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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: 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.

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