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Book Review: “Brave New War” by John Robb

January 20, 2016

This post is first in a new series for this blog which will review recent books from the fields of international security studies in order to examine what relevance their ideas may have for the future of cultural heritage preservation in the Middle East.

John Robb, Brave New War: The Next Stage of Terrorism and the End of Globalization. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, 2007. 208 pp.

Brave New War is a book whose prescience and influence has only grown as the Arab Spring has come and gone, leading it to be called “a classic” and “a rather brilliant synthesis” and frequently appear on military reading lists. And all for a slim book written by a first-time author, published by an academic press with only five pages of endnotes, whose foreword, written by longtime Atlantic correspondent James Fallows, warns that the book’s analysis “is in many ways darker than even the conventionally pessimistic view.”

BraveNewWarJohn Robb began his career as an Air Force officer flying in special operations units before beginning a new career as a tech entrepreneur, where he helped to invent the RSS feed. His work, both in this book and on his blog Global Guerrillas, is in many ways the result of years of military and business experience.

The limited endnotes should not be taken as a mark against the book’s scholarly value but as indicative of the revolutionary nature of its analysis. Robb’s basic thesis is that nuclear weapons and wide economic integration have combined to bring an end to the era of state-versus-state conflict. The risks are too great, and the only state-versus-state wars are wars of choice where risk can be tightly controlled. Wars of the future will be fought at the sub-national level by what Robb terms “Superempowered Groups.” These are groups of people bonded by a shared cause who can leverage modern technology in such a way that they can fight states and win.

Advances in technology mean that the number of people needed in order to wage war continues to decrease, while advances in communications make it easier than ever for like-minded people to find others who share their cause. As a result, states are losing control of their borders, their economies, their finances and their populations. Robb goes so far as to suggest that the end result of these processes will be the creation of a “superempowered individual” who has “the ability to declare war on the world and win.” (p. 7-8, 17)

Superempowered groups have several advantages over states. Membership is defined by acceptance into the group rather than citizenship. They do not need to control territory and often have a non-hierarchical organizational structure, enabling them to make decisions quickly and free from bureaucracy. A superempowered group could be a terrorist organization, or a hacker cell, or a drug cartel – in each case their goal is to undermine the state. Failed states with no effective government or hollow states where government remains in power but does not control large swaths of territory allow these organizations to operate freely (p. 18-21, 80-93).

How can a small albeit superempowered group fight a state and win? Through a tactic Robb calls “Systems Disruption.” The goal of the tactic is to identify nodes in an economic, technological or other system whose destruction will cause that system to collapse. Such attacks are cheap to carry out but can cause massive economic damage. For instance, in the summer of 2004 insurgents in southern Iraq blew up a section of oil pipeline with a $2000 bomb and shut down all oil exports from southern Iraq for several days. The damage cost Iraq $500 million in export revenue, a return on investment of 250,000 times the cost of the attack (p. 95-100).

The most obvious nodes are usually well protected: Robb discusses the failed Al-Qaida attack on the oil processing facilities at Abaqiq, Saudi Arabia in February 2006 as an example of the difficulty of such attacks (p. 100-101). But modern systems are interdependent and susceptible to cascading failures. The oil pumping station in Basra, Iraq was well protected, so insurgents attacked fuel shipments to a nearby power plant instead. With no fuel the power plant shut down, cutting electricity to the pumping station and causing it to shut down as well (p. 103).

Superempowered groups are able to identify these weak points because there are dozens or even hundreds of them all trying to solve the same problems. Whereas “classical” insurgencies such as the Viet Cong or the FLN in Algeria maintained hierarchical organizations, in Iraq the United States fought at least seventy different armed factions with no unified command structure (p. 111-116). The result is what Robb terms “Open Source Warfare,” a metaphorical “bazaar of violence” were groups are constantly innovating and learning from each other. Eventually a sort of adaptive emergent intelligence rises from the system, where all the uncoordinated groups which make up an insurgency are collectively finding new targets to attack and new ways to protect themselves. As the state fails the cycle continues. New groups are formed as more and more people lose trust in the state and fall back on primary loyalties (p. 80-89, 116-127).

Attacks on Cultural Heritage as Systems Disruption in an Open Source War

Recent attacks on cultural heritage in the Middle East can be understood as a form of systems disruption. First, many cultural heritage sites are tourist magnets and are therefore economic nodes. Attacking them discourages other tourists and damages the economy, undermining the state’s revenue and its ability to protect its citizens’ lives and livelihoods. The recent attacks on the Bardo Museum in Tunisia, the Karnak Temple in Egypt, and last week’s suicide bombing at Sultanahmet Square in Istanbul were clearly carried out with this objective in mind.


Maps showing ethnic cleansing in Baghdad neighborhoods in the aftermath of the February 2006 bombing of the al-Askari shrine in Samarra. Mixed neighborhoods (yellow) have almost disappeared, replaced by Sunni-majority neighborhoods (red) and Shia-majority (green). Christian-majority neighborhoods (blue) remained the same. Maps by Dr. Michael Izady. (source)

But in addition to being economic nodes, cultural heritage sites serve as nodes in an ideological economy. Robb describes Al-Qaida’s bombing of the al-Askari Mosque in Samarra in 2006 as “a form of social system disruption” (p. 61-62). Not one person was killed or injured in the explosion, but the destruction of one of the holiest shrines in Shia Islam announced that Iraq’s Sunni insurgency was not fighting only to drive the Americans from Iraq but to subjugate its Shia population. The result was a surge of revenge attacks followed by campaigns of ethnic cleansing which turned the Iraqi insurgency into a full blown ethnic conflict which continues to the present day.

Worse, in an open source war effective tactics go ‘viral’ and are soon adopted by militant groups around the world. The Taliban were the first to use the destruction of cultural heritage as a public display of militant Islamist piety when they destroyed the Bamiyan Buddhas in 2001. A few years later the Taliban sought to replicate their feat by attacking Buddhist sites in Pakistan’s Swat Valley. Their successful display of power and zeal was replicated in Iraq in 2006 and again in Mali in 2012 when the group Ansar Dine began destroying Islamic heritage sites at Timbuktu. ISIS then elevated it to a level never before seen in the region.

Each group seeks to improve on the idea, and prove they are more dedicated and uncompromising than the others by destroying more spectacular targets (the al-Askari Mosque, the ruins of Nimrud, the temples of Palmyra) or by rooting out ever more obscure sites to prove how dedicated they are at eradicating undesirable elements. The tactic has proven eminently successful so far and we can expect many more groups to replicate the tactic and innovate new ways to use the destruction of cultural heritage in war.

Cultural Heritage as a Resilient Community?

Robb is pessimistic about the state’s ability to defeat an open source insurgency. The adaptive nature of the insurgency means some group will eventually find a way to counter the state’s tactics and the others will follow their example. “You can’t kill their leaders, because they don’t need them,” he argues. “You can’t reliably prevent future attacks, because they’re small scale, dispersed, and unpredictable. You can’t outmaneuver or outsmart them, because their innovative organization system makes that nearly impossible. Welcome to the open-source war.” (p. 110).

Centralizing the state’s security apparatus through mass surveillance, data collection and the application of force is unlikely to be effective because a police state is structurally incapable of matching the open source insurgency’s speed and innovation in decision-making. (Pre-emptively invading other countries and reconstructing their societies into states friendlier to the west is even less likely to work, and for many of the same reasons)  (p. 156-164).

To date, the global response to the cultural heritage crisis has been that of the police state. Meetings are held in which international agreements between states are re-iterated. International law related to cultural heritage presumes the nation-state at every step. Codes of ethics revolve around countries of origin. We want states to post heavily armed guards and every site and museum, impose stiff penalties for looters, ban imports from at-risk countries, create computer databases of artifacts, deploy law enforcement to apply close scrutiny to buyers, and daydream about deploying United Nations troops to secure archaeological sites.

And some of these responses are at present perfectly reasonable, because in the contemporary world when the state fails heritage preservation is a disaster. Museums are emptied, their contents hidden or plundered. Archaeological sites are looted. Most people may not support either of these things happening to their historic sites, but they are powerless to stop them from happening.

Announcing that he is “ready to call it quits on the highly centralized and overly prescriptive proposals by governing bodies,” in the long term Robb argues that future security will be best secured through what he calls “Resilient Communities,” decentralized systems which are designed to limit the damage done by systems disruption.

Robb is not advocating backwoods survivalism. Rather, he suggests turning the systems which undergird modern society into platforms. Systems are hierarchical, platforms are flat. Everyone is free to interact with a platform as both a consumer and a provider. A platform is open, so users can innovate freely.

Robb uses the electrical grid as an example of a hierarchical system that could be turned into a resilient platform. The first step would be allowing users to also contribute power through plug-in solar panels or other methods, and setting pricing through a transparent system so that users were billed based on how much power they used versus how much they contributed. Power companies would become facilitators of exchange rather than mass-producers. The result would be a power grid far less susceptible to disruptions such as the 2003 Northeast blackout (and one that would likely be more environmentally friendly to boot). (p. 164-175).

What would a resilient community platform for cultural heritage preservation look like? Such a platform would avoid centralizing too many artifacts in one place but would have to be done in such a way that individuals not only retain the ability to access to all the artifacts but would also be able to contribute to the platform in some meaningful way. Contributing would also serve to increase a sense of ownership over cultural heritage within the community.

On the other hand, local control of artifacts means fewer resources available for conservation and study as well as even thornier ethical issues. Can the locals decide to destroy their cultural heritage? How is this heritage presented and how does one navigate layer upon layer of overlapping interests? More local control will almost certainly mean artifacts will sometimes be presented in ways that conflict with how the current powers controlling cultural heritage would want them to be.

This review is not meant to set forth a prescription for heritage preservation in the twenty-first century, but to begin to think about ways to approach the challenges that are being raised and how our current systems of heritage preservation can be adapted to this new world. How will archaeology in the future cope with failed or hollow states? Ignoring the issue is sadly no longer an option.

Article © Christopher Jones 2016.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. January 20, 2016 2:48 PM

    Reblogged this on Talmidimblogging.

  2. January 24, 2016 7:55 AM

    Another interesting blog. One obvious issue that the press and the archaeological community have not addressed is that in dictatorships like that of Egypt, Assad’s Syria and Saddam’s Iraq, local people associate antiquities (which are state owned) with hated authoritarian regimes. So, when there is unrest, antiquities are looted or destroyed BECAUSE they are associated with such governments. See


  1. Friday Varia and Quick Hits | The Archaeology of the Mediterranean World

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