Monday, December 08, 2008

City and Urban; Siege and Urban War; Financial Modeling versus Scientific Modeling

My second post for the Complex Terrain Lab symposium on Antoine Bousquet, The Scientific Way of War.

I want to offer four very different thoughts - they are not so much things from the book itself as tangents that the book caused me to think about, and I share them on that basis. Dr. Bousquet should not feel obliged to figure out some way to respond to them; they really are more tangents.

1. City and urban (1). The renderings of the city and urban landscapes of conflict and war offer a certain geography of spaces, walls, barriers, confusion, hiding, chaos, complexity, disorganization, friction - but a tangible and less tangible sense of space. Law and ethics, the rules of war that I study, seek to create a certain order out of the chaos, and impose senses of limits and to invent walls, barriers, and define spaces within the chaos through normativity. These are targets; these are not targets. But the creation of this normed space requires a shared norm, and the nature of the urban warscapes that Dr. Bousquet describes is not one of shared norms. There is no sense of reciprocity in the norms, and given that the organized side, the sovereign side, has decided affirmatively not to use reprisal to enforce reciprocity, that concept is fundamentally gone. It seems to me to account for a great deal of the chaos on today’s urban battlefield. What, for example, the human rights monitors propose instead as the basis for normativity is the post hoc international tribunal - but it assumes the hegemony of the norm giver, and that is far from given.

2. City and urban (2). City and urban warfare was traditionally about siege. It was traditionally about bringing down the walls of Jericho. The chaos in that operation came at the very end, in the final sack of the city. It was not traditionally about the fighting in the city as the fighting space, except at the end; otherwise it was, if anything, a less chaotic and more tightly organized battlespace on both sides. The final sack was authorized, according to the traditional rules, more or less as a reprisal against the city for its failure to surrender and, in any case, the whole of siege warfare, and the special rules applicable to siege, represented a complete reversal of the traditional notions of combatants and noncombatants. But it is also one of the oldest forms of warfare, from the moment when war took on the characteristic of the raiders against the citadel, and urban living as a form of protection. Siege of course was one of the great historical drivers of technology in war; and in that sense, the city arose as a form of defensive technology in war that happens to function in times of peace.

3. Financial modeling. Several of the commentators have inquired why the reach to the physical sciences and physics in particular as the historical model, rather than, say, biology. My day job, as it happens, is finance professor, and at risk of partisanship to my areas, I wondered whether the complexity theory, chaos theory, and network theories might not be modeled as well on the process of financial modelng - complex risk systems and network and gaming theories. But what I am actually suggesting here is not the theories themselves - but the fact that historically they have failed over and over again, being intimately intertwined with all the major market crises of the last few decades since computerization - the 1987 program trading crash (computer driven selling created a positve feedback cycle downwards since each company’s program worked on the assumption that it was alone); the 1998 Long Term Capital Management crisis (even though anyone who dealt with Russia would have said that political risk was paramount, it was treated as outside the model for financial purposes); and today’s crisis involving quant strategies (that assume that the model’s financial equivalents are in fact legal and contractual equivalents, whereas in crisis mode a whole series of non-normal contract provisions kick in but are not accounted for in the model, eg, mark to market accounting in a thin or nonexistent market). The failures in financial modeling might point to ways of understanding chaos in war and vice versa.

4. Ghost in the machine. Two books come to mind reading Dr. Bousquet’s book, Junger’s chilling On Pain, out with a new translation and penetrating introduction from my long-time friends at Telos. And Daniel Pick, The Rationalisation of Slaughter. Each of these goes deep into the disciplinary aesthetic of modern war, I think.

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