News & opinion on Greater China and the even Greater Beyond: by Biff Cappuccino.

Sunday, September 12, 2004

Essay: Watching the movie Black Hawk Down, I was struck again by how important information is and how the phrase information is power is more than just a glib cliche. When people say the information age, they're usually referring to the plethora of media and other information sources. But the information age implicitly refers to much more, with this movie demonstrating this in action and pointing indirectly to the extreme importance of freedom of speech to military success.

The obvious place to start is the equipment used by the US military in Somalia: everything from kevlar body armor to night vision goggles and advanced wireless telecommunications technologies enabling real-time video and other communication with headquarters. The locals wore calico and dressed in sandals, communicated with top leaders with cell phones but mostly via burning tires in an East African edition of sending smoke signals. Each aircraft had its own video camera with a feed into headquarters command, thus informing the commander in real time of changing situations and facilitating the tactical coordination of his men. The Somalis mostly made a sprawling run for wherever the action was. Furthermore, the guns that the US forces were using, from M-16s to gatling gun type weaponry was also the result of vast investments of R&D.

This advanced weaponry, in a sense, was simply information and intelligence incarnate; stone melted down and reassembled into a more useful shape. The key is information. The stone, that is to say iron ore, salt-peter, coal, etc., has always been around. 3 billion years and counting. Any sentient being could use it. In Somalia, one group had the information required to make it into advanced weaponry, the other didn't. Knowledge is power.

Beyond this, there was the modern secular empirical disciplined perspective of the US troops on the ground and in the air. US camaraderie was based on professionalism and military tradition (and not on unintelligent bravado or the fear of retaliation to one's family or the foolish death wish of muslim martyrs) and training which enabled the men to work with one another precisely in a coordinated format. A body of formal sign language previously designed for military use was employed by the grunts to communicate silently or during times of extreme noise. A further advantage was that the US troops possessed a limited knowledge of local culture as opposed to the locals who knew next to nothing about US troops and were thus far less able to predict enemy behavior and respond effectively in real time.

Again, the vehicles that the US troops used, from helicopters to Humvees were all the product of superior information, intelligence, design, empiricism, copyright protection, law and order traditions, and so on and so forth. Even the fact that the US troops were in Somalia, and not the Somalians in the US, was the product of a superior economic and transportation system which again is a result of improved information resources and the permeation of information across the board in a society whose jurisprudence protects free speech and whose society and economy often rewards originality.

Counter this with the Somalian situation. No newspapers, no freedom of speech protections, no viable economy. A society run by warlords and whose people believe in witchcraft and animism, are restricted from engaging in a whole host of civilized activities due to taboos that dictate who and when one can work, play, harvest, fish, etc, plus a body of fetishes that mislead people into thinking they have power when they in fact do not and into thinking they lack power when in fact they have power. In corrupt warlord driven Somali society, originality meant breaking with tradition and the status quo which meant offending, angering or intimidating someone; in a word, being guilty of uppitiness, heterodoxy or heresy. Forgetting one's place and advocating alternatives meant sticking one's neck out with the possibility that it may get chopped. This is a society where hypocrisy, dishonesty, double-dealing and treachery are necessary just to survive and thus enter the moral scheme and become touted by parents, educators, leaders and national heroes as positive, laudable skills when societal intercourse is wisely considered a combat requiring full knowledge of the terms of engagement. This is a society where refined thought has no recognizable value nor application, and where the highest intellectual attainment of recognized value is the faculty for launching cheesy, sentimental, and inflammatory rhetoric, the effective banding together of uneducated and illiterate thugs (i.e. Somali go-getters, boosters, and regular Joe Six-Packs just trying to scrape a meal ticket together) through appeals to adolescent greed, lust, intimidation, and violence. One has no choice in the matter for without leisure, learning, and sophistication, adults never grow up.

Without intelligence and the safe harbor that its highest practitioners, nerds that is, require, there is no such thing as technological advance, no professionalism, nothing by way of advanced military formations or strategies, no long term plans period. Its all just a matter of getting by and keeping one's eye fixed on the ball. Just the usual Third World scenario whereby the national hero throws troops at the enemy on the premise that he who has the most cannon fodder to lose, wins.

According to the film, 19 Americans and over a thousand Somalis were killed. According to the locals, about 500 Somalis were killed. If the first figures are accurate than the ratio of Americans to Somalis killed is one to 50, and in the second it's one to 25. In other words, just like Iraq, and as laid out by Victor Davis Hanson in his book Culture & Carnage, democratic armies take far fewer casualties and inflict far greater damage when battling the armies of despots, as the latter are prone to lacking leadership, being devoid of informed opinion, flexibility, camaraderi, or intelligence (the best they can work up is savvy), while the troops are ever on the look out for someway to dodge the hostilities and make a run for it. In democracies there's freedom to exchange information, freedom to be persuaded (i.e. not coerced) that the cause is valid and worth fighting for, freedom to refuse to fight. Intelligence is valued in and of itself and given sanctity; there's the opportunity to engage freely in business and other forms of ethical (i.e. socially useful forms of) self-enrichment, to express opinions freely and to decry the ill-considered, the impossible, the moony.

And so, though the US left Somalia, it wasn't because because it lost the fight. It didn't run with its tail between its legs, it made a calm strategic decision. One which many American analysts have since decried.

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