Old and New Battlespaces: Society, Military, Power, and War by Jahara Matisek and Buddhika Jayamaha. Lynne Rienner, 2022, 198 pp.
Authors Jahara Matisek and Buddhika Jayamaha of the US Air Force Academy, in the grand state of Colorado, have jumped into the deep end of one of the most important discussions the West can have: the weaponization of information by adversaries seeking to exploit the openness of societies that have made the protection and free flow of ideas an overarching principle. Along the way, the authors provide a fine analysis of the nexus between power and force in the twenty-first century.
Early on, the authors tell us that societies in which residents have open access to information have become the “centers of gravity” in the old-made-new mode of political warfare, what was once called subversion in the early Cold War (8). It is in this battlespace (if I am permitted to use the term) that the authors draw their lines and deliver their les coups les plus durs in their argument that the cognitive reality we mere mortals constantly create is now, in many ways, the emergent battlespace.
The authors, with a wonderful anecdote about goldfish and the water they swim in, grasp the fundamental truth that war reflects the society from which it springs, contingent on the myriad decisions made based on the social milieu in which its commander thrives: Napoleon was only Napoleon of his time—his genius was recognizing his social context before his peers.
The authors carefully craft their analytical framework early, and indeed, the pages are filled with case studies, but the fatuously named GRINS framework really need not go further than the politics of the regimes the authors study, encapsulating their geopolitics, ideas, nature of military organizations, and scientific knowledge (the R standing in for regime). Certainly, “neighborhood matters” (25), but the root of geopolitics—the Greek word polis—is a description of basic social organization.
The organization of society is politics, and this is where the authors thrust begins to falter. They provide a thesis on the role of force in society but then attempt to weld it to a positivist analytical framework that just drags their higher ideal down.
There are real problems with how the authors are aggregating variables. A regime is the political manifestation of a society, yet the authors relegate the effect of religion, in their own words, to “ideas . . . the most nebulous concept in the discussion of wars” (27). An entire field of political science, comparative politics, has evolved from attempts to understand with some efficacy why some societies are the way they are, and religion and regimes go together. Ask Iran, Saudi Arabia, or the Taliban in Afghanistan. Geopolitics is a vast ideal and just cannot be used as an organizing factor. One of the most well-known attempts at explaining the effect of the “geo” in politics is the Correlates of War Project, maintained at Penn State University. Look no further for why big countries do big war. But the authors are not done yet and have delivered much in this work.
They are on more solid and interesting ground when discussing the nature of military organizations as a source of social power that are “part of and shaped by the society they come from” (29). This delving into the culture of a military tells us that the war one wages is an extension of its culture.
The authors make the assertion, rightly, that the imposition of nuclear weapons has changed the character of war, that is, its execution (45). Total war, envisioned by the likes of Clausewitz and Jomini, has faded as a tool of foreign policy and instead, limited, indirect wars in interstitial zones have arisen. The authors make a good case that the age of political war has begun.
In asking the reader to ponder the power a society uses in conflict short of violent, total war, the authors deftly pivot from the mushroom cloud to the ballot box. Interest in political wars waxes and wanes, and the authors explain that “these conflicts lacked the hygienic clarity sought by lawyers, human rights activists, and Western Military officials.” These wars are a proper reflection of society, which is dirty and hairy and ultimately primitive, and this perception mismatch is exploited by protagonists to create flippant disinterest by the West in seeing the actual character of the conflicts in which it finds itself (73). The authors are very brave to point out that the United States is overly concerned with the optics of the “rights of the child” or gender balance in military units, and this causes a reactionary impulse that considers the violent revanchists in the world as the other, and not worth careful consideration.
Politics is the art of overcoming resistance, and in a democracy, where the key tools are consensus and power sharing and bargaining in a give-and-take scrum, the incongruence between aspirational commitments and political willpower create a maneuver space that can be exploited. Where there were two sides, now a third exists, and inside that third, the differentiation occurs again, powered by the probabilities of behavior.
Political warfare is about dividing and conquering, and the creation and exploitation of identity groups is a key to expanded, converged, and compressed battlespace for the authors, who bemoan the inability of the West writ large to examine its own weaknesses in the interstitial seams. The ethical, moral, legal, and political concerns, which are the core values of open democratic systems, naturally restrain a dialogue in which those very values could be depicted as weakness. Adversaries, who more accurately assess the new battlespace as integrated and synchronous, simply weaponize moral, legal, and political inhibitions. Not understanding how society creates regimes by harnessing ideas and then fighting in the full elemental ensemble of their geopolitical place leads to that other winning in the interstitial space. ISIS breeds splinter groups like so many marshmallow Peeps at Easter, Russia is Russifying the occupied areas of Ukraine, the Taliban ruled Afghanistan, and so on.
The authors again pique the reader’s interest in their descriptions of political warfare, wherein “battlespaces are now irrevocably expanded, converged and compressed” (142). Imagine the inextricable vinculum of society, electricity, and the automobile in 1950s America. The authors make the argument that the internet and its attendant infrastructure, and the following vulnerability of Western openness, have created similar, yet novel battlespaces. The interstitial tactics in these seams are meant to divide and absorb, meld, model, and contour and frame—a far cry from the search and destroy of the twentieth century.
Ideas flow through the cybernomos like water over the authors’ goldfish, and the protection of ideas is at the heart of Western societies. While some observers have astutely realized that such fierce protection of openness is perceived as a weakness by adversaries, the authors cogently argue the current environment is enlarging, not erasing, that interstitial space. Common applications such as GPS, wonderfully advanced and tightly controlled in the 1991 Gulf War, now would allow an adversary to track individual activities and behavior patterns, ultimately providing an understanding of the complex societal networks that can be further exploited. It is in this integrated vein that political war is less lethal, yet far more effective. Artificial intelligence is quickly turning data—innocuous bits and bytes—into information. Social media platforms conglomerate vast amounts of information about likely behaviors and lump those probabilities together. The agency of personhood, so sacred to Liberalism is lost to the guidance coming from the strategic horizon where realities are created by adversaries.
Thus, the authors have guided us through a postidealist description of the character of war, much influenced by the regime from which it springs. The political and the military are not only deeply connected, but power each other—something Clausewitz figured out by studying the campaigns of Napoleon. I cannot give credit to Matisek and Jayamaha for the idea, but their work in Old and New Battlespaces should hasten the conversation in the West between small wars of no consequence and big wars that are brewing in our cognitive realities while gliding past unnoticed in our manifest one.
Phil W. Reynolds, PhD