Rosa Brooks is a law professor at Georgetown University and the author of “How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything.”
What does Pokémon Go have in common with CIA waterboarding, police abuses in Ferguson, Mo., NSA surveillance or President Trump’s proposed border wall? If you’re tempted to say, “Nothing,” consider reading Bernard Harcourt’s new book, “The Counterrevolution: How Our Government Went to War Against Its Own Citizens.”
To Harcourt, a law professor at Columbia University, these phenomena are all part and parcel of “a new model of government inspired by the theory and practice of counterinsurgency warfare.” This model of governance, which Harcourt dubs “the counterrevolution,” relies on total information dominance, the elimination of troublesome minorities and the successful transformation of the rest of the population into supporters — or at least passive enablers — of the powerful forces pulling the strings.
As a U.S. military doctrine, counterinsurgency theory reached its apotheosis in the “U.S. Army/Marine Corps’ 2006 Counterinsurgency Field Manual,” offering an influential alternative to the prevailing paradigm of large-scale battlefield warfare that dominated much of 20th-century military thinking. When the enemy isn’t the organized military of an adversarial state, traditional assumptions about the value of mass infantry advances geared toward taking and holding terrain no longer apply. Instead, argued the counterinsurgency manual, military leaders needed to understand that “in almost every case, counterinsurgents face a populace containing an active minority supporting the government and an equally small militant faction opposing it. Success requires the government to be accepted as legitimate by most of the uncommitted middle.” Meanwhile, the insurgent minority must be discredited and ultimately destroyed. All this requires effective intelligence-gathering and, as the field manual notes, “the balanced application of both military and nonmilitary means.” In other words, counterinsurgency is a political endeavor.
Over time, Harcourt asserts, this counterinsurgency approach came to dominate not only U.S. military operations but foreign policy and, eventually, domestic politics. To Harcourt, counterinsurgency thinking ultimately brought us not only torture, indefinite detentions, drone strikes, the National Security Agency’s global data collection and an ever more militarized foreign policy; ultimately, it also brought us the Patriot Act and the New York Police Department’s programs to infiltrate and gather data on Muslim communities in New York City, along with dozens of other troubling developments, including the provision of surplus military equipment to domestic police departments, police shootings of unarmed black men and Trump’s proposed wall along the Mexican border.
These seemingly disparate developments, Harcourt argues, all form part of a cohesive approach to U.S. governance that is drawn from counterinsurgency theories. Viewed through the lens of counterinsurgency, the American population, just like the Iraqi or Afghan population, can be posited to contain a dangerous, militant minority, conceived variously, in recent years, as Muslim would-be terrorists, Mexican would-be rapists, black would-be criminals and assorted other potential threats to existing power structures. Like Iraqi insurgents, this purportedly dangerous minority hides within the general population; for the authorities, the task is to identify and eliminate these “supposed internal enemies” through mass surveillance (aided and abetted by telecom and Internet companies that gather personal data on all Americans), raids targeting immigrant communities, and “hypermilitarized policing, surveillance of mosques . . . infiltration of protests and student groups, arrests and preventive custody, solitary confinement, juvenile detention, imprisonment and deportation.”
To succeed, however, America’s counterinsurgents must also convince the majority of the population of the legitimacy of the established order. In modern America, Harcourt claims, this is accomplished through “a remarkable mixture of distraction, entertainment, pleasure, propaganda, and advertising — now rendered all so much more effective thanks to our rich digital world.” In ancient Rome, Harcourt notes dryly, elites placated the masses with “bread and circus”; today, “it’s more like Facebook and Pokémon Go.”
“The Counterrevolution” is a lively read, ranging with ease and erudition over subjects from the history of terrorism to the Rand Corp.’s championship of systems analysis, which Harcourt, somewhat bafflingly, sees as the intellectual glue that allows counterinsurgency theory to be “characterized by a tight logic that rationally harmonizes seemingly discordant strategies in pursuit of a precise objective.”
In the end, however, readers are likely to be left unsatisfied. Harcourt works a little too hard to make everything fit. Apparent contradictions and internal disagreements about counterinsurgency strategies are dismissed: Harcourt acknowledges, for instance, heated debates within national security circles about whether drone strikes are a counterinsurgency tactic, but he blithely dismisses this on the grounds that “counterinsurgency practices come in different variations and any apparent contradiction regarding drone strikes reflects perfectly the internal tensions at the heart of counterinsurgency.”
Still, though Harcourt is far from the first to chronicle the ways in which post-9/11 America has drifted dangerously toward new forms of tyranny, neither the familiarity of the examples he uses nor the occasional dubious logical leap detracts from the power of the overarching story he tells: a story of an increasingly destructive America, one that has not only wrought great harm on foreign populations but is now beginning to create the very dangers it is supposedly trying to combat.
After all, Harcourt notes, the counterinsurgency paradigm produces a “a dangerous self-fulfilling prophecy. [It] creates, out of whole cloth, the specter of a radical insurgency in this country that can then be embraced by unstable individuals . . . and through which we can then imagine them as an active minority.” But when we attempt to define a handful of unstable individuals “as an insurgency,” we risk “imposing a coherence that does not exist — at a dangerous political cost.”
If Harcourt’s book has a major failing, it is his own tendency to impose “a coherence that does not exist.” Missing from “The Counterrevolution” is any theory of agency: Just who is pulling the counterinsurgency strings? Harcourt never quite says; instead, he too often takes refuge in the passive voice and vague evocations of mysterious, impersonal forces.
Thus, after 9/11, “counterinsurgency warfare was refined, deployed and tested.” By whom, exactly? Harcourt doesn’t say. “The Counterrevolution,” he tells us, “is a new paradigm of governing. . . . It creates the illusion of an active minority which it can then deploy to target particular groups and communities, and govern the entire American population.” How precisely a paradigm goes about deploying an illusion, much less using it to govern, is never made entirely clear.
The closest Harcourt comes to offering a theory of agency is left to the book’s final chapters, when he posits the existence of “an elite group . . . [of] high-ranking officials at the White House and Pentagon; heads of intelligence agencies and of police departments . . . high-level CEOs at social media, private security, and tech companies like Google, Microsoft, or Facebook” and so on. It is they, he implies, who serve as unseen puppet masters. “Assuming the role of Guardians, they put in place . . . a system of total information awareness. [They] identify and target an active minority,” and “direct digital propaganda to susceptible users” even as they “shock and awe the masses with their willingness to torture suspected terrorists or kill their own citizens abroad.”
The reader is left to wonder, rather helplessly, just how members of this elite group communicate with one another and make decisions. Do they hold secret meetings, perhaps at Rand headquarters? Is there a leader who sends out guidance memos to all those police chiefs, generals and Google executives? (Perhaps: “Tomorrow, we’re going after the Mexicans. Ted: please order ICE raids at the nation’s Home Depots. Bob: kindly release Pokémon Go at the same time to confuse the masses.”)
Harcourt would do well to heed his own warnings: Whenever one seeks to impose a “coherence that does not exist” upon a disparate group with varying interests, incentives, ideologies and motivations, there is generally a cost. In this case, the cost is to the reader, who is ultimately left at sea: What should we do if we are troubled by the phenomena Harcourt chronicles?
Harcourt admits that we — all of us — are complicit in our own subjection: With our insatiable thirst for Facebook and Amazon Prime, we gladly “give ourselves away to total surveillance.” His only advice to the reader is somewhat less than satisfying. History, he advises us, “is a constant struggle over our own subjection”; thus, our task is “to resist the always encroaching forms of tyrannical power.”
Resist how, precisely? Harcourt cites William of Ockham’s 14th-century treatise on the need to resist tyrannical government, praises the Edward Snowdens and Chelsea Mannings of the world, and suggests that it might be useful to support Black Lives Matter and the ACLU.
Beyond that, readers are left with little more than Harcourt’s “hope . . . that we, and our children too, will be mindful of the words and the courage, and will heed the parrhesia of the friar Ockham.” Readers may find themselves wishing for a dictionary and an aspirin — or perhaps just a soothing round of Pokémon Go.
By Bernard E. Harcourt
Basic. 318 pp. $30