Diamond in the Techno-Thriller: The Value of Speculative Fiction

A few years ago, some sort of switch got flipped in my brain and all of a sudden I became far more capable of and willing to plow through half a dozen novels in a single stretch than to finish a single non-fiction book. Recently, equilibrium has been at least somewhat restored, but I continue to find myself immersed in fiction in a way that I rarely was before.

Some recent reading has included a pair of Larry Bond novels from the late 1980s and early 1990s, Vortex and Cauldron. Larry Bond is most famously, of course, the man who helped Tom Clancy game out many of his books’ wartime scenarios (and Bond co-wrote Red Storm Rising with Clancy). I hadn’t known Bond as an author in his own right, but recently read those two works of his in succession.

What’s wonderful about books like these is generally not their literary qualities, but nor is it even the conduct or proposed sequence of events in particular conflicts. Can fiction, in fact, predict the future of warfare? Perhaps, but more interestingly, such books serve as a time capsule of the era in which they were written. Much of the “valued added” from this is detailed (at times overly so) descriptions and explanations of the weaponry, arms systems, and military organization of the era. But furthermore, while not predictive in any meaningful way, these novels can help widen the Overton Window of the imagination, to at least consider a divergent future drastically different from our own.

With books set in the future, but now a dated future, it’s almost like reading alternate history. As of this writing, I’m reading The Third World War: August 1985, which is an account of World War III written in the past tense as a historical survey from the point of view of two years later (e.g., 1987). Of course, the book was actually published in 1979, along with a followup, The Third World War: The Untold Story, which was published two years later and dives deeper into specifics of nuclear postures, the war in the North Atlantic and the North Sea, Solidarity’s effect in Poland, and other issues. It is a look at a world that never was, but seemed frightfully close to being so. And from that perspective, it’s a chilling look at the prospective war facing the world of the past.

Obviously, these never came to pass, but when one considers what might have been, that can seem a blessing. Continue reading

Theories of International Politics and Zombies

A classic example of realist IR theory at work.

In the late summer of 2009, Dan Drezner came out with a delightful piece in Foreign Policy called “How International Relations Theory Would Cope with a Zombie Uprising.” It’s really quite clever, exploring the effects of a zombie apocalypse as seen through the eyes of  a structural realist, a liberal institutionalist, a social constructivist, and so forth.

Apparently, Drezner was so pleased with the idea that he ran with it and turned it into a book: Theories of International Politics and Zombies. And for the launch of the book, he’s doing some sort of speaking tour. I had the pleasure of seeing him talk last night, courtesy of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. There’s no way I could have passed it up – it combines two of my great pleasures in life. International relations theory and the walking dead.

Having an open bar was an excellent call for an event like this. There’s only so much gravitas you can hold while discussing the finer points of the constructivist critique; namely, that zombies “are what we make of them.” No single paradigm can accurately model zombie behavior, of course. Realism assumes that somewhere down the line zombie states will emerge. Liberalism sees the possibility of cooperation with the zombies. Constructivism thinks that the zombies can be socialized. None of these will hold true; the closest real-world comparison for the tactics and effects of massed zombies would include assymmetrical warfare, global transnational terrorism, and the spread of communicable disease.

Drezner was great, peppering his talk with clips from Night of the Living Dead, both the original Dawn of the Dead and the remake, Shaun of the Dead, and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” video. Also getting heavy mention was Max Brooks’ World War Z, which I was especially glad to hear as it meant I could ask a question about the Battle of Yonkers being a failure of RMA without having to explain the former. (Answer: not a failure of RMA, but a reflection of the bureaucratic morass at the Pentagon – the intransigence of Standard Operating Procedure.) Here are Drezner’s general conclusions:

  • Thucydides is still relevant in a post-zombie world
  • The zombie canon is too pessimistic (from Patient Zero to the apocalypse always takes about ten minutes)
  • International relations paradigms probably suffer from intellectual rigidity
  • Analytic eclecticism has its advantages to explaining a zombie uprising

And now, some highlights from the Q&A. Drezner’s zombie contingency plan:

If you don’t hear from me for a week, pack up and move to New Zealand.

The zombies’ effect on existing conflicts:

If zombies broke out in Belgium, you know the Flemish would throw the Walloons under the bus.

We would see a large exodus/mass migration from urban centers to far more rural areas:

Richard Florida would be devastated. And eaten.

A protracted counter-zombie campaign would most likely lead to a ‘counter-zombie policy fatigue’. We might, perhaps, come to take the same view of such a strategy as we eventually did of Prohibition. Drezner also suggested his next book, in keeping with Keohane’s After Hegemony, might simply be titled After Aliens.

Anyways, it was a great event, and many thanks to the Chicago Council for putting it on. Especially as a Young Professionals event. I picked up a copy of his book there (and had him sign it. “To Graham: hope you survive!”); expect a review soon.

OODAs of Noodles

Ah, Boyd. Master of all things. As a good friend once explained the cult of Boyd as “it’s like the Americans wanted to scream, ‘WE HAVE A MILITARY GENIUS, SEE!’ while losing in Vietnam.” But still, the underlying theory is sound, and this chart does a good job of breaking down all four letters.

I’m a little embarrassed to say I hadn’t seen it before (the original website dates it back to 2006). It really is an excellent overview of the OODA Loop, including all the cultural and individual particulars that inform a decision. Also, note the sheer number of ways to ‘observe. The chart can be expanded or condensed for as long as you need, be it split-second decision or drawn-out debate process. And if nothing else, you have a crucial tool to get all inside your enemy’s head.

There is a real risk, though, of reading too much into OODA. More guidelines than rules. And so forth.

Via zenpundit.

Clausewitz Lives?

For all the debate surrounding the applicability of Sun Tzu and Clausewitz to modern war, it’s fairly well-established that much of Clausewitz’s On War is the product of his age. Sun Tzu is perhaps better read, even by Western armies, if not for the sole purpose that it often serves as the guide for their enemies (not to oversimplify or state a categorical, but this is at least the assumption). At a strategic level, there is certainly some utility to be found, but the image one gets of Clausewitz’s writing is that of a relentless forward-only-advancing army, with no guile or subtlety to deploy.

It was for all these reasons that I was dismayed to hear Brigadier General Larry Nicholson of the 2nd MEB refer to Marjah, Afghanistan as the “enemy center of gravity” (about 1:20 in the clip). Marja is a “stronghold” of sorts, where insurgents stockpile weapons and have built defenses. Granted, General Nicholson was paraphrasing Afghans (whose most frequent asked question is, “when are the Marines leaving?”), but the fact remains that he’s employing Clausewitzian terminology to describe a decidedly un-Clausewitzian conflict.

You don’t hit the enemy where’s he strongest; nor do you hit him where he’s weakest. You attack where the enemy does not defend; you defend where the enemy does not attack. You avoid cities at all cost (this is not entirely applicable to Afghanistan, but it’s a strong general principle). If the Imperial German Army was wise enough to bypass Liège and Namur, you’d think the 2nd MEB could do the same. Obviously the parallels aren’t exact, but they’re there. If Marjah is what they’re defending, Marjah is what we don’t attack.

John Boyd and the OODA Loop

I feel like there’s been a lot of discussion on this lately, and I was fortunate enough to stumble on Bill Whittle’s “Forty Second Boyd and the Big Picture.” The OODA Loop is something getting talked about quite a bit, and Whittle’s summary simultaneously shows off the simplicity and mind-blowingness of Boyd’s achievement.

If OODA is as universally applicable as Whittle claims, though – to business, to a love life, et cetera – then is deliberation never the right choice? It remains to be seen whether the new Obama surge in Afghanistan will have the desired effect, but judging from the fairly widespread approval of the new strategy, it was well worth the wait.

Of course, the delay was between orientation and decision, which as Vinay Gupta points out, is the same place corporate change sputters out. The difference between thinkers/doers and senior/junior personnel is no less real at the White House. But can it be overcome?