Michelle Maltais’ Cyber-Weapon Fantasy About ‘War Without Bloodshed’

What is it about technology that makes so many, warriors and armchair-enthusiasts alike, imagine that it will make war,  somehow, less bloody, less brutal, less inhumane? That never-ending and most curious of seductions is again visibly on display in Michelle Maltais’ article ‘Cyber Missiles Mean War Without Bloodshed’ (Los Angeles Times , June 2nd 2012). Like most demonstrations of this destined-to-be-benighted hope, it is equal parts laughable naiveté and dangerous cynicism. And unquestioning acceptance of the pronouncements of techno-optimists.

Maltais begins with a line that should have given her pause:

What do you need to disrupt nuclear facilities of your enemy? A thumb drive.

Maltais imagines, as she would like us to, I’m sure, that disruption of nuclear facilities merely means their peaceful grinding to a halt. But what if that disruption entails a catastrophic chain reaction instead? Or perhaps some other mishap that releases toxic, radioactive materials? The fallacy here is to imagine that the cyber-weapon will work precisely as intended, calmly, sanguinely, operating without collateral damage. But war, remember, is that place where, always without fail, ‘the best-laid schemes of men gang aft agley.’ This precautionary note could be cited for almost every single imagined use of cyber weapons.

But sometimes it doesn’t need to be a precautionary note about cyber-weapon malfunction. Maltais quotes ‘Phil Lieberman, a security consultant and chief executive of Lieberman Software in Los Angeles’ as saying:

You’re seeing an evolution of warfare that’s really intriguing…[W]arfare where no one is dying.

Fallacy Numero Dos: Cyber weapons may not merely conduct disruptive warfare. Perhaps they could make guided missiles go awry, planes crash, or bring about any number of other catastrophic failures of systems equipped with guidance systems susceptible to invasive hacking. These might entail loss of human life as well.

These remarks, however, are overshadowed by what might be the central confusion implicitly on display in the orgy of technophilic presumption that runs through Maltais’ article, that cyber-attacks will be responded to with acquiescence or by similarly oriented weapons, thus conjuring up an image of a world populated by belligerents that are content to merely knock out each other communication systems–and similar targets–happily trading software-coded potshots at each other.

Au contraire. Cyber attacks, if sufficiently potent, are likely to be considered casus belli by those on the receiving end. Their mode and method of retaliation might not be of the cyber variety. It might, you know, involve weapons that go boom, that shred skin and flesh and bone, and, yes, cause bloodshed. Maltais and those she quotes imagine that software will be met with software. But warfare is often asymmetrical. Do we–in this time and age, in this era of the suicide bomber, the IED, the nail bomb and the improvised Molotov cocktail, that daily go up against awesome, mechanized and computerized armies–really need to be reminded of that? Perhaps we do. And perhaps we also need the rude awakening that only war can bring–because apparently, when it comes to war, nothing quite gets rid of technological fantasies like those currently on display, like the shedding of real blood, and the return home of not-to-be-photographed body bags.