Parapsychology Journalism: The People, The Theory, The Science, The Skeptics
I was interested in war from a very young age. I read many books on the subject and became acquainted with war as we knew it in the 20th century and earlier. (There is a connection here to the Missouri protest, so bear with me.) But with the horrible fiasco of the illegal and immoral second invasion of Iraq I began to look for literature on a poorly understood branch of warfare known as counterinsurgency. (An insurgency is an organized internal action taken against a person’s own established government. A counterinsurgency is the response of the established government to try to quell the insurgency.)
Everyone should learn about this type of warfare because this is pretty much going to be the face of war from now on. It turns many of the conventions of ordinary warfare on its head and requires much different tactics and more importantly, entirely different people to succeed. Many of the never ending conflicts that we see today are a direct result of applying old thinking about warfare to counterinsurgency. And this includes the police responses to recent protests in the U.S. Protests, in their own way, are a form of insurgency.
Here’s the problem: If you have overwhelming military force at your disposal, this only guarantees military victory over a conventional army. If you’re not facing a conventional army or your objectives are not a military victory, then your overwhelming force becomes the world’s most expensive paperweight. Tanks, missiles and artillery are completely ineffective for rooting out people making bombs in their basement or making opportunity based raids and are certainly useless against ordinary protests. Ordinary military solutions don’t work in Afghanistan or Iraq, they don’t work for Israel in Palestine and on a smaller scale, they don’t work for police in the U.S.
The goal of counterinsurgency isn’t military victory, it’s about establishing legitimacy. And to get there you have to first understand that overwhelming force won’t buy you legitimacy with your enemies. They will do what great military minds have always done: change their strategy and tactics to negate the advantages of their enemy. To its credit, the U.S. military totally gets this and has been struggling for many years to change the culture in their organizations and to educate American politicians about how this is done. A military victory is an empty victory if the general population still wishes to fight you.
The most successful counterinsurgency campaign ever waged was by the U.S. Marine Corp in the Philippines. They were so successful that there isn’t a trace of hostility from that country towards the U.S. for that occupation to this day. The absolute worst example is the Israeli occupation of Palestine. That counterinsurgency campaign, now closing in on its 50th year, is an example of just how badly things can go wrong and how terrifying the consequences can be. The Israeli government continues to believe to this day that they can gain legitimacy among Palestinians (and stop attacks against Israel) through military force and suppression. It is a strategy doomed to failure.
Counterinsurgency succeeds when it removes the conditions that create unrest. This includes making sure that people have electricity, running water, access to computers and the Internet without censorship, are safe in their homes and on the streets, are free to engage in commerce and are protected by law against unreasonable actions by the occupying force. This also means keeping the insurgents at bay. You cannot do one without the other. Do these things and the general population will trust you and begin to turn on the insurgents who are only making their lives worse. This not only reduces the number of insurgents, but can also provides valuable intelligence to root them out.
But if you harass, restrict and punish that population, they will turn on you and support the insurgents. When that happens, the insurgents are guaranteed a safe haven and are nearly impossible to defeat because they can’t be easily separated from the general population and you can’t kill everyone. The longer this goes on, the more entrenched the insurgents become.
Counterinsurgency warfare is ultimately about building trust in order to create stability by working together. And this brings us back to the militarized response of the police in Ferguson, Missouri to protests against the police shooting of an unarmed black man. The police are facing a classic counterinsurgency type of problem: it’s about trust and legitimacy. To use a Vietnam war era terminology, they are losing the hearts and minds of the residents of their city. If a policeman can shoot an unarmed resident, regardless of ethnicity, without consequences, then no one is safe. The police are then transformed from protectors, into a perceived illegitimate occupying force.
If describing the police as an illegitimate occupying force seems a bit extreme, it’s important to keep in mind how police might be perceived by minorities and the less fortunate. When an organization can kill you without repercussions; indeed if they can operate outside of the law they enforce -at all- then the rule of law has been abandoned and trust goes out the window. If the police are only there to kick you out of your home, arrest your friends and neighbors and harass you; if the laws consistently make your life worse, not better, then you’re not going to trust that system.
And what counterinsurgency teaches us, is that trust, not law or force, is the cornerstone of legitimacy. Carrying assault weapons and using assault vehicles, tear gas, flash bangs, rubber bullets and riot gear to suppress peaceful protests, as well as roughing up reporters sends a message of distrust and instability. The overblown highly militarized police response can be a harbinger of bad things to come because the loss of legitimacy carries a very high price.
Losing policing legitimacy in the U.S. carries the same penalty as elsewhere in the world. It creates a power vacuum that someone else will eventually fill. In some countries, this role is taken over by warlords. In the U.S., this role has traditionally been filled by organized crime. What this likely translates to is that entire neighborhoods quietly fall out of police jurisdiction to be run almost entirely by criminals. The police are replaced in isolated pockets by The Godfather. If people end up trusting the criminals more than they trust the police, then the criminals will have de facto legitimacy and we will have a replay of our own early 20th century. Only with computers, better communication and way more weapons.
We’ve already had crime bosses running whole cities and that didn’t work out so well for us. We don’t want that again. Fortunately, in this case, President Obama has stepped in and made this a federal case, which is much more likely to hold the policeman accountable than some police department internal affairs or a handpicked local judge and jury. It’s a good thing. We, in the United States rely on the trust of minorities and the disadvantaged to help us keep the peace. But trust is fragile. If a sizable portion of our nation decides to make choices that subvert our system, there is not much the rest of us are going to be able to do about it. We are all in this together whether we like it or not.