Imagining the Next War:
Infrastructural Warfare and the Conditions of Democracy


Philip E. Agre
Department of Information Studies
University of California, Los Angeles
Los Angeles, California 90095-1520

Version of 15 September 2001.
4300 words


When political leaders refer to the September 11th attacks in New York and Washington as "war", what do they mean? It used to be that our concept of war was defined by a set of boundaries. Nation-states fought wars to defend their borders. They fielded armies, and those armies fought along front lines. Soldiers were separate from civilians, and the military domain was separate from the civilian domain. Soldiers ran the war from day to day; the civilian leadership gave the big orders and sat back.

Those boundaries no longer apply, as much evidence shows:

(1) If you want to destroy someone nowadays, you get into their infrastructure. You don't have to be a nation state to do it, and if your enemy retains any capacity for retaliation then it's probably better if you're not.

(2) Because the fighting is all on television, the fine details of the fighting become political matters. Soldiers complain bitterly about politicians' interference, not understanding that technology has eliminated their zone of professional autonomy. The politicians are *right* to be interfering.

(3) The US military thought that the Republicans would save them from the Democrats' boundary-breaching conceptions of the 21st century world, but Donald Rumsfeld's abortive reform efforts -- which are really attempts to transpose the traditionally narrow view of military affairs into a science-fiction key -- have only clarified how archaic the traditional conception of warfare really is.

(4) During the campaign, George W. Bush harshly criticizied the "nation-building" activities to which military personnel have been assigned in Kosovo and elsewhere. The truth was that nation-building is a geopolitical necessity in a totally wired world, and that the soldiers themselves *like* serving in Kosovo -- they know that they are doing something useful for once. The nation-building goes on.

(5) In the old days, the industry that produced military equipment was almost entirely separate from the industry that produced civilian equipment. But economies of scale in the production of technology, especially information and communications technologies, have grown so great that the military must buy much of its equipment from the civilian market, even though the civilian equipment is not hardened for military purposes (or even, in the case of computer security, for civilian purposes).

(6) Even airplane hijackings have lost their old boundaries. It is becoming clear that the people in the plane that crashed in rural Pennsylvania had extensive communications to the ground, and knew about the first attack on the World Trade Center. Boundarylessness in that sense actually defeated the hijackers, at least to that small degree. We have become so accustomed to boundarylessness that we didn't find it even faintly odd that people in hijacked airplanes were have complicated telephone conversations with people on the ground, saying goodbyes to their families, and so on. The whole institution of airplane hijackings now has a new script, replacing the one from the 1970s.

Thus far, however, we have not been compelled as a society to define what we mean by "war" in this weirdly pervious world. Of course, defense intellectuals have not been short on definitions. Many of them claim to rue the loss of these boundaries, even as they embrace a conception of military matters that includes absolutely everything. War, on these expanded conceptions, no longer needs to be conducted between states. Privately funded groups can wage war, "asymmetric" to be sure but destructive all the same. Even lone individuals can engage in acts of "war", and the swarm of worms that have attacked the Internet over the last year may have inflicted economic damage (at least according to reported estimates, and not including of course the damage in human terms) comparable to the cost of rebuilding the World Trade Center. The defense intellectuals have also expanded the definition of "war" to include many domains besides the mutual killing of soldiers and blowing up of ships and factories. One speaks, for example, of "cultural war". Some military experts even lecture on political opposition as a form of "war", explicitly treating nonviolence within the same doctrinal framework in which they talk about invasion and bombing.

War, in this broadened sense, is everywhere and everything. It is large and small. It is boundless in space or time. Life itself is war. The soldier's zone of autonomy returns, but nothing else remains. Notice, however, that the defense intellectuals' conception of boundaryless war is not the only one possible. It holds no place, for example, for "nation-building" activities, or for the integration of political and military concerns that military officers complain about. Far from replacing the traditional conception of the military, the new conception generalizes it.

Referring to the attacks on the east coast as "war" gives expression to our emotions about them, and feels proportional to the magnitude of the atrocity. But if the definition of "war" has shifted beneath us, then a declaration of war is an even graver matter than it used to be. Let us take a moment, then, to ask what we are getting ourselves into. The Bush administration started using the language of "war" well before they were willing to say who they thought was responsible for the attacks. That in itself is probably not unprecedented; the idea of something mysteriously blowing up is hardly new. What is less precedented is the lack of any clear suspect who was either a foreign nation state or a domestic organization. Suspicion from the beginning has fallen on a man named Osama bin Laden, and reasonably enough given his involvement in earlier attacks. But even to assign responsibility to this one man is entirely misleading, since bin Laden, at best, operates at the center of a far-flung and loosely-knit network of individuals who are united more by philosophy than by organization. They are certainly not a hierarchical military along the traditional lines -- lines that Western militaries have themselves long abandoned for many purposes.

The problem posed by this nontraditional terrorist "enemy" has often been understood in purely military terms: how do you destroy something that has so little connective tissue? If you blow it up, it just grows right back. The United States has plenty of experience fighting loosely organized opponents, for example in Vietnam, and that experience is not good. Nor was the Russian experience in Afghanistan any better. But the new situation is even worse, and in several ways. We are not going to send hundreds of thousands of soldiers to Afghanistan. I'd be surprised if we send hundreds. And whatever we do, every step will be on television. Everyone involved will have cellular telephones. We will be doing the messiest thing in the world, and we will be doing it in the most visible possible way.

But we should also understand the problem in political terms. What does it mean as a *political* matter to declare war on a network? This, it seems to me, is the greatest danger of all. The only moral justification for war is to preserve the conditions of democracy. Revenge is not a sufficient motive, except insofar as it preserves the conditions of democracy by serving as a deterrent. Otherwise the matter should be treated as a crime and handled by the institutions of the police and criminal courts. Are the conditions of democracy in fact under threat? It is possible that they are, and I would expect the government to present enough evidence of such a threat before placing the country in a condition of war. The question of justification is particularly important in the present case given the dubious conditions under which George W. Bush assumed the office of the president. His continued rule is also a significant threat to the conditions of democracy, even though his methods in gaining power were largely nonviolent.

Let us say, then, that George W. Bush commences a war against Osama bin Laden, or even against the greater abstraction of "terrorism". What happens then? A state of war is a serious thing. States of war have routinely been used to justify censorship, the curtailing of civil liberties, and the repression of dissidents. States of war are also understood to require the opposition in the legislature to moderate its otherwise essential functions of criticism. Calls are issued to stand behind the political leadership and to display unity, with the implication that the enemy is watching and that failure to unite is tantamount to treason. These are not healthy conditions for a democracy; indeed, they are the opposite of democracy.

War in the old conception was temporary: the idea was explicitly that the state of war would end, and that the normal rules of democracy would resume once their conditions had been reestablished. Civil liberties and the institutions of democratic government are not entirely eliminated during wartime; rather, they are reduced in their scope while retaining their same overall form. Even in conditions of total war mobilization, clear boundaries between the military and civilian sides of society are maintained. But war, we are told, no longer works that way. No such boundaries are possible. It follows, therefore, that "war" in the new sense -- war with no beginning or end, no front and rear, and no distinction between military and civilian -- is incompatible with democracy, and not just in practice, not just temporarily, but permanently and conceptually. If we conceptualize war the way the defense intellectuals suggest, then to declare war is to destroy the conditions of democracy. War, in this new sense, can never be justified.

In reality, the problem here does not originate with technology and the military doctrines that respond to it. It is in the nature of democracy that its conditions are contested. The conditions of democracy are institutional, first of all, and institutions are human things. They live nowhere but in people's minds, and in the language, artifacts, and practices by which people deal with one another. Democracy, like every institution, is something that people collectively learn to do. It is a skill. Its central conditions are intellectual: people continually reproduce the skills of democracy if they continue to believe in it. Democracy rests on beliefs. Yet the beliefs at the foundation of democracy are themselves controversial. They are reargued most visibly when prominent legal controversies come before constitutional courts. But they are also reargued every time that the institutions themselves are used. Democracy is an institutional framework for the conduct of disputes among organized interests, and the groundrules that this framework provides must be interpreted and applied in the case of each dispute that comes along.

The ideal of formal democracy as dispute within an agreed framework of rules is taught in school, but in the real world of democracy the combatants have fundamentally different visions of what that framework should be. Democrats believe that the people can and should govern themselves, and that all institutions should be reformed to provide a high degree of access and participation to the people whose lives they affect. Conservatives, by contrast, believe that society should be organized hierarchically and directed by a narrow elite, and that institutions should be invested with a high degree of authority to which the people reflexively defer. Conservatives differ on the question of whether the formal institutions of democracy are valuable and should be retained, but their main emphasis is on circumscribing those institutions in both their processes and their powers.

Conservatism has come in recent centuries to be overlaid with a liberal philosophy whose keyword is "freedom", and the conservative movement must continually renegotiate the borderlines between authority and freedom as organizing principles of society. But because conservativism as a political movement is a fluid alliance between traditional social authorities and business interests, the actual boundary lines of conservatism's commitment to freedom shift with the continual renegotiations of that alliance. Historically, the freedom that conservatism dictates is first and foremost the freedom of the market. And conservatism in actual practice rarely conforms to idealized pictures of the free market, given that large business interests tend to be central to any conservative political coalition. The longstanding tradition of business rent-seeking under conservative rule reasserted itself from the opening days of the Bush government, in the guise for example of subsidies to the oil industry to promote energy development that the market was already providing for, and we can expect rent-seeking to intensify in the conditions of intimate government-industry relationship that characterize war. Business managers, after all, have a fiduciary responsibility to return profits to their stockholders by whatever means, whether legitimate commerce or lobbying, represents the best return on investment, and undermining the conditions of democracy has proven a solid investment over many years. Libertarians who join conservative coalitions are simply trading one form of government interference in the market for another.

The almost inherent crisis of democracy, and the actual nature of conservatism, become clearest in conditions of war. The conditions of war are almost identical with the social vision of conservatism, and it is no surprise that conservatives are so eloquent when the possibility of war arises. Conservatism has always been profoundly opposed to the popular exercise of reason, supposing it to lead inevitably to tyranny, and wartime is ideally suited for the absolute, polarized, us-and-them forms of thinking that are the opposite of rational thought. In this sense, democracy as such is profoundly threatened by an absolute evil such as Stalin's regime in the Soviet Union or the attack on the World Trade Center -- not because of the military danger it poses, real as that may be, but because of the danger that it poses to the collective reason of a democratic polity. Indeed, the depth of the danger was already clear before the attack, for example in Rush Limbaugh's astonishing argument that the leader of the democratic opposition, Tom Daschle, resembled Satan simply because he opposed George W. Bush's policies. And it has become clearer since the attack in the argument by many prominent conservatives that the coming wartime condition will require a diminution of civil liberties.

The new military doctrine of war as a total phenomenon -- war without boundaries -- is nothing except conservatism. It is conservatism expressed in different language, rediscovered starting from different concerns, but it is the antithesis of democracy in the same way that conservatism is. Yet military officers in democratic countries are often ambivalent about the new doctrine. They understand that the legitimacy of the military as an institution rests on its claim to preserve the conditions of democracy, and they understand more clearly than most civilians the potential for institutional catastrophe that can never be far from the surface in a society with a standing army. That is why it is especially unnerving that the United States military in recent years has developed a culture that sees itself as separate from, and morally superior to, the supposedly decadent society that it supposedly defends. Conservatives have energetically reinforced this tendency, portraying democratically minded governments as hostile toward the military and encouraging the military in its tendency to become a rent-seeking interest group like any other, to the point that the officer corps now skews very strongly Republican compared to even twenty years ago.

The danger of "total war" against the spectre named Osama bin Laden, then, is that it will reinforce the worst tendencies in our society, and that far from preserving the conditions of democracy it will undermine the cultural and institutional foundations upon which democracy rests. It will be war without end, without boundaries, without even a coherent conception of itself save as the expression of an impulse to vengeance. Far from the Gulf War image of televised war as a morbid video game, it will be what the defense intellectuals call infrastructural war, and in the most general possible sense: war that reaches into the finest details of daily life, reengineering the most basic arrangements of travel and communications in a time when everyday life in a mobile and interconnected society is increasingly organized around those very arrangements.

The main precedent for this looming war is the boundaryless pseudo-war against communism, and yet the precedent is misleading. The Cold War was a war of the mind at home and a war of the jungles in the distant locales where conflicts were conducted by proxy. Its foundation was the intellectual control that, for a time and to a remarkable degree still, prevented those proxy wars from registering in the minds of a populace that otherwise was fairly free. Infrastructural war is something quite different. The Cold War promoted a paranoia of a quite abstract sort: the hidden traitors that supposedly lay behind the social ideals of reformers. Infrastructural war promotes a paranoia of a different kind: the ramifying maze of blind spots in the security arrangements of a technological society which a highly skilled enemy might exploit. Thus the uncanny sense of violation that compounds the sheer violence of the attacks on the east coast, and thus on a less dramatic level the myth-making around security vulnerabilities in "cyberspace".

The Cold War's most misleading legacy is an ideology that totally misconstrues these dangers. The great drama of the Cold War was a supposed conflict between two organizing principles: centralization and decentralization. Never mind that the Cold War societies of the First World were in fact highly centralized both in their industrial structure and in the central role of their permanent-war governments; despite this, the end of the Cold War is supposed to have vindicated a system of self-organizing decentralization that is robust against dangers of many types. In reality, the infrastructure of our highly technological society is centralized in many ways. There are three economic reasons for this: economies of scale, which tend to promote monopolies; economies of scope, which tend to reorganize products and institutions in terms of successively more generalized layers; and network effects, which tend to create uniformity through the need for everyone in an interconnected society to be compatible with everyone else. In reality, the decentralization that truly is one component of technological society rests upon an institutional and infrastructural framework that is necessarily uniform in many ways, and that is poorly suited to the kinds of decentralized administration that the ideology of the Cold War would promote. The more sophisticated our society becomes, the more complex and all-encompassing this framework gets.

So what to do? First we need a new concept of war. This is not easy, partly because the world has changed, but also because our concept of war is intimately tied to our concept of democracy. It follows that we can't get a new concept of war without getting a new concept of democracy, and the process of getting a new concept of democracy is dangerous in itself. The military intellectuals' new concept of war is flawed because it starts from the military and simply follows the logic of interconnection until the military domain encloses everything else. Instead, we need a broader conception of security that has a number of dimensions, and that incorporates the dialectical relation between the military and political domains that is inherent in a world without clear boundaries. Instead of permanent, total war, conducted under rules that subordinate democracy to an authority that draws its legitimacy from the absolute evil of its foe, we need a conception of permanent, total security, conducted under rules that keep the ends squarely in view. Those ends are the preservation, indeed expansion, of the conditions of democracy.

Total security, however, does not mean total control of society by "security forces". In an infrastructural world, security cannot be a force, something exerted from the outside, a lid kept down or a shield put up. Instead, security is a matter of design. Infrastructure is something designed, in the sense that it is a human artefact, but the infrastructure that our society possesses right now has not been designed with anything approaching a full conception of its relation to a democratic order. When infrastructure is designed to serve a narrowly technical set of requirements, or, worse, when it accretes haphazardly in layers like the software code that we suddenly had to decompile en masse with the approach of Y2K, it becomes riven with blind spots, with vulnerabilities that, in the long run, only multiply the chaos that technology had always been thought to solve. The fact is, our current infrastructures are profoundly insecure. This has been documented over and over, and it is entirely absurd that we have learned to tolerate the worms that swarm continuously over the world's networked computers, trashing information and randomly broadcasting sensitive files. These worms have not killed anybody yet, but the shoddy security systems in the country's airports are another matter. The catastrophe at the World Trade Center provides an opening for a period of real design -- design that adopts as its requirements *both* of the conditions of democracy: the closing of security holes and the protection of civil liberties. The necessary designs are partly technical and partly institutional. The current arrangement of having the airlines pay for the security personnel at airports, for example, has been comprehensively discredited, and even the strictest of opponents of centralized government appear to appreciate the need to federalize a system whose incentives have heretofore been set up exactly backward.

But secondly, the conception of security that our democratic society needs must take seriously the all-encompassing nature of modern industrial society. A technological society must be democratically legitimate, above all, because it cannot afford to have an outside. The people who conduct terrorist actions against the United States are fundamentally driven by a need to make us feel their pain. Along with natural human sympathy and outrage, the people in many countries have responded to the attacks in New York and Washington by observing that, at last, the United States knows what it's like. Media commentators in the United States have often asserted, no doubt without thinking, that the magnitude of the recent attacks has been without precedent in history. This could not be more false, as the people of Nanking, London, Dresden, or Hiroshima could explain, or those of Hanoi, Baghdad, or Dili. The United States' consciousness has been shaped by its geographic isolation, but now infrastructural warfare has provided an attacker of a way of piercing that isolation, and thus of piercing that consciousness, forcing upon the people of the United States the consciousness of a people who must fear, at one level or another, that they will be invaded and killed.

Americans' imaginative distance from the rest of the world has been one reason why it has been so easy to keep from American public consciousness the nature and magnitude of the atrocities in which the American government and its close allies have unquestionably been culpable. A large portion of the population of East Timor, for example, was slaughtered by the genocidal regime that ruled until recently in Indonesia with the active approval and support of the United States. Counterinsurgency against a small and primitive peasant rebellion in Guatemala in the 1980s was conducted through a deliberate policy of simply killing large percentages of the population, with the active support of an American government that ridiculously claimed to have little knowledge of what was happening and no power to stop it, even as prominent religious conservative organizations in the United States praised the Guatemalan leadership for its claims to be acting in the name of God. Israel constantly takes people's land away from them and treats them as second-class citizens in their own land, and no amount of bad behavior by them or their coreligionists in other countries can justify many of the Israeli policies, nearly all of which the United States supports both financially and diplomatically.

None of this mitigates the attacks on innocent people in the World Trade Center, or even the attacks on military personnel in the Pentagon. The people who conducted those terrorist attacks are entirely responsible for what they did. They are evil, and they made themselves evil by choice. Nearly as evil are the religious authorities who provided the ideological basis of this terrible self-making with their spurious justifications for suicide bombings. Yet the call to war is precisely a call for us, formerly citizens of a democracy, to remake ourselves in the image of that evil -- to ignore all evil deeds of our own, and instead to project all of our own failings into an enemy who grows ever bigger, ever more inhuman, with every exaggeration of the extent of the danger and the need for revenge. The call to war is not legitimate: it is not capable of delivering what it claims to deliver.

Should we go out and get the people who blew up our buildings? Of course we should. If we can't get them nonviolently, should we start dropping bombs on impoverished countries? Maybe we should, if it will actually achieve the stated goal. A world that has graduated beyond the traditional conceptions of war may not be able to avoid military action, regrettable as it always is. Evil is real, whatever excuse it might present. The important thing is to draw a distinction between military action, as the exercise within a framework of international law of the power of a legitimate democratic state, and war, as the imposition of a total social order that is the antithesis of democracy, and that, in the current technological conditions of war, has no end in sight. We can reorganize our infrastructure along more intelligent lines, and we urgently should. But more fundamentally, war will end only when the rest of the world enjoys the same institutional conditions of justice and freedom that we do. We can hasten that day by supporting civil society, education, reconciliation, institutional reform, Internet connectivity, and nonproliferation throughout the world. Or we can retreat into a conservative conception of war as a way to live our lives. That is our choice now, in our policies and in our hearts, as we decide how to act on the pain that we feel.