SWJ Book Review – Small Wars, Big Data: The Information Revolution in Modern Conflict
Travis M. Florio
Berman, Eli, Joseph H. Felter, and Jacob N. Shapiro, with Vestal McIntyre, Small Wars, Big Data: The Information Revolution in Modern Conflict. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2018. [ISBN: 978-0691204017. Hardcover, 408 pages]
Military strategists today are equipped with an incredible amount of data, analytics, and qualitative evidence. This data enables them to analyze war through the lens of people and the information they choose to consume and provide. Berman, Felter, and Shapiro, the authors of Small Wars, Big Data: The Information Revolution in Modern Conflict,have captured years of research in an information-centric look at historical insurgencies in the Middle East, Latin America, and Asia. Going beyond merely framing the problems, they outline a series of propositions that can be applied in asymmetric conflicts —backed by big data.
Part scientific study, part military analysis; Berman, Felter, and Shapiro bring decades of operational and academic experience to the table in their focus of how commanders can utilize information to help make determinations on the battlefield. Their central claim is that information, specifically knowledge that noncombatants possess about insurgents, is the key resource in asymmetric conflict. If counterinsurgency forces can tap into this resource, they gain the upper hand. If they cannot, and insurgents successfully deter civilians from reporting on attacks and rebel locations, then the conflict favors the insurgents. “In asymmetric wars, the struggle is fundamentally not over territory but over people—because the people hold critical information…”(p.9).
The book is not light on evidence or examples. With over fifty pages of notes, the authors have analyzed significant activities (SIGACT) figures from numerous asymmetric conflicts. For example, consider the asymmetric conflict between Boko Haram jihadists and the government of Nigeria. From 2012-2013, both the jihadists and the government took actions to shut down cell-phone networks—each convinced that they were advancing their cause. Boko Haram believed they were preventing the geolocation and arrest of their members by security forces; the government believed they were preventing the jihadists from communicating and coordinating attacks. Berman, Felter, and Shapiro propose that only one group can be correct, as it is illogical that shutting down cellular towers could benefit both groups in a zero-sum conflict. To answer the question of which group is correct, the authors dissect the data (I won’t spoil the answer).
This is not simply a history book. Utilizing game theory, the authors provide concrete solutions and proposals in what is often a messy interactive web between security forces, insurgents, and civilians. Just as no two wars are the same, no two cultures or insurgencies are the same. Without dismissing the human element of these conflicts, the authors focus on the quantifiable data—leaving opinion, conjecture, and emotion at the door. “If we can find what is common across many asymmetric conflicts, we are in a much better place to make predictions and strategize”(p. 51). Although the modeling sometimes involves a cursory understanding of game theory and calculus, Berman, Felter, and Shapiro do an excellent job of speaking in layman's terms. Readers need not be intimidated by the “Big Data” mentioned in the title.
Data science is rapidly evolving. Predictive analytics are invaluable today, and they will only grow in importance as the world becomes more inter-connected. Whether a data scientist, military information operations professional, or a hobbyist interested in how data predicts behavior, Small Wars, Big Data offers readers an inside look at how information is shaping the battlefield —and what we can do about it.