Book Review: Brave New War

Victory smiles upon those who anticipate the changes in the character of war, not upon those who wait to adapt themselves after the changes occur. –Giulio Douhet

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True to his word, John Robb’s Brave New War takes the reader on a fast and wild ride into what he calls the “next stage of terrorism and the end of globalization.”

I found Brave New War compelling and an interesting read, but I did not find it to be ground breaking, finding myself in agreement with James Fallows, who closes his foreword with a caveat:

I don’t agree with every one of the perspectives and recommendations offered here, and I expect many readers will find areas where they differ from Robb. But I am very glad to have read this book, and I expect others will be, too.

I’m with Fallows, and since I’m not writing a foreword, I’ll go further in my critique. If you want to read praise for the book, see the pages of my blogosphere colleagues (see list at bottom). Many have a much more positive take on the book and some have questions stemming from the book’s shortcomings, so take what you will from my review, as if it were a buffet.

Brave New War is ultimately about tactics, not strategy. It is a book about what is and suggestions on trajectories without getting into the messy business of “Why” or anything resembling an analysis of cause and effect that might support, or the more likely, reject his trajectories. From his perspective, they just are, accept it.

If Brave New War was about strategy, then we would have read more about why bad things are happening and who supports the bad guys. But that’s messy, would have made the book bigger, ultimately making for a more complex narrative. Brave New War is about how attacks happen with the “why” mostly only applied to target selection. Much of his recommendations and comments on defenses and vulnerabilities belie this point. To his defense, this tactical view conforms with his profession and training as a counter-terrorist. Counter-terrorism is largely reactive, and rarely proactive, addressing the roots of threats. Counter-terrorism in this sense, as Brave New War tells us, focuses on preventing the attack, not getting at the foundation of motive and support. It does not consider how networks behind the threats build thrive, they just exist and use technology to get better and reach out to one another. There is a difference.

On the strategic side, Fallows’, in his foreword and a quote Robb uses later in the book, speaks to the importance of understanding action-reaction. This is, unfortunately, a largely absent concept in Robb’s analysis and his recommendations, save from the tactical matching I mentioned before. Robb tells a little something about who we are “fighting” and a lot about how some of them are fighting, but missing is the most critical question: Why?

When Robb does go into the Why, he, like William Lind and Martin van Creveld who he cites and builds upon, oversimplifies motivations and goals to the extent of ignoring fundamental realities. Not all groups he builds his case on seek to “hollow out” the state. These little details tell us how threats grow and expand and how to shut them down. The details show that in many, if not most, of Robb’s cases it isn’t an attempt to bring down the state or hollow it out, but by a variety of reasons that built up over time. The Why is messy business and he chooses to ignore the causes behind the guerrilla movement, leading to his own catastrophic superempowerment of groups in his examples.

Take his brief discussion on MEND for example. Here is a group seeking to have resources reinvested locally, as well as pollution controls and other issues related to quality of life. The regional autonomy Tom Ashby notes they seek, as Robb quotes, is simply not “hollowing out the state”. Robb’s analysis here makes me wonder if the debates in California twenty or twenty-five years ago wouldn’t be a guerrilla movement to hollow out the state. Back then, north and south were both upset at the balance of payments to the respective regions, each feeling they were in some way carrying an unfair burden of supporting the other. There was talk of splitting the Golden State into two. Would this conflict over resources, with locals seeking greater autonomy be an attempt to hollow out the state? Was it not because there wasn’t a kinetic act?

The overemphasis on hollowing out the state, or his sometimes incongruent flop on destroying the state, does not conform to his examples. Bringing in the details behind many of his examples would give a different trajectory than his theory provides. Instead his snapshot provides the data he needs. This practice of using snapshots, or oversimplifying complex realities, is demonstrated in his application of “fourth generation warfare”. A theory that leads him to state “the emergence of the Minutemen is a good indication that the nation-state is in decline, even within its strongest member”. I won’t get into the history of the US and its militia movements, or the uniqueness of American nationalism that prevents realistic lumping together with others as he does, but I will ask if in the 20th Century how would he characterize the Los Angeles City Police Department turning away Okies and others at the California State border, hundreds of miles away from the city, in the 1930s? Is that an example of hollowing out the state? These are municipal authorities sure, empowered by local citizens, operating outside and against the laws of the United States Government. Perhaps I’m cherry-picking, but so is Robb in his examples.

In the foreword, James Fallows raised the issues of American, and implicitly Western, culpability, in creating and empowering the guerillas in his discussion on the importance of information and the legitimacy that derives from information about actions, such as Abu Ghraib and previously admired US Constitutional protections. Fallows also notes the impact of American strategies on uniting our enemies, rather than the more effective goal of dividing them. Both assessments are only found in the foreword but are essential points to understand when attempting to counter threats. Cause and effect really only comes into the book when talking about guerrilla actions. It’s hard to make recommendations when analyzing the enemy’s (and sometimes they aren’t really enemies even if he describes them as such) impact on our support systems yet ignoring their own support systems.

Why people do things is essential. What mobilizes them and their support base is critical to understanding how to deal with Robb’s guerrillas. However, discussion of the support base ignored by Robb. Instead, analysis is essentially a slice in time. Al-Zarqawi is a “great communicator”, buying into the myth of his deep power that was largely the result of our own empowerment of the now-deceased thug. Not until the last quarter of the book, when discussing Hamas, does he broach the support systems of the guerrillas. Why guerrillas find just enough, if not overwhelming, support to survive, including why they fight, is insufficiently discussed when raised at all. 

The need to understand the why is important too in the details of how. While I think the analogy of the bazaar is a great contribution for visualizing and understanding how small actors will aggregate for certain purposes, even those at cross purposes (not a new idea), even his description of Open Source Warfare, with his example of Linux and Apache fails to consider cause and effect. I won’t waste time or space here going into the evolution of Microsoft to Micro$oft and its impact on developers and users, or the different ways Microsoft fostered development on its platforms and Apple did not (unless you were a Hypercard developer, things weren’t as easy), but suffice to say, even in the world of Open Source it’s useful to know Why.

Ultimately, the power of information, critical to support and longevity of a group and implied in his “global guerrilla”, is woefully incomplete. Increased asymmetry of warfare with guerrillas using tools and tactics to hold big states like the United States at bay, ironically finds information operations actually decreasing this asymmetry, if used effectively. Fallows does more than hint at this. Groups, organizations, and states can influence policy through the mobilization of support or resistance on the basis of information. The internet and global media provides the ability to reach a broad deterritorialized audience of an increasing number of groups whose membership may not be based on religion but possibly ideology, religion, or socio-economic beliefs and whose members may join without initiation or leave without penalty. The result is an increase in power of associations, regardless of their size or shape, and likely virtual in their primary form. These groups learn from and use global information sharing to connect with or emulate other groups to satisfy their desire to belong or need to act against perceived injustice. This is the bazaar, but with details lacking in the book.

Information asymmetry reduces the fungibility of hard power assets. The cost of bullets and bombs has increased as the accessibility and availability of camera phones, blogs, instant messaging, and global media has increased. Whereas a bullet can have a very short life, the information life cycles may prolong the impact of the bullet much longer. Robb’s assumption that global media imposes a “moral” restraint assumes a degree of independence and penetration, especially in the US, that’s stretches reality. The media goes along with the message until it finds someone to disagree, otherwise there’s no story. Fact.

While I think Brave New War is an interesting read, if you want to learn about full-spectrum warfare, read Unrestricted Warfare. For a read on strategy in the modern world of guerrillas, read Uncomfortable Wars Revisited. If you want to know more about cause and effect, read Utility of Force. For something more on how to grow an insurgency, or a guerrilla movement, read Imperial Life in the Emerald City.

In conclusion, while the book is worthy reading, it fails not only to see the forest from the trees, but it fails to look at what is happening at ground level, around the roots and in the soil. If we understand, or at least acknowledge, these details, victory may smile upon us as we start to understand the future of conflict and the impact of globalization. For the counterterrorist, this is a useful book. For a holistic view, it is at best interesting.

See other reviews by my blogger colleagues:

6 thoughts on “Book Review: Brave New War

  1. Hey. Very interesting.”the need to understand the why..”
    That’s a radical concept.
    I was looking up something else and found you, ain’t the internets great.

  2. Sir, I am glad to have finally located you. I have, upon occasion, come upon books where the foreword is actually mis-titled as “Forward”. I have abhorred such things since I was a small child; they are a sign that the universe might not, after all, be completely rational. How do people who do not know how to spell the name of one of the main components of a book correctly nevertheless manage to get one published? It is an abomination.

    I have now found, “in the wild”, so to speak, a scrivener who appears to consistently misspell this word, and who is readily available for my electronic correction. Sir, the word is Foreword, not “Forward”.

    Ermm… thank you for this opportunity to finally speak out on this matter. Would you like to hear my entire list of literary horrors? No…I thought not.

  3. “I will ask if in the 20th Century how would he characterize the Los Angeles City Police Department turning away Okies and others at the California State border, hundreds of miles away from the city, in the 1930s?”I was unaware of this. Could you say more?

  4. Just Google for details. From PBS:

    1936 February
    Los Angeles Police Chief James E. Davis sends 125 policemen to patrol the borders of Arizona and Oregon to keep “undesirables” out. As a result, the American Civil Liberties Union sues the city.

    For a longer narrative see this:

    Until 1941 states felt free to restrict interstate mobility, focusing that power, when they used it, on the poor. To discourage indigents from crossing state lines, many states maintained tough vagrancy laws and required many years of residence of those applying for public assistance. California had been especially hostile to poor newcomers. In 1936, the Los Angeles police department established a border patrol, dubbed the “Bum Blockade,” at major road and rail crossings for the purpose of turning back would-be visitors who lacked obvious means of support. Withdrawn in the face of threatened law suits, this border control effort was followed by a less dramatic but more serious assault on the right of interstate mobility. California’s Indigent Act, passed in 1933, made it a crime to bring indigent persons into the state. In 1939 the district attorneys of several of the counties most affected by the Dust Bowl influx began using the law in a very public manner. More than two dozen people were indicted, tried, and convicted. Their crime: helping their relatives move to California from Oklahoma and nearby states. The prosecutions were challenged by the ACLU which pushed the issue all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. In 1941 the court issued a landmark decision (Edwards v. California) ruling that states had no right to restrict interstate migration by poor people or any other Americans.

    Or check any text on the Dust Bowl and Westward migration.

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