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Article: Cyber-Mobilization: The New Levée en Masse. AUDREY KURTH CRONIN. Parameters, Summer 2006, pp. 77-87.



"The means and ends of mass mobilization are changing, bypassing the traditional state-centered approach that was the hallmark of the French Revolution and leaving advanced Western democracies merely to react to the results. Today’s dynamic social, economic, and political transitions are as important to war as were the changes at the end of the 18th century that Clausewitz observed. Most important is the 21st century’s levée en masse, a mass networked mobilization that emerges from cyber-space with a direct impact on physical reality. Individually accessible, ordinary networked communications such as personal computers, DVDs, videotapes, and cell phones are altering the nature of human social interaction, thus also affecting the shape and outcome of domestic and international conflict.

Although still in its early stages, this development will not reverse itself and will increasingly influence the conduct of war. From the global spread of Islamist-inspired terrorist attacks, to the rapid evolution of insurgent tactics in Iraq, to the riots in France, and well beyond, the global, non-territorial nature of the information age is having a transformative effect on the broad evolution of conflict, and we are missing it. We are entering the cyber-mobilization era, but our current course consigns us merely to react to its effects."


"Today’s Western armies are faced with ends and means of mobilization that diverge from those that predominated during the era of revolutionary nationalism. In its inherent connection to changes in communication, its ideological narrative, and even its employment of specific means, the process currently in progress is a historical successor to the popular uprising at the heart of the changes that Clausewitz observed. Instead of driving toward the industrialized state, 21st-century mobilization is presently perpetuating a fractionation of violence, a return to individualized, mob-driven, and feudal forms of warfare.

Under way is a broad social and political evolution through ordinary communications that reach vulnerable individuals and catalyze changes in violence. The typical focus of military planners on using high-end tools for tactical connectivity has missed the point: what is unfolding is a widespread egalitarian development more related to the explosion of publications and printing that catalyzed and consolidated the French Revolution than it is to the high-technology military advances of the late 20th century. We are poised at a new era, ripe for exploitation in unpredictable and powerful ways. Western nations will persist in ignoring the fundamental changes in popular mobilization at their peril.

Numerous, obvious parallels to the revolutionary years of the late 18th century can be drawn. These include a democratization of communications, an increase in public access, a sharp reduction in cost, a growth in frequency, and an exploitation of images to construct a mobilizing narrative. Each will be treated here in turn.

First, today’s means of communication have gone through a process of deregulation and democratization similar to that which occurred in France at the end of the 18th century. The result has been a global explosion in chaotic connectivity. The press of the revolutionary era developed in an institutional vacuum, with no copyright, no rules on publishing or journalism, no concept of intellectual property, no libel laws or vetting of information. Although states like China and Singapore have recently instituted highly controversial web censorship, for good or ill the current state of cyber-space is roughly comparable to the era of expansion in publishing that followed the deregulation of the French press. Few institutional frameworks or standards provide structure in cyberspace, and the broad political potential of this new realm is little analyzed or understood.

Second, there is a dramatic increase in popular access to information. The Internet was designed during the height of the Cold War to be redundant, decentralized, persistent, and survivable in the event of a nuclear attack. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the world wide web consortium was created to facilitate the spread of global connectivity. It has wildly succeeded. Throughout the 1990s, the use of the Internet at least doubled each year, and although the pace has recently slowed somewhat, global connectivity continues to grow. Currently there are more than a billion Internet users in the world, with by far the largest number in China. The resulting popular access to the web provides those same structural advantages of decentralization and survivability to ordinary people, including businesses, nongovernmental organizations, and advocacy groups, but also to members of criminal networks, gangs, terrorist groups, traffickers, and insurgents. Effective combinations of new technologies, such as laptops and DVDs, along with “old” technologies, such as videotapes and cell phones, are facilitating political and social movements driven by newly powerful ideologies. The result is creative anarchy, full of heady opportunity but also pregnant with unpredictable change and real-world effects, especially for war.

Third, the Internet and associated technologies represent the same type of low-cost, high-regularity communications that were so popular during the French Revolution. While vast regions of the world continue to lack computer access, growth in connectivity in the developing world now represents the key force behind the global expansion of the Internet. Of course, cyber-mobilization need not be directly correlated with numbers on the net; in less connected local or regional settings, access by individuals and small groups can give them disproportionate power. Cell phones are especially popular in countries that lack a fixed infrastructure for land-line telephones; in 2002, the number of mobile phones per capita internationally for the first time exceeded the number of traditional telephones.16 Today’s audience can select its sources of information from an astonishing array of choices: blogs are today’s revolutionary pamphlets, websites are the new dailies, and list serves are today’s broadsides.

Fourth, like its predecessor, today’s cyber-mobilization uses powerful images to project messages, even to those who cannot read. There are countless examples. Al Qaeda’s mobilization and recruitment techniques are often mentioned: instead of engravings of the storming of the Bastille, al Qaeda’s catalytic images are pictures of Osama bin Laden in a cave, attacks on Muslims in Chechnya and Bosnia, Americans’ torching of bodies in Afghanistan, and British attacks on civilians in Iraq. In order to demonstrate ruthlessness and gain followers, Abu Musab al-Zarqawi has likewise posted images of beheadings, the training of suicide bombers, live-action attacks in Iraq, a monthly online magazine, and pictures of some 400 “martyrs.” Zarqawi’s slick video, “All Religion Will Be for Allah,” is available for downloading off the Internet and can even be shown on a cell phone. DVDs and videos downloaded on the web or simply passed from person to person and carried across borders contain footage of brutal attacks and fiery speeches. The low cost threshold affects not only the demand side but also the supply side of cyber-mobilization. High-speed Internet access is increasingly available, and inexpensive tools for producing high-quality videos, with greater bandwidth, improved video compression, and better video editing have resulted in much higher-quality films. The outcome of such efforts is a potent mythology of an anti-Muslim campaign and a romanticized image of global resistance to the West.

Despite the obvious differences in their aims, the stories of sacrifice by soldiers of the levée en masse are echoed in the statements of jihadists and suicide attackers. For example, during the French Revolution there was a cult for the Martyrs of Liberty, glorifying dead heroes such as Barra, a 12-year-old boy who was killed when fighting in the republican army in the civil war in Vendee.18 The killing of the 12-year-old Palestinian boy Mohammed al-Dura echoes today. Military propaganda during the French Revolution emphasized the eagerness of the soldier to die. Soldiers lent their blood “to cement the edifice of sovereignty of the People,” and those who died achieved immortality: “The man who dies in service for his fatherland falls [and] gets up. His irons are broken. He is free; he is the King, he seizes heaven.”19 Parallels with today’s glorification of suicide attackers are obvious. Personal narratives of injustice, struggle, and noble sacrifice are among the most powerful vehicles for mobilization in any culture, and today they are being actively disseminated over the web.

The effects of connectivity are not only broadening access but also actually changing the meaning of knowledge, the criteria for judging assertions, and the formulating of opinions. As more and more people are tapping into the web, the dark side of freedom of speech, indeed of freedom of thought, has emerged. What is truly authoritative on the web? Whose ideas have legitimacy? What is worth fighting for? As in the French Revolution, assumptions about the answers to these questions, about who is qualified to answer them and how, will have important effects.

When combined with increasing global economic activity moving across porous borders, the vast information available on the Internet, CDs, videotapes, audiotapes, and cell phones is in most places minimally controlled and within reach even of those who cannot read. The result is access by a much broader, less educated, and more varied cross-section of the international population than was touched by 20th-century means. The long-term implications could be either a new era of enlightenment or a return to the dark ages. " (