Memetics and Individualism

Marked for some future blogs:

David Brooks at NYT:

“I repeat these personal facts because we have a tendency to see history as driven by deep historical forces. And sometimes it is. But sometimes it is driven by completely inexplicable individuals, who combine qualities you would think could never go together, who lead in ways that violate every rule of leadership, who are able to perpetrate enormous evils even though they themselves seem completely pathetic. Analysts spend their lives trying to anticipate future threats and understand underlying forces. But nobody could have possibly anticipated Bin Laden’s life and the giant effect it would have. The whole episode makes you despair about making predictions.”

I would also recommend that you read Daniel Byman’s article on a great-man centric theory of political science in concert with this.

Lucien Gauthier’s response to my post:

Except for on the fact that emotions are not “policies, strategies, or tactics” is why taking up arms can exist as a profession, and why there is a difference between a mob and professionals-at-arms. As Adam mentions, conflict does not exist out of a primordial hate. Nor does it end because of a sudden emotional realization that there is some ‘better way’. There is a spectrum to conflict, the same hatred that can be felt for a mortal enemy is the same hate felt for the Shipmate who cut you off on 264 going into NOB. Both forms of hatred are dismissed through the same cognitive process as well — though the means through that process differ significantly. At one extreme only the acknowledgment of the emotion is necessary for it to quickly dissipate. On the other, is the application of violence by professionals. This is to say that despite the irrationality of emotion, there is a rational and deliberative process that ends conflict. That objectivity defines modern conflict resolution (note: There was VERY little that I interpreted happening to me objectively while I was downrange. Afterwards, in getting home, my objectivity returned to me). By looking at conflict objectively we have come to better understand the causes of conflict and have attempted to address our understanding of the causes through organizational constructs (NATO, UN, IMF, WTO — deliberative bodies) as well as methodical approaches (COIN, CT — tactics). But, in assuming the causes of conflict only as a function of emotion we remove any hope of conflict prevention. It is ironic that the sentiment expressed in the fake quote are actually an affirmation that violence and conflict are unavoidable and that humans are incapable of being disciplined enough to rise above their emotions.

I’ve bolded the parts of this that I think point to a better way forward.

Can AQ Win a War of Attrition?

Some (but not all) guerrilla and/or terrorist leaders subscribe to a doctrine that while that while they cannot use force to immediately destroy the forces of their opponent they can inflict a heavy enough cost over time to make their opponents capitulate. Others use attrition as a point of operational buildup for a conventional strategy of annihilation, like the PLA’s Huai-Huai campaign that destroyed Nationalist strength in Northern China and set the stage for the KMT’s flight to Taiwan. Sometimes, however, attrition is not an option for a guerrilla leader. George Washington was put in the problem of an army that could not fight the Redcoats head-on in a battle of annihilation but could not maintain itself long enough to win a war of attrition.

The main thrust of Daveed Gartenstein-Ross’s new book suggests that AQ believes it can win a war of economic attrition and sees itself through the framework of a war of attrition. I haven’t read the book so it will be interesting to see how Gartenstein-Ross develops this thesis.

More on Love and Hate

Some things that I thought of in the interval between writing that post:

First, while hate is not strategic it can be tactically quite effective. Stathis Kalyvas’s work on civil wars shows how local disputes can intersect with larger causes (the core-periphery model of civil wars) and local blood feuds (such as those of the Chechens) are not unimportant. Personal reasons (a relative killed by an errant bomb) can also coalesce with national-political ones. Ali a la Pointe in The Battle of Algiersfinds a way to connect his personal feelings of humiliation with the humiliation of his people. But in the larger sense all large-scale conflict is driven by a basic difference of policy. Both Native Americans and the people who would become Americans wanted the land. One succeeded through greater force of arms in taking the land. Hate and misunderstanding certainly motivated both sides and made it easier for them to dehumanize each other, but the core issue was the land and who eventually would have it. I will elaborate a bit more on this later when I discuss the Clausewitzian trinity.

Second, I think M.L.R. Smith’s article on strategic theory in E-IR is really, really good as a summary of neo-orthodox thought, with this point beautifully made (much better than I can with sleep deprivation):

It is sometimes said that strategic theorists assume rationality on the part of those whom they study because they cannot assume anything else.To pass judgment on whether anyone is rational or irrational in political life is to assume that one exists in Olympian detachment with a unique insight into what constitutes supreme powers of reasoning (a self-evidently delusional position). The assumption of rationality, however, does not suppose that the actor is functioning with perfect efficiency or ‘that all rational decisions are right ones, merely that an actor’s decisions are made after careful cost–benefit calculation and the means chosen seem optimal to accomplish the desired end.

On a Fake Quote: What’s Love (or Hate) Got To Do With It?

I am very tired, and have gotten very little sleep lately. Part of that was due to last night, which was one of the more joyful and hopeful moments I have seen in years, even if I didn’t go outside like everyone else. I have longer thoughts coming in the Huffington Post (just finished filing new blog), but I want to say something about the fake quote circulating on Facebook:

“I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”

While the sentiments might seem superficially reasonable, a closer reading betrays a misunderstanding of human conflict–violent or nonviolent.

War doesn’t happen because of some kind of pure and abstract hatred. This quote conjures up the stereotypical image, spread by Balkan Ghosts and other books, of two tribes with “ancient hatreds” that control their minds. While primal violence and enmity is important, but to see conflict through the prism of “hate”–sustained by hate and somehow eroded by an equally vague “love” is simply bizarre. War is fundamentally about politics. Conflicts are fought for political objectives, even if those objectives might seem irrational to anyone except the one who sets them.

Adolf Hitler may have hated Jews and practically anyone who wasn’t Adolf Hitler, but he has a very specific (if insane) political vision that was internally consistent and a set of political-military tactics to achieve it. Of course this “vision” was genocidal, paranoid, and utterly repugnant, but if he was driven solely by abstract hate he would have remained a failed artist of no consequence rather than a mass murderer whose quest to depopulate every town from the Polish border to Siberia was backed by the murderous organs of a totalitarian great power state. This is “rationality”–even if it is a kind that we find difficult to accept. Quite similarly, Osama Bin Laden had an internally consistent (but clock cuckoo) political vision and he also used brutal violence to try to achieve it.

If we accept Clausewitz’s claim that war is “politics by other means,” we have to also accept that there are no “irrational” conflicts. Perhaps the actors involved have miscalculated the relative efficacy of violence, as the Palestinians did when their return to violence in 2000 led to the IDF’s stage-by-stage demolition of the Palestinian Authority. But to imply that actors are simply driven by positive or negative emotions is to insult their intelligence and autonomy.

Conflict exists on a spectrum of complete nonviolence to nuclear warfare. It’s a basic fact of human existence, and how actors choose to achieve their gains is often situationally dependent. We all have goals, and often times they conflict with those of other people. Political realists from Machiavelli to Pareto share an assumption that politics is at heart a form of power over people–hence we often turn to politics to increase privileges, right perceived injustices, capture scarce resources, or spread our own systems of belief. Since politics determines the distribution of power, it is a basic part of our lives no matter whether we religiously watch C-SPAN or indulge the apathy that heavy does of American domestic politics often seems to cultivate.

So to return to the quote, whether or not you meet hatred with hatred or hatred with love really matters little because such terms are really too general to meaningfully describe the political reasons why people conflict. Sometimes those political visions are flexible and can be modified to fit reality if actors judge that the price of continued violence is too high, or actors can realize that their goals are best met through cooperation rather than conflict. F.W. De Klerk and the South Africans, in the end, judged that they could not maintain apartheid in perpetuity and the political vision outlined by Nelson Mandela of the African National Congress was acceptable to them. In short, you use the method most appropriate for your policy and most acceptable to your own system of morality.

It is no wonder that Martin Luther King Jr. never uttered such words, as he was probably the only major strategic and operational leader of non-violent struggle who truly understood strategy. For example, Martin Luther King Jr. simply didn’t wake up and decide that he wanted to eradicate prejudice. He realized that an entrenched Southern oligarchy was using an interlocking system of legal prejudice, extralegal violence and intimidation, and paramilitary power to maintain a system of privilege built on the backs of African-Americans. Realizing that this system was the enemy’s “center of gravity,” the common spirit that bound it all together, King Jr. elected to challenge it not with love and flowers–but nonviolent action carefully designed to accomplish his policy. Like Mandela, King Jr. (with a little unintentional help from the more militant Malcolm X and plenty of help from the at times adversarial Lyndon Baines Johnson) demonstrated to elites that the system could not be maintained and forced them to reach an accommodation.

Bin Laden was never looking for an accommodation or a compromise. Like Lenin and Robspierre before him, he was looking to overthrow the ancien regime and put everyone associated with it to the guillotine. His fanaticism and willingness to hurt innocents knew no bounds, and we can only guess at what horrors might have ensued if he actually succeeded in his mad quest to impose his own political order on the Middle East. So in the end a Navy SEAL addressed the “root cause” of Bin Laden’s grievances by putting a bullet through his temple.

The longer we go on believing in the message of this quote, that only love can vanquish evil, the longer we set ourselves up for tragedy. Love did not stop the Japanese rampage through China, love did not end slavery in the American South, and love did not stop Napoleon’s attempt to dominate Europe.

This is not to say that love is weak—love is one of the most powerful things imaginable, and anyone who has experienced it or has had the pleasure of giving it to others understands that. Hate is, at least for me, the most draining thing imaginable and something I try to avoid at all costs.

But neither love or hate are policies, strategies, or tactics. They’re only emotions and ideal categories. They are not instrumental devices that we use to get what we want. So let’s stop pretending that they are causal forces, that somehow rejoicing in the end of a mass murderer is going to conjure up more hate which in turn leads to more conflict.

Update: Thanks all for the RTs. I did make an error when I said that King never said all of the words described–as some sleuthing has discovered, only the first sentence was made up. The larger point about King’s use of strategy reflects the record–even if it is not really a part of how he is seen in popular history.