War Exercises And Big Data

By Andrej Mrevlje |

Lindsey Graham is a retired colonel. He says he knows war – he served in the National Guard and then the Air Force Reserves. He knows the smell of gunpowder well, recognizes the right time to order troops to attack.  

Yes, besides boasting about his war experience – which has proved to be dubious there is something ancient about Senator Graham. With his South Carolina accent, he evokes old stereotypes about this country. He projects a certain image: we picture him in the middle of a battle full of cannon salvos and smoke, perhaps sitting on a horse and holding the Confederate flag that he continues to love today. His heart still beats for that mother of all wars. Amidst the grayness of the battlefield – with corpses lying around him and surrounded by the echoes wounded soldiers’ moans – his blue eyes shining like he is possessed.

He never actually fought in any wars, and yet he loves the uniform – he acts like a man of granite. Even after many years in the Senate, he still longs for the Deep South and white supremacy. His battlefields are now the corridors in Congress where he throws his grenades during interviews. He must hate calm and peace. So he constantly calls his countrymen to arms.

The same happened in Las Vegas, last week, where 13 Republican candidates debated for the chance to run for the presidency. This time, Lindsey Graham and the other candidates tried to overcome their warmongering teacher, Donald Trump.

For Graham, war is now inevitable, the New Yorker reports:

We’re at war, folks. They’re not trying to steal your car; they’re trying to kill us all.” In case you missed the point, he added, “The bottom line is, we’re at war. They’re trying to come here to kill us all,” and this: “The ISIL leadership wants to hurt you, and your family, and if I’m President they will not get here ’cause we’re going to kill ’em over there.” Then Graham ads his final words of the debate: ‘The next president is going to be a wartime president, whether they like it or not. I’m ready for that job.”

Senator Graham was not the only Republican candidate in Las Vegas who urged the U.S. to build a stronger army, send more troops after terrorists, and drop more bombs. Nor was he the only candidate who ranted about and menaced the world with America’s military might. All the Republican candidates were gambling in Las Vegas, putting their strongest chips on a war sign. In the New Yorker, Jeffrey Frank observes the delirium of the Republican candidates:

It is this sort of threat inflation that makes it all the more difficult to form rational policies to deal with very real threats. This includes ISIS, but also the possibility that North Korean leaders may be telling the truth when they claim that they’ve developed a hydrogen bomb, or, for that matter, the fact of Pakistan’s nuclear arsenal. In the long run, threat inflation—the exaggerations that encourage paralyzing fear—may be far more harmful than monetary inflation. There’s nothing new in this idea. Nearly a decade ago, in Political Science Quarterly, a Mississippi academic, Jeffrey Cavanaugh, discussed how the warnings of a “Red juggernaut,” the manipulation of opinion during the Vietnam War, and reports about Iraqi weapons of mass destruction swayed voters. It took Donald Trump, of all people, to put the recent Mideast wars in perspective, when, sounding for a moment less interested in the racism and bigotry he’s pushed in recent days, he said that “we’ve spent four trillion trying to topple various people that, frankly. . . . if we could’ve spent that four trillion in the United States to fix our roads, our bridges, and all of the other problems, our airports and all of the other problems we’ve had, we would’ve been a lot better off.”

This is actually a very good point. Creating fear among the population and competing for who amongst the candidates would be the tougher president eliminates voters’ ability to get a firm sense of reality. But while Frank is right, he has forgotten the reason why this year’s Republican primaries have lost their sense of rationality. Even if Trump sounded more sober than usual during the debate in Las Vegas, one should not forget that it was he who introduced the language of war that all the other Republican candidates now use. But since no one else can master his level of rudeness, Trump has already won this elections.  

Even those who have spent time getting to know him find him to be unpleasant – Mark Bowden’s profile of Trump in Vanity Fair is a very accurate evaluation of the presidential candidate’s character.

But the real question about the future commander in chief is, “Will any of the present candidates – many of whom claim to have excellent military experience – be able to act like a real commander-in-chief of the most powerful army on this planet?” Any of them – even Democratic candidates like Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders.

Less than eight years ago, during the 2008 campaign, the same question was asked – who in the White House will be able to answer a phone call at three in the morning? Only two elections ago, this still seemed to be a relevant question, but today it is not. Why?  

A week ago, Defense One published a piece on the further modernization of the U.S. military, stating that its battlefield edge will increasingly depend on automation and artificial intelligence. Among other things, the military is introducing machine learning systems that look through volumes of data and conduct operation at a speed far beyond human capacity – especially when it comes to conducting cyber defensive operations, electronic warfare, and over-the-horizon targeting. All this, and much more, depends on “Big Data.”

Big Data has only recently started to come into prominence. It was just two years ago that Gary Marcus wrote his comprehensive explanation of the subject for the New Yorker:

Now, it’s hard to go an hour without seeing it. … “The term itself is vague, but it is getting at something that is real… Big Data is a tagline for a process that has the potential to transform everything.” …

The reason scarcely anybody used to talk about Big Data is that, until very recently, it didn’t exist—most data had been, by current standards, small potatoes. Now, Big Data is mainly measured in terabytes (trillions) and petabytes (quadrillions); within a decade, even those numbers may seem quaint.

As companies like Google have shown, more data often means newer and better solutions to old problems. Last year, I wrote about how Google significantly improved spell-checkers by using massive databases of users’ self-corrections to do work that previously required hand-crafted algorithms focussed on the intricacies of English spelling and the psychology of typing.

Google’s new trick wouldn’t work if you only had a few user searches to draw on, but if you have trillions of searches from many millions of users, across a hundred and forty-six languages, it’s pure genius—and a technique that can be rapidly applied to different languages with relatively little manual labor.

And it’s just one of hundreds or perhaps thousands of innovations driven by the sheer mass of data that we’re capable of storing, wrangling, and manipulating. Cukier and Mayer-Schonberger’s book, for example, explains how the artificial-intelligence researcher Oren Etzioni created Farecast (eventually sold to Microsoft, and now part of Bing Travel), which scraped data from the Web to make good guesses about whether airline fare would rise or fall. Coupled with some advances in statistical techniques, Big Data is now de rigueur—to the point, almost, of being a kind of new religion, nicely parodied in Dilbert last summer: “In the past, our company did many evil things,” Dilbert’s pointy-haired boss says, “but if we store Big Data in our servers we will be saved.”

In a recent piece entitled “Algorithms of War,” Slate tried to slow down enthusiasm for Big Data, especially where it touches international relationships and military campaigns:

Drone targeting is increasingly based on algorithmic calculations, and other algorithms are being programmed to detect suspicious computer activity that algorithms could reveal a cyberattack, because humans simply can’t process all of the data being collected.

During the Cold War, American and Soviet policymakers would have had at least a few minutes to assess intelligence about a possible incoming nuclear attack and decide whether and exactly how to respond. At the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, a bug in the Soviet missile defense radar system seemed to show that the United States had launched a massive nuclear strike. A Soviet officer went against protocol and insisted the signal was a false alarm, and his judgment helped to prevent a retaliatory strike and the beginning of World War III.

But humanity has already taken the turn onto the Big Data road, from whence it will be hard to find an an exit. Drones have become one of the fundamental forms of warfare, and without Big Data, Barack Obama would never have been reelected in 2012. According to Andrew Lampitt of InfoWorld:

Credit for the big data approach goes to Obama campaign manager Jim Messina, who decided to dive headfirst into an analytics-driven campaign. Messina commented, “We were going to demand data on everything, we were going to measure everything…we were going to put an analytics team inside of us to study us the entire time to make sure we were being smart about things.” To ensure everything was measured, staff were evaluated on whether they entered data. The mantra became: “If you didn’t enter the data, you didn’t do the work.”

It was scary what Obama did in 2012, but it worked. And it was predictable. One could see it coming. And yet, four years later, none of the Republican candidates seem to have any knowledge of or capacity to collect Big Data and use it to mobilize their voters to the polls. That is why the the Republicans’ campaigning tools can only be fear and irrationality.

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