Thursday, August 10, 2006

Our Own Homegrown Open Source Warriors

One of my all-time favorite novels, by one of my all-time favorite writers, is Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. Now I read a lot (like, a book-a-week, on average: printed words are like crack to me) but there are very few books I've given a second perusal. The list of books I've read many times (as in, I couldn't tell you how many) is so short I can count it. Only three come to mind: Starship Troopers (and if you've only seen the movie and are wondering, Dude, WHY!?, well, let's just say that the director of that movie is one of the few cases in which I'd approve of capital punishment), Neuromancer, and Snow Crash.

So you'll understand why this Arnold Kling post at TCS caught my eye:

In Neal Stephenson's 1992 science-fiction classic, the two main characters have been hired by the Mafia and other ethnic corporate franchises to deal with a fanatic religious cult whose chief warrior possesses a hydrogen bomb. In the novel, governments are too powerless to deal with this threat. It is a brutal, post-national world.

Today in reality, Islam contains a fanatical religious cult whose chief warrior seeks nuclear weapons. Iran may be leading the world toward a post-national era.

The post principally addresses the ugly possibility that the nation-state just isn't up to containing terrorism, which is something I've suspected in the back of my mind for a while now. I'm not totally convinced, though; one of the supporting datums he offers is the following:

From the collapse of international trade negotiations to the failures of international development assistance to the rejection of the EU Constitution to the nearly-perfect record of futility of the United Nations, government institutions at a world level have reached a Snow Crash ebb.

As far as the UN's worse-than-uselessness goes, we could just be witnessing the League of Nations effect: when the most dangerous players are no long much interested in talking (save as a way of buying time to get into position for what they really want to do, namely kicking the crap out of each other), talking shops tend to be become somewhat ineffective.

That said, I've been thinking for some time about this. John Robb's always-interesting (though overly pessimistic) Global Guerillas introduced me to the idea of 'open source warfar': ie, using loose networks to degrade and eventually destroy states, instead of the rigidly controlled hierachical violence we've become accustomed to since Westphalia. The Pentagon's recently been trying to neutralize the advantages of 'global guerillas' with 'network centric warfare', and while this is a promising direction I can't help but suspect it doesn't go far enough.

The question really has to be asked: what if governments just aren't up to the challenge of fighting terrorist networks? What then? Does our civilization just say, "Oh well, it was a nice run, but this whole Enlightenment experiment is done with. Might as well just kneel before our new masters and hope they get bored chopping off heads after the first few thousand?"

Naw. Not our style. If it becomes obvious that governments can't stop foreign irregulars from perpetrating atrocities on our soil, we're going to wind up with our own irregulars: after all, if they can't stop keep out the barbarians, then they can't reign their own in. The West could end up with it's own homegrown open source warriors; everything from volunteer intelligence agencies that work to penetrate and subvert enemy networks (both social and informational), to actual armed insurgents, going into foreign countries and conducting operations ranging from sabotage to assassination. It isn't necessary that these networks be particularly moral; they'll be at war, after all (or at least will perceive themselves as being so.)

Will this happen? Dunno. Like I said, I'm still not convinced that nation-states aren't up to the challenge. All I'm saying here is that, if they aren't, that doesn't mean that we've lost.


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