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Sean Gourley

Co-Founder and CTO, Quid


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LIVE CHAT With Sean Gourley: What are some of the lessons from war we can apply to other human endeavors? June 17, 2PM EDT

Live TED Conversation: Join TED Fellow Sean Gourley

Sean is a physicist and military theorist who is using data, maths and visualizations to help us understand the nature of modern war. He asks," What are some of the lessons from war we can apply to other human endeavors?"

This conversation will open at 2:00PM EDT, June 17th, 2011


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    Jun 17 2011: to kick things off....

    Why is it that a weak group of insurgents can take on and often times defeat a much stronger conventional army. If we can understand the organizational and decision making structures that allow this to happen - what other areas of human activity can be positively impacted?

    interested in hearing your thoughts
    • Jun 17 2011: I guess there's also the feeling of 'nothing to lose' in the weaker group...the sense that nothing could be worse than the status quo (so might as well fight with all you've got).
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      Jun 17 2011: The lucidity of a smaller group of insurgents is my guess at what sometimes gives them the upper hand. The way they behave is possibly far less predictable than a well structured, larger military group.
      • Jun 17 2011: True...
      • Jun 17 2011: Often times conventional armies have a position they need to protect/maintain which can lead to making more conservative decisions. Insurgents have everything to gain, leading to bold or less conventional tactics
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          Jun 17 2011: My thoughts precisely. The logistics of commanding a large group of soldiers also comes into play. Although decisions made by insurgent groups are still hierarchical, the way in which they deploy for an objective is far less regimented than an army operation. Their agenda is also often very different.
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          Jun 17 2011: They also have less to lose as there is no command structure to support. They can flee, blend in, regroup and try again later with no cost other than casualties.
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          Jun 17 2011: another element to throw into the mix is the importance of media. Media is well known as a publicity tool - can be used to attract more resources and funding to an insurgent group. But it is also a very powerful tool for co-ordination.

          The media in a place like Iraq allows all the insurgent groups to maintain a high degree of situational awareness. They can know what is going on today - and with social media they can even see things like the Bin Landen navy SEAL attack unfold in real time. This is a huge information advantage.

          As this news is transmitted it can be used to see what strategies are effective, what works and what doesn't. In short the media is a great learning platform.
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        Jun 17 2011: They are also subject to strong evolutionary - if they are not successful then they simply cease to exist.
    • Jun 17 2011: You could leverage it - assuming you could describe and define and replicate it - to help groups of people achieve a desired state. Example: Change the culture in a business if so desired.
    • Jun 17 2011: This is a great topic that you for having this discussionI believe that a lot of it has to do with how the two army's are trained and what they are trained for. Our special operations are generally trained in small units to work as highly effective teams.

      Our army however is used as a large force designed to take on other sizable opposition, that is also skilled and some degree predictable since they have classic military training in tactics. Now take the large trained army formatted for a format and put it up against a heavily idologically dedicated group, and you have a miss match, but in favor of the smaller force.

      This can be seen with business both large and small that have set methods of operations that do not account for changing market. One minor example of this can be the use of social media. Many smaller business were using this to help boost branding and advertising while many large business had, and still struggle with how to use such technology and techniques. It is the companies who can adapt that have the advantage.

      The smaller groups also use there mobility and strength in what they belive to out last and frustrate their oppenent. In addition the energy and resorces it takes to maintain that large force where's on it. This can be seen in the "rope a dope" technique Ali used against a bigger stronger George Foreman. He let George where himself out exhausting his power while Ali took the blows and kept moving kept his mental strenght in what he believed, he was the greatest. Finally George was exhuasted, Ali went to work and came out with a title. Also I beileve that a small group can achieve more in business and politics if it has a focused, dedicated group behind it.

      Look at the United Farm Workers who went from a small group, to toppling the Grape Industry by being focused on a single task.
    • Jun 17 2011: Actually, insurgents benefit most from being able to choose the time and place of most engagements - what in doctrinal military terms is called initiative. The larger conventional force is made to fight on their terms, when they choose to fight, cancelling many of the advantages they would normally enjoy such as air, armor or artillery support.

      The "terrain" of counter-insurgency is the people of the host nation, who must be protected in order for the conventional force and host-nation government to retain legitimacy. It's this dual role as protectors and passive responders to insurgent attacks that causes so much frustration among forces trained for conventional battlefields.
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        Jun 17 2011: This idea of 'protectors' is in many ways a handicap for conventional forces. The insurgent groups have been very effective in leveraging this to their advantage too. The groups in Iraq realized that they could get just as much media coverage by bombing groups of civilians then they would if they bombed US forces.

        We were able to measure media coverage as a function of attack type, size, victim. The results of this are still being analyzed but are very interesting. For example there is a significant jump up in media coverage once an attack kills >10 people.
        • Jun 17 2011: It is a huge handicap, but necessary to "winning" in a counter-insurgency like N. Ireland or Iraq or Malaya. There may well be a metric to express what percentage of the population needs to feel secure in order to support the conventional force over the insurgency, and polling numbers probably exist to support or debunk such an idea.

          Was there a difference between local media and international coverage in large-scale attacks against civilians? Successful attacks against civilians seemed to be covered in more detail in the American media, based on purely anecdotal observations.
    • Jun 17 2011: The reason that small insurgency can win is because they pick fights that they can win and also use strategies which can win. I'm wont go into the details...

      Its the series of small victories which wins a war in an insurgency - not a major engagement.

      I agree with Crysallis Jones to an extent. Surprise is important. But I disagree that that guerilla fighters will do anything to get the job done. Its an overarching statement and is simply not true.
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        Jun 17 2011: the interesting question here is defining 'winning'. An insurgency can continue to pick small fights and operate in a distributed fashion. But in order to gain power (and control of different resources, oil, cocaine etc) they must at some point formalize their structures and start to become more coordinated.

        At this point they can win - i.e. control resources. But they have also potentially lost what got them their in the first place.
    • Jun 17 2011: I would think that the primary advantage of a smaller organization is flexibility, particularly in decision making. Larger corporations and government bureaucracies seem to make turns like oil tankers. In the same way that a small business owner can alter policy at will to accommodate particular idiosyncratic circumstances or customers, a small insurgency cell operating more or less autonomously can change strategies and responses in real time.

      I've noticed differences in some large corporations where that tendency toward inflexibility can be abrogated. A present franchise owner at a fast food chain will often, for example, be more accommodating to dissatisfied customers, saving many more dollars in future sales, with a free soda or whatever. As a semi-owner, they have a good mix of the potential for personal loss and gain and a long-term vested interest in the company as a whole.
    • Jun 17 2011: Isn't logistics a huge part of that disparity? The invading army must support it's day to day life on top of defending it'self and attacking the enemy. The insurgents simply go about their daily life as they have and once in a while pull off an attack. There is an old story about kids who get up early, go out and plant some trap for the supply convoy of the invaders, then continue on with their chores and school.
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      Jun 17 2011: While I agree with the comments above saying that insurgents are more willing to take risks, my thoughts on this are from a slightly different angle. I think the power of insurgents is that they often operate in smaller groups, while more conventional armies are often quite sizable. Decision-making in small groups is often streamlined and adaptive, while in large groups bureaucracy, politics, and disagreements about the best course of action often slow the decision-making process. As a result, I think big groups are often more cumbersome and less responsive in terms of adapting to changing circumstances. Insurgents, on the other hand, have the capability to be quite agile and responsive in terms of adapting to changing circumstances. To me, this a primary advantage.

      Oops! Just saw a post below saying something very similar.
    • Jun 17 2011: Guerrilla warfare strategies are not unique to insurgents. Andrew Mack discussed this one pretty well some decades ago, with 'Why Big Nations Lose Small Wars'. The argument of this article was that guerrillas tend to have more invested in victory than the occupiers whom they combat. This is based on a colonial paradigm, and seems to be less applicable to today.
    • Jun 17 2011: Soldiers kill insurgents at a 10 to 1 ratio... surely you've missed something in the question.

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