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ETech2008: Will social networks stabilize Iraq?

Noah Schactman spoke at ETech just before me – I regret that I’m only posting notes from his talk now, but there’s been thousands of miles of travel and a couple of very long meetings between then and now. Besides which, if you’re really bored, you can go back and catch up on all my TED posts you haven’t read yet.

Schactman wrote an excellent piece in Wired about the role of data networks and personal networks in the US invasion and occupation of Iraq. I assume the article had been given an overly provocative title by a Wired editor – “How Technology Almost Lost the War” – but Schactman’s speech seems subject to some of the same critiques – he may be criticizing technology for some deeply human and strategic failures.

His talk starts by introducing us to Sergeant Joe Colabuno, a US Army soldier who’s so popular with his commanding officers that they’ve basically prevented him from leaving Iraq. He isn’t the best educated guy in the world – before the army, he was managing a steakhouse in Cleveland – and he might not be the most gung-ho – Schactman tells us that Colabuno joined a Psyops team because he thought the Army would let him experiment with LSD. But he’s become indispensible to the success of the Army in Iraq.

To understand why, we need to look at how the Department of Defense has embraced new battlefield technologies. There’s been an obsession with “network centric warfare”, an attempt to optimize the “killchain” much as Walmart has optimized its supply chain. (Walmart was, in fact, the model used to transform the military.) It’s worked pretty well – systems that commanders use see the position of every piece of military hardware, every military contractor, and to graph rocket attacks, IEDs and other enemy actions. Want to plan a safer path for a convoy? No problem – pull up the map and draw a new line that doesn’t pass through the dangerous areas.

This system is called “CPOF” – “Command Post of the Future”. Soliders predictably call it CPORN – “Command Post of the Right Now”. It’s terrific at letting the Army kill folks more quickly, but it does very little to build schools, elect local government, or do any of the other social activites neccesary to stabilize this nation. “Unfortunately, you can’t kill your way to a stable Iraq.”

Asking soliders to focus on rebuilding Iraqi society is “like asking the wallmart greeter to join Cirque du Soleil.” They’re just not qualified, Schactman tells us. “The only Arabic anyone knew was from Team America World Police – they’d drive around in Humvees yelling ‘dirka dirka’ at everyone they passed.” In an 1800-person unit, the only guy who could communicate with Iraqis was a guy who spoke Russian – some of the Iraqi guys had Russian from former military trainers. This obliviousness to local culture meant that guys misread signs on the ground. “Guys would see blag flags waving – they knew what white flags were and assumed these were the opposite. ‘If these guys are flying black flags, they must want us to bring it on.'” The black flags were a Shia religious symbol that was badly misinterpreted by the soliders.

On the other hand, the insurgents knew exactly how local cultures function and how to function within this framework. Schactman points out that the CPOF screens didn’t show where the insurgents were, just where they’d struck before. And they certainly didn’t show the people who might be on the US’s side or might be on the insurgents’ side, depending on specific circumstances on the ground. “Where are the police offers who take money from us and from the insurgents? The shopkeeper caught in the middle? – The dots on the screen need to be grey, not just red and blue.” This is especially true as Iraqi law allows each house to have an AK-47 and a magazine of ammunition – “everyone has the tools of insurgency.” To find insurgents, you need to understand influences and motivations.

This is what Sergeant Colabuna has proved so good at doing. At the start of the war, his unit was responsible for faking out Iraqi troops – they drove around in an humvee with a speaker system that made sounds like tanks advancing or aircraft overhead, designed to make the enemy look in the wrong direction. After the invasion, his job was to spread propaganda through low-tech channels.

His first attempts were pretty unsuccessful – pictures of children killed by insurgents with an admonition, “Why are you letting these terrorists kill your children?” That didn’t go over very well – Iraqis felt shamed, not incensed. His first big hit was a flyer that parodied a local insurgent group, specifying that Allah had reserved places in hell for people who killed without mercy for women and children. That one provoked a split in the local insurgent movement and allowed his colleagues to target and kill some of the insurgent leaders.

What Colabuna had figured out was how to work the local social networks. This, Schactman argues, has been the key to the major successes in stabilizing Iraq. He tells the story of a commander who was having difficulty recruiting local police. He finally discovered that he needed to go to prison and get the blessing of the local tribal leader before anyone would work with him.

A future version of CPOF, he argues, should include information on the social networks in Iraq – tribal and religious boundaries in town, the tensions between them, the key individuals who can shape social movements. But that’s not easy information to get. And there’s a danger in these techiques as well – as Schactman documented in one of his pieces for Wired, Colabuna’s work plays on Shia/Sunni tensions and prejudices. It may have helped to stabilize Faluja, but it might contribute to future civil war.

I enjoyed the talk, but was a bit disappointed that it didn’t stray far from his Wired article. Some in the audience reacted quite negatively – it’s a bit unreasonable, they argued, to blame a failing war on data visualization techniques. Where he and his questioners seemed to be in agreement is that the technology has helped the US military kill more efficiently – as for whether technology can be blamed for killing stupidly and destructively, that’s probably a conversation for a forum other than ETech.

4 thoughts on “ETech2008: Will social networks stabilize Iraq?”

  1. “A future version of CPOF, he argues, should include information on the social networks in Iraq – tribal and religious boundaries in town, the tensions between them, the key individuals who can shape social movements. But that’s not easy information to get.”

    How remarkable that Shachtman is suddenly in favor of the Human Terrain System, now that he’s giving talks at TED. And how truly remarkable that only now does he admit how difficult it is.

  2. Actually CPOF is one of the few information visualization tools in the Army that can plot IED attacks in a neighborhood against the amount of various types of civilian assistance given in the neighborhood to indicate ways to maximize the effect that our assistance has. It’s also excellent at finding patterns in IED attacks to help prevent them. To call it a tool that merely helps the Army kill is disingenuous.

  3. Pingback: Technologies for worldchanging « Globograma

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