Ghost Fleet: a book review

F35 on training flight. Wikicommons. U.S. Navy ID number ID 110211-O-XX000-001
F35 on training flight. Wikicommons. U.S. Navy ID number  110211-O-XX000-001

P.W. Singer and August Cole have written a techno-thriller based on a Chinese invasion of Hawaii, in a strange replay of Pearl Harbor. As with Tom Clancy’s work, there are multiple points of view, moral black and whites, and the technology is at times as much of a star as the main characters. Yet this work creates a pessimistic twist to Clancy’s upbeat vision. In Ghost Fleet America’s reliance on technology makes the country so vulnerable to attack that it must draw (spoiler alert) on irregular warfare tactics that its armed forces learned fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq.

There is a contradiction within this work. At times some scenes come across as unrealistic, and the analysis of international politics seems simplistic. Some plot devices, (another spoiler alert) such as the discovery of new resources leading to a surprise invasion, are so common in the genre as to be exhausted. In contrast, the focus on technology is all too convincing, and this detailed look at possible scenarios for future warfare (the book has extensive endnotes) is fascinating. The work is also carefully plotted, and the climax is deftly handled. …

War and the limits of theory

Image of the Persian Gulf from the CIA World Factbook
Image of the Persian Gulf from the CIA World Factbook

This week an anonymous author wrote a brief article in the New York Review of Books that is attracting a lot of attention. All that we know about the writer is that they have worked as an official in a “NATO country” and that they have a great deal of experience in the Middle East. The central idea of the piece is that our current social science theories utterly fail to explain the rise of ISIS in Iraq and Syria. As the author argues, there is a rich literature on guerrilla warfare, which is based on more than a century of experience. ISIS has violated everyone of these rules -don’t engage in fixed position warfare; don’t violate the social norms in the communities in which you exist- and yet ISIS still moves from success to success against vastly greater forces.

Like most observers, the author of this piece has been stunned both by the sheer speed of ISIS’s success, and its ability to change the rules of the game. The author makes the point that observers often assume that what is needed is more information, but perhaps that is not the case. Maybe the real problem is our analytical frameworks. Maybe we don’t know what we thought we know. Certainly, the complete failure of U.S. policy in Iraq raises questions about every aspect of U.S. counter-insurgency doctrine. Of course, one could also point to the deeply flawed rationale for the invasion of Iraq in the first place. Still, perhaps the conceptual problem is even larger than this, and speaks to the overall weakness of social science theories as they are applied to the region. The author makes the point that to see an equally stunning success against all expectations you might have to look to the Vandal conquest of North Africa in the dying days of the Roman Empire. This is an engaging analogy, although historians might quibble with the need to reach so deeply into the past. Even so, the larger point is that our current social science models governing what are sometimes called “small wars” don’t seem to be working well to understand this current conflict.

One might question whether our understanding of small wars is to Eurocentric. Still, most of the authors of foundational texts -Mao, Ho Chi Minh and Che Guevara- were not Western. A counter-argument might be that ISIS may yet collapse as quickly as it emerged on the scene. Perhaps ISIS appears to be rewriting the rules only because there has not been enough time for it to pay the price for violating them. Perhaps ISIS has not yet had enough time to fail, and its collapse will be as quick as its rise. Still, if ISIS continues to thrive over the next few years, then the author is correct that something fundamental is wrong with our understanding of these conflicts. In that case, theorists and strategists will need to fundamentally question everything about our current understanding of irregular warfare.

If you are interested in the theory of war, I strongly recommend Ann Hironaka’s Neverending WarsI used the book in my “Foundations of Global Studies Theory” class, as a key security studies text. I am often frustrated by much of the existing literature in security studies, which still overemphasizes conventional conflict, and relies too much on Realism as a theoretical approach. In an era of terrorist organizations, cyber-warfare, Anonymous, and drug cartels, much of this theoretical literature is in danger of becoming dusty. Hironaka’s work is interesting because it focuses on civil war, the dominant form of conflict in the world today, and draws on insights from Sociology. Her central argument is that the international community unintentionally propagates these conflicts, an idea that is relevant to many existing conflicts globally.

Shawn Smallman, Portland State University

The Christmas Truce of 1914

I follow a number of blogs in Latin America, of which my favorite is Historias Inesperadas by Daniel Balmaceda, who focuses on the unexpected aspects of Argentina’s past, from the first parachute jump in Latin America, to the early life of San Martin. As the nights grow longer in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s good to have a positive story to think about. So I loved this video clip on the blog, which tells the story of the Christmas Truce of 1914, through the song “All Together Now,” by the Farm in 1990. As the First World War entered its first winter, German and British troops declared an unofficial truce in the trenches of Belgium, during which they fraternized, shared cigarettes, and played soccer. The officer corps on both sides were horrified by the outbreak of peace, and managed to prevent this truce from happening again. The pictures with this version of the video are evocative, and although you probably don’t need the subtitles in Spanish, they suggest how this story has inspired people in many countries. To watch the video scroll down until the subtitle “Tregua de Navidad” here.

Shawn Smallman

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