In the 1950s and early 1960s, the Cold War was commonly said to have partially plunged "into the shadows" as a secret, off-the-grid, spy-versus-spy conflict fought between the planet's two superpowers. No one caught this mood better than John le Carre in his famed Smiley novels which offered a riveting portrait of Soviet, British, and American spies locked in mortal combat, yet with more in common with each other than with either of their aboveground societies. So many decades later, with the Soviet Union long gone, it's strange to discover that, in the case of the United States at least, those "shadows" have only lengthened. Increasingly, as the Iraq War fades into history (and out of memory) and the Afghan War winds down, the American way of war itself is being drawn into those shadows.
Admittedly, since World War II, control over war -- who to fight, when to wage it, and how to fight it -- has been on a migratory path into the White House and the national security bureaucracy, leaving Congress and the American people out in the cold. In the last decade, however, a high-tech, privatized, covert version of war has become presidential property, fought at the White House's behest by robots, warrior corporations, and two presidentially controlled "private" forces (a paramilitarized CIA and the Joint Special Operations Command). With this transformation has gone a series of decisions that have plunged American-style war ever further into darkness. In the last few years, for instance, two presidents, enveloped in a penumbra of secrecy and without the knowledge of the American people or possibly much of Congress, deployed the latest in experimental weaponry -- weapons that could someday unravel our world -- in the first cyberwar in history. They wielded what someday will undoubtedly be reclassified as weapons of mass destruction against Iran, paving the way for future global cyberwars which could devastate this country.
In the same years, the same two presidents took control of another new form of conflict, drone warfare. Across the Greater Middle East and northern Africa, they launched massive, high-tech campaigns of assassination ("targeted killings") that may have no equivalent in history. These have involved hundreds of air strikes and thousands of casualties. Enfolded in secrecy, a complex, increasingly codified panoply of national security processes (including "terror Tuesday" meetings to decide just who to kill), the president has turned himself into our first assassin-in-chief.
As the Washington Post recently reported in a three-part series, he has also overseen a process by which ad hoc killing has morphed into a codified, bureaucratic, normalized killing machine deeply embedded in the White House, a "disposal matrix" or "kill list" that will be handed off to future presidents in a "war" (once known as the Global War on Terror) with at least "a decade" to go and possibly no end in sight. In a language that used to be left to Hollywood's version of the Mafia, the White House, as judge, jury, and executioner, now regularly puts out hits around the world, while discussing "the designation of who should pull the trigger when a killing is warranted."
In one Post piece focused on Camp Lemonnier in Djibouti as the key base for presidential war in Africa, a detail caught my eye. It seemed to capture the ever-darkening nature of this war-making moment. Speaking of the hundreds of elite special operations forces there, Craig Whitlock wrote, "Most of the commandos work incognito, concealing their names even from conventional troops on the base." Put another way, this new form of warfare is far enough into the shadows that the names of a major part of the U.S. military, tens of thousands of elite troops whose command has just gotten its own "secret targeting center" in Washington 15 minutes from the White House, can't even be known to other U.S. military personnel who work with them.
Imagine, then, what our world might be like once future techno-versions of presidential war now being developed come online. What will it mean when, in the third decade of this century, in pursuit of the same Global War on Terror, drone war has morphed into a "triple canopy space shield" and "robotic information system," as described today in chilling detail by Alfred McCoy, TomDispatch regular and lead author of the new book Endless Empire: Spain's Retreat, Europe's Eclipse, America's Decline? Imagine when, from outer space to the spreading Camp Lemonniers of planet Earth, the White House can make secret war in a myriad of high-tech and robotic ways without even a nod to you and me. By then, in at least one possible future, our whole world may lie in those shadows. Tom
Beyond Bayonets and Battleships
Space Warfare and the Future of U.S. Global Power
By Alfred W. McCoy
It's 2025 and an American "triple canopy" of advanced surveillance and armed drones fills the heavens from the lower- to the exo-atmosphere. A wonder of the modern age, it can deliver its weaponry anywhere on the planet with staggering speed, knock out an enemy's satellite communications system, or follow individuals biometrically for great distances. Along with the country's advanced cyberwar capacity, it's also the most sophisticated militarized information system ever created and an insurance policy for U.S. global dominion deep into the twenty-first century. It's the future as the Pentagon imagines it; it's under development; and Americans know nothing about it.
They are still operating in another age. "Our Navy is smaller now than at any time since 1917," complained Republican candidate Mitt Romney during the last presidential debate.
With words of withering mockery, President Obama shot back: "Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military's changed... the question is not a game of Battleship, where we're counting ships. It's what are our capabilities."
Obama later offered just a hint of what those capabilities might be: "What I did was work with our joint chiefs of staff to think about, what are we going to need in the future to make sure that we are safe?... We need to be thinking about cyber security. We need to be talking about space."
Amid all the post-debate media chatter, however, not a single commentator seemed to have a clue when it came to the profound strategic changes encoded in the president's sparse words. Yet for the past four years, working in silence and secrecy, the Obama administration has presided over a technological revolution in defense planning, moving the nation far beyond bayonets and battleships to cyberwarfare and the full-scale weaponization of space. In the face of waning economic influence, this bold new breakthrough in what's called "information warfare" may prove significantly responsible should U.S. global dominion somehow continue far into the twenty-first century.
While the technological changes involved are nothing less than revolutionary, they have deep historical roots in a distinctive style of American global power. It's been evident from the moment this nation first stepped onto the world stage with its conquest of the Philippines in 1898. Over the span of a century, plunged into three Asian crucibles of counterinsurgency -- in the Philippines, Vietnam, and Afghanistan -- the U.S. military has repeatedly been pushed to the breaking point. It has repeatedly responded by fusing the nation's most advanced technologies into new information infrastructures of unprecedented power.
That military first created a manual information regime for Philippine pacification, then a computerized apparatus to fight communist guerrillas in Vietnam. Finally, during its decade-plus in Afghanistan (and its years in Iraq), the Pentagon has begun to fuse biometrics, cyberwarfare, and a potential future triple canopy aerospace shield into a robotic information regime that could produce a platform of unprecedented power for the exercise of global dominion -- or for future military disaster.
America's First Information Revolution