|James Der Derian, professor of international relations at Brown University, has published, among other works, On Diplomacy, International Relations: Critical Investigations (Ed.) and Antidiplomacy: Spies, Speed, Terror and War. His forthcoming book is entitled Virtual Security.
by James Der Derian
Originally published in Wired, September 1994. "Wired visits the digital battlefield of Desert Hammer VI to see whether the US Army can win the next war without firing another shot."
|I missed the first yellow warning sign. It was dark, I was on a 40-mile, dead-end road into the heart of the high Mojave Desert, and I was running late. Not wanting to give the public affairs officer another opportunity to explain what o-five-hundred meant, I pushed the rental car up to 90. A few miles later there was a second sign. This time I put on the high beams and slowed down. On it was a black silhouette of a tank, and underneath, "Tank Xing."
I had reached Fort Irwin, California, site of the US Armys National Training Center. Created in 1980, its purpose is to take the troops as close to the edge of war as the technology of simulation and the rigors of the environment will allow. For three weeks in the spring of 1994, this 635,052-acre military base served as the testing ground of the first fully digitized task force, one element of the 194th Separate Armored Brigade from Fort Knox, Kentucky.
Digitally enhanced, computer-accessorized, and budgetarily gold-plated from the bottom of their combat boots to the top of their kevlars, soldiers of the 194th Brigade were here for Desert Hammer VI. Also known as the "digital rotation," this experimental war game was developed to show the top brass, a host of junketing members of Congress, and an odd mix of journalists how, in the words of the press release, "digital technology can enhance lethality, operations tempo, and survivability." Combining real-time airborne and satellite surveillance, digitized battlefield communications, helmet-mounted displays, a 486 computer for every warrior, and an array of other high-tech weaponry, the brigade had come wired to move faster, kill better, and live longer than the enemy. If the old nuclear deterrent was to depend on the frightful force of mass destruction, the new digital strategy is to win the total information war.
Back when messages traveled at the speed of a horse, and overhead surveillance meant a view from a hilltop, Prussian strategist Carl von Clausewitz warned in On War against the arrogance of leaders who thought scripted battles would resemble the actual thing: "All action must, to a certain extent, be planned in a mere twilight, which in addition not infrequently - like the effect of fog or moonlight - gives to things exaggerated dimensions and an unnatural appearance." Would digitization render von Clausewitzs famous dictum obsolete? Would todays commanders be able to use satellite tracking and computer-equipped soldiers to dispel the fog of war? After three days, I thought I knew the answer, but by then the question had changed.
Almost every US unit that fights at Fort Irwin goes to battle against the "Krasnovians," American soldiers serving in a sim- ulated Soviet brigade. When global crises dictate, the Krasnovians can also take on the role of "Sumarians" (Iraqis) or "Hamchuks" (North Koreans). On the first day of Desert Hammer VI, I chased black-bereted Krasnovians through the Whale Gap, into the Valley of Death, and watched them kick American desert khaki all the way to the John Wayne Hills.
On paper, the digitized armys combination of brute force and high tech appeared formidable. At the high end of the lethality spectrum, the Americans had top-of-the-line M1A2 Abrams main battle tanks, each carrying an information system that collected real-time battlefield data from airplanes, satellites, and unmanned aerial vehicles. At the low end were the "21st Century Land Warriors" (also called "warfighters" but never "soldiers" or "infantry") who came equipped with day- and night-vision scopes mounted on their M-16s, video cameras, and 1-inch LED screens attached to their kevlar helmets. The 486 computers in their rucksacks were wired to radios that could send voice or digital-burst communications to a battle command vehicle coordinating the attack through a customized Windows program.
Fort Irwins public affairs officers were equally well armed. With budget cuts clearly on their minds, our voluble handlers, equipped with glossy brochures, informed us more than once that "smaller is not better: better is better." Other slogans sounded like a hybrid of Nick Machiavelli and Bill Gates, promising to "Win the Battlefield Information War" and "Project and Sustain the Force." One major went so far as to speculate, "If General Custer had digitization, he never would have had a last stand." Analogies proliferated like mad: digitization is the equivalent of the addition of the stirrup to the saddle or the integration of helicopters into the Army.
However, when the motto miasma met the fog of war on the first day of battle, the fog seemed to win out, especially since it came amply supplemented by sand, dust, and smoke. Our personable handler, a Major Franklin Childress, attempted to narrate the battle as it unfolded. After leading our small convoy of three humvees to a fine hillside perch, he provided a running commentary on what we could see and also on what we could hear as we eavesdropped on the radio traffic. We overheard accounts of confusion and of fratricide or "friendly fire." Although no one in the military would go on record about how the war game had commenced, a defense industry rep let me know later that the first blow had been delivered by an unarmed cruise missile launched off the California coast. Fortunately for the residents of Las Vegas, the missile had stayed on course and landed on the live-fire range.
Our first visible sign of the battle came when an array of Black Hawk and Apache helicopters flew by so low that we could look down on them from our hillside perch. Some were pretending to be Soviet Hinds, and my first thought was of the helicopters shot down over Iraq on April 14, the week before my visit, in a deadly, real-life case of "friendly fire." I filed away my question as an F-16 followed the helicopter, sweeping over our hill and dropping flares to confuse possible ground-to-air missiles. Had the pilots who shot down the helicopters been trained to attack American Blackhawks pretending to be Soviet Hinds?
The confusion increased as loud bangs joined the visuals. An M-22 simulator round the size of a fat shotgun shell exploded nearby as a Stinger missile crew fired at an F-16 fighter plane. White plumes from the blank Hoffman shells that simulate tank and artillery fire spread across the battlefield. The arrival of the main show was signaled by tracks of dust on the horizon. Tanks, humvees, and armored personnel carriers came out of the wadis in bursts of speed. As the Krasnovians mixed it up with the Americans, vehicles bearing the orange flags of the observer-controllers darted in and out of the battle, tallying the kills. Rather than loaded weapons, they depended on the MILES, or Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System, first developed by Xerox Electro-Optical and now better known to civilians as laser tag. Hits and near-misses were recorded by the electronic sensors on the vests and belts that circled soldiers and vehicles alike, and transmitted via microwave back to computers at "Star Wars," the command center. From our hillside we could see the flashing yellow strobes of the MILES sensors spread across the battlefield as the Krasnovians cut through the American forces. Simulation-hardened and terrain-savvy, the Krasnovians rarely lose.
Suddenly we got an order to move: our position was about to be overrun. For a brief moment, as the Krasnovian tanks came down the ridge, I became separated from the other observers and stood within smelling distance of the tanks as they roared between us. With synapses firing and hormones mixing into a high-octane cocktail, I sensed the seductive rush that comes with simulated war. I was detached and yet connected to a dangerous situation through a kind of voyeurism, as if I were watching myself watch the tanks bear down. Perhaps therein lies the hidden appeal of simulation: it enables soldiers to espy death in a fictitious borderland where fear and fun, pain and pleasure, you and the enemy encounter one another. The simulated battlefield makes dying and killing less plausible, and therefore more possible.
Day two began like the first: late and in the dark. But this time I did catch the icon on the first yellow warning sign. It was of a tortoise. One more question for the major.
The main group had already left. A humvee was waiting and ready to catch up to the media convoy. The new driver, however, failed to inspire much confidence. He was unable to make radio contact with Major Childress and kept switching frequencies, until I suggested that he put up the antenna. He kept getting the radio messages wrong, at one point even slowing down to check for a flat tire because he heard the humvee ahead inform the major that it had one.
After a cross-country shortcut through a minefield (marked by round plastic bowls that looked like doggie dishes) and a couple of wrong turns, we caught up with the rest of the group at what appeared to be a desert rest stop for 21st century warfighters. I was first directed to a medical unit, simulating the latest in "tele-medicine." Each soldier in Desert Hammer carried a 3.5-inch computer disk in a breast pocket, not to stop a bullet but to store a digitized image of a predestined wound. In a real war in the near future a video camera would record the body damage. In this case the medic popped the disk into a portable PowerBook to discover that his victim had a sucking chest wound. The image was digitized and transferred via a radiolink to a triage unit in the rear, where a doctor talked the medic through the treatment of the wounded soldier. It seemed to work: the soldier got up and walked away from the stretcher as I moved on to another station.
Standing in the sand next to a Bradley was a borg. He was made of flesh and metal and looked like he had just walked off the set of Star Trek: The Next Generation. He had his Sony minicam, his eyeball-sized display screen, his portable 486, and his global-positioning-system antenna on his helmet. When I asked him if he realized he was a dead ringer for one of the tough colonial marines in Aliens, he curtly answered: "I dont know about that, Sir." (When talking to soldiers, all journalists enjoy an instant field promotion to officer.) I was taken aback, but later surmised that I had transgressed rule Number One of the armed services: never, never confuse an Army grunt, especially a fully digitized grunt, with a Marine no-neck. It seemed that all the hype we were hearing about joint operations was only slowly making its way down the ranks.
Judging from some of the thousand-mile stares I got during this and other interviews, the simulated battle in the Mojave Desert had managed to replicate at least one of wars primary characteristics: fatigue. Surprisingly often, soldiers responded to my questions about the reality factor in simulations with the claim that the Persian Gulf War was much easier than this. Technology has advanced quite a bit in a few years. Keeping up with machines is dirty business.
The final stop on the digital tour was an M1A2 tank. I took a few pictures and started to walk away but was stopped by the hovering Major Childress, who asked, "Do you want to take a look inside?" He surely registered my surprise. Three years ago, just after the Gulf War had ended, I came out to the desert to look at the training that was said to have won the war. At the time I was told that I could take pictures of just about anything - except for the inside of an M1 tank, which remained classified. Now, I was invited to videotape a state-of-the-art model. A gunner walked me through the cyberspaces of the Inter-Vehicular Information System: "Here, your position is triangulated by satellite, an enemy targeted by laser range finding, and a friendly identified by a relay from a J-STAR flying overhead."
I was impressed but also confused. What was the reason for this new policy of access? I asked my standard stock of questions: Would the friction of war overheat a cybernetic battle plan? Would the surge of information overload the digital systems, especially the primary information node of the battle network, the warfighter? Would the new technology further distance the killer from the business of killing? In response I received off-the-shelf, by-the-book answers: perhaps, but not so far - and, besides, this is all in the experimental stage.
However at some point - I think it began with the tour of the tank - I began to suspect that I was asking the wrong set of questions. The Army has always prided itself on being grounded in reality. Now, like the Navy and the Air Force before it, the Army is leaping into a realm of hyperreality, where the enemy disappeared as flesh and blood, and reappeared, pixelated and digitized on computer screens in kill zones, as icons of opportunity. Was there a paradox operating here, that the closer the war game was able to technically reproduce the reality of war, the greater the danger of confusing one for the other? When soldiers begin to mutate into cyborgs, the old questions seem irrelevant.
The transitional moment was the Gulf War. Although General H. Norman Schwarzkopf has always referred to himself as a "mud soldier," in 1990 he sponsored a war game called Exercise Internal Look 90, which combined computer simulations with minimal troop movements to model an Iraqi invasion. During the final days of the exercise, reality caught up with the simulation and Iraq actually invaded Kuwait. In his autobiography Schwarzkopf recounts that his planners kept mixing up reports of the simulation and the war. It turns out that the mud soldier was our first cyberpunk general.
The blurring of war and simulation goes back even further in the history of Operation Desert Storm. In a 1990 USA Today interview, Schwarzkopf revealed that before the war, Iraq was running computer simulations and war games for an invasion of Kuwait. During the war, Schwarzkopf, according to his own account, was programming daily computer battles against Iraq. Among the many causes of the Gulf War, what importance should we place on the proliferation of simulations? Have new improved simulations begun to precede and engender the reality of the wars they are intended to model?
Clearly the Army doesnt read French critics like Jean Baudrillard or Paul Virilio for answers about the potential hazards of global simulation at digital speed. But what do they read? The day before my departure I had received an air-express package from the Office of the Secretary of the Army. Officially it was identified as the press kit for the Advanced Warfighting Experiment (AWE). But "press kit" does not do this document justice. Collected in a large, three-ring binder with the triangle logo for "The Digital Battlefield" on the cover (satellite, helicopter, and tank in each corner, connected by lightning bolts to a warfighter in the middle) were more than 30 press releases, brochures, and articles on the Army of the future. Computer-generated images were mixed in with all kinds of fonts and graphics.
Leading the paper charge was a prolegomenon from the office of the Chief of staff that provides the best encapsulation of the rationale behind the 21st Century Army, Force XXI:
"Today the Industrial Age is being superseded by the Information Age, the Third Wave, hard on the heels of the agrarian and industrial eras. Our present army is well-configured to fight and win in the late Industrial Age, and we can handle Agrarian-Age foes as well. We have begun to move into Third Wave warfare, to evolve a new force for a new century."
In the slickest brochure, bearing the short yet pretentious title, "The Vision," I found a section called "Exploit Modeling and Simulation" that read like a good cyberpunk novel:
"Ten thousand linked simulators! Entire literal armies online, Global real-time, broadband, fiber-optic, satellite-assisted, military simulation networking. And not just connected, not just simulated. Seamless."
It gets better, and for good reason: it was written by Bruce Sterling for Wired (see "War is Virtual Hell," issue 1.1, page 46). What does it mean when Wired is appropriated for the Armys information war? Perhaps in the new era of simulation, Sterlings writing, as well as my own reportorial presence at Fort Irwin is just one more chip in the Armys motherboard.
As early as 1964, after reading a breathless promotional account of the "cyborg" under development by General Electric (from the photographs the cyborg looks like a robotic elephant), architect and social critic Lewis Mumford warned of the coming of a new "technological exhibitionism." Soon, he believed, this perverse display of military technology would pervade all of society.
Was I bearing witness to an even more powerful hybrid? What happens when you combine media voyeurism, technological exhibitionism, and strategic simulations? News flash: In the 21st century Army, you get the cyber-deterrent.
If this sounds far-fetched, consider the worst-case scenario that currently underlies strategic thinking. As CIA Director James Woolsey put it at his confirmation hearings, a "bewildering variety of poisonous snakes" has sprung forth from the slain dragon of communism. When the dragon expired, so did the mighty, if illusory, deterrence value of nuclear weapons. On a quest since Vietnam to fight only quick, popular, winnable wars, and imbued by the spirit of feudal Chinese strategist Sun Tzu, who wrote that "those skilled in war subdue the enemys army without battle," the 21st century Army has perhaps found in the cyber-deterrent its Holy Grail. The cyber-deterrent is fast, digitized, and is as spectacular in simulation as it is global in effect. With the price of nukes falling and their availability increasing, the digitized option has the added advantage of being out of reach of all but the richest rogues. And it makes a hell of a photo-op.
Digitization, making ever more convincing simulations possible, seems destined to replace an increasingly irrelevant nuclear balance of terror with a simulation of superiority.
Moreover, the digitized deterrence machine bears an important similarity to its nuclear counterpart: it does not necessarily have to work to be effective. Its power lies in a symbolic exchange of signs - give or take the odd reality check in the desert to bring religion to the doubters. This is the purpose of spectacles like Desert Hammer VI: to render visible and plausible the cyber-deterrent for all those potential snakes that might not have sufficiently learned the lesson of the prototype of cyberwar, Desert Storm.
Here at Fort Irwin, the desert functions again as a backdrop for the melodrama of national security. The effect of Desert Hammer is to turn von Clausewitz on his head. Military maneuvers are no longer about dispersing the fog of war, but about stage-managing the special effects. Combining Disneyland, Hollywood, and Silicon Valley, the National Training Center, full of video cameras and computerized special effects, not to mention thrilling rides, has superseded Los Alamos and the Nevada Test Site to become the premiere production set for the next generation of strategic superiority.
Can one conduct a critical inquiry into the information war without becoming just another informant for it, material for the Armys sequel, "(Re)Visions?" Biologist-turned-social-critic Donna Haraway, more sanguine than Mumford about the technological turn, offers a possible escape pod from the dilemma. In her embryonic 1985 essay, "Manifesto for Cyborgs," she wrote: "From one perspective, a cyborg world is about the final imposition of a grid of control on the planet, about the final abstraction embodied in a Star Wars apocalypse waged in the name of defense, about the final appropriation of womens bodies in a masculinist orgy of war. From another perspective, a cyborg world might be about lived social and bodily realities in which people are not afraid of their joint kinship with animals and machines...."
There are cyborg alternatives to be found in the desert. Heading back at the usual hellbent speed from the battlefield on day two, I asked the major over wind and noise about the strange warning sign that had caught my attention early in the morning. "Desert tortoise," he shouted. "Fifty thousand dollars if you kill one." I had to wait until we returned to the base to find out whether that was the bounty or the penalty. In asking, I learned that the tortoise had been assigned threatened species status in 1990. And since Fort Irwin encompasses some of its main breeding grounds, a clash of armored vehicles and armored reptiles was inevitable.
What was the Army to do? It decided to go green, or at least a slightly muddy version of it. The following morning, I met with Fort Irwins civilian environmental scientists, enlisted by the military to protect the tortoises. Judging from their intensive prep and genuine enthusiasm, they didnt get many opportunities to sell their eco-wares to the press. After all, how could a lumbering desert tortoise possibly match the media appeal of an M1 tank going flat-out?
After the briefing, the tortoises appeal was evident. The slide show was informative ("Without our help, the survival rate of the tortoise is 1 percent"), moving ("To a raven, a freshly hatched tortoise looks like a walking ravioli"), and amusing ("Here we see several tortoises in parade formation after completing their training at Fort Irwin").
The scientists claimed to be matching the warfighters chip for chip in the information war. Tortoises were tagged with transmitters, tracked by radio telemetry, and graphed in grid locations by computers. Landsat satellites were used to identify good habitat areas, aerial mine detection technology to find tortoises moving on the ground, and electronic sensors to warn off vehicles that might endanger the creatures.
Surveillance and communications technology was binding humans and tortoises into an interdependent community. By the end of the briefing, I began to believe that I had just witnessed the telling of a postmodern fable. Perhaps, with a techno-ethical assist and a leap of faith, the tortoise might yet beat the tank.
I knew it was a stretch - and not quite Aesop - but what more can one expect when machines take the place of animals in the imagining of the human race?