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Scientific Narratives and Regime Changes

I greatly enjoyed reading The Scientific Way of Warfare. Bousquet has done a stellar job of crossing large and varied terrains of history as well as plumbing the depths of some fascinating detail, all the while remaining on a sure theoretical footing. I will be certain to draw on it in my own writing. What follows are a few disjointed observations and reactions I had to reading this text and the burgeoning discussion taking place at CTlab.

In Bousquet’s military history, the message is the predominant tool of the day: scientific practices, distilled into the heuristic devices / technological artefacts of clock, engine, computer, and network, become metaphors and foundations for theories of warfare. This tendency of humans to speak about war as analogous to their most sophisticated technologies is also found in historical ideas about the brain (i.e. described as a catapult by the ancient Greeks, a hydraulic or electromagnetic system by Freud and, as Bousquet shows, a computer or a cybernetic process by von Neuman and Wiener (pp.112-115). What all of this demonstrates is the plasticity of the human and war. But how do these stages relate to each other? What causes the switch from one ‘regime of the scientific way of warfare’ to another?

I think it is important to note that the application of scientific practices to warfare also exists as a highly profitable industry and a rhetorical space. In this regard, it fulfils a significant economic function that helps drive it, as well as an ideological role (motivating cadres) which stabilizes it. I agree with Tony Waters that Bousquet seems to be in the excellent company of Weber here. One of his lines of thought I appreciate the most is that rationalisation is a belief and a fundamental attitude to the world. For our case, this would mean that the use of scientific methods in warfare does not automatically translate into dominance on the battlefield, but rather into a belief of that dominance. When this dominance is not forthcoming (Prussia after Napoleon, US after Korea, US after Vietnam, after Iraq?) this encounter with the real spawns a renewed, radicalized turn to scientific practices. Hence, a principle at the heart of the repeated importation of scientific ideas into warfare is the disappointment of earlier scientific ideas and while, as Bousquet so elegantly shows, the new practices informing warfare are chaoplexic, I believe that this fundamental attitude and expectation remains. In our strategic discourses today, the ‘network’ functions as both epistemology and ontology and is expected to deliver military dominance. When this is not achieved the explanation offered is that one is not sufficiently networked. Once this argument is exhausted, there will be a push for a new regime.

Rex Brynen makes an excellent point when he writes of Hizbullah’s actions in Lebanon that "In some ways what was new about this was how very old it was." As in any periodization which weds warfare to scientific progress, persistent (old) forms of warfare can easily be overlooked. While it is a fantastic device to view military ages through subsequent regimes, as Bousquet himself writes, elements of past regimes remain (p.238). To understand contemporary warfare, we either need to place these regimes into a sequence of evolution (which would firmly situate us in a bio-scientific regime), read them all in conjunction, or view them as a conceptual toolbox for understanding conflict today. Either way, focussing on only one regime for one period makes it difficult to observe some unexpected phenomena, such as that the Wehrmacht (that symbol of mechanized force) was greatly reliant on horses in WW2 (it assembled 625,000 for the invasion of the Soviet Union)[1], or that the most effective strategy can be a very old one (van Ripper at Millennium Challenge 2002). These are points at which hegemonic ‘scientific regimes of warfare’ break down and can lead to historical oversight or exploitation.

As we know from Eyal Weizman, amongst others, the discourse and practice of swarming has been innovated and employed rigorously by the IDF in urban environments. In what is more than ironic, Deleuze and Guattari aren’t just a theoretical springboard for Bousquet’s fascinating book, but are also referenced by some of the very strategists (Brigadier General Aviv Kochavi and Shimon Naveh) who have designed some of these modern practices of urban warfare (i.e. ‘walking through walls’)[2]. In what another regime might term a ‘feedback loop’, modern intellectual trends (be they scientific or Deleuzian) aren’t just part of our ‘regimes’ of warfare, but also part of our very efforts at comprehending them

Josef Ansorge is the Editor-in-Chief of the Cambridge Review of International Affairs and a PhD student at the Centre of International Studies at the University of Cambridge.


[1] David Edgerton, The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History since 1900 (London: Profile Books, 2008), p.35.

[2] Eyal Weizman, Hollow Land: Israel's Architecture of Occupation (London & New York: Verso, 2007), pp.187-201.