Why doesn’t technology make war easier?
The invasion of Ukraine demonstrated that many prevailing assumptions about the role of technology in today’s warfare are wrong. The lesson that technology is unable to meet the challenges of war is one the West has yet to learn, despite a series of failed interventions since the end of the Cold War.
During an in-depth conversation, Isabel Motria sat down with Stéphanie Carvin to talk about her contribution to the September 2022 edition concerning international affairs. How can you not go to war?They discuss America’s overreliance on technology and why “easy wars” become “forever wars.”
You mentioned in your article that the United States relies too much on technology in its war. When has this started?
I don’t necessarily think that the United States is an exceptional case. I think all countries have tried to use these technologies in one way or another. One of the main arguments of the article is that the United States is a country of the Enlightenment and that part of the Enlightenment is the belief in rationality and science and that things can be improved through the application of science.
The idea is that if you have perfect information you can control the battlefield, and that has been proven wrong.
I think that in the American tradition and in the broader Western reality there is this particular scientific approach or adoption of technology, that technology is a way to save lives. There is often a strange human motive behind this use of technology.
We are experiencing a search for perfect information. The idea is that if you have perfect information you can control the battlefield, and that has been proven wrong. I’m not even sure you can get perfect information.
But it underlines this modern approach: if you can take all the information available and combine it in some kind of algorithm, then target it in a discriminatory and proportionate way, reduce the number of victims and reduce nighttime exposure. It’s a kind of liberal tradition. You try to have your cake and eat it too.
They say that the United States is ultimately a liberal country, but has been involved in many wars in the last 10 to 20 years. Is that a contradiction?
I hope it’s you. But I think it’s the nature of the American Enlightenment that the United States sees itself as a shining city on a hill that must protect itself at all costs. Liberals hate tyranny and unnecessary death. But I think the idea is that when you threaten us, we see ourselves as embodying those values, and so we need to protect ourselves.
There is a tendency not to really recognize the kind of insurgency that we saw in Iraq and Afghanistan or even Vietnam as a war. We do not consider it a type of armed conflict, although it has been the dominant form of conflict for some time. They even called them “military operations that have nothing to do with war.” We still tend to think of war as competition between great powers or as World War II.
The West struggles to culturally understand how others struggle. At this point, the martial law arrangements collapsed.
It was my first book about prisoners of war in the American tradition. Whether people are treated as prisoners of war often depends on whether the United States recognizes their form of warfare. There is also a racist aspect here that I don’t want to ignore.
For example, the American war in the Philippines in the early 20th century: They came in, won a very quick victory over the Spanish and effectively took over the Philippines. They then led a two-year rebellion against the native Filipinos who did not want American rule. While they granted the Spanish all the rights of prisoners of war, they did not grant them to the Filipinos.
In fact, they recognized the form of the conflict in which the Spanish were involved, but the original method of warfare was not recognized. The West struggles to culturally understand how others struggle. At this point, for example, martial law agreements between the United States, the West and other countries collapsed.
In your article you talk about the US entering “easy wars” and ending in “forever wars” – what does that mean?
This high-tech version of war has its appeal because it can solve many problems, but it is an illusion. This is ultimately part of a false promise.
The idea that machines will replace humans is fundamentally wrong. We’re seeing some of that now, even in the war between Russia and Ukraine. It’s a battle between machines and soldiers. One of the topics of this edition ofinternational affairs It’s arrogance. The idea that things that seem like quick wins are often long-term losses. That’s exactly what this article is about.
“Forever Wars” isn’t my favorite term, but it’s the concept that promised us a simple war, a high-tech conflict where you can go in, use a surgically precise weapon, solve the problem, and eliminate the enemy. Then you free yourself from a situation that has actually turned into a quagmire.
This high-tech version of war has its appeal because it can solve many problems, but it is an illusion.
The limitations of technology become clear within a few months, as do the reality of the complicated task of nation-building, or the fact that insurgencies and political movements do not collapse simply through the display of sophisticated weaponry. High technology. That just means that these wars last a long time and you’ll have to rehabilitate yourself at some point, but there’s no clean way to do it. We saw this, of course, in Afghanistan and largely in Iraq.
We are distracted by the shiny object. We see this promise and we see this vision of a kind of war that could have great appeal for some. There are new superweapons, be it cyber-information warfare or artificial intelligence. Everyone wants to be one step ahead, right?
Do these lessons about technology and “soft wars” apply to other countries?
I think what we’ve learned about the Russian military is that it’s a lot of things. Part of the problem Russia faces is that its capabilities are not what they thought. Vladimir Putin was obviously fascinated by many ideas, such as the fact that the Russian army was increasingly using high technology and had hypersonic missiles.
Among other things, they also had very powerful cyber weapons. Putin also appeared to have entertained the idea that he could have launched a 72-hour special military operation that would have led to the capture of Kiev. This obviously did not happen. We see once again the underestimation of the human factor.
Obviously, you should avoid trying to understand your opponent’s culture. It is interesting to see that the same mistakes will occur in future conflicts with China, for example between China and Taiwan?
So in an ideal world, everyone reads your article – all policymakers, all academics – and the 10 lessons are taken into account. What would a war look like?
Well, I wish there was less of that and more emphasis on diplomacy. I think that would be the first. One of the problems here is the idea that problems can be solved simply by attacking them with cruise missiles, which is simply not the case. I think we need to think more about other types of tools. In this edition ofinternational affairs For example, we talk a lot about sanctions and the limits of sanctions.
We must understand our opponents, we must not agree with them, in order to empathize with them and understand their interests, needs and perspectives. This is clearly something that was largely missing in the lead-up to many post-9/11 wars and in the lead-up to the Russia-Ukraine conflict. Additionally, when one considers the cost of an advanced military missile system, the cost is much less compared to training a group of people in history, culture, and languages.
We must understand our opponents, we must not agree with them, in order to empathize with them and understand their interests, needs and perspectives.
The only thing I want to say is that I don’t think we can ever get rid of war. In the article I talked about the importance of conventional weapons. We see it now in Ukraine. However, there are other ways of thinking on this topic that should be adopted.
Stephanie Carvin’s article “How Not to Have War” in the September 2022 issue of International Affairs. Entry is free until December 11th.
International Affairs began at Chatham House in 1922 to provide research for members who could not attend in person. Over the last 100 years, the journal has evolved into one that publishes sophisticated, policy-relevant scholarly research. Published for Chatham House by Oxford University Press.