Tuesday, January 29, 2013

A Revolution in Insurgent Military Affairs? Neville Bolt's The Violent Image


By Neville Bolt
Columbia University Press


In The Violent Image Neville Bolt, a Teaching Fellow at Kings College London and a former BBC, ITV, Channel 4, and CBC Canada producer-director, sets out to redefine the Propaganda of the Deed (POTD) from its 19th Century roots and make it applicable to today's insurgents and terrorists (he uses these terms somewhat interchangeably, arguing that many terrorist groups, such as al Qaida, are global insurgencies). Bolt defines the original POTD as such: 
Initially the deed was an act of political violence aimed against state targets with the objective of goading the state into overreacting and using excessive force, thus losing its legitimacy in the eyes of the population, and securing revolution.  (24)
He contrasts this first concept with today's POTD: 
POTD is an act of political violence aimed against state targets with the objective of creating a media event capable of energising populations to bring about state revolution or social transformation. (24)
Bolt posits that this change in the insurgent's utility of violence has developed from acts that were primarily kinetic and symbolic to acts that are in reality strategic communications tools beyond their physical, tactical utility. There are five reasons for this development: globalization, mass migration and urbanization, the Digital Revolution, virtual social networks mapping onto traditional social networks, and the movement of politics into the media. 

The book is title The Violent Image because Bolt stresses the importance of images, stills over video, as a means to trigger emotions that change collective and collected memories such that are necessary to rewrite social understanding of political history. Pictures, he says, are more emotive than words, are conveniently ambiguous that they allow for different interpretations by different audiences, and cut across language barriers. There exists an 'Archipelago of Memories' (it seems his dissertation adviser was John Mackinlay after all) within societies that links memories and narratives. Actors with political primacy within societies have controlled the means of narrative, primarily through state-owned or -controlled media, and therefore have controlled the collective memory of the society. Insurgents attempt to provide an alternative narrative to create new memories sympathetic to their cause. Attempts that have been significantly facilitated by the digital revolution where media (narratives) are no longer one-to-many and are now many-to-many. Violent images are crucial to breaking down existing memories:
Insurgents connect these acts of violence in the minds of individuals and groups, to carefully crafted memories of grievance. Preparing the population is not simply about reinforcing ideology. It is about fracturing state and media memories - the status quo ante - and rooting violence in freshly constructed narratives, spawning a new revolutionary memory. (54)
To this point, Bolt provides an interesting history of Irish insurgent groups from 1798 until the present day where each new movement, whether nationalist, republican, Catholic, or socialist, has used propaganda to tie their group and cause to the earliest Irish insurgents. By drawing on more than a hundred years (at least for the most recent groups) these organizations created a memory of long-suffered grievance, even if their own objectives had little to anything in common with their predecessors. 

Insurgents, indeed any actor who uses propaganda, have the difficulty of speaking to many different audiences: fighters, local societies, diaspora societies, friendly governments, enemy governments, enemy fighters, etc. While the ambiguity of violent images allows them to use one image to speak to multiple audiences simultaneously, it is imperative the that narrative of their values remain unambiguous. This is something Western governments know all too well. There cannot be too big a gap between what you do and what you say. Insurgents use POTD, both minor and spectacular:
Minor events should resonate with each other, while spectaculars provide focal points that act as beacons within the landscape of revolutionary violence. (151)
Spectacular events in particular create fleeting points in time and space that provide the insurgent the capability to leverage their narratives while established media narratives waste the moment attempting to understand the "why" of the attacks through self-reflection. These are precious moments in building societal memories. 

Bolt provides two important lessons from all of this. First is that while the technologies that allow insurgents to propagate their narratives are not in themselves revolutionary, the changes in insurgent behavior of leveraging the technologies to disperse their narratives is, namely by the speed of dissemination (event to propaganda) and through many-to-many engagements. The second important lesson that Bolt draws is that insurgent organizations are increasingly, rightly in his opinion, using this new concept of POTD, leveraging the digital revolution, as a strategic operating concept that not only describes their military operations, but more significantly drives military operations so that tactical activities are determined by narrative and strategies of breaking down and building new memories. 

The Violent Image is a tour de force on the utility of violence for insurgent propaganda. Bolt lays out a coherent and engaging explanation of how and why insurgents and terrorists use violence towards political objectives. His arguments is straightforward and informative, if academically written, and we are better off having this work. Much ink has been spilled on the narrative aspects of insurgency and counterinsurgency, much of it useful, some of it not. Bolt's story is useful as it should help us understand the interaction of war and narrative better, even if it provides little in the way of recommendations to combat insurgent efforts to build new societal memories (which, of course, was not his intent; this is not a knock against the book). 

I certainly agree with Bolt that the POTD is and should be a operating concept that drives insurgent strategies (the term 'strategic operating concept' being an oxymoron in American military parlance).  However, my initial reaction to this book was to question whether this is evolutionary or revolutionary. What Bolt proposes is the story of a Revolution in Military Affairs with regard to insurgent warfare. A Revolution in Insurgent Military Affairs, a RIMA if you will.  The contrast is important. The study of war and its revolutions have focused almost solely upon great powers and conventional tactics and strategies. Discussions of the role of guerrilla warfare in this context center on how evolutions and revolutions in counterinsurgent forces enable those forces to better fight against insurgencies. The fact of the matter is that we do not have an academic reckoning of insurgencies such as we have for Western militaries. Our understanding of insurgencies has not progressed much past hit and run tactics, blending with the populations, the population is their target, and other such statements. These are not terribly useful in analyzing Bolt's thesis that his new POTD definition is revolutionary. 


To continue this line of analysis, POTD as a RIMA, we should examine what is meant by a Revolution in Military Affairs. A perfectly good definition was provided by Peter Singer in his Wired for War:

RMAs typically involve the introduction of a new technology or organization, which in turn creates a whole new model of fighting and winning wars. A new weapon is introduced that makes obsolete all the previous best weapons, such as what armored, steam-powered warships did to wooden, wind-powered warships. (Singer, 181)
There is no question that the digital revolution brought about new technologies that have affected warfare. Indeed, insurgent groups have even reorganized themselves to better leverage these technologies. But are these actions revolutionary with regard to insurgent warfare? Have they created a "whole new model of fighting and winning wars"? 

Insurgents have use propaganda as long as we have been recording such things. Even Clausewitz himself acknowledges that the insurrectionist's center of gravity is popular support (we'll ignore for the moment that he still then proscribes the destruction of the enemy force as essential). During his lengthy discourse on Irish insurgencies, Bolt writes at length about their leveraging propaganda. The connection of violence to propaganda has been the hallmark of terrorist groups for at least a century, and likely before that, either to generate grievance from heavy-handed governments or to demonstrate their group's military competence.


I believe that an element of skepticism of the revolutionary aspect of Bolt's thesis is his definition of the POTD from a century ago. He links the violent act to government overreaction; a judo throw that causes widespread outrage that creates social transformation. But what are these events other than media events? How were insurgents able to spread public outrage? In the case of Ireland it was through pamphlets and underground newspapers. I would argue that insurgent intents and the mechanisms to bring their objectives to reality have not fundamentally changed since, merely the speed and reach of messaging. Indeed, speed and reach provided by digital means are necessary to counteract global migrations that would in earlier times have been local audiences to insurgent groups. Audiences that had been well within the effective range of a well written and illustrated newsletter. 


There are numerous ways to analyze this excellent book and as a military thinker and writer I chose to approach it as a second track of military affairs. I do not find what Bolt describes as creating a whole new way of fighting and winning wars. Propaganda, rooted in violent imagery to evoke emotions that break down and recreate societal memories of grievance, has benefited from the digital revolution in an evolutionary manner, not revolutionary. It is not a RIMA, even if it may drive more 'traditional' forces towards their own RMAs to combat the POTD. That said, this type of analysis would be well served by more in-depth study of insurgencies over time, such as we have for Western militaries.


The point of evolutionary or revolutionary advancement does not degrade this book in any way. It is exceptionally informative in describing how and why our current and potential adversaries use violence beyond tactical gains and into symbolic strategic gains by way of propaganda. Any student of modern warfare, insurgency, and terrorism would do themselves well by reading and keeping The Violent Image handy and I congratulate Dr Bolt for creating this significant work. 

5 comments:

  1. Good review.

    - Madhu

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  2. Awww, I missed Ink Spots. NEVER LEAVE US AGAIN.

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  3. This book sounds fascinating and frankly I'm very under read on books analyzing why insurgents/terrorists use violence, for what ends.

    My question, the only red flag that comes up for me, is the idea of emphasizing images or video. Thinking about the last few years of social media, youtube videos dominate (Neda, Girl in the blue bra, etc) How does he address this? I'm also asking this from the perspective of someone who hasn't read the book yet, and this wouldn't ruin the analysis for me.

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    1. I haven't read much on this myself outside of Kalyvas, who though more thorough addresses the issue from a different standpoint (not to mention specific to civil wars).

      Bolt spends a good deal of time talking about the preference of images over video and both over words. In his telling, over a couple of chapters on collective/collected memory and cognition, images serve a number of purposes. They cross language barriers (and don't really require narration unlike videos), are more indelible in people's memories (necessary to reframe memory), and are ambiguous enough that an individual photograph can speak different messages to multiple audiences simultaneously. I'm not so convinced of this as he is, but he argues passionately about it. It's certainly worth the read.

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