The Duck of Minerva

The Duck Quacks at Twilight

Social trajectories

September 30, 2007

Fascinating set of articles in this morning’s Washington Post about the US military’s efforts to develop an effective strategy for dealing with the IEDs — improvised explosive devices — that are involved in something like half of the combat deaths in Iraq (and many other deaths of non-combat personnel). IEDs are low-tech explosive devices, but by virtue of this low-tech character they are both cheap to produce and virtually undetectable, and both aspects combine to make them a very difficult weapon to protect against. Despite the expenditure of thousands of hours and millions of dollars, the US military does not yet have a particularly effective way of dealing with the threat that IEDs pose.

But what’s most fascinating to me about this is not the continued ineffectiveness of the US military against these kinds of attacks; that was probably overdetermined by the basic design problem of the US occupation of Iraq in the first place, in that the US went in with a skewed understanding of what it was likely to discover on the ground, and as a result finds itself in the position of an imperial occupier instead of the welcomed liberator it was expecting to be hailed as. Counterinsurgency is always a difficult operation to perform, and IEDs are in a way just an updated version of the Molotov cocktails and other cheap-but-effective bombs long-favored by guerrillas and other resistance fighters. But the striking thing about the articles to me was the way that the problem of IEDs is framed, and not by the article’s author as much as by the military officials he interviewed: according to those officials, IEDs are primitive weapons deployed by primitive people against the technologically advanced and sophisticated US military — and they have social trajectories of deployment, as opposed to the purely physical trajectories of the US’s weaponry. The insurgents are primitive and social; the US military is advanced and a-social.

I am not exaggerating or taking liberties here. Insurgents using IEDs are compared to “guys with spears and loincloths, and their ability to quickly modify their strategies to account for whatever the US military does on the ground is conveyed in the following terms:

. . . as an officer writing in Marine Corps Gazette recently put it, “The Flintstones are adapting faster than the Jetsons.”

There seems to be a pervasive sense of frustration among US officials that the technological powers of the US military cannot root out these primitive assaults; faith continues to be put in various kinds of bomb-sniffers, robotic investigation devices, advanced armor, and the like. This despite the fact that these techniques do not seem to have been particularly effective against IEDs thus far. This is an old article of Enlightenment faith: science will save us, because ultimately knowing more about the nature of nature will be sufficient to solve all significant problems that we might face. Everything, in a way, reduces to a technical problem, and the solution to a technical problem is of course a technical solution.

The interesting thing is that this faith persists even though a) military officials themselves acknowledge the limits of this paradigm, and b) at least one high-ranking military official (Montgomery Meigs, head of the Joint IED Defeat Organization) implicitly admits that the problem is actually of a very different character:

Three 152mm rounds underneath a tank, which will blow a hole in it, are artillery rounds. But they didn’t come through three-dimensional space in a parabolic trajectory. They came through a social trajectory and a social network in the community.

The network-sociological side of me is of course overjoyed to hear anyone in a position of authority speaking in these terms — at last someone is getting to the actual problem, which involves patterns of social action and the way that they are organized so as to make something like an IED roadside bomb placement possible in the first place. What is most significant, to this way of thinking with which I am very much in sympathy, is less the various physical components of an IED and the knowledge of how to assemble them to lethal effect (information which, incidentally, is readily available on the ‘Net — just google it and you’ll see what I mean) and more the arrangement of social ties that makes such a course of action both thinkable and justifiable, even legitimate. That’s the issue, and that’s the challenge for those directing the occupation: how does one alter social ties and mechanisms such that a particular course of action becomes more or less unfeasible?

But as the military giveth, the military also taketh away. The insight that General Meigs delivers also comes connected to a blindness that undermines it and virtually ensures that the insight will not be acted on in the most effective manner. Note that Meigs contrasts the social trajectory of the IEDs with the putatively non-social, technologically sophisticated trajectory of the weaponry deployed by the US military and other developed/advanced members of the occupying forces, as though that weaponry was not itself equally deliverd through a social trajectory. Indeed, the equation seems to be: social = primitive = them, technological = advanced = us/US. Not only is this analytically absurd — just think for a moment about the social infrastructure needed to deliver three 152mm rounds through the air, both to enable that course of action and to render the action legitimate — but it is also positively harmful to any effort to take social relations seriously. The same mechanisms (especially things like “legitimation”) operate on both sides of the US/insurgent divide; what differers is how they interact and concatenate and play themselves out.

And continuing to think of ourselves as somehow advanced beyond such social mechanisms to the point where we can operate in a purely technical space will keep hindering any effort to really address the problem posed by IEDs, let alone solve it. Because in the end, the problem isn’t IEDs or any other piece of military technology; it’s the patterns of social action within which those pieces of military technology and the ways that they can and should be used become meaningful. Those patterns are what we ought to be combating and striving to change.

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Patrick Thaddeus Jackson is Professor of International Studies in the School of International Service, and also Director of the AU Honors program. He was formerly Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of International Relations and Development, and is currently Series Editor of the University of Michigan Press' book series Configurations: Critical Studies of World Politics.