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Octavian Manea interviews MIT’s Roger D. Peterson

Another installment of Octavian Manea’s excellent COIN interview series at SWJ. This one focuses on social science and varieties of insurgency:

Breaking Down “Hearts and Minds”: The Power of Individual Causal Mechanisms in an Insurgency 

….OM: In your research you pointed out to a spectrum of conceivable individual roles in an insurgency. What is the methodology behind this typology?

RDP: This methodology comes from my 2001 book (Resistance and Rebellion: Lessons from Eastern Europe) which focused on Lithuanian resistance to Soviets in the 1940’s. Insurgency is a complex phenomenon, especially in how violent organization and networks are created and sustained, and the methodology of that book involved breaking down this complexity into component parts and then building back up into a coherent whole. At the base of this process is the way individuals position themselves relative to the dramatic and violent events of insurgency. Most people may wish to remain neutral and just take care of their families but events push significant numbers of individuals into roles of unarmed support of insurgents, or local armed position of a militia, membership in a mobile non-local organization, or equivalent positions in support of the government.  Furthermore, individuals may move back and forth along this spectrum of roles. If one is skeptical of broad and vague theories at a high level of aggregation, as I am, then you need to get down and observe dynamics at a basic level. Observing movement along this spectrum of roles is one way to do that. 

…..Is it FM 3-24 and the whole contemporary Western COIN discourse too narrow, too much focused on rational, cost/benefit models of decision-making? Is it too restrictive when making this inventory of driving motivations or causal mechanisms?

RDP: I think there is a tendency in the Western academic analysis to focus on rational theories. Those theories are straightforward.  But they also might be too straightforward, too simple.  In Iraq, the coalition did not plan on the emotion of resentment stemming from a status reversal affecting Sunni calculations in the beginning stages of the conflict. We did not understand the revenge norms that exist in some of the places. We did not fully understand the social norms that helped to produce the tribal militias in Anbar province.  We did not understand the psychological mechanisms underlying the Sunni view of the new world they were living in. 

The last part is a curious lacuna.

The incompetence of the planning for the occupation of Iraq has been amply recorded – the high level disdain of General Tommy Franks and Secretary Rumsfeld for what befell the day after victory, the keeping of professional Arabists at arms length in preference for Beltway contractors and college kids with AEI connections, the haplessness of Jay Garner and the political obtuseness of Paul Bremer ad so on. This is not what I mean about lacuna.

I mean something more fundamental, in terms of understanding human nature as the root of political behavior and therefore political violence. We are all familiar with the Clausewitzian trinity (or should be) but less attention is paid to the motivational factors that make men decide to stand, fight and die or stand aside. Thucydides also had a trinity that did not attempt to capture the nature of war but rather explain why wars happened and it seems to me to be of particular use for evaluating the decision in small wars to pick up a gun or not, to side with the government or join the rebellion:

“Surely, Lacedaemonians, neither by the patriotism that we displayed at that crisis, nor by the wisdom of our counsels, do we merit our extreme unpopularity with the Hellenes, not at least unpopularity for our empire. That empire we acquired by no violent means, but because you were unwilling to prosecute to its conclusion the war against the barbarian, and because the allies attached themselves to us and spontaneously asked us to assume the command. And the nature of the case first compelled us to advance our empire to its present height; fear being our principal motive, though honour and interest afterwards came in. And at last, when almost all hated us, when some had already revolted and had been subdued, when you had ceased to be the friends that you once were, and had become objects of suspicion and dislike, it appeared no longer safe to give up our empire; especially as all who left us would fall to you. And no one can quarrel with a people for making, in matters of tremendous risk, the best provision that it can for its interest. 

Fear, honor and interest are ever present in “calculation” both by men and by the political communities they compose and the factions that threaten to tear them apart. All the more so in a defeated and broken country divided by ethnicity and sect where all parties were uneasily eyeing the conqueror. No special knowledge of Arab culture should have been required to anticipate that Iraqi men, if made desperate by uncertainty and circumstance, might have at least seen it in their interest to achieve some measure of security with the gun and to enact policies of carrots and sticks a priori to discourage that, before the insurgency gained critical mass.

Awareness of the universality of the Thucydidean trinity would not have in itself guaranteed success in Iraq but knowing it is a rudimentary minimum of political competence upon which you can at least build.

8 Responses to “Octavian Manea interviews MIT’s Roger D. Peterson”

  1. Lynn C. Rees Says:

    I like how Hobbes translated it:

    Therefore, men of Lacedæmon, we deserve not so great envy of the Grecians, for our courage at that time and for our prudence, and for the dominion we hold, as we now undergo. Which dominion we obtained not by violence, but because the confederates, when yourselves would not stay out the relics of the war against the barbarian, came in and entreated us to take the command of their own accord. So that at first we were forced to advance our dominion to what it is, out of the nature of the thing itself; as chiefly for fear, next for honour, and lastly for profit. For when we had the envy of many, and had reconquered some that had already revolted, and seeing you were no more our friends as you had been, but suspected and quarrelled us, we held it no longer a safe course, laying by our power to put ourselves into your danger. Now it is no fault for men in danger, to order their affairs to the best.


    For you also, men of Lacedæmon, have command over the cities of Peloponnesus, and order them to your best advantage. And had you, when the time was, by staying it out, been envied in your command, as we know well, you would have been no less heavy to the confederates than we, you must have been constrained to rule imperiously, or to have fallen into danger. So that, though overcome by three the greatest things, honour, fear, and profit, we have both accepted the dominion delivered us and refuse again to surrender it, we have therein done nothing to be wondered at nor beside the manner of men. Nor have we been the first in this kind, but it hath been ever a thing fixed, for the weaker to be kept under by the stronger. Besides, we took the government upon us as esteeming ourselves worthy of the same; and of you also so esteemed, till having computed the commodity, you now fall to allegation of equity; a thing which no man that had the occasion to achieve anything by strength, ever so far preferred as to divert him from his profit. Those men are worthy of commendation, who following the natural inclination of man in desiring rule over others, are juster than for their own power they need.

    Consider how much more pungent profit is than interest:


    national interest profit


    special interest profit groups


    “Therefore I say that it is a narrow policy to suppose that this country or that is to be marked out as the eternal ally or the perpetual enemy of England. We have no eternal allies, and we have no perpetual enemies. Our interests profits are eternal and perpetual, and those interests profits it is our duty to follow.


    act to protect our interests profits


    fear, honor, and interest profit


    CvC’s uncanny trinity also overlaps Thucydides:


    honor == primordial violence, hatred, and enmity, which are to be regarded as a blind natural force


    fear == play of chance and probability, within which the creative spirit is free to roam (or fear)


    profit == element of subordination, as an instrument of politics, which makes it subject to pure reason

  2. larrydunbar Says:

    On the other hand, in my honest opinion, interest is a much more motivator for war than profit. Although it sounds like from your posting that it’s not really war you oppose, only fighting it with the resources for profit. If I understand you correctly you feel profit somehow corrupts a war of honor, fear and interest. But then can’t profit be more of a tool in fighting a war, instead of one of the causes like interests? Maybe there was no leadership that could properly command and control that tool, meaning that the wrong people were profiting from the war? I wouldn’t say that profit was even in the top 3 reasons for going to war.

  3. zen Says:

    Agree that the two trinities are overlapping/congruent/complementary – was thinking of writing an article with the Thucydidean trinity & small wars and bring in cvC but an article on the two trinities would also work.
    Regarding Larry’s point – I looked at three different online translations last night and the variations in each text were substantial. Profit was used in  one of them – it is stronger but I would also say “narrower” in that it pertains to only what part of the word “interest” means in English and English is not the original Greek. The Landmark Thucydides does not translate interest as profit but as “interest” (p. 43). Hobbes translation of Thucydides was a great intellectualachievement but I am skeptical; Hobbes was as expert a linguist in Greek in the 17th century but 1) It would be hard for him to compete with Strassler’s ability as editor to canvass modern experts on any controversial point and 2) English words themselves did not always have the same meanings or nuances then as they do today, 
    That said, I do not read ancient Greek and cannot discern it myself – so much to know, so little time 😉

  4. Lynn C. Rees Says:

    Out of curiosity, I poked around with the Greek. Interesting exercise.

  5. J. Scott Shipman Says:

    The Amplified Bible—a handy reference, translates interest as “value” or “benefit” in the text you cite at TCPS.
    Last year, I concluded Boyd’s trinity of insight, imagination, and initiative was missing “interest.” Interest is the seat of the others? 

  6. T. Greer Says:

    Social sciences seem to have a particularly difficult time with the ‘honor’ side of the triad. With one prominent exception, IR theory has left it almost entirely untouched. This has always struck me as unusual, for it seems to be the most important factor ‘on the ground.’ So often you hear veterans say “when you are in a fire fight you don’t stick in there because of democracy, or America, or anything like that – you stick it out because of the men next to you.” Likewise, a suicide bomber does not seem to be motivated by fear of death or a lasting sense of self interest, as normally defined.


    If we pair Thucydides’ “honor” with the “solidarity” or “group feeling” (Asabiyah) of Ibn Khaldun, then honor might just the most important of the three on macro-historical scale as well. 

  7. Madhu Says:

    @ T. Greer – it’s a curious omission too, because honor in the area of national pride–say, in the acquisition of nuclear weapons so that one is at the ‘big boy table’ and deserves respect– is well understood.
    So why is everyone else supposedly exempt from this phenomenon? 

  8. Madhu Says:

    So many different attempts to say that sometimes human beings do just what they want to do. And want is a very varied thing.

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