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.

Image courtesy of Mr_CRO
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?"

Monday, March 4, 2013

Idea for a Reading Group

(Update: I've created both a website and a discussion forum for this project.  I hope to start around March 18th, so stop by and take a look! - JA)

There's one thing I've noticed recently: my research efforts increasingly turn towards questions of the self and the way we relate to reality and ourselves through the observation of others.  This was one of the points touched upon by David Lyon in his keynote speech at Theorizing the Web, but it has also come up in my recent analysis of Snapchat and my larger dissertation work on the immigration of Russian Old Believers to Oregon in the 1960's.

In the past couple of months, I read through Foucault's last two College de France lecture series- The Government of Self and Others and The Courage of Truth- both of which deal with the notion of parrhesia (frankness, a sense of truth-telling) and how it has evolved over time to suit different needs for different truth regimes.  I think there is a lot of good material here to discuss, not only for the selfish reasons listed above but also for anyone interested in larger questions of how digital technology- through all of its manifestations and infiltrations- affect notions of the self and methods of veridiction of the self sourced through observation/reflection of others.

To that end, I would like to propose forming a reading group to analyze these two lectures-series delivered by Foucault.

I'm still thinking about how it would work, so nothing is set as of yet.  I've used Google Groups before, so that would be my default platform to host a discussion board, but I'm open to any other alternatives.  I would like to take between three to six months to read both books, with my preference being to the latter if only to promote deep, rather than surface, reading.  The larger goal would be to simply discuss the ideas of the lecture and hopefully make some meaningful connections to the diverse disciplines we all study.

For those of you without ready access to these books, I have a workaround that should help anyone out.  Right now I'm gauging interest, so if this sounds like something you would be willing to do let me know either via Twitter (@jsantley) or leave a comment below.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

My Theorizing the Web 2013 Presentation

Here are the slides I used for my Theorizing the Web 2013 presentation: "Creating a Modern Feudal Order".  Feel free to download the slides and listen to the audio track, explaining these slides in greater detail, found below.  If you want to download these slides, you'll need to visit the Slideshare page and click on the 'save' button just above the slides.  There is some ghost writing on slides 3 and 4, which I cannot solve via re-uploading, so if you would like an uncorrupted copy of these slides, get ahold of me on Twitter (@jsantley) or leave a comment below.  The audio track can be downloaded as well.

Data Serfdom in the Modern Age from Jeremy Antley

Update: Below is the rough cut of the Theorizing the Web 'Room B' recording.  Cue up to 43:05 to see my presentation.

Also, the Slideshare above does not include a video clip on slide 20 that I intended to show during my presentation.  Because I was rushed for time, I didn't play it.  However, you can find the clip below.  My point in showing it was to demonstrate how a scene played for pure hilarity in 2003 now has a more sobering meaning for 2013, when one considers the data serf situation.  But it's also still very funny.