The Nature of Conflict is Changing

What is more interesting than the US prosecuting more whistleblowers than all previous administrations combined is that there “are” more whistleblowers than ever before

If one were to examine all of the Wikipedia edits made from within US Military networks between 2000 and 2010 they would find entries of self-glorification, academic contribution, patriotism, comedic vulgarity and a few ideological edit wars. Essentially the behaviour one expects of Wikipedia except in this particular case the edits come from a predominantly male group spending the majority of their time in isolation. While we were unable to review all 16,000 of them we would like to draw attention to one in particular.

In 2008 at the height of the U.S. war’s in Iraq and Afghanistan someone from within the U.S. Department of Defence networks posted the following change to the Wikipedia page for the Joint Worldwide Intelligence Communications System, the top secret network shared between U.S. State, Defence and Intelligence communities:

US DoD Wikipedia edits compiled by Jari Bakken
In certain locations, there are British users unattended on the JWICS system, this can not be. I am so scared San Diego. — IP address, Aug 11 2008

In 2013, 5 years after this entry, Edward Snowden would reveal the true extent of cooperation between the British and U.S. intelligence agencies. It is is not clear if the author of this Wikipedia change was attempting to warn the public. This motivation is unlikely as even the world prior to Wikileaks offered whistleblowers better outlets than Wikipedia. What can be said is that this person was, at the very least, trying to ask a question and felt they had nowhere else to address it.

This Wikipedia edit may appear to be anecdotal but when considered in the context of recent stories of whistleblowers it begs the question as to if the institutions they worked for are capable of internal feedback and discussion. Upon examination we may find that the culture of these institutions contribute to whistleblowing as much as the content.

The Effect of Endless War

Martin van Creveld is a controversial military historian whose mere mention may lead many to stop reading. However, as a poet professing the wonderment for the ethos of war his description is relevant when considering how that ethos is changing.

Creveld describes war by its decorations, paint, armour and the uniforms people wear; the names they give to the tools of war and the war “games” they play; the ceremonies that mark the transition from peace to war and back; the fascination war exercises and the ecstasy it can lead to. He describes the pageantry of war not as side-effect but rather an essential component. These attributes have been a part of war from inception and are not without reason. The actors in these events are required to conduct themselves with a different set of social norms.

Soldiers are asked to place their own moral intuition aside and follow the will of authority. This structured subservience is understood to create a more efficient and cohesive action. But this subservience depends on believing war is a temporal condition. That eventually, upon the end of a war, one can take their ethical will back off the shelf once more. Today the expiration date of wars are increasingly lost putting this function, and larger ethos, into question.

The reaction elicited by the picture of U.S. President George W. Bush standing under the “Mission Accomplished” banner illustrates that war has lost its ending. This act of pageantry is one we may never see again. The reasons for the change to the duration of war is one many attribute to the asymmetry of current conflicts such as terrorism. However it should also be attributed, perhaps even more so, to the evolution of the technology of war.

The United States, and its coalitions, are currently active in at least 4 conflicts. Yet it has to some extent convinced its own population, and that of much of the world, that it is no longer at “war”. This is made possible mostly through the use of drone warfare. And the advent of cyber war, a tool not limited to the club of nations capable of building advanced drones, provides a means of conflict that not only displaces risk but removes attribution to the extent that the actors themselves can be scarcely seen.

The evolution in the technology of war is introducing an asymmetry of risk and asymmetry of public awareness. The political reasoning to take soldiers away from their computer terminals and into fields of traditional “battle” will be increasingly seen as decisions borne from bravado rather than reason.

While this advance to opaque and endless conflict will affect how the public perceives war it will not have the same effect on the perception of soldiers themselves. As the “War on …” begins to more closely resemble the War on Drugs or War on Poverty, at least in longevity, some soldiers are taking their ethics back off the shelf and expressing their own concerns through whistleblowing. Militaries and their governments will be unable to prepare for this future without change. Structural changes that value dissent as a functional feedback.

There is no Feedback Loop

What we have learned from the acts of U.S. whistleblowers over the past years is that every single one of them attempted to express their concerns internally first. The response of their government ranged from discipline to outright brutality.

When Binney, Roark, Drake and several others internally filed concerns over the NSA’s blanket surveillance “Trailblazer” program the response varied. Shortly after being cleared of suspicion from an internal investigation the FBI held Binney and his family at gunpoint in 2007, taking his equipment and stripping him of security clearance which forced him to close his private business. Roark too had her house raided at gunpoint. Drake, though being cleared of wrongful doing, was fired and had his pension removed. Having seen this it was of no surprise to anyone that Chelsie Manning and Edward Snowden expressed wonderment to how and where they could properly address concerns internally.

The case of Jeffrey Scudder was perhaps the most bizarre. When Scudder, an employee at the CIA, requested for the public release of documents that by law should have been released, his clearance was stripped, he was harassed by his superiors, his house was raided and computers seized.

The message their government sends to those who wish to express feedback through internally sanctioned channels is “don’t”. How can any institution, private or public, survive and evolve without valuing feedback? While the brutality of military cultures may be a necessary product of traditional conflict it directly counters the culture required to be effective in the arenas of endless and opaque conflict. With both the duration and nature of conflict changing institutions will have no choice but to provide a structure that values feedback.

The Patriarchy will Change

Imagine a military institution, or any government institution, where the solder has at their disposal a means to communicate grievances to superiors without any possibility of identifying who they are. In this culture the ability for recourse would become extremely diminished, leaving commanders and politicians with little option but to consider the grievance. Such a system already exists in the public and has several forms: Wikileaks, Strongbox, Globaleaks and others.

The failure of existing whistleblower protection laws and internal systems of feedback show that the problem is not a legal one. It’s a cultural problem requiring systematic and technical solutions. The implementation of strong whistleblower protection platforms internally would not only provide a means to address grievance; it would directly affect the behaviour of commanders and politicians inclined toward brutality.

I’m astonished it has not already been implemented. However, with the changes of conflict happening in earnest I’m quite certain this and other structural changes will happen. When they do they will change the ethos as a whole.

I’ve attempted, and likely failed, to keep my own personal ideology to a minimum. I believe this topic should elicit the will to explore solutions regardless of political party. The reasons supporting a change in the current culture of brutality can be found from pro-, anti and post-war positions. Many people I am close to find it unnerving that my framing of this debate appears to accept conflict as a given. And that it lays in contradiction to the ideology of universal civil liberties I profess elsewhere because it seems to prevent wider disclosure rather that foster it. I have no way to redress this other than to say I sit in constant conflict between the question of “Fewest Steps” vs “Shortest Move” (Chomsky). My position in this debate may lay in the latter.