The New Face of War, Bruce Berkowitz

Free Press, 2003, 257 pages, C$41.00 hc, ISBN 0-7432-1249-5

Released in March 2003, just as Americans were invading Iraq, Bruce Berkowitz’s The New Face of War is already showing a bit of its age.  Seven year later, thanks to two ongoing wars involving the most powerful military force on planet Earth, we’ve seen the new face of war: It’s about IEDs and insurgency and asymmetrical force projection and wireless communication and missile-armed drones.  Then again, age can also mean respectability: How best to evaluate a book dealing with future war than to measure how right it has been years later?

Perhaps the first thing to do is to ignore the all-encompassing title.  The New Face of War doesn’t present a set of prescriptions and predictions for future warfare as much as it focuses on the changes already imposed by information technology.  It doesn’t get down into the nitty-gritty of what weapons soldiers will be using in the future as much as it charts how military forces have been refining their use of information technology to shorten their decision cycle, read enemy messages, or mount elaborate deceptions.

For a book dealing rather heavily in abstract strategic concepts of no use to most lay readers, Berkowitz does an impressive job at vulgarizing his subject matter and offering interesting ways to ease into his most esoteric concepts.  In order to explain how information technology is revolutionizing warfare, he starts by drawing an analogy between NASCAR and Formula One, illustrates his point with a lengthy description of the Gulf War’s logistics innovations, touches upon the creation of ARPANET and ends up summarizing his main points about “the new face of war”. [P.75] It takes a special kind of military nerd to jump enthusiastically into a book that draws parallels between the Internet and warfare, but Berkowitz makes it easy with plenty of illuminating links and a helping of wry humour.

Berkowitz knows his stuff, and the book goes deep in historical examples that are fascinating in their own right.  Perhaps the most interesting parts of The New Face of War are the illustrative digressions taking a quick trip down military history in order to show the evolution of information in warfare.  There’s a fascinating side-note about the development of torpedoes, for instance (including how they relate to The Sound of Music), and a much longer explanation of how accurate positioning systems were developed (from finding a reliable way of determining longitude to the post-Gulf War civilian co-optation of the GPS).

It probably goes without saying that Berkowitz writes from the paranoid school of military analysis: His view of the world presupposes that America is constantly threatened and that most means are subordinate to the cause of maintaining American superiority.  This can be a bit annoying for foreign readers, or people who don’t have a built-in terrorism persecution complex.  On the other hand, Berkowitz can be reasonable in his analysis: A chapter-long discussion of the ethics of strategic assassination ends up concluding that there is no defensible rationale for it –a far cry from the right-wing pro-torture apologists who seemed to bloom so bloodthirstily during the second half of the Bush administration.

In evaluating whether The New Face of War had survived the past seven years without losing too much credibility, the conclusion is that the book remains just as interesting and through-provoking now than in 2003.  Events since then have suggested that the information component of warfare remains crucial –US forces in Iraq and Afghanistan vastly out-powered their opponent, but local knowledge allowed insurgents to strike back effectively through very different tactics.  In dealing with a conventionally powerful enemy, insurgents have understood that they must attack in ways designed to take advantage of their strengths and minimize their exposure –a point that Berkowitz explains through the example of terrorist strikes.  Perhaps most striking is what has not happened since the book’s publication.  Berkowitz, despite spending much of his time discussing information warfare, remains sceptical about “cyber-war” and the myth of hackers bringing down modern civilization (or at the very least power plants) through the web –and in fact, there have been no significant incidents of the type since 2003.

In this light, the years have been kind to Berkowitz’s theses as developed in The New Face of War.  The only disappointment in reading the book is to find out that the author doesn’t seem to have a blog or web site on which we can read about his latest publications.  One wonders what he’s thinking these days…

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