Fifth generation conflict comes home
Just before a truck filled with dynamite is driven into the arena and set off, Robert Stone’s wretched protagonist in Hall of Mirrors, Reinhardt, stands on stage at a racist rally, clutching a microphone to his lips to address an audience that’s about to explode into racial violence. At first an old instinct returns to him, Reinhardt was a Juilliard man, a clarinetist turned radio DJ for a patriotic station WUSA, and he thinks he might be able to rouse the band and soothe the crowd, but he’s had too much to drink and smoked too much pot and the art fails him and instead he launches into a bitter, terrible screed (366):
Americans, our shoulders are broad and sweaty but our breath is sweet. When your American soldier fighting today drops a napalm bomb on a cluster of gibbering [expletives], it’s a bomb with a heart. In the heart of the bomb, mysteriously but truly present, is a fat old lady on her way to see the world’s fair. This lady is as innocent as she is fat and motherly. This lady is our nation’s strength. This lady’s innocence if fully unleashed could defoliate every forest in the torrid zone...
His story continues to build: She‚ lady Columbia, is a whip and a bane, the various incarnations of Other choke on their arrogant smirks from her presence, they disembowel themselves, and raise quivering fingers to their weasely throats and fall dead from her presence. The lady is on a bus, en route to the 1964(?) World’s Fair, crossing an Iowa cornfield, when she attracts the leering attention of a monster with a massive distended member who is nude save for his helmet which is emblazoned with a communist star and just as he is about to pounce and ‘rape her to death’ on the hot asphalt, a working man who was swindled into giving up his land by the local DA sets off his explosives—later, when the hero confronts Bingamon, the grand villain who cooked up the scheme, they realize he’s mad, he’s riddled with syphilis and so swollen with it he can barely move. “We didn’t know about the truck,” Bingamon said smiling, “I freely admit it. When you stir up the bottom you naturally bring up some big fish.” Some Armageddon. [muses Rheinhardt.] It was just a lot of junk flying around and blowing up. But what a concert it might have been.
The tension of that scene, and the powerlessness, and really the entire Hall of Mirrors (1966), captures the madness of what happened in the Capitol last week.
A crowd of mostly Republican rowdies in DC for Donald Trump’s rally set off for the Capitol (possibly at the behest of the President), overwhelmed police and stormed the corridors of the Capitol apparently on the hunt to hang treacherous Vice President Pence and vowing to defile the Speaker of the House.
There’s a New Yorker video of the moment a man in Barbarian garb (the notorious Q Shaman) enters the Senate chamber clutching an American flag. It’s oddly tender. A masked cop urges him them to be respectful because it’s sacred ground, and checks in with a bleeding bearded man who’s on the phone, who responds that he’s alright, he just got hit in the face with some kind of rubber bullet, and then Jacob Chansley (the Q Shaman) swans by and gets his picture snapped at the very heart of America’s republic. It has the feel of a historical moment caught on tape, they’re clearly bit players in a grand historical moment that’s gone array, and they’re kind of aware of it, but it all clearly must feel so surreal, and you can feel it watching them, and I wonder when they’re checking their phones if they’re doing it to ground themselves to reality (or the comforting algorithmically curated customized version they’re accustomed to receiving.).
Eerie reminders of January 6th’s incursion are circulating through our networks. Celebrity Representative Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’ shoes were stolen in the ruckus, Speaker Pelosi’s is said to have been offered to the Russian Embassy, and Representative Alyanna Pressley’s panic button was torn from her desk. Images of computers in the Capitol that the rioters snapped, the ones that bore an ominous black square flashing POLICE ACTIVITY seem to have been scrubbed. To many of us, watching the events unfold felt like a sequel to September 11th only this time the combatants looked like a crowd at a rowdy tailgate party.
What was going on? The following day, the President was pried away from his 87 million follower Twitter account. Facebook, Youtube, Instagram, and even Pinterest yanked the plug on him too. The San Francisco Bay internet intelligentsia called this the greatest flex of technological might ever seen. (I’d offer the atomic bombs, the moon landing, and the firebombing of Dresden as possible alternatives) Tens of thousands of other social media accounts were also deleted, particularly those belonging to QAnon members, followers of a peculiar anti-government conspiracy theory. The deletions and suspensions were part of what looked like a coordinated attempt to strangle a violent insurgency, but a very different one than we’d ever seen before in the United States.
To most of us, this was our first glimpse of what military analyst John Robb calls an “open source insurgency.” Other than shutting down communications and flows of currency, there isn’t much that can make a dent in a loosely connected, leaderless, well dispersed ad hoc organization.
Robb would describe the men and women storming the Capitol “Global Guerrillas.” To define the term, he describes the way insurgent activity in Iraq changed following the complete destruction and dissolution of the Iraqi military and its government. Former officials began testing attacks, hiring militia members for one-time only strikes, mimicking Laurence of Arabia, aiming to disrupt life as much as possible without triggering a massive crackdown.
As the Iraqi insurgency continued, a marketplace of violence emerged; tactics for disrupting the government were openly shared and experimented with. They quickly realized the most disruptive attacks weren’t those that struck terror with high casualty rates, instead, attacks that called into question the ability of the democratically elected government to provide basic necessities like continuous power and sanitation were much easier to conduct and hit much harder.
Attacks became akin to startups. A suggestion went out on the network, attracting a bunch of loosely aligned malcontent mercenaries who work for money, hit hard, and survived to fight another day.
This was much different than the terrorism depicted in the Battle of Algiers (1966) where an organization made up of loosely connected nodes could be rooted out and their leader killed. Instead, contemporary conflicts resemble frontier life (or at least as depicted by spaghetti westerns). Think of the shifting allegiances in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) as Clint Eastwood, Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach as they make their way through the Civil War-era frontier, cooperating and conspiring with one another as they hunt for a cache of Confederate gold. Social media and communications channels like Whatsapp and Discord allow easy coordination and execution.
Elsewhere on Substack, Glenn Greenwald sounds dire warnings of a second Patriot Act. It’s a power grab that will be to everyone’s disadvantage, he claims, just as the first one was. The first Patriot Act generated much of the state’s surveillance apparatus, and among other things forged a creepy partnership between the large software companies and the intelligence community. The proposed “Second Patriot Act” would be pointed at domestic terror organizations. If the vetting of the National Guardsmen before Biden’s inauguration is any indication of what’s in store, it would probably involve massive data-mining of open source information (like social media histories), commercial databases (such as cell phone location data and credit reports) combined with ‘graphs’ like Palantir to determine connections, and to estimate whether someone might be connected to enough bad actors that they might be tempted to do something terrible themselves. It might be the only thing that can stop networked attacks.
In Hall of Mirrors, Bingamon planned the rally and paid for what was to be a failed strike outside. His plan was to echo what had happened a hundred years before, in New Orleans in 1866, when a clash between protesting Freedmen and whites at the Mechanics Institute sparked a massacre, and the subsequent Reconstruction Republican party’s harsh crackdown triggered a failed coup d’etat (the Battle of Liberty Place in 1874). Bingamon hoped his riot would ignite a American Renaissance that would return the country to White Christendom, but the plan was bonkers, Bingamon was no mastermind, he was dying of syphilis, and addled, caught unaware by the scale of the events he’d triggered, and his head ended up bashed in by a Canadian lay pastor under his employ who picked his pockets and took his Luger as he fled.
To me, the most horrifying thing about January 6th was realizing that no one was actually turning the dial. It was all bubble and froth, small fiefdoms pushing for an advantage, with no one in charge, and something undeniably strange and terrible had happened, yet everyone involved was just a jackal tugging at the remains, trying to assemble the footage into a picture resembled their worldview.
In the 1960s Pacific Bell scientists observed that it didn’t make sense for a television to receive wireless transmissions (through its antennae) nor was there any reason why a telephone should be hardwired into a grid. Eventually it would make more sense for phones to be wireless and television (with its much richer feed of information) to be wired to a grid. For now humans harness the computational power of computers for work and play; but perhaps it would make more sense if computers were used to harness the emotions and purchasing power of herds of humans by tweaking and modulating their behavior. This is the idea behind what’s known as 5th Generation Warfare.
The U.S. began using the idea of generations of warfare during the reform of the U.S. Army that took place after the Vietnam War in the 1980s, when the U.S. military was transforming itself from an organization designed to fight and win massive land battles like WWII into a leaner, meaner, more adaptable force capable of winning a war like Vietnam.
In practice generations of warfare are a bit like Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey (or Freud’s theories of the unconscious mind) — an easy introduction to a complicated field but too limited to be practical in the field. Nevertheless it’s a useful basic model.
First generation warfare refers to basic strategy (such as Greek soldiers interlocking shields to form protective phalanx); the introduction of guns and cannon demanded new tactics, which became second generation warfare (epitomized by the great Prussian General Carl von Clausewitz). Third generation warfare came about with fast maneuvering tanks and planes working in concert to rapidly disrupt enemy lines, especially during War War II (Blitzkrieg). Fourth generation warfare is defined by nuclear war, in that traditional warfare becomes too costly for states to wage against one another, so they turn to proxy war and guerrilla tactics. Fourth generation warfare uses the civilian population as a theatre of war. Winning hearts and minds becomes more important than dispersing an attack (3rd gen), or breaking through enemy lines (first and second). Fifth generation warfare further erases the distinction between civilians and combatants. It weaponizes public opinion and deliberately disrupts the infrastructure supporting them to force them into inter-factional conflict.
Each generation of warfare is designed to beat the previous generation. It’s like a ladder. When an attack fails, conflict slides down a generation (with bloody results). For example, an aggressive crackdown on a fifth-generation conflagration like the storming of the Capitol could provoke a traditional guerrilla war, which if heated enough could provoke a traditional maneuver warfare (for example the 2007 surge when the U.S. and its allies increased their troop commitments in Iraq pushed warfare back a couple of generations, much to their advantage.)
Combatants in Fifth generation warfare (the people doing the stuff like storming the Capitol or attacking infrastructure) are often quasi professional, according to Robb. Yet they’re very different than the guerrillas a generation ago. There are no campaigns in fifth generation warfare, what motivates them is the mob: an angry swarm that occasionally lashes out violently. Instigators and violence-doers are more like criminal gangs. In the U.S. you can make an analogy to ANTIFA or organizations like the Proud Boys. Leadership isn’t important. Social media, according to Robb, makes it so that every cause can find its combatants. For many foot soldiers the event is simply an excuse for mayhem or curiosity.
Afterwards the event is repurposed and attached to a narrative and used to generate more propaganda. It becomes a nasty feedback loop, with coverage inflaming tempers and sparking even more conflict.
Thanks to the internet, we’re constantly embroiled in low-level 5th generation war. Cyber has evolved from bots and hacking to more sophisticated operations that use social networks to drag local populations into a fight; the idea is that it’s much cheaper if you can subdue an enemy by overwhelming them with internal conflict or carefully timed drops of leaked information seeded among useful idiots. Groups like QAnon are often co-opted for nefarious purposes, but it’s difficult to tell what’s homegrown and what isn’t. Where does the border between cyber and reality lie? In a democracy the distinction is important, because the government is ostensibly under the control of its people. But if you can’t trust that the opinions they’re stating are their own, what can you do?
Maybe the definition of humanity is becoming blurred by our relationship with our own creations. We change our behavior online, we often cloak ourselves in different identities under different channels, and if what we do with those identities is increasingly modulated by algorithms, does it really matter? It seems like it should matter. One probable outcome from the growth of conflict like that in the Capitol is that even democratic governments will stop seeing their populations as the warrant of their power, and increasingly as a nebulous, threatening entities that should be watched and obliterated if necessary. Never forget that dehumanization is one of the more unambiguous steps towards genocide.
Hall of Mirrors is partly based on Robert Stone’s experience as a tabloid journalist. It depicts the shaping of narrative perfectly. The DJ Reinhardt picks through incoming wires to craft to find stories that fit a kind of rhythm. But at least you could escape radio WUSA. The influence of contemporary media is far more relentless and hypnotic.
There’s another reason I turn to Hall of Mirrors. I suspect it’s lurking beneath the most important text in the cyberpunk cannon: Neuromancer (1982), which is influential for among other things, coining the world “cyberspace”. Author William Gibson has yet to confirm or deny the influence, but the parallels seem pretty clear: there are cowboys named Case in both books, a scene borrowed from Schopenhauer about a beautiful blade slicing the strings of our souls; there’s even a picturesque view of a grey sky stretching out over a port city, and both describe a strange consciousness attempting to escape by hiring a band of artful renegades. But Robert Stone’s revolution was strangled in its crib, while William Gibson’s creation, an artificial intelligence named Wintermute, escapes its bounds.
When it did, the first thing Wintermute did was decentralize itself over the ‘net. Perhaps that’s what we should do. As for Reinhardt, as he staggered back to the bar and absorbed the enormity of what he’d been through (including his girlfriend’s suicide). “They killed my baby, and now I’m going to bust up the bar.”