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War in Iraq creating 4-star desk-chair generals

posted by Jason Kottke   Apr 08, 2003

I didn’t think much of this article (as it features some muddled analysis by Jakob Nielsen), but the title — “How the web makes ‘desk-chair generals’ of us all” — put me in mind of something I read in Tom Standage’s The Victorian Internet about war and technology.

The Crimean War was the first conflict in which the telegraph was utilized, both by the armies in the field and by reporters sending news of the conflict back home. Instead of taking weeks for news from the front to reach home, it happened in a matter of hours. Two things happened (stop me if this sounds familiar):

For the first time, French and British governments could communicate directly with commanders on a distant battlefield. This was further bad news for [British commander in chief] General Simpson, who was so exasperated by trivial inquiries from his incompetent superiors in London that he is said to have complained that “the confounded telegraph has ruined everything.”

-and-

The telegraph was to cause further complications when it was used to send reports to London from the front revealing the chaotic nature of the campaign. The war was very badly organized, and although public sentiment in Britain was in favor of military action, there was widespread exasperation at the government’s mismanagement, spelled out in dispatches from the front line by the Times’s reporter William Howard Russell.

With today’s technology (Internet, sat phones, etc.), the intertwingled feedback loop between the front and the public and the government is so short and tightly coupled that the loop has almost vanished entirely. I don’t think that makes us all desk-chair generals, but it sure feels like it sometimes.