Peter W. Singer: Definitive, Essential, Required Reading
A History of Conflict
From the beginning of time, man has been in violent and oft-times protracted conflict with man. Whether the dispute is rooted in religion, ideology, tribalism, nationalism, or something else, man has tended to engage in warring. Usually, one party is claiming ownership of the earth’s scarce resources, with or without legitimacy. It’s the never-ending story of the ‘haves’ versus the ‘have-nots.’ Some are seeking to accumulate even more power and wealth, others are seeking their freedom from oppression, and others, due to corrupt and incompetent leadership, are simply starving to death.
At its origin, combat was hand-to-hand, then sword-to-sword, in open fields with the only apparent strategy being a man’s cunning and bravery, or foolhardiness. As the centuries marched forward, so too did the technologies, tools and strategies of war, and the battlefields on which the conflicts played out shifted as well. In the 18th and 19th centuries, gunpowder was adapted to make pistols, rifles and cannons the deadly weapons we’re familiar with today. New modes of transportation, including horseback and maritime, allowed the richest nations to dominate and colonialize faraway lands.
The use of geography for military advantage came next, such as positioning troops on hills and mountains (i.e. the higher ground), behind rocks and trees, or dug into trenches and underground tunnels. Rather than an act of cowardice, it was instead a strategic plan meant to preserve one’s own troops while inflicting the most damage possible to the opponents.
In the 20th century, the battlefield shifted from the land and sea to include the air, and since then combatants have sought every advantage under the sun, from manpower, to technology, to weaponry, and to the strategic thinkers who either lay the plans to victory or blunder their way to defeat.
Arguing who the best war strategists in history were is akin to arguing whether Michael was better than LeBron, Jack better than Tiger, or Steffi better than Serena. It makes for interesting subjective banter. Some of the names regularly making the “greatest military strategists” lists are Homer, Sun Tzu, Alexander the Great, Hannibal Barca, Julius Caesar, Genghis Khan, Napoleon Bonaparte, Carl von Clausewitz, Stonewall Jackson, George Patton and Dwight Eisenhower. There are scores more unacknowledged herein.
The National Security Futurist
In regards to 21st century war and national security, there’s no more influential strategic thinker and futurist than Peter W. Singer. After earning his Ph.D. from Harvard and BA at Princeton, he spent time at the Brookings Institute, in the Obama Administration, and is now a Senior Fellow at the New America Foundation. He is prominent on several ‘Top Ten, Twenty-Five and Hundred’ lists, including Smithsonian, Defense News and Foreign Policy, and is considered one of the world’s leading experts on such critical topics as military strategy, cybersecurity and robotics. He is also the author of multiple award-winning books and a contributing editor at Popular Science. It is clear that by any measure, Singer’s relevance to every one of us is very real and growing more urgent by the terabyte.
Dr. Singer has been in the forefront of every issue relating to the modern battlefield with each of his best-selling books considered “definitive, essential, required reading” for military and civilian academia, corporate leaders, military commanders and enlistees, and everyday citizens around the world. His writing style has been described as “approachable, clear, understandable, smart, lively, engaging and deeply informative.”
His topics have included: Corporate contract armies, both their use and misuse. These include the “shadow army of Blackwater” of Iraq infamy, and Singer’s revelations led to meaningful changes in the practice. He also brought to light the tragic abuses of impoverished children in Africa, South America and elsewhere in conscripting them onto battlefields. Because of this effort, training programs worldwide have been enlightened and improved, including the U.S. Marine Corps and U.N. peacekeeping and humanitarian efforts. In addition, he has analyzed the latest technological revolutions in weaponry, including robotics (e.g. drones, submarines, etc.), and the shifting of the arena of conflict to the globally interconnected worldwide web.
He’s even written his first novel, Ghost Fleet, which has been described as “a modern-day successor to tomes such as The Hunt For Red October from the late Tom Clancy.” (USA Today) and “A Wild Ride” (The Economist). It’s also been called “useful fiction” in that it combines an enthralling fictional tale with the real world mechanics of modern warfare.
Singer is also shaping how war is presented in the entertainment industry, including for Warner Brothers, Dreamworks, Universal, HBO, Discovery, History Channel, and the video game series Call of Duty, the best-selling entertainment project in history.
In October 2018, he released, LikeWar: The Weaponization of Social Media, a critically important addition to the analytics of just who and what are today’s ‘enemy,’ where are they lurking, and how best to combat them and keep ourselves and our country safe.
The New Battleground
The dissemination of information that is intentionally misleading, called ‘propaganda,’ has been an important tool in politics and warfare throughout time. The idea is to manipulate beliefs and win the minds of targeted populations. Traditional tactics have included dropping flyers from airplanes and delivering messages via the airwaves (i.e. radio and television stations) meant to undermine an opponent’s knowledge or base of support.
Today, the game is the same but the methods of instantaneous and broad delivery have substantially expanded the players, the victims, and the stakes involved both politically and economically. Everyday citizens are no longer at a safe distance from the global battlefield. If we own a desktop computer, iPad or smart phone, we are on the front lines, subject to propaganda, subterfuge, economic loss, and even recruitment to nefarious causes intending to undermine our democracy and strip us of our freedoms.
A few of the most obvious battlefields (today’s version of the Civil War’s Gettysburg, Antietam and Shiloh) are Twitter, Facebook and Google. These ‘new age’ media companies are fertile ground for such corruption, and government oversight and regulation is way behind the curve. As we’ve all heard too often, rogue nations such as Russia and China, global terrorist organizations such as ISIS, domestic political groups and many others are regularly using these channels to foment chaos and dissent. By the sounds of our nation’s venomous daily discourse, it certainly appears to be working. That’s where Peter Singer’s deep analysis can offer clarity and sanity.
In an Oct 4, 2018 article Singer and Emerson Brooking wrote for Foreign Affairs, they discuss Prussian General Carl von Clausewitz, perhaps the greatest military tactician in history and author of the sprawling On War (edited and published by his wife, Marie, after his death in 1831). Clausewitz’s most famous observation was about the nature of conflict itself, which is, war is simply politics by other means. War and politics are intertwined, he believed, and war was simply another way to get something you wanted.
In LikeWar, Singer collaborates with Brooking to analyze the myriad of questions that arise when politics and war get mixed together in the chaotic “Wild West” online frontier. As we hear daily, internet trolls are all over social media shaping elections, China has been using a smartphone app to police the thoughts of 1.4 billion citizens, and ISIS has burned alive and beheaded their prisoners for all the world to see, and they use their barbarism as a recruitment tool.
Are there any secrets remaining in our networked world? Is our every communication being analyzed and stored in someone’s cloud as a potential future weapon? Is what we’re reading journalism? Is it factual, or someone’s personal propaganda? What are the roles we regular citizens play, and need to play? LikeWar outlines this revolutionary new battlefield and all its implications so readers can better understand and defend against the unprecedented threats of our networked world.
Global conflict has potentially intruded the former sanctuary of our homes. It is in the very palms of our hands. To be smarter and safer in this new world of invisible, boundless risk, we should be paying attention to Peter W. Singer. Following are just a few others who agree wholeheartedly.
“Reading LikeWar will help you to avoid being part of this Internet of Idiots…While students of history, strategic studies, political science, and international relations will all find LikeWar on their required reading list, anyone else who wishes to understand the world we live in must add LikeWar to the top of the pile on their nightstand.”
“Backed by over 100 pages of notes, LikeWar is sober, deeply researched, and still compulsively readable. Comparisons to On War and The Art of War are apt…”
—Amazon, Best Book of the Month (Oct)
“LikeWar isn’t so much about warfare as about how social media is affecting society broadly: how we consume information, why social media is so addictive, how it has been capitalized on by social movements, celebrities, politicians, terrorists, and states. It’s worth reading for the history of the Internet alone, which bounces along as vignettes about individuals that personalize the story… It also has some useful suggestions for taming social media’s effects.”
—War on the Rocks
“LikeWar is a magical combination of history, technology, and early warning wrapped in a compelling narrative of how today’s information space can threaten the truth, our polity, and our security. It’s a page turner, too, chock full of deep insights and fascinating detail. Sun Tzu tells us to know ourselves, our enemy and our battle space and LikeWar delivers on all three.”
—General Michael Hayden, former Director of the CIA and NSA
“Much as Clausewitz did for conventional war, LikeWar lays out the new 21st century principles of war. Mixing fascinating stories and the front edge of research, it explains the twilight battlegrounds of politics and war on social media—a frightening future where truth is the first casualty, and our fundamental values are deeply at danger.”
—Admiral James Stavridis, US Navy (Ret.), former Supreme Allied Commander, NATO
“Singer and Brooking have produced a compulsively readable and insightful account of what social media is doing to our democracy and to our relations with each other. If it were fiction, their description of the battleground the Internet has become would be scary. As reality, it is terrifying.”
—Professor Sir David Omand, former UK Security and Intelligence Coordinator and Director of Government Communications Headquarters