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The QDR, the Theater of War, and Building a Better Rat-Trap

James Der Derian
University of Massachusetts, Amherst
June 1997

In many ways, the Quadrennial Review (QDR) is the latest effort of the United States' Department of Defense (DOD) to square the global circle - to make order, security, and perhaps even peace possible in a time of great transformations. Or in the opening words of the Review, to create a model of "potential threats, strategy, force structure, readiness posture, military modernization programs, defense infrastructure, and other elements of the defense program" for the "new and constantly changing security environment" and "the rapid rate of change in the world". The professed aim of the QDR is "to provide a blueprint for a strategy-based, balanced, and affordable defense program". But this blueprint is so out of whack with the world - where the top ten list of other countries' defense budgets do not add up to the United States' - that one begins to suspect that the Pentagon has come to prefer their blueprints, models, simulations and wargames of old to the realities of the new.

Others have rightly pointed out, that at a time when we have been deprived of enemies of equal capabilities and will, all this security seems to come at a disproportionately high, perhaps dangerously high cost. Can all these new weapon systems, especially the high expenditure in smart and brilliant technology, information warfare, and next-generation avionics, keep us safe? Make the world more peaceful? Even perhaps, bring more justice to international relations? Unfortunately, the QDR never makes the link between the new strategic considerations, technological capabilities, and ethical implications of a post-Cold War world. It operates with assumptions from the past, especially the premises of the Bottom-Up Review, that the most important need is to be ready to fight and defeat at least two major enemies simultaneously. Critics have questioned whether this is a rational defense policy. It certainly is not if we conceive of rationality in the traditional sense, as some level of proportionality between means and ends. Great gaps are opening up between the laymen's and the DOD's perception of global threats, as well as between the budgetary requirements and the warfighting strategies of the QDR.

But critics of the QDR must at least consider whether there is some method to this madness, as in the days when the DOD claimed that the model of nuclear deterrence required the ability to obliterate an enemy not once, not twice, but many times over. We need to read the QDR between the lines, and behind the lines. Critics of defense policies, like generals, often fight the last war. A criticism which focuses on the disjunction between the plan and the reality it models is possibly missing the point. What if the plan is intentionally irrational? If it is designed to over-determine outcomes, to over-represent enemies, in the way of non-conventional theories of deterrence and compellence?

Perhaps it would be better to view the QDR as a theater of war. Granted, it is not as immediately bloody, and it its pure excess more often comedic than tragic, than the "real" theater of war. But in an age of live-feeds, photo-opportunities, and information war, the battelfield has gone through all kinds of displacements. What this requires of the critic is to treat seriously the plotting of distant threats, the staging of military forces, the character development of rogue states, and the rhetorical skills of the QDR salesmen, from the Secretary of Defense down to the Public Affiars Officer. Criticisms based on the a model of a one-to-one correspondence to reality begin to seem... out of date. New critical questions and possible counter-strategies are suggested. What image of the world is the Quadrennial Review trying to represent? To what dramatic ends? Are they ends that are compatible with democratic, pluralistic values? And if not, what kind of counter-rhetorics, counter-staging, counter-plots must the critic try to produce? Here I can only offer a snap-shot, rather than a full production, of a possible critique. It takes aim at what I believe to be one of the most important prologues to the QDR.

This last March, with the QDR already overdue, the new US Secretary of Defense William Cohen left the Pentagon for a trip to the high Mojave Desert, to watch EXFOR (Experimental Forces) take on OPFOR (Opposing Forces) at the National Training Center. In a wargame designed to anticipate conflict in the 21st century, a brigade from Fort Hood, Texas, "digitized" with portable computers, satellite link-ups, and networked sensors, fought to a draw against the "Krasnovians," the local, lower-tech troops playing the role of the last of the Soviet military tribe. Cohen's remarks about the exercise were less than articulate, but his message for the future came through loud and clear:

Today, we all have seen the future of warfare... I think what you're seeing here is a revolution in military warfare. We've had the age-old expression that knowledge is power, and absolute knowledge is absolute power. What we're witnessing now is the transformation of the level of information through as broad and as absolute as one can conceive of it today. So, the actual domination of the information world will put us in a position to maintain superiority over any other force for the foreseeable future... So, I think we talk about the future, the future is the United States as far as this capability is concerned. I'm not aware of any other country that has this capability, or even has this opportunity to examine in this kind of experimental basis the kind of technology that will give us this edge. So, we look to the future. The future is, as Toffler says, that unless you tame technology, you will encounter future shock. We're not only taming technology, we are turning technology into not future shock, but future security. 1

Not quite the kind of prose you might expect from a former senator, one-time novelist and published poet. But this media spasm of mixed aphorisms and pop-futurism yields rich material for the student of national security discourse (aka "Def-speak"). At one level, perhaps the most transparent one, the message is a slightly more sophisticated (and definitely less satirical) version of Hilaire Belloc's infamous 19th century ditty about the imperial benefits of a technological superiority: "We've got the Maxim gun - and they've not." Translation: don't mess with us.

However, behind this hubristic nose-thumbing lies a more rational purpose. In the bygone days of the Cold War, it would have been recognized as the language of deterrence or even compellence: a willful, transparent threat of unacceptable punishment for any nuclear misdeed. But with bipolarity gone, or worse, internalized by the US into a purely psychological state of manic highs of liberal interventionism and melancholic lows of neo-isolationism, the sobering, neutralizing effects of reciprocity have been lost. Internally, the new cyber-deterrent is to be taken like Prozac: a techno-pharmocological fix for all the organic anxieties which attend uncertain times and new configurations of power. Externally, it produces reality effects for a world in flux through a one-sided gaze - from the omniscience of the geostationary platform to the beady-eye of the video drone - that aspires not only to oversee but foresee all threats, rooting out potential as well as real dangers with an anticipatory, normalizing panoptic. For putative "rogue states", Cohen offers a garden-variety roguing: "to remove (diseased or abnormal specimens) from a group of plants of the same family." 2

Cohen's riff on the intimate relationship of information and war, knowledge and power should sound familiar to all readers of late modernity. But Cohen's anxiety of influence is much closer to Francis Bacon than Michel Foucault, with a soupŁon of Lord Acton thrown in - albeit without the "corruption" that usually accompanies the "absolute." Most people know Bacon, the 17th century English philosopher, courtier, and statesman, for his aphorisms. But behind his declarative statement that "Knowledge is Power" lies a whole body of work dedicated to the furthering of modernism and science. This is, after all, the man who lived for the promulgation of the scientific method, and literally died for it, after catching pneumonia when he tried to prove that chickens could be frozen and kept for extended periods of time by stuffing them with snow. Fowl aside, Bacon wished to bring together methods of inductive reasoning with a "realist" approach to politics. Indeed, Bacon was a great fan of Machiavelli, asking the reader to "thank God for Machiavelli and his kind of writer, who tell us not what men ought to do but what they in fact do." 3 For Bacon it was obvious, that since men seem to go to war with great regularity, peace should be treated as merely an interlude between and a laboratory for war. That's the way things are, and why realism and science must be married. But it is surprising how quickly the pretense of inductive logic drops when Bacon begins to find all kinds of benefits from war. In his essay Of the True Greatness of Kingdoms, Bacon locates the very well-being of the state in war:

Nobody can be healthful without exercise, neither natural body nor politic; and certainly, to a kingdom or estate, a just and honorable war is the true exercise. A civil war, indeed, is like the heat of a fever; but a foreign war is like the heat of exercise, and serveth to keep the body in health; for in a slothful peace, both courages will effeminate and manners corrupt. But howsoever it be for happiness, without all question for greatness it maketh to be still for the most part in arms.... 4

In Cohen's pronouncements we find a comparable affinity for inducing from observation and experimentation the obvious: information plus technology equals security. Nor do we need to read between the lines to find yet another realist poseur. Cohen's conceit, that the healthy state requires regular joint exercises of knowledge and power, echoes Bacon, although he goes only so far as to apply the prescription to the simulation of war, the wargame. Post-Auschwitz, Post-Hiroshima, Post-Vietnam, the therapeutic effects of war are increasingly difficult to prescribe. Here again, it is useful to return to one of the originating moments of scientific realism, to find a franker appreciation of war and simulation. In his Essays, Of Simulation and Dissimulation, Bacon enumerates the positive powers of simulations:

The great advantages of simulation and dissimulation are three. First to lay asleep opposition and to surprise. For where a man's intentions are published, it is an alarum to call up all that are against them. The second is to reserve a man's self a fair retreat: for if a man engage himself, by a manifest declaration, he must go through, or take a fall. The third is, the better to discover the mind of another. For to him that opens himself, men will hardly show themselves adverse; but will fair let him go on, and turn their freedom of speech to freedom of thought. 5

Again, one can discern a Baconian pseudo-logic to Cohen's exaltation of simulation. Through artful if not artificial stage-management simulations can be used to project supposed capabilities and cloak real weaknesses, as well as to reveal the "mind of another," in this case, the intentions and capabilities of the OPFOR plug-ins that the US will confront in the future. However, digitized wargames, twice removed by scripted strategies and technological artifice from the bloody reality of war, take simulation into another realm, leaving behind the reality principle which distinguishes the feigned from the real, entering the realm of the hyperreal, where cyber-deterrence becomes a religion, enemies are mythical, and defense budgets enter the realm of the fabulous.

It is not quite fair to load all this on to one sound-bite from Cohen. But it is emblematic of a debate that has been going on since the Gulf War. Was the Gulf War the last, second-wave, industrial war, with the victory pre-determined as much by the logistical might of the coalition - its ability to get x-amount of matŚriel in y-amount of time - as by the strategic doctrine or actual warfighting. Or was it the first of the third wave, information-based wars, show-casing the technological superiority of smart-bombs, near real-time C4I, and stage-managed media-coverage? Officers, pundits, and politicians have all weighed in on the debate, but the school of thought represented by Cohen and the cyber-warriors has for the most part escaped public scrutiny. One soundbite from a press briefing cannot capture the value - and dollars - now attached to the phenomenon which goes by many names: cyberwar, infowar, technowar, antiwar, pure war, postmodern war. Conventional definitions emerging from the armed forces usually zero in on the role of information, going so far as to lump together all the related forms of conflict in the foreshortening rubric of "information war", infowar, "I-war". The military journals highlight the role of communications, intelligence, overhead surveillance, from aerial drones to space platforms, high precision, high lethality smart weapons, multispectral sensors, real-time battlefield data about the battlefield, networked commands, near real-time decision loops, just-in-time simulations. Less conventional definitions focus on de-terrritorialized forms of conflict, which use and target discourses of power - sign-systems of belief, knowledge, representation - embedded in technologies of information.

Infowar is as old as Sun Tzu's "strategic factors" and as new as the Joint Chiefs of Staff's Joint Vision 2010's "full spectrum dominance." However, there is a significant difference from past forms: the networked computer with high resolution video (which is why "cyberwar" is probably better than "infowar" as the umbrella concept). More than any other innovation in warfare - from the stirrup to gunpowder to radar to nukes - the computer has shifted the battlefield away from the geopolitical to the electromagnetic. Less obviously, and I would argue, paradoxically, is that the power and threat of cyberwar comes from a wholly new technological capability of networked computers and video-screens: to reproduce as well as to deconstruct reality with a realtime verisimilitude that will make future war more a contest of signs than soldiers. This kind of language might still grate on the ear of a mud soldier or a mainstream security specialist. But new phenomena require new languages; and besides, it is pretty tame when you compare it to what one finds today in the military literature. Take, as just one example from many, a line in a recent article in Airpower on infowar, which extolls the virtues of technologies that allow the pilot to "use multiple phenomenology to discriminate live targets from dead targets with exquisite resolution."

Even a cursory skimming of the armed services journals, war college articles, DOD white papers, and Beltway think-tank reports suggests that the so-called "Revolution in Military Affairs" (RMA) is about much more than how the US will fight the next war. Consider an influential intervention on the subject from by Colonel Owen Jensen, in an article called Information Warfare: Principles of Third-wave War:

We all know that change is accelerating in every aspect in both our individual and collectives lives. In such a world, standing still long enough to mass-produce anything is foolish. A long production run (or force buildup) will result in obsolescence before it achieves full rate. Our only alternative is to seek more perfect knowledge of events as they change, to select those events that we must force to change for our own self-interest, and to focus our energy on specific change strategies. Tomorrow's enemy may not even be a nation-state. It may be a radical fundamentalist or extremist ethnic group. Tomorrow' s ally might be a corporation instead of a United Nations task force. Hopefully, the principles outlined in this article will start us thinking about how we can deal with such events. 6

This is why the Quadrennial Review deserves critical, public scrutiny. To the extent that it is a "blueprint," it will, intentionally or not, shape the future. The military is well-equipped, in the sense of more proficient with technologies of speed and surveillance, simulation and stealth, to understand the transformative forces of our times. But it is also fixed on worst-case scenarios, not best-possible outcomes. Other blueprints, especially civic visions, are needed, to test and to counter the military one.

Around the time of the Bottom-Up Review, a story broke that there were rats - real ones - in the basement of the Pentagon. At the time, I suspected yet another public relations ploy, one more way to garner tax-payer sympathy. But now I see the irony of the situation. For decades we have followed the Piper's tune, worrying that security, prestige, jobs, and, given the higher cost of the volunteer armed services, perhaps even our children, would disappear if we did not give the Pipers of the Pentagon what they asked for. Now it is time to write a different fable. To be sure, there are still rats out there, real and potential. But while they might have grown in numbers (again, as much a matter of staging as of reality), they have shrunk enormously in size and strength. Moreover, there seem to be more rats at home than overseas. Surely we can build a better, less expensive rat-trap than an F-22.


1. Secretary of Defense Cohen, Press Briefing after the EXFOR wargame at the National Training Center, Fort Irwin, 18 March 1977, DOD website. My thanks to Neta Crawford for flagging the quote.

2. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edititon (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1992). Electroninc version licensed from Info Soft International, Inc.

3. Francis Bacon, Works of Lord Bacon (London: Henry Bohn, 1864), book VII, ch. ii, p. 281.

4. Francis Bacon, Of the True Greatness of Kingdoms, Essays (London: Dent and Sons, 1939), p. 95, quoted by Martin Wight, International Theory: The Three Traditions, (Leicester and London: Leicester University Press, 1991), p. 208. Wight also takes note of the switch from "just and honorable" in the first sentence to "foreign" in the second.

5. Francis Bacon, Essays, Of Simulation and Dissimulation (1597-1625).

6. Airpower Journal, 01-01-1994, Vol.8, p. 35.

James Der Derian, "The QDR, the Theater of War, and Building a Better Rat-Trap" June 1997

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