03 January 2011

If You Can See Everything, Can You Know Anything?

The American Way of War
If You Can See Everything, Can You Know Anything?

The report, "With Air Force's new drone, 'we can see everything,'" in the 2 January issue of the Washington Post is a good example of how our high-cost addiction to techno war is  running amok.  

One thing ought to be clear in Afghanistan: A tiny adversary armed with the most primitive weapons, and a command and control system made up of prayer rugs and cell phones, has brought the high tech US military to a stalemate ... or even worse, the looming specter a grand-strategic defeat, because we are becoming economically and morally exhausted by the futility of this war.  It does not matter whether it is President Obama presiding over a vapid strategic review or a low ranking grunt on point in Afghanistan -- the central problem facing the United States in Afghanistan is the absence of what the Germans call fingerspitzengefühl -- or the fingertip touch needed for an intuitive feel for or connection with one's environment.   As the American strategist Colonel John Boyd (USAF Ret.) showed, fingerspitzengefühl is absolutely essential to the kind of synthetic (as opposed to analytic) thinking that is necessary for quick, relevant, and ultimately successful decision making in war, where quick decisions and sharp actions at all levels must be made and harmonized in an ever-present  atmosphere of menace, uncertainty, mistrust, fear, and chaos that impedes decisive action.[1]  To paraphrase Clausewitz, these impediments multiply to produce a kind of friction, and therefore, even though everything in war is simple, the simplest thing is difficult.  Clausewitz considered friction is the atmosphere of war.

Nevertheless, according to the Post, the Air Force is about to deploy to Afghanistan a "revolutionary airborne surveillance system called Gorgon Stare, which will be able to transmit live video images of physical movement across an entire town." Quoting Maj. Gen. James O. Poss, the Air Force's assistant deputy chief of staff for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, "Gorgon Stare will be looking at a whole city, so there will be no way for the adversary to know what we're looking at, and we can see everything."  Nirvana.

While the Post dutifully reports a smattering of opposing views, it misses the ramifications of the central idea behind General Poss's confident assertion: namely, how the American ideology of techno war assumes it can negate the human need for fingerspitzengefühl on a battlefield.

General Poss's confident assertions show quite clearly he believes seeing everything enables one to know everything. This a stunning theory of knowledge.  For Poss, there is no room for the shadows in Plato's cave.  His certitude is also a classic example of the American military's unquestioned belief that complex technologies coupled to step-by-step analytical procedures can negate the friction of combat to solve any problem in war.  Lifting the fog of war is, in fact, a phrase used frequently in contractor brochures and books touting the efficacy of these technologies.  This reflects a theory of knowledge -- really an unquestioned ideology -- that views war as fundamentally a procedural problem of methodical analytical thinking, as opposed to being a messy reality that requires in large part an art of synthetic thinking.  In that sense, it reflects a triumph of Decartes over Einstein, of method over imagination, that misses a distinction the great captains and theorists of war have intuitively sensed since the time of Sun Tzu.  Clausewitz, for example, struggled to understand this analytic/synthetic distinction by invoking and defining his humanistic idea of genius as the way to overcome friction.  Clausewitz's idea of genius was inspired by his effort understand Napoleon's art of war.  

Why do I say this?

Since at least the end of WWI, Americans have rigidly adhered to the seductive idea of war being a mechanical procedure.  This belief has its doctrinal roots in the flawed theory of Methodical Battle propounded by the French during WWI and afterword.  It led to the Maginot Line, a techno solution that failed so spectacularly in May 1940.  Over time, the Americans have linked the idea of methodical battle to the even more flawed theory that intelligence, or the ability construct a canonical picture of the battlefield, is simply an mechanistic problem of "connecting the dots."  How many times since 9-11 have you heard or seen that empty phrase?

The see all-know all epistemology leads naturally to the conception of high tech sensor systems being connected to computerized decision-making templates and then coupled to precision guided weapons to quickly kill the high value targets identified by the first two links in the sequential process.  The killing of high value targets (as opposed to defeating the adversary's mind and will to resist), by the tautology inherent in the definition itself, becomes the desired outcome, and therefore reduces to self-referencing formula for victory that can be measured precisely by the attrition of those targets -- and, voilà, the body count returns like phoenix rising from the ashes of Vietnam.   

The logical simplicity and self-referencing nature of this conception make for a fabulously successful marketing pitch that takes the form of a modern reincarnation of the Cretan Paradox.  That is, it becomes impossible to distinguish a priori between truth and falsehood of a self-referencing statement made by a Cretan when he says 'all Cretans are liars," unless one appeals outside the framework of the logic.  But in the case of defense technologies, it is almost impossible to non-experts to appeal outside the parameters of the self-referencing argument, because they are intimidated by the complexity of the abstraction and the authority of the faux science invoked to justify it.

That this kind of mechanistic self-referential thinking is now deeply embedded in the semi-concious substrata of our military mindset becomes quite evident when we hear self-styled civilian grand-strategists, like Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, cite platitudes about actionable intelligence, connecting the dots, and a counter-terrorism strategy focused on killing high-value targets to measure success.  George W. Bush took the absurdity to an incredible low with his silly deck of cards having faces of terrorist claimed to be the high value targets -- simply removing the cards from the deck became a metaphor for the formula for victory.  

Think about how preposterous the situation has become:  It is well established by the Defense Department's Inspector General and the General Accounting Office of Congress that the Air Force leadership (among others) can not even construct a straight forward auditing system to accurately account for the the hundred of billions of dollars the taxpayer gives it to spend (such an accounting is an absolute requirement of the Constitution, which every Air Force officer has taken a sacred oath to preserve and protect).  Yet the Washington Post is telling us the Air Force would have the taxpayer believe that it can spend more of the taxpayer's money to buy technologies that will permit the Air Force to perform the far more difficult task of seeing, accounting for, and understanding everything on an ever-changing chaotic battlefield.  Moreover, in this case, it is a battlefield where we face a wily adversary who, armed with primitive weapons and command and control technologies, has already brought the huge expensive hi-tech, "see all-know all" American war machine to a stalemate!

Of course, the driving factor in this madness has nothing to do with the disconnect between the military mind and its battlefield.  That mind is focused elsewhere.  The central fact is that the fallacies of techno-war are highly profitable for defense contractors.  Moreover, given the revolving door, with its lucrative opportunities for post-retirement employment (see Brian Bender's stunning report, From the Pentagon to the private sector, Boston Globe, 26 December 2010), it is easy to see why few generals or colonels have an incentive to criticize these fallacies while on active duty.  That these technologies do not produce success on the battlefield is of little importance to the real strategy of "don't interrupt the money flow," even when,  as is now clearly now the case in Afghanistan, the American military faces a low-cost, lightly armed, but competent adversary who appreciates the nature of his environment and has a zealous strength of will to resist.

Only in America, poised on the twin precipices of economic bankruptcy and cultural meltdown, has it become natural for such preposterous logic to proceed unchecked by common sense.
[1] A brief summary to Boyd theory of decision cycles (the OODA loop) in war and why it is important can be found here. Biographies with more extensive discussions can be found here and here, and Boyd's original briefings describing how to evolve an organic design for command and control to play the strategic game (i.e., including how to understand, build, and exploit a sense of fingerspitzengefühl) can be downloaded here and here.