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Book Review: Small Wars, Big Data: The Information Revolution in Modern Conflict.

30 April 2021

Eli Berman, Joseph H. Felter, and Jacob N. Shapiro (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018, 408 pages).

Book cover of Small Wars, Big Data

The 2018 publication of Small Wars, Big Data: The Information Revolution in Modern Conflict coincided with the release of a body of resources on professional military education by the book’s publisher, Princeton University.  This resource, the Empirical Studies of Conflict (ESOC) website, hosts databases that provide detailed conflict data for a dozen conflicts worldwide, in addition to a number of studies based upon this information. Small Wars, Big Data examines the value inherent within such quantitative research by examining what lessons might be discerned from detailed review of the Iraq, Afghanistan and Filipino counterinsurgencies.

The authors are bold in their conclusion of the importance of such micro-level analyses. They argue that such inquiry reveals a common approach to winning locally that works. Specifically, they assert that successful operations:

“provide services to the population that make it worthwhile for some small number of people to share information, stage sufficient forces to take advantage of that information, and act on it – while protecting those who [provide] it from retaliation and minimising collateral harm to other civilians.”

This is a confident assertion, and it comes from the authors’ routine analysis of district-level data to demonstrate variance between geographic locations. In doing so, the authors compellingly demonstrate that “all conflict is local.”  Supporting the authors’ conclusion, other literature on counterinsurgency is replete with this same lesson.  For example, counterinsurgency theorists David Galula, Roger Triquier, Jeffery Race, David Kilcullen and Carter Malkasian all convey the importance of local dynamics as a precursor to understanding broader conflict dynamics.

Small Wars, Big Data advances the literature by examining what has changed – namely the arrival of big data technologies. The authors argue that “big data allows us to measure things we never could before… [and] to identify cause-and-effect relationships in ways we never could before.” Small Wars, Big Data advances the theory that insurgencies are fundamentally based upon information flows. This theory is supported by several analytic trends which the authors summarise as: communications technology improves the ability to denounce insurgents; civilian casualties harm a counter-insurgency; targeted, small-scale, local civic aid is more effective in counter-insurgency; and communications technology can improve governance. Supporting their position, the authors assert that: 

“Information – and more specifically the knowledge citizens possess about insurgent activities – is the key factor determining which side has the upper hand in an asymmetric conflict... Civilians will choose to share this information or choose to withhold it, depending on a rational calculation about what will happen to them if one side or the other controls territory… The government and rebels will make resource allocation decisions – the government choosing how much to invest in military forces and services, the rebels deciding how much violence to attempt – taking into account what civilians will do as a result.”

This is the same proposition discussed by one of the book’s authors, Professor Jake Shapiro, in the Irregular Warfare Podcast. Through this analytical lens, Shapiro helps us understand that advances in communications technology (such as new mobile phone infrastructure) make it easier for citizens to denounce insurgents. This technological change and its implications for violence is examined in the Iraq dataset of Small Wars, Big Data where the authors find that “for each additional tip [from civilians] there were approximately 0.4 fewer IED attacks and 0.5 fewer indirect-fire attacks one week later.”

Small Wars, Big Data presents a compelling example of the relevance of analytic data when it recounts a briefing given to General McCrystal on 6 June 2010 in Kabul, Afghanistan. This briefing, provided by Radha Iyengar, an economist within the Counterinsurgency Advisory Assistance Team (CAAT), advanced the analytic finding that “on average, civilian deaths caused by ISAF units led to increased attacks directed against ISAF for a period that persisted fourteen weeks after each incident.” It was this briefing that led to General McCrystal’s ‘courageous restraint’ directive.

The book also examines the context within which reconstruction projects were undertaken throughout Afghanistan to ‘win hearts and minds.’  These projects were often undertaken through Commander’s Emergency Response Program (CERP). The authors identify that “the smaller [CERP projects] were associated with almost six times as much violence reduction… In contrast, non-CERP reconstruction spending, which typically funded much larger projects… was estimated to have a small but significant violence-increasing effect.” Further, the authors find that “stabilisation interventions can have perverse, Taliban-supporting effects when they are implemented in areas where the Taliban has control, as opposed to areas that are contested or under government control.” These findings highlight why certain projects were effective and others were not.

In addition to their observations on civilian casualties and reconstruction funding, the authors examine the role of emerging technology in improving good governance.  An example is the conduct of the 2010 Afghan election: 

“Afghan ‘polling stations randomly assigned to know that their DOR [Declaration of Results specific to that polling station] was being photographed [and electronically transmitted in real-time] experienced about 20 percent less fraud… [this was] evidence that cheap, crowd-sourced, information-based interventions may be able to quickly cut fraud and improve the functioning of elections in weak states… the antifraud intervention increased citizens’ belief in state legitimacy.”

While the analytical frameworks proposed in Small Wars, Big Data clearly have value, the density of language in the book may be an obstacle to their practical application. In places, the authors’ analysis is difficult to follow and it may be impenetrable to a reader with limited understanding of statistics and its terminology (i.e. correlation, regression, statistically significant, etc.). This language barrier is not a characteristic unique to the book.  Indeed, it is common for most quantitative research.

In examining military adaptations for the future, Small Wars, Big Data fills a gap in counter-insurgency literature and illuminates the availability of data that can inform military decisions. While further work still needs to be done, Small Wars, Big Data, combined with the resources on the ESOC website, help to close what the Irregular Warfare Podcast describe as the ‘research-to-policy’ gap.

“The academic community can make a significant contribution with research that identifies practical ways to design interventions that do more with less – less troops on the ground for the military, and less money for both development assistance and the military.”

Encouragingly, the book has stimulated broader educational initiatives focussing on irregular warfare. For example, in an interview with the Irregular Warfare Podcast in January 2021, General (ret.) Stanley McCrystal, examined the potential for machine-learning algorithms to augment human analysis of big data. Indeed, future incidents may already be predictable by emergent artificial intelligence tools. These tools offer the potential for analysts to achieve more accurate understanding of conflict zones, from which, successful tactical military actions might be undertaken.

In sum, Small Wars, Big Data is a much-needed reflection on the lessons through recent warfighting experience which will resonate strongly with veterans of Australia’s recent counter-insurgency operations. Small Wars, Big Data does more than capture recent lessons; it is essential reading because of the way it predicts the impact of emergent technologies on future warfighting.

The views expressed in this article and subsequent comments are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Australian Army, the Department of Defence or the Australian Government.

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