Personal and academic blog. Explores the borderlands between rhetoric, politics and intelligence.


The media economy of hostages

After a bit upwound report of a Danish journalist's near-kidnap in Afghanistan, it is worth reading John Robb's thoughts on the subject of hostage taking in the new type of warfare in hollow states. Global Guerrillas: HOSTAGE GAMES. His view is pronounced systemic and he defines the new media-reality of hostage taking as:

In short, a hostage drama that involves a foreign national can now manufacture a global systempunkt (the node/connection in any network, regardless of whether it's a physical or social network, which will cause a cascade of failure if removed/attacked/damaged). In today's environment, it really doesn't matter who is grabbed, the effects will usually be the same: a disruption of globalization.
The Danish story only shows that not only criminals and insurgents know the system of kidnapping as disruption, the medias also activate a certain narrative whenever this stuff happens.

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Operational Security in Africa

The recent Ethiopian invasion of Somalia was heavily supported by the US, that lend air-support by the AC-130 gunships and special operations forces. But due to an early leak, the involvement was portrayed as a veritable puppet show, with the US as the masters and the Ethiopians as the stooges. And considering the history of US involvement in the area and the general sentiment among Moslem leaders and populations to the notion of being an US proxy, the involvement backfired somewhat.

Esquire has an interesting article on the new US Africa Command, describing the leak: The Americans Have Landed

Those involved in the Central Command operation suspected two sources: 1) somebody in the Office of the Secretary of Defense who couldn't wait to trumpet their success to bitter personal rivals in the State Department, or 2) a dime dropper from our embassy in Kenya who simply couldn't stand the notion that the Pentagon had once again suckered State into a secret war.

The first New York Times piece in early January broke the story of the initial AC-130 bombardment, incorrectly identifying a U.S. military base in Djibouti as the launching point. That leak just let the cat out of the bag, tipping off the main target, a senior CIC leader named Aden Hashi Ayro, who, according to Centcom intelligence, had been completely fooled up to that point, thinking the Ethiopians had somehow gotten the jump on him. Ayro survived his injuries, and he's now back in action in Mogadishu and, by all accounts, mad as hell at both the Ethiopians and the Americans.

Six weeks and a second Times story later, the shit really hit the fan in Addis Ababa. Now the intensely proud Ethiopians, who had done all the heavy lifting in the operation, were being portrayed as bit players in their own war -- simpleton proxies of the fiendishly clever Americans. After angry denials were issued (Meles's spokesman called the story a "fabrication"), the Ethiopians decided that if the Americans were so hot to mastermind another intervention in Somalia, they would just wash their hands of this mess as quickly as possible.



Fictional Fighters of the Insurgency

It is a tough job being an insurgent leader. You live in damp caves or miserable safehouses in sprawling slums. You device destructive plots while having to nurture the righteous belief in Country, King or God that will lend a meaning to your existence as an outsider - or at least keep a lucrative criminal business running to make it worthwhile. You are bloodied by government forces and their well-funded international backers and betrayed by your own rats. All this while still having to inspire those around you to join or keep up the fight.

No wonder that insurgents sometimes would dream of a Superman. Living inconspicuously among men as Clark Kent, but springing into powerful action whenever needed, in a spotless spandex suit without creases or second-day shadows, leading the righteous by example. Hopeless... No, not if you enlist fictional characters!

New York Times writes on how the "U.S. Says Insurgent Leader It Couldn?t Find Never Was" . The mysterious leader for Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia (an affiliate but not necessarily a franchise of old Al Qaeda) Abu Omar al-Baghdadi who has sent out a number of statements, is allegedly a fiction created by the real leaders of the group to bolster the Iraqi's resistance against U.S. occupation.

And seen from a rhetorical viewpoint, this is of course highly suspicious (if revealed), but considering the situation, potentially very clever. Considering the high risks connected to being people like Zawahiri and Bin Laden, it is clever to have a fictional leader. He is able to send the right messages, but has no nasty side-effects of lived-life (such as political, sexual and financial scandals). He can be endowed with all the right features (such as being an Iraqi, Al-Baghdadi, and a good Moslem). The man is pure Persona and can be tailored to his specific ends.

I wonder if this is an example of the Rhetoric of Fiction or the Fiction of Rhetoric?



Narratives of war, victory and defeat

Every day you come across a story about a bomb killing people in Iraq. By now, you are probably getting numb by all the bloodshed and don't care to much about each news item (the syndrome is called compassion fatigue). But have you considered how this dis-association and numbness is actually shaped by the way the reports are written? The way each article is phrased and the larger narrative that it circularly draws upon and feeds very much shapes our stance towards the tragedy in Iraq.

The American Marine Corps general James Mattis recently gave an interview and commented on this very phenomenon (through the Small Wars Journal Blog):

"...the moral bye, the passive voice by our media, makes it appear like what the enemy is doing is just an act of God of some Godamned thing...getting our narrative out will be as important or more important than tactics."

He hits the problem right on the head. The way these things are described, make them seem impervious to human interaction, acts of a random and unsentimental nature, or even the hand of God, against which we have no power. But why is this so?

The American rhetorician Kenneth Burke tried to describe the framing of narratives in the interrelation between five instances. Burke tried to tease out the motive of social interactions - the motive being the reasons why people do the things they do. His model, the "pentad", illustrate the "ratios" between the set-pieces of social drama. And this can be used to illustrate how most news-pieces on the bombings in Iraq are moving the drama out of the realm of our control and into the realm of "unrulyness". By focusing on a neutral bomb (that "goes off", as if by itself) and the victim, the ratio between Agency (how the agents act) and Act (or perhaps Scene) are emphasised.

The obvious questions any mediocre screen wright would ask, would be "Who did it" and "why did they do it?" In the same line of thought, imagine a newspaper article from 1945 on the Holocaust, saying "Yesterday 45 jewish prisoners were killed by gas in a Polish town". If we don't ask those questions, we don't get a personal experience from the news articles - and we couldn't care less. This way of framing a narrative can be blamed on journalism's standards of non-partisan writing or on the compassion fatigue. However, if we don't realise that people are being killed and kills every day, it is obvious that we can't really get involved in a faraway war and politicians, such as the Danish, will be tempted to ease out of the war-zone with no end in sight. The interesting question now is, how will these withdrawals be depicted? What narrative will be chosen? Defeat, withdrawal or victory?



Consubstantiality and scapegoating

This brilliant cartoon from Cat and Girl gets a long way, explaining Burke's concept of scapegoating as a function of building identity.

Cat and Girl


Life without China?

Foreign Policy has a quip about Sara Bongiorni who did an experiment and tried to live for a whole year without buying products made in China. This was not to bash China but to highlight globalisation's impact on an ordinary American family.

"Our son outgrew his tennis shoes, and they were the only pair of shoes he had. So I set out to buy new tennis shoes, and essentially all tennis shoes are made in China at this point. It took me a couple of weeks, but I finally located these tennis shoes made in Italy that cost $68. Well, you can buy tennis shoes made in China for $15 in a place like Payless shoe stores. For someone on a moderate or low income, to be able to buy your 4-year-old kid perfectly good shoes for $15 is a real economic benefit. I didn?t realize I was going to see that at the outset."



Swarm theory and rhetoric

From the excellent Global Guerillas Blog I was directed to a nice article in National Geographic Magazine on swarm theory. Swarm theory is an effort to understand how self-organising systems such as a hive of bees, ants or a widespread insurgency is governed.

I might have a tendency to see rhetoric where ever I look, but I just couldn't resist the quotation below, describing how a swarm of bees find a new nest:

"The bees' rules for decision-making?seek a diversity of options, encourage a free competition among ideas, and use an effective mechanism to narrow choices?so impressed Seeley that he now uses them at Cornell as chairman of his department."

This translates directly from a swarm of bees into a University meeting room. But Isocrates was on to the principle of anti-logos quite a while ago, and it seems to me that this is close by. The only issue here is the "effective mechanism to narrow choices". At Isocrates' time this was consent or action, whereas today it is the popular vote.

Swarm Behavior - National Geographic Magazine



Gaming conflict without the guns

Everyone loves bit of senseless violence, when they themselves can be behind the gun and shoot digital crooks before dinner. And you might actually learn some tactical skills as well. At least, several armed forces are using the first-person shooter as a training tool. But admittedly, talking is harder than shooting, so where do we look when we need to simulate civil society in a crisis?

Until recently it wasn't really possible. OK, you could have Godzilla come and smash your SimCity creation and simulate a disaster that way. But otherwise enacting violence has taken the lead as the main storyline in computergames. Now, however, it seems as if you get a chance to simulate the more elusive sides of war, crisis and conflict.

The Danish company Serious Games has just released their new title Global Conflict: Palestine, where you will play a journalist, taking the hard decisions when deciding what side of the story you should cover. It features 3D graphics and runs on both Mac and PC.

An even more interesting'ish game is
A Force More Powerful, where you get the chance to orchestrate a non-violent campaign against a dictator. You can't help but think that this is the perfect edu-tainment for democracy movements around the world.

Apart from these two, there are a number of games that dabble in the same areas. I wrote on a competition to develop games that would further Public Diplomacy a while ago, and I would be surprised if we didn't hear more from that side.



Revolution in Military Affairs versus 4th Generation Warfare

William Lind has an interesting little blurp, contrasting the two thoughts on modern warfare, the Revolution in Military Affairs (RMA) and 4th Generation Warfare (4GW).

I never really thought of these two as opposites, rather that RMA (high tech weaponry and reliance on air-power) was a way to deal with the realities of 4GW (non-state "actor-isation" of warfare). I still don't think they are, but I see Lind's point, when he underscores the Winograd commissions' findings after the Israeli war in Lebanon last year: The western military is in a state of denial when it comes to the limitation of high-precision weapons in the new realities of war.

The Death of the RMA, by William S. Lind