A war of ideas where you have the wrong starting assumptions is going to be a costly war.
— thaddeus e. grugq (@thegrugq) November 18, 2021
Currently I’m reading “War from the ground up” which is about a lot of things, but one concept is that war is not a universal interpretive device on its own, rather a culturally constructed one. So basic concepts of war, such is “how long is a battle?” Or “what is honourable behaviour?” Are not things that we can agree on across cultural divides.
This is most obvious in how the Taliban fought the US in Afghanistan. It was not just an asymmetric war in how it was fought, in fact it was asymmetric from a cross-cultural mismatch to begin with. It was waged in-line with how each side perceived the conflict.
For example, the US might designate a hill as being a Taliban strong hold, then spend a few days clearing the hill of Taliban. Maybe they kill 100 fighters, and take only 1 dead and a dozen wounded. For the US this is a successful battle where they killed 100 Taliban for very few American casualties. Now, for the Taliban, this is a victorious battle where they successfully killed and wounded Americans and in the end they keep the hill when the Americans leave. Both sides experienced the same event, but they understood it completely differently because they aren’t fighting the same “war”.
And for a civilian caught in the fighting, who also experienced the same event, it wouldn’t even be perceived as a battle. It would be a calamity which destroyed their property and threaten them and their loved ones.
How is this relevant to cyber? Well, it is extremely relevant. Let’s talk about language and out ontological model of the world. In English we have the term “cyberspace,” which is used in American and British doctrinal writings about cyber. It is used by lay people and practitioners. It is not, importantly, a term used in Russian or Chinese cyber doctrine.
We have a problem with our understanding of cyber and it begins with cyberspace. It is literally in the word — cyberspace. The word itself gives the impression of cyber being a “space”, somewhere that is somewhere (see: all the legal discussions about cyber and sovereignty). It gives us the misconception that cyber is an area which we can manoeuvre within and around. That we start somewhere and end up somewhere. That you can go from A to B in cyber.
The very term cyberspace creates a distorted understanding of what is actually happening, making us think it must be happening somewhere.
But we know this is false. Cyber is not a space. There is no there, there.
This is recognised in a way by the Russians and Chinese who talk about the “information sphere” rather than “cyberspace.” To them, computers are information systems. To the West, computers are a location where the cyber resides. This is a profound difference of understanding that has led to strategic surprise when it turned out that their understanding is more valid than ours.
A change of perspective is worth 10 IQ points.
The 2016 US election and Brexit campaigns must be understood within this strategic context. The Russian understanding of cyber conflict includes using information to manipulate a target population. They don’t think of this as a siloed activity, they understand that it is part of the information sphere. But, of course, where exactly is a Facebook post in cyberspace? That isn’t even a sensical question to ask.
Here is how we see that cultural perspectives construct our understanding of cyber conflict. It is not an objective material object, but a mutually constructed idea that we create though our discourse.
And our discourse is not the same as their discourse. This is how you lose the cyberwar.