Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Future of War: Rosa Brooks smacks down 19th c. industrial era theories about warfare

The promised smackdown arrives. Everyone knows that the character of war changes constantly but that the nature of war is immutable. Why do they know this? Because they were told so at war college. Everyone, that is, except my FP & Future of War teammate Rosa von Brooks. She’s read all the books and she ...

Wikimedia/Foreign Policy
Wikimedia/Foreign Policy

The promised smackdown arrives.

Everyone knows that the character of war changes constantly but that the nature of war is immutable. Why do they know this? Because they were told so at war college.

Everyone, that is, except my FP & Future of War teammate Rosa von Brooks. She's read all the books and she comes away unpersuaded. For example, she writes, "Take cyberwar: Much of what is often spoken of under the 'cyberwar' rubric is not violent in the Clausewitzian sense of the word. Cyberattacks might shut down the New York Stock Exchange and cause untold financial damage, for instance, but would we say that this makes them violent?"

The promised smackdown arrives.

Everyone knows that the character of war changes constantly but that the nature of war is immutable. Why do they know this? Because they were told so at war college.

Everyone, that is, except my FP & Future of War teammate Rosa von Brooks. She’s read all the books and she comes away unpersuaded. For example, she writes, “Take cyberwar: Much of what is often spoken of under the ‘cyberwar’ rubric is not violent in the Clausewitzian sense of the word. Cyberattacks might shut down the New York Stock Exchange and cause untold financial damage, for instance, but would we say that this makes them violent?”

She notes that Clausewitzian strict constructionists will then respond, “You can blather on all you want about cyberwar or financial war, but if what you’re talking about is not both violent and political, it’s just not ‘war,’ but something else.”

Not so fast, she counters. “But there are many other ways to understand and define violence. Consider various forms of psychological torture or abuse. Or consider cyberattacks that lead to loss of life as an indirect result of extended power outages: Why not view such attacks as a form of violence if they lead predictably to loss of life?”

Then Brooks gets all neo-Westphalian on their asses. “It is the state that creates and defines the role of the military…. It is also the state that defines the legal contours of war.” So, for a truly subordinate military, war might be war, but war is what your civilian superiors say it is.

I can’t do the piece justice with this summary, so if you are gonna comment, please read the whole thing first. Brooks, considered by some to be a leading candidate to become the next president of Robot Rights Watch, the cool new NGO, also provides links at the end to some of her other writings.

Meanwhile, two other FPsters have been dishing some good stuff lately.

  • Stephen Walt compiled a list of the 10 biggest mistakes of the Afghan war. This is the best such list I’ve ever seen. (Here’s a weak dissent from someone who doesn’t seem to appreciate the difference between a genuine coalition and a lot of caveated window-dressing.)

And in the Twitty world, I seem to have accumulated 1,000 followers. But a friend of mine tells me they might not all be real. If you are not real, you probably should stop reading this blog.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1

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