Friday, August 08, 2008

So *That's* How the Milk Got into the Coco-nut

I'm a bit of an alternate reality buff and have been re-reading my way through S.M. Stirling's wonderfully fun On the Oceans of Eternity series where he explores what would happen if the Island of Nantucket on a nice summers evening were thrown back to around 1,250 BC. The island's mixed bag of tourists and locals, each with their special skills, historical knowledge, and romantic Roussouian or Hobbsian notions of humanity and nature are forced to figure out how to survive in a bronze age world. They end up destroying some indigenous peoples, trading with others, busting open closed societies by offering free citizenship to run away slaves and youths, and fighting an armageddon like battle with one of their own renegades, a would be Napoleon/Attila the Hun/Genghis Khan and Roman Emperor rolled into one. What's so fascinating about this books is the combination of military history and a fairly sophisticated social and economic history of encounters between technologically and socially different groups. Stirling does an amazing job of exploring just how difficult it is to balance the economic requirements of modern society against the labor and production issues of the bronze age. What happens to a patriarchal hunting and raiding society when its young men and women can leave and aquire lands and wealth in a capitalist agrarian economy? And what happens to the second and third generations of a democracy that has to expand, or die, and has to choose at every moment whether to expand as an imperial or a democratic force? I enjoy these books.

I don't enjoy discovering that the US government paid Booz Allen, and now the Carlyle group, 200 million dollars to cut S.M. Stirling's military and technological insights down to slide show proportions. Viz Mother Jones "Don't Know Much About History" and reported by Justin Elliott, a former senior fellow at Mother Jones, and news editor at Talking Points Memo (go bloggers!)

In the summer of 2002, the Pentagon's Office of Net Assessment (ONA) published an 85-page monograph called "Military Advantage in History". Unusual for an office that is headed by Andrew Marshall, the Pentagon's "futurist in chief," the study looks back to the past—way back. It examines four empires, or "pivotal hegemonic powers in history," to draw lessons about how the United States "should think about maintaining military advantage in the 21st century."


The study looks a little like a high school text book, devoting chapters to Alexander the Great, Imperial Rome, Genghis Khan, and Napoleonic France and citing texts by Sun Tzu, Livy, and Jared Diamond. It attempts to break down exactly how historic empires sustained their military might across continents and even centuries. The study posits that the historical examples offer "insights into what drives U.S. military advantage," as well as "where U.S. vulnerabilities may lie, and how the United States should think about maintaining its military advantage in the future." There is no one secret to world domination, however. The Mongols' military advantage was rooted in their "tactical and operational superiority"; the Macedonians' in the "exceptional leadership" of and "cult of personality" surrounding Alexander the Great; Napoleon's in "innovative operational concepts" and "information superiority"; and the Romans' in "robust tactical doctrine" and "strong domestic institutions" which were "designed to incorporate conquered peoples as the empire grew." In an extraordinary passage, the study cites the Roman experience—from over a millennium ago—as a precedent for America's long-term dominance: "The Roman model suggests that it is possible for the United States to maintain its military advantage for centuries if it remains capable of transforming its forces before an opponent can develop counter-capabilities. Transformation coupled with strong strategic institutions is a powerful combination for an adversary to overcome."

The report's language is jargon laden and opaque—a lance used by Macedonian horsemen is referred to as a "primary weapon system." That may be due to the methodology of "net assessment," a fancy term for the ONA's approach to analyzing complicated real-world situations that is rooted in systems analysis and game theory. Military author James Dunnigan compares it to engineering. "You take apart historical events, reassemble them as a simulation, and then tinker with the simulation until you can recreate the historical event accurately," he explains. "What that allows you to do is play out 'what if?' situations: What if Napoleon did this? What if Ghengis Khan did that?"...

Most striking is how the study conceives of the United States in imperial terms. "You'll see some neoconservatives at the beginning of the Bush administration crowing that 'we do have an empire, let's just come out of the closet and say we do,'" said Ivan Eland, the author of a book on America's "informal empire" and the director of the Center on Peace & Liberty at the Independent Institute, on hearing a description of the study. "But the administration never did that because empire doesn't sell well with the public." After reviewing the study at Mother Jones' request, William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Initiative at the New America Foundation, said he was struck by its "arrogance and immorality." "The presumption that the United States should rule the world, sword at the ready, for the foreseeable future is an unacceptable basis for a just, even-handed foreign policy."