So-Called Bloodless Wars: Surveillance, Control, and Military Action in the 21st Century

An Interview with Noam Chomsky, by Carl Whithaus

On June 2, 2009, Carl Whithaus spoke with Noam Chomsky about Information Technology (IT) and the military. Their conversation ranged from the uses of IT for surveillance and control to the shifting nature of war driven by changes in communication technology. While critical of the way that the U.S. and Israeli military have used IT for surveillance and control of civilian populations, Chomsky also insisted on the "schizophrenic character of IT." He argued that

There are efforts to control and change the Internet so that it serves power interests. But that’s really hard to do. And it’s a terrain of struggle now—grassroots struggle to keep the Internet free against pressures to try to control it.

What follows is a webtext, organized by discussion topic, based on Whithaus’s interview with Chomsky. This webtext explores the dynamic intersections of emerging IT, the military’s role in developing and using these technologies, and the politics of resistance, surveillance, and state control.

Covering topics from the schizophrenic character of the military's use of the Internet through the impact of information and communication technologies (ICTs) on conflicts ranging from the Philippines at the end of the 19th century to Israel today, Whithaus's discussion with Chomsky highlights his understanding of the military's use of ICTs. By turning the discussion to the US involvement in the Philippines, Chomsky reminds us of that the history of using ICTs for surveillance and control reaches back into colonialist practices. This history, for Chomsky, bears directly on the training of US military officers today and on the US and Israeli military's use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) for assassinations in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Palestine.

Chomsky is not only interested in physical battlefields and zones of occupation. He is also concerned about the US and Israeli military and intelligence agencies' attempts to use the Internet for "surveillance, control, and domination." But he argues that "the very nature of the technology means that [it] can be opened up for independent use." Chomsky does not see the military as particularly concerned about intellectual property issues; he believes the military controls the outflow of information from personnel by using other forms of coercion rather than the legal system. He does see the US and Israeli militaries as highly integrated with high-tech corporations.

The range of the conversation shows that Chomsky wants to historicize our understanding of the military's use of ICTs. From images and photographs of Vietnam up to the portrayal of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as high tech and therefore less bloody for American troops, Chomsky sees a shift towards an increasingly information-technology-oriented system. The US military would like the public to perceive this system as cleaner than traditional warfare, but Chomsky argues that "clean" is only for the attackers and not the victims.


Chomsky's face and glasses with lines Introduction
West Point Cadets Training U.S. Military Officers
Philipines The Conquest of the Philippines
Flying Drone IT in the Early 21st Century
Binary Numbers Cyber Section of the Pentagon The Cyber Section of the Pentagon
Lt. General William Caldwell's name on a uniform Blogs and Schizophrenia
Intellectual Property Intellectual Property
partial Israeli flag Israel
Circuit Board High Tech Corporations
War Photograph War Images
Chomsky Closing

Note: The complete audio recording of the interview is available to listen to as you browse the edited webtext.