Saturday, November 29, 2008

Paleo and neowars

To quote Umberto Eco again ( I have just finished reading a collection of his essays and am trying to find suitable contexts to fit in what I have read):

In the course of the centuries, what was the purpose of that form of warfare we shall call paleowar? We made war in order to vanquish our adversaries and thus profit from their defeat.; we tried to achieve our ends by taking them by surprise; we did everything possible to ensure that our adversaries did not achieve their ends; we accepted a certain price in human lives in order to inflict upon the enemy a greater loss of life. The game was played out between two contenders. The neutrality of others, the fact that they suffered no harm from the conflict and if anything profited from it, was a necessary condition for the belligerents’ freedom of action. Oh yes, I was forgetting; there was one more condition: knowing who and where the enemy was. For this reason, the clash was a frontal one and involved two or more recognisable territories.

But what are the characteristics of today’s war or neowar as we will call it?

The identity of the enemy is uncertain. Were all Iraqis the enemy? All Serbs? Who had to be destroyed?

Neowar has no front. Because of the very nature of multinational capitalism. It is no accident that Iraq or the Taliban were armed by Western industry. This falls within the logic of mature capitalism, which eludes the control of individual sates.

Also, a feature of the neowar, is that the media puts the enemy behind the lines. In neowar, the enemy is among us. Even if the media is muzzled, new communication technologies would maintain the flow of information- a flow that not even a dictator could block. How can you have a war in which you cannot surprise your enemy? And, when the media publicity makes even the death of one of our men unacceptable? Thus, neowar is a media product, so much so that it can be claimed, paradoxically, that it didn’t actually take place but was merely shown on television

A point that Umberto Eco misses out is that paleowar and neowar can co-exist. As was clear during the recent terror incidents. The terrorists had meticulously planned out a sneak attack ; they could take the enemy by surprise. They knew who they were targeting. To this extent, they were following methods outlined in paleowar manuals.

But, the responders had to grapple with all the uncertainty and fuzziness of a neowar. Who are these people? Where are they from? What are they fighting for? How many of them are out there? How well are they armed?

But, the other point that Eco makes- about the media- is worth pondering over. Watching the ongoing battle at Mumbai with the terrorists, the question that kept coming to my mind was, what useful role did the media play? Certainly, it did not bring any insights or meaningful analysis. On the contrary, it harmed the rescue efforts, by disclosing the intentions and movements of the NSG at every stage.

The intended outcome of the outrageous acts was to spread panic and terror among the public. And, what better way to attain that objective than by getting hundreds of obliging television channels beaming hundreds of real-time images every minute continuously for many hours? Twenty terrorists could hold the entire nation captive and horrified, by leverage the power of the media and its multiplier effect. We simply played into their hands.

Terrorists adept in neowar methods and psychology exploit this power to achieve their ends and gain enormous mileage for their cause. And, they know that the media will cry foul if a blackout of news is imposed. So, they can set out on their mission, secure in the knowledge that the media will be willing coalition partners.

If we have to prevent the terrorists from pursuing their agenda, should we simply switch off our television sets at the first sign that there has been a terror attack?

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