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Universal Paradoxes?

Hi Antoine. I read your interview, and the introduction and conclusions to your book. Congratulations on completing an interesting and engaging book which analyzes the changes warfare has undergone in recent centuries. As a sociologist, I find myself wondering about the contrast between Max Weber's descriptions of the hyper-rationalized world which as you point out, is at the heart of war and science, as well as modern life in general. Weber is no fan of the human qualities of such organizational structures, but does go on to note that nevertheless, they are the best way known to organize complex tasks, including the military. As you said, this creates a paradox for planners who always seek to control, and the inherently unpredictable nature of the battlefield, modern or otherwise.

Two questions come to mind. First, I'm wondering about how much this paradox is all that unique to the conduct of war. Isn't it really part and parcel of the modern condition? This was the conclusion of Weber, and in a slightly different fashion that of political scientist James Scott in his book Seeing Like a State. I think that the problem might be that no matter how diffuse or networked authority may be in a military operation, it is still part of the rationalized bureaucratic structures which organize modern government everywhere. The impulse is, as a result, always to centralize more authority higher up the line of command in order to avoid the free-lancing (and corruption) that occurs when such controls are relaxed; indeed this is why audits are so important in big organizations, especially states.

A second related question is about the nature of modern insurgency. Modern insurgency does require some level of command and control. 9/11 may have been cheap compared to what the American military costs, but coordination across the world was still needed to make sure that (at a minimum) nineteen men all got on the right planes at the right time. But I wonder if there is something fundamentally different in the type of command and control developed by a diffuse non-state organization like Al Qaeda, which makes modern bureaucratically organized societies peculiarly vulnerable to this type of insurgency? As you write, one potential response is to adapt the insurgency technique, and delegate the capacity to negotiate with tribal leaders to officers and soldiers ever lower on the organizational chart. I can see Al Qaeda doing this because fairly small amounts of money are involved, and while I am sure that they have corruption, too, they are not as vulnerable as a large modern bureaucracy. Anyway, these are just musings, and I look forward to your comments.

Tony Waters is Associate Professor of Sociology at California State University, Chico, and the author of When Killing is a Crime (2007) and Bureaucratizing the Good Samaritan: The Limitations of Humanitarian Relief Operations (2001). He blogs at Ethnography.com.

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