Belmont Club

Man and machine

CBS headlines its story “How Technology Won Sadr City Battle”, though the story itself doesn’t say that. Technological innovation was a large component in the victory and CBS describes the role played by it:

60 Minutes learned in a high-level debriefing with the U.S. commander in Iraq, the Americans overpowered the Shiite militias with hi-tech, including the most advanced, sophisticated, whiz bang hardware and software on Earth, like electronics, lasers, and high-resolution cameras that can literally cut through the fog of war.


But organizational innovation and human courage played a major part too. Most military history shows that technology unharnessed to the human element can contribute to defeat rather than help in victory. Technology in Sadr City for example, was held back by politics. In fact strategy itself was the handmaiden of politics. Only after the politicians acted decisively could the battle for Sadr city even begin.

The U.S. military had wanted to mount an attack in Sadr City, but Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki balked for a year because the militias are Shiites like him, and that made a decision to fight them politically risky. … Once Maliki gave the go-ahead, a U.S. Stryker battalion went in, but they confronted a steady stream of militia reinforcements. “I mean every day, it was 20, 30, 40 new guys that were coming down to fight,” Hort recalled.

Nor was the “technology” used always advanced. One of the key elements to winning Sadr City was building concrete walls to limit the maneuver of militias. Building that wall couldn’t be done from 10,000 feet; thus it required something machines could not provide: human physical courage. For example, despite all the whiz-bang electronics someone had forgotten to invent the crane self-unhooker. That required a man to go out and dodge bullets.

“It was literally concrete barrier by concrete barrier. We just wasn’t goin’ out there puttin’ up some barriers. I mean, it was a fight every inch of the way,” he said.

“Guys would climb the ladders to unhook the crane chains from the wall unarmed, while people are firin’ at ’em. So it was high adventure,” Lt. Col. Brian Eifler remembered, whose team laid down cover fire while some soldiers, wide open and exposed, unhooked the chains from the crane.

Cloak and dagger also played its part. CBS also hints at the exploits of behind-the-lines teams who were targeting militia leaders on their home turf and Iraqi undercover operatives played a large role in this effort. “So the battle of Sadr City was won with a combination of hi-tech and no tech, lasers and electronic eyes in the sky, and cement.”

Technology unguided by strategy, intellectual integrity and purpose doesn’t guarantee anything but the faster eventuation of stupidity. The financial sector’s meltdown is a prime example. It employed the latest information technology; used highly developed statistical systems; was advised by PhDs, mathematicians, lawyers and MBAs. It disposed of trillions of dollars of resources working within the safe and quiet confines of high-rise, airconditioned towers. Certain parts of the financial sector didn’t even produce brotherly love, nor even the cuckoo-clock, as Harry Lime would put it. It’s not always the case that the Barney Franks are smarter than the David Petraeuses. But the politician is always right.


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