Monday, March 25, 2013

Calling in a Drone Strike on War Games

Illustration from 'Krilof and His Fables', 1869

There is a Russian fable from the 19th century that goes like this: a peasant, at the local market fair, happened upon a fine blade of damascus steel in a pile of otherwise crudely wrought iron.  Congratulating himself on such a bargain purchase, the peasant took the blade home and made use of it in all sorts of base manners- repairing fences, chopping wood- so that it soon became nicked and dull and otherwise a pale shadow of its former self and purpose.  One day a hedgehog found the blade, carelessly discarded, under a bench inside the peasant's hut.  The hedgehog asked the blade, " Are you not ashamed of the ignoble life you have served?"  The blade replied, "The shame is not mine- the shame is borne on he who knew little of the feats I could perform!"


On 6 March, Rand Paul took the senate floor on a filibuster ride not seen in recent memory.  His purpose was to delay the confirmation of, now, CIA Director John Brennan, due mainly to questions revolving around the possible use of Drones to conduct targeted killings of US citizens on US soil.  In his opening remarks of what would become a 13 hour speech, Paul summoned another 19th century tale for metaphor- Alice in Wonderland:
"They say Lewis Carroll is fiction. Alice never fell down a rabbit hole and the White Queen's caustic judgments are not really a threat to your security. Or has America the beautiful become Alice's wonderland? 'No, no, said the queen. Sentence first; verdict afterwards. Stuff and nonsense, Alice said widely - loudly. The idea of having the sentence first? 'Hold your tongue, said the queen, turning purple. I won't, said Alice. Release the drones, said the Queen, as she shouted at the top of her voice."

Illustration from 'Alice in Wonderland', 1915

The targeted killing of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen, via a Drone launched from a secret base in Saudi Arabia, signaled a new threshold being crossed in the eyes of Paul and others.  Drones are reshaping the way we conduct warfare and surveillance, both at home and on the numerous fronts pervaded by American interests.  Yet beyond the legal and moral issues raised by Drone 'signature' strikes, there are larger questions on how Drones reshape the very notions of war and control, not to mention how the influence of liberalism created an environment where drones could thrive.  In seeking answers to these questions one has to reconcile the rise of drones with the relative decline of war games as tools for conducting war and recognize that in the difference between these two lies the human drama of reconciling rationality and metaphysics.


But, one may ask, what is the connection between drones and war games?  Here we turn to the Sequester or, rather, what the Sequester portents for the future of war gaming in the US military.  In a recent article by the New York Times, 'Mandatory Cuts Could Open Path to Deeper Defense Trims', the point is made that while various aspects of the military machine under sequestration will be reduced in scope and cost, the savings these cuts produce will be put to greater use in expanding other, more timely programs such as special operations forces, offensive/defensive cyberweapons, and, of course, building more drones.  One area already targeted by sequestration is travel funding available for military personnel to attend war gaming conventions.  Rex Brynen notes the consequences of these cuts at PaxSims:
"As budget sequestration takes a bite out the discretionary spending by the US military, one casualty has been conference and workshop participation—including conferences on professional wargaming. Most military personnel (and other personnel at DoD institutions) have had support for conference participation severely restricted, if not suspended altogether. 
The MORS special meeting on professional gaming that had been scheduled for 26­-28 March, for example, will now be postponed to next fiscal year. Similarly, the Connections 2013 conference, scheduled for July 2013, is also struggling to attract the usual number of US military participants given the absence of government travel funding."
This comes on the heels of a process already underway in which the top war gaming institutions of the military, the National Defense University (NDU) and its nested subsidiary the Center for Applied Strategic Learning (CASL) face reductions amounting to a third or more of their budget.  Michael Peck, in a post for Kotaku on 5 Nov 2012, made this observation re: cuts at NDU and CASL:
"(NDU and CASL's) downfall illustrates what one source told me; that this is an example of the military shunning rigorous strategic thinking and focusing on narrow short-term issues instead. We didn't have enough rigorous political and military thinking in the days before the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the results speak for themselves. There is still reason to question whether the U.S. has a clear sense of why and how it will fight the next war…Wargaming can't answer all questions. But it can help us ask the right ones."
Why is the military so keen on cutting war game programs and institutions, whose total budget amounts to less than the cost of a few Predator drones?  Here we need to examine the nature of war as conceived through the use of war games and compare that to the one espoused by drone ideology.  And the best way to do that is to consider how each attempts to create their own 'Borges Map', a 1:1 representation of reality placed on top of lived reality.


Consider the war game.  Philip von Hilgers, in his history of 'Kriegspiel' in Germany, notes that war games allow one to play with various military hypotheses without being bound by the constraints of time.
"The war games and map exercises did not simply dissolve temporal references through a symbolic system, but allowed a temporal extension to occur that seemed to correspond to the hypothetical situation. It was precisely because war games granted time unlimited space that what was not planned could occur."
Image from H.G. Wells' 'Little Wars'
Essentially, war games facilitate construction of a Borges Map through unlimited extension of time.  Running various scenarios and potentials, the military mind can better map out all possible outcomes and create appropriate responses that will minimize casualties while inflicting maximum possible damage to the enemy.  Compared to other military technologies, the war game allowed planners to layer multiple representations of reality on top of the actual reality of battle.  The uncertainty of conflict, what many term the 'fog of war', becomes less obscure when one can eliminate the constraints of time.  Despite its pursuit of rationalistic modeling, the war game nonetheless creates a space where metaphysical thought can mingle with the rational and produce a synthesis that not only affirms the humanity of the players but also places that humanity at the center of decision making.  Descartes famous maxim, 'I think, therefore I am', could easily become, 'I think, therefore I (war) game'.

Compare this to the ideology of Drones.
Frederik Rosen, in his preliminary draft of 'Extremely Stealthy and Incredible Close', argues that drones raise the stakes in seeing and knowing, which in turn raises questions on moral and legal obligations with regards to their use.  Drones become, "a medium for proximity" made manifest through their extended flight times, arrays of surveillance gear, and numerical, even exponential, growth in use.  Instead of placing the drone along a historical trajectory of tools that kill from a distance, Rosen suggests its proper role should be seen in the historical trajectory of "seeing the enemy in war: a history moving from hilltops and watchtowers to the use of binoculars, balloons and airplanes and then on to radar, night vision, satellites."  

If we accept Rosen's placement of the drone in terms of a way to 'see' the enemy, then the conflict between war games and drones becomes much sharper.  Whereas the war game achieved its Borges Map through the unbinding of time and hypothesis, the drone eliminates this distinction through its marriage of time and surveillance and creates a Borges Map made up of a single layer- the drone's gaze- instead of the multiple layers brought about through war gaming.

So even though war games grant time unlimited space, drones, bound by the laws of physics, cannot make such grand bargains with time and, in fact, have no need to bargain at all.  With drone ideology, how could something not planned occur?  The constant surveillance aspect of the drone eliminates this need to bargain with time and ushers in a 'just in time' delivery system for political and military officials.  When a viable target appears, you fire a missile at them.  Suspicious targets can be surveilled for days, and if their behavior fits a terrorist profile then it's a snap to carry out a 'signature' strike. We know the American government has gone great lengths to legally justify drone use, a move that, supposedly, marks our regime as a rule of law society and exemplar of liberalism writ large.  Combined with the market-like ability granted by drones to target and deliver explosive payloads with maximum efficiency and minimal downtime, the drone becomes just another extension of technology that would be as comfortable in an Amazon warehouse as it is in the deserts of Saudi Arabia, or the vastness of North Africa.

This makes the drone the greatest champion of neoliberal practices, even as it calls into question the liberal regimes that foster its use.

Yet beyond this fusion of market principles in drone design, there are other, deeper factors to consider when comparing these perpetual skyrim death dealers to war games. War Games are for planning the future; with drones, the future is now.  War Games allowed a healthy mix of the rational and the metaphysical to coexist; drones have no such affinity for the metaphysical, as their entire purpose is clothed in rational, panglossian hues.  A drone heaves off the metaphysical impact of a missile strike onto the operator in a room, far away from the scene of rationalistic discourse the drone embodies.  No wonder that drone pilots feel stressed- they are running a machine that is devoid of metaphysics, the soul of humanity, by design.  Whereas the war game allowed the rational and metaphysical to interact, the drone, with its supra-rational operation, cleaves this union in two and leaves metaphysical questioning solely to the operators, who more often than not find their soul torn asunder under the strain.

The Kill List, through its very existence, obfuscates the purpose of war games even as it makes the role of drone ideology perfectly clear.

Perhaps Paul was right.  Maybe America has become more like the Wonderland depicted in Lewis Carroll's fanciful tale.  Drone ideology certainly made 'sentence first, verdict later' a plausible doctrine.  Yet in all the bluster and filibuster about the impact of drones on our way of life, we should be mindful, like the hedgehog above, of the discarded damascus blade and ask ourselves, "is the shame borne on those who knew little of the feats war games could perform?"


  1. First of all: Loved the post. Already, I find myself drawing parallels between drone operators and MOOC instructors, or even average teachers nowadays on whom most of the weight of education has been executively sloughed. But, quickly, I worry about the conclusion of "sentence first, verdict later." I posit that it isn't quite a reversal of the older system that we have now. Aren't we now operating in a system of signification -- perhaps it is merely this "surveillance culture" of ours -- in which the notion of a verdict is always already ... well, passed? In other words, aren't the guilty guilty by virtue of the act carried out on them, satisfied technically as it is by so many cut-and-dry markers? (I ask this with a rich amount of cynicism, to be sure.)

    1. I think the Justice Department sees drone strikes as being the execution of a sentence where the verdict has already been rendered, certainly. And the 'surveillance culture' is exactly what facilitates this sort of verdict-sentence-strike mentality. Yet the counter to the 'signification' argument is who exactly determines the value of signifying actions? Supposedly, we have a judicial procedure that is supposed to weigh these actions- but with drones, the judgement comes from what the Military or Civillian leaders deem to be a signifying action. Is that farmer spending a little too much time talking to a passerby? Perhaps he's warning insurgents in the area about troop movements, or maybe he's organizing a weapons transfer later. That's where the 'just-in-time' mentality comes into play. Leaders no longer have to wait for a jury to decide- the 'actions' speak for themselves. So this is the first danger posed by the drones, and I think this is the sort of argument Rand Paul pursued in his filibuster.

      Now a war game wouldn't help you in this situation. But the war game also doesn't presume to have 'surveillance' culture backing up its assumptions in real time. That, for me, is the crux of the situation. With a drone, the rational decision becomes easier to make- even if that rational decision is based on subjective opinions. War Games at least allow a bit of the human element to enter the fray- what is my opponent doing? Why is he moving his troops here? When you have multiple layers to consider, you can't just base your decisions entirely on 'signified' moves.

      I like the idea that MOOC's perform the same cleaving of rationality/metaphysics. There's perhaps more there to be explored.

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. The military's pursuit of massive cuts in PME (Professional Military Education - massive in a relative sense of course, as you point out, it's equal to the cost of a few drones, or at most one fighter) reminds me of nothing so much as trying to lose weight by taking a melon baller to the top of your brain... you can scoop away for a short time, but soon you've forgotten what it was you were trying to do.

    But it's also quite logical to see it happening like this, too: it's easy to do precisely because it costs so little, no Congresscritter is going to fight hard for the jobs at stake at National Defense University (which is in the District of Columbia anyway), the absence of PME in senior officers' brains won't be felt for a while and then only indistinctly, and no one likes a smarty-pants anyhow - wasn't it all this thinking that got them backed into the COIN corner? (which the military is now fleeing as fast as decently possible)

    I would not suggest the US Army is as anti-intellectual as the French Army used to be: Marshal MacMahon (pre-1870) once said that he would never promote any officer who had written a book! Far from it, but there's one more thing, which kind of ties into your final remark on MOOCs: the military probably believes that the knowledge they think they might need will be available from an ever-more-militarized civilian academia, quickly and for a low low price.