Social Sciences as Sorcery

Many years ago someone recommended that I find an old book titled “Social Sciences as Sorcery.” I was in a seminar, and the speaker was (and still is) a revered thought leader on the topic of counter-insurgency.

I was asking lots of challenging questions, poking holes in some of the assumptions and assertions that underpin COIN, and there just wasn’t enough time to address them all.

“Find Social Sciences as Sorcery,” he said.

And so I did. 

This was well over a decade ago. And the book itself was published in 1972.

I found a copy and read it.

Well, actually, I read part of it. The subject matter is dense. It’s not an easy read. You have to focus.

I recently came back to it, and I’m glad I did. 

The thesis, at its core, is that understanding the human dimension – the mind, psychology, complex social interactions, etc. – is incredibly difficult. So much so to be nearly impossible. 

How do you understand the mind of another with your own mind? 

No one said it was going to be easy, but because it is precisely so difficult, and because so many of our problems seemingly call for a “social” solution, this opens the door for social scientists to offer solutions. 

Unfortunately, most of this is just sorcery.

Hucksterism.

The author, Stanislav Andreski writes:

“The easiest way out is always not to unduly worry about the truth, and tell people what they want to hear, while the secret of success is to be able to guess what it is they want to hear at the given time and place.”

The “truth,” when it comes to complex social dynamics and psychology, is that we usually don’t know the answer. 

So then, why wager a guess?

Because there is always someone out there who is hoping you might be right. This person is desperate for a solution.

And there is always someone out there ready to cash in on that hope.

There were a bunch of tweets going around recently quoting this line from Stanley McChrystal:

“Implementing an effective counter-insurgency requires ‘a level of local knowledge that I don’t have about my own hometown.'”

I disagree. 

Do you really think if we just had that one expert sitting in the room who could tell us what to do and what to say and what image to put in the tweet, we could turn this whole thing around?

I don’t.

Related: How important is culture training, anyway?


Enjoy these posts? Enter your email below to join the monthly newsletter.

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

The GWOT Effect

the gwot effect

I’ve seen it, and I can explain it, but I never heard it put that way before.

“I saw the best minds of my generation sent off to divide by zero.”

It instantly makes sense.

What he’s talking about is the “GWOT effect.” Incredibly smart and passionate Amerians sent overseas to “win.”

You see it at all levels – from the soldiers on the ground to the Generals in the Pentagon.

If we could just find the right strategy, the right force mix, put the right nouns and verbs in the right order.

If we could have just – one – more – year – we can turn this thing around.

A few years ago, I saw the “GWOT Effect” perfectly captured in the back-and-forth between Brad Pitt and TIlda Swinton’s characters in the 2017 film War Machine. In it, General “McMahon” is briefing a pool of politicians on the strategy to win the war. It’s a brief he is used to giving because he’s done it over and over and over again – to soldiers, to staffs, to politicians, and to the media. He’s good at it. And people believe him. But here, in this one, he is challenged (Note: I couldn’t find the clip, so the dialogue will have to do – source).

German politician:  General, the US invaded Afghanistan because of the al-Qaeda attacks on September 11th. This is correct sir?

General: Yeah.

German politician: You have been speaking to us now for 45 minutes and yet in all of that time you have only mentioned al-Qaeda once. Your own vice president has advocated a much smaller and simpler counterterrorism approach to incapacitate what is estimated to be a little more than 100 al-Qaeda fighters that still remain in Afghanistan to refocus on what it was that started this war in the first place.

General: Ah.

German politician: Your analysis of the insurgency there suggests to me there is no monolithic Taliban.  You are spread over the entire country. You are fighting 1,000 separate battles with locals whose principal ideological position would seem to be simply that they don’t want foreign soldiers in their village. And that, General, you must know, is a war you will never win.

General: Ah. Uh, with all due respect, ma’am. Uh I must beg to differ. I firmly believe, having traveled to all corners of the country, having spoken with many people from many walks of life . . . that what these people want is the very same thing that you and I want. Hmmm?  Freedom, security, stability, jobs.  Progress is being made. Real Progress. But challenges do remain.

German politician: Yes, I understand all of that, General. And . . .and , please let me say quite sincerely that I do not question the goodness of your intent. I have been listening to you here this morning, and, uh. . . I believe you are a good man. I do. What I question is. . . your belief in your power to deliver these things that you describe. I question your belief in the power of your ideals.

General: Ah, well. . .

German politician: I think what I am trying to say, and I apologize, General, if this is sounding impolite, but I question your sense of self.

General: I appreciate your commentary. I do. But I have a job to do.

German politician: Yes, I understand, And I also have a job to do. And I’m trying to do mine. As an elected representative of the people of Germany, it is my job to ensure that the personal ambitions of those who serve those people are kept in check. You have devoted your entire life, General, to the fighting of war.  And this situation in Afghanistan, for you, it is the culmination of all your years of training, all your years of ambition. This is the great moment of your life.

General:  Well. . . .

German politician: It’s understandable to me that you should have, therefore, a fetish for completion to make your moment glorious. It is my job, however, to ensure that your personal ambitions are not entirely delusional and do not carry with them an unacceptable cost for everybody else.


Of course we are going to try to win. That is the task. But there does come a point where it all seems to get a bit out of hand.

There’s another scene from War Machine that captures this idea. It’s a scene lifted almost directly out of the Michael Hasting’s article which the movie is based on. General McMahon is traveling Afghanistan, explaining to troops how to win the war.


Enjoy these posts? Enter your email below to join the monthly newsletter.

Processing…
Success! You're on the list.

Stanley McChrystal on FTGN Podcast

general mcchyrstal getting off a helicopter in sand
A helicopter takes Gen. Stanley McChrystal to Garmsir District, Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Photo: ISAF

This is the second time I’ve written about a FTGN Podcast episode. The first was on retired General Joseph Votel. This one is their recent episode with retired General Stanley McChrystal. Retired generals do a lot of interviews, and they are (often) master communicators. It’s rare, then, that I actually find myself latching onto something that really grips me. In General Votel’s case it was his thoughts on reflecting that got me thinking.

For no other reason, you should listen to this episode because in it, McChrystal discusses how he dealt with his resignation in the wake of the infamous Rolling Stone article. This is the only time I ever really heard him talk about that. It’s a mini case-study in resiliency. And he makes an argument for narrative patience – what seems like an overwhelming avalanche today mostly dissapears by tomorrow.

Outside of that, it was three little things that caught my attention.

First, McChrystal mentioned John R. Vines as one of his significant mentors. John Vines is one of those names that you hear a lot in the Airborne/Ranger community of yore. He was the Division Commander of the 82nd Airborne Division when I arrived in 2001. When the GWOT started, he held roles in Afghanistan and later went on to command Multi-National Corps-Iraq in 2005-2006. I’ve only interacted with him in the way that a Private normally interacts with a Division Commander – from the position of attention or parade rest, far away in a formation. What I remember, though, is he had an incredible reputation for being a paratrooper’s paratrooper. I always had the sense that he was revered as the epitome of what it meant to be an officer in the 82nd.

His name is not one you hear much about these days. He retired shortly after the GWOT began. But I suspect his leadership and mentorship had a significant hand in the careers of many of the General Officers we know today. McChrystal, Petraeus, and Votel were all Deputy Commanding Generals of the 82nd Airborne Division, and Vines’ thumbprint was (and is) deeply embedded there. I can only imagine there is still a cadre of senior officers who can point back to Vines as their chief mentor.

Second, McChrystal discusses the fact that many of the most professional, courageous, and competent special operators he knew and served with were not all that different from the adversaries he faced in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Not that different,” in the sense that they too were wholly committed to a cause and willing to die for it. They were stoic, dedicated, and professional. It is refreshing to hear this from someone of McChrystal’s stature. Too often, our enemies or adversaries are simply dismissed as maniacal or incompetent. No one wants to give credit to an adversary, but in refusing to do that we blind oursevles to reality. McChrystal says that it is by “accident of birth” that he – and others like him – are on this side of the battle.

And finally, when asked to recommend a book, McChrystal recommended the classic Once an Eagle.

Still haven’t read it.

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.