22 March 2009

Counterinsurgency, Leadership and Sideburns

Not much is happening in the news, apparently. I think the event that's drawing the biggest headlines is Chris Brown and Rihanna. If you haven't been paying attention to that, you can catch up on the highlights on Sock Puppet Theatre.

One article from Small Wars Journal did catch my eye. It's written by Major Michael Few, an armour officer who has served in Iraq, and it discusses the art of conflict resolution in counter-insurgency warfare, taking a bit of psychology and applying it to counter-insurgency.

Many of us have heard the horror stories coming out of third world countries of shooting wars which start over arguments which seem, to us, as backwards as those from the days of the Hatfields and the McCoys. In areas in the former Yugoslavia, ethnic strife arose from stories of battles ranging back over a thousand years. Peter Bergen reports that, in the mid 1990s, two Afghan warlords engaged in a tank battle which arose over which warlord was going to have the exclusive rights to a pre-teenage boy. Yeah, I'm alluding to the fact that these guys were both members of MEMBLA.

Major Few writes a great article, but I need to focus on one line in particular, as it's not only useful for counter-insurgency warfare, but it's also useful for leadership, since leadership with aviators can sometimes require the same tactics as counter-insurgency.

Major Few notes that the more a power attempts to control the population, the more they will find themselves losing control. Which, of course, to anyone studying a classic rebellion against an empire scenario, this is incredibly obvious. There was a famous quote from a successful insurgent by the name of Princess Leia Organa, spoken to a deceased and unsuccessful counter-insurgent Grand Moff Tarkin: The more you tighten your grip, Tarkin, the more star systems will slip through your fingers.

Attempts to exert excessive control often lead to greater rebellion, not only in counter-insurgency, but also in military leadership. Take the case of the rebellion of one of my former chief warrant officer pilots, Donny, and his sideburns.

Donny had served some 18 years in the Army prior to the late 90s. But the Army, cutting its personnel, decided that they could afford to lose Donny, as he was one of the few chief warrant officers without a college degree. So, two years away from retirement and a pension, he basically got a pink slip. Sorry, find another job.

Then, shortly after September 11th, 2001, the Army realized it probably shouldn't have laid him off, so they recalled him to active service. The Army didn't call this a "draft", per se, but pretty much everyone did think of it as one. In fact, Gene Rodenberry envisioned this exact scenario some thirty years ago when he made Star Trek: The Motion Picture. To save you the pain from watching this so-bad-it's-good movie, I'll describe a scene in which we first see Dr. Leonard "Bones" McCoy on the USS Enterprise. Apparently, Bones had retired a few years back, and was part of the StarFleet equivelant of the Individual Ready Reserve (IRR). Sometime in the movie, it's deemed necessary that he join the crew because, well, we need everyone back together again. He's beamed aboard the ship from his retirement home. He now has a beard and he's wearing disco pants, a massive belt buckle, and a shirt unbuttoned to his navel with a massive gold chain. (Much like Donny, as we will soon see). He also informs Captain Kirk that a little-known "Reserve Activation Clause" was put into effect, and noting "in simpler language, they drafted me!" Yes, he's a model for all that were either stop-lossed or recalled from the IRR.

Much like the recently-recalled and bearded Dr. McCoy, an obviously-disgruntled Donny began to grow his sideburns down to the bottom of the opening of his ears, much to the dismay of his company, battalion and brigade commanders. Even though the regulation stated that his sideburns were, indeed, within regulation, his commanders had the standard that he should exceed the standard, sort of like the 15 pieces of flair logic from Office Space.

Despite numerous chastizings, Donny maintained his sideburns at their current length. He even consulted with JAG about the legality of having his sideburns shaved shorter. Donny received a counseling statement, where his company commander actually drew a picture of a human ear and sideburns in relation to it. Still, Donny's sideburns remained where they were. What could they do to him, kick him out of the Army again and then bring him back in?

Donny--and his sideburns--finally made it to retirement. So ready was he to leave the Army that he actually filled out his final evaluation support form in crayon. He went on his retirement leave and dropped by to fill out some paperwork one day during it. Donny had a handlebar mustache and mutton chop sideburns by this point.

The day after Donny retired, I ran into him in the parking lot somewhere at Fort Bragg. I couldn't believe it--he had shaved his mustache and sideburns, and now had a neat, clean haircut.

"Donny--what the fuck?" I asked.

"Oh, well, sir, I couldn't do the whole sideburn thing because I kind of needed to look presentable to get a job".

Indeed, Donny hit upon one of the great rules in counterinsurgency theory. Higher powers aren't as likely as one would think to force and impose submissive behavior on a populace through threat of force--it's been proven too many times to fail. Instead, sometimes you have to offer insurgents an economically viable alternative to insurgency. In the case of Donny, he gave up the great sideburn insurgency when he realized that he needed to ditch the sideburns to look presentable for a job interview. In Iraq and Afghanistan, that means creating jobs that pay more than the $20 or so that insurgents might offer to plant a roadside bomb. Which is much simpler in a country like Iraq than it is in Afghanistan.

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