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Turning the Body Against Itself

Is the most effective form of warfare akin to an auto-immune disease?

System disruption, attacks upon infrastructure and the other basic networks allowing a society to function, is a core goal of the "open source warfare" model. Not system destruction -- disruption, or partial damage and degradation, which reduces legitimacy and undermines the ability of the state to fight. Normally, we think of such damage to infrastructure coming from the direct action of attackers: blowing up power plants, attacking food shipments, etc.

But it seems that a potentially more effective form of system disruption happens as the result of actions taken by the state itself in response to a threat (or perceived threat) from insurgents. The disruption to critical networks happens not as a direct result of attacks, but as the (usually unintended) result of defensive measures taken to head off an attack.

This post from Bruce Schneier today makes illustrates this idea. He points to a blog post by Eric Umansky about the emergence of cholera in Iraq. The cause of the cholera outbreak is already known: the lack of chlorine to use to purify water.

"We are suffering from a shortage of chlorine, which is sometimes zero," Dr. Ameer said in an interview on Al Hurra, an American-financed television network in the Middle East. "Chlorine is essential to disinfect the water.

Chlorine is hard to come by because of a series of unsuccessful "chlorine bomb" attacks a few months ago; chlorine is now under tight restriction. The intended result of the restriction was to make it harder for insurgents to use chlorine to create improvised chemical weapons, even though the various attempts to do so resulted in no actual fatalities. The actual result was to disrupt the water infrastructure by putting a stranglehold on the ability to purify water, in turn leading to cholera outbreaks. As Umansky puts it:

In other words, the biggest damage from chlorine bombs -- as with so many terrorist attacks -- has come from overreaction to it. Fear operates as a "force multiplier" for terrorists, and in this case has helped them cut off Iraq's clean water. Pretty impressive feat for some bombs that turned out to be close to duds.

To be clear: the chlorine bombs, while scary, had no serious military impact. But they were exactly the kind of weapon that could trigger an overreaction. The same can be said for the various threats against airplanes that served as catalysts for security measures that slow air travel (although obviously with less dire consequences).

It struck me that a minor attack triggering a defensive response which continues long after the attack, and causes much more damage than the original attack ever could have, is pretty much a description of an auto-immune disorder. In a wide variety of diseases, the body has turned against itself, with the immune system attacking what should be seen as healthy, normal tissue. Lupus, multiple sclerosis, and (most personal to me) rheumatoid arthritis are common examples of auto-immune diseases.

Interestingly, recent research suggests that a low level of auto-immunity is useful as a way of developing and testing the rapid immune response; the wikipedia entry suggests that this is akin to "play fighting" in animals that need to learn how to hunt.

Similarly, it's likely that many of the useful steps that can be taken to block or create resilience towards system disruption attacks may engender a bit of "auto-immune" disruption, such as requiring that more time be taken to examine cargo containers at shipping ports. What's needed is an ability to recognize when an "unhealthy" auto-immune disruption is underway -- or, better still, when it's a likely result of a tactical or strategic choice. This, in turn, requires a greater willingness to admit to bad decisions, and to rescind mistakes. Unsurprisingly, it all boils down to greater transparency about the decision-making process, and more efficient channels of communication between the people who determine strategy and the people who have to live with the results.


But it seems that a potentially more effective form of system disruption happens as the result of actions taken by the state itself in response to a threat (or perceived threat) from insurgents.

The auto-immune analogy is an interesting one.

I refer to it as 'trampling the daisies', and I thought it was guerilla tactics 101: get your opponent (the state) to over-react to your pinpricks, and then make the populace aware of who was doing the most damage to them.

Agree. Interesting analogy. Although I have to wonder if some of what's causing the over-reaction can be called "healthy".

As usual, you got me thinking in the morning... always dangerous. I really like the analogy, although I'm wondering if an allergic reaction isn't a better description. Same immune response causing harmful consequences, but the trigger is an external allergen, rather than an error in the immune systems IFF system.

In this case, the 'chlorine bombers' are like a bee sting. It's an attack which pisses off the immune system and triggers an inflammatory response. But in some people, the response is overblown and leads to hives, asthma, and possibly anaphylactic shock. Repeated stings can sensitize you to future stings as well.

In allergic people, the immune system also reacts to non-harmful stimuli, like pollen (read: immigrants and shoes). The response can cause a range of nasty side-effects and can over-tax your immune system so real diseases can't be fought effectively.

Allergies also make people cranky, depressed, and much more likely to lash out at others...


for what it's worth, I am reminded of the old saw: "Terrorists can attack freedom, but only government can take it away".

That, and Colin Powell's recent interview in GQ, where he says he thinks we are overreacting to the threat.


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