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Monday
08Dec

An Historian's Concerns

I finally got to Antoine’s paper last night. Once I’d read it, it was evident that the important chapter to read in the book must be chapter 7, and that had to wait till this morning. What I’d like to have done, after the reading, was to have sent a naïve comment and then read the rest of the tariff before responding more fully. Instead, time constraints mean that it will probably be just the first of these: meetings loom all afternoon.

A number of things struck me.

One was how very anglospheric this debate seems to be. There are others who have pondered the interactions of technology and military affairs, not least Paul Virilio. This might be forgiven on the ground that only the US really matters; but the burden of the argument is that this may not remain true for long unless they abandon their attempts to harness decentralization, networked warfare, etc. to an all-powerful and all-seeing high command.

Secondly, Antoine shows historical sensitivity as he lays out the basic taxonomy: clock, engine, etc. This is also evident in his reading of Clausewitz. Yet to be reminded of the pendulum between three magnets is to be made aware that the essence of the problem addressed here has long been intuited, and I’m not sure that those using analogies and terminology drawn from those working with chaos and complexity in the natural world gets us very much further. None of us can do the maths. In any case Antoine makes it very clear that he is not interested in the direct applications of complexity (e.g. to weapons systems) but to the absorption of these ideas – imperfectly as it turns out – into US doctrine. This reaction is, of course, that of a historian, mouthing one of the historians’ mantras: nothing new under the sun. And I accept that Antoine does make the case that there is something new here, namely the temptation to combine increased channels of information and information-processing capacity with operational (or do I mean tactical) decentralization (p. 233).

Still, here’s another historian’s gripe. Antoine’s main worry is that US military folk think they are learning the lessons of the chaoplexic era but are in fact holding tight to the Cold War desire for total oversight (topsight!). I suspect he’s right. But a tactic that might have been used to good effect here is to have exposed the extremely brief time during which centralized control was ever thought possible and to associate it more firmly with modernity in general (not only with technology). Here part of the story of the inception of control-fantasy is to be sought in the later nineteenth century, in the expectations aroused by telegraphy and the ensuing disappointments. Corelli Barnett (1970, 330) thought that the telegraph put an end to the operational autonomy of field commanders but von Moltke (after the 1866 campaign) realized that the telegraph was not much use for controlling commanders, but could be used effectively to monitor developments, press home advantages or compensate for weaknesses that resulted from unprecedentedly independent tactical initiatives (Van Creveld 1985, 145-6). It was only later that the German Chief of Staff were seduced by the mirage of total control and surveillance into a disastrous attempt to direct operations from Luxembourg, far to the rear of their lines (Van Creveld 1985, 153-5). In short, the German army had form on this one before the US army was much more than embryonic.

More down-to-earth and present-day: there is a fixation here with land power to the neglect of naval and air warfare. Is that the pattern of US military thinking, Antoine’s selectivity, or my misreading, I wonder?

Another thing: where does all this leave those responsible for procurement. I’m told the Eurofighter will have to last into the forties of the present century. Hm! And isn’t the whole argument too concerned, perhaps, with battlefield tactics rather than grand strategy?

Stray thoughts, all.

If the next meeting is shorter than I fear, I’ll be back to read the traffic that’s built up over the weekend. If not, further apologies and congratulations on a stimulating text and an interesting way of launching it.

Charles Jones is Reader in International Relations at the Centre of International Studies, Cambridge University, and the author of several books, including The Logic of Anarchy (1993, with Barry Buzan and Richard Little), E.H Carr and International Relations (1998), and American Civilization (2007).