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Warfare and the art of adaptation

February 21, 2013

Adaptation is a critically important part of our mental equipment. Time changes all things, and we must go with the flow or retire from the game. It shows up in a small way when you reach for your umbrella before going out in the rain, but maybe to best effect in wartime when one side launches an astonishing new weapon and the other promptly dreams up a counter-measure and launches its own dream weapon.

Jack O’Brien

Jack O’Brien

Even before Genghis Khan, the bow and arrow succeeded the sword and mace because it could kill at a distance, the cannon succeeded the bow because it increased the distance, and the Intercontinental Ballistic Missile trumped gunpowder because it could reach clear around the world. So now it was time to take a different tack, foreshadowed by the eleventh century Indian Chera people in their defense against the invading Chola, something so different that in its current form it seems unbeatable: the suicide bomber.

The beauty of the idea is that the suicide bomber is virtually indistinguishable from anyone else; he could be could be the kid begging for coins, the old man hobbling along with a stick or the woman selling flowers. How can you protect yourself against the hands-off members of society? And who on our side considers himself privileged to blow himself up for our sake?

Some, but not many. You can’t win a war if you can’t even identify the enemy, and you can’t protect yourself against someone who has little to live for and much to die for. So what’s the answer?

Well, we’re working on it, but if I can’t reveal our counter-measures, at least I can tell you what not to do. Firstly, don’t get into a shouting match with people who prefer, or can be trained to prefer, death to life. Actually, it’s not all that difficult to train a teenager to die for a particular cause, so you’d better stay away from religious, poverty-stricken teenagers who disappear for a year into a remote training camp.

Secondly, don’t disparage intelligence, even if its recent record seems disappointing. Recruit hundreds of nationals from every country that might conceivably launch suicide bombers against you, and have them infiltrate suspected organizations and training schools. It is easier to train a spy than a suicide bomber, but utterly useless to train a foreigner to do the job. In this new form of warfare, reliable intelligence is absolutely crucial to success.

Thirdly, don’t relax vigilance. Long before the shooting starts, identify the causes of potential conflict and, if at all possible, work towards resolving the differences. This is undoubtedly my weakest recommendation, since the causes of conflict are often not discernible or, if religious, not corrigible. Even so, it has to be borne in mind that the cost of a shooting war, and not just the economic cost, always far exceeds the cost of reconciliation.

Finally, if all else fails, assassinate the warmongers, on both sides if necessary.

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