Thursday, May 03, 2007

Reviewing Brave New War

I pre-ordered John Robb's book, Brave New War last January as a late Christmas present to myself, and when it arrived ten days ago, I devoured the entire book in two short sittings. I had been determined to write a review on this excellent compilation of one of the more interesting national security thinkers' work, but I have been stuck in how to formulate my response until I read how ZenPundit started his response.

is a book that was really written for two audiences.

The first is the relatively small number of specialists in military affairs, serious students of geopolitics and bloggers who are already avid readers of Robb’s Global Guerillas site. For them, Brave New War is a systematic and footnoted exposition of the theories of conflict and “dangerous ideas” that Robb discusses daily on his blog. They will be entertained and challenged by the same analysis that makes them return again and again to Global Guerillas to debate John Robb and one another.

The second audience is composed of everyone else. Brave New War is simply going to blow them away.


I am a part of the first audience as I wandered into Global Guerrillas during the late spring of 2004 as I did some deep link exploring off of the Whiskey Bar blogroll and lucked into an amazing site. The book reads like his blog, in-depth critical analysis that is unconventional in its focus on the rapid democratization of destruction and the fragility of most capital intensive systems to deliberate sabotage and damage. A few new examples were brought out, and the analysis was in greater depth, but as I was reading through the book, I was remembering the posts where I first started to see the development of an Iraqi marketplace for IEDs, or the creation of a shadow OPEC that can control the swing production of oil.

However I am not the typical reader whose first systemic exposure to the idea that the crashing of communication and coordination costs combined with the massive availability of destructive technology that can be leveraged by small groups against the complex networks that are not inherently or deeply resilient upon which modern societies rely upon to function as a modern society is the book. At this point the book becomes a critical read for anyone interested in national security, and system security even if you disagree with some of the conclusions.

The chapter on the parallels between the current Iraqi insurgencies and the Desert Storm theory of air power brings the cost of targeted violence into stark relief. The operational plan of Desert Storm was to use targeted air-power of a superpower to bring the Iraqi state into partial system failure. The communication and transportation networks from Baghdad to the south were destroyed in order to ruin Hussein's OODA loop. To accomplish this targets were selected for disruption and not complete destruction. Entire roads were not mined and power plants were not completely destroyed; instead bridges were knocked out and distribution stations were bombed. This plan was successful as it utilized a superpower's air force to achieve the systems disruption that previously would have required Rommelian armored thrusts.

Twelve years later the planned insurgency in Iraq started on the same mission of disrupting the ability of the Iraqi government to function as a modern government. And they have been successful in restricting export revenue, controlling electricity and destroying the interconnectivity that is a prerequisite of a modern nation state. The goal and the target sets utilized by the insurgencies are very similiar to the Desert Storm theory of airpower but the means are significantly different. Instead of utilizing thousands of combat sorties a day dropping hundreds of tons of bombs, the insurgencies utilize infantry weapons and truck portable munitions to cause a partial failure of the Iraqi society.

The cost of violence and organizing violence has decreased massively so capabilities that were once the preserve of powerful nation states is now in the hands of groups that can not fill the auditorium of a high school musical. And these trends are not limited to a specific case of Iraq. Instead John Robb persuasively argues that the low cost of networked violence is a global phenomena with demonstrated success in Nigeria's oil producing Delta region and an adaptive insurgency in the Caucuses that has the potential of taking down a significant portion of the Russian state.

This book is a scary book, and it is a pessimistic book but it is a critical read for its insight and its offer of a solution that deeper resiliency and modified local area self-sufficiency combined with dense interconnectedness is a viable path forward. I highly recommend reading and re-reading this work.