The Information Revolution in Modern Conflict

Over the last 20 years, the United States has engaged in low-intensity conflicts in areas of the world with cultures far different than Western culture. Understanding the social drivers of civilians and insurgents has become nearly as important as the weapons or vehicles US armed forces bring to the battlefield.

Small Wars, Big Data: The Information Revolution in Modern Conflict by Eli Berman, Joseph H. Feltier, and Jacob N. Shapiro (2018) discusses the analysis of social scientists in Iraq, Afghanistan, and in other conflict zones. Unfortunately, the US was late bringing social science to conflict zones, and even later changing their strategy to reflect social findings. Of course, this is the premise of the now publicized Afghanistan Papers.

Small Wars, Big Data details the findings of Berman, Feltier, and Shapiro during their research. Key to the authors’ premise is the idea that winning the battle for information is essential to stability operations. Populaces are more likely to provide information to authorities if they feel the government or assisting forces are working for their benefit. On the other hand, populaces are more likely to assist insurgents or be neutral if they have no attachment or a negative attachment to the government or assisting forces.

The battle for hearts and minds is key to winning the battle for information.

Along the way, the authors prove right or wrong certain often-accepted theories on conflict and economic development. For example, the authors discuss the concept of funding large projects to win the hearts and minds of a populace. In many regions such as Afghanistan and Iraq, major projects such as water plants were begun. These major projects have an expensive cost, take an excessive amount of time, and are often mired by corruption. On the other hand, small, cheaper projects that immediately assist villagers do better to win support.

One example the authors gave of a small project that tipped the populace to support local authorities was a cell phone tower in Iraq. By installing the tower, the populace was able to communicate with its neighbors. In return, their feelings towards US and Iraqi Forces were high. The populace rewarded the government forces with tips on insurgent activity using the same cell phone tower.

Overall, the authors do a good job making the findings readable and not burying the reader in pages of data. Small Wars, Big Data is easily understandable without a data science background. The authors spend minimal time on methodologies and more time on findings. That is a good thing for both casual readers and policy makers.

However, despite being necessary and informative, Small Wars, Big Data is a difficult read. Although not as data deep as I thought it would be when I picked it up, it is not a fast read as it is very factually dense. It did take me a while to get through. That said, it is an important read and hopefully social scientists and data studies start to have a bigger influence in counterinsurgency and economic development in conflict zones.

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