Dec 5, 2013
Beyond Bayonets and Battleships
Posted on Nov 8, 2012
By Alfred W. McCoy, TomDispatch
This piece originally appeared at TomDispatch. Read Tom Engelhardt’s introduction here.
It’s 2025 and an American “triple canopy” of advanced surveillance and armed drones fills the heavens from the lower- to the exo-atmosphere. A wonder of the modern age, it can deliver its weaponry anywhere on the planet with staggering speed, knock out an enemy’s satellite communications system, or follow individuals biometrically for great distances. Along with the country’s advanced cyberwar capacity, it’s also the most sophisticated militarized information system ever created and an insurance policy for U.S. global dominion deep into the twenty-first century. It’s the future as the Pentagon imagines it; it’s under development; and Americans know nothing about it.
They are still operating in another age. “Our Navy is smaller now than at any time since 1917,” complained Republican candidate Mitt Romney during the last presidential debate.
With words of withering mockery, President Obama shot back: “Well, Governor, we also have fewer horses and bayonets, because the nature of our military’s changed… the question is not a game of Battleship, where we’re counting ships. It’s what are our capabilities.”
Obama later offered just a hint of what those capabilities might be: “What I did was work with our joint chiefs of staff to think about, what are we going to need in the future to make sure that we are safe?... We need to be thinking about cyber security. We need to be talking about space.”
While the technological changes involved are nothing less than revolutionary, they have deep historical roots in a distinctive style of American global power. It’s been evident from the moment this nation first stepped onto the world stage with its conquest of the Philippines in 1898. Over the span of a century, plunged into three Asian crucibles of counterinsurgency—in the Philippines, Vietnam, and Afghanistan—the U.S. military has repeatedly been pushed to the breaking point. It has repeatedly responded by fusing the nation’s most advanced technologies into new information infrastructures of unprecedented power.
That military first created a manual information regime for Philippine pacification, then a computerized apparatus to fight communist guerrillas in Vietnam. Finally, during its decade-plus in Afghanistan (and its years in Iraq), the Pentagon has begun to fuse biometrics, cyberwarfare, and a potential future triple canopy aerospace shield into a robotic information regime that could produce a platform of unprecedented power for the exercise of global dominion—or for future military disaster.
America’s First Information Revolution
This distinctive U.S. system of imperial information gathering (and the surveillance and war-making practices that go with it) traces its origins to some brilliant American innovations in the management of textual, statistical, and visual data. Their sum was nothing less than a new information infrastructure with an unprecedented capacity for mass surveillance.
During two extraordinary decades, American inventions like Thomas Alva Edison’s quadruplex telegraph (1874), Philo Remington’s commercial typewriter (1874), Melvil Dewey’s library decimal system (1876), and Herman Hollerith’s patented punch card (1889) created synergies that led to the militarized application of America’s first information revolution. To pacify a determined guerrilla resistance that persisted in the Philippines for a decade after 1898, the U.S. colonial regime—unlike European empires with their cultural studies of “Oriental civilizations”—used these advanced information technologies to amass detailed empirical data on Philippine society. In this way, they forged an Argus-eyed security apparatus that played a major role in crushing the Filipino nationalist movement. The resulting colonial policing and surveillance system would also leave a lasting institutional imprint on the emerging American state.
When the U.S. entered World War I in 1917, the “father of U.S. military intelligence” Colonel Ralph Van Deman drew upon security methods he had developed years before in the Philippines to found the Army’s Military Intelligence Division. He recruited a staff that quickly grew from one (himself) to 1,700, deployed some 300,000 citizen-operatives to compile more than a million pages of surveillance reports on American citizens, and laid the foundations for a permanent domestic surveillance apparatus.
A version of this system rose to unparalleled success during World War II when Washington established the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) as the nation’s first worldwide espionage agency. Among its nine branches, Research & Analysis recruited a staff of nearly 2,000 academics who amassed 300,000 photographs, a million maps, and three million file cards, which they deployed in an information system via “indexing, cross-indexing, and counter-indexing” to answer countless tactical questions.
Yet by early 1944, the OSS found itself, in the words of historian Robin Winks, “drowning under the flow of information.” Many of the materials it had so carefully collected were left to molder in storage, unread and unprocessed. Despite its ambitious global reach, this first U.S. information regime, absent technological change, might well have collapsed under its own weight, slowing the flow of foreign intelligence that would prove so crucial for America’s exercise of global dominion after World War II.
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