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THREAD:

On lethality: an anatomy of a term

So there has been a lot of discussion about #lethality this past few months. In fact as @jaredbkeller observes the term has become something of a cult...

newrepublic.com/article/154970…
On twitter there have been some very interesting observations about lethality, the best and most sophisticated of which (IMHO) have been from @teaandtactics here:

Apart from @teaandtactics it is also clear that @E_H_Carpenter @ZaknafienDC (& others not on twitter) have written some great stuff about the term. Check out @Strategy_Bridge for more:

thestrategybridge.org/search?q=letha…
And this tweet by @chrisgingram led to some very interesting discussions of lethality.

Some like @pptsapper have reacted with suitable disdain, describing lethality as a buzzword... (as if it could be described that way😇)

But the term lethality is infectious and now reaches across the pond to the UK where it gets mixed up in discussion of unmanned systems by @RobertClark87

wavellroom.com/2019/02/28/dev…
and inevitably on all things to do with "innovation" by @InnovationArmy

wavellroom.com/2019/06/07/the…
A couple of observations about the nature of the discourse are worth making.

As a slogan lethality has legs.

It does "useful" work in a variety of bureaucratic, industrial and military contexts where it can be employed to structure discussion on technology & doctrine.
That it works in multiple contexts implies the slogan is open to interpretation - irrespective of the definitional straight jackets that different bureaucratic, military and technological constituencies try to impose on it.
The definitional challenges associated with the term reach across the professional boundaries of all these constituencies which partly explains its success (and the challenge of getting everyone to agree).
But is also interesting because the term only makes sense when it is framed in interdisciplinary & cross-professional ways.
From my point of view though it is particularly interesting to see the term disassociated from the science of lethality. I say that because even the science of lethality is contested.

It is after all a science & so you'd expect it to be subject to different hypotheses.
This aside, lethality is a term that has scientific, technological & martial referents.

To separate lethality from these contexts implies a wider struggle over the ordering of discourse where martial imperatives drive technological, bureaucratic & scientific practices.
My own work reinforces this point.

cambridge.org/core/journals/…
But unlike colleagues writing about lethality I see technology, science and doctrine as part of one register.
If we dig into the scientific trajectory of the term we find that much is contingent on the relationship between technologists trying to sell kit & soldiers wanting the best kit.
Scientists have been unable to resolve the tensions in this relationship between engineer and soldier.

But they have revealed that the common martial understanding of what produces death (58ft/lbs of KE) is overkill.
Domestic defintions of lethality (at least in the UK) differ substantially from the military understanding.

cps.gov.uk/legal-guidance…
This implies that military preferences supersede civilian.

Not a problem when you are fighting the armed forces of another state.

But clearly overkill is a problem if you're engaged in an overseas intervention or counter-insurgency.
& this reminds us that overkill has a function beyond the actual practice of killing an adversary.

Overkill has a function as part of military spectacle, producing disproportionate bloodshed or destruction which in turn has a role in information war & managing popular discourse.
& it is for this reason that we should also remember that there is a strong relationship between what we mean by lethality and what we understand as legitimate martial practice: in terms of whose life has value & should be protected & whose life does not.
Debates about lethality have tended to be framed by doctrine and technology.

However, overkill & spectacle frame lethality in ways that are not being accounted for but nonetheless will determine the legitimacy of military practice.
I've been wanting to reply to @teaandtactics about her excellent thread but stupid Brexit has been too ridiculous and entertaining.

Now that Brits have five weeks off I figured I should finally put my thoughts out there!
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