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Choice vs. Predestination

2014 May 20
by Ian Welsh

1) There is no one who can be blamed or credited for the situation humanity finds itself in, for good or bad, except humanity and nature.  If you don’t like the way the world is you can either rail against nature (our biology, limited resources, etc…) or you can rail against ourselves—what we have done with the hand nature dealt us.  (You could also blame God or Gods, but this amounts to blaming nature.)

Humans are responsible for human society

2) Some humans are more responsible than others.  Duh.  Nonetheless, as a group, we are responsible.  If the 99% rose up against the 1% tomorrow, it’d be over for the 1%.

Some Humans bear more responsibility than others.

3) Unless you posit a universe without free will (an entirely intellectually respectable position), you must allow human agency.  Technology changes the optimal strategies, but within each technological framework there are kinder and less kind options.  Looking through the vast varieties of agricultural societies, one would have far rather been alive in early Tang China or certain long stretches of Roman history, even as a member of the lower classes, than in Early Norman England.

Technology and Nature Constrict our options and set up incentives.

We choose how we respond to the incentives created by technology and nature.

4) Humans are neither innately hierarchical, nor innately egalitarian.  They can be either.  For most of human existence, the best evidence is that we lived in very egalitarian societies.  For most of agricultural history, we lived in non-egalitarian societies, with a few exceptions: but those exceptions existed.

5) Character is created by circumstances, and circumstances constrict what character types are successful but we have a great deal of control over circumstances, especially those who are most powerful.  The men and a very few women who voted to get rid of Jim Crow were almost certainly mostly racist themselves: it was virtually impossible to grow up in that society and time and not be racist.  They voted against their own racism.  You can look at your own character, find it lacking, and act in ways that are contrary to it.  I may want to beat someone to a pulp for an insult and figure I can, yet decide not to do so.  We could have decided to allow developing states to keep their agricultural sectors and food subsidies, we chose not to, for what amount to trivial gains in money which are offset by larger losses in markets in the not very long run (poor people, as has been observed, are shitty customers.)

We Can Act Good Even if Not Good.

We can change the circumstances people grow up, changing the character of the people.

The argument of free will versus pre-determination is ever-ongoing.  To deny the effect of circumstances is to be inhumane: to be the type of fool who blames poor blacks for being poor blacks and not pulling themselves, en-masse, out of poverty thru sheer willpower.  It is to blame Bangladeshis for being born in Bangladesh, stupid people for being born stupid or getting inadequte nutrition as children; many psychotic adults for being sexually assaulted as children.

There are injuries and circumstances which most of us will never rise above.

But to assume predestination is all is to deny any hope of improvement that is not determined by what amounts to blind fate: it is to deny human agency.  It is to say that if we invent a weapon (like effective ground combat robots – about 10 years out) which tilts the playing field towards a small elite oligarchy (or does it?) then there is nothing we can do about it.  It is to say that because monopolies and oligopolies naturally form, there is nothing we can do.  It is to say that we can’t choose to create the circumstances in which racism, neo-imperialism, and sexism don’t harm billions.

If most of us assume predestination, assume, in effect, that we can’t make things better, then it is a self-fulfilling prophecy for those people.

Either we are responsible, or we aren’t.  If we aren’t, then we admit, in effect, the impossibility of any change which wasn’t already predetermined; wasn’t already going to happen.

In some ways that’s a comforting world to live in. It allows us to say “not my problem” and go about our lives–building our McMansion, trying to snag the Homecoming King or Queen as our mate; doting on our children, and ignoring the world beyond the reach of our arms.

The choice, really, belongs to each of us.  As the years go by, more and more I am inclined to shrug.  People complain, but are unwilling to do what it takes to live in a different world, a kinder world.  That might be predestination, that might be choice, but either way it is what it is.

The rule for living in a better world is simple enough, and virtually every sage has told us what it is: to love others as we love ourselves, or at least act like it even if we don’t.

We might start by feeding the hungry, since we throw away far more than enough food to do so, and then go on to house the homeless, since we have more empty homes than homeless people.  But you know, and I know, that we won’t do either of those things.

Predestination?  Choice?  Some of both?

It doesn’t matter to the people who are starving and dying of exposure; it doesn’t matter to the men and women being systematically raped in the Congo; it doesn’t matter to all the children in Iraq being born with birth defects due to American weapons, nor to their despairing parents.

Predestination?  Choice?

Shit either way.

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Doing Well by Doing Good

2014 May 16
by Ian Welsh

A simple formulation of how to create good society is summarized as “doing well, by doing good.”

When someone gets money for doing something, it send a message: do more of this.

This is the fundamental money feedback loop. If  your feedback loop is telling people to do things that are bad, rather than good, the world will get progressively worse.

If you want a better world, you’d best be making sure that the people being told “do more of this” and the people being told “do something new” are being told “do good”.

It’s really that simple (and that complex.)

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Equal Rights to Profit from Impoverishing People and Causing a Great Extinction Event

2014 May 16
by Ian Welsh

The New York Times makes its money making sure that the ideological justifications for whatever the establishment wants to do are in place.

The NYT was a key part of selling the Iraq War.  Their columnists, with only a couple exceptions, are intellectual mediocrities like Ross Douthat, whose job it is to be stupid on cue.  They buried the Bush surveillance story until after the election of 2004 because they were scared that if Americans knew, Kerry might win.  They have buried other stories because the White House or Pentagon or NSA did not want Americans to know.

The firing of Jill Abramson has made it clear that she, a woman, was paid less by the New York Times than a man would have been.

(Her real offense is probably that she was against the continued erosion of the barriers between advertising and editorial.)

Abramson was, to put it simply, not treated fairly, almost certainly because she was a woman.

I do not care.

It is not in my mandate to care if the Duchesses of Hell are treated as well as the Dukes of Hell.

Too many people in the West want only one thing: they want in on the evil gravy train.  They see that there is a scam going on, a scam that impoverishes millions and helps create and maintain rape factories like in the Congo, and their response is “I want in on that gravy train!  Why are women, and African-Americans and the working class and (insert discriminated class here) not on the gravy train too!”

They look at what CEOs make, or the banker bailouts, and they want the money; they want their own bailouts.

But what they don’t want to do is drain the swamp.  They don’t want to change the way the world works so that having an iPhone doesn’t mean men and women in the Congo are being raped and murdered in a systematic fashion.  In the Congo they will take their rape victims, bend them over and have every man in a military unit rape them.  The blood flows like water.

A choice was made in the late 70s to 1980, not to drain the swamp. In fact, the choice was made then to increase evil and poverty in the world an the only reason one can say that it has decreased is China, who didn’t go along with the IMF/World Bank prescription.

This was a choice: as problematic as Carter was (and he was very) he suggested a different way: Americans resoundingly rejected it.  The Brits elected Thatcher.

These acts of greed and selfishness; these acts of “I’ve got mine, fuck you Jack” had consequences.

Institutions like the New York Times exist to control the acceptable range of political and social discourse: they are ideological bodies who help ensure change occurs largely within the spectrum amenable to current elites.  That is their job, and they are very very good at it.

If you are a member of these institutions and you do not do your job, you are gone.  The problem with Abramson isn’t about pay, it’s that she wanted to try and keep editorial and advertising separate.  I’m sure that being an “uppity” woman helped get her fired, to be sure, but it was the small bit of good she wanted to (or evil she wanted to prevent) that the publisher hated, that is far more problematic.

After the Iraq war invasion, the mainstream pundits who were against the war were fired, let go, or demoted.  The ones who were for it (and who objectively were wrong about in terms of its success and costs) were promoted.

The system is designed to do something, and it does it.  Those who do not play are gotten rid of.

Abramson mostly played, she’s no martyr.  Even with what remains of the siloing, the NYTimes was still doing plenty of evil.

But even the royalty of Hell sometimes have twisted notions of honor.

If what people want is equal rights to profit from  a system which is profoundly evil, and whose function is to enrich a few people by impoverishing many many more while maintaining rape colonies, I’m out.  I’m not fighting for fairness in the neo-Imperialism business.  “The best people at maintaining our project of impoverishing people and screwing up the world, causing a great extinction event, should be chosen objectively, without regards to ethnicity, gender, age or sexual  preference” is not a hill I’m dying on.

Rivers of blood from the victims, dead and alive, have priority and all I want for the class of senior retainers whom Abramson is one of, and the oligarchical class whom she worked for, and who treated her unfairly (only half a million), is for them to have all their power and all the money and influence that buys them that power, taken from them.

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And the Ukraine Sanctions heat up

2014 May 14
by Ian Welsh

Russia supplies the engines used to boost to the International Space Station: and will now stop doing so unless the US agrees to not use them on military rockets.  NASA hopes to restore service to the ISS by 2017.  The Russians note, sardonically, that they will still be able to use the ISS, but the US won’t.

Russia wants GPS sites in the US, and if the US doesn’t agree, they will shut down GPS sites in Russia.

And, most interestingly, the Russians are moving ahead on replacements to Visa and Mastercard, whom they do not trust not to cut them off at DCs behest (I think the Wikileaks cut-off was the warning that the credit card companies were instruments of US policy.)  This is the first step to creating their own domestic payments system.  China has a national payments system, and were they to link up with the Russian one and export that to other countries, there could finally be a real alternative to the SWIFT system controlled by the West.

Russia will be hurt worst in any sanctions tiff, of course, but this isn’t cost free for the US and West, even in the short term, and in the long term it teaches the rest of the world that they can’t use Western systems and must have their own alternatives.  That reduces Western profits and power faster than it would have been reduced otherwise.

And, over the Ukraine?  This is worth it?

That said, every since Visa, Mastercard and Paypal misused their power in the Wikileaks case, I have been itching to see them taken down, so I consider this a good thing.  The US and the West have terribly abused their power over the payments system (ask the Iranians about that) and it’s time for that power to be taken away.

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What Confucius Teaches Those Who Want a Better World

2014 May 12
by Ian Welsh

Statue of Confucius from Rizal Park in ManilaIn the pantheon of political philosophers, by influence, Confucius is of the first rank: the most important political philosopher in China, arguably the most important chunk of the world for the majority of the last 2,500 years.  After a time of persecution by Mao and the Communist party, his influence rises again, as the East seeks a different model than the West to sanctify non-democratic rule.

It is easy to look at Confucius, as at many other ancient philosophers and judge them entirely on our own beliefs.  With Confucius, this means we look at how Confucius ignored all relations with women except marriage and motherhood, and how his indifference was used to justify stripping women of rights in most heavily Confucian societies.  This is, to be sure, a real flaw: a philosophy which reduces the rights of half the human population can never be truly just or kind.

But it is also important to look at Confucius in the context of the times.  The Confucian relationships were all hierarchical relationships: father to son; husband to wife; older brother to younger brother; lord to subject, and so on, but they were also all based on kindness and care: the lower ranked individual owed the senior ranked individual obedience, but the senior ranked owed the lower ranked one kindness and care.

If a king failed in this duty to care for those who owed him loyalty, Confucius argued that he was not, actually, a King.  Rectification of terms meant that you couldn’t call someone who ruled without care a king: such a man was a tyrant, and your duty to him was not loyalty, it was rebellion.  If a son did not act as a son should to his father, Confucius believed the fault lay as much, or more, with the father: after all, the father had raised the son, who else could have failed to inculcate loyalty, probably through lack of care?

You can see why Confucius hardly ever held office during his own lifetime: why the Princes of his age did not wish to employ him.  He died convinced his way, his Dao, had failed.  Mencius, the next great Confucian philosopher was even less successful in his lifetime.

Confucius also believed, deeply, in ritual and music as means of ethical and moral improvement.  For Confucius proper behavior came from proper emotion; proper sentiment.  You spent three years in mourning for your parents because you were genuinely sad and bereft.  Why eat good food, or wear fine clothes, when such things were as ashes to you in your grief?

Rituals work.  They are relatively reliable ways of inculcating emotion, and attaching emotion to symbols.  Once you have spent enough time going through Christian rituals, Christ on the Cross has powerful meaning to you, meaning you can bring up any time, just by thinking on the cross.  If you are determined enough, and meditate enough, you can manifest the marks of the crucifixion, so powerful can the symbol become.

Spend enough time in particular rituals, and they change who you are.

We moderns often think of rituals as empty, meaningless: but done right, with belief and intensity, ideally at first with other humans, with synchronized movements and they are extraordinarily powerful.  Modern rituals such as our great concerts are still very powerful.  Rituals involving the nation state have also evoked great belief: many, many men have died for their nation believing it was a good thing to do, along with the nonbelievers.

Any system must be run by men and women.  Some will have more power, others less, all are participants.  When they come not to believe in the system, when they no longer believe in free speech, or privacy, or equality, or justice, the society will cease to display those categories.

This isn’t just about institutions: it is about people, and what sort of people are produced and selected and promoted by a society.

Confucius wanted harmony, and he wanted benevolence. He saw a hierarchical state as natural and necessary, and asked “how do we make this state good for everyone?”  And he did mean everyone.  When one of his students was involved in raising taxes on peasants who could not afford it, he was so distressed he cast him out and metaphorically told his other students to beat him.

So… obedience to those above, benevolence to those below, and if the benevolence fails: revolt.  If the obedience fails, en-masse, however, Confucius did not blame those below, he blamed those above: they must not have the ethical characters which deserves obedience.

Ritual and music (which also inculcates emotion, as we all know) was meant to create the people who could create this society.

Did it work on those occasions it was put into practice?

In some places, for some times, I think so: or better than the alternatives, like Legalism, which was incredibly harsh.  All things created by mortals fail, and even those that are successful are successful in cycles.  But Confucius had the horns of the dilemma firmly in his hands, and he gave answers which answered important questions.  Billions through history felt his answers were good ones.  Often, as with all political philosophers, his ideas were twisted to tyranny, but yet, he had asked correct questions, and he had given answers meant to actually answer them.

What sort of society is best for those who live in it?

How do we create the people who can make that society work?

What do we do when those who rise to power are not suited for it and how do we know when they are not suited to it?

Confucius died, bitter, but his questions and answers helped create the greatest most prosperous civilization for most of the last 2,500 years.  And while we might not accept his answers exactly as he gave them, they still have merit, and his questions still stand as a guide to those who would try to create the ideas which will create a better society for those who live in it.

Oh, and all philosophies age. It is the duty of the philosophers who come after a great philosopher to fix his or her errors.  Confucius erred in his treatment of women; it is for modern Confucians to correct the master so their philosophy may continue to promote benevolence.

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Human Nature for Ideology

2014 May 7
by Ian Welsh

All ideologies, including all economic ideologies like the modern discipline of economics, are theories of human nature in drag. If you believe that humans are innately selfish and greedy, for example, you will believe that monetary incentives are the best way to allocate resources and permission to do things in an economy.  If you want more of something, you’ll arrange for people who do it to have more money.

If you believe that greed leads to the best outcomes: that the invisible hand takes selfishness and turns it into public good, then  you will argue that most of what people do because of greed is good, and should not be disallowed, but, indeed, encouraged.

To a remarkable extent, this is how we run out economic affairs, and it is not an ideology that most of humanity, for most of history, would have agreed with: even if they thought that humans were greedy and selfish, they would have thought that greed and selfishness should be restrained, not rewarded.

Human nature is tricky to discuss because the specifics of human nature are remarkably twisty.  All humans don’t want almost anything: to live, to procreate, to be rich, to be admired, even to be safe.  Whatever you think all humans want, all humans don’t.

You can fall back on “the vast majority of humans”, and use the standard trick of economics “as if”—humans aren’t all greedy, but you can act as if they are and your models will work.

But they won’t.  Humans aren’t rational, they aren’t utility seekers except in the most metaphysical of terms (because nobody can give a definition of utility which applies to everyone except “whatever people do/revealed preferences”, which isn’t a definition.)

Humans have a biology: we have bodies that are much alike, brains that are much alike, and if we wish to continue living, some needs that are much alike (food, water and internal homeostasis.)

But humans are less defined by their biology than any other animal I am aware of: we have culture, and our culture adapts and changes far faster than our biology does.

So, if you’re creating an ideology, you’ve got a problem: humans are so plastic that anything you say about them will be wrong for some of them.

The solution, first, is to make this part of your definition of human nature.

Most humans are malleable.  Change the circumstances people live in; change the way they are raised; changed their education; change their technology; change the means of production and what people believe and how they act will change.  We become what we do and what we believe: we interpret everyday activity through a lens of belief, language and ideology.

Humans are neither good nor bad; ethical nor unethical; moral nor immoral.  They are, instead easily led.  Peer groups and authority figures can get humans to do almost anything: rape, mass-murder, torture.  Feed the hungry, heal the wounded; work together to build great projects no small group could even conceive of.

Humans have drives.  Humans want to eat, to have sex, to belong, to feel safe, to be respected, to have meaning in their lives, and so on.  But there are many many different ways to feed oneself, feel safe, get sex and be respected.  The Maslovian hierarchy is a good guide to people’s drives.  But—

Not everyone has the same drives to the same extent.  Some will starve or die for honor.  Others will die rather than kill.  Some will dedicate their lives to saving other humans or even non-humans.  The Maslovian hierarchy is not a hierarchy for individuals, only for large numbers of people.  People will go without food to self-actualize, for example, as the many ascetic traditions of the world should attest.

A few people are rigid.  There are some people who you can’t get to torture, no matter what.  There are some people who will never kill; and so on.  There are people whose moral codes are so strong they cannot be coerced into breaking them.  Even those people are products of their culture, but once set, they are stone.

Kindness is as innate as cruelty.  Empathy is a function of the brain.  When we say “I feel your pain”, we are talking literally, as mirror neurons dance the same dance as the person suffering.  Humans have died trying to save drowning animals, other humans they don’t know, and so on.  We see someone suffering, and if we’re neurotypical, that suffering hurts us.

Cruelty is innate, too.  Some people really get off on cruelty, on hurting other people.  As with the rigid moralists, there is a core of people who are like this pretty much no matter what, but in most people it is a question of circumstance and conditioning: treat someone cruelly and they will become cruel.  Virtually every abuser was abused.  Those to whom evil is done, do it to someone else entirely.

Humans are band based: we are wired to live in bands of about 150 people.  Those people are the people we are likely to treat well, whose concerns concern us.  While we may be kind to those outside the band, we are far more likely not to be, and the first job of any leader who wants war and cruelty to the outsider is to convince the band “they aren’t like us.”

We can expand the band: Ideology of various types can expand the band.  All Christians are brothers, all members of the same nation; all sports fans of the same team, all people who believe in Democracy, Human Rights, or Communism.  Everyone who has the same totem animal.  We expand the bonds of the band outwards: “this person is like me and deserves my help and sympathy”.

Humans are malleable, twisty, and strange; wildly adaptable and able to believe almost anything.  That malleability has often been a matter of despair, and we have lamented how easy it is for leaders to take us to war and to convince us to commit atrocities.

But it is also a matter for hope: we can change, and just as cruelty begets cruelty, so kindness begets kindness.  Both are self-reinforcing cycles, and it that lies hope.  As easy as it is to lead most us to evil, so too most of us can come to do good.  Expand the band, create a universalist ideology which rests in kindness and an allowance for multiple paths to the same end, and human nature can as easily work for us as against us.

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Guerrilla Warfare: The Way of the Weak

2014 May 5
by Ian Welsh


Kurdish Female Soldier

“War is nothing but a continuation of politics with the admixture of other means.”
Clausewitz, On War

The first and most fundamental principle of warfare is to know what your goal is. This applies to any type of war, anywhere, at any time, no matter what tactic is used.

Last year (this is a reprint, but one most readers probably haven’t read)  I was one of the first people to predict that Israel would lose to Hezbollah—because Israel’s stated goal was to destroy Hezbollah as an organization. Given that during a nearly two decade occupation Israel had been unable to destroy Hezbollah it was laughably obvious that Israel wasn’t going to succeed this time. (It turned out that the magnitude of their loss was greater than I expected.)

In the Iraq War the US has a similar problem: the goals that were achievable have been achieved (overthrowing Saddam).  But the goals that remain are unclear:  creating a democracy friendly to the US, establishing permanent bases, making sure western companies have the oil contracts; and these remaining goals are probably not possible to acheive with the amount of military force and spending the US is willing to allocate. Therefore, it has been clear for a long time (since before the invasion) that the US would not “win” the occupation in any real sense of the word. Indeed, at this point, the US is reduced to praying it can leave and not have the country crack up in a hot civil war. That goal might be achievable.

So it is with guerrillas. Guerrillas have to know what they can do, what they can’t do, and what they want to do. The primary virtue of guerrillas is that it is hard to wipe them out. The primary weakness of guerrillas is that they aren’t all that good at straight up fighting; as a rule, a competent regular army will routinely hand out loss after loss to guerrillas; guerrillas have to be content with picking off isolated units, with causing pinprick damage like bombs and snipers, and with disrupting weakly defended supply and rear units. But in straight up firefights, with very rare exceptions, it’s usually pretty unpleasant to be a guerrilla.1

We can take Clausewitz a step further. War is less the continuation of politics than the failure of politics. Nations and people engage in war when they feel they can get something they want more easily or advantageously with force than through other means.

If people feel that the occupation of their country won’t end peacefully, then war is inevitable. If certain groups wish to impose their religion and know that it will not be allowed, then war is a route to their goal. If people want law and order and occupation forces are unable to provide it,  then a new government is necessary—and if one cannot be obtained through peaceful means then it may be obtained through violent ones.

The failure of politics leads to war: the failure to provide law and order, the failure to rebuild infrastructure, the failure to provide belief in a promising future, the failure to align the interests of the occupation with the interests of the population. All of this sets up the preconditions for guerrilla warfare and rebellion.

Guerrillas in Iraq, for example, were fighting for when the US leaves. This was clear in the pattern of attacks, which throughout the war have been much heavier on opposing Iraqi groups and Iraqi “government” forces than they have been on Coalition forces. Enough pressure has to be kept on the US to make the US leave, but the guerrillas know they cannot defeat the US in conventional terms. They can only cause more attrition than the US is politically capable of handling. So the goals of the various Iraqi armed groups might be said to be “To convince the US to leave by making the cost of staying too high, and to be in a good position to fight for or negotiate for their place in Iraq after the US has left.”

In Palestine—another guerrilla war, for all that it is not called that—the goals of the two sides are as follows: for Israel, to crush the Palestinian resistance while establishing facts on the ground which will allow them to impose the most favorable settlement in a two-state solution possible; for the Palestinians, to not let the Israelis win.

Note that the Palestinian goal isn’t really to establish a Palestinian state. The Palestinians will take one if they can get a viable one, but they aren’t in a position to really pursue it. The goal is to not lose to the Israelis. (This is one reason why Arafat walked away from Clinton’s talks.) The Israelis have been occupying Palestine for decades now. They can clearly hang on for a long time. They aren’t going to be “forced” out; the Palestinians don’t have what it takes and the Israelis have a high tolerance for low level attrition losses.

The Palestine and Israel situation points out something important about the nature of guerrilla warfare: guerrilla warfare is the strategy of the weak vs. the powerful. Palestinian losses and Iraqi insurgency losses are much higher respectively than those of the occupying forces. They always have been. The guerrilla’s equipment is not as good. The guerrillas, in most cases, are not as well trained. They aren’t nearly as well organized. They are just not as good at fighting and killing. In fact, the superiority of the coalition over the Iraqi insurgency, or of the Israelis over the Palestinians, is so striking that one wonders how it is that neither can actually really defeat their enemies.

Let’s move to that next, with a quote from the greatest guerrilla leader of the 20th century , Mao Tse Tung:

“Many people think it impossible for guerrillas to exist for long in the enemy’s rear. Such a belief reveals lack of comprehension of the relationship that should exist between the people and the troops. The former may be likened to water the latter to the fish who inhabit it. How may it be said that these two cannot exist together? It is only undisciplined troops who make the people their enemies and who, like the fish out of its native element cannot live.”
– Mao Tse Tung, On Guerrilla Warfare

The relationship between locals and guerrilla troops is the most important point in Mao’s entire essay, and indeed the most important thing you need to know about guerrilla warfare, occupations, terrorism and insurgency. If the movement has the support of the population, they cannot be destroyed. Period. No matter how many you manage to kill, there will always be more. Now support doesn’t mean answering affirmatively to “do you prefer the guerrilla movement” in a poll, it means practical support: are locals willing to feed guerrrillas, hide them, and act as their ears and eyes? The general estimate is that if a guerrilla movement has between 10% to 20% of the population of an area behind it, until you can break that support of the population for the guerrillas, any victories over them will be purely temporary.2

This doesn’t mean national support.  For example, if 20% of the population of California supported a violent succession movement, that would be sufficient to allow it to operate relatively successfully. For much of the occupation Iraqi, Shia have mostly not been shooting at Americans, but Iraqi Sunnis have supported more than enough insurgents to keep entire provinces in anarchy.

Let’s examine what having support means. If you’re a guerrilla leader, you must do everything possible to build the support of the population. In Iraq this has meant that such law as is provided is often provided by various militias: if someone rapes your sister, steals your car, or murders your son, you go to militias for help, and they help you. Sadr helped put some power back on line for Sadr city. But more than positive things, what it means is making sure that the enemy does horrible things to the population,  but not too horrible. The killing of the mercenaries in Fallujah, for example, was a classic guerrilla move, carefully staged (including the pictures, which are clearly stage managed) to cause an American overreaction. That overreaction occurred, Fallujah was eventually effectively destroyed, and horrible atrocities occurred. Sunnis then learned to hate Americans even more. On a lesser scale, every time an American soldier frags some old man at a stoplight, every time a girl is raped, every time there is “collateral” damage that takes out a wedding, all of these are grist for the guerrilla propaganda mill. Mao is relentless in his writing that one of the major jobs of guerrillas is propaganda, and that every large guerrilla unit (bearing in mind this was in the early 20th century) should have its own press.

It should go without saying, but apparently doesn’t, that if you don’t want to arouse more hatred, then doing things like torturing people, sweeping up large numbers of people who aren’t associated with the insurgency, and locking them up in a prison associated with torture from the old regime is working against your own goals: the equivalent of handing the guerrillas supporters on a silver platter. Any atrocity that is not sufficiently large to make a specific person think “there’s a good chance this will happen to me” isn’t just immoral, it’s stupid. It is aiding and abetting the enemy.

As an army fighting an anti-insurgency campaign there are two routes to take to deal with the population’s support for a guerrilla movement. You can try and win the population over largely with honey, or you can make the population so scared and powerless that they won’t, or can’t, support the guerrillas The second method is a heck of a lot easier, though the first method has been used successfully, most notably in the Malaysian Emergency.

Let’s talk about the easy way first. Scare and weaken the population into no longer supporting the insurgency. The primary method here is mass killing, and removal of the population to camps. If a city (like Fallujah) is a problem, you destroy it entirely, and you kill everyone in it, or at least every fighting-age male. This is one reason why US marines would not allow men out of Fallujah in the run up to the final assault. Do this often enough, and people get the message that supporting the insurgency is a really bad idea. And if you’re willing to kill hundreds of thousands or millions of civilians,  you’re bound to get a lot of the right people, along with a lot of the wrong people. Immoral? Of course, but it does work. Take other towns and cities which are troublesome but not quite so bad, and move their populations to camps. This allows you to control the population in such a way that they can’t support guerrillas.3 Both of these methods were used by the US in the Philippines on a large scale. They worked. Wiping out a huge chunk of the population also worked for Russia against Chechnya, notable for inspiring enough hatred to spawn female suicide bombers, who were mostly avenging male relatives or lovers tortured to death by the Russians; and for Turkey against their own Kurds, a campaign notable for wiping out entire villages, killing the men and raping the women. The camp strategy is currently being used by India against some of its indigenous guerrilla movements. A sufficiently ruthless commander could win the Iraq occupation in a few years, if given the green-light to commit massive atrocities and kill a few million Iraqis.

The ruthless strategy doesn’t work when you don’t have the stomach or moral imbecility for it (e.g., the US in Iraq), or when you don’t have the means to wipe out enough population (e.g., the Japanese in China). It also has the effect of wrecking the economy of the nation you do it to, which can be a negative, but doesn’t have to be. If you’re conquering a nation for its natural resources, you really only need enough natives to extract them, after all. And if there’s no other economy but your plantations, mines and oil fields, then that just means the workers are cheaper.

The “kill them with kindness strategy” is harder to pull off. It requires more men on the ground, and those men have to have fire discipline. The attitude of US troops that they’d rather make a mistake and blow away an Iraqi family is the exact antithesis of the sort of fire discipline required not to alienate the population. You must be willing to take some losses you wouldn’t otherwise take in order not to hand propaganda coups to the guerrillas

You need more men on the ground because you must protect the population from the guerrillas. If you aren’t committing enough atrocities, then the guerrillas will either try and taunt you into doing so, or they’ll commit them for you; this is the method behind the apparent madness of car bombs and suicide vests. The guerrilla in this case is saying, “If you ever want peace and order, if you ever want to feel safe, you will have to let me rule because the enemy can’t stop me. The only group that can stop the killing is us, because we’re doing it, and the occupiers are too weak or incompetent to stop us.”

In a sense this guerilla strategy is the mirror of the ruthless strategy. In the ruthless strategy the anti-insurgency force says, “We’ll keep killing, torturing and raping you in gross quantities till you stop supporting the insurgency.” when guerrillas do the same thing, it’s a retail version. (Although, as Iraq has demonstrated, the numbers can approach gross lots much faster than one would think. B52s aren’t needed to kill large numbers, they just make it easier.)

Safety is job one. If there is no safety in a country, the people will support whoever they think can provide it.

Job two is prosperity. The hard way requires that you flood the country with money, jobs and prosperity. Important people (tribal leaders, Imans, village headman, etc) should be getting rich. Ordinary people should have jobs. Farmers should find that crop prices are up (support them if necessary, for God’s sake). They should recognize that they are better off under you than they could ever be under the guerrillas

The goal of reducing support for the guerrillas isn’t just about aid, it’s about informants. To break an insurgency you absolutely must have informants. You need people telling who are the leaders of the cells, warning you of attacks, etc. And you must be able to protect your informants. Every time I read that in Afghanistan some villagers who had accepted NATO help, or who were friendly with NATO, or who taught girls, have just been killed by the Taliban, I wince.

Job one in the friendly way is protecting your people—not your troops, who are expendable, but your allies, especially local influentials in the population. It’s important to get this through one’s head: a soldier’s life is not worth more than a the life of a friendly local in an anti-insurgency campaign. Not if you want to win.

Create prosperity, maintain law and order. Recruit informants. Protect your allies.

So much for the strategy of an insurgency, pro or con. Let’s talk about the operational and tactical details, the stuff that determines whether Petraeus’s plan can work even in the short term, as just one example.

In general, guerrilla units disperse to operate: When the enemy is in over-extended defense, and sufficient force cannot be concentrated against him, guerrillas must disperse, harass him, and demoralize him.

When encircled by the enemy, guerrillas disperse to withdraw.

When the nature of the ground limits action, guerrillas disperse.

When the availability of supplies limits action, they disperse. Guerrillas disperse in order to promote mass movements over a wide area.
– Mao Tse Tung, On Guerrilla Warfare

When Petraeus flooded Baghdad with troops, what did the enemy do? They dispersed much of their force into the provinces. Dispersal operates at the highest geographic level like that, and at the smallest level. Let’s say you’re operating in urban environments and you encircle a group. They drop their weapons and disperse amongst the population. How are you going to capture or kill them unless people are either willing to point them out to you or you are willing to simply kill everyone? (Or every male, as the Marines did in Fallujah.)

Let’s say a guerrilla unit wants to move from city A to city B? Do they travel as a convoy? No, each man travels by himself, without weapons, in civilian garb, and once he reaches the city they regroup and are rearmed by local cells or just by the local black market. You can slow this process down by the sort of methods the Israelis use, of dividing the country into cantons and restricting movement between them, but you can’t stop it entirely (and remember that the Israeli occupied territories are tiny compared to Iraq).

Let’s say there are no good targets. You simply don’t fight. But unless your enemy has enough forces to garrison every part of the country in such numbers that you can’t defeat any group in detail, you control all parts of the country where the enemy is not and the population supports you.

What happens if the the anti-insurgency forces break up into smaller groups to pursue the guerrilla forces which have likewise broken up? Or what happens if you start putting small units in every little neighborhood, to provide law and safety. Sun Tzu and Mao tell us…

If we are concentrated while the enemy is fragmented. If we are concentrated into a single force while he is fragmented into ten, then we attack him with ten times his strength. Thus we are many and the enemy is few. If we attack his few with our many those who we engage in battle will be severely constrained.
– Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Guerrillas concentrate when the enemy is advancing upon them, and there is opportunity to fall upon him and destroy him. Concentration may be desirable when the enemy is on the defensive and guerrillas wish to destroy isolated detachments in particular localities. By the term ‘concentrate’, we do not mean the assembly of all manpower but rather of only that necessary for the task. The remaining guerrillas are assigned missions of hindering and delaying the enemy, of destroys isolated groups, or of conducting mass propaganda.
– Mao Tse Tung, On Guerrilla Warfare

So if the occupiers divide their forces up, the guerrillas concentrate and attack in overwhelming force. Because guerrillas can move like fish in the ocean, which is to say, they can usually concentrate at the site of the attack without the defenders knowing because they don’t move as obvious formations of enemy troops, they will in almost every case have tactical surprise. It is a testament to US military superiority (and air and artillery) that despite multiple attempts to overrun various smaller US bases, the US has held on to them. But it is always a risk, because you can never tell when an attack is going to happen and the enemy knows when you concentrate (they can hardly miss it, with the population as their eyes and ears) but you can’t tell when guerrillas will concentrate and attack.

In addition to the dispersion and concentration of forces, the leader must understand what is termed ‘alert shifting’. When the enemy feels the danger of guerrillas, he will generally send troops out to attack them. The guerrillas must consider the situation and decide at what time and at what place they wish to fight. If they find that they cannot fight, they must immediately shift. Then the enemy may be destroyed piecemeal. For example; after a guerrilla group has destroyed an enemy detachment at one place, it may be shifted to another area to attack and destroy a second detachment. Sometimes, it will not be profitable for a unit to become engaged in a certain area, and in that case, it must move immediately.
– Mao Tse Tung, On Guerrilla Warfare

Again, if a strong force is attacking, disperse, find a weaker force, and re-concentrate to attack it.

Let’s wrap this up, letting Sun Tzu, who wrote the first known treatise on military strategy, start us along the path:

Being unconquerable lies with yourself, being conquerable lies with the enemy. Thus one who excels in warfare is able to make himself unconquerable, but cannot necessarily cause the enemy to be conquerable.
—Sun Tzu, On War

Guerrilla warfare is the strategy of the weak faced with the strong. It is also the warfare of an oppressed population against those who oppress them. These points can’t be stressed enough. Although a guerrilla movement needs nowhere near the support of a majority of the population, it can’t survive without substantial, popular support. The Taliban have many followers. So does the Sunni insurgency. So does Hamas. So did Hezbollah when they were fighting a guerrilla war.

Whenever you are fighting a guerrilla movement of any power, you are also, effectively, at war with part of the population. On top of the strategic and tactical implications already discussed, this has moral implications that should be carefully thought through, and even more carefully as the percentage of support creeps up and past 50%, as it does in many cases. Does the will of the people matter? Do you have the moral right to force them to accept what you think is best?

This is the case even of movements at less than 50%. Perhaps the majority of the population doesn’t support the guerillas, and thus you have a moral mandate to fight them, but why is it that a significant minority is so angry they are willing to support this level of violence? If you don’t understand that “why”, not only will you have a hard time defeating them but the phrase “tyranny of the majority” could have real resonance. Of course, the minority could be supporting the guerrillas because the guerillas have terrorized them into support, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they like you, either.

Guerrilla warfare is what the weak do when the strong have defeated them. It’s the moment when they say, “No, this isn’t over till I say it is.” At that point, you have a choice of putting the boots to their ribs untill they submit to occupation, or you can try and convince them that fighting you isn’t the best path to the peace, prosperity, dignity and self determination that all people want.

Or you can walk away, and let them rule themselves.4

War is indeed politics with an admixture of other means. Understanding those means, what their limitations are, what is required to use them and win, and the moral choices they will force on you, should be required of anyone who is in a position to commit a country or a people to war. Once let loose, the dogs of war often slip the leash of he who thought to control them.


Originally Published at BOPNews in slightly different form, back in 2004. Has been published in the Agonist and FDL at other points.  One of my personal favorite articles I’ve written.

The picture at the top is of a female Kurdish soldier, almost certainly a guerilla, though I can’t say for sure. It is from this Kurdish gallery archive site, which is more than worth your time to visit.


1. Important aside: Hezbollah’s troops, while trained to operate as guerrillas, are regular soldiers. As one military analyst quipped to me “what do you call light infantry trained to operate as guerrillas? Special forces”. Israel smashed its face in against a heavily fortified special forces army. Puts it in a new light, doesn’t it?

2. In the Revolutionary war one estimate is that the rebels had about a third of the population, the Tories about a third, and about a third just wanted all the guys with guns to go away. Note that the rebels did manage to field a conventional army, with the strong support of France. It is generally a good sign for an insurgency if it can support a regular army alongside the guerrilla resistance, again, because guerrillas can only win by wars of attrition “to hell with it, it’s not worth it”, not through battlefield success. A regular army is not so limited.

3. Protecting the population may sometimes require setting up camps or fortifying existing villages. Because camps are used in the ruthless method as well, and because the ruthless method is used more often, they’re generally considered bad things. But they are usually part of the kinder anti-insurgency strategy as well, especially in rural areas.

4. The full text of Mao’s “On Guerrilla Warfare” can be found here. The section with most of the more generic advice (not particular to the Chinese/Japanese war) can be found here.

5. This isn’t always easy. For example, in Northern Ireland, the Brits would have loved to walk away. Problem was – the majority of the population wanted them to stay. Ouch.

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Comparative Military Dominance and the End of American Hegemony

2014 May 4
by Ian Welsh

It’s said, too often, that the US military is the most powerful the world has ever seen. To be sure, that’s true in the sense of sheer destructive power, but it’s not true in terms of relative dominance.

The most dominant army in history, compared to its peer competitors, in my opinion, was the Mongols.  (The Germans studied Mongol campaigns when they created blitzkrieg doctrine.)

The Mongols did not lose a war until they ran up against the Mamlukes, who defeated them by copying them, with a horse archer army of their own.  Mongol armies moved faster than WWII tank armies, coordinated multiple armies across hundreds of miles, arriving at the same time at pre-chosen points.  Their tactics in battle tended to inflict disproportionate casualties.

A large part of Mongol dominance was genius-level leadership.  I can’t think of any major historical figure who was better at picking subordinates than Genghis Khan: not only was he never betrayed by any of his generals, his administrators were brilliant, and his generals were almost all, themselves, great generals.

More than that, the Mongols did not rely on battlefield supremacy alone.  Genghis Khan used traders as spies, and before he invaded anyone, he knew who within that country was unhappy and ready to rebel as well as who the enemies of that nation were.  Any internal or external weaknesses were exploited.  After cities were captured, if they had resisted, he rounded up the men and used them as the first wave in the next city assault.  His genocidal activities were terrible (though a reading of the actions of many of his foes shows him no worse than them, just more effective), but they were militarily sound: he did not leave large, hostile, unpacified populations in his rear.

The Mongols also often brought enemy military units into their own ranks, reorganized them, and retained their loyalty.  Mongol armies, even in Genghis Khan’s time, were made up more of non-Mongols than Mongols.  Even so, the Mongols won battles against fores who outnumbered them regularly: they were not a horde at the beginning, but were fighting more populous countries with larger armies.

The key weakness of the Mongols was, in fact, Genghis Khan.  His particular genius at choosing brilliant subordinates and earning their loyalty was not shared by any of his heirs.  When the last general Genghis picked himself, Subotai, dies, there are no more great Mongol generals.

Nonetheless, the Mongol successor states wound up controlling the largest chunk of the world before the British Empire, and unlike the British, conquered the core civilized parts of the world: China, Persia; indeed, virtually all of continental Asia.  Europe was only saved by the death of the Genghis Khan’s heir (I remain unconvinced by arguments that the fragmented, easily played against each other, backwards Europeans would have been able to stop Subotai short of the Channel.)

Note further that the Mongols were able to rule those they conquered.  They were able to create law and order; to put down rebellions, and so on.

The US army is a blunt instrument, incapable of winning what its masters want it to win (Iraq, Afghanistan); and it hasn’t been tested in main battle against a peer foe in a long time (China/Russians/Europeans). Theoretical overwhelming power is all very nice, but lets see how that fleet with its big, clumsy, exposed aircraft carriers (for example) does against someone like China who has been specifically gearing to destroy it, rather than against tribesmen or 3rd rate powers (Saddam’s Iraq) which had no means of fighting it.

A military must be judged by what it can do.  The American military can destroy countries, it can blitz countries, but it can’t hold them.  Dominant?  Sure.  Most dominant in history?  No.  And we’ll see what happens to its dominance when it is really tested.

Osama bin Laden had a thesis: his theory was that the Americans could be defeated if they could be convinced to occupy a Muslim country where they could actually be fought.  He was right.

Which General or Military Theorist today will turn out to have had the theory that the US military can be defeated in conventional non-occupation war, who is right?  Is it a Chinese theorist?

We’ll find out.  All periods of military dominance end.  The Mongols did, the British did, the Romans did, the Greeks did, and so on.  The question is just when, and how.

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Does Russia invade the Ukraine?

2014 May 4
by Ian Welsh

It really comes down to the balance between these two factors:

For every advance that the Ukrainian government made, it seemed to lose ground elsewhere. Angry pro-Russian crowds seized control of more government buildings in Donetsk, and pro-Russian forces in Luhansk, a city just 15 miles from the Russian frontier, vowed war on Kiev, declaring a curfew and seizing weapons inside a military recruitment center.

Which is to say, does Russia need to intervene or can the rebels, its proxies, win without it?  The massacre of pro-Russian protesters in Odessa has likely hardened the lines: I’m betting that more and more of those who wanted to stay in the Ukraine but a federalist Ukraine, will want to just join Russia.

Meanwhile, the US and Germany have promised energy sanctions on Russia if Russia does invade.  If real, those will throw Europe back into a full blown economic crisis, but US commercial interests desperately want those sanctions, even if they don’t have the ability to fill European natural gas demand right now.  Not only is a future market, but the fracking boom requires higher natural gas prices than they have right now to make much of it profitable.

If Putin is to invade, it seems more likely he’ll invade before the election, though, of course, with fighting spreading across Ukraine, he could simply say that no fair, representative election was possible. Still, for him, before seems better.

And as the deaths mount, Putin can simply claim that he is acting on a responsibility-to-protect (R2P) those who are being killed by Ukrainian military and pro-Ukrainian mobs.  R2P is a Western doctrine, used to justify Western invasions; it must amuse Putin to no end to throw it back in the West’s face, not that the West has the grace to blush at its own hypocrisy, or even notice its own hypocrisy.

What’s happening in Ukraine is vastly important.  It will determine the shape of the blocs facing each other down during the end of America hegemony, and as it is playing out now, it ensures that China will have Russia’s support and likely moves up the timeline for creating an alternate, non-dollar payments system.  I expect future historians will scratch their heads in the same we do when looking back at the Kaiser’s mistakes isolating Germany in the run-up to World War I.

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Moving this week, so posting will be light

2014 April 28
by Ian Welsh

I’ve been at this place for years, and the new place is smaller, so I expect it to be an extra fun move.