Scientific Imperialism

“A fundamental law of Netwonian physics applies also to military maneuver: one can achieve overwhelming force by substituting velocity for mass”. (Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales, 2003)

“Are we to reserve the techniques and the right to manipulate peoples as the privilege of a few planning, goal-oriented and power-hungry individuals to whom the instrumentality of science makes a natural appeal? Now that we have techniques, are we in cold blood, going to treat people as things?” (Gregory Bateson quoted in Price, 2008, pp. 35-36)

Scientism and Imperial Statism

Bob Scales
Bob Scales

Major General Robert Scales is a fan of scientific allusions. In one publication he classed world wars into a typology where World War I was “the chemists’ war,” World War II was “the physicists’ war,” World War III (the Cold War) was “the information researchers’ war,” and World War IV (the “war on terror”) is “the social scientists’ war,” based on a typology produced by Alan Beyerchen, a historian at Ohio State University (Scales, 2006). Scales sees World War IV as dispersed, distributed and nonlinear, with an emphasis on human and biological “amplifiers”. World War IV, he argues, “will cause a shift in classical centers of gravity from the will of governments and armies to the perceptions of populations” and success will depend on “effective surrogates” (Scales, 2006). “In war, speed kills,” he wrote in a book as if producing an incontrovertible formula (Murray & Scales, 2003, p. 245). Scales is not a self-made man, nor a scientist; if his writings gained notoriety, and he gained prominence, it is due to institutions, cultural phenomena, and an ideology that precedes him, and that was appointed by political elites. The relationship between modern science and imperialism is a long recognized one, and here we will only glimpse select, contemporary, aspects relevant to the current period of the new imperialism.

Introducing the 2002 National Security Strategy, then US President George W. Bush announced that, “innovation within the armed forces will rest on experimentation with new approaches to warfare, strengthening joint operations, exploiting U.S. intelligence advantages, and taking full advantage of science and technology” (Bush, 2002, p. 30). From early on after September 11, 2001, the connections were drawn between selling warfare as scientifically sophisticated and calling for “joint operations” and “interoperability” with other militaries. Here I will focus on the “science” that is used to bolster the political and intellectual credentials of contemporary interventionism.

As others have observed, since World War II science and development have become two new reasons of state, added to that of national security and, “in the name of science and development one can today demand enormous sacrifices from, and inflict immense sufferings on, the ordinary citizen. That these are often willingly borne by the citizen is itself a part of the syndrome; for this willingness is an extension of the problem which national security has posed over the centuries” (Nandy, 2005, p. 21). Science, as Nandy notes, can inflict violence in the name of national security and development. Furthermore, science is becoming “a substitute for politics” in many societies (Nandy, 2005, p. 27). Nandy traces the idea of science as a reason of state to a speech made by President John F. Kennedy in 1962, in which Kennedy declared one of America’s major national goals to be, “the scientific feat of putting a man on the moon….science was, for the first time, projected in Kennedy’s speech as a goal of a state and, one might add, as a substitute for conventional politics” (Nandy, 2005, p. 22; see Kennedy, 1962). Kennedy showed that, “a wide enough political base had been built in a major developed society for the successful use of science as a goal of state and, perhaps, as a means of populist political mobilization” (Nandy, 2005, p. 23). The sign of science has acquired so much value, that it appears the political and military elites have decided that even just the sign rather than the substance of science will suffice—hence, “force multipliers” advanced as if a serious, scientific concept.

In other words, what we are dealing with here is more scientism than science—an image, veneer or allusion to science, in a rhetorical play that produces what we might call an aesthetic of science. This rests on the cultural work that has been done such that “scientificity” is socially accredited” and becomes an important objective because of the force of “belief which produces the appearance of truth” (Bourdieu, 1990, p. 28).

Scientism can also be used to quell intellectual insurgency, or at least to keep it at bay and thin its ranks. In terms of science in relation to politics, as Bourdieu (1990, p. 6) explained, “political ambition…is dissimulated by scientistic neutralism”. Science acts as a social force that produces legitimacy:

“In the struggle between different representations, the representation socially recognized as scientific, that is to say as true, contains its own social force, and, in the case of the social world, science gives those who hold it, or who appear to hold it, a monopoly of the legitimate viewpoint, of self-fulfilling prophecy”. (Bourdieu, 1990, p. 28)

Appeals to science and reason work to “block off the paths leading (back) to power” (Bourdieu, 1990, p. xxv).

In light of what Nandy and Bourdieu explained, Scales makes sense: his Newtonian overtures cleanse the field of discussion of the massive amount of bloodshed and intimidation wrought by US intervention. Instead of frank political analysis, we are treated to the simplistic pseudo-physics of “force multipliers” that bounce against “demultipliers,” a “spoiling factor” that results from “the enemy having and using a specific force multiplier,” implying “a reciprocal type effect” (Powell, 1990, pp. 6, 7). Obviously, the idea being copied here and pasted onto complicated social and political realities is the idea that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction (Newton’s Third Law of Motion—this same idea returns to our discussion later in the guise of the “blowback” concept). Time is also treated in military analyses as something that reigns above social and cultural realities—reference is made to “the golden hour,” or “that limited amount of time in which we enjoy the forbearance of the host nation populace” (Caldwell & Leonard, 2008, p. 11). Scientism in US intervention also facilitates the militarization of civilian diplomatic activities, in the name of “development”: in 2011 it was announced that the US Agency for International Development (USAID) planned to establish a “Geographic Intelligence Center” utilizing Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to focus on “mapping a number of topics such as food security, development economics, cultural issues, social issues, political issues” (Rasmussen, 2011). Both the hardware and software to be used had been developed in multiple forms by the Defense Department, and the program itself closely mirrored that of the Human Terrain System. As a West Point blog stated in conclusion: “the ability to apply geospatial analysis and spatial thinking is a force multiplier in achieving mission objectives” (Rasmussen, 2011).

Effective Surrogates?

Yet, who are these “effective surrogates” that Scales mentioned above? For now they appear to form a lifeless category, without their own (conflicting) interests or competing local agendas. Recent history is filled with the US’ numerous “ineffective” surrogates who would become targets of the US itself in some cases, from Ngo Dinh Diem, the president of South Vietnam overthrown in a US-backed coup on November 1, 1963, to Hamid Karzai, the president of Afghanistan, to those formerly on the CIA payroll such as General Manuel Noriega in Panama and Saddam Hussein in Iraq. In the same vein, the assumption is that “surrogates” will offer pure submission to US policy, and not pursue their own interests. Sometimes the results of such a flawed assumption become the basis for public revelations, such as the recent one concerning extensive fraud, waste, and mismanagement of US development funding in Afghanistan, that highlights the role of force multipliers in dispersing and limiting US efforts: “The reports by the special inspector general underscore the inherently chaotic nature of development that relies on private contractors and local agencies. Records disappear, agencies do not measure progress accurately and outright corruption drains government funds, especially in war zones” (Nixon, 2015/8/24).


“It was indeed as a machine that the colonialists themselves often envisaged the operations of colonial power”. (Young, 1995, p. 166)

The force multiplier, as defined in physics, is precisely a machine. But then why would the machine be used to understand socio-cultural aspects of political power? As some historians have observed, in American thinking the “machine in all of its manifestations—as an object, a process, and ultimately a symbol—became the fundamental fact of modernism” (see Wilson, Pilgrim, & Tashjian, 1986, p. 23). That industrialization should inspire the mechanization of social life and the production of cultural meaning such that the machine is fetishized, is understandable. The choice of “force multiplier” as the mechanized means to explain power is thus not accidental. What the choice (however unconscious) reveals is the manner in which the strategists of “American leadership” think of the qualities of US power, and the qualities of other human beings. The omnipresence of the machine brings to mind the philosophical viewpoint of the Iranian revolutionary sociologist, Ali Shari’ati, and his work on machinism. As Shari’ati explained, “Machinism leads to the domination of the Machine over human life and substitution of the Machine for creative and determining man. Hence man becomes absent from himself” (quoted in Manoochehri, 2005, p. 296). A “man” who has become “absent from himself” then is the ideal “force multiplier” that serves as a spear-carrier for the US empire. Edward Said also pointed out the machinist conception of British imperial ideologues, such as Lord Cormer, who saw the British empire as consisting of a seat of power in the West and a “great embracing machine” in the East: “What the machine’s branches feed into it in the East—human material, material wealth, knowledge, what have you—is preceded by the machine, then converted into more power” (Said, 1978, p. 44).

In this manner of conceptualization, US strategists reveal a stark inhumanity in their own power, while diminishing the human qualities of their “surrogates,” who appear as divorced from their own cultures, as free-floating actors who will somehow lead others to “prosperity,” which in light of these machinist understandings can only mean a barren path of imitative consumption. Put simply, the “force multiplier” idea betrays a deeply bleak conception of humanity—but even more troubling is that sometimes there seem to be agents willing to satisfy the conception’s conditions.


Bourdieu, P. (1990). Homo Academicus. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Bush, G.W. (2002). The National Security Strategy of the United States of America. Washington, DC: The White House.

Caldwell, W.B., & Leonard, S.M. (2008). Field Manual 3–07, Stability Operations: Upshifting the Engine of Change. Military Review, July-August, 6–13.

Kennedy, J.F.K. (1962). Address at Rice University on the Nation’s Space Effort. Boston: The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.

Manoochehri, A. (2005). Enrique Dussel and Ali Shari’ati on Cultural Imperialism. In Bernd Hamm & Russell Smandych (Eds.), Cultural Imperialism: Essays on the Political Economy of Cultural Domination (pp. 290–300). Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Murray, W., & Scales, R.H. (2003). The Iraq War: An Elusive Victory. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Nandy, A. (2005). Science as a Reason of State. In Ackbar Abbas & John Nguyet Erni (Eds.), Internationalizing Cultural Studies: An Anthology (pp. 21–29). Oxford: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Powell, D.S. (1990). Understanding Force Multipliers: The Key to Optimizing Force Capabilities in Peacetime Contingency Operations. Fort Leavenworth: School of Advanced Military Studies, United States Army Command and General Staff College.

Price, D.H. (2008). Anthropological Intelligence: The Deployment and Neglect of American Anthropology in the Second World War. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Rasmussen , R. (2011). New USAID GeoCenter Can Benefit From Existing Defense Programs and Projects. The Central Node (Network Science Center at West Point), August 4.

Said, E.W. (1978). Orientalism. New York: Vintage Books.

Scales, R.H., Jr. (2003). Statement by Major General (Ret) Robert H. Scales, Jr. Before the House Armed Services Committee, United States House of Representatives, October 21.

————— . (2006). Clausewitz and World War IV. Armed Forces Journal, July 1.

Wilson, R.G.; Pilgrim, D.H.; & Tashjian, D. (1986). The Machine Age in America, 1918–1941. New York: Brooklyn Museum.

Young, R.J.C. (1995). Colonial Desire: Hybridity in Theory, Culture and Race. London: Routledge.

zaniv5smExtracted from:
Force Multipliers: The Instrumentalities of Imperialism
Edited by
Maximilian C. Forte
Montreal, Alert Press, 2015
Available in print, or as a
Free E-book