As an amateur historian, I am given to musing about the flow and processing of information. People make mental models of the past, but those models are usually highly skewed. As both Napoleon and George Orwell are alleged to have observed, it is the winners who write history. Beyond that, most historians rely primarily on written sources, which further skews our perspective to the pedjudices of a given time’s literati. The uptake curve of any new trend is difficult to perceive at its inception. Important events often show up as important only well after the fact. Of all the news stories of today, how many human beings can predict what story will actually shape the world of 50 years from now? Even experts fail at this. And often, the true import of events is obscured until the generation who experienced those events has passed away, along with their distored perceptions.
Take a look at the early 1960s, for example. If one is to go by the Boomer nostalgia for the period, the assassination of Kennedy is the watershed event for the period. In fact, the most likely (and I do not presume to have the final world on this) candidate for the seminal event of 1960 – 1964 is Kennedy’s commitment of troops to Vietnam. From this flowed a tremendous amount of history, and not just the further commitments of LBJ and the subsequent social upheaval in the US. If the officers I talked to in the late Soviet period are correct, the Vietnam War bankrupted the Soviet Union. The Soviets spent approximately $1 billion per year in a war it truly could not afford:
"The Soviet Union poured billions of rubles into Vietnam. . . During 1965-1975 military aid was central, and economic aid was geared entirely to the war effort. By the 1970s Soviet aid amounted to $1 billion or more annually, without which the Democratic Republic of Vietnam (DRV) could not have continued the war."
The adventure in Vietnam and the attendant arms race crippled the economy of the USSR. It severely curtailed their foreign policy adventures. And when Reagan came along and proposed Star Wars, Gorbachev threw in the towel. Not because he thought that the American missile shield would achieve 100% coverage against missile attacks. The Russians were not stupid. And not because they thought we’d even get 75% coverage. It was because even 30% coverage was considerably better than the 0% the Soviets could muster in the near term. And because it would have sapped a couple of percent of our GDP, while even attempting to match it would have cost a significantly grater fraction of their GDP (some officers I talked to estimated as much as 50%). And the US technology would have gotten better with time and experience, which would have sapped even more Russian resources. In this respect, the events of 1989 and 1991 were a direct result of Kennedy’s decision to commit to Vietnam and Reagan’s willingness to capitalize on the advantage gained by bankrupting the USSR and sending it into the period the Russians call “The Stagnation”.
But at the time, what were the great news stories, which still to a large extent dominate the thinking of historians about the period of 1960 – 1964? The assassination. The Bay of Pigs. Camelot. Useless drivel and a distraction to the serious study of history.
It’s probably a truism that a serious futurist needs to look well beyond the headlines to get a sense of the most important trends that will influence the future of the world. The introduction to one of my favorite history books contains another rather forceful reminder of this dynamic:
“I remember well how, in the spring and summer of 1939, my curiosity was gripped by short newspaper accounts of an undeclared war that was raging between the Japanese and Soviet armies on a desolate stretch of disputed frontier lying between the client states of Manchukuo and Outer Mongolia.”
-- Alvin D. Coox, Nomonhan
That battle, Nomonhan or Khalkhin Gol, depending on your perspective , was a watershed in the global conflict that rivaled its contemporary event, the invasion of Poland, in its significance:
“It is generally agreed that, despite IJA silence on the subject, the Japanese decision in 1941 to transfer strategic emphasis to the south, involving war with the United States, Britain, and the Netherlands, stemmed in part from the Kwantung Army’s failure against the Russians in 1939.”
In large part. Had the Japanese succeeded agaisnt Zhukov and joined the Nazis in a two front war against the Russians, the Second Front would have been a disaster for Stalin. Had the Japanese not moved against Pearl Harbor in 1941, war with the US would have been at least delayed, and Roosevelt would have needed some other pretext to come to beleaguered Britain’s aid in its darkest and finest hour.
Failure to understand that conflict and the lessons it taught about the IJA by people who should have taken a much more professional interest led to much needless bloodshed on the part of the British and American military in the Pacific War. The defeat of the Kwantung army by Zhukov (a name that should have been well noted by Americans and Germans alike in 1939), was the primary event that turned the Japanese on a collision course with the US.
Yet where is Nomonhan in the list of vital battles we teach our high school and college students about WWII.? Pretty much nowhere. Apropos another conversation on this blog, it seems that the professional military historians outside academia take the study of this battle a little more seriously.
Much of the overemphasis on side issues is driven by contemporary press covereage. Occasionally I’ve wondered why people in the past ignored some sign of events to come that seems so obvious in hindsight. Then I look at the mass of frivolous and useless news coverage today and realize how hard it is to pick useful signals from the vast background of noise that bombards us daily.
If the media were properly doing their jobs, the OODA loop would be on the lips of anyone who has anything to say in public about the War on Terror in general, and the War in Iraq in particular. Instead even many people who think of themselves as educated (and perhaps an even greater fraction of those people who consider themselves intellectuals) have no idea who John Boyd was, or why he is an important figure. In my opinion no one who has not read his theories has any business at all opining on current foreign policy.
Probably the most important (and under-reported) historical trend in the current decade is directly related to Boyd’s theories, and can be summed up under the category of “fourth generation warfare” . I view this trend much the same way I view the Internet’s penetration into what was once the purview of Mainstream Media. Production in the past was concentrated in the hands of a few, be that access to the acoutrements of mass media such as television networks, or access to modern weapons. As the world has gotten richer, distribution networks have become more democratized, and excess capacity brought about by globalization has increased access to many types of goods, high quality video cameras, computers and weapons included.
In the past, insurgencies that we now class as fourth generation non-state actors needed a third generation patron to maintain the flow of arms and supplies that is required to damage a modern nation state. Mao and Tito had Stalin, Ho Chi Minh had Krushchev and Brezhnev, the IRA had idiotic Irish-Americans, etc. The fall of the Soviet Union has deprived a number of manufacturers of a market in the former Warsaw Pact, and this excess capacity is now aimed less at furthering the foreign policy of the Russians than it is aimed at supporting the economy of the smaller nations in the former Eastern block. This is exactly analogous to the fact that, with the excess capacity generated by business telecommunications networks, the network that formerly had the primary function of linking DARPA with its university research clients is now, on a volume basis, mostly used to support the global porn and counterfeit erectile dysfunction pharmaceuticals markets.
What does this mean for fourth-generation warfare? The guerilla may swim in the peasantry as a fish swims in the sea, but peasants don’t supply him with semtex and anti-tank missiles. Third generation economies do. Small arms are readily available in the third world will keep small-scale conflict smouldering with or withoiut international arms sales. The occasional IED or bomb on a plane may spark a small reaction, but in order to prolong a campaign and threaten governments, the guerilla must procure sophisticated weapons or plan for years for a single strike, as with Al Q’aeda’s long campaign to bring down the WTC, from at least 1992 to 2001. While the attack on the WTC seemed like a spectacular success, when viewed though the lens of history, any campaign that required at least 9 years of planning to kill 4000 people and miss several of its major objectives would be viewed as a pyrrhic victory at best, a total waste of resources at worst*. Such victories can never be truly prevented, but the odds of success can be further stacked against the barbarians.
However, the real goal of most fourth generation actors (e.g. FARC) is to become master of a state and play in the third generation game. This is where third generation states can score big wins, by limiting the flow of sophisticated weaponry. And this is where, until recently, the US was losing badly.
That failure should have been the top news story of the last five years, if the media reported on what was truly historically significant. Future historians will be able to point to a few good news stories and wonder why so many people missed the signals. The answer lies in the signal to noise ratio in the mainstream press, as epitomized by the low-key coverage of a crucial arrest.
* The failure to pick up on and eliminate the threat after the first warning in 1993 is another topic for another day.