The invasion of Ukraine has demonstrated that many of the assumptions held about the role of technology in contemporary warfare are flawed. The lesson that technology cannot overcome the challenges of warfare is one that the West has also yet to learn, despite a series of failed interventions since the end of the Cold War.
In a wide-ranging conversation, Isabel Muttreja sat down with Stephanie Carvin to talk about her contribution to the September 2022 issue of International Affairs on ‘how not to war’. They discuss the US’ over-reliance on technology and why ‘easy wars’ become ‘forever wars.’
You argue in your article that the US overly relies on technology in war. When did this start?
I don’t necessarily think the US is exceptional. I think all states have tried in some ways to use technologies. One of the key arguments in the article is that the US is an enlightenment country, and part of the enlightenment is a belief in rationality and science and that you can better things through the application of science.
I think that there is this particular scientific approach or embracing of technology, in the American and in fact larger Western tradition on technology as a way to save lives. There is a strange humanitarian impulse that often underlies this use of technology.
We are seeing a quest to try and get perfect information. The idea is that if you have perfect information, you are going to be able to dominate the battlefield, and that’s proven itself to be false. I’m not even sure you can ever get perfect information.
But it underlines this modern approach, that if you can have all the information that’s out there, crunch it into some kind of algorithm, that you can then target discriminately, proportionately, reduce the level of casualties, and reduce the level of unnecessary damage. And that’s a kind of liberal tradition. You are trying to have your cake and eat it too.
You talk about the US being an ultimately liberal state, but they have been involved in a lot of wars over the last 10–20 years. Is that a contradiction?
I hope it is. But I think it goes back to the enlightenment nature of the United States, which is that the US sees itself as a shining city on a hill that has to protect itself at all costs. Liberals abhor tyranny, and they abhor unnecessary deaths. But I think that the idea is that if you threaten us, we see ourselves as embodying these values, therefore, we have to protect ourselves.
There’s a tendency to not really recognize the kind of insurgencies that we’ve seen in Iraq and Afghanistan, or even Vietnam, as war. We don’t really see that as a kind of armed conflict, even though, arguably, that has been the dominant mode of conflict for some time. They even used to call it ‘military operations other than warfare’. We tend to still think of war as great power competition or as the Second World War.
My first book was on prisoners of war in the American tradition. What often determined the treatment of people as prisoners of war was if the United States recognized their form of warfare. There’s a racial element here too that I don’t want to dismiss.
So, for example, the US war in the Philippines at the start of the 20th century: They went in, won a very quick victory over the Spanish and effectively took over the Philippines. And then they had a long insurgency for two years with the native Filipinos who didn’t want US domination. While they gave the Spanish all the prisoner of war rights, they didn’t give them to the Filipinos.
This is because they recognized the form of conflict that the Spanish engaged in, but the Indigenous way of warfare was not recognized. The West has struggled to culturally understand the way other people fight. And that’s when the laws of war conventions have broken down between, say, the United States, the West, and other states.
You talk in your article about the US entering ‘easy wars’ and ending up with ‘forever wars’ – what does this mean?
There’s an allure to this high-tech version of warfare, that it can solve a lot of problems, but it’s an illusion. It is ultimately a bit of a false promise.
The idea that machines are going to replace humans is fundamentally untrue. We are seeing this to a certain extent right now, even in the Russia/Ukraine war. This is very much a battle of machines and soldiers. One of the themes of this issue of International Affairs is hubris. The idea that things that appear to be quick wins often tend to be long-term losses. And that’s exactly what this article is talking about.
‘Forever wars’ is not my favourite term, but it’s this concept that what was promised to be an easy war, a high technology-driven conflict, where you can go in, use some surgically precise weapons, take care of the problem, eliminate your opponent and then extract yourself from a situation, has actually turned into a quagmire.
The limits of technology become apparent within a few months as well as the fact of the messy business of state-building, or the fact that insurgencies and political movements don’t just disintegrate at the show of some high-tech, sophisticated weaponry. It just tends to mean that these wars do go on for a long time, and you have to eventually extricate yourself, but there’s no clean way to do this. We saw this of course with Afghanistan, and to a large extent Iraq.
We get distracted by the shiny object. We see this promise, we see this vision of a kind of warfare that for some may have great appeal. There are new super weapons, whether it be cyber information warfare or artificial intelligence. Everyone wants to be ahead of the curve, right?
Are these lessons on technology and ‘easy wars’ applicable to other countries?
I think what we’ve learned about the Russian military is that there’s a lot more at the heart of it. Part of the problem Russia is experiencing is that its capabilities were not what it thought they were. It’s clear that Vladimir Putin was enamoured with a lot of the ideas, like that the Russian military was increasingly high-tech and that they had these hypersonic missiles.
They also had very powerful cyber weapons amongst other things. Putin, too, seems to have been caught up in this idea that he could have had a 72-hour special military operation, which would have taken Kyiv. Clearly, that hasn’t happened. Once again, we see the underestimation of the human factor.