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

  • Jun 17 2011: There's more to it than just guerrilla warfare. Insurgency has changed a lot, and we see emergent group behaviors where classic military theory wouldn't have expected them. We can actually apply that to disaster relief efforts and situations, because the same kinds of behavioral groups emerge to deal with catastrophes.
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      Jun 17 2011: yes, interesting to think about the self organizing structure of human groups. How do we make connections, how do groups of unorganized individuals make decisions.

      How could we study this from places like post tsunami Japan? What would the right data be?
      • Jun 17 2011: the easy data is in the reach of the event - social media grouping around particular charity efforts, news and curation distribution, as well as blocks and limits found on the ground. I started looking at it from this perspective after Katrina. Things have changed substantially since then, but the self-organizing efforts and communication nets off of it are fruitful in considering any high-stress situation where good information is critical.
        • Jun 17 2011: I live in Christchurch, New Zealand (a city Sean is familiar with), which has become an area of active seismic activity since a magnitude 7.4 earthquake in Sept 2010. Over 7300 earthquakes and counting (including a pretty decent aftershock as I'm writing this).

          I believe we can learn from the success of insurgent groups to our situation in Christchurch.

          The government response to assessing homes and giving residents of the city a sense of certainty regarding the future has been slow and cumbersome - 'conventional'? In many ways it is the classic red-taped bureaucracy... too restricted by its own rules and regulations to adapt to the constantly changing/increasing needs of the community. There is an increasing sense of hopelessness and desperation here, and the lack of communication from government regarding the future of the city is rapidly creating anger.

          Compare this to the spontaneous creation of a group called the "Student Army". Thousands of students were called together and organised through social media. They were distributed each day with spades and wheelbarrows, to respond to areas of the city that were most in need. They were adaptable, effective, and are now a key part of the city's emergency response when we are hit again by larger aftershocks. The key organisers of the Student Army were sent to Japan post-tsunami, in order to provide advice and support to mobilise the student population there.

          Short chains-of-command, simple systems, adaptability, and autonomy within smaller groups - with a targetted focus and clearly defined outcomes - seem to be the hallmarks of a successful 'insurgent' response to disaster relief... it seems to be true here in Christchurch, anyway.
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        Jun 17 2011: Don't unorganized individuals who are successful actually create order out of chaos? Looking into what decisions were made and comparing what worked to what didn't might be a good jumping off point. The data might be hard to find though.
        • Jun 17 2011: What's interesting is that you can't tie it to individual decisions too closely. What works, spreads- what spreads, works. The key seems to be that people on the ground will emerge by doing something, very rapidly, almost no matter what it is.
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    Jun 17 2011: It seems that perhaps it is easier to defeat a focused regime operating under one banner by making it mean the loss of the power base of those in charge to continue the fight, or by taking the will out of the individuals who support the regime and bringing it down from within. With a smaller less organized force, their power is in their continued struggle. They can hide, move on and attack again later. The power they have continues as long as they keep fighting and there is no power structure to undermine.
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      Jun 17 2011: Sean, what can we learn from Douglas' comment? This seems to be prevalent issue in many conflicts.
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      Jun 17 2011: Yes, Douglas has captured something important here. It is very useful to consider these war zones as self contained ecosystems. There exists a sort of predator prey type interaction network. The insurgents only have power when there is something to fight.

      It would be interesting to think about what is the 'keystone' species within an insurgent ecosystem. If you could find this and remove it - would it cause the network to collapse?

      Maybe we can take our destruction of the earths ecosystems and apply this same thinking to war zones :)
      • Jun 17 2011: Isn't there always 'something to fight' though? I think this could be extremely subjective.

        So doesn't this mean that success of the weaker group must be dependent largely on other criterias (ex. rhetoric, timing, specific triggers etc)?
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        Jun 17 2011: Lots of analogies to explore here:

        Treat insurgancy like a bacterial infection. Take antibiotics until all harmful bacteria are eliminated...

        Are we trying to drive insurgents to extinction? We have hunted species to extinction, so that could work for insurgency.

        Or maybe it is more like a virus that mutates to quickly, so many treatments are not effective over the long term? Perhaps as in HIV or some innovative cancer treatments, groups of different treatments administered together might bring about change?

        Do we direct them to a new path, rendering them "harmless", by giving them other things to worry about besides direct military intervention? Thus building a societal immune response or overall tolerance to the problems that create insurgency.
        • Jun 17 2011: And we know it just isn't possible to totally eliminate an infection. The antibiotic leaves the toughest bugs behind but reduces the total load to the point that the bodies own system can control it. In the same way, an invader can wipe out /most/ of the insurgents, but some will survive. If the culture (being the body) doesn't contain those last few, or if the culture actually promotes the activities of those few, then the insurgent infection simply returns, stronger than ever. As long as the invader remains, and does not win the "hearts and minds" of the culture as a whole, there will never be peace.
        • Jun 17 2011: An insurgent is not a species or an organism, but a description of what someone does: mobilise against a governing regime in order to affect social change. As we can learn from insurgency theorists like Marighella or Mao, certain types of counterinsurgency action can become one of the most potent weapons of the insurgent. There are no bacteria which, if treated with antibiotics, spontaneously convert surrounding cells into new bacteria, but that is exactly what kinetic COIN can do.

          Nor should we take a solely grievance-based approach to understanding why men [and women] rebel. Insurgency isn't created by problems, but by persuasive political messages. The presence of serious social problems certainly contributes to circumstances conducive to such messages, but the literature coming out of social psychology and political science suggests that the intergroup environment and the available avenues for political participation have an overarching impact.
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        Jun 17 2011: Do you have any thoughts on what that 'keystone species' might be, Sean? Would it be economics, ideology, language, social/cultural expressions clashing, religion? Which paradigms seem to be the drivers, and how do they interact? What do you think?
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          Jun 17 2011: That's a difficult question - perhaps best left to Chris Rock to explain

          http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OuX-nFmL0II
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          Jun 17 2011: it's interesting to think about pulling these second order leavers. Don't try to remove guns - just increase the price of bullets.

          The truth though is that our understanding of ecosystems (war, environment, business, stock markets) is actually pretty shallow. We are only just getting our heads around the mathematics of massively multidimensional networks and feedback loops.

          But one of the things that is clear is that it is expensive to run an insurgency. You need to have ways to make money. That is why there are very few insurgencies that are fought without a key resource being available. Cocaine in Colombia, diamonds in Sierra Leone, Opium in Afghanistan. Human trafficking etc.

          The insurgency needs to make money - take this away and you take away the blood of an insurgency.
        • Jun 17 2011: I can think of a vast number of insurgencies - and not only during the Cold War - where insurgents had state patrons or global diasporas to provide sufficient funding to continue the fight, and thus were able to wage war even without a key resource.
  • Jun 17 2011: Modern American warfare can enlighten us to the reality of how malleable the American state of mind is. We are a country obsessed with the ideas of things like honor and pride. You then attach these slogans to something as unforgivable and disgraceful as killing other humans on their own soil, and many of us jump right on the band wagon. We need to separate ourselves from the propaganda that is constantly being shoved down our throats and think about these issues with independent thought. Peace is the natural social evolution of humanity and we need to get back on track.
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      Jun 17 2011: We tell ourselves that we fight for emotional reasons - and yet underlying these conflicts is a cold set of mathematical equations. Hard to imagine that people would go off to fight to be another data point in a seemingly predictable formula.
    • Jun 17 2011: Honour and pride in a tribal society can be well understood as deterrence. And there are many parallels between the international state system and tribal society. There are also many parallels between the particular political and social consciousness that nationalism generates and the bonds of kinship group - the primary unit of social organisation in a tribal society. There is rational calculation behind terrorist or insurgent strategy, as much as there is behind the military strategies of states.

      But we clearly fight for 'emotional' reasons. The fighters of the Taliban hurl themselves at well-defended ISAF bases while suicide bombers blow themselves up in acts of 'isthishad'. What can we conclude from this?

      We can conclude that these people are engaging in rational calculation but do so according to different cost-benefit calculations than what we might use.
  • Jun 17 2011: "In modern war... you will die like a dog for no good reason."
    ~Ernest Hemingway

    If the "team" realizes that the mission or goal is baseless, the unit will quickly begin to rot from the inside. ~Sgt Barrick OIF II
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      Jun 17 2011: Nice quotes Matt - the power of a narrative is hard to overstate. Yet in many ways the actual content of the narrative is somewhat irrelevant. We look at different wars, all fought for different ideological reasons and yet despite these differences in religion, politics, geography - we see the same patterns emerge.

      It is as though we tell ourselves that we fight war for one reason - yet we could tell ourselves any reason and the mathematical signature of the war would look no different.

      If war is truly governed by these mathematical equations - and it starts to become somewhat predictable - will people want to continue to fight?
      • Jun 17 2011: Regarding your original question: It has nothing to do with math. It's all about tenacity. If you've ever studied the Honey Badger and observed it eating a Cobra, you'll see what I mean.
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        Jun 17 2011: Have patterns emerged in any other study of wars, i.e. economic or sociological analysis, that have revealed similar or diverging patterns?
      • Jun 17 2011: War follows recognisable patterns because strategy is ultimately a rational enterprise. Actors with reasonably good intelligence, sufficient supplies and forces, and sufficient will to fight will likely choose similar methods. The patterns of war will change when the conflict environment changes or when technological innovations allow for radically different tactics (eg mass media > hostage taking; mass communications > 'netwar';). People will fight because they believe that fighting will be the best way for them to achieve their objectives, and that choice depends on a combination of social/cultural norms and permissive political environments.
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    Jun 17 2011: The insurgents would also operate without all the bureaucracy required in a more established army. As a result, decisions are streamlined and not politicized or subject to endless review and compromise. Decisions are made quickly, and with less fear of consequences. It's a perfect example of my motto, real change rises up, it's not imposed from above.
    • Jun 17 2011: There's a paper describing how the larger an organisation is, the slower it is to respond and change. It's called "Bureaucracy, meet Catastrophe", I think. I remember a sociology lecturer calling this 'structural inertia', and it applies to any organisation, wether terrorist cell or small start-up.
    • Jun 17 2011: After being so fully penetrated by British security forces during the 1980s, the IRA was virtually paralised despite its networked organisational structure. Conversely Fatah and its affiliated terrorist groups have won major successes for the Palestinians despite being an example of centralised and tightly controlled political decisionmaking. Organisational flexibility is of course important, but size and structure are not the only factors in determining how well an organisation can adapt, build momentum, and execute an effective strategy.
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    Jun 17 2011: Assuming the insurgent group has a higher level of passion and personal commitment to their cause than the members of the established army, it would seem finding how to generate that level of passion and commitment in other segments of culture that beg for change is key.
  • Jun 17 2011: Every breakthrough of technology has happened prior to a perceived new "generation of warfare". The technology will first be invented, but used by established institutions with old concepts that do not exploit its full potential. The ideas and processes of using this new technology will come later - causing a disruptive breakthrough.

    An example that comes to mind is the invention of tanks. The British and French applied old concepts and ideas to using these tanks prior to WWII - using them mostly for infantry support. The tanks only revolutionize warfare when the Germans applied new Blitzkrieg concepts to their use.

    Which brings us to today's perceived "asymmetry" between a "weak" group of insurgents and a "stronger" conventional army. Perhaps we need to rethink our mental models about who is "weak" and "strong", and whether the asymmetry exists at all. The effects of globalization and prevalence of networking technology has provided the new window of opportunity to revolutionize warfare. However, again, established militaries may be applying old concepts to these new technologies, whereas the "weaker" insurgents have perhaps exploit it better, to become more decentralized, network, adaptive and strategic - creating an advantage beyond conventional military might.

    The lessons that can be port over is - the last decade has seen networking technology permeate every aspect of life. However, are we still using old ideas and concepts to these new technology? The exploration of ideas and processes to harness these technologies is as important as the invention of the technologies themselves. I believe if we can rethink our concepts and processes, we can harness the full potential of new technologies to impact more areas of human activity.

    As always, the new ideas will come after the new inventions, and only together can they revolutionize human activity.
  • Jun 17 2011: A smaller group of insurgents has the advantage of small scale logistics in addition to quicker decisions and a greater ability to improvise, I think. They are not as hampered by red tape as conventional military forces are.
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      Jun 17 2011: yes, they are much more fluid in nature. We found that there were on the order of 120 different groups in a place like Iraq. And each group had a half life in the range of months - not years. This structure was incredibly fluid, and allowed advances in strategies and technologies to be transferred across different groups.

      The US forces by comparison were much more structured - though the ground level troops on the US side were also very adaptable. http://www.wired.com/dangerroom/2011/06/iraqs-invisible-war/all/1
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        Jun 17 2011: So I see the evolution analogy here clearly. They try and fail, or succeed and pass on succesful strategies to new generations.
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          Jun 17 2011: Sounds like the bike sharing/car sharing business model that has been working due the sharing of the business plan.
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          Jun 17 2011: what is interesting with the evolutionary model here is that there is also an interesting force acting against the strongest groups here. The strongest groups become targets for the conventional forces. And when these groups are attacked they fragment and splinter -- like breaking a sheet of glass.

          All the learning and innovation is then scattered back throughout the system. This prevents lock-in and makes for a very effective distribution of knowledge.
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    Jun 17 2011: Powerful, Sean! Have you drawn any conclusions or new thoughts based on the current conflicts in Libya and Egypt?
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      Jun 17 2011: yes, we are looking at those conflicts now. Trying to find new ways to analyze the data as it is coming in. Because the conflicts like Egypt are relatively casualty light compared with Iraq/Afghanistan the attack signatures are not the best metrics to use. We are doing more analysis of the tweets, FB updates and news reports - semantic analysis to see if we can see a change in the way language is used. This might be a predictor of escalating violence.
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        Jun 17 2011: Vietnam brought us war on TV... now it is war viewed through the web. Fascinating.
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        Jun 17 2011: Is it possible that access to information with such differents tools give insurgents more power, compared to army where information probably comes always from official sources? I believe in many human areas, information is power.
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          Jun 17 2011: I think it was best put like this

          "information is not power, information asymmetry is power"
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          Jun 17 2011: what is also interesting about the conflicts in the middle east is the role that new technology had to play in the organizational of the uprisings (and crack down by the existing regimes). We saw the term 'twitter/facebook revolution' start to emerge.

          When we have the next revolution - will it be a 'foursquare revolution'. Will people use geolocation data, or gamefication techniques to co-ordinate millions of people in opposition? Will there be a "revolution" badge?
  • Jun 17 2011: My biggest question is: considering the fact that an "enemy" is in front of my, absolutely willing to lay his life down in service of his agenda, why is it _me_ that they're insisting on fighting? From there, I get to honestly consider my agenda, have I been irresponsible or self-serving? Have I been judgmentally righteous, forgoing mutual respect?
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      Jun 17 2011: This is the kind of thinking that leaders need to engage in. This is a path to a more peaceful earth. And it does not have to be employed only when someone is willing to lay their life on the line, it should be the go to philosophy when any type of conflict rises.
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      Jun 17 2011: and could maths help me determine if I am self serving in nature, or judgementally righteous?
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    Jun 17 2011: Sean, I think the mathematics of war (based on Sun Tzu, not but related to your other work) would be an amazing research project then layperson's book. After you get your first one done. : )
  • Jun 17 2011: It seems an easy analogy is that of the evolution of the mammalian immune system. Mammals evolved a particularly adaptive immune system that may have helped them thrive after the last major extinction event (the Yucatan asteroid impact). If you look at the fall of the Iraqi government as an "extinction event", i.e. a sudden change in the environment that opens niches for lower organisms to fill, then it is easy to think of the subsequent events as exerting selective pressure on the organisms in the system, driving them toward new equilibrium. For instance, mammals have evolved special cell types that flexibly recognize and attack non-self molecules to protect the organism. The US military has adapted it's equipment and tactics in radical ways to account for unconventional opponents, although within the structure that previously existed. Perhaps looking at the evolutionary response of organisms immediately after major extinctions would provide some more insight into the dynamics of predator:prey relationships in Army:insurgent warfare.
  • Jun 17 2011: While common people are dying in wars, big entrepreneurs and politicians are getting richer. War is always, and I think it always be a huge opportunity to make profit. Guns and ammunition have to be bought to make a war, and this is a very interesting market. Do you want to stop a war, ou avoid someone to began one, just don't allow him to have access to gun.
    Let's find out who is selling guns and war artefacts to the nations who are in war and stop them to make these genocide business. This one way, practical way, to minimize these conflicts who are responsible for thousands of deaths around the world while at same time the "lords of wars", I am meaning the death traders become richer.
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      Jun 17 2011: This can be related to how everything in the US is being privatized. Since the Jails have become private entities more people have become incarcerated. They want to do it social security and medicare. How can we employ the insurgent strategy to benefit the lower and middle class in the US.
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        Jun 17 2011: Or to frame it another way - to what extent was the organizational structure behind Obama's victory in the 2008 election like an insurgency?

        Will this become the model for how all political movements are formed?
        • Jun 17 2011: um, it's kinda been the model of the "right" for years. Obama was just playing catchup.
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          Jun 17 2011: It got him elected, but he has "Spitzered" us by not delivering the change he sold us. He has done a lot of good, but not what was promised.

          We need the model for election plus the model for actual effective change for the lower and middle class.
        • Jun 17 2011: I wouldn't say that an insurgency necessarily has a particular organisational profile, not in its essential form. Are you talking about a Maoist-style insurgency, where political activism on the industrial and grassroots level builds the momentum for social change? You're surely not talking about Focoist or Marighellan variations on this. Social movement theorists like Tilly tend to view insurgents as engaging in contentious politics, where methods of activism transgress on established norms of activism and engage a regime or ruling class. Does this describe Obama's campaign? I say not.

          Are you only talking about networked organisations and virtual activism? These are not the same as insurgency.
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      Jun 17 2011: the AK-47 is one of the single biggest killers in war. It is the true WMD. It has an expected lifetime of about 80 years and will keep shooting even if it has been buried and dug up. These guns are so simple, and yet so capable that they make killing literally childs play.

      Figure out a way to get these guns out of the system and you could potentially have a massive impact on violent deaths in conflict.

      You can start by buying one yourself in Africa for just about $50 :)
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    Jun 17 2011: Some of the key ideas here revolve around the concept of asymmetry. Understanding how and why a much smaller group can take on and many times defeat a stronger opposition. We see this in war, we also see in out here in Silicon valley. We see it in the start of new political movements in Egypt, and we can also see shades of it in the way that cancer forms within a body.
  • Jun 17 2011: Sean, I'm curious if technological advantages actually show a strong difference in the statistics of "success" in war... more so than the "home plate" advantage of the insurgents or standard measures like training and experience. And then after a war, (assuming the current wars will ever actually end) does the new technology developed for the war really provide an advantage to the society?
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      Jun 17 2011: This is like the NASA space argument - we go into space and see look at all these cool spin off technologies we get in return (like a space pen*).

      There are of course obvious technological gains that are made with all the military spending that is done. von Braun leveraged both the Nazi and the US military might to pursue his dreams of human space flight. As a result of Iraq and Afghanistan we have improved critical medical care and built very effective translation devices.

      War today though has perhaps contributed the most to the rise of two things. Robots and prosthetic limbs. The prosthetic limbs coming as a direct result of the increases in critical medical care on the battlefield. More soldiers that lose limbs are now surviving - so we generate new technologies to help them to walk again.

      Whilst technologies are developed as a result of war - it is pretty hard to make the case that all the money spent on war couldn't have been spent on developing these technologies without the need to kill people along the way.




      *note space pen not actually developed by NASA but makes for a nice story point :)
      • Jun 17 2011: That confirms my thinking. We would be better off without war in just about every way, including technology. But you didn't answer my question about how technology actually helps in the war zone compared to other advantages like training, home field, etc... Any data or thoughts on that?
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      Jun 17 2011: Interesting too to note that technologies not developed for war are now being used within wars - think twitter example in Egypt. What will be the next consumer technology to be re-purposed for use within the war/peace arena?
  • Jun 17 2011: Sean, I think a lot of the answers to that initial question have to do with social networks and scale-free distributed network theory
    • Jun 17 2011: That would be an interesting research subject with regards to business!
      • Jun 17 2011: It is :) It's interesting in all kinds of ways involving effective group behaviors
  • Jun 17 2011: The Guerilla fighter doesn't adhere to rules per se, they do whatever it takes to get the job done.
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      Jun 17 2011: this is the general way that we tend to think about COIN operations - the irrational guerrilla fighter. Unpredictable, chaotic and noisy. Yet when we look at the data across different war zones we see that there are very predictable mathematical patterns. Rules are being followed - in doing 'whatever it takes to get the job done' the insurgent groups are coalescing around the same set of behaviors.
      • Jun 17 2011: An interesting way to think about the behavior is analogous to the difference between actual random distributions and what people think are random distributions - if you ask someone to draw a random assortment of dots on a page they're usually distributed pretty evenly around the page, whereas an actual randomly generated assortment of dots usually would have bunched up areas.

        If a group of insurgents think they're behaving "randomly" or unpredictably, it makes sense that ongoing insurgencies would have similar patterns much in the way people who think they're generating random dots on a page would have similar patterns.
      • Jun 17 2011: may still be chaotic - or at least seemingly chaotic, with power laws arising from interactions? wouldnt be the first time. So, "rules are being followed" may not be the proper idea, rather "similar motives" at least, through the military/operational lense. This may even be more or less constant across cultures and continents - my first, though not 100% correct comparison would be with global studies on altruistic behavior that, given a certain modeling framework, found quite similar patterns around the world. These regularities may even be reflected in the organizational structure / size distribution of differerent gurilla groups around the globe
    • Jun 17 2011: Crysallis - I don't mean to be contrary, but I don't believe Sun Tzu would necessarily agree with that assertion. The Art of War among many other things outlines rules and driving principals for managing conflict; especially in the context of being outnumbered. Kindly.
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        Jun 17 2011: from the Art of war - to the mathematics of war

        I wonder if we could start to codify Sun Tzu into a set of computational equations - or at least a set of testable hypothesis. We could run them on the data coming out of Afghanistan - see if Sun Tzu was correct?

        just a random thought
        • Jun 17 2011: would have to be a pretty high dimensional data set if sun tzu was to be reflected accurately, and a comparably small sample size. any more detailed thoughts?
  • Jun 17 2011: I think its goes to speak of guerilla warfare and the power of underestimating an enemy or potential enemy. One of the strengths of guerilla warfare is the element of surprise. Its worked for people in Algeria when fighting the French, Vietnam etc.
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      Jun 17 2011: This is something we actually studied with regards to attacks in Iraq. Unfortunately there were a very large number of bombings across the country. But we could study the timing of these attacks to see if they truly were random in nature. It turns out that they were more predictable then would be suggested by a truly random distribution in time.

      So whilst surprise may be a goal of an insurgency - it is not always well achieved
  • Jun 17 2011: It's only slightly relevant, but there have been huge advances in medical and trauma research arising from any of the major conflicts during the 20th and 21st centuries. There's a nice review on it in Science magazine - http://www.johnbohannon.org/NewFiles/JC2RT.pdf - but it holds true, and there have been major paradigm shifts in how we treat critically injured trauma patients, which wouldn't have come about except for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
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      Jun 17 2011: One of the interesting data points about war today is that the kill vs. injury ratio generally holds fairly steady at 1:3 i.e. there is 1 person killed for every three injured. This ratio has held for a long time. But now as we look at data from Iraq we see that for US soldiers it has changed to about 1:9. This is due to an asymmetry in health care technologies. Though it will be interesting to see if this advantage lasts over time.
      • Jun 17 2011: The ratio has changed alright, and this is largely due to stablisation of the injured personnel at or near the frontline, then evacuating them to the second tier, tertiary centre - mainly to the LARMC in Landstuhl, Germany. It'll also be interesting to see if this translates to prehospital care of the injured patient in non-conflict environments, much the same way as innovations from the Vietnam war were incorporated into EMS care after that conflict. Hopefully some lives can (indirectly) be saved with the data.
      • Jun 17 2011: That advantage does then raise the question of what we do with all the injured vets. Especially in a political environment where DAV benefits are under attack.
        • Jun 17 2011: Yes, care of the injured patient after the acute phase - neurorehabilitation, reintroduction into society and so on - is a huge part of any well designed civilian trauma pathway. I'm not sure how big a part it plays in the care of returning military personnel.
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    Jun 17 2011: Because a weak group of insurgents think out of the box, and a stronger conventional army doesn't, they are conventional.

    If you apply this theory to business, it may work. However, when that is tried the stronger conventional business usually do conventional things such as drop prices or buy out the smaller unconventional business.
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      Jun 17 2011: It's very interesting talking to different businesses today about the competitive landscape. Big companies like Intel were essentially in a 'cold war' type conflict with other big chip makers like AMD. They now look at the landscape of chip makers and see dozens of different competitors crowding the landscape - much more like an insurgency.

      The thing here is the the smaller companies (much like insurgent groups) are time and again willing to take on much bigger risks then someone like Intel is willing to tackle.
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        Jun 17 2011: That is what we need, businesses willing to be early adopters of new tech. But the big business still tend to gobble them up, sometimes squash the new tech to keep their investment in current tech relative. But I am certainly hopeful the tides are changing for the better, with more competition to push things forward faster.
    • Jun 17 2011: Or the stronger business will make a court appeal, pleading patent infringements and such, making the small business go bankrupt...
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        Jun 17 2011: That brings the governments role of supporting big business into the whole thing. How do we get Government to support the small business over the big business?
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    Jun 17 2011: Powerful, Sean! Have you drawn any conclusions or new thoughts based on the current conflicts in Libya and Egypt?
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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.