Belmont Club

Left of the Boom

The campaign against the IED threat in Iraq resembled in some respects the Battle of the Atlantic. Starting from nearly nothing in 2003 the “improvised explosive device” lurking under the roadbed, embedded in a concrete curb, in a dead dog or a garbage can — or sometimes taking the form of a long string of artillery shells wired to each other — became a major cause of Coalition casualties. Like the U-boats their success rose a crescendo and then faded away under a cocktail of countermeasures. The “Happy Time” for the IED bombers was the summer of 2007.

The conceptual similarities between the fight against the U-boat and the IED were that the victors evolved better detection technology, surveillance techniques and adaptive routing than their opponents, who were also evolving. The parallels between mine detection technology and sonar; electronic intelligence and Huff-duff, between road surveillance systems and long range air patrols are obvious. And the really killing blow in both cases — what spelled the end of the wolfpack and the road bombers was also identical: getting “left of the boom”. A Washington Post article from 2007 described how military analysts understood from the start the:

need to move “left of boom,” to use the vernacular developed by the Army in 2003: that is, to attack the bombmaking construct well before IEDs are emplaced. That involves understanding the financiers, bombmaker cells, and other aspects of this, long before a bomb appears at the roadside. Only in the past year has the Pentagon begun moving in a concerted, purposeful way to left of boom.

If the detonation of an IED represents the endpoint of its lifecycle, any actions taken by the defender in the vicinity of that event are disadvantageous from the point of view of physics. You are out of distance and time when in proximity to the bomb and the best electronic countermeasures and armor plating can only provide limited damage mitigation. Fundamentally speaking, if you have to wait until you are nearly on top of an explosive (or a U-boat) before you detect and react, you are screwed. You are playing a losing game.

But consider the area to the left of the boom, before an explosive device has been deployed. In this part of its lifecycle the weapon is still being funded, assembled, transported, fuzed and concealed. It is potentially lethal but only potentially. Like a serpent in an egg its malice is still prospective. In that space the IED is vulnerable; in that space it can be defeated. And in that space it was defeated.

While, as Wired notes, the movie “Hurt Locker” justly put the spotlight on the matchless bravery and skill of the EOD teams, it leaves out a very large part of the story. Beating the enemy meant going after him; busting the funding networks, killing or capturing the bombmakers, disrupting the supply of materiel and watching the environment the way B-24 Liberator crews once scanned the waves for submarines.

It’s tempting to ask what the counter-IED experience implies to the overall strategy of fighting terror. Is it ever possible to passively defend a country against attack? What role does converting the attitudes of the enemy’s own support base play in generating intelligence? And what good is intelligence without the willingness to use it to crack down on the equivalents of the ideology, leadership, funding, operational trainers and materiel supply line of the enemy? In other words, what does going “left of the boom” mean in the context of counterterrorist operations?

Roger Simon says that even in Hollywood and public opinion may be more open than it has ever been to themes and ideas that were conventionally regarded as uncool.

The 2010 Academy Awards may not have marked the end of “liberal Hollywood” as we know it, but they certainly put a solid dent in it. With the pro-military “The Hurt Locker” winning over the enviro-pabulum of “Avatar” and Sandra Bullock garnering the Best Actress Oscar for a Christian movie, the times are a-changin’ at least somewhat, maybe even a lot.

But one thing is now certain. It is time for conservative, center-right and libertarian filmmakers to stop feeling sorry for themselves and go out and just do it.

Maybe people are willing to listen to ideas and themes outside of their circle, now that the old order and the divisions which marked it are falling away. If so then now is the time for historians and authors to go back and take a fresh look at the remarkable successes of the recent past. Experience is perhaps the only thing with real shelf-life a world of rapid technological change. Though forms are transient, function endures.

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