Words and Weapons: The Power of Discourse

By Disler, Edith A. | Air & Space Power Journal, Fall 2003 | Go to article overview

Words and Weapons: The Power of Discourse


Disler, Edith A., Air & Space Power Journal


Editorial Abstract: Air Force culture favors technological and quantifiable solutions to most problems. However, the methods by which information gets disseminated are as important as the technology used, and the accurate flow of information and data is critical to air and space power. As the service moves further toward an expeditionary philosophy, accurately packaging and delivering information will remain a vital leadership capability that can help preserve unit and service effectiveness.

Thus new thinking, or the complexity paradigm, can create a model and an understanding of major regional conflicts that could not be developed by our traditional scientific paradigm and its simple, linear, universal models. Driven by the aesthetics of complexity and specificity, new thinking develops models that strengthen our understanding with increased numbers of variables; that build depth and sophistication with interdependent variables; that describe open systems subject to global conditions; and that capture political and economic phenomena as products of the era in which they occur. Operating in the white spaces, new thinking challenges us to defend our 300-year-old thinking patterns: Are simplicity, linearity, and universality the only way to think about the world?

-Dr. Gerry Gingrich

National Defense University

IN THE SPIRIT of the "traditional scientific paradigm and its simple, linear" models Gingrich cites above, we in the Air Force approach modern warfare with a penchant for extolling the virtues of technology in attack aircraft, reconnaissance platforms, and even computer-facilitated staff work. We value real-time data with which to make decisions and plan responses and bemoan the bureaucracy we must navigate to buy the equipment that gets us the data in real time. Air Force members interact daily in person, via E-mail, and on the phone. Yet we neglect the study of the one thing that driving intelligence satellites, flying attack aircraft, performing computer-aided staff work, and even working in the bureaucracy all have in common-discourse. Whether interpreting a satellite photo, assimilating the information on a head-up display, or communicating as a Pentagon action officer, military members are but human beings, taking action within a specific social setting through the use of discourse. Analysis of the discourse involved in our day-to-day interactions is, this article proposes, operating in the "'white spaces'-areas of thought and discovery not covered by old thinking and the traditional academic disciplines."1 This article will explore the complex web of discourses which come together to result in human action, with particular attention to both the theoretical underpinnings of such analysis and the framework for analysis proposed by mediated discourse analysis.

Communications versus Communication

Military strategists and theorists have devoted volumes to the role of information technology in today's defense structure, but many fewer volumes to the impact of those technologies upon the individuals using them. As INSS Senior Fellow Martin Libicki has pointed out,

Information has always been part of conflict, but in times past it has been almost entirely at the human level: who is my enemy, what are his intentions, what can I see and hear of him, and how can I best confound him. Today, human-level analog information is being supplemented by a wealth (perhaps a flood) of machine generated information that can be further processed and distributed through electronic means.2

But, until the technological platforms can wage war amongst themselves without a human in the loop, we must face the fact that war is still waged by "human-level analog" minds, helped along by increasingly advanced cultural tools. For that reason, we should stop and consider the ways in which various discourses, including written words, spoken words, images, and other cues, come together and cause us to take action. …

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