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Brave new war

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Author John Robb calls it by several names, “4th generation war”, “open source war” and, in the title of the book, Brave New War. What he is talking about is the new kind of violence that we see being born in Afghanistan and Iraq, in Palestine and Western cities. The point is that now with enhanced and sped-up networks of information, money, goods and people, the ability to do damage and be violent is also trickling down to the hands of individuals and small groups. The nation state loses its monopoly on violence, as means of causing destruction are developed and disseminated in an “open source” manner. Spectacularly, Robb claims that we are close to a time when an individual can open war on an entire state – and win.

This is not the stuff of science fiction, even though Robb’s tect keeps reminding me of the social landscape pictures in Ken MacLeod’s superb Star Fraction. The success of Hizbollah against the Israeli army in Lebanon is commonly cited as one striking example of the change under way. But Robb wants us to notice other, less publicised phenomena as well. Bands of partly competing, partly co-operating militia, tribes and guerilla bands are successfully taking the nation state down not only in Iraq or Afghanistan, but also in Mexico, Nigeria and elsewhere. The tricky bit is that this “trickle-down” is caused by exactly the same thing that all the nation states want: globalization. So Robb insists that we are stuck with “open source war” and the sooner we modify our thinking of security, the better. The centralised and hierarchical security structures of the states can only get us so far.

So what characterises this new type of war? Not airforce, not massive manpower, not MAD, but rather quick, efficient and rapidly mutating attacks on crucial points (“systempunkt”, Robb calls them) of the infrastructure (electric grid, oil pipes, refineries, roads, bridges, etc.), causing cascading failures and growing chaos. The chilling fact is that the economy of these attacks is on the side of the guerillas: blowing up an oil pipe takes less than 5 men, less than 5000 dollars, but can cause damage in the hundreds of millions. That is quite an unbeliavable “Return of Investment”, which is only made more palatable by the fact that typically the attackers do not get caught and can continue the next day. It doesn’t take much imagination to see how a determined group of people – even though relatively small – could wreack considerable havoc by taking down parts of the infrastructure that is crucial to almost every part of modern life.

More than anything else, this book helped me understand what is going on in the conflicts around the globe these days. I’m not sure it is a great book in the way it is written: typically in short chapters discussing the work of one thinker, fututologist, economist, strategist or other. But the content and the claims are extremely valuable, and gems of insight abound in page after page.

Robb has a lively and informative blog at http://globalguerrillas.typepad.com/ where he reports and comments on contemporary phenomena of “brave new war”.

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