Thursday, July 19, 2007

Book Review - Brave New War

Keeping with my promise of whittling down my "to read" pile, I have just completed Brave New War by John Robb. I would like to jot down a few thoughts while it is fresh in my mind.

The subtitle of the book says a lot about what is inside - "The next stage of terrorism and the end of globalization".

It starts out describing the new format that terrorism is and will be using - small, decentralized groups wreaking havoc on specified targets. The example of Iraq is brought in constantly and how the terrorists are constantly wrecking electricity hubs, oil lines and more to sow seeds of doubt in that population about the current rulers. Mentioned quite a few times is the huge payback on blowing up a pipeline, for instance. A relatively simple and inexpensive plan can be rewarded with absolutely huge payoffs, monetarily. Think 911 and what it has cost us.

But the "black swan", as an enormous event such as 911 is called, will be the more rare terror occurrence. According to Robb, small, numerous events such as the bombing of important nodes in Iraq will be the norm. I couldn't agree more. There will still be black swans on occasion, but they are much harder to coordinate, train for, and finance than the occasional car bomb or set explosive.

Robb goes into great detail explaining that the only way that these events can take place is if the terror groups decentralize themselves and operate somewhat independently. Economics, as always, plays a factor as well. An example was cited that showed that there were groups of terrorists that would "rent themselves out" to people who wanted certain highways, electricity grids or other things such as these taken out in Iraq. The black market economy only helps these people acquire things they need to make their weapons.

The book then turns to what it may look like if these groups started doing their voodoo here in the United States. The picture that is painted is not pretty. I really didn't learn too much in this section of the book, which is the last third. But you might.

It should have been very painfully evident after Katrina (mentioned several times in the book) that the government will NOT be there for you after an event such as that. Granted, Katrina is a "black swan", but black swans will happen again, and it is impossible to know where. Heck the power grid for one quarter of the population went down a few years ago and that was just from our own aging infrastructure and poor design. I have written ad nauseam about Katrina and its effects - and what you should do about it and you can see those articles on the sidebar. I won't bore you with the details here, but lets just say that in a massive catastrophe, you NEED to have some sort of plan in place and MUST rely on yourself to get the job done. Another black swan will happen someday.

In the very last portion of the book Robb goes over some possible solutions. The biggest one is decentralization. Everything from oil delivery systems, basic services, electricity, you name it. And he mentions that large corporations and the rich will be the first ones to do it. Those who can afford it will have generators, jets, and safe havens. Private security forces already guard many oil fields and other assets owned by multi-national corporations. When the next wave of mayhem hits, the market will provide many solutions to those who can afford them to ensure the safety of their families and posessions - and the property of companies. Poor people will suffer as they will be stuck where they are and with what they have - a reliance on the State to take care of them. Keep thinking Katrina.

Most urgently Robb almost begs for the US to radically restructure the electricity grid. Again, those who can afford it will simply go off the grid - through the use of wind, solar and other types of generation. Another interesting point he made is that some municipalities may just go ahead and create their own power generation and distribution. A wonderful example he provides is suburbia - I think Chicago. Many suburbs are breaking apart from large cities as we speak to ensure their own safety and care. This is an excellent point. IIRC there is a suburb in Atlanta doing this exact thing right now and I would argue that many suburbs in the Chicago area will eventually break away from the black hole that is Cook County. Do you honestly think that people in places like Downers Grove will ever send their kids to the Chicago Public Schools? On the flip side, what sort of parent, if they have the resources and live in the City of Chicago wouldn't send their kid to a private school? That would be borderline child abuse.

De-centralization of everything seems to be Robb's key point.

There is also a section about the decline of the nation-state. I didn't think too hard about this section as it was a bit tough for me to process and I honestly don't believe I will see it in my lifetime.

I enjoyed this book immensely, although is is a bit depressing. Sometimes reality is a bitch, I guess. Robb is a decent writer and the book reads fast and is relatively small (under 200 pages). As with any text about this subject I disagreed with a few things (minor) but I completely agree with the overall gist. What Robb is trying to say is that it will get worse - much worse - before it gets better. After millions of people are failed by our central government, they will have to start organizing themselves locally to prepare for disasters, and this goes down even to neighborhoods. I realized after Katrina that I needed to at least prepare myself to be able to make if for a while if there was a natural or terror diaster. I hope that you have done the same. It may be your only chance.


gerry from valpo said...

Sounds like a great book and your review is outstanding. You captured the essence of my decision to move away from the urban mess I was living in for years.

The survivalist movement of the early 80's amused me. A close friend at the time built a retreat in a remote hillside near Baraboo WI and started squirreling away gold, food, water and ammunition. Now I realize that he wasn't off-base at all.

My plan is to be as self-sufficient as possible without going totally Amish.

Dan from Madison said...

Tx for the kind words. The way I am set up my family and I can make it for three to four weeks on our own, unless it is sub zero weather, then we are all f1cked. But I am considering a hard wired generator that may help us last longer in the event of an emergency.

Those emergency ration kits that they have on Amazon with food and water are great - they come in five gallon buckets and store easy. I have several.

Also, it is amazing how much food you really have in your house - things like rice, pasta, canned goods - never go bad and can last you a long time.

Guns and ammo for self defense - never an issue at my house.

Carl from Chicago said...

I will have to read this. I agree with the decentralization plan... fortunately it goes along with the fact that governments can't get anything done anymore due to NIMBY so it is the path of least resistance

rjh said...

Actually Katrina was not a black swan, although perhaps it falls into grey swan. The more proper bird reference is the Ostrich. In addition to routine warnings about unpreparedness, there was a disaster readiness drill a few years before Katrina. It correctly predicted most of the problems and outcomes.

The response to this drill was to re-assign those involved and to cancel the followup drill scheduled for two years later.

The usual black swan is an unexpected event. Katrina was very well predicted with years of warnings and detailed corrective actions indicated by the recent disaster readiness drill. Katrina was a classic ostrich event.

The logical outcome of this is that any expectation of government preparedness or assistance is foolish. Receiving it would be a black swan given the past track record.

Dan from Madison said...

Good point rjh, nicely done.

Jonathan said...

Agree with rjh. Katrina was a catastrophe in part because it hit the most backward state, politically and perhaps culturally speaking, in the USA. An event comparable to Katrina in, for example, the Upper Midwest wouldn't have been nearly as destructive, because the state govts there are much less dysfunctional and more of the population would be self-reliant. Remember the 1993 floods? A lot of damage but almost no deaths, and no lingering corruption scandals and federal boondoggles afterwards.

Another way to put it is: be careful where you live. Madison is probably one of the better places.