November: A time for remembrance - w(ar)t

November 14, 2020

During my backpacking adventures across Argentina, I came across this statue of a German signalman from WWII.  These soldiers were tasked with laying cables on the battlefield to create the conditions for telecommunications and signals intelligence operations.   

The ability to perform - faster and secure - communications over greater distances became an increasingly important necessity during 20th-century warfare.   The power and embrace of communication systems offered its users several tactical advantages, and ultimately these advantages fed mindsets that sought to perform military operations with ever-increasing effectiveness and efficiency.  

However, in the theatre of war, everything is a double edge sword, and intercepted communications could just as easily create lethal conditions, and tactical disadvantages.   After all, better knowing your opponent's next move in a "fog of war" context is most always a strategic boon.   So, the communications established also began to rely on other sub-systems of management to keep prying eyes and ears occupied.   On the one hand, the systematic use of codes was increasingly added into the communications mix to offer another unique layer of human interaction, so that messages - even if intercepted - needed to be cracked (if the message was not intended for you) or deciphered (if the message was intended for you).  The idea of assuming people could not understand your foreign language to them was no longer alone sufficient.   On another hand, sometimes coded communications purposefully put forth misinformation to test the integrity of the system, or to just outright confuse and bluff the enemy into false-positive or false-negative moves.  

What I find most fascinating about this simple statue is that it provides a double nuance on the idea of remembrance - first, it offers us a past depiction of a soldier in WWII, but secondly, it also offers us a perspective on how soldiers in WWII attempted to facilitate communications by unfurling roles of cable from a backpack.   The backpack of wound-up cable almost gives it a nostalgic effect - remember when we used land line phones to communicate?  Even the idea of speaking to another colleague in code, and them having to devote some time to deciphering the message so that they could understand you, now appears nostalgic when we think about all the real-time encryption algorithms and authentication systems that seamlessly operate on our behalf to perform things like financial transactions with others.  Could you see a 21st-century soldier doing this cable lying activity in a world where we now have satellites in outer space to relay instant messages?   Lest we forget, the use of technology in warfare, and how it has changed our lives over the ages - both on and off the battlefield.  

And, in case you are wondering, why would a statue like this be in Argentina?   Well, that answer would certainly be complex, but I think it speaks to the idea that Argentina and the Axis powers (particularly Germany and Italy) shared many cultural affinities at the time, and they maintained communications during the war even if Argentina was ultimately viewed as neutral leaning for most of WWII.   So, perhaps there is even more symbolism at play in this statue?          

As a kid I recall playing pen-and-paper games that involved cracking codes to reveal secret messages - I found them so incredibly fun.  I wonder if they still print those code breaker books?   

 
November:  A time for remembrance - w(ar)t
 

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