Know Thine Enemy

About forty years ago I read a science-fiction book called Wasp. I remember it only dimly, but as I recall it was a corking good read, and the central metaphor of the book has stayed with me: that a small insect, buzzing around the inside of an automobile, can so distract the driver as to cause an accident. A tiny animal weighing less than a gram can cause the destruction of an enormously massive machine and the deaths of its vastly more powerful occupants.

I am reminded of it today (thanks to a link at Dennis Mangan’s place) by a lecture about flexibility in warfare that was given at West point by the author Robert Greene, whom I had not heard of, but who certainly seems to be an interesting chap. Greene echoes what others have said — that the worst thing one can do against terrorists is to overreact in conventional ways — but he says it authoritatively and well. An excerpt:

In the Western perspective on warfare, two antagonists face a battle over territory and power. The battle can be fought in many ways, even asymmetrically, but inevitably it is a fight over space and power. That is the endgame of any war. But what if one side were not to have such a goal? What if their objectives were more minimal–merely to create chaos, and the space for some kind of change? Their goals are rather easy to achieve–create mayhem. Or, as Lenin himself put it, “the worse, the better.”

In essence, terrorism is a strategy that aims for maximum chaos and disorder. I compare it to a kick of a rock on a hilltop, with the hope of starting an avalanche. The terrorists can hope for some residual benefits–an insurrection, a change in government, the gaining of some territorial foothold–but this is a collateral effect. By nature, they face a frozen dynamic, an oversized power that has all the force on its side. By initiating a terror campaign, they create the seeds of chaos that can spin out of control and lead to some real change. A terror campaign is often a part of something larger, a guerrilla or insurgent force, but each act of terror has the same goal: to set off this chain reaction effect.

By the nature of its violence and drama, for terrorism is nothing more than an organized spectacle of violence, it is certain to stir emotions. Understanding the logic of terror, it is best to keep the attacks unpredictable, seemingly random. The first seed is sown by unbalancing the mind of the opposing commander. The terrorist act seems to warrant a strong response. In this case, strong replaces intelligent. To find this small group of radicals requires an oversized police force. The chain reaction effect is inevitably set in motion by the harsh reprisal. By entering their space with police or military presence, there are now more targets to hit, more waves of publicity to garner, making them seem larger, feeding their capacity to create the spectacle. Everything becomes imbalanced–society is polarized, disproportionate fear is stirred, more impatience and need for reprisals is manufactured. The desired avalanche is set off.

Nothing startlingly original here, but nicely put. Greene has apparently made the study of power struggles his specialty, and has a website of his own, which is probably worth a closer look.

Read the entire lecture here.

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  1. bob koepp says

    I think Greene is right about how the purpose of terrorism is to provoke a response that likely exacerbates the situation. Reading his description, I was struck by the way terrorism is an almost perfect mirror image of non-resistance as articulated by Tolstoy and Ghandi.

    Posted February 2, 2008 at 3:29 pm | Permalink
  2. I could have sworn that after reading the opening paragraph I was going to be presented a Western perspective of the recent (and unthinkably colossal) internet crash in the Middle East and India, the direct result of one insignificant ship attempting to moor on the coast of Egypt.

    Posted February 2, 2008 at 7:34 pm | Permalink
  3. Malcolm says

    Interesting thought, Bob. I assume you are referring to the “pushing on an open door” approach to Napoleon’s invasion of Russia — although in that case the resistance was real enough, just postponed a bit to take advantage of cold and starvation. But yes, both are good examples of attacking the enemy’s strategy.

    Nick, somehow I had completely missed that story!

    Posted February 2, 2008 at 11:00 pm | Permalink