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Getting Rid of the Chicago School of Counter-Insurgency

(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.

eight comments

In the Chicago School of COIN, is Galula or Petraeus the stand-in for Friedman?
The Chicago Boys are CNAS?

No shout out?


I like where you are going with this and I wanted to add a couple points. First, and I think you come close to saying this, it is hard for us to determine what is “rational” for someone else. Rational self-interest loses its meaning when any choice can be justified as rational. You use the example of the suicide bomber—The bomber thinks suicide bombing is a rational response to occupation. We consider the choice not to suicide bomb rational. So who determines rational or irrational?

Second, I’ve always considered COIN a pop-social science approach to war. Hell, you wrote a few hundred words here calling into question the entire thing. It just isn’t based on any realistic view of human behavior. I wish the COIN crowd would start re-examining their most basic assumptions (you’ve done it for them here) to try to figure out what went wrong. That, at least, would show a little bit of intellectual honesty.

@ Marg – I wouldn’t say the Chicago boys are CNAS. CNAS hugely influenced the COIN manual, and it is much more a mixture of emotions/rationality. Ergo, why that manual—and the CNAS folks—argue for both security, offensive operations, reconstruction and governance all rolled into one.

@ MikeF – We actually had that saved for the next On V Update to Old Ideas. We write the posts ahead of time, and sometimes new ideas pop up in the interim and we don’t have time to show them. Plus, like Starbuck, I can’t resist a subtle Star Wars reference.

@ Keith – That’s funny because for the most part, I agree with pop-centric COIN. My main argument is the idea that we need to go back to only killing. A killing/target centric view I believe would alienate populations more than it would draw them in.

Your point about rational/irrational from a cultural perspective is very important, and right at the heart of this post. For instance, a foreigner killing a local will almost always be perceived poorly by the locals. So is that a rational decision to force rational action? I don’t know, but we need to analyze it more.

First, Pape is, I think, usually peceived as positing a rationalist (rational actor) approach to suicide bombing.

Second, I agree that anything can tautologically be explained as rational action, per the last sentence of Keith’s first paragraph. See Fukuyama, “Trust,” pages 19-20.* But I’m not sure that discredits rationality as fully as this post would have it. Wartime would seem an exemplar of purposeful behavior directed toward well-defined and stable goals: say, the direction of the US military apparatus toward the destruction of the Nazi regime. I think Exum is, of course, borrowing from Kalyvas (another “Chicago Boy,” as it were – both former student and faculty), and I don’t see anything inherently wrong with the notion that as stakes go up (e.g., being a noncombatant in the midst of a warzone), people become very sensitive calculators of the costs and benefits of possible courses of action – put differently, that they approach the ideal-type of the rational actor.


*And even what we might perceive as one of the most fundamental political acts – voting – is irrational: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paradox_of_...

After I wrote the above, I felt compelled to add the following: “subject, of course, to cognitive constraints, limitations and biases such as those noted by the Kahneman, Tversky and others.” So maybe I come down less hard on this issue than I thought I did…


Right, and again I feel we are correcting an overreaction (which we have been writing about for the last few weeks). So I don’t believe that rationality has nothing to do with warfare. And some others have proposed terms like exogenous, endogenous, and self-interest. As I said in my last sentence, its a balance of views.

Self-interest might be the best term to use when predicting a population’s behavior. The key, which makes it difficult, is defining a individual/group’s self-interest. Do they see their self interest as defined by their identity? By survival? By money?

Its complicated, I just don’t want us to assume it is as simple as “a cold blooded calculation about survival”.

@ Mike F – Yeah, shout out is coming. And thank you for the SWJ shout out. It’s much appreciated.