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No Surprises

This excerpt from Gray's book, 'Information, Power and Peace' (Routledge 2002) deals with how new information technologies impact the chances for global peace.

For most of us who study contemporary war, September 11 was not a surprise and it wasn't even the worst thing we have predicted. Because, horrible as it was, it could have been so much worse. On one level, September 11 should be taken as a terrible warning about what might happen if this Cold War runs on and on like the first one. If the same policies are pursued in response to the attacks that, in fact, led to the attacks then we face many more days such as September 11, or more horrible. Any group that can coordinate such complex and successful attacks is close to having, or already has, the ability to make or to buy nuclear or biological weapons. Using these they could do something that would produce a hundred or a thousand or even a hundred thousand times more casualties. The continued development and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in the context of the current international system means that we can predict even more horrific acts of terror in the near future. These assaults could come from independent groups, from government proxies, or from states themselves.

There are many labels used for contemporary war but whatever you call it, this is it. It is asymmetrical, in that a tiny group can severely hurt the greatest superpower in history. It is aimed at civilians, as most war is these days. It is experienced in real time by the world, thanks to global media. And casualties are maximized because of high technology.

Sadly, I am also not surprised by how our "leaders" have acted. We are ill-served by those whose response to this tragedy is tremendous denial. Calling these terrorists "cowards", as many of our politicians are doing, is as revealing as it is stupid. These fanatics are not cowards, they gave their lives to commit this evil. They are not stupid either. They are true believers and we have plenty of those in our own country willing to kill other Americans, and foreigners, and unbelievers in general, out of their certainty.

There must be a powerful psychological dynamic behind this need to label the enemy as a coward. Perhaps, President George W. Bush and the other politicians who so easily throw the term out do so only because they can't say "he's a wimp, a pussy, a woman!" Even though they are calling suicide soldiers cowards, while many of them, such as Bush, went to great lengths to avoid combat themselves, they have no hesitation in sneering at the hated "other".

More disturbing is the rhetoric used around the attack. It was termed a "declaration of war" by many politicians, including the President. He soon was proclaiming that "we are at war" and that we were involved in a "crusade" against terror. He probably forgot that it is Congress that must declare war and he probably never knew that the Crusades were a pure war of aggression against Islam to try and reclaim the Holy Land, during which pogroms against Jews and even the sacking of Christian cities, such as Constantinople, were common occurrences, since the Catholic Church had granted a blanket dispensation from the consequences of sin to all crusaders.

While some leaders have warned that we should not destroy our democracy in order to save it from terror, others seem much less concerned. For example, the leader of the Republicans in the Senate, Trent Lott of Mississippi proclaimed "When you're in this type of conflict, when you're at war, civil liberties are treated differently." (Madden 2001) There is a long sad history to this type of thinking, going back at least to President Lincoln's suspension of most rights, including freedom from arbitrary arrest by the government (habeus corpus) during the Civil War. The old Cold War became a rationale for innumerable illegal acts and abridgements of freedom by the government, all in the cause of saving those very freedoms. We will inevitably see similar attempts during this "war" against terrorism. Many of our loudest patriots are already saying that we should sacrifice some of our freedoms for greater safety, when actually only our freedom can be preserved if we value it above safety. To have freedom you must be willing to sacrifice for it.

There are always questions at such times as to why someone would attack the U.S. in such a way. They are against "our way of life" we are told. They hate our "freedom" and "what we stand for". They are just "evil" and the U.S. is just "good". But this isn't how "they" see it. "They" complain about economic domination, U.S. interference in their affairs, U.S. support for their dictators, U.S. bombs killing their young men and their women and their children.

That the United States is hated by many people around the world should come as no surprise to anyone paying attention. The U.S. has made many enemies. It has overthrown democracies and supported dictatorships in Iran, Guatemala, Chile and other places in the name of political realism. It has used high technology weapons to kill thousands of people, including women and children, in Southeast Asia, Lebanon, Libya, Iraq, and the Balkans. It has trained thousands of terrorists, most recently Islamic fanatics in Afghanistan and right wing Columbian death squads. Maybe some of these actions were justified, but in any event they angered many. Both here and abroad many people are also angry over the incredible disparities of wealth that our system produces, for the damage to the environment that it seems to depend on, and for the constant assaults on freedom and democracy that seem to go with it. And why does the U.S. bomb foreign countries and train foreign terrorists? Why must the environment be sacrificed on the alter of economic health (or is it corporate profits)? Why must our democracy be sacrificed in order to save it? That's just the real world, we are told. RealPolitick, as Henry Kissinger would say. Well, it is this bloody-minded realism that took down the World Trade Center.

Unintended Consequences

Edward Tenner (1996) has called the unintended consequences of technologies "revenge effects". He points out in his book, Why Things Bite Back, that the revenge of unintended consequences is so common that we must analyze each new technology with it in mind. It is not as if many of these consequences aren't predictable, they are just unintended. When one leaps into a river on a hot day the intended effect is to experience the pleasure of the flight and the coolness of the water. If it is shallow and you break your neck, you realize you should have looked before you leapt. Political decisions have unintended consequences as well. These have become so common in the nether world of espionage and covert wars that a special word has been coined for it: blowback (Chalmers 2000).

Osama bin Laden, the Taliban, and Saddam Hussein, are all examples of blowback. Once they were our allies, if not our creatures. Osama bin Laden, for example, was fostered through Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence Agency (ISI), which funneled the weapons, training, and funds the CIA wanted him to have in his war against the Soviet infidels. This is the same source that suckled the ferocious Taliban, the nightmarish theocratic fanatics now ruling Afghanistan. They were popular with the CIA because of their enthusiasm for killing Russians and because their virulent form of Islam was seen as a great "infectious agent" to introduce into the Moslem republics of the Soviet Empire. Militants from bin Laden's group of volunteer "Arab Afghans" returned to their homes in Algeria to massacre moderate Moslems and assassinate Berber poets, to Egypt to slaughter tourists, and to Saudi Arabia where they blew up the Khobar Towers and bombed Riyadh in 1996. They have also kill Hindus in India, Jews in Israel, Russians in Moscow, Africans of all religions, and as we know too well, Americans (and citizens of 60 other countries) in New York and Washington, D.C. Still, as late as 1998, Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, a powerful Republican who serves on the Senate Intelligence Committee, was defending the U.S. support and training of bin Laden. "It was worth it," he told the journalist Robert Windrem. "Those were very important, pivotal matters that played an important role in the downfall of the Soviet Union." (Moran 1998)

Should we believe that this is the way the world must be. We have to choose between communists and Islamic fundamentalists. Between Hitler and Stalin. If so, we are doomed, morally and, eventually thanks to the ever increasing power of weapons, physically. If our only choice is to fight totalitarian evil by spreading it, then we are as doomed as the people working on the top floors of the World Trade Center were. But there is another option. We can act morally. We can make sacrifices ourselves, and not train foreign fanatics to die and kill in our stead. We can value the freedom and democracy of people of other places, such as Afghanistan, as much as our own, and not gift them to insane totalitarians just because they are the enemy of our enemy.

A Case Study

To better understand what is happening now, we should look at The Gulf War of 1991. We can begin by asking, why did it happen? Was it just because Iraq conquered Kuwait in a naked act of illegal aggression? That can't be it because the U.S. has ignored, or even encouraged, many other such aggressions. Noam Chomsky (1992) explains that it was hardly the worst crime "against peace and against humanity" of the era. In terms of people killed or violations of international law he ranks it as equivalent to the Turkish invasions of Cyprus or Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1978 or the U.S. invasion of Panama. And adds, in these terms it falls well short of Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon and cannot remotely be compared with the near-genocidal Indonesian invasion and annexation of East Timor, to mention only two cases of aggression...with the crucial support of those who most passionately professed their outrage over Iraq's aggression. (p. 13)

Since Chomsky wrote this, we've seen a number of worse invasions and massacres--in the Balkans, in Africa, and in Chechenya. So why was the case of Kuwait so important? Obviously it was "politics", which in this case is spelled "o-i-l." How else can you explain why Saddam Hussein went from a key ally to "Hitler" and yet he was never overthrown? So-called political realism first inspired the U.S. embrace of Hussein. After all, he had oil and he was at war with Iran. Then he became a threat to the Gulf oil, so he was Hitler. But the U.S. wants a strong Iraq state for a number of reasons, most notably as a balance to Iran and to keep the Kurds (who actually outnumber every other ethnic group in the region) from creating a state that threatens our ally Turkey and the general stability of the region. So an attempt was made to nudge Hussein out, no doubt to be replaced by someone equally dictatorial and heinous; but nudging failed and so Hussein still rules and can now taunt the son of the man who equated him to Hitler.

Within a few years it was clear that the costs of the Gulf War were staggering. Over 5,000 Iraqi civilians died in the bombings of the actual war and more thousands of poorly trained drafted conscripts died. Within a year of the war the U.S. Census Bureau was estimating 70,000 civilian deaths from the destruction of the Iraq infrastructure and the blockade. A year later reports from the U.N. and Harvard University added another 100,000 deaths, mainly of children, due to diseases directly linked to the destruction and the sanctions. One can add 20,000 to 35,000 deaths from the failed civil war the U.S. and allies encouraged, but never supported enough so that it had a chance of victory. (Gray 1997, fn. 5, p. 266) Since these horrible totals were compiled the trade sanctions and bombings of Iraq have continued, as has Saddam Hussein's dictatorship, and so Iraqi civilians have continued to die in the thousands. Perhaps as many as a quarter of a million Iraqis have died altogether then, as punishment for Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. Edward Beck, US ambassador to Iraq from 1977 to 1980 points out, we have been, for the last 10 years, bombing Iraq whenever we feel like it (with) no basis in law, no United Nations resolution, no international agreement. We do it because we can. (Chebium 2001) But numbers cannot tell the whole story. Barbara Lubin visited Iraq soon after the war and met many people who had lost loved ones to the bombings. At one point she visited a hospital where hundreds of children were dying. They were dying from malnutrition, from diarrhea, from childhood diseases like polio and measles, dying from typhoid and cholera. It was incredible, because this was a country that had completely wiped out all of these diseases. And as a result of this disastrous war, they were rampant again. (p. 155) Imagine a dying baby. Now imagine him or her over again 10,000, 20,000, 30,000, 40,000 times. Should it surprise anyone that some Iraqi's want to kill Americans?

Right after the war several poets weighed in with their analysis of what the future might hold. Allen Ginsberg wrote in "After the Big Parade": Millions of people cheering and waving flags for joy in Manhattan Yesterday've returned to their jobs and arthritis now Tuesday-- What made them want so much passion at last, such mutual delight Will they ever regain these hours of confetti'd ecstasy again? Have they forgotten that Corridors of Death gave such victory? Will 200 thousand more desert deaths across the world be cause for the next rejoicing? (Allen Ginsberg, 6/11/91)

Karen Finley (1992) also wrote a poem about the Gulf War. It was called "The War at Home." It ends prophetically:

And if we won, so what?
We are hated
We are doomed


Historical events occur twice -- the first time as tragedy, the second as farce. -- Karl Marx

The wit of the remark conceals the fact that it is profoundly wrong (except perhaps in the case of French History) -- which is so often the case with Marx's insights. History really doesn't repeat itself at all, and if it did it would never be as farce. Our tragedies only deepen through time because at every turn of the spiral the technology of war is more powerful (and the destruction so much worse) and the hunger for justice more palpable (and therefore more painful). But certain patterns in history do repeat, which is why I have put forward this idea of the Second Cold War.

What can understand about our current situation through this Cold War analogy? For the only good it does is what it helps us comprehend so we can predict, or even shape, what happens next. Analogy is not repetition by the way. The Second Cold War won't be any more like the First then the First World War was like the Second, but there were real similarities, and a real relationship, between the two World Wars and we should look for similar links between the Cold Wars.

In the First Cold War there was a disturbing tendency for the two sides to converge; Communists longed to become consumers and democrats strove for a security state. As I've stressed above, all other conflicts and dilemmas in the world were crammed into the Procrustean bed of the Cold War and made to serve it. This didn't lead to many solutions of world problems, as we can see with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but it must have been satisfying to the simple binary thinking of the elites of both sides.

The idea of a Second Cold War is also an analogy to the two World Wars. It argues, therefore, for a close, causal link between Cold War I and Cold War II. Perhaps the lesson to be drawn from World War II, and how easily it turned into the Cold War with nuclear overkill always lurking in the near future, is that hard choices have to be made about allies just as about enemies. The U.S. and the U.K. decided to support the Soviets so that they could bleed the Germans, thus sparing American and Commonwealth casualties. But at what cost? A nightmare for the people who lived in the Soviet Empire, occupation for Eastern Europe, and the intense militarization of the Cold War. Short-term solutions lead often to long term problems. Trying to duct tape that leaky pipe or that faulty electrical switch, instead of really fixing it, can easily result in floods and fire. At this point in world history it will only take one catastrophic war based on short-term miscalculations to destroy civilization.

The World Wars were most of all about the organization of the international system. The victors choose it and then they turned on each other. The Cold Wars are equally about the organization of the world politically. In this case, the allies that have switched sides are the Russians and the Chinese. But that doesn't mean that this struggle is easily won, for the old rules of force don't apply. In Postmodern War God is not necessarily on the side of the big battalions.

So what is new beyond the First Cold War? How is postmodern war changing? Manuel Castells, perhaps the greatest sociologist of our information economy, has argued that power relations are profoundly shifting because of the centrality of information in all aspects of society. In his book The Power of Identity (1997) he argues (p. 359) that, the new power lies in the codes of information and in the images of representation around which societies organize their institutions, and people build their lives, and decide their behavior. The sites of this power are people's minds. What this means concretely, he goes on, is that "projects aimed at cultural codes must be symbol mobilizers." (p. 361) He describes two main agencies for doing this: Prophets and networks. Prophets are important. They can be inspirational and nonviolent, such as the Catalan leader Jordi Pujol or someone such as Martin Luther King, or they can be revolutionaries like Subcommandante Marcos of the Zapatistas, or they can be lone fanatics, such as the Unibomber, or they can be someone like bin Laden.

But, important as they are, Prophets are expendable. It is networks that are the prime agency for change now, Castells argues. They are harder to recognize than the centralized movements of the past, but are no less powerful for that. And since they aren't grounded on traditional forms of power they are difficult to pinpoint, let alone conquer or defeat. Sounds familiar, doesn't it? But this is not just the problem of this new Cold War, even as I have broadly defined it as about Fundamentalism in all its forms. The forces that seek to commodity all life are their own network, and one that is even harder to clearly see than the network of links between bin Laden and Saddam Hussein and, symbiotically, with Fundamentalists from totally different creeds.

We are starting to understand that the world isn't binary and it isn't a simple Newtonian system of cause = effect. It is a complex, living world, where small events can have gigantic consequences (the butterfly effect), where certain events forever change everything (singularities, bifurcations), where events and energies are drawn together around seemingly inconsequential entities (strange attractors), and where beautiful new systems can emerge out of chaos and dysfunction (emergence). It is a world that cannot have perfect information (Godel, Church-Turing), where not only do actions change reality, but observation -- what we pay attention to -- changes reality (Heisenberg).

This is why RealPolitick doesn't work, because it is based on illusions of simple rationality, of simple cause and effect, of a disjunction between beliefs and consequences, and, fatally, on very simplistic notions of power. We cannot be so simple minded any more, the stakes are too great. And a good place to start thinking complexly is with our understanding of technology.

Let us remember that the atomic bomb did not cause Postmodern War. Atomic and nuclear weapons are merely symptoms of Postmodern War. The fire bombings of Tokyo, after all, killed more people then died at Hiroshima or Nagasaki. It is not any particular technology that makes war too horrible to be "politics by other means" any more, it is technology as a whole. And it isn't just weapons of mass destruction, although they are the greatest direct threat. We can see that very weak or small groups can use the complex technologies of everyday life to wreck incredible havoc. Without jet planes, and skyscrapers, both of which are totally dependent on computerization on every level from construction to utilization, then September 11 would have been impossible. And the broadcasting of the attacks and their aftermath around the world instantaneously and continuously, equally dependent on technology, magnified their impact a million-fold. The Vietnamese and the Afghans won against the superpowers because they used appropriate technologies for victory, not the most sophisticated technologies available. And, of course, they spent freely of their lives to liberate their homelands and to serve their implacable ideologies.

One other major difference between the First Cold War and the Second needs to be emphasized. Victory won't be through the economic collapse of the weaker states this time. The economic troubles in the Third World are the fuel of this fire. The economic success of nations such as Afghanistan and the Sudan would be more of a setback to the hopes of bin Laden and the Taliban then any economic, or perhaps even military, blow could be. But this must be balanced by an understanding that, in the long run, unrestrained corporate capitalism would be everyone's loss. We need a new world system that goes beyond Postmodern War and the McWorld it nourishes and the Cold Wars it spawns.

Unfortunately, the only way out seems first to go deeper into the horror of September 11 and try to understand what it can teach us.

So, what lessons can we draw from this tremendous act of murder?

  • Amoral political realism will come back to haunt not just its practitioners, but innocents as well.
  • Technology not only will not solve everything, it is a problem in itself. Old forms of understanding, of power for example, are rendered irrelevant by new technologies and by the technologization of society itself.
  • When you kill civilians with bombs from planes -- with technology in other words -- you can't expect the victims to accept this as inevitable collateral damage. Is it morally different to kill civilians with strategic bombing aimed at residential neighborhoods (World War II), "free-fire zones" including villages (Vietnam) or "killing boxes" full of civilians (Gulf War) as opposed to suicide planes? If we were in a declared war with Afghanistan, New York would be a legitimate target for their military. And the high-tech "legitimate" methods of killing civilians work much better than the most successful "terrorist" attacks.

So why is one moral and the other not? Just because they seem psychologically different?

  • There is no such thing as bloodless war, as some people have hoped. Crashing airliners is a favorite scenario in Information War theory. Does it seem bloodless?
  • Revenge leads to revenge. Any response that is quick and easy and without sacrifice will be useless, if not actually counter-productive. Horrors such as this have their origins in the real world and in complex situations. There are no easy solutions.
  • In the long run war is our greatest enemy. The longer it takes us to confront that truth, the more likely it is that war will win. But peace is not just the absence of war. Real peace is justice and tolerance. All other kinds of peace are just pauses before the next spasm of killing.

On September 29, 2001, the first big anti-war rally of the new millennium was on C-Span2 and I watched some of it. They had a chant there that I had a complex reaction to. It went: "Another World is Possible! Another World is Possible!" My first reaction was, "Yes, that's right. This world is not inevitable." Having been an organizer off and on for many years, I know how hard it is to help people believe that we can indeed change the world. But then I thought, "Lots of other worlds are possible, and most of them are even worse then this one." That set me back a bit. So I thought about it and decided that, if I was into chanting, which I generally loathe (except for my old favorite "More mindless chants!"), it would have to be "A better world is possible." Not easy I imagine, I grant you, but I do believe a better world is indeed possible. And even more, I believe it is necessary.


Barber, Benjamin R. (1995) Jihad Vs. McWorld: How Globalism and Tribalism are Reshaping the World, Ballantine.
Castells, Manuel (1997) The Power of Identity; Volume II of The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture, Oxford: Blackwell.
Chebium, Raju (2001) "Arab hatred of US fiery, diverse," Great Falls Tribune, Sept. 16, p. 6A
Chomsky, Noam (1992) "The 'Gulf War' In Retrospect," War After War: City Lights Review Number 5, ed. by Nancy J. Peters, 1992, pp. 13-6.
Finley, Karen (1992) "The War at Home," War After War: City Lights Review Number 5, ed. by Nancy J. Peters, 1992, pp. 85-9.
Ginsberg, Allen (1992) "After the Big Parade," War After War: City Lights Review Number 5, ed. by Nancy J. Peters, 1992, p. 119.
Gray, Chris Hables (1997) Postmodern War: The New Politics of Conflict, New York/London: Guilford/Routledge.
Huntington, Samuel (1993) "The Clash of Civilizations," Foreign Affairs, vol. 72, no. 3, Summer, pp. 22-49.  (1997) "The Erosion of American National Interests," Foreign Affairs, vol. 76, no. 5, September/October, pp. 28-49.
Johnson, Chalmers (2000) Blowback: The costs and Consequences of American Empire, Metropolitan Books.
Lubin, Barbara (1992) "Real People," War After War: City Lights Review Number 5, ed. by Nancy J. Peters, 1992, pp. 151-5.
Madden, Mike (2001) "Civil liberties vulnerable in 'war'," Great Falls Tribune, Sept. 16, p. 5A.
Moran, Michael (1998) "Osama bin Laden: His CIA ties are only the beginning of a woeful story," MSNBC, August 24. (http://www.???)
Tenner, Edward (1996) Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences, Knopf.

Content type
Projects World-Information.Org
Date 29.10.2001


9/11 Cold War postmodern war Gulf War cultural intelligence world war media USA Chile Iran Iraq Afghanistan Soviet Union India Russia Israel Africa New York Washington, D.C. Guatelmala Southeast Asia Constantinople Lebanon Libya Columbia Algeria Kuwait Panama Chechenya Sudan Hiroshima Nagasaki Trent Lott ISI Sadam Hussein Orrin Hatch Robert Windrem Henry Kissinger Osama Bin Laden Jordi Pujol Taliban Lincoln Manuel Castells Edward Tenner US Senate Stalin Adolf Hitler Subcommandante Marcos Catholic Church Martin Luther King Central Intelligence Agency CIA Noam Chomsky George W. Bush US Congress Chris Hables Gray
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