Snakes and Dragons

Some thoughts on David Kilcullen’s new book, The Dragon and the Snakes. I see two problems with the book: first, some dodgy use of evolution metaphors, second, it misses the point about the fact that Russia and China are adapting their warfighting capabilities (and concepts of war) in the context of coaliations of states opposed to them.

“Change over time” is a less sexy term than “evolution”. It also lacks the veneer of science that evolution implies. The problem with evolution metaphors in war is that they rarely map to processes of evolution in nature. As a turn of phrase, “evolution” works as a way of referring to change over time, but once one begins to get into the nitty gritty of how evolution works (e.g. genes, traits, generations, inheritance, etc) then the chasm between change and evolution is readily apparent.

This is why Kilcullen’s latest book is somewhat irritating in its early stages. It uses terms drawn from evolution to explain what are pretty basic ideas if stated in plain language. The problem is that various terms from evolution are mixed in with organisational learning. The two frames of understanding change in an organisation are fundamentally at odds with one another. In evolution, an organism either dies prior to reproduction, or reproduces, passing on genes/heritable traits to the next generation. It doesn’t get to change its traits during its lifespan through observation, reflection and learning. What Kilcullen passes over is the fact that evolution happens across generations (so how do you count a generation of a terrorist group?), a stable focal organism that passes on a stable set of physical matter that gives rise to identifiable traits (whereas here Kilcullen is effectively talking about the transmission of knowledge/experience of a huge variety), and takes an extremely long period of time. Moreover, if one person dies and another person joins an insurgent band, does that count as a new insurgent group (another generation), or a continuation of the old one? (For the philosophical issues associated with social selves, maybe a flick through Verner Vinge’s A Fire Upon the Deep is worthwhile).

Kilcullen argues that the domination of the Western model of warfare has created a fitness landscape for adversaries which has the unintentional effect of making those that survive more lethal. In other words, “we” are the environment. But this idea has little explanatory power in the face of the huge random variables that dominate success in war. The “adaptive traits” of groups that have survived in this environment (in order: stealth, dispersion, modularity, autonomy, hiding in plain sight, “hugging” i.e. using populations as shields or infrastructure that can’t be destroyed, media manipulation, political warfare, and technology and connectivity hacking i.e. using commercial tech for military purposes) reads pretty much like a manual for guerrilla warfare 101. Yes, entities that display these traits are more likely to survive Western onslaught, but these are the kind of traits that any terrorist or insurgent group has needed for decades, if not a century - so why is the Western model of warfare somehow new?

The second issue with the book derives in no small part from the “Note on terminology” that follows the introduction:

Throughout this book, I use the capitalized term “Western” or “the West” to describe a particular military methodology, along with the group of countries whose warfighting style is characterized by that methodology…

The West, as I use the term in this book, is thus both a military and a geopolitical concept: it means the loose collection of countries, most of which are allied or aligned with the United States, that fight using methods pioneered and perfected by the United States and that often collaborate in coalitions or international institutions.

The West is thus a style of warfare, a collection of states, a loose political alliance, and forms interaction between these states. I get what Kilcullen is aiming for here, but the problem with presenting the concept in this way is that it is used in the book to build a largely dyadic vision of strategic interaction (Russia vs the West, China vs the West).

Based upon this dyadic interaction, lumping a state on one side and an amorphous coalition on the other, Kilcullen builds a “theory of liminal warfare” to explain Russian adaptation after the cold war. This is another term to add to the lexicon around hybrid warfare, in order to

emphasize yet another aspect— the liminal, or threshold- manipulation, element— in Russian practice since the New Look, which has arguably been present in Russian thinking at least since Soviet times.

The problem is that this threshold manipulation is presented in largely dyadic terms. What seems evident to me is that the point of this kind of activity is to exploit differences at the political level within the coalition (or possible coalitions) of states that might oppose Russian interventions. Yes, this kind of warfare is about the enemy’s thresholds for response, and ability to decide to respond, but more importantly, it is about preventing the generation of a coalition that might respond with force. In this, NATO isn’t a monolith, and that’s the point. Some NATO states are the ones at immediate risk of Russian intervention, and would bear the brunt of an escalated conflict, another is sitting on the other side of the Atlantic ocean, and Germany is quite happy to go along with Nordstream 2, despite the pile-up of Russian aggressions over the past decade or so. As I see it, Russian military interventions in the “hybrid warfare” sense are structured so as to prevent the generation of a stable overwhelming coalition opposed to gains on the ground. A dyadic view of their purpose misses this.