Crisis and Escalation in Cyberspace

By Martin C. Libicki | Go to book overview

CHAPTER THREE
Narratives, Dialogue, and Signals

The writer Tom Wolfe used to argue that modern art had “become completely literary: the paintings and other works exist only to illustrate the text.”1 Using this insight, he argued that a modern art museum that, like classical art museums, had large paintings and small explanations of them should instead have large explanations with small paintings in order to illustrate the point. So, too, with narratives about cyberwar. What happened may pale compared with what people say happened. Perhaps more than any other form of combat, cyberwar is storytelling—not inappropriately for a form of conflict that means to alter information.

Thus, offensive cyberoperations and major defensive cyberoperations demand a narrative. Such narratives, though, do not come prepackaged. Cyberoperations lack precedents or much expressed declared intent to fall back on, and the normal human intuition about how things work in the physical world translates poorly into cyberspace. Because their effects and sometimes even their existence are not directly visible, the nature and ramifications of cyberoperations begs for explanation—generally by the target. Even the source of the attacks may be unclear and have to be claimed by the attacker or assigned by the defender.

The purpose of a cyberattack may lack obviousness. Two of the historical rationales for military operations are to seize something tangible or to destroy the adversary’s ability to wage war. Cyberattacks

1 Tom Wolfe, The Painted Word, New York: Bantam, 1977.

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