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:

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