Jun 19

Since we haven’t had an “An On V Update to Old Ideas” in a bit, we wanted to link to one photo that captures the role of emotion in warfare.

We found this photo on TIME.com after the (alleged) massacre of innocent civilians in Panwej province. It puts a face, and an ironic twist on what we’ve been writing about these last few months, the terrible harm when our civilians die in warfare.

May 30

(To read the rest of "Over-Reacting to COIN (Again): On Cultural Empathy and 'Gratitude Theory'", please click here and scroll to the bottom.)

I want to describe two scenarios in Afghanistan.

In the first, we have two brothers. Both drive “jingle trucks” to support their family. One spends his nights working for the Taliban; the other doesn’t. One fateful evening, while smuggling illegal weapons, a U.S. missile kills the Taliban brother. The family asks why; the government says, “He was Taliban.”

(A picture of a jingle truck)

The surviving brother has a choice: support the government or join the insurgency.

In the second case, we again have two brothers. Both drive jingle trucks to support their family. Neither has joined the insurgency. One fateful evening, a U.S. missile kills one of the brothers in a missile attack, unwittingly executing a tribal vendetta (after receiving bad intel from an unvetted source). The family asks why; the government says, “He was Taliban.”

The surviving brother has a choice: support the government or join the insurgency.

From the U.S. perspective, each situation played out the same way--intelligence led to an operation and a dead Taliban soldier. From the Afghan perspective, though, they couldn’t be more different. In the first case, the brother should rightfully fear for his safety. Unless he turns himself in, he will probably end up in a crater like his brother. In successful counter-insurgencies, fear of impending death sweeps through the insurgency, and it collapses in on itself like a dying star going supernova.

But consider the thoughts of the brother in the second scenario. He knows that U.S. forces will soon come for him too; they just killed his brother because of a spurious intelligence report. Wouldn’t they think he was Taliban as well? So if the Americans plan to kill you--even if you aren’t Taliban and even if your brother wasn’t--why not join the insurgency? You’ll die either way.

The arguments for a “combat focused” or “target-centric” approach to counter-insurgency--or against the idea of providing security to the population as the utmost priority--rely on the first scenario. Proponents of looser rules of engagement use the first scenario to buttress their arguments. They point to it--for example, its uses in Malaya--and say, “See violence wins wars!”

But, as a commenter said a few weeks back, we must “kill the right people”. I totally agree. I just emphasize the word “right” and most of the Army emphasizes the word “kill”. Too many thinkers emphasize the “kinetic” or “target-centric” or “killing”--whatever euphemism works--approach without explaining the drawbacks. While they sing the praises of killing more people, they avoid the consequences of killing the wrong people.

The logic for killing more insurgents makes sense. Kill an insurgent, then another, then another and soon word will spread that someday the the counter-insurgents will kill all the insurgents. Rationally, if you want to survive the war, you should stop being an insurgent.

But this same logic applies to the population. Kill an insurgent, then an innocent family, then capture another innocent guy and his brother. Soon word will spread among the population that someday the counter-insurgents will kill you too. Rationally, if you want to survive the war, you need to stop the counter-insurgents.

Remember that killing (or violence) has political ramifications. We wrote a few weeks back about humanity’s innate desire to avoid making decisions; killing the wrong people helps them make a decision...against the government and counter-insurgents. If killing the right people will help end an irregular war, killing the wrong people prolongs it. Pro-killing/target/kinetic-centric advocates--when pitching their wares in talks, blog posts, or op-eds--should always bring up the huge downside to killing the wrong people; it can lose the war.

This is why, as I have said before, accuracy is the most important value in an insurgency, not body counts or quantities or totals or anything else that sounds good leaked to reporters. And if people want more offensive operations--like kill/capture raids--fine. But stress accuracy over any other value. And warn door kickers that kicking down the wrong doors prolongs the war. (And costs U.S. soldiers their lives too.)

May 29

(To read the rest of "Over-Reacting to COIN (Again): On Cultural Empathy and 'Gratitude Theory'", please click here and scroll to the bottom.)

I mentioned in our first round on “gratitude theory” that I absolutely despise the phrase, “I don’t care if they like me as long as they respect me”. Plenty of people disagree with me though. Take, for example, this comment:

“Essentially, they're [On Violence] working to show that the "I don't care if the population likes me, as long as they do what I require" attitude is flawed. (It's not, at least not when it's a third-party counterinsurgent who holds it.)”

That’s just one example. This unsourced article on West Point’s website writes that “popularity or likeability among the population is NOT a consideration [in an insurgency]”. It then advises that, “being ‘liked’ is insignificant.”


Saying “likeability” is insignificant ignores the basic role of emotion in warfare, which I discussed back in December. Saying, “I don’t care if they like me” does not mean, “I don’t care if they hate me”. It is wildly significant if the population hates you. While you can lose an insurgency even if the population likes you, you can’t win an insurgency if the population hates you.

Think of the Russians in Afghanistan. By all regards, they tried to cow the Afghan rural populations into submission through carpet bombings and excessive force. The Russian Army did not care if the rural population liked or hated them, only if they feared them. As a result, they lost Afghanistan. (And I know, U.S. provided Stinger missiles and generally poor strategy also helped.) Conducting operations simply to inspire fear--another emotion ever present in war--also engenders hatred.

Hatred motivates insurgents and terrorists the world over. Hatred of the U.S. and Shia Islam drives Al Qaeda as much as their own love of Sunni Islam. Insurgents, from Iraq to Somalia to Afghanistan, absolutely hate foreign invaders, as we wrote about in “Everyone Hates Everyone Else’s Soldiers”. This has been true since the dawn of time. Hatred can motivate a household to store weapons. Or motivate a child to spy on U.S. forces. Or motivate a teenager to blow himself up in a suicide vest.

So while a counter-insurgent “doesn’t care if people like him”, he still must acknowledge the emotions of the population. It matters if the population loves, hates or fears the government...or the insurgents. Saying you “don’t care” is admitting you don’t care about a significant form of intelligence about the battlefield; you might as well say, “I don’t care if we win or lose here.”

Since we should use emotion to our own advantage in warfare, here are my tips to improve the use of emotion in counter-insurgencies:

1. Think about the emotional response of the population during planning. Specifically, I’m writing about kill/capture raids. Rationally, they could discourage an insurgent from fighting. Raids that detain the wrong person, or kill women and children, emotionally turn the population against the government. (Same with drone strikes.)

2. Security defeats fear, and creates confidence. Most criticisms of the fictional “gratitude theory” say, “It doesn’t matter if you buy people things if the Taliban comes at night to threaten the population.” In other words, a fearful population won’t support the government. The best solution isn’t reconstruction, it is more security. (Which means more troops, but that is a different issue.)

3. Care about your personal relationships. It is so much easier to do business with someone who likes you as opposed to hates you. So maybe I don’t care if the “population” (most of whom I never interacted with) “like” me, but I better have a good relationship with my interpreters, my government counterparts, and my Afghan Army partners. Those good relationships can filter down to the population at large.

4. Collect emotional intelligence. To be honest, eventually the Army’s human intelligence folks got good at conducting “atmospherics”. Unfortunately, the units with the most human intelligence collectors lived the furthest from the battlefield (isolated at Division and Corps headquarters). Battalion and Company commanders should work with their human intelligence and line platoons to measure the emotions of the population they work with. And the Army in general should push as many human intelligence folks to the lowest levels possible.

The big P, General Petraeus, lived these ideas. I don’t recall a lot of articles about General Petraeus in Iraq describing him as brow-beating people into working with him. In fact, he was/is famous for getting people to like and respect him, then getting work done. At the CIA, he reinvigorated the Open Source center to focus on global atmospherics.

I showed before Thanksgiving that people really do care if they are liked. They do, at least, among their countrymen. Every insurgency ever attempted started with two twin pillars: ideology and leadership. Leaders and ideologies rely on emotions to influence their followers. Love, hatred, respect, fear and gratitude are all emotions that can influence the population. We forget this at our own peril.

Apr 25

(To read the rest of "Over-Reacting to COIN (Again): On Cultural Empathy and 'Gratitude Theory'", please click here and scroll to the bottom.)

A few weeks back, to help decide between business schools, I sat in on a class at USC’s Marshall School of Business. I thought it was going to be on marketing. Instead, got a lesson on counter-insurgency warfare and Afghanistan. The class was “Brand Management”.

The professor started his lecture by describing the three principles that guide all human decision making (the realm of marketing). The third principle, the topic of that day’s class, was “emotional predisposition.” He described how brands use advertising to create an emotional predisposition towards their products, specifically how those products can “enrich, entertain, or enable” your life.

Later in the class, he repeated the three major principles of marketing: “All humans are motivated by utility maximization, the minimum effort principle and emotional predisposition, in some measure.”

He used different terms than I did in December, but made the same point: humans don’t measure everything by utility maximization--some emotions override any cost/benefit decision. For example, one of our grandfathers, who fought in the Pacific, refused to think about considering even contemplating buying a Japanese motor vehicle. They could have given them away for free, but he wouldn’t have budged.

In other words, the professor described the exact model of human behavior I believe we need in counter-insurgencies. We cannot kill our way to victory because inflicting widespread death will have severe emotional consequences. (Which I will discuss more.) At the same time, we cannot simply buy things for the population if we haven’t established security for the population (I’ll discuss this straw man soon, too.). Instead, we need a population-centric approach that secures the population, reconstructs and builds a functioning government, and hunts down, detains or kills those who inflict violence on the government or population.

The professor added a key component to human nature that we had neglected. One of his principles was “the minimum effort principle”. While I haven’t specifically related this idea to insurgencies, plenty of other writers have. (Our post on management “Improve the Fighting Position” is about combating “the minimum effort principle” as it relates to your desk at work.) For example, a national security academic we hold in the highest regard made this point in an op-ed for the Daily Beast:

Populations, in civil wars, make cold-blooded calculations about their self-interest. If forced to choose sides in a civil war—and they will resist making that choice for as long as possible, for understandable reasons—they will side with the faction they assess to be the one most likely to win.

Yep, that is Andrew Exum, who I cited in “Getting Rid of the Chicago School of Counter-Insurgency”. While I rebutted his statement about “cold-blooded calculations”, that part in the middle, between the dashes, precisely sums up the minimum effort principle. The other book I recommend on this topic is A People Numerous and Armed by John Shy, whose thesis is that the American Revolution forced Americans to choose a side; it politicized the people leading to universal male suffrage.

So a psychologist with a Noble prize for economics, a marketing professor and The Economist have all said that our models of human behavior should include rationality, utility maximization, the minimum effort principle and emotional predisposition. Thanks to being the world’s foremost economic power, we can model and predict human behavior. Our Army could--hypothetically--tap into these vast reserves of marketing knowledge.

The question is, will we update our models to reflect that humans are rational and emotional, or will we just believe we can kill our way to victory?

Apr 23

(To read the rest of "Over-Reacting to COIN (Again): On Cultural Empathy and 'Gratitude Theory'", please click here and scroll to the bottom.)

We’re taking a quick diversion from our series arguing against war with/in/around/about Iran to return to an old On V bailiwick, counter-insurgency theory. A few days after we published “Getting Rid of the Chicago School of Counter-Insurgency”, Gulliver of Ink Spots let loose a 6,000 word rebuttal of our post. An excerpt:

“The problem with On Violence's Gladwell-deep survey of behavioral economics is that bounded rationality cannot as yet meaningfully inform our models of human agency in conflict. We may recognize that rationality and utility maximization fail to perfectly explain all human behavior, but we have no better predictive model on which to base our efforts to influence the choices of others -- the most extreme of which is war....Until Kahnemann, Tversky, Thaler, Becker, et al can present a coherent, predictive theory of human choice that can be plausibly applied to economic and political behavior and which definitively falsifies the rational choice model...all this bleating about "humanity's underlying irrationality" is worse than useless...”

Then the Christmas double issue of the Economist arrived in the mail. I tore it open to read some of their special articles on “The East India Company”,“Religion in America: The faith and doubts of our fathers” and “The Amen break”, because who isn’t interested in 17th century international trading and Drum and Bass electronic music? I completely breezed past an article called, “Sex and advertising: Retail therapy”. Fortunately Eric C did not. He called and read me these two paragraphs:

“THESE are thrilling days for behavioural research. Every week seems to yield a new discovery about how bad people are at making decisions. Humans, it turns out, are impressionable, emotional and irrational. We buy things we don’t need, often at arbitrary prices and for silly reasons. Studies show that when a store plays soothing music, shoppers will linger for longer and often spend more. If customers are in a good mood, they are more susceptible to persuasion. We believe price tends to indicate the value of things, not the other way around. And many people will squander valuable time to get something free.

The sudden ubiquity of this research has rendered Homo economicus a straw man. Yet such observations are not new. Analysts have been studying modern man’s dumb instincts for ages. Sigmund Freud argued that people are governed by irrational, unconscious urges over a century ago. And in America in the 1930s another Viennese psychologist named Ernest Dichter spun this insight into a million-dollar business. His genius was in seeing the opportunity that irrational buying offered for smart selling.”

Homo economicus...a straw man?

A publication much more esteemed than us, the Economist--Michael C often calls the Economist the best weekly intelligence report, period--essentially doubled-down on our thesis. A new model of human behavior, one that embraces irrationality and emotion, may not explain everything, but the old, rational model explains less.

This Economist article single-handedly debunks the core argument of Gulliver’s 10,000 word rebuttal: he claims that we cannot model human’s emotionality. That’s wrong; American marketing executives do it every day. Gulliver thinks that, “Until Kahnemann, can present a coherent, predictive theory of human choice that can be plausibly applied to economic and political models...” his research is useless for the military. Well, since businesses use Kahnemann’s research everyday, couldn’t the military find something it could use too?

I could list all the possible advertisements and marketing ploys that play on our emotions every day--from luxury cars to trucks to clothes to fast food to beer--but one commercial captures the emotional pull of advertising better than any other, the iPod commercial.

This commercial used five words and a symbol (iTunes + iPod, Now for Windows) and sold millions of units, transforming the way Americans listen to music.

Does this emotional appeal apply to politics as well? Take a look at this Newt Gingrich advertisement and ask yourself, is this an appeal for “rational utility maximization”?

So we have increased the number of groups using Kahnemann’s (and many, many others) research from academics--as Gulliver would have it--to marketing executives (for every Fortune 500 company in America at least) and political operatives. We could also add in teachers (praising students for correct answers) and mass media (“Is something in the water going to kill you? Find out at 11.”).

In other words, all sorts of people use emotional persuasion in their modeling.

I am going to take Gulliver’s royal “we” from his quote more specifically than he intends it. I assume by “we” he means the U.S. military. (And the larger defense establishment. I have never met Gulliver, and his blog doesn’t list his name, current employer or biography. I assume he works somewhere in D.C. in some job  in national defense funded directly or indirectly by the taxpayer.) On that front, I agree with him: the Pentagon does not have a good grasp on modeling counter-insurgencies. He’s right, the U.S. Army needs more officers with MBAs, and when it gets them, it shouldn’t just send them to Human Resources or Operational Research/Systems Analysis.

Our whole series--and that post in particular--argued primarily one point: the very rational, very simplistic model of “kill enough bad guys, and the other side will give up” is just that: simplistic. Modeled using strict, utility maximization and survival-based rationality, it works. But humans don’t fit that model.

We need an approach to counter-insurgency that works off emotion and rationality simultaneously, providing security (feelings of safety), reconstruction (good will), good governance (respect), and kills the bad guy (survival and utility maximization).

You know, like population-centric counter-insurgency.

Apr 03

(To read the rest of our series, “The Case Against War with Iran”, please click here.)

Though I don’t like writing too slangily on a topic this serious, Iran’s military sucks. Take Stephen Walt’s description:

Iran is not a very powerful country at present, though it does have considerable potential...But its defense budget is perhaps 1/50th the size of U.S. defense spending, and it has no meaningful power-projection capabilities. It could not mount a serious invasion of any of its neighbors, and could not block the Strait of Hormuz for long, if at all....

It’s hard to disagree with that take, especially considering this chart making the rounds on Twitter/blogosphere

So on one hand, I agree with Stephen Walt: Iran does not have the capability to strike the U.S. or project power in the Middle East for long. It cannot deploy troops or control surrounding bodies of water with its navy. It also lacks an air force capable of defeating its neighbors in an extended campaign.

Western arms embargoes have atrophied Iran’s advanced weapons capabilities, especially in air defense, conventional ships and aircraft. It has tried to develop an internal defense industry, but it still has a long, long way to go before its domestic arms production even resembles anything close the Western arms manufacturing.

As I’ve told many people in my life, though, size isn’t everything. Iran makes up for its resource deficits through wit, cleverness and initiative. The Iraqi army never truly embraced irregular and asymmetric warfare, but the most well-funded and trusted branch of the Iranian military--the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC, one of the few acronyms Eric C will grant me because, damn, that name is long)--has. The Ayatollahs hold the IRGC in the highest esteem and shower them (relatively) with money, kind of like America’s special operations folks.

The IRGC’s most trusted unit, the Quds Force (The closest thing Iran has to JSOC or CIA Operations branch, if CIA/JSOC supported terrorism. It’s like a bizarro world JSOC.) has operated for the last 30 years, and continues to operate, in countless countries around the Middle East, gaining experience fighting insurgencies, waging asymmetrical war and studying the United States military.

While Iran’s military “sucks”, they might be the best opponent the U.S. has faced since 9/11. Afghanistan barely had a military. Saddam never trusted his military, viewing it more as a threat to his power than an ally. Al Qaeda hide in caves in Pakistan. The Ayatollahs, comparatively, love the IRGC--its name literally means “the guardians of the revolution”.

Does this mean Iran will “win” in a war against the U.S? No. They literally don’t have enough planes, boats, soldiers or tanks to invade America. Iran can defend itself, though. Like an animal backed into a corner, Iran can lash out. That worries me. In my opinion, Iran could inflict a level of casualties equal to what the U.S. military has already seen since 9/11, and it could do so in matter of weeks.

Over the next few posts, I hope to convince my readers that war with Iran will mean dead U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines. Possibly thousands. And almost definitely thousands of civilians. And maybe the world economy. Will those costs outweigh the benefits? I doubt it.

We need to have this discussion in concrete terms before the U.S. or Israel goes to war. Let’s start it.

Jan 25

With all my writing on emotions, gratitude theory and cultural understanding, I suppose I have been unclear about my thoughts on counter-insurgency. Here is all you need to know to beat an insurgency:

Don’t kill civilians. Killing civilians is the worst thing that can happen in an irregular war.

First, let’s tackle the counters to this thesis. The first comes from the “war-is-war”-iors who say, “when we go to war, we go to win and that means defeating the enemy’s will. If the population supports the enemy, than they are the enemy.” Rarely does a “war-is-war”-ior make this full statement. Instead, they generally let the second part fall as an unstated assumption. So they either actively support targeting civilians--any blog/forum that advocates nuking or carpet bombing Afghanistan falls in this category--or just don’t sympathize with a people who let “terrorists live within their ranks.” Wayne Resnick summed this up on a syndicated radio program last September, which we wrote about here.

The second counter is much more common and widespread, though equally damaging to a counter-insurgent, “Well, in war, civilians can expect to pay the price.” In other words, once a war starts, the military/invading army can’t be expected to keep civilians alive. This is more a resigned neglect; the “s*** happens” excuse if you will. I have seen this in two different comment threads, and this Lew Rockwell article describes people with this sentiment.
(The middle ground is: if you don’t want to be killed in a war, you shouldn’t allow insurgencies to happen in your country. This is vaguely the “you are with us or against, you’re either with those who love freedom, or those who hate innocent life.)

As I have written before, I completely disagree. As a counter-insurgent, or “foreign internal defender”, the U.S. military is naturally perceived as an outsider. Killing innocents, or perceived innocents, will only set back our efforts. There is a fine line between killing the bad guys to encourage them to switch sides, and killing innocents which discourages anyone from supporting the government. (More on this in our next round on “Gratitude Theory” and emotions in warfare.)

So, from the tactical perspective, killing civilians hinders the counter-insurgent. (I know that I ignored the ethics of killing civilians. As a “just war”-ior, I hold protecting non-combatants as the highest ideal. I just think I can make my argument in this case without resorting to ethics.)

As such, here are my recommendations to help our Army (and Marine Corps) wage counter-insurgencies better. They all center around the idea I put forward on Monday: the more accurate our forces are during offensive operations (“targeting”), the more likely they are to win.

1. Change the metrics to value accuracy, not totals. The most important number for a battalion should not be number of enemies killed or detained, but the accuracy of those targeting efforts. For instance, the JSOC “kill-capture” program often releases detainees within weeks of their initial detention. Senior commanders emphasize the total number of enemy captured, when they should measure the accuracy of our detentions and lethal operations. This report by the Afghanistan Analysts Network shows how commanders emphasize initial captures, and neglect to mention how many detainees get released.

2. Encourage the intelligence community to study law enforcement techniques. Studying law enforcement and the thoroughness they (mostly) use to put together cases should encourage intelligence professionals to do the same.

3. Start the position of “Devil’s Advocate”. I wrote about this when I explained “Why Intel Goes Bad: The Devil’s Advocate”. The military is a top-down organization, and a lot of commanders don’t want their opinions second-guessed. They should. An official “devil’s advocate” would help.

4. Vet potential targets with more than one source of intelligence. I’ll use The Wire, the best open source example of this. (I would use examples from my intelligence work in Iraq or infantry time in Afghanistan, but that comes dangerously close to revealing classified information.) On the show, the detectives used signal intelligence (the wire tap), human intelligence (confidential informants) and imagery intelligence (pictures from roof tops) to take down the biggest drug dealer in B-Mo. Way too many targeting efforts simply rely on a single source of intel to launch a mission in Afghanistan and Iraq (during the war). Of course, we are only as good as the intelligence we collect which leads to...

5. Get rid of all the analysts at higher headquarters. Every counter-insurgency guide says that higher headquarters should shrink in favor of bolstering lower headquarters. The U.S. military took a middle ground: it made headquarters bigger everywhere. So the division headquarters had literally hundreds of military intelligence analysts and intelligence contractors. JSOC--according to Top Secret America--runs a brigade-sized intelligence staff of 3,000 people. The battalions got some more, but still had less than ten people in an S2 shop. Yet, the battalions often produced better intelligence products for a variety of reasons, including location and ability to patrol. My advice is simple: get rid of gigantic division and corps staffs.

These ideas aren’t terribly original, and plenty of units do some or all of them as it is, but not all do, especially the more “special” people. Further, these ideas need to be enshrined in whatever doctrine emerges in the post FM 3-24 world. Like many things, I’m not optimistic.

Dec 20

(To read the rest of "Over-Reacting to COIN (Again): On Cultural Empathy and 'Gratitude Theory'", please click here and scroll to the bottom.)

Since the 1980s, Arlington Williams, an economist at Indiana University, has been trying to create stock market bubbles. He can. Every single time. His students sit down at a virtual stock market that consists of one stock to trade. Sure enough a bubble grows, then pops, leaving some of his students short by tens of dollars.

More amazing is that this bubble forms as he gives a class on economic bubbles. He explains to the students exactly what is happening, how they are creating a bubble. The students agree with him. Still, the bubble continues to grow, then pops. (Listen to the full story on NPR’s "Planet Money" podcast.) In short, the basis of “neo-classical macro-economics”, as popularized by the Chicago School of Economics, doesn’t work very well. The Chicago School believes that humans always act rationally when it comes to money.

Turns out they don’t. And guess what? Humans don’t act rationally when it comes to war either.

Yet, when it comes to counter-insurgency, military theorists continue to ignore humanity’s underlying irrationality. Consider Andrew Exum’s article in the Daily Beast:

“Populations, in civil wars, make cold-blooded calculations about their self-interest. If forced to choose sides in a civil war—and they will resist making that choice for as long as possible, for understandable reasons—they will side with the faction they assess to be the one most likely to win.”

I dub this the “Chicago School of Counter-Insurgency”, the idea that in warfare--with death and subjugation on the line--mankind’s rationality trumps his unconscious thoughts and emotions.

Fortunately, plenty of journalists have written about the lack of human rationality. Like our greatest living conservative commentator, David Brooks, who wrote an entire book on unconscious thought and emotions. In a column a few weeks back he doubled down on this assertion: we don’t have rational explanations for many of our actions.

"Before Kahneman and Tversky, people who thought about social problems and human behavior tended to assume that we are mostly rational agents. They assumed that people have control over the most important parts of their own thinking. They assumed that people are basically sensible utility-maximizers and that when they depart from reason it’s because some passion like fear or love has distorted their judgment."

Brooks’ heroes, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, conducted psychological experiments. They proved that actual human behavior often deviates from the old, rational models, revealing flaws in the machinery of cognition. They demonstrated that people rely on unconscious biases and rules of thumb to navigate the world, for good and ill. And, like Brooks, they know that emotions, even subtle emotions, interfere with rational thought. (A Philosophy Bites episode in this vein also reveals the fallibility of rationality.)

Combine irrational actions with boatloads of money, and you have the financial system, which pretty much describes all of investment-banker-turned-sports-writer Michael Lewis’ writings. In Lewis’ Panic!, rational investors frequently make irrational decisions, believing they are rational. As a result the stock market crashes, again and again. Lewis also reveals how stock market investors frequently trade on attributes not highly correlated with value, like the height of a CEO or his good looks. This happened in Lewis’ Moneyball too; scouts valued a good-looking body more than On Base Percentage. Only one measurement actually affected a player’s baseball ability. (Another book on subconscious thought, and how it limits "rational" thought, is Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink.)

When it comes to warfare, we shouldn’t suddenly expect humans to drop their irrationality. In fact, we should expect a mixture of rational thought and irrational behavior.

Rationally, populations try to pick winners. They also resist making choices in a civil war, as Exum noted above. As John Shy wrote in A People Numerous and Armed, irregular warfare forces people to make political choices. They also try to side with the faction they think will win the conflict.

That said, people aren’t rational when it comes to killing and death. In warfare, cold blood is impossible to find. When you go to war, emotions dominate thinking. They cloud fine judgement, they muddy the water. Irrational, sub-conscious motivations influence actions. Some emotions will cause some individuals to never consider joining the winning side.

Consider the insidious suicide bomber. For the suicide bomber, this could be a rational act in that insurgents will provide for his family. In actuality, foreign occupation triggers suicide attacks. And the more foreign the invading army, the more suicide attacks. But there is nothing “rational” about a foreign actors “foreign-ness”. This is just another unconscious trigger.

This applies to both sides of the conflict. Heroism and valor are actually defined by their irrationality. I will always remember my deployment to Afghanistan for its wild swings of emotions--the highest highs and lowest lows, often in quick succession. Most of the incidents of war crimes in Afghanistan or Iraq stem from the emotional toll of warfare.

In short, we cannot fall into the trap of the Chicago School of Counter-Insurgency. We cannot pretend that killing people won’t cause emotional reactions. We cannot pretend that in a war zone people always act rationally, because people don’t. As a counter-insurgent, we must balance our views of insurgents and the population as both rational and emotional actors.