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11 June 2023

“A choking(?) engine of war: Human agency in military targeting reconsidered”: [Recommended Innovation Articles (and Commentary) #31]

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Original post can be found here:

This article is on military targeting (how we decide what to attack, how, and why… with analytical reasoning on what the results will be in an overarching framework of targeting things to bring us closer to accomplishing a clear military goal), and it is an interesting yet academically challenging read. In an unusual twist, the article blends military activities in war with postmodern philosophy, something largely ignored or rejected by the mainstream military doctrine writers and traditional theorists. The authors as well as many of their primary sources and editor/advisors for this come from the Swedish Defense University in Stockholm and having worked with many of them, I can vouch for their significant military academic prowess. The article is titled “A choking(?) engine of war: Human agency in military targeting reconsidered” and is authored by Anna Danielsson and Kristin Ljungkvist. It appears in the Review of International Studies, 2022, pp. 1–21. The link is below,

If you wish to dive right in, be warned- this is an academically dense read. Of course, if you can breeze through postmodern philosophy and also military planning jargon, this warning need not apply. For those unfamiliar or skeptical of such a fusion of disciplines, give it a shot… and allow me to provide some useful commentary below to help with the adventure. I have taken the liberty and time to provide some explanations below for those that, upon first glance of the article, feel unprepared or find the terms unfamiliar. Don’t worry- I have your back with this ongoing series of academic study into warfare and conflict, and I link lots of extra content below to assist in unpacking some deeper concepts! Let’s dive in, shall we?

This article (which is in an academic journal, so reach out to your librarian if you cannot access the PDF) draws from several different disciplines and fields, and frequently uses some rather dense jargon that unfortunately the authors do not take the time to unpack. I will attempt to do this below, if only to make this reading more accessible for those of you that are unfamiliar with postmodern philosophy, organizational theory, complexity theory and so on. That said, this is worth your time to check out, particularly if you are involved in the targeting process (lethal and non-lethal) whether in the planning, execution, legal or other association with how a military force decides to inflict organized violence to attempt to achieve desired effects. Cliff Notes on terminology:

Ontology’ is first used on p.6 and is important to much of this article.

Ontology is a critical term in philosophy, and I like to use flowers to explain what it means. Humans will plant and curate particular types of flowers, such as rose bushes in the front yard. If weeds that have flowers on them grow, we choose to rip those out but leave the roses. For societies, we ontologically determine what flowers are ‘pretty’ and which are ‘ugly, unwanted weeds’… while insects make no such distinction as they are interested in the pollen or what-not. For fans of the ‘Adams’ Family’ show and movies, Morticia Adams frequently does flower arrangements where she does “strange” things such as cutting the heads of roses off an arrangement, or the roses are black, or sometimes dangerous Venus fly-trap versions… the point is that her ontology of flowers and beauty are entirely different from traditional ontological norms of the American viewing audience. Ontology is all about what we share a belief system on “what is and is not real” in how we understand reality- from tangible things to abstract concepts. For what war is and how our species engages in organized violence, Clausewitz, Sun Tzu, Jomini, Marx, and modern eco-terrorists (such as the Earth Liberation Front) all present differing war ontologies.

On p.6, the authors are explaining with ontology as their foundation that when militaries get trapped into a cycle of doing some warfare practices for the sake of the practice continuing, we use the slang expression “whack-a-mole” in targeting to echo this deeper academic explanation. We often unwittingly and non-reflectively do things that at a higher level of abstraction reflect the ontological structures of our social paradigm for war. These constructs exist in every war paradigm, whether we are aware of it or not. Usually, our paradigm prefers we not think about the structures within, so that we can instead devote that mental energy toward what the paradigm exists for.

On p.8, the authors introduce a postmodern philosophical term of ‘assemblage’- to briefly explain this, postmodernists (such as Delanda, Latour and most recognizable in their postmodern critiques of militaries and war, Deleuze and Guattari) consider these as a form of human agency that is not centered on any actual (tangible) individual person. We all are a socio-material network of people, artifacts in the physical reality, and constructed narratives that form a socially maintained ordering of reality. I wrote a military design article diving into assemblages that is here and has no pay-wall either:

Essentially, you and I do not act independently, even if you were on a deserted island. Everything we do (activity, agency) is impossibly tangled with a complex web of beliefs, values, meaning, biases, and our flawed human perception as we interact with physical objects in our physical geography. This is what postmodernists posit about everything, not just war. Granted- if you subscribe to a traditional, western Westphalian (Newtonian, Clausewitzian, Baconian) paradigm, this will feel like wet sand getting in under your clothing. Working with articles such as this one (that blends different, often antagonistic or incommensurate fields, disciplines, social paradigms) gets academically challenging and really requires a deep dive into postmodern philosophy, but basically the authors want to make the argument that the entire targeting process is an assemblage. Targeting planners, lawyers, commanders, pilots and ground forces requesting CAS are the human actors in the assemblage, but should not even be considered central to how this assemblage forms, changes and exists. So remember, we are not taking a journey in this article that will echo anything in modern military doctrine or targeting methodologies. It will be alien because postmodern philosophy is not used at all, ever, in modern institutionalized thinking. This stuff operates in the fringes for now, and only a sprinkling of military theorists (mostly in the design community of practice) are comfortable doing as such.

There are socially constructed aspects, tensions, paradoxes, technology, artifacts and topology that are all interacting in this construct. Later in this paper, the authors provide examples from Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) where readers can hopefully envision how ‘assemblage’ is an interesting and alternative way to consider their arguments on military organized violence. Note that on p. 12, the authors introduce how many actors are witting, but others are unwitting as the assemblage moves along in reality. Those that have seen their own organization do something institutionally “mindless” and exclaim “here we go again” intuitively might grasp this concept.

The authors also introduce a term ‘teleoaffective’- which seems to be the expression or exercise of what is a broader term ‘teleology’ or ‘teleological’. Anytime you run into ‘teleo’- this is a significant term in philosophy (and religions) that takes phenomenon, events, practices and explains why and how they are in terms of an overarching purpose… which often is not directly associated with any linear-causal relationship where a clear cause should be why something happens. In military targeting, this gets mentally taxing quickly because a basic assumption is that one targets with our resources toward something (the target) so that our activity produces effects that create in turn outcomes or objectives we wanted before we acted.

Teleology is a purely philosophical term, so it is not going to be found in the latest Army Field Manual 3–0, or in the newest NSS or NDS. Teleology means we are seeking the overarching purpose of why we do what we are doing in warfare (in this case, doing the targeting cycle)- hence, something that we believe is teleological means that there is an invisible guiding hand whether we are witting or not. Smith’s invisible hand of capitalism is one example from ‘The Wealth of Nations’ on how free markets operate whether the individual participants know so or not. Marx and Engels argued later that the human species had a teleological transformation that must occur worldwide from nation-states using that same capitalism into communist societies so that humanity could progress to a true, final and more perfect end state (it is teleologically declared and must therefore happen).

For those of you that saw the movie “The Gods must be Crazy” (the rest of you can search YouTube for clips)- a pilot drops a glass soda bottle out the window of the plane over a part of Africa where the locals have never encountered western society, and thus do not know what a soda bottle (or glass, or soda) even is. Quick link here (and please remember this is an older movie from a different time- there were then and continue to be today accusations of racism and etho-centricism, while defenders of the movie argue otherwise. I provide the 4-minute ‘coke bottle clip’ here and encourage viewers to form their own opinions systemically by incorporating the postmodernism and complexity theory also reflected in this commentary):

In the clip, the pilot’s teleological framing of the bottle is that it exists to hold the soda and preserve it until he opens it to drink it, and once empty it can be thrown away, recycled or refilled. The rest of the movie centers on how the natives attempt to create entirely alien ontologies and teleologies for the strange object. It becomes a weapon, a status symbol, a musical device, a religious item and more. In military targeting cycles, one could offer that one teleological aspect is that the process balances effective application of limited military resources to the maximization of battlefield objectives coupled with a societal desire to reduce risk to friendly forces as well as innocent civilians. Yet the article offered here explores other teleological tensions such as the aviator cultural/institutional teleology that munitions have a dual purpose where pilots that successfully use them in warfare gain status, honor, experience while those that return to base still with unexpended munitions have failed to purposefully accomplish what their roles as fighter pilots are.

If you are immediately frustrated with the academic rigor of this article, try skipping ahead to p.18 and read from there forward. The authors make some nice combat examples in the backside of this piece, which could help some readers if they read the end portion first and circle back to the denser concepts earlier in the article.

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