It was later revealed that this was not quite the truth. According to a U.S. government report: “It is not simply that there is a different story as to what happened; it is that no attack happened that night.” Nothing, portrayed as something, paved the way for something else.

It’s enough to make one’s head spin. But once our grip on reality begins to loosen, we find it difficult to tighten it again. Like a pilot in a flat spin, we cannot trust our senses to tell us what is real. We rely on the “more dependable” artificial horizon to guide us. And so, after too much spin, we are left with no internal compass any longer. Wars are declared, or denied, by those in charge, leaving the rest of us, like Winston in 1984, to try and remember what is real. Which combatants are real? Which are not and can be both vilified and tortured? Civil wars exist only in Iraq if ‘experts’ in Washington think tanks declare that they do, despite casualty figures and images on the nightly news.

Rest easy, simple citizen, someone will tell you when to be concerned.  Some inquisitor somewhere has your best interests at heart.



Sometimes, though, it appears as if maybe even those in charge are confused. How else can we interpret the fact that the outgoing US Secretary of Defense, in one of his (he wishes!) final acts at the Pentagon, has created a medal (the Distinguished Warfare Medal) to honour those who control the drones, weapons which are, at once, unreal (they are rather sci-fi when you consider them) and real (they rain down very real death on their victims).  The order of precedence of this new medal reflects this strange ambiguity: the new medal will take precedence over the Bronze Star (with Valor) device, given to troops for specific heroic acts performed under fire in combat.  Unreal indeed.



The Utility of Risk in International Security: Quo Vadis?

I want to speak a little about the idea of risk in the arena of international security.  Current events, and a recent publication, have me thinking about this complicated topic.   I am afraid, though, that my thoughts are not constrained by a singular focus, and are rather ambitious in their scope.  So, Dear Reader, I invite you down the rabbit hole as we explore the twisted labyrinth that is my mind, at least as far as it concerns this topic.

Risk is not a new subject, but it is not widely understood.  This means that there are many offers of new wine, which often turn out to be nothing more than old plonk.  Differences in meaning of key terms (such as threat, vulnerability, likelihood, and mitigation) often mean that eureka moments on the part of one author (or policy wonk) are nothing more than ‘bubbles in the tub’, to coin a phrase of which Archimedes would be proud.

Look inside, as well as out

That said, a helpful (if not genuinely novel, despite titular claims otherwise) way of looking at risks was recently published in the Harvard Business Review (written by Robert S. Kaplan and Anette Mikes).  While the focus of the article is “The Firm”, I believe it has applicability to states and international security.  The authors divide the risks facing an organization into three categories.  The first are labeled ‘preventable risks’.  While this moniker is somewhat unfortunate, these risks are the kind of ‘own goals’ that organizations should strive to eliminate.  Rogue traders, crooked officials, unsafe work practices—these all represent internal, and therefore supposedly controllable, risks to success for companies.

The second category of risks is labeled by Kaplan and Mikes as ‘strategy risks’.  These risks are based on the choices made by Firms as they carry out their business.  This kind of risk derives from the ways in which companies try and capture value within the market.  Should a company commence operations in Myanmar? Or partner with BlackBerry?  Should a company give away its online content for free or put it behind a pay-wall?  Each of these choices carries with it opportunities for success and failure.  These risks, too, are supposedly controllable, in that a company is able to take the initiating decisions itself.  The ‘no risk, no reward’ mantra operates within this space.  Taking the safe route problem means a company may miss out on some potential for profit.  As Pliny the Elder opined, “audentes fortuna iuvat”.  Of course, there are no guarantees: the outcomes or impacts of the decisions made by firms are neither predictable nor controllable.  If they were—if perfect knowledge of the market as imagined by economists actually existed—I (and everyone else) would be rich instead of being a wage-slave.  (But then you wouldn’t be able to enjoy my scribbling, either, as I am lazier than I am greedy.  And wouldn’t we all be the poorer for that?)

The third category of risks proposed by Kaplan and Mikes are ‘external risks’.  External risks are those things that occur outside of The Firm but have an impact on it.  Flooding in Thailand interrupted the manufacturing supply chains of several Japanese car manufacturers, just at the time when they were reeling from an earthquake, tsunami, and release of radioactive material at home.

The reason that Kaplan and Mikes wrote their article was to draw attention to the fact that all three categories need to be understood and managed if companies are going to navigate the world of risk.

What is good for the Firm is good for the State…or is it?

Traditionally within international security (and in business, it turns out), we focus on ‘external risks’.  How many tanks or warheads does the other side have?  What is the likelihood that the enemy will attack and what will happen if it occurs?  Is AQ planning another spectacular and what will happen if they are?  What Kaplan and Mikes helpfully point out is that other actions/choices/decisions may also pose risks.

We tend to look at Category I (‘controllable risks’) and Category II (‘strategy risks’) more as ‘mitigating measures’, influenced by, and often in reaction to, the ‘real risks’ from outside.  But if we follow Kaplan and Mikes’s thinking we can see that these types of decisions have the potential to generate their own risks.

In terms of national security, we might look at something like the Abu Ghraib debacle as a Category I risk.  The abhorrent behaviour of some US troops generated risk by having an impact on domestic legitimacy, international support, and even Iraqi resistance.  Kaplan and Mikes would point out that this risk is (at least in theory) controllable by the organization.  Better training, more effective supervision, or other measures could have been applied to mitigate this kind of risk.

Other Category I risks might include decisions about how an armed force trains and equips itself.  Does an army prepare for conventional war or counter-insurgency?  Does a navy lose the capability to deploy ship-borne aircraft for a number of years?

In terms of Category II risks, a national security focus might look at the choices a country makes at a level of analysis ‘higher’ (or broader) than mere force development decisions.  A ‘grand strategic’ decision to pivot into Asia, for instance, causes the risk landscape to change.  It might excite (positively and negatively) a variety of actors in Asia, while at the same time sending signals to other regions (say, erstwhile European allies and potential African beneficiaries) that they are no longer on the radar, so to speak.

Such a wider appreciation of risk might help decision makers become more aware of the consequences of their actions.  Short-term gains or savings might be seen as portending longer-term ‘down-sides’ hitherto unseen.  The idea that ‘smaller is better’ is fine with regard to the size of the British army, in so far as it goes, but it cannot be ignored such a decision made now may bring with it future impacts.

However, at the same time, the idea of categorizing risks carries with it the danger of leading us to believe that each category is somehow a container, or at least a baffle.  In reality, though, the three categories of risk slosh into, or interact with, each other, causing multiple risk scenario potentialities and combining to compound complexity, not only in terms of causation, but more frustratingly of resolution.

The recent example of France’s actions in Mali are germane here.  France decided to act in Mali (taking a Category II risk, in terms of increasing its exposure to domestic and foreign retaliation in the form of terrorist attacks), seemingly to mitigate the risk posed by Islamists operating there (addressing a Category III risk).  France’s ability to act swiftly and effectively was constrained by decisions that she (mais bien sûr!  L’état c’est La France quandmême!) had taken independently and much earlier concerning the acquisition (or lack thereof) of effective strategic airlift capability (a Category I risk).  But not acting may have also generated risks:  some have said that if the Islamists were not stopped in Timbuktu then they would soon menace Europe.  Others point out that the Socialist politician Hollande was looking to bolster his weak public image at home and that by ‘doing nothing’ he would have looked even weaker.  Still others have said that to do nothing (to not have taken a Category II risk) would perhaps have emboldened other groups, making them feel that they had a free hand to do similar things elsewhere.

Such are the problems with risk in the modern world.  Allow me to list just some of the more important ones relevant here:

1.  Risks are not objectively determinable.  Risk is not something that exists ‘out there’, measurable by way of a thermometer or barometer.  Risks depend on several ‘non-material’ aspects.  The first step in risk analysis is the subjective determination of what is at risk: National survival?  Political capital?  Prestige?  Would all actors make the same kinds of determinations?  How are they influenced by their own psychological, cultural, and ideological (to name but three) biases and prejudices when making those kinds of decisions?  The second step involves subjective perception: does an actor ‘see’ all the factors necessary to make a sound judgment, even within the frame of the determination made above?  Are likelihoods, vulnerabilities, and impacts calculated (or rather estimated) accurately enough to be helpful?  What about those pesky ‘unknown unknowns’ of Rumsfeldian fame?  Or, even worser still, the ever lurking Black Swans (‘unimaginable unknowns’) described with such vituperation by Taleb?  How can this indeterminacy be included in our calculations?  Risk, therefore, is not a measurement of the danger present in any given environment, but rather a description of the danger attributed to that environment.  It is part of the narrative that we create to both impel and justify our actions.  It is, therefore, highly political.

2.  Risks may be managed but are rarely eliminated.  Setting aside for a moment the ‘impossibility of reason’ associated with the concept of risk calculation, Ulrich Beck tells us that risks may be addressed (with greater or lesser effect) but are infrequently dealt with ‘once and for all’.  This is largely due to the recursive nature of our mitigation efforts.  We use pesticides to reduce the risk to crops from insects, but at the same time generate wider risks to the environment and humankind through a degradation in biodiversity and ecological viability.  We arm the Mujahedeen in Afghanistan in order to address the Soviet risk, but we create a ‘downstream’ risk that turns out to cause us all kinds of bother later on.  We airdrop weapons to assist Libyan rebels mitigate the risk of a mad dicator, but later discover that some of these same weapons (and perhaps even rebels) end up in nearby Mali.  The popular sentimental reaction to this circuity might be summed up as “Blowback’s a bitch.”

3.  Our actions generate risk in all directions, simultaneously. The example of the Mujahedeen is instructive, but too simplistic in its linearity.  Often we cannot see what impacts our actions take, or may take, or are going to take.  We assume we understand the cause and effect (cut a division from the order of battle, lose the ability to react in a particular area) but in reality, due to the complex and changing nature of risk (as highlighted above) we really have no idea what will happen.  The butterfly-wing-flap-turns-into-killer-tornado meme might be a bit far fetched, but it should make us aware of the almost infinite ways in which our decisions can spin off.  Rather than getting all caught up in Beck’s ‘late Modernity’ we might look to Homer’s very much ‘hypo-Modern’ tale of Odysseus’s return from Troy as an example of how difficult any trip from ‘A’ to ‘B’ might become, despite our best intentions.

4.  The old saw abundans cautela non nocet ain’t necessarily so.  To the insights gleaned from what we have seen above, we need to be mindful of the fact that deciding (or not deciding) to not act will also generate effects.  That which does not happen because the butterfly does not flap its wings is even more difficult to calculate than a tornado, but may turn out to be equally, or even more, important.

Take a page from Frankie’s book: Risk…what is it good for?

We might then ask whether or not risk is the right way to look at the world.  If it is altogether too messy, too complex and too ineffective, why use it?  Taleb for one believes that we are not making decisions under risk (where one of a known set of potential outcomes must come to pass, bring with it associated and measurable impacts) but rather we are making decisions under uncertainty (where one or more outcomes from an unknown and often unknowable set of potential outcomes may come to pass, and brings with it (or them) one or several undetermined impacts).  His solution, though, is to plan and design for the worst, looking to create resilient (or gooder still, anti-fragile) organizations.

But how realistic is it to base our actions on ‘worst case scenarios’, building in redundancy (and therefore flexibility)?  Who can afford such a plan?  It seems that in times of scarcity and uncertainty, we are left with little to go on other than an unaffordable ideal.  Strategy under risk is difficult.  Strategy under uncertainty is impossible and counterproductive.

It seems that in the world of international security, we are left, therefore, with little other than imperfect, entirely human, political judgment.  I, for one, wouldn’t have it any other way.


Reclaiming the French Art of Statecraft

France has now been engaged in Mali for two weeks. The intervention seems to be typical of the “French touch” by combining a degree of initial improvisation, the right amount of aggressiveness and a difficult- but so far successful- integration with the lesser advanced African forces (something Huber called ‘compound warfare’). And for all those in doubt, yesterday’s operation on the Timbuktu airport involving an airborne assault, air and ground support, and an armoured column, shows that the French tactical and operational art is alive and well. I recommend to all those interested to read this story on the air war, and for the French-speaking readers these excellent analysis here and here.

Many commentators have already discussed the Sahel’s importance in the fight against Islamist extremism, the medium-term challenges of transferring the bulk of the stabilization effort to African troops, and the long-term challenge of creating a stable Malian state mitigating the ethnical tensions and improving the inhabitant’s conditions of living. No doubt these challenges will prove much more difficult than the current operation, but nobody said that a military intervention would solve the area’s ethnic and social problems: it can only be part of a long-term process.

Equally interesting is to look at the French diplomatic and strategic concerns and to put them in some perspective. France has a long tradition of articulating military power and diplomacy that dates back at least to Richelieu, and it is worth looking at the way these two elements interact in the recent French interventions.  Obviously, the usual crowd of scholars and journalists were quick to dub the operations in Mali as “neo-colonialist.” This vague intellectual category is regularly used by lazy commentators to describe power relations in world politics. A quick look at the evidence (United Nations resolution, calls for assistance by the Malian government, broad regional support even including the yet incredibly short-sighted Algeria) suffices to discard this accusation.

What is more telling is the parallelism between President Hollande’s decision to withdraw French combat troops from Afghanistan before the end of 2014 (a move effective at the end of 2012) and the decision to intervene in Mali. In both cases, France warned her partners in advance (pulling out of Afghanistan was part of Hollande’s electoral programme), but was firm in defending French interests. In the case of Afghanistan, Hollande acknowledged mission creep and assessed that the mission to deny Al-Quaeda a safe haven was over. This obviously undermined NATO’s rhetoric of “in together, out together” but Hollande may have just made the first move as several countries, including the UK and the US, are now considering an earlier (if not total) withdraw. The same is true in Mali when, after months of appearing undecided about an intervention, France quickly moved to stop the columns of jihadists that were aiming towards the South. This resolve is also illustrated by the (unsuccessful) operation launched in order to free a French secret agent in Somalia two weeks ago. This combination of consideration towards the partners and resolve arguably makes France a more respected partner in the transatlantic community than the caricature of a country allegedly unable to get over its Gaullist mythology would suggest. This is probably why the decision about Afghanistan did not spark the anticipated corrosive debates.

Moreover, this resolve leaves France and the United Kingdom almost alone in Europe when it comes to the application of military power. The UK and Denmark, the two nations opposed to the development of a Common Security and Defence Policy by the European Union, have been the first two countries to logistically support the French effort, quickly joined by minimal American support. Since then, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Canada and Spain furnished limited logistical support. This is on the verge of being ridiculous: the European psychodrama about the intervention is even mocked by the German newspapers (English version here). France and the UK are now the only remaining forces able to cover the entire spectrum of military activities in Europe, and the last willing to use force: the assessment is fifteen years old already, and each military intervention is a painful reminder that nothing has changed. In the short term, this is good news for France, and confirms its status of responsible nation, but the medium- to long-term perspectives for Europe are obviously much grimmer. What must be noted is the little rhetorical emphasis Paris put on the European Union’s role in this affair: this would have been unthinkable in 2005-2006 when any French initiative had to be disguised under an EU framework. The European rift about the intervention in Libya has left some deep scars…

Ultimately, little is new about France’s resolve in defending her interests (some scholars have already mentioned that France is the ultimate “realist” state). What is more interesting to observe is the tamed rhetoric of the last five years, so far from the inflammatory speeches by Dominique de Villepin at the United Nations when he was confronting the United States about Iraq in 2002-2003. Like she was for Iraq, France is probably right about Afghanistan and Mali, but trading strong rhetoric for dialogue with partners makes the difference between being a pariah and a credible state.