Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Defending Pala: Rhizome as a Mode of Military Operations

How would the military of a rhizome polity look and function? What would be the tactical and strategic issues at the core of a military confrontation between hierarchy and rhizome? How does looking at rhizome through the lens of military organization help better illuminate the concept, and specifically help to explain the nature of the conflicts presently facing the U.S. If nothing else, it’s an interesting thought experiment… military?
Rhizome, a non-hierarchal, non-centralized mode of organization, is a very square peg that we are trying to fit into the traditionally very round hole of military analysis. But suspend, for a moment, such traditional notions of hierarchal and authoritarian militaries, and instead think of “military” as the mode of violent expression of an organizational pattern, be it hierarchy, rhizome, etc.
All human organization demands some mode of violent expression, even if that mode consists of pacifism and capitulation in the face of another’s violence. War is generally a wasteful and nonproductive economic activity, even though it may certainly enrich some of the participants. In the case of hierarchy vs. rhizome, however, the economically inefficient activity of equipping rhizome to repel hierarchy is less inefficient than permitting their annexation and conversion to hierarchal means of economic activity. Likewise, while violence in se is a greater moral wrong than pacifism in se, it is cumulatively worse to permit the trespasses of hierarchy when they can otherwise be avoided.
Furthermore, rhizome war may represent an end to war. The history of warfare is a history of hierarchy. Rhizome polities, as they have existed in a lesser approximation of fully rhizome form, have never been able to repel the advance of hierarchy. As a result, warfare has been an activity entered into exclusively by hierarchy, against either rhizome or against another hierarchy. It has been a constant evolutionary struggle, with alternating innovations in tactics or politics, offense or defense leading to a perpetual war among human polities instigated by the innovator. Rhizome cannot “make war” in the classical sense, because it has no capacity for offensive warfare—the kind of military operations that I will outline here are structurally limited to defensive and reactionary operations (even if they may use offensive tactics to defensive ends). This is because rhizome is structurally incapable of exerting control beyond itself—the pattern of rhizome can spread, but it is fundamentally incapable of controlling another entity. For this reason, rhizome has no motivation to instigate war—it can only respond to aggression by hierarchy. Therefore, if one accepts that it is possible to develop the theory of rhizome military operations to the extent that it cannot be defeated by hierarchy, then rhizome war equals an end to war, as hierarchy will not instigate a war that it does not think it can win.
Let me then get right to the point: how a rhizome military could be organized. I’ll start by laying out a proposed set of principles for rhizome war: Independence, Interaction, Open Source, Time & Place. Contrast these to the classic principles of hierarchal war (as taught by US military academies) and notice how they define hierarchy in general: Objective, Offensive, Mass, Economy of Force, Maneuver, Unity of Command, Security, Surprise, and Simplicity.
The four principles of rhizome warfare:
Independence: the downtrodden and oppressed of history have tended to fight hierarchy by organizing themselves into a semi-hierarchal structure, often abandoning their semi-rhizome roots in the process. The problem with this process is that IF they defeat their hierarchal opponent, the victorious downtrodden masses suddenly find that the traction of the hierarchal institutions introduced along the way to victory have too much inertia, and the new society eventually becomes just another oppressive hierarchy. For this reason, the first principle of rhizome warfare is independence. An extant rhizome structure must not abandon its rhizome nature. Rather, it must embrace rhizome. If rhizome forms a platoon, battalion or division in its own defense, it has already lost. A rhizome military functions just like a rhizome economy—as the emergent action of independent nodes, independent warriors. Napoleon’s use of the independent military corps revolutionized European warfare. Rhizome warfare extends this principle further, atomizing Napoleon’s corps to create self-sustaining, self-directing, combined arms “corps” of single individuals, or of small, voluntary groupings derived from rhizome nodes.
Interaction: like classical rhizome, the emergent action of a rhizome military is a function of the strength of the interactions between component nodes. The primary preoccupation of the hierarchal military is not actually violence, but rather information processing—intelligence, strategizing, communicating orders, etc. It is here that the rhizome military holds its greatest advantage, as rhizome can process information more efficiently than hierarchy. This does not need to be directed as with hierarchy—the rhizome military functions by emergent action. Just as the seemingly random and disorganized interactions between billions of neurons in our brains process information to a greater impact than the fastest hierarchal supercomputer, the strength of action of a rhizome military is dependent on the seemingly random and disorganized interaction of its component nodes. These interactions must follow the classical rhizome pattern: both strong and weak, near and far, brief and in-depth.
Open Source: The single factor that compounds the information processing problems more than any other is secrecy. Hierarchal, offensive operation depends on exclusive knowledge or innovative tactics and methods. Imagine if Eisenhower had told Hitler, “in three months from today, I will land my forces in Normandy, NOT Pas de Calais.” That wouldn’t have worked too well. The need to safeguard these secrets created an enormous burden on the Allied forces. Rhizome does not face such a burden. All communications, capabilities, intentions and activities within a rhizome military must be entirely in open; open source, freely available and unauthenticated. The fact that a hierarchal opponent will be able to freely access this information is irrelevant, for the sheer magnitude of information emanating independently, differently and continuously from every rhizome node will completely overwhelm the ability of hierarchy to process this information. Unlike hierarchal communications, there will be no one piece that is more important than another, and the total lack of graduated security of communications will provide no indication as to any relative importance of information. This will negate then entire intelligence capability of hierarchy, while at the same time ensuring the smooth operation of rhizome’s information processing engine.
Time & Space: Because of the constitutional nature of hierarchy, time and space work in favor of rhizome, and must be exploited as a tool of rhizome warfare. Due to the constitutional nature of hierarchal opponents, they are severely restrained by the need to meet certain criteria in time and place. Traditional warfare is defined by the application of decisive force at the right time and place—the key there being the need for decisive action that meets a demanding set of criteria. Hierarchy has a structural need to continuously grow in order to survive, and therefore must seek out and win decisive battles in order to prevail in warfare. These decisive battles must be both near enough in time to meet their constitutional need for continuous expansion and intensification, and must happen at concentrated points in space to facilitate the application of hierarchy’s strength of centralization. The very nature of rhizome is effective in defeating hierarchy; it is not concentrated in the near term, or in centralized to specific points in space. Rather, rhizome is a non-historical process, one that does not require the arrow of time that hierarchy depends on in the form of centralization and intensification. Rhizome’s natural state is that of stasis. Similarly, rhizome exists in a distributed, non-centralized structure, and therefore is naturally prevented from succumbing to the hierarchal military’s need for a pitched and decisive battle. Rhizome can defeat hierarchy simply by maintaining its stasis and avoiding pitched battles. It must embrace the classical rhizome approach to time and space.
By Way of Illustration:
In Aldous Huxley’s ultimate novel, Island, the ideal society of Pala is destroyed by the war-like, hierarchal neighboring state of Rendang, with the aid and encouragement of a British oil company. The Raja of Pala decided to simply acquiesce to Rendang’s aggression rather than try to take up arms to fight off the invasion, presumably because he did not want to force his rhizome society into a hierarchal fighting machine. Could Pala have retained its rhizome structure and defeated Rendang at the same time? Perhaps an analysis of rhizome elements of today’s conflicts can provide an answer.
Rhizome military principles are at work around the world today to a greater or lesser degree: the F.A.R.C. in Colombia, the Sunni Insurgency in Iraq, the White Supremacist “leaderless resistance” movement in the United States, and the Earth Liberation Front, just to name a few. But purely as a thought experiment, would it be possible for a relatively backwards and unsophisticated hierarchal military to reshape itself into a rhizome military, and in the process defeat the world’s most capable hierarchal military? Specifically, could Iran reshape itself into a rhizome military to defeat a US invasion? And, perhaps more interestingly, would such a policy either force or catalyze the transition of Iranian society as a whole from hierarchy to rhizome?
Iran could abandon its current hierarchal military and devolve into a rhizome of a hundred thousand independent individual “corps” units. These would be complimentary in equipment and specialty, capable of temporarily operating jointly or individually. Each rhizome corps would be minimally self-sufficient in food, transportation, weaponry and communications, and each would have some degree of unique or specialized function in addition to these minimums of independence. A quick list of the various permutations of the rhizome corps: sniper “node”, MANPADS “node”, medical “node”, motorbike messenger/scout “node”, communications “node”, etc. They would operate in a manner that is perhaps best described as “reverse swarming”…rather than coalescing just in time to present a critical mass to confront the enemy, they would leverage their advantage at ranged fire while always fading away into the fabric of the local populace or wilderness just before the enemy can concentrate sufficient mass to force an encounter that favors hierarchy. They would freely communicate and share information about their operations with anyone and everyone, overwhelming the information processing capabilities of hierarchy, while leveraging their own emergent information processing advantage. Many of these techniques are already at work in the worlds many insurgencies, with perhaps the notable exception of the intentional use of “open source” command and control.
While this theory of rhizome warfare is undeveloped and largely untested as a complete package, its effectiveness can be observed by analogy all around us, from the impact of blogs to the inability of the US military to force Islamic insurgents into a pitched battle (despite their overt attempt in Fallujah). Perhaps most importantly, as a full package, the methods of rhizome warfare may actually strengthen the societal and economic patterns of a rhizome society.


Jason Godesky said...

If only I could find those articles again, but I had read that Saddam Hussein pursued an explicit defensive strategy whereby the Republican Guard and Fedayeen would dissolve into the populace; that much of the insurgency is in fact Saddam's defensive strategy playing out.

Interestingly, I have also read that these same former Baathists had largely lost all of the secular, pan-Arabist, nationalist goals they had once championed, and that the entire insurgency--regardless of their varying origins--had become united in a goal of a Sunni theocracy.

Now, perhaps I'm merely parroting the misinformation of American mainstream media on one or both counts, but this suggests two possibilities to me:

1.) Could it be you were only one letter off? Can we attribute some part of the current insurgency to Saddam actually pursuing the strategy you suggest--"would it be possible for a relatively backwards and unsophisticated hierarchal military to reshape itself into a rhizome military, and in the process defeat the world’s most capable hierarchal military?"

2.) If this is the case, could the transformation of secular Baathists into radical jihadists suggest that you are also correct on the matter of a rhizomatic military's transformative power in the culture as a whole? While fundamentalist Sunni Islam is every bit as hierarchical as Baathist fascism, they are nonetheless quite distant from one another philosophically--suggesting how much memetic ground can be covered with such a transition of tactics.

Jeff Vail said...

I think that the insurgency in Iraq is a very interesting development, and as you mentioned it was largely a planned disintegration from the hierarchal Iraqi military to the current state of affairs. There are also open source reports that Iran and Venezuela are intentionally preparing to use exactly this strategy, so I think that it is very timely.

Is the rhizome nature of the Iraqi insurgency making their society more rhizomatic and less hierarchal? I think so, but I think that their failure to consciously frame the issue in those terms will ultimately lead to them back to hierarchy. This is almost the standard pattern in guerrilla warfare: as insurgencies see more and more military successes, they tend to to transition from their old rhizomatic ways and try to take on aspects of hierarchal militaries... like the Vietcong in the Tet offensive, or America's army as the revolutionary war progressed. As soon as this happens (the perceived need to start to look like the "big boys" in an effort to win on their terms), then defeats seem to follow, or if not then this is often the point where a revolution loses its populist ideology and you see the rise of Mao-the-dictator (as opposed to the earlier Mao-the-populist). I think that it is possible, rather than transitioning to hierarchy as revolutionaries or insurgents gain power, to instead further embrace rhizome structure. That, if we ever see it in Iraq or elsewhere, will be very interesting to watch and chronicle. I don't see it happening, though, anywhere where the conflict is not consciously and explicitly framed in "hierarchy vs. rhizome" terms.

The Global Silk Road said...

Given what i have said in my comment on network defence I am not sure I understand the nature of the modern military's doctrine of "mission command". This is surely a rhizome style approach.

Using it you could surely destoy a whole army leaving but one soldier and he would still know what to do carry out his function. You could destroy, division and brigade HQ of all units yet they could still function effectively as an army to pursue its original purpose until it ran out of lOgistics?

Have I missed something?

Anonymous said...

All this still comes down to you
occupying fixed positions (hamlets)
where your women and children live.
Your men will not be running around
the distant countryside playing
sniper for long when the walled
hamlet is breached by a few well
placed charges, or is itself
subject to mortar and sniper fire
a la Bosnia.

You mentioned the Iraqi insurgency
where I have real field experience.
IEDs along the roads are effective
until vehicles (or horses) decide
not to use them or men cut brush
on foot. IEDs are effective in
Iraq because supply trucks are
always on them. Raiders will not
use supply trucks. They will use
the local environment (the crops
and wildlife) as their supplies
(see Sun Tzu).

History has also shown that the
neighboring hamlet will not always
come to the defense of their
neighbors. Quite often, they are
afraid of catching the raiders'
attention! Whether if it's
villages in modern Africa or
Bosnia, the people who survived
have been the ones who abandoned
the village and feld to the hills
or woods. Smart raiders remove
what food/supplies they need at
the time and leave standing crops
unmolested. Genocide is a
completely different matter in
which the crops and excess stores
are burned.

If your hamlet will survive a
direct assault (which it will
eventually face), you MUST have
supperior firepower and enough
people willing to use it. Ratios
could be debated. Yes, your
walled hamlet will have no problem
keeping out 20 mindless zombie
bikers, but the 100 former federal
soldiers with a couple 60mm mortars
and 40mm genade launchers atop
armored hummers is another matter
altogether. Oh, then there's the
horse drawn light artillery piece
2 miles behind the next hill you
can't even see.


All this is not meant to discourage
you from the hamlet idea (which I
like to a great extent), but rather
just to get people who typically
have no military experience or
training in weapons to begin
seriously thinking about defence.

It would probably also help to
study Spartan tactics since they
were small groups of warriors who
were able to hold off larger
forces. I don't like anything
else about Spartan political or
social philosophy....

Anonymous said...

You know how there is a "Buy nothing day?"

What if there was a "Take down civilization day?"

This way, you could have simultaneous attacks all over the world, like a world wide Devils Night.

So what day should it be? I say the fifth of noVember would be appropriate...

Anonymous said...

Iraqi insurgence is simply using guerilla tactics to establish a hierarchy should they win the war.

I would have described heirarchy as 'static' as the State depends on internal stasis and external 'threats' to create and apply its power nexus.

Guerilla warfare is light and dynamic able to move and make decisions without being dependent on commands from above.

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