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International Socialist Review Issue 35, May–June 2004

Full Spectrum Disorder


Stan Goff entered military service in January 1970 and retired from the Army on February 1, 1996. His first assignment was to Vietnam with the 173rd Airborne Brigade, and he retired from the 3rd Special Forces, the unit he belonged to during the 1994 U.S. invasion of Haiti. In the course of his career, he was assigned to two parachute infantry units, three Ranger units, two Special Forces units, and Delta Force. In addition to working in a total of eight conflict areas, he taught small unit tactics at the Jungle Operations Training Center in Panama and Military Science at West Point.

He has written two books, Hideous Dream–A Soldier’s Memoir of the U.S. Invasion of Haiti and Full Spectrum Disorder–The Military in the New American Century. He is working on a third book, Sex & War–A Soldier’s Notebook on Gender and the Military. We reprint with permission the chapter entitled "Full Spectrum Fuckup" from his book Full Spectrum Disorder.

The mathematical intuition so developed ill equips the student to confront the bizarre behaviour exhibited by the simplest of discrete nonlinear systems.

–Robert May

FULL-SPECTRUM dominance" (FSD) is the key term in "Joint Vision 2020," the Department of Defense "blueprint" issued under Henry Shelton, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Clinton administration. Full-spectrum dominance means "the ability of U.S. forces, operating alone or with allies, to defeat any adversary and control any situation across the range of military operations."

They did use the word "any" twice, making it perhaps the most grandiose hallucination in U.S. military history, in contrast to the semi-conscious caution inherent in the Powell Doctrine. "Full spectrum" refers to three things: geographic scope, level of conflict, and technology. This is a doctrine that implicitly aims at world military domination, taking on everything from street riots to thermonuclear war, accomplished with a blank check to weapons developers for an array of highly sophisticated gadgets. This is the doctrine from which Rumsfeld evolved his "Revolution in Military Affairs" (RMA) and the corresponding doctrine of "Network Centric Warfare." Rumsfeld is a narcissist who has convinced himself he is a military genius. His boss is a preppy pretending to be a cowboy, and he is a techno-geek pretending he is the new Clausewitz.

This explains his selection of the singularly undistinguished Air Force General Richard Myers, of Space Command (SPACECOM), who shares Rumsfeld’s "radical technological optimism," as the Bush Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

It is important to make a distinction between FSD and Network Centric Warfare (NCW). Rumsfeld has always seen technology as the dominant feature of FSD, and so he transformed FSD to make it his own. Goal: world domination by arms. Method: technological dominance. But Rumsfeld’s new doctrine actually begins to substitute formulaic digital "thought" for human leadership, using computerized battlefield systems that go well beyond the mere extension of senses. This dramatically increasing and ever more exclusive reliance on technology in fact carries with it a corresponding increase of latent disorder that can happen abruptly in a kind of tectonic shift. Bakara [Mogadishu] was a whiff of how this will look.

Reality is nonlinear and dynamic, and it will never conform to a formula. James Gleick explains: "The equations governing a pencil standing on its point have a good mathematical solution with the center of gravity directly above the point–but you cannot stand a pencil on its point because the solution is unstable. The slightest perturbation draws the system away from that solution."

In November 2001, a man at Atlanta’s Hartsfield International Airport, the biggest air travel hub in the southeastern United States, left his camera bag in the terminal just before boarding his flight. He rushed back to the terminal to retrieve his bag. When he ran back to catch his plane, fearing he would miss the flight and seeing long lines at the security checkpoint, he impulsively ran up the down escalator to bypass those checkpoints. It was stupid. And it was illegal. But it was, on its own, trivial. Individuals forget things. Individuals take shortcuts. Individuals follow impulses that constitute bad judgment. This impulsive act, however, at untold cost shut down air traffic into and out of the major air traffic hub for over four hours, forced the evacuation of around ten thousand people, and had immeasurable and cascading consequences for each and all of those people. It forced the rerouting of aircraft, rescheduling, cancellations, and re-ticketing for days afterward. It was the weekend before Thanksgiving. AirTran alone evacuated eighteen flights that were awaiting takeoff on the ground at Atlanta. This is the actualization of entropic potential based directly on system complexity. That disorder can be released by an up-the-down-staircase shortcut, or by flying an airplane into a building.

It might be argued that this was an example of system resilience since Hartsfield returned to operation, but this is not simply a matter of whether the glass is half-empty or half-full. Redundancy adds strength to complex systems, but it also increases the disorder any system creates within its material base–which is invisible, fetishized out of sight.

This points directly to the finite limits on material inputs into the system and the system’s underlying unsustainability. As a whole, the capital accumulation regime as it currently exists, with its huge dependency on complex technology, steadily increasing its own entropic potential, is quite simply overshooting its financial and ecological, and therefore social, basis. Hartsfield is presented here as an example of a small-scale entropic cascade. Larger ones are imminent.

A highly technologically-dependent military upon which American power now ultimately rests, operating in a far more chaotic environment than an airport, will eventually see this same law of unintended consequences with far more momentous outcomes.

Colin Powell, whose own doctrine could accommodate and even welcome a broader range of tactical options, is still a trained military officer who at least understands the Principles of War, which, taken together, emphasize leadership above all other priorities. Powell is enough of a realist to recognize the delusion of any adversary.

Rumsfeld and company seem to believe that technical superiority is some guarantee of military success, and that military force can somehow always resolve underlying economic and political contradictions. Powell, for all his inadequacies, knows better.1

Mike Davis, author of City of Quartz, Ecology of Fear, and Dead Cities, describes Rumsfeld’s peculiar techno-religious vision in his article "Slouching Toward Baghdad," ZNet, February 2003:

Although the news media will undoubtedly focus on the sci-fi gadgetry involved–thermobaric bombs, microwave weapons, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), PackBot robots, Stryker fighting vehicles, and so on–the truly radical innovations (or so the war wonks claim) will be in the organization and, indeed, the very concept of the war.

In the bizarre argot of the Pentagon’s Office of Force Transformation (the nerve center of the revolution), a new kind of "warfighting ecosystem" known as "network centric warfare" (or NCW) is slouching toward Baghdad to be born. Promoted by military futurists as a "minimalist" form of warfare that spares lives by replacing attrition with precision, NCW may in fact be the inevitable road to nuclear war.

Which well it may, because it doesn’t work. Along a continuum of conflict, the U.S. is burning its bridges along that continuum by standing down its capacity for comparatively low-tech, limited conventional conflict. If their current doctrine fails, they will be faced with the choice to quit, or to escalate. And that escalation is nuclear.

I’ve been relating some stories about war, but now I want to tell a story about war games.

In 1985, I beat the shit out of Delta Force in a military exercise in Panama, and in 1989, I captured the key aircraft in an exercise against 2nd Ranger Battalion in Florida.

Okay, there were some mitigating circumstances from their points of view. In both cases, I knew the modus operandi–because I had been a member of Delta and a Ranger Battalion, respectively. I did, however, defeat Delta’s B Squadron with two light infantry squads of young Rangers playing the part of Colombian guerrillas under my command, and I captured the key aircraft with my own platoon against two companies (eight platoons).

The common denominator in each case was simplicity.

In the former case, we simply waited until after dark, built a big fire to white out the night vision equipment of any observers, then unobtrusively faded into the night two-by-two to rejoin at a rendezvous point less than two kilometers away. The sun came up, and we were gone. Game over.

In the second instance, again at night, we attacked a small strongpoint that we could easily overwhelm. Instead of seeking cover afterward to hide from the swarm of "killer eggs," AH-6J helicopter gun ships that were buzzing overhead to provide cover for their Rangers, we stripped the infrared "I’m-an-American" glint tape from the helmets of those we had "killed," and fixed it on our own heads. We strolled straight down the middle of the airfield, blending into the beehive of activity on the "secure" airfield, and we climbed right up on the aircraft. "Hi, guys. You have just been captured." Dead simple.

In the latter case, we were told to leave and everyone pretended that we hadn’t done it at all. A lot of really important people were watching this exercise, and it had to succeed.

So I was entertained to read in September 2002 about retired Marine General Paul Van Riper. Van Riper is another simple guy, who was selected to play the Opposing Forces (OPFOR) Commander named Saddam Hussein for a three-week-long, computer-simulated invasion of Iraq, called Operation Millennium Challenge. Van Riper had the same experience I had back in 1989. He won. Then his victory was overruled.

He defeated the entire gazillion-dollar U.S. electronic warfare intelligence apparatus by sending messages via motorcycle-mounted couriers to organize the preemptive destruction of sixteen U.S. ships, using pleasure vessels.

At that point, the exercise controllers repeatedly intervened and told him what to do. Move these defenders off the beach. Stop giving out commands from the mosque minarets. Turn on your radar so our planes can see you…. Every time Van Riper was left to his own devices, he kicked their asses.

While all this is surely amusing, what does it really mean? Would the Iraqis defeat the U.S. during an invasion?

Certainly not.

Not even if, as some then reported, Yugoslavs were giving Iraqis advice on how to "passively track" U.S. warplanes in order to tease them in close enough to shoot, as the Yugoslavs did in 1999 against an F117 Stealth Fighter–cost: $2.1 billion a copy, and that’s not including maintenance. The decoys the Yugoslavs used on the ground were microwave ovens, at $150 a pop. The differences between Iraqis, Yugoslavs, and Afghan-based al-Qaeda would be instructive in assessing the so-called "doctrinal" shift of the U.S. military that played out so badly against retired General Van Riper, but that would be a digression.

The Iraqi military didn’t prevail because they couldn’t, though I would be one of many who grossly underestimated them.

I said before the 2003 invasion began, "They [the Iraqis] are weak, under-resourced, poorly led, and demoralized. They will come apart like a two-dollar shirt. I could be wrong about that, but I doubt it. So do Bush and Rumsfeld. If they thought the Iraqis could really resist, they wouldn’t be cooking up this invasion."

I was wrong about their level of resistance. I was right about Bush and Rumsfeld’s prognostications of a "cakewalk," with some boosters predicting the war would last two days.2

This was Donald Rumsfeld’s second tour of duty as the secretary of defense. His first was under Gerald Ford, where he was already demonstrating his deep affinity for big-ticket, high-technology military acquisitions. He had wrangled his Ivy League background into a job as a Navy flight instructor for three years in the mid-1950s–a ticket any really ambitious politician will punch in peacetime. A close identification with expensive war toys stayed with him.

Even in 1977, his priorities as secretary of defense were that "U.S. strategic forces retain a substantial credible capability to deter an all-out nuclear attack," and he indicated three key areas of concern: (1) U.S. submarine and bomber forces, (2) preventing the appearance that the Soviet Union had a greater strategic capability than the U.S., and (3) increasing and upgrading America’s nuclear arsenal.

This fascination with and faith in military high-technology as a strategic panacea has been a Rumsfeld constant. He was protected in that faith by those who would not allow Van Riper to beat the U.S. military in their computer game.

But there was another constant at work here. Bullying. That’s why the appearance thing was a priority. Bullies depend on appearances.

Most of us know what bullying is. It’s the cheap gangsterism encountered in school yards, shop floors, marriages, and offices, where a party who has the literal or figurative size to get away with it beats down the smallest among us in order to intimidate everyone into compliance with its wishes.

Let’s revisit Yugoslavia for a moment.

NATO claimed they had killed three hundred or so tanks in the massive bombing attacks that followed the Kosovo provocation, but the number was actually fourteen.

The war was won by bullying, not combat. By bombing unarmed civilians and civilian infrastructure mercilessly, in violation of the Geneva Convention, the Hague Convention, the UN Charter, the Nuremberg Charter, and the Laws of Armed Conflict.

(These are the same laws, by the way, that ostensibly protect American soldiers should they be captured in combat. Those soldiers should pay attention. The people like Bush and Rumsfeld who are ordering these serial violations of international law will never face capture. They will make belligerent manly noises from comfortable rooms while U.S. prisoners are having the electrodes attached to their testicles. Hey, what goes around, comes around. They’re not my bosses any more, troops. They’re yours.)

The Department of Defense claims that Apache helicopters were never used in Kosovo because of a deployment glitch. Bullshit. They were not sent into combat because they fly close to the ground where some very competent and motivated soldiers equipped with shoulder-fired anti-aircraft missiles were hiding with a decided willingness to fire.

Look at where the U.S. has engaged in combat since the U.S. defeat in Vietnam, then look at the type of combat and the opposition. Massive bombing, including of civilian targets, characterized the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Iraq had been bled white by a decade of trench warfare with Iran before the 1991 invasion and twelve years of deadly sanctions and bombing before 2003. Afghanistan was a backward, starving nation, shattered by internecine rivalry.

The only substantial ground combat in the 1991 invasion of Iraq was the surprise attack ordered by General Barry McCaffrey (again in violation of every international law and convention) to slaughter tens of thousands of demoralized Iraqi military and civilians two days after the cease fire, when the Iraqis were conducting an orderly retreat. Iraqi soldiers were actually sunbathing on the Baghdad-bound tanks — tanks whose main guns were reversed and locked into non-combat positions–when McCaffrey’s lethal "turkey-shoot" began.

Ground operations in Afghanistan have been a series of military blunders that are the stuff of sick humor, including the vaunted Operation Anaconda that turned into Operation Blind Garter Snake, a wedding that was converted into a mass funeral, and the cover-up of U.S.-supervised war crimes at Mazar-i-Sharif.

Other battlefield glories include the illegal coup de main against the superpower of Panama, in which thousands of civilians were killed in the process of defeating the "formidable" Panamanian Defense Forces; the invasion of Grenada (population 90,000) to secure the world’s strategic supply of nutmeg; and Reagan’s other adventure in Lebanon–where engagement on the ground with credible opponents resulted in another disaster. For anyone interested, Hideous Dream bathes the U.S. military in glory for the Haiti invasion of 1994.

The point is, of course, that the U.S. military is restricted to attacking defenseless opponents, what commentator Pepe Escobar referred to in March 2003 as "theatrical militarism"_…bullying.

Beat up weak people to show what a tough guy you are.

Note that the U.S. didn’t pounce on the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) when the DPRK was claimed to have announced it had bomb-grade plutonium. Wasn’t this one of the Axis of Evil, admitting it had weapons of mass destruction? (An admission which it turns out wasn’t true.) But...DPRK has a very tough and disciplined military that is close enough to Seoul to throw rocks at it, and a lot of American GI’s are concentrated between the demilitarized zone (DMZ) and the capital, and in the capital, which may be why Rumsfeld has since announced they will all be pulled back from the DMZ.

I’ll tell you a story about that further on.

The U.S. seems disinclined to commit conventional ground troops to Colombia. That’s because the FARC-EP and the ELN fight. I’ll go out on a limb and say they won’t send troops to Venezuela either. I’ve seen the Venezuelan army, most of whom are still loyal to populist President Hugo Chavez, and they didn’t strike me as pushovers.

Bullies avoid people who won’t put up with them. Were it not for the waning U.S. capacity to bully economically, our foreign policy establishment would be honored with a lot of middle-finger salutes.

There’s a new term popular in military circles, even being repeated by the Wolf Blitzer-types, self-appointed military experts that have become an artesian spring of impressively arcane military jargon in the televised news.

Asymmetric warfare.

It applies to suicide bombers and guys who hijack airplanes with box cutters. Get it? It’s kind of a double entendre. Asymmetrical force. Asymmetrical bang for the buck. It’s also asymmetry of technology, but Donald Rumsfeld hasn’t grasped that implication yet.

It’s funny that we never heard of the "asymmetry" of Barry McCaffrey’s slaughter of the Iraqis, or the "asymmetry" of the United States invading Grenada, an island nation with the population of Cary, North Carolina. But that’s a moral digression.

The principle behind "asymmetry" is simplicity. When they retreat, pursue. When they attack, retreat. Match your strengths to their weaknesses.

Simplicity, as any officer who paid attention in Military Science 101 can tell you, is a Principle of War. "All other factors being equal, the simplest plan is preferable." That’s what Van Riper understood. That’s how I beat the U.S. Army’s supreme commandos. That’s what happened to the World Trade Center (I am in no way endorsing the attack of September 11. I’m talking about cold, calculating, military success.).

The reason Van Riper’s victory had to be overruled is that it tears the scary mask off the bully and lets the whole world see the fundamental weakness of the vastly complex and expensive U.S. military monstrosity, the one that will invite not less but more "asymmetric warfare," the very monstrosity that is already mortgaging our children’s future.

Then whose victories will be overruled?

Well, the answer is not pretty.

There are huge tactical voids in Rumsfeld’s technocentric vision, and I will pick up the thread in a moment that shows where Special Operations will be used to plug the holes.

But the most discomfiting conclusion, which Mike Davis outlines lucidly, is:

If the American war-fighting networks begin to unravel (as partially occurred in February 1991), the new paradigm–with its "just in time" logistics and its small "battlefield footprint"–leaves little backup in terms of traditional military reserves. This is one reason why the Rumsfeld Pentagon takes every opportunity to rattle its nuclear saber.

Just as precision munitions have resurrected all the mad omnipotent visions of yesterday’s strategic bombers, RMA/NCW is giving new life to monstrous fantasies of functionally integrating tactical nukes into the electronic battlespace. The United States, it should never be forgotten, fought the Cold War with the permanent threat of "first use" of nuclear weapons against a Soviet conventional attack. Now the threshold has been lowered to Iraqi gas attacks, North Korean missile launches, or, even, retaliation for future terrorist attacks on an American city.

For all the geekspeak about networks and ecosystems, and millenarian boasting about minimal, robotic warfare, the United States is becoming a terror state pure and simple: a 21st century Assyria with laptops and modems.

Bush might listen to Wolfowitz, the Dr. Strangelove of American politics, and consider the use of tactical nuclear weapons in the quest to restructure the planet’s political geography. Rumsfeld has already begun calling for research into low-yield, atomic bunker-buster munitions.

But as the Haitian proverb goes, "If you don’t say good morning to the devil, he will eat you. If you do say good morning to the devil...he will eat you." There is no option for most of the world but to fight imperialism. And it can be fought, militarily, but not conventionally.

Shout out to all of you in the periphery. Don’t underestimate this beast from whose belly I write. But don’t buy its invincibility mystique either. It can be beaten. You just have to think out of the box.

1 The dilemma, if it is even recognized by the middling intelligence of George W. Bush and Donald Rumsfeld, is that this intensely complexified technocentric doctrine is now the keystone of an entire geopolitical strategy with the singular goal of imposing order on a highly unstable world situation. The systemic potential for entropy means that something inevitably, and unpredictably, will disrupt that system and create "the cascade of disorder." Remember Atlanta Airport. Remember September 11.

2 Leon Hadar, "Cakewalk? What Cakewalk?" The Straits Times, March 28, 2003.

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