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By Douglas Moran

Winning the battle but losing the war? Thinking strategically and recent events

Uploaded: Aug 18, 2017

In the time and place I grew up, we received repeated lessons about not sacrificing the ultimate victory by insisting on winning all the small battles. Sometimes it was in explicit advice from adults and older children, sometimes in stories, and it was constantly in the games we played. It started early in simple board games such as Checkers. Similarly in many sports, the design of the game forces you to constantly tradeoff small defeats in order to better position yourself to win the game. For example, in basketball, there are certain occasions where it is a good tradeoff to use a foul to stop the opponent from scoring, but because you have only a limited number of fouls to give, this is only for special situation.

As I got older, I encountered more stories used to reinforce this: They went from parables and discussion of immediate events to historical accounts. There was the Pyrrhic Victory and other stories where the tactical winner was the strategic loser (example, the Battle of Jutland in WW1). And other stories illustrating "He who defends everything defends nothing" (Frederick the Great) and stories whose lessons were first set down in The Art of War by Sun Tzu. For example, you could use maneuver and/or deception to win a battle with little or no fighting. A head-on battle was to be avoided when possible because there were too many uncertainties and the costs were high.(foot#1)

Intertwined with this was the teaching of discipline, including mental discipline and disciplined decision-making. Of course, different people acquired these skills to different levels, with the military being seen as a last-chance remedial course for boys who flunked. Aside: Some variations of the Stanford Marshmallow Experiment (delayed gratification) suggest that self-discipline is partly training.

The advanced lessons were first to understand when, why and how an opponent would lose discipline and then to consider how you might provoke or draw him into doing such. Second was to be alert to him trying to draw you into self-defeating actions.(foot#2) Although it is easy to say that you need to put yourself "in the opponent's shoes", it is also easy to forget to do this in the heat of the moment. The more difficult lesson is recognizing that putting yourself in his shoes is only the first step--it is not enough to look at the on-the-ground situation from his perspective because you are doing that with your biases, priorities, culture... and not his. History is littered with battles and wars lost because a seasoned commander could not take this next step.

Related lessons were "Just because you have the (legal) right to do something, doesn't make it the smart thing to do", or ethical ... And the ever popular Drivers Ed lesson "Being dead right doesn't make you any less dead."

----"The Resistance" to Trump----

I find the Resistance movement discouraging because it is repeating so many well-known mistakes of organizing. First, if everything is an outrage, then nothing is an outrage. Supporters become exhausted and cease to respond. Predictably people who have been inundated with alarms from The Resistance are unsubscribing and/or setting up filters to delete those messages. It is not just the individual messages being ignored, it is loss of the credibility of the sender ("crying wolf"). Once lost, it is a long, slow process to restore trust and one's credibility.

Second, the actions being advocated are often little more than Virtue Signaling or Clicktivism/Slacktivism. That is, activities whose goal is a combination of satisfying the participants' needs to feel that they have somehow contributed and to let them make that visible to others. Virtue Signaling had honorable origins. For example, in the early days of recycling, curb-side pickup enabled the early adopters to influence their neighbors to become recyclers, whereas your taking recyclables to a drop-off center was largely invisible, and thus had little influence on others. However, today "Virtue Signaling" is primarily used as a pejorative--describing actions taken primarily for one's own benefit ("Look at me and how virtuous I am").

My experiences have sensitized me to the first trap. For example, in the mid-1970s, I was part of a labor union that had won a multiyear fight for recognition and needed to shift to using those hard-won powers. However, a significant part of the leadership rejected this, treating everything as requiring mass actions. This crippled the union, and it took years to recover. It was here that I first encounter the (slightly paraphrased) assessment by the Paris Chief of the (1848) Revolutionary Police about famous Russian anarchist Michail Bakunin: "On the first day, he was a treasure. On the second day, he should have been shot."

----The alt-Right at Charlottesville/UVA----

Rules: The events in Charlottesville/UVA are much too emotional to have a discussion among largely anonymous, disconnected strangers. Those events, Trump, alt-Right, Antifa(cist) ... are off-topic here, and for those new to this blog, be aware that I delete off-topic comments. My intent here is to provide additional material from history that may be useful for teachable opportunities within appropriate groups. This could lead you to have more critical readings and views of reports of such events. By having a very different focus, I hope that this will be both interesting and useful.

In the 1970s and 1980s, there was a small US neo-Nazi party headquartered in Chicago, but it was difficult to understand how something that small continued to exist.(foot#3) Seeking publicity, they would hold the occasional rally or march, but that publicity was typically counter-productive: They came off as pathetic buffoons. From my recollection of the media coverage, it was impossible to tell if this was happenstance or media-savvy by the police (doubtful). The typical police deployment was to keep any counter-demonstrators widely separated from the neo-Nazis. The neo-Nazis wanted to project a message of strength, but got the opposite: Most photo and video coverage showed them as a small group milling around and needing the protection of a large number of police. Also, keeping the counter-demonstrators a distance from the neo-Nazis resulted in the photos emphasizing how few they were -- if the counter-demonstrators were allowed to be close, the impressions from the photos would have been that the neo-Nazis were much more numerous, the eye being fooled into not distinguishing some of the counter-demonstrators from the neo-Nazis. These tactics seem to negated the marches as recruiting tools--how likely is it for someone having seen such a march to say for the next one "Mom, I am going to drive 200 miles to participate in a demonstration. Don't worry. It involves me standing around in hot, humid weather for a couple of hours and listening to a couple boring speeches from pompous blowhards."

I suspect that the neo-Nazis hoped to be attacked by the counter-demonstrators, creating a narrative that they were attacked and, as valiant underdogs, fought for their rights and ideas. The prospect of such fighting might be a draw for others to join the core protesters. Also, fighting would have increased the amount of coverage and make it more prominent. The counter-strategy seem to have been to have their event be so contained as to have it be ho-hum--less interesting than a kitten stuck in a tree.

The Chicago neo-Nazis managed to get publicity in 1977 with a proposed march in Skokie Illinois that was blocked. The debate quickly turned to just how very despicable they were, that is, whether they were so extreme as to fall outside the very broad protections of Freedom on Speech. Again, not a good recruiting tool.

The KKK and similar groups were larger, but I don't remember any of their attempts at this type of publicity being successful.

Remember: This is not a discussion of Charlottesville, but prompting you to use the incomplete and potentially erroneous information about events to think about the larger lessons. For example, on the matter of blame, ignore your own assessment, and start by identifying the audiences important to each of the various participants and then think about how they would assign blame. Or flip that around and start with the various ways that blame could be assigned and identify the audiences that would have that perspective.

For the "exercises" below, I am hoping that you can find within yourself the ability to be completely amoral--stripping out the complicating factors of right and wrong so that you can focus on what was and wasn't effective for the various groups in reaching their various targeted audiences.

Exercise 1: Discuss with your chosen friends what is different between the situations I outlined above and Charlottesville?
- How much has the Internet changed things? For example, it can be superior to meeting in dank rooms and isolated backwoods compounds, but it does little to bring their message before the general public (one has to actively search for it).
- Why the difference in the police preparations and response? The police have been widely criticized for ineffective and belated action at this and many recent demonstrations. My inferences from what the police officials have said is that they have misaligned incentives, that is, that they are balancing the cost to them--criticism and legal actions--for the various levels of activity. But recognize that those incentives are passed down to them from the politicians and ultimately the public.
Consider the media coverage and ask which activities of the counter-demonstrators were effective for which audiences. Then where they were ineffective, what do you think might have been better practical alternatives. You (and I) don't have anywhere near enough information to be authoritative--this is just an opportunity to have you think more deeply about such situations.
(This is an open-end question and will be ungraded (smile)).

In the spirit of "The opposite of love is not hate, it's indifference" (Elie Wiesel), some actions are best condemned by ignoring or dismissing them as so insignificant as to not be worthy of your time. This can be effective against some groups that lack critical mass--they simply fizzle out or sputter along impotently. However, certain highly motivated small groups will respond to being ignored by turning to violence and terrorism: Terrorism is a weapon of those who are so weak as to have no hope of winning on their own, and instead try to goad the authorities into self-defeating actions, that is, making enough stupid mistakes to shift sympathies, later support, to the terrorists.(foot#4) While small, non-violent marches may be counter-productive for groups such as the alt-Right, other activities can provide them more leverage and thus call for different responses. For example, in places where people spent a lot of time passing through public spaces, posters and graffiti can have substantial impact.

Many of you have personal experience with a minor version of this in online discussions. You ignore peripheral attacks expecting that they will quickly die and be forgotten, drowned under the flow of the main discussion. Then there is the "Don't Feed the Trolls" problem: If you believe that most of the participants in the discussion recognize trolling you can, and should, ignore the troll. However, if not, how do you respond to get the troll to expose himself?

Exercise 2: If you were an organizer of a similar counter-demonstration, what would have been your goals, both in shaping the event itself and how it plays out in the media? What do you worry about and prepare for? Recognize that there will be people and groups showing up with their own distinct agendas--you have little, if any, influence over them, much less control. What can you--the sponsoring group--do to minimize their agendas being portrayed by the media as that of the larger group (Hint: very little).

Exercise 3: How big a problem is the alt-Right? Instead of plunging in, you should first focus on getting a usable definition--there are many competing definitions that differ on who should be included. You should then narrow this down to those relevant to this question. For example, categorizing all visitors to alt-Right websites as being members would include people doing research, for example, reporters, law enforcement, opposition researchers. Only then can you start to estimating how many members it has. Recognize that there are those outside the alt-Right who also benefit from exaggerating its size, power and influence. An analogy is that during the negotiation of the Versailles Treaty ending World War I, the Americans and British were baffled that the French generals were arguing for a larger German army, until they realized that that would necessitate (guarantee) France maintaining a large army itself.

----Demonstrations that turn violent----

For demonstrations intended to be non-violent, agent provocateurs are persistent problems. The obvious cases are those where your opponent seeks to discredit you. But all-to-common cases are those of "allies" who hope that the police response to their violent acts will radicalize other participants. There is a long history of demonstration leaders organizing marshals to thwart such people, and of those leaders encouraging all participants to help the marshals. This was common in the Civil Rights Movement, probably inherited from union organizers. It then passed on to the anti-Vietnam War movement and subsequent movements.

However, in the coverage of recent demonstrations in the Bay area I have seen little evidence of this. For example, TV coverage showed the Black Bloc provocateurs and other vandals and hoodlums routinely escaping police by melting into the crowd because the crowd lets them.

Exercise 4: (An issue of morality): At what point does a crowd qualify as sheltering a violent actor? What is the culpability of those in the crowd who are aware that such a person is using them as cover? What about people who would be foolish not to know that someone near them is planning an act of violence? For example, someone dressed in the mode of the Black Bloc, or even just wearing a mask?


Reiterating that comments about the Charlottesville demonstrations themselves, alt-Right, Antifa(cist), Trump and similar is off-topic here. There is more than enough of that going on elsewhere and those discussions indicate the implausibility of being able to have a reasonable discussion here.

Comments are encouraged that would help the readership think more clearly and critically about the broader issues and lessons from these events.


2017-08-25: An opinion piece of potential interest:
"A Strong Opinion: Stop Counter-Protesting: Even if the protesters are the KKK, white supremacists and neo-Nazis by Rick Gell, on under Activism, 2017-08-21. Republished by Salon, 2017-08-23.

1. Why use military history:
For accounts of decision-making and management, the military history literature is vastly superior to that for similar events in commercial business and politics. First, there tends to be better access for people writing critical accounts. Second, there is a larger market for this information, so you get multiple critical examinations and those accounts are often shaped into more memorable stories. Third, there are times and places where the military culture encouraged, even demanded, the documentation of events so that they could be passed on to both colleagues and the succeeding generations. This became more common as militaries became very large organizations.

2. Suck into making mistakes:
In high school, one of my friends was a through-and-through linebacker (later went high in the second round of the NFL draft). Because of his size and athleticism, the varsity basketball coach briefly tried to have him on the team, but he was inherently too aggressive. In one game, he fouled out in less than 2 minutes. He came off the bench and fouled on the inbound pass and then fouled rebounding on that foul shot. On the ensuing possession, he got a charging foul (3 fouls in rough 10-20 seconds). I don't remember the details of the remaining ones. This was only a minor surprise to me because I had played against him in schoolyard games and had quickly learned how to offset my disadvantages.

3. Small US neo-Nazi Party:
Extrapolating from what happened within the KKK, a significant fraction of its members may have police informants. One KKK leader reputedly claimed that informants were essential to the survival of the chapters because "they were the only ones paying dues". There is another questionable story that a chapter had shrunk to the point that its only remaining members were informants for various agencies (combinations of FBI, ATF, state police, sheriff, city police... in various tellings) but it took some time for them to figure that out. While the details of "enhanced" stories are not to be individually believed, the pattern of the collection of such stories may be telling.

4. Responding to terrorism:
The French-Algerian War has become the classic example: The French totally crushed the urban terrorists, but in doing so created such a backlash--in Algeria, France and the world--that France lost the war. Although it is hard to discuss dispassionately the US invasion of Iraq, it is regarded as another prime example where the terrorists won: al Qaeda metastasized from a tiny organization that could stage only very infrequent attacks into one with international chapters, affiliates and franchises that were cumulatively staging daily attacks and in many places controlling significant swathes of territory. ISIS then built on this.

An abbreviated index by topic and chronologically is available.

----Boilerplate on Commenting----
The Guidelines for comments on this blog are different from those on Town Square Forums. I am attempting to foster more civility and substantive comments by deleting violations of the guidelines.

I am particularly strict about misrepresenting what others have said (me or other commenters). If I judge your comment as likely to provoke a response of "That is not what was said", do not be surprised to have it deleted. My primary goal is to avoid unnecessary and undesirable back-and-forth, but such misrepresentations also indicate that the author is unwilling/unable to participate in a meaningful, respectful conversation on the topic.

If you behave like a Troll, do not waste your time protesting when you get treated like one.