Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Reading :: Postmodern War

Postmodern War: The New Politics of Conflict
By Chris Hables Gray

In the Preface of this book, Chris Hables Gray announces that he wants to address a "dogma" of the history profession: that history is not progressive. Gray disagrees: "There are patterns we can see that clearly show a kind of progress, if we remember that love and cancer both progress, grow, and spread" (p.vii). This seems like a statement at odds with postmodernism, but Gray, who apparently developed this book from a dissertation directed by Donna Haraway, is clearly concerned that war as a way of life really is progressing. He signs his Preface "Love and Rage, Chris Hables Gray" (p.viii).

Love and rage do permeate the pages of this book, particularly the latter. Unfortunately, rage makes people careless. Gray criticizes Arquilla and Ronfeldt, but he confuses their netwar concept with Network-Centric Warfare (p.24 and elsewhere); he criticizes Latour for claiming that nonhumans should have rights as humans do (p.75 - a mischaracterization); he criticizes AI researchers from not learning from the Bhagavad-Gita (p.72), forgetting that this sacred book's central message was that Arjuna should put his conscience aside and slaughter his enemies for the glory of Shiva. Finally, Gray proves his point that "while the enemy is labeled female, our weapons can be considered male" by quoting - the owner of the New England Patriots (p.43).

With this track record, I am reluctant to take many of the book's assertions at face value. Gray attempts a cultural studies-based critique of postmodern war, and in some places he succeeds, but this 1997 text suffers from the events of the last 13 years. For instance, he scoffs at the suggestion that Third World countries are an actual threat, and instead suggests that they are simply justifications for further swelling military budgets (p.34); today, we are dealing with the aftermath of the A.Q. Khan network, including the actual threat of actual long-range missiles tipped with actual nuclear warheads, and SDI has new life as a shield against such threats. He criticizes the move to heavily "market" military news (p.41); now we can see the repercussions of controlling information during warfare, repercussions that don't just belong to the US (see readings by Arquilla and the US Army War College).

That being said, Gray does provide some valuable thoughts about postmodern war. Some of the best contributions are represented by the bullet points on p.169, where Gray argues that "the main moral justification for war is now peace"; "war is becoming cyborgian" (think Predator); "the battlefield is now a [3D] battlespace"; "many targets may not be attacked"; and "wars can only be won politically" (pp.169-170). These statements, and others in this chapter, not only make sense but seem in accord with later work on fourth-generation warfare. (Search this blog for Arquilla, Ronfeldt, Robb, and 4GW for more examples.)

Last thing. Gray starts his book in Sarajevo, where World War I started in 1914 and where the US and allies tried to stop ethnic cleansing in 1995. What jumps out here is that these dates bookend the "Long War" that Phillip Bobbitt discusses in his masterpiece The Shield of Achilles. Although Gray and Bobbitt seem to come from very different places, I saw several points of possible conversation between the two books throughout.


martina said...

Thank you for your review. My professor gave me a reading assignment on chapter 9 (only), so your writing really help me to get a global view on what this book is about.

Clay Spinuzzi said...

Glad I could help :)