September 1, 2009 | Commentary on National Security and Defense, Internet And Technology

Renaming War Once More

Two veterans of the international think-tank community, Thomas Rid and Marc Hecker, have interwoven several themes to offer their vision of modern conflict. War 2.0: Irregular Warfare in the Information Age strings together the topics of insurgencies, terrorism, social networking (the conglomeration of online tools from Twitter on down, often called Web 2.0) and information warfare. All of these topics converge in cyberspace, which for Rid and Hecker is the new center of gravity for political violence and conflict.

War 2.0 includes a smattering of history--what the authors call War 1.0. They then contrast the past with a survey of contemporary events to describe how conflict in the modern age is different--their War 2.0. In short, they argue that the Internet offers an asymmetry that nonstate actors can exploit--the web evens the odds in competing with states.

The heart of War 2.0, however, is a series of case studies that delve into how states and nonstates act online. The states assessed include the United States, Great Britain and Israel. The nonstates are the Taliban, al Qaeda and Hezbollah.

War 2.0 does chronicle much of what is happening online these days. That story, however, can be found in lots of places, and in many cases, it is told far better elsewhere. For understanding social networking, for example, a far superior book is Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations by Clay Shirky. Shirky does a better job than most of making sense out of what nice and not-so-nice people are doing with social networking. In addition, the story of Web 2.0 and conflict is constantly gaining new material--what we think is outdated almost as soon as we think it. The experiences of the Iranian election protests, for example, are an important new chapter in the story, but folks were just going to the polls in Tehran as War 2.0 was landing on the shelf.

Beyond surveying what is taking place on the web, what Rid and Hecker have to offer is problematic: a reconceptualization of conflict that lacks much intellectual heft. To say the nature of modern war is changing is to say almost nothing. The conduct of war is always evolving to accommodate changes in how humans compete. Technology, cultural norms, social conventions--they move on. And there is always a cottage industry for slapping a new name on war. The term of art today is hybrid wars. All this is silliness and advertising.

Arguing for significant shifts in the nature of conflict requires grounding in a theory of war--some kind of explanatory model that's powerful enough to explain behaviors and predict future outcomes. War 2.0 falls seriously short on that count.

The case studies are a little more helpful--but not much. Looking at how social networking affects the conduct of conflict is an important question. The first wave of writings on war in the Information Age overwhelmingly focused on how militaries would use computers to network themselves and gain "situational" awareness. Now, it's rightly time to look at what happens when everybody else does that.

In that regard, the notion of conducting case studies is a good one. A series of case studies is great for establishing clear patterns or identifying unique situations.

Unfortunately, the case studies chosen for looking at conflict in the Information Age "up close" are pretty uninteresting. Rid and Hecker opt for easy targets that don't really give a feel for the depth and breadth of what is occurring online.

Comparatively speaking, the U.S., British and Israeli militaries have more in common than those of most nations. Looking at three of the same is boring. Even Israel is not much of an outlier--though it is a Middle Eastern country, it has some of the highest levels of Internet use in the world. Online, in fact, Israel looks like a smaller America. The one country that really ought to be in the survey is China, a huge country with massive use of the Internet and massive control of that use. Iran is interesting as well, with lower Internet use and lots of online controls, but also a lively cyberspace due in part to a web-savvy Iranian diaspora. Likewise, the nonstate case studies are three of a kind. More interesting would have been some contrasting groups, such as nongovernmental groups battling extremism online.

With little grounding in a compelling theory and a lazy collection of case studies, the book falls short of doing anything really meaty and interesting.

It is not surprising that the conclusions and recommendations are brief, sophomoric and simplistic.

James Jay Carafano is Senior Research Fellow in national security policy at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

James Jay Carafano, Ph.D. Vice President for the Kathryn and Shelby Cullom Davis Institute for National Security and Foreign Policy, and the E. W. Richardson Fellow

First Appeared in Army Magazine