Cybernetic War


We didn't expect this desert war. We expected tanks in Germany, backed by nuclear missiles. We expected limited, dirty, jungle wars fought mostly by local proxies. But not 65,000 air sorties against Iraq. That we didn't expect.

The Gulf War marks the beginning of post–Cold War conflict. That much is uncontroversial. But there is more. This war suggests a new pattern for warfare itself, massive in scale but not the "total war" that has defined large-scale combat in the modern era. The Gulf War is not just the first post–Cold War war. It is the first cybernetic war.

Cybernetic suggests high technology, and much has been made recently of high-tech weaponry and of high-tech journalism. But modem warfare has always been distinguished by its use of technology, from repeating rifles to tanks to atomic bombs. And technology has always driven warfare, and vice versa, from the stirrup onward.

What really distinguishes cybernetic warfare is that it substitutes machines for manpower, capital for labor, brains for brawn. Like modem warfare, it may be conducted on a large scale. But, unlike modern warfare, it does not emphasize mass production, mass destruction, or mass man. It is not about cannon fodder, however; well armed.

Cybernetic comes from the Greek word for helmsman and, more fundamentally, from the verb meaning to steer. The term suggests precision, the precision of cruise missiles and smart bombs, of those videotaped hits that have led some to call this a "Nintendo war." Cybernetic warfare allows combatants to steer away from civilians, toward military targets. It need not inflict mass casualties.

To steer in a cybernetic war requires both knowledge of the route and control of the vessel. That's why shutting off command-and-control centers—in effect, blinding enemy commanders and shutting down their army's nervous system—has been such a major goal of allied bombing runs. It is why intelligence gathered by satellites has given the United States such an advantage. And it is why the warring parties so want to control or manipulate the civilian nervous system, the worldwide telecommunications network.

Substituting hardware for human soldiers has several implications. It injects economic and strategic value into the equation most people would call common moral sense—that soldiers shouldn't be put in harm's way when machines can be used instead. Each soldier becomes more valuable, with greater specialized training and skills tailored to the mission. In cybernetic warfare, you don't send a helicopter pilot to do a job a drone could perform. You don't risk a bomber crew when a cruise missile will do.

This philosophy, in turn, suggests a different kind of armed force, one that relies not on mass mobilization but on professional soldiers. The volunteer military is not only fitting for a free society, it is right for a cybernetic war. You need fewer soldiers but must invest lots of time and money to train each one. As a result, you don't require—or even want—the kind of mass, untrained force that conscription provides.

Cybernetic warfare restores civilian status, a status that modem warfare wiped out. The return to volunteer forces does this most profoundly. But modem warfare—which began with the American Civil War and reached its apex in World War II—relied on a huge industrial plant to turn out masses of standardized, and easily expendable, weapons. Most of the weapons were produced during wartime, with civilian society subordinated to the war effort. "Everyone pulled together," say those nostalgic for WWII. Everyone was conscripted.

And, where the bombers could reach, everyone was a target. Terror bombing was a matter of doctrine. In its most decadent Cold War form, modern warfare made hostages of entire populations in the name of Mutual Assured Destruction.

By contrast, cybernetic warfare's precision weapons can—given adequate intelligence and a military doctrine that eschews terrorism—differentiate between civilian and military targets. And weapons can be developed during peacetime, by people as specialized as the soldiers who will use them. Cybernetic warfare draws not on a mass industrial base but on the advantages of an innovative, educated, and free society. Total mobilization of civil life is neither necessary nor desirable.

But if cybernetic warfare insulates civilian life in some ways, it exposes civilians to warfare in others. Most obviously, the same technological base that makes possible precision weapons and satellite intelligence also permits live TV reports. We now have a supernational, instantaneous, worldwide communications network. Its most prominent and controversial component is CNN, but it encompasses everything from ham radio and amateur videotapes to international faxes and the good old BBC. When people want to seize power in Manila or Vilnius, they first take over the TV station. When a government wants to silence opposition, it cuts the phone lines.

The communications net has odd effects, effects nobody is used to. Information is power and, in wartime, that power can prove quite destructive. Instantaneous reports on where missiles land give those launching them valuable feedback, exposing their targets to greater danger. "Where are your troops? And can I go there and count them?" asked the Baghdad reporter in the "Saturday Night Live'" version of a daily press briefing.

The greatest fear of press reports seems to be that they will weaken Americans' will to fight by showing burned children and bombed-out buildings—even precision strikes have consequences. By restoring civilian status, cybernetic warfare raises ethical standards and expectations; it reestablishes some notion of the just war. And the cybernetic media, who extend the eyes and ears of distant witnesses, create empathy where there might otherwise be insulation. They remind the home front of the common humanity they share with those at the battlefront. To the discomfiture of politicians, they will not let us forget that war is terrible and that societies that conduct wars ought not be fooled about its terrors—that Kenneth Branagh's muddy, bloody Agincourt, while equally a work of art, is truer to history than Laurence Olivier's sunny, uplifting triumph.

Cybernetic warfare isn't an antidote to the general evils of war. And, although it avoids some of the ills of modem warfare, its unique character could introduce new and equally undesirable effects. It could produce a warrior class isolated from civil society, and a civil society isolated from its soldiers. It could result in creeping militarization, as the military bureaucracy expands in peacetime. It could make war more likely, by insulating civilian decision makers from the consequences of their decisions.

And one may counteract a cybernetic threat with terror, by striking at distant civilians in hopes of weakening their resolve. One may deliberately mingle civilian and military targets, either by using human shields or by putting military facilities in the same buildings with civilians. One may strike not at an enemy's industrial plants, but at its intellectual and communications capacity.

Ultimately, cybernetic warfare may prove another form of total war. How it develops depends on the moral choices and political structures of the societies that conduct it. But, for now, it offers a tantalizing promise that the century from which war exacted its greatest toll—in lost hopes as well as lost lives—may end with some restoration, if not of peace, then of restraint.