Hearts and Minds

21 December 2013



“…what could be more excusable than violence to bring about the triumph of the cause of oppressed right?”

Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, translated by Gerald E. Bevan, Part 2, Chapter 4

How are hearts and minds to be won? And how are they lost? These are questions that have become central to the practice of war in our time. In an age of declining peer-to-peer conflict the military environment is increasingly that of asymmetrical warfare, and there is a tension in the environment of asymmetrical warfare between the methods necessary to wage and to win a counter-insurgency and the methods necessary to win the hearts and minds of the people for whom insurgents claim to be waging an armed struggle.

Not only do we live in an age of declining peer-to-peer conflict and increasing asymmetrical warfare, but we also live in of age of popular sovereignty. In an age of unquestioned popular sovereignty, winning the hearts and minds of the people (or losing them) has not only immediate practical consequences but also far-reaching political and ideological ramifications that cannot be ignored. Terrorism today cannot be cleanly separated from insurgency, and insurgency cannot be cleanly separated from the ideal of national self-determination and popular sovereignty. Popular sovereignty means that the hearts and minds of the people rule the state, so that winning or losing hearts and minds is the difference between decreasing or increasing incidents of terrorism. Thus the question of hearts and minds becomes a question of terrorism.

Terrorism — especially terrorism occurring in the context of an insurgency — is one of the great security issues of our time, and the causes and motivations of terrorism constitute one of the great sociological problems of our time. Why do people commit acts of terrorism? What do they hope to gain by the use of terror? Who becomes a terrorist? How do terrorists understand their actions, and how are these actions understood by others? (Some of my earliest blog posts here were concerned with the subject of terrorism — The Future of Terrorism and Terrorism and the evolution of technology — as I had at that time recently read Caleb Carr’s Lessons of Terror — and I have continued to occasionally post on terrorism, as in The Apotheosis of Terrorism.)

The self-understanding and self-justification of the terrorism typically takes the form of an elaborate and detailed extremist ideology, and this extremist ideology is usually found in the context of a broader ideological tradition, of which the violent militant’s faction is a refined and carefully crafted set of beliefs that hangs together coherently and provides an explanation for all things, including the necessity of terrorism and militancy. Often, but not always, this extremist ideology is a set of religious beliefs specific to a particular religious community, in which the ethnic and social community is indistinguishable from the ideological community; in other words, there is an identification of a people with a set of beliefs that define this people. Not all of the people within this community may assent to extremist militancy, but most are likely to assent to the religious ideology that provides the identity of the people.

One of the themes that appears repeatedly in the work of Sam Harris is that religious moderates provide cover for religious extremists, so while religious moderates don’t commit ghastly crimes in the name of religion, they implicitly facilitate ghastly crimes committed in the name of religion. Here is the passage in The End of Faith where Harris introduces this theme:

“…people of faith fall on a continuum: some draw solace and inspiration from a specific spiritual tradition, and yet remain fully committed to tolerance and diversity, while others would burn the earth to cinders if it would put an end to heresy. There are, in other words, religious moderates and religious extremists, and their various passions and projects should not be confused. One of the central themes of this book, however, is that religious moderates are themselves the bearers of a terrible dogma: they imagine that the path to peace will be paved once each of us has learned to respect the unjustified beliefs of others. I hope to show that the very ideal of religious tolerance — born of the notion that every human being should be free to believe whatever he wants about God — is one of the principal forces driving us toward the abyss.”

Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2005

For Harris, religious moderation is not a welcome respite from fanaticism, but a pretext for reasonable people who are vague about their religious beliefs to make excuses for unreasonable people who are clear and unambiguous about their religious beliefs. Ideological moderation provides cover for ideological extremism, and ideological extremism provides cover for militancy. I haven’t read anything In Harris’ work in which he identifies this as a principle, but it is a principle, and, like many principles conceived to explain some particular aspect of the world, it can be generalized as a explanation across many other aspects of the world.

Thus in the same spirit of Harris’ principle that religious moderates provide cover for religious extremists, we can generalize this principle such that ideological moderates of any kind, subscribing to any set of (vaguely held) beliefs, provide cover for ideological extremists who are willing to put their beliefs into practice in an uncompromising form. I will call this the principle of facilitating moderation, since, according to the principle, moderates facilitate the beliefs and actions of extremists. This, as we shall see, is the great stumbling block in winning hearts and minds.

The generalization of Harris’ principle from religion to any ideology whatsoever makes it easier to understand extremist ideologies like communism and fascism (or even simple nationalism) in terms of the same principle without having to argue that such non-religious ideologies are surrogate religions. (I do not disagree with this argument; I have, in fact, made this argument in Mythologies of Industrialized Civilization, but I also know that many people reject the idea of religious surrogates, and as this is not necessary to the argument in the present case, I need not make that argument here in order to make my point.)

Another theme that appears repeatedly in Sam Harris’ lectures is that different religions are adaptable to a greater or lesser extent to being transformed into a suicide cult; some religions are very easily exapted to this end, while others are not at all easily exapted to this end. (Harris makes this point repeatedly in his lectures, but I did not find this explicit argument in his books.) In other words, not all religions are alike in the danger than they pose as pretexts for violent militancy, and Harris goes on to explicitly single out Islam as especially vulnerable to being exapted for violent militancy.

It is a moral “softball” to discuss Islamic suicide terrorism, as this is a topic on which almost all Westerners are in a agreement. It is more morally problematic — and therefore perhaps will better challenge us to sharpen our formulations — if we consider the relative peaceableness of Buddhists and their institutional representatives — a group which Harris explicitly singles out as much less likely to engage in religiously-motivated militancy than Muslims. The way to make intellectual progress is to take a problem at its hardest point and to seek the solution there, avoiding easy answers that cannot hold up in extreme circumstances. (Does this make me an intellectual extremist? Perhaps so.)

Harris contends that it would be much more difficult to transform Buddhism into a suicide cult than Islam, and I want to explicitly say that I do not disagree with this, but… one of the most powerful moments in the Viet Nam war that demonstrated that the US was not only not winning hearts and minds, but was rather disastrously losing them by its support of the Ngô Đình Diệm government, was when Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức burned himself to death in Saigon in 1963 to protest the treatment of Buddhists by the government of Ngô Đình Diệm. While the self-immolation of Thích Quảng Đức harmed no one but himself, it would be difficult to imagine a more “inflammatory” symbol of political protest (and please forgive me for that unfortunate formulation).

It would be difficult to identify self-immolation as anything other than an act of extremism, and it is ideological extremism that motivates ideological militancy. Buddhist monks who protest by self-immolation (and there have been many) represent an extreme form of violence, though as violence turned against oneself it causes no direct harm to others. In practical politics, however, spectacular violence toward oneself — a category that includes suicide bombings — may have the same effect as spectacular violence toward others. Buddhist monks who have spent a lifetime in meditation on the human condition should know well the reaction of the ordinary person to such a spectacle, and it is not likely to be peaceful.

The act of violence in the context of a mostly non-violent community, which latter seeks only to retain its identity and to go about with the ordinary business of life, presents a fundamental problem for counter-insurgency. In any effort to win hearts and minds it is essential to distinguish between those who assent to a given ideology, no matter how extreme, but who make no effort to engage in an armed struggle (or to aid and support such an armed struggle) and those who do engage in militancy, acting upon calls for violent intervention. Terrorism follows from militancy, and militancy follows from extremism, but if strong ideological views are tarred with the same brush as militancy there is the danger of pushing peaceful ideologues over the threshold of militancy and joining in armed struggle.

Most people, no matter how strongly they believe in a given ideology, do not engage in militant action but are willing to work within the established framework of society to attain their ends. Such individuals, and the groups that represent them and speak on their behalf, must not be alienated in any counter-insurgency campaign. On the contrary, they must be cultivated. It is this moderate majority whose hearts and minds must be won if peace is to be established and militants marginalized.

However, it is also this moderate majority that, according to the principle of facilitating moderation, make it possible for extremist ideology and militant groups motivated by extremist ideology to persist. And if the moderate majority are alienated, they are likely, at the very minimum, to give their support to violent militants. Chairman Mao, who came to power through guerrilla warfare and knew a thing or two about it, famously said that, “The guerrilla must move amongst the people as a fish swims in the sea.” In other words, Mao clearly understood the principle of facilitating moderation, given that the guerrilla is the militant who moves among moderates who support and sustain him. Some alienated moderates may also pass beyond disaffection and support of violent militants and may become active militants themselves.

The inherent tension in the relationship between the non-violent majority and the violent minority who turn to militancy is held in check by a shared vision of the world, the common ideology of militant and non-militant, and this means that while individuals may disagree on ways and means, they are likely to agree on the end in view. I wrote about this previously, coming from a slightly different angle, in Cosmic War: An Eschatological Conception:

Because a cosmic war does not occur in a cosmic vacuum, but it occurs in an overall conception of the world, the grievances too occur within this overall conception of history. If we attempt to ameliorate grievances formulated in an eschatological context with utilitarian and pragmatic means, no matter what we do it will never be enough, and never be right. An eschatological solution is wanted for grievances understood eschatologically, and that is why, in at least some cases, religious militants turn to the idea of cosmic war. Only a cosmic war can truly address cosmic grievances.

Sam Harris makes a similar point:

“In our dialogue with the Muslim world, we are confronted by people who hold beliefs for which there is no rational justification and which therefore cannot even be discussed, and yet these are the very beliefs that underlie many of the demands they are likely to make upon us.”

Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason, New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2005

This fundamental tension between winning hearts and minds and successfully combating violent extremists whose hearts and minds overlap to a significant degree with the non-violent majority cannot be wished away; there will always be a trade-off between placing more emphasis on fighting an insurgency or winning hearts and minds. The generality of this result is suggested by the fact that I first formulated this idea in Anti-Technology Terrorism: An Upcoming Global Threat?, and the generality of this result suggests to danger to which we are exposed.

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Grand Strategy Annex

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