In a piece subtitled "why the electronic wars of the future will actually save lives," Tim Maurer yesterday argued that "cyberwarfare" can make war less violent and destructive; the rise to prominence of what we often hear described as "non-kinetic" means could allow for a brighter, "humanitarian" future in which fewer people are killed to accomplish political change.
The prevailing view, however, holds that cyberwar is a terrifying prospect... Yet the evidence of cyberwarfare, so far, reveals a very different picture. The cyberattack on Estonia in 2007 was the first to make major international headlines. But its damage was limited: The Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) attack overburdened servers in Estonia and brought down several websites. Something similar happened in Georgia during the war in 2008. Such attacks could theoretically cost lives if they shut down emergency hotlines, for example. But they're not the sort of thing that should keep us up at night. [...] Cyberwarfare might be how we will fight the battles of the future. The evidence so far suggests, however, that a digital Pearl Harbor would cost fewer lives than the attack 70 years ago. It might not be pretty, but from a humanitarian point of view, that's good news.But as Thomas Rid convincingly argues in a recent article ($) for the Journal of Strategic Studies, it's hard to think of such actions as really constituting "war" at all. Rid and Maurer agree that so-called "cyberwarfare" will likely be less dangerous than many forecasters predict, but the more optimistic Maurer fails to carry this observation to its inevitable Clausewitzian conclusion: war itself exists as a political phenomenon largely because other policy means are sometimes ineffective, and "less dangerous" very often means less useful.
Clausewitz reminds us at the outset that "war is an act of force to compel the enemy to do our will." Rid is more explicit about how such compulsion is accomplished:
To achieve the end of war, one opponent has to be rendered defenseless. Or, to be more precise: the opponent has to be brought into a position, against his will, where any change of that position brought about by the continued use of arms would bring only more disadvantages for him, at least in that opponent's view. Complete defenselessness is only the most extreme of those positions.Violence, threatened or actual, is what defines an act of war; violence is what destroys the enemy or breaks his will -- that intangible force that sustains his resistance -- and thus compels decision. The level of violence, destruction, and/or dislocation that's required to achieve this end varies according to context and the enemy's specific character: it can span from a show of force (threatened violence to deter enemy action) to a battle of envelopment and annihilation (in which "complete defenselessness" is enacted on the enemy). But all acts of war are merely means to this end.
Maurer is hopeful of a world where aggressive non-kinetic actions may be usefully employed by governments to accomplish policy aims short of violence, and I applaud his optimism. It can hardly be a bad thing if states have more ways to solve their problems short of war, and such flexibility can certainly save lives. But imprecise and misleading use of "war" vocabulary can lead us to forget that battle, death, destruction, violence and coercion remain as ever the "last argument of kings."
"Cyberwarfare" may give us a less dangerous instrument of policy, but it won't change the escalatory logic and fundamental violence of war. The "electronic wars of the future" will only save lives if the methods we develop to "fight" them can replicate the coercive power that has, to this point in history, only consistently been achieved by death and destruction.