Why They Killed Osama bin Laden (Maybe)

Vaughan Bell has pegged what sounds like a fascinating paper on the “total information war” the US is now fighting — and why it is fighting it.

The paper, writes Bell, “serves as an essential general introduction to how military thinking has moved on from assuming wars are fought with troops on the ground to conceptualising conflict as inseparable from its social impact.” Then, quoting the paper‘ (Military Social Influence in the Global Information Environment: A Civilian Primer,’ by psychologist Sarah King (emphasis mine):

A more prominent view among information warriors is that changes in information, technology, and social influence capabilities have actually transformed the terms of war. War between standing armies of nation-states is seen as increasingly unlikely, both because the United States is an unmatched military superpower and because damage that would result from use of modern physical weapon systems is deemed intolerable.

Our military’s enemies, experts predict, are most likely to be small, rogue groups who attempt to prevail by winning popular support and undermining U.S. political will for war. The argument here is that in most modern war, physical battles, if they exist, will be for the purpose of defining psychological battlespace.

In a sense, this is just a variation on war as diplomacy by other means. Yet if the U.S. is explicitly viewing its actions this way, it changes not only how you go about things if you’re Commander in Chief or Secretary of Defense — but how the rest of us might view missions such the one that just bagged Osama bin Laden.

By some accounts, bin Laden has posed a fairly small military threat for the past couple years — certainly much smaller than he did a few years ago. Yet he still posed a huge threat in the “psychological battlespace” King speaksk of. And partly by his own design, his very existence — the fact that he lived and breathed — posed a continued threat against the U.S. and other countries and social and cultural elements he had defined as noxious. I’m not making a legal or moral argument here, mind you; but if you see bin Laden’s existence in that light, you’d be all the more encouraged to lean toward the shorter, quicker term in any “Capture or Kill” mission. Capturing and trying bin Laden leaves him an active combatant in psychological battlespace, and if anything doubles his firepower. Killing him removes him almost completely from the battlefield.

Do see Bell’s take.

Art: Osama bin Laden Dead, by ssoosay, via flickr. Creative Commons license

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