Guy Brossollet's “Non-battle”

Counter-insurgency is a urgent issue in American life today--indeed around the world--as state and non-state actors alike perfect the art of subduing popular upheaval. Viewing individuals and populations as liabilities even threats, the army and the police have been forced to adopt a series of new tactics, from urban warfare and occupation, to ideological campaigns and the winning of “hearts and minds,” to torture and other forms of non-lethal force.

The police have recently come under scrutiny in the wake of a spate of killings. And rallies against police brutality are met by cops in riot gear and military-grade equipment recently procured through Pentagon grants. Police vehicles equipped with Stingrays and LRADs are now a common appearance at protests and marches, not to mention semi-automatic weapons, flash grenades, tear gas, and pepper spray.

p71-modules-de-présenceAll this comes under the heading of asymmetric warfare. An interesting book on the subject is Guy Brossollet's Essay On Non-Battle [Essai sur la non-bataille] published in France in 1975. The book is not very well known, at least in the American context, but Brossollet is cited by Tiqqun in Introduction to Civil War, paragraph 65, and I tracked it down from there. Brossollet added an interesting dimension to the literature on asymmetric warfare, books like Robert Taber's classic War of the Flea (1965) or American military field manuals produced during and after the war in Vietnam. Brossollet did something a little different, though, in that his perspective was more explicitly networked and topological. Military theory has long identified the existence of asymmetric threats--within which popular movements play an important part--but here Brossollet advised French military forces to adopt the very structure and tactics of the opposition. It's the kind of thing that the Pentagon started to adopt under the banner of so-called Fourth-Generation Warfare twenty years later in the 1990s. Brossollet stands as a kind of historical forerunner, a harbinger of the coming net war.

The Essay On Non-Battle is a military text. The book is written from the perspective of a military insider and for an informed audience. Brossollet was an officer of some rank, if I recall correctly. Nationalistic and pro-military, the book is not critical of French power, nevertheless it advocates reform of the military in the face of a changing world.

Written in Europe during the 1970s, the book is situated in the context of the Cold War. Brossollet's primary example throughout the text concerned a ground invasion coming from the east, through Belgium. We must “Connaître l'Autre” (13), he said, with the Soviets playing the role of this particular “other.” Yet Brossollet was not thinking in terms of bilateral antagonism along the lines of self/other or west/east. His language was one of heterogeneity and complexity. “The Other and the others, these are the heterogeneous elements of the environment of conflict, elements that may be friendly or unfriendly, meek or powerful, contestational or allied--but even then each party is part of the multipolar dialectic of the antagonisms of our times” (13). The Algerian conflict must have been a key reference for Brossollet (Algeria obtained independence in 1962). But he was also likely thinking of the uprising of May 1968 and revolutionary movements such as the German Red Army Faction or the Italian Red Brigades active during the 1970s.

The coming warfare will be network-centric, Brossollet argued. The coming battle will be a non-battle. No longer gaining power from its “fists,” France must think in terms of “pinpricks” (67). “The principle that is at the heart of this research,” wrote Brossollet, is that “for the events that we wish were determined but which remain unpredictable (i.e. battle), we must substitute a series of minor but statistically consistent actions that we call, by contrast, non-battle” (78, emphasis removed). From fists to pinpricks, from major to minor, from deterministic strategy to stochastic tactics--the coming warfare will be “multiform, maneuverable, omnipresent” (15).

Brossollet described a battlefield of bubbles and meshes, connected by corridors. The corridors allow military assets that are not network-appropriate, such as tanks, the ability to move quickly in and among the mesh. Yet tanks or missiles are less important in non-battle. Complimenting the strategic nuclear deterrent, Brossollet argued that the military should shift to maneuver forces, which he described in terms of probing and testing. Four types of teams make up the “testing” forces: presence, destruction, shock, and transmission units (67-77). The module terrestre de présence or mesh forces act as a kind of tiger team, each equipped with arms and a jeep, and mobilizable in a cellular formation.

p82-la-non-batailleRecall the old distinction in Deleuze and Guattari between the smooth and the striated. As the Brossollet example indicates, networks are not smooth by default, but can be both smooth or striated. While the term means layering and organization and has a connection in Deleuze to geology, striated networks can be understood in terms of cellular spaces. These are the kinds of network spaces invented in the 1950s by people like John von Neumann and Nils Aall Barricelli. Cellular spaces, be they grids or more elastic topologies, always make a hard and fast distinction between links and nodes, and thus between one node and another. Contrast this with smooth or non-cellular spaces. Here my favorite example is Konrad Wachsmann's “grapevine structure”--that, or the work of Lebbeus Woods, who was by far the most interesting architect of his generation. In Woods, there is often no clear distinction between node and edge, likewise between node and node. Instead, the “smooth” form takes over, governed by altogether different logics: hydraulics, metallurgy, a pure difference “in movement, in flux, in variation” (A Thousand Plateaus, 409).

What I find so interesting is that Brossollet derived a language of multi-lateral, rhizomatic network warfare strictly out of the Cold War context of bi-lateral, nuclear-armed states. The concept of deterrence provided the key; nuclear deterrence created a kind of absolute state of exception within which only non-battle could be thought and deployed. In other words, nuclear weapons, in making battle obsolete, allowed battle to become virtual or superpositional. Deterrence lead to the virtualization of war. And, in the best tradition of Sun Tzu, the most effective battle is the one that doesn't arrive.

At the same time, Brossollet claimed that non-battle comes from a position of weakness not strength. “During the period 1939-1975,” France experienced a decline in offensive capacity, he wrote. “Our country changed from being a great military power to being a medium-level power” (30). I suspect Brossollet was wrong on this point, unduly swayed by nostalgia for the French imperial past. Non-battle isn't the waning of power, but rather an intensification of power to an ever higher degree. The old Clausewitz paradigm, in which everything comes to a head in battle, is rendered obsolete by the threat of nuclear war. But power, when extended to hyperbolic levels, inverts and produces its opposite.

I like how this slightly modifies the typical origin myth of the network age, the old chestnut that Paul Baran invented distributed networks in 1964 as a way to resolve the nuclear threat. (I've promulgated this story myself, and still think it superior to the one involving altruistic hippies.) Network-centric warfare is not so much a deviation from or resolution of the threat of nuclear annihilation, but rather a result of the nuclear threat. Network-centric warfare is, in other words, an extension or refinement of the previous form of antagonism. As with the birth of terrorism, absolute power creates the absolute deviant. Or, one might say, the absolute produces the virtual.