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Metz on the Psychology of Insurgency

Saturday, January 28th, 2012

Dr. Steve Metz, a friend of ZP blog and Chairman of the Regional Strategy and Planning Department and Research Professor of National Security Affairs at the Strategic Studies Institute, has new and heavily footnoted article up at SWJ:

Psychology of Participation in Insurgency 

 It’s common sense: to make insurgents quit the fight or to deter other people from joining them, to understand their appeal, we must know what makes them tick.   This is easier said than done as we Americans face a mental barrier of our own creation–we insist on approaching insurgency (and counterinsurgency) as a political activity.  This entails a major dose of mirror imaging.  We are a quintessentially political people, but it is politics of a peculiar type, born of the European Enlightenment.  We assume that the purpose of a political system is to reconcile competing interests, priorities, and objectives.  From this vantage point, we see insurgency as a form of collective, goal-focused activity that comes about when nefarious people exploit the weaknesses of a political system.  It occurs when “grievances are sufficiently acute that people want to engage in violent protest.”[1]  The state cannot or will not address the grievances.  And since insurgency is political, so too are its solutions: strengthen the state so it can address grievances and assert control over all of the national territory.  The improved state can then return to its mission of reconciling competing interests, priorities, and objectives.

            Much of the world–including the parts prone to insurgency–sees things different.  Most often the political system is used by an elite to solidify its hold on power and defend the status quo.  Most insurgents do not seek a better political system but rather one that empowers them or, at least, leaves them alone.  People become insurgents because the status quo does not fulfill their needs.  This is a simple observation with profound implications.  It means that the true essence of insurgency is not political objectives, but unmet psychological needs (although political objectives may serve as a proxy for psychological needs as insurgent leaders seek to legitimize and popularize their efforts).

This coincides with the observation of David Kilcullen that many insurgents are purely localized “accidental guerrillas“, motivated by other drivers than political calculation – such as opportunity for excitement, the dictates of an honor culture, fear of being considered a coward, prospects for glory or booty or the aggressive territoriality of young men.  Looking at historical examples of warlords as diverse as “General Butt Naked“, the Mad Baron Ungern von Sternberg and General Abdul RashidHeavy D”  Dostum, it is evident that some men fight and kill because they revel in slaughter for it’s own sake, are skilled at combat and find purpose in war.

Indeed, as Metz writes:

….Boredom also contributes to a sense of being lost.  In rural areas and urban slums, insurgency seems to provide excitement for those whose lives are devoid of it.[21] This theme appears over and over when former insurgents explain their motives.  Ribetti, for instance, heard it from Colombians, particularly from the female insurgents she interviewed who sought to escape the tedium of a woman’s life in rural areas.[22]  Louise Shelley observed that youth violence and association with terrorism is often linked to “the glamour of living dangerously and the adrenalin flow that is associated with living precariously.”[23]  States not susceptible to insurgency have proxies for youth boredom and the need for excitement which drains these impulses into less destructive channels, whether video games, violent movies, sports, or fast cars.  Societies without alternatives–particularly ones where the educational system has collapsed like Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, and he tribal areas of Pakistan can see boredom be channeled into political violence.[24]

            The Thugs:  There are people in every society–usually young males–with a propensity for aggression and violence.  Insurgency attracts them since it is more prestigious and legitimate than crime, and has a better chance of gaining internal or external support.  It offers them a chance to justify imposing their will on others.  This is amplified when a nation has a long history of violence or major military demobilization which increases the number of thugs and puts many of them out of work.  In many parts of the world, whole generations have never known a time without brutality and bloodshed.  Sierra Leone is a perfect example of this.  The RUF emerged from a group of young people from the slums of Freetown known for their antisocial behavior.[25]  While this group sometimes provided violent muscle for politicians, it also served up the raw material for the RUF, leading Ibrahim Abdullah and Patrick Muana to label it the “revolt of the lumpenproletariat” (a word coined by Karl Marx to describe society’s lowest strata).[26]  Thugs seldom create or lead insurgencies, but they do provide many of its foot soldiers.



Monday, August 1st, 2011

Two more for the pile….


Another Bloody Century by Colin Gray

Iraq & the Evolution of American Strategy by Steven Metz

Comments or opinions?

On the Road

Saturday, June 4th, 2011

In a few days, I will be headed to the US Army War College to become a new member of their National Security Seminar, an honor I owe entirely to the kind offices of Dr. Steven Metz, as Big Steve saw fit to nominate me. Once at Carlisle, I will have the opportunity to participate with AWC students in a variety of sessions and discussions related to national security and strategy and hear speakers who are top experts in their field. The keynote, if I understand correctly, will be given by General David Petraeus. The liason assigned to me, Col. Richard “Flip” Wilson, has been gracious and friendly and I am very much looking forward to visiting the War College, meeting new friends and learning a thing or two.

My blogging here at ZP may be erratic next week, though Charles and Scott will carry on in my absence, but I will try to put up a few items or pictures as time and internet connectivity permits. Twitter may be a much better bet for frequent updates and I can be followed @zenpundit for readers who are interested.

Metz on Libya

Tuesday, March 22nd, 2011

We may have to go “All Libya, All the time” here this week. We won’t, but it is tempting.

Dr. Steve Metz of SSI has a featured op-ed in The New Republic:

Libya’s Coming Insurgency 

….History offers a number of sign posts that an insurgency will occur. Unfortunately Libya has almost all of them. At this point the political objectives of the government and anti-government forces are irreconcilable. Each side wants total victory-either Qaddafi will retain total power or he will be gone. Both sides are intensely devoted to their cause; passions are high. Both have thousands of men with military training, all imbued with a traditional warrior ethos which Qaddafi himself has stoked. The country is awash with arms. Libya has extensive hinterlands with little or no government control that could serve as insurgent bases. Neighboring states are likely to provide insurgent sanctuary whether deliberately-as an act of policy-or inadvertently because a government is unable to control its territory. North Africa has a long history of insurgency, from the anti-colonial wars of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries to more recent conflicts in Chad, Algeria, and Western Sahara. Where insurgency occurred in the past, it is more likely to occur in the future. All this means that there is no place on earth more likely to experience an insurgency in the next few years than Libya.

What is not clear is whether the coming insurgency will involve Qaddafi loyalists fighting against a new regime or anti-Qaddafi forces fighting to remove the old dictator and his patrons. In either case, a Libyan insurgency would be destructive. Because they take place within the population, insurgencies always fuel refugee problems and humanitarian crises. They provide an opportunity for extremists to hijack one or both sides. And insurgency in Libya would destabilize a region undergoing challenging political transitions

Read the rest here.

Metz on Grand Strategy

Wednesday, July 14th, 2010

Dr. Steven Metz of SSI is the author of Iraq and the Evolution of American Strategy.

I will have some comments on Big Steve’s presentation in an update here later tonight.


The presentation was informative and thorough and I often found myself in agreement.

Liked Metz’s emphasis of affordability/efficiency, vertical/horizontal and especially internal vs. external variables and would suggest that in the future he compact elsewhere to expand that section. Perhaps this is not the most significant aspect for the military officers that come to study at NDU and SSI, but the internal-external dynamic is the “third rail” of grand strategic thought – the connection between the domestic political conception of what Walter Lippmann called  “The Good Society” and the capacity of that good society to survive and thrive in a hostile world ( John Boyd emphasized this point – what Metz calls “augmenting”, Boyd referred to variously as “constructive”, “pumping up”, “attracting”or “vitality and growth” and considered it a definitive characteristic of grand strategy).

When there is what Steve in his lecture called a “strong consensus” on grand strategy, a nation’s  state and political economy are in sync with its foreign relations and military posture. For example, the Founding Fathers, aware of America’s great potential but weak condition, erected the Constitution and Federalism, Hamilton’s plan for economic development and Washington’s “no entangling alliances”, modest navy and small military establishment. FDR and Truman realized that the American system of liberal capitalist democracy could not last in a world dominated by depression, totalitarianism and autarky and delivered the Atlantic Charter, the UN, Bretton Woods, the IMF and World Bank, the GATT, the Marshall Plan and NATO, imparting American values into global institutions and importing global institutions into America. Where there is a “weak consensus” – as there is today – it is because the nation is divided on the nature of a good society and/or its role in the world leaving grand strategy flawed or absent.

Worth watching.

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