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Metz on the Psychology of Insurgency

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.


One Response to “Metz on the Psychology of Insurgency”

  1. Larry Dunbar Says:

    “….Boredom also contributes to a sense of being lost.”

    Of course that begs the question, is anyone  with at least a modest level of transparency bored, who is also engaged in the economy? At least not bored enough to set themselves on fire. Then, it sounds like, from the Metz’s quote that thugs are only businessmen from another school. It could be that an economy has as much to do about war, or at least in the content of an insurgency, as anything else.

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