Chris Hables Gray, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of the Cultural
Studies of Science and Technology and of Computer Science at the University
of Great Falls. This excerpt from his latest book, Information, Power and
Peace (Routledge 2002) deals with how new information technologies impact
the chances for global peace.
For most of us who study contemporary war, September 11 was not a
surprise and it wasn't even the worst thing we have predicted. Because,
horrible as it was, it could have been so much worse. On one level,
September 11 should be taken as a terrible warning about what might happen
if this Cold War runs on and on like the first one. If the same policies
are pursued in response to the attacks that, in fact, led to the attacks
then we face many more days such as September 11, or more horrible. Any
group that can coordinate such complex and successful attacks is close to
having, or already has, the ability to make or to buy nuclear or biological
weapons. Using these they could do something that would produce a hundred
or a thousand or even a hundred thousand times more casualties. The
continued development and proliferation of weapons of mass destruction in
the context of the current international system means that we can predict
even more horrific acts of terror in the near future. These assaults could
come from independent groups, from government proxies, or from states
There are many labels used for contemporary war but whatever you call
it, this is it. It is asymmetrical, in that a tiny group can severely hurt
the greatest superpower in history. It is aimed at civilians, as most war
is these days. It is experienced in real time by the world, thanks to
global media. And casualties are maximized because of high technology.
Sadly, I am also not surprised by how our "leaders" have acted. We
are ill-served by those whose response to this tragedy is tremendous
denial. Calling these terrorists "cowards", as many of our politicians are
doing, is as revealing as it is stupid. These fanatics are not cowards,
they gave their lives to commit this evil. They are not stupid either.
They are true believers and we have plenty of those in our own country
willing to kill other Americans, and foreigners, and unbelievers in
general, out of their certainty.
There must be a powerful psychological dynamic behind this need to
label the enemy as a coward. Perhaps, President George W. Bush and the
other politicians who so easily throw the term out do so only because they
can't say "he's a wimp, a pussy, a woman!" Even though they are calling
suicide soldiers cowards, while many of them, such as Bush, went to great
lengths to avoid combat themselves, they have no hesitation in sneering at
the hated "other".
More disturbing is the rhetoric used around the attack. It was termed
a "declaration of war" by many politicians, including the President. He
soon was proclaiming that "we are at war" and that we were involved in a
"crusade" against terror. He probably forgot that it is Congress that must
declare war and he probably never knew that the Crusades were a pure war of
aggression against Islam to try and reclaim the Holy Land, during which
pogroms against Jews and even the sacking of Christian cities, such as
Constantinople, were common occurrences, since the Catholic Church had
granted a blanket dispensation from the consequences of sin to all
While some leaders have warned that we should not destroy our
democracy in order to save it from terror, others seem much less concerned.
For example, the leader of the Republicans in the Senate, Trent Lott of
Mississippi proclaimed "When you're in this type of conflict, when you're
at war, civil liberties are treated differently." (Madden 2001) There is a
long sad history to this type of thinking, going back at least to President
Lincoln's suspension of most rights, including freedom from arbitrary
arrest by the government (habeus corpus) during the Civil War. The old
Cold War became a rationale for innumerable illegal acts and abridgements
of freedom by the government, all in the cause of saving those very
freedoms. We will inevitably see similar attempts during this "war"
against terrorism. Many of our loudest patriots are already saying that we
should sacrifice some of our freedoms for greater safety, when actually
only our freedom can be preserved if we value it above safety. To have
freedom you must be willing to sacrifice for it.
There are always questions at such times as to why someone would
attack the U.S. in such a way. They are against "our way of life" we are
told. They hate our "freedom" and "what we stand for". They are just
"evil" and the U.S. is just "good". But this isn't how "they" see it.
"They" complain about economic domination, U.S. interference in their
affairs, U.S. support for their dictators, U.S. bombs killing their young
men and their women and their children.
That the United States is hated by many people around the world should
come as no surprise to anyone paying attention. The U.S. has made many
enemies. It has overthrown democracies and supported dictatorships in
Iran, Guatemala, Chile and other places in the name of political realism.
It has used high technology weapons to kill thousands of people, including
women and children, in Southeast Asia, Lebanon, Libya, Iraq, and the
Balkans. It has trained thousands of terrorists, most recently Islamic
fanatics in Afghanistan and right wing Columbian death squads. Maybe some
of these actions were justified, but in any event they angered many. Both here and abroad many people are also angry over the incredible
disparities of wealth that our system produces, for the damage to the
environment that it seems to depend on, and for the constant assaults on
freedom and democracy that seem to go with it.
And why does the U.S. bomb foreign countries and train foreign
terrorists? Why must the environment be sacrificed on the alter of
economic health (or is it corporate profits)? Why must our democracy be
sacrificed in order to save it? That's just the real world, we are told.
RealPolitick, as Henry Kissinger would say. Well, it is this bloody-minded
realism that took down the World Trade Center.
Edward Tenner (1996) has called the unintended consequences of
technologies "revenge effects". He points out in his book, Why Things Bite
Back, that the revenge of unintended consequences is so common that we must
analyze each new technology with it in mind. It is not as if many of these
consequences aren't predictable, they are just unintended. When one leaps
into a river on a hot day the intended effect is to experience the pleasure
of the flight and the coolness of the water. If it is shallow and you
break your neck, you realize you should have looked before you leapt.
Political decisions have unintended consequences as well. These have
become so common in the nether world of espionage and covert wars that a
special word has been coined for it: blowback (Chalmers 2000).
Osama bin Laden, the Taliban, and Saddam Hussein, are all examples of
blowback. Once they were our allies, if not our creatures. Osama bin
Laden, for example, was fostered through Pakistan's Inter-Services
Intelligence Agency (ISI), which funneled the weapons, training, and funds
the CIA wanted him to have in his war against the Soviet infidels. This is
the same source that suckled the ferocious Taliban, the nightmarish
theocratic fanatics now ruling Afghanistan. They were popular with the CIA
because of their enthusiasm for killing Russians and because their virulent
form of Islam was seen as a great "infectious agent" to introduce into the
Moslem republics of the Soviet Empire. Militants from bin Laden's group of
volunteer "Arab Afghans" returned to their homes in Algeria to massacre
moderate Moslems and assassinate Berber poets, to Egypt to slaughter
tourists, and to Saudi Arabia where they blew up the Khobar Towers and
bombed Riyadh in 1996. They have also kill Hindus in India, Jews in
Israel, Russians in Moscow, Africans of all religions, and as we know too
well, Americans (and citizens of 60 other countries) in New York and
Washington, D.C. Still, as late as 1998, Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah, a powerful
Republican who serves on the Senate Intelligence Committee, was defending
the U.S. support and training of bin Laden. "It was worth it," he told the
journalist Robert Windrem. "Those were very important, pivotal matters
that played an important role in the downfall of the Soviet Union."
Should we believe that this is the way the world must be. We have to
choose between communists and Islamic fundamentalists. Between Hitler and
Stalin. If so, we are doomed, morally and, eventually thanks to the ever
increasing power of weapons, physically. If our only choice is to fight
totalitarian evil by spreading it, then we are as doomed as the people
working on the top floors of the World Trade Center were. But there is another option. We can act morally. We can make sacrifices ourselves, and not train foreign fanatics to die and kill in our
stead. We can value the freedom and democracy of people of other places,
such as Afghanistan, as much as our own, and not gift them to insane
totalitarians just because they are the enemy of our enemy.
A Case Study
To better understand what is happening now, we should look at The Gulf
War of 1991. We can begin by asking, why did it happen? Was it just
because Iraq conquered Kuwait in a naked act of illegal aggression? That
can't be it because the U.S. has ignored, or even encouraged, many other
such aggressions. Noam Chomsky (1992) explains that it was hardly the worst crime
"against peace and against humanity" of the era. In terms of people killed
or violations of international law he ranks it as equivalent to the Turkish
invasions of Cyprus or Israel's invasion of Lebanon in 1978 or the U.S.
invasion of Panama. And adds, in these terms it falls well short of Israel's 1982 invasion of Lebanon and
cannot remotely be compared with the near-genocidal Indonesian invasion and
annexation of East Timor, to mention only two cases of aggression...with
the crucial support of those who most passionately professed their outrage
over Iraq's aggression. (p. 13)
Since Chomsky wrote this, we've seen a number of worse invasions and
massacres--in the Balkans, in Africa, and in Chechenya. So why was the
case of Kuwait so important? Obviously it was "politics", which in this
case is spelled "o-i-l." How else can you explain why Saddam Hussein went
from a key ally to "Hitler" and yet he was never overthrown? So-called political realism first inspired the U.S. embrace of Hussein. After all, he had oil and he was at war with Iran. Then he
became a threat to the Gulf oil, so he was Hitler. But the U.S. wants a
strong Iraq state for a number of reasons, most notably as a balance to
Iran and to keep the Kurds (who actually outnumber every other ethnic group
in the region) from creating a state that threatens our ally Turkey and the
general stability of the region. So an attempt was made to nudge Hussein
out, no doubt to be replaced by someone equally dictatorial and heinous;
but nudging failed and so Hussein still rules and can now taunt the son of
the man who equated him to Hitler.
Within a few years it was clear that the costs of the Gulf War were
staggering. Over 5,000 Iraqi civilians died in the bombings of the actual
war and more thousands of poorly trained drafted conscripts died. Within a
year of the war the U.S. Census Bureau was estimating 70,000 civilian
deaths from the destruction of the Iraq infrastructure and the blockade. A
year later reports from the U.N. and Harvard University added another
100,000 deaths, mainly of children, due to diseases directly linked to the
destruction and the sanctions. One can add 20,000 to 35,000 deaths from
the failed civil war the U.S. and allies encouraged, but never supported
enough so that it had a chance of victory. (Gray 1997, fn. 5, p. 266)
Since these horrible totals were compiled the trade sanctions and bombings
of Iraq have continued, as has Saddam Hussein's dictatorship, and so Iraqi
civilians have continued to die in the thousands. Perhaps as many as a
quarter of a million Iraqis have died altogether then, as punishment for
Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait. Edward Beck, US ambassador to Iraq
from 1977 to 1980 points out, we have been, for the last 10 years, bombing Iraq whenever we feel like it
(with) no basis in law, no United Nations resolution, no international
agreement. We do it because we can. (Chebium 2001) But numbers cannot tell the whole story. Barbara Lubin visited Iraq soon after the war and met many people who had lost loved ones to the
bombings. At one point she visited a hospital where hundreds of children
were dying. They were dying from malnutrition, from diarrhea, from childhood diseases
like polio and measles, dying from typhoid and cholera. It was incredible,
because this was a country that had completely wiped out all of these
diseases. And as a result of this disastrous war, they were rampant again.
(p. 155) Imagine a dying baby. Now imagine him or her over again 10,000, 20,000,
30,000, 40,000 times. Should it surprise anyone that some Iraqi's want to
Right after the war several poets weighed in with their analysis of
what the future might hold. Allen Ginsberg wrote in "After the Big
Parade": Millions of people cheering and waving flags for joy in Manhattan
Yesterday've returned to their jobs and arthritis now Tuesday--
What made them want so much passion at last, such mutual delight
Will they ever regain these hours of confetti'd ecstasy again?
Have they forgotten that Corridors of Death gave such victory?
Will 200 thousand more desert deaths across the world be cause for the next
rejoicing? (Allen Ginsberg, 6/11/91)
Karen Finley (1992) also wrote a poem about the Gulf War. It was called
"The War at Home." It ends prophetically:
And if we won, so what?
We are hated
We are doomed
AMERICA GET A LIFE.
GET A NEW POLICY.
Historical events occur twice -- the first time as tragedy, the second as
farce. -- Karl Marx
The wit of the remark conceals the fact that it is profoundly wrong
(except perhaps in the case of French History) -- which is so often the
case with Marx's insights. History really doesn't repeat itself at all,
and if it did it would never be as farce. Our tragedies only deepen
through time because at every turn of the spiral the technology of war is
more powerful (and the destruction so much worse) and the hunger for
justice more palpable (and therefore more painful). But certain patterns
in history do repeat, which is why I have put forward this idea of the
Second Cold War.
What can understand about our current situation through this Cold War
analogy? For the only good it does is what it helps us comprehend so we
can predict, or even shape, what happens next. Analogy is not repetition
by the way. The Second Cold War won't be any more like the First then the
First World War was like the Second, but there were real similarities, and
a real relationship, between the two World Wars and we should look for
similar links between the Cold Wars.
In the First Cold War there was a disturbing tendency for the two
sides to converge; Communists longed to become consumers and democrats
strove for a security state. As I've stressed above, all other conflicts
and dilemmas in the world were crammed into the Procrustean bed of the Cold
War and made to serve it. This didn't lead to many solutions of world
problems, as we can see with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but it must
have been satisfying to the simple binary thinking of the elites of both
The idea of a Second Cold War is also an analogy to the two World
Wars. It argues, therefore, for a close, causal link between Cold War I
and Cold War II. Perhaps the lesson to be drawn from World War II, and how
easily it turned into the Cold War with nuclear overkill always lurking in
the near future, is that hard choices have to be made about allies just as
about enemies. The U.S. and the U.K. decided to support the Soviets so
that they could bleed the Germans, thus sparing American and Commonwealth
casualties. But at what cost? A nightmare for the people who lived in the
Soviet Empire, occupation for Eastern Europe, and the intense
militarization of the Cold War. Short-term solutions lead often to long
term problems. Trying to duct tape that leaky pipe or that faulty
electrical switch, instead of really fixing it, can easily result in floods
and fire. At this point in world history it will only take one
catastrophic war based on short-term miscalculations to destroy
The World Wars were most of all about the organization of the
international system. The victors choose it and then they turned on each
other. The Cold Wars are equally about the organization of the world
politically. In this case, the allies that have switched sides are the
Russians and the Chinese. But that doesn't mean that this struggle is
easily won, for the old rules of force don't apply. In Postmodern War God
is not necessarily on the side of the big battalions.
So what is new beyond the First Cold War? How is postmodern war
changing? Manuel Castells, perhaps the greatest sociologist of our
information economy, has argued that power relations are profoundly
shifting because of the centrality of information in all aspects of
society. In his book The Power of Identity (1997) he argues (p. 359) that, the new power lies in the codes of information and in the images of representation around which societies organize their institutions, and
people build their lives, and decide their behavior. The sites of this
power are people's minds. What this means concretely, he goes on, is that "projects aimed at cultural
codes must be symbol mobilizers." (p. 361) He describes two main agencies
for doing this: Prophets and networks. Prophets are important. They can
be inspirational and nonviolent, such as the Catalan leader Jordi Pujol or
someone such as Martin Luther King, or they can be revolutionaries like
Subcommandante Marcos of the Zapatistas, or they can be lone fanatics, such
as the Unibomber, or they can be someone like bin Laden.
But, important as they are, Prophets are expendable. It is networks
that are the prime agency for change now, Castells argues. They are harder
to recognize than the centralized movements of the past, but are no less
powerful for that. And since they aren't grounded on traditional forms of
power they are difficult to pinpoint, let alone conquer or defeat. Sounds
familiar, doesn't it? But this is not just the problem of this new Cold
War, even as I have broadly defined it as about Fundamentalism in all its
forms. The forces that seek to commodity all life are their own network,
and one that is even harder to clearly see than the network of links
between bin Laden and Saddam Hussein and, symbiotically, with
Fundamentalists from totally different creeds.
We are starting to understand that the world isn't binary and it isn't
a simple Newtonian system of cause = effect. It is a complex, living
world, where small events can have gigantic consequences (the butterfly
effect), where certain events forever change everything (singularities,
bifurcations), where events and energies are drawn together around
seemingly inconsequential entities (strange attractors), and where
beautiful new systems can emerge out of chaos and dysfunction (emergence).
It is a world that cannot have perfect information (Godel, Church-Turing),
where not only do actions change reality, but observation -- what we pay
attention to -- changes reality (Heisenberg).
This is why RealPolitick doesn't work, because it is based on
illusions of simple rationality, of simple cause and effect, of a
disjunction between beliefs and consequences, and, fatally, on very
simplistic notions of power. We cannot be so simple minded any more, the
stakes are too great. And a good place to start thinking complexly is with
our understanding of technology.
Let us remember that the atomic bomb did not cause Postmodern War.
Atomic and nuclear weapons are merely symptoms of Postmodern War. The fire
bombings of Tokyo, after all, killed more people then died at Hiroshima or
Nagasaki. It is not any particular technology that makes war too horrible
to be "politics by other means" any more, it is technology as a whole. And
it isn't just weapons of mass destruction, although they are the greatest
direct threat. We can see that very weak or small groups can use the
complex technologies of everyday life to wreck incredible havoc. Without
jet planes, and skyscrapers, both of which are totally dependent on
computerization on every level from construction to utilization, then
September 11 would have been impossible. And the broadcasting of the
attacks and their aftermath around the world instantaneously and
continuously, equally dependent on technology, magnified their impact a
million-fold. The Vietnamese and the Afghans won against the superpowers
because they used appropriate technologies for victory, not the most
sophisticated technologies available. And, of course, they spent freely of
their lives to liberate their homelands and to serve their implacable
One other major difference between the First Cold War and the Second
needs to be emphasized. Victory won't be through the economic collapse of
the weaker states this time. The economic troubles in the Third World are
the fuel of this fire. The economic success of nations such as Afghanistan
and the Sudan would be more of a setback to the hopes of bin Laden and the
Taliban then any economic, or perhaps even military, blow could be. But
this must be balanced by an understanding that, in the long run,
unrestrained corporate capitalism would be everyone's loss. We need a new
world system that goes beyond Postmodern War and the McWorld it nourishes
and the Cold Wars it spawns.
Unfortunately, the only way out seems first to go deeper into the
horror of September 11 and try to understand what it can teach us.
So, what lessons can we draw from this tremendous act of murder?
* Amoral political realism will come back to haunt not just its
practitioners, but innocents as well.
* Technology not only will not solve everything, it is a problem in
itself. Old forms of understanding, of power for example, are rendered
irrelevant by new technologies and by the technologization of society
* When you kill civilians with bombs from planes -- with technology in
other words -- you can't expect the victims to accept this as inevitable
collateral damage. Is it morally different to kill civilians with
strategic bombing aimed at residential neighborhoods (World War II),
"free-fire zones" including villages (Vietnam) or "killing boxes" full of
civilians (Gulf War) as opposed to suicide planes? If we were in a
declared war with Afghanistan, New York would be a legitimate target for
their military. And the high-tech "legitimate" methods of killing
civilians work much better than the most successful "terrorist" attacks.
So why is one moral and the other not? Just because they seem
* There is no such thing as bloodless war, as some people have hoped.
Crashing airliners is a favorite scenario in Information War theory. Does
it seem bloodless?
* Revenge leads to revenge. Any response that is quick and easy and
without sacrifice will be useless, if not actually counter-productive.
Horrors such as this have their origins in the real world and in complex
situations. There are no easy solutions.
* In the long run war is our greatest enemy. The longer it takes us to
confront that truth, the more likely it is that war will win. But peace is
not just the absence of war. Real peace is justice and tolerance. All
other kinds of peace are just pauses before the next spasm of killing.
On September 29, 2001, the first big anti-war rally of the new
millennium was on C-Span2 and I watched some of it. They had a chant there
that I had a complex reaction to. It went: "Another World is Possible!
Another World is Possible!" My first reaction was, "Yes, that's right.
This world is not inevitable." Having been an organizer off and on for
many years, I know how hard it is to help people believe that we can indeed
change the world. But then I thought, "Lots of other worlds are possible,
and most of them are even worse then this one." That set me back a bit.
So I thought about it and decided that, if I was into chanting, which I
generally loathe (except for my old favorite "More mindless chants!"), it
would have to be "A better world is possible." Not easy I imagine, I grant
you, but I do believe a better world is indeed possible. And even more, I
believe it is necessary.
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are Reshaping the World, Ballantine.
Castells, Manuel (1997) The Power of Identity; Volume II of The Information
Age: Economy, Society and Culture, Oxford: Blackwell.
Chebium, Raju (2001) "Arab hatred of US fiery, diverse," Great Falls
Tribune, Sept. 16, p. 6A
Chomsky, Noam (1992) "The 'Gulf War' In Retrospect," War After War: City
Lights Review Number 5, ed. by Nancy J. Peters, 1992, pp. 13-6.
Finley, Karen (1992) "The War at Home," War After War: City Lights Review
Number 5, ed. by Nancy J. Peters, 1992, pp. 85-9.
Ginsberg, Allen (1992) "After the Big Parade," War After War: City Lights
Review Number 5, ed. by Nancy J. Peters, 1992, p. 119.
Gray, Chris Hables (1997) Postmodern War: The New Politics of Conflict, New
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vol. 72, no. 3, Summer, pp. 22-49.
_____ (1997) "The Erosion of American National Interests," Foreign Affairs,
vol. 76, no. 5, September/October, pp. 28-49.
Johnson, Chalmers (2000) Blowback: The costs and Consequences of American
Empire, Metropolitan Books.
Lubin, Barbara (1992) "Real People," War After War: City Lights Review
Number 5, ed. by Nancy J. Peters, 1992, pp. 151-5.
Madden, Mike (2001) "Civil liberties vulnerable in 'war'," Great Falls
Tribune, Sept. 16, p. 5A.
Moran, Michael (1998) "Osama bin Laden: His CIA ties are only the beginning
of a woeful story," MSNBC, August 24.
Tenner, Edward (1996) Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of
Unintended Consequences, Knopf.