Winning Those Hearts and Minds...

The good, the bad, and the harebrained: the psychological failings of counterinsurgency theory


Sigmund Freud, c. 1926IT'S the staple of counterinsurgency operations, of course - the point that all the theorists agree on: to prevail, you need to win the population away from the insurgents, and you do that by appealing to their hearts and minds. Sounds like a job for a psychologist, who perhaps ought to know a thing or two about how the mind works, particularly how the mind works in its social context, and how emotions (the 'heart' bit of 'hearts and minds') affect cognition.

You'd think so. But two features of the literature on counterinsurgency stand out: first, it is largely psychologically illiterate; that is, with few notable exceptions, it is ignorant of the academic discipline of experimental cognitive and social psychology, to say nothing of neuroscience. That's not to say there isn't plenty of psychological intuition in there, much of it based on hard-won practical experience. But some of this folk psychology is flat out wrong. And second, what academic psychology there is is of, well, varied quality. 

I'm currently at work on a paper that illustrates these themes by considering the state of psychology in the late 1950s and the uses of it made by three writers involved in counterinsurgency campaigns. These are David Galula, the famous French theorist, whose short book has been popularised by modern scholar-practitioners involved in the recent revival of classical-coin during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; Lucien Pye, an American specialist on East Asia and scholar of political science at MIT, who wrote a fascinating study of communism in Malaya, based on his field research with surrendered enemy personnel there; and JC Carothers, old Kenya hand and medical doctor, who did more than most to shape the perception of the Mau Mau as a manifestation of sinister, even diabolical African mysticism - the product of an immature African psyche.

I won't spill too many beans here, otherwise there'd be no point you pitching up to the big ISA conference in Montreal in a few weeks to hear the rest. But in a nutshell, Galula's book, in common with most of what we now regard as the classic texts: Thompson, Trinquier, Kitson, Taber and so on, is very, very light on psychology. Indeed Galula comes off worse than some of his lesser-known compatriots (in the Anglo-Saxon world, at least, though not in France), whose papers I'm battling through with my schoolboy French. These writers developed a loose-tradition they called guerre psychologique, one of whose motifs was the emphasis on control as a key to successful counterinsurgency. Roger Trinquier, in that sense, seems to be more representative of the group than Galula. The idea, as Etienne de Durand relates in Thomas Rid's fine edited collection on counterinsurgency, was to borrow from Communist ideas about ideological indoctrination - for example, the use of self-criticism, the compulsory membership of an organisation.

These ideas about control exploit the now-established principle of cognitive dissonance. As articulated by Leon Festinger in the late 1950s, this theory suggested that people work to reduce the uncomfortable sensation of jarring attributes. If, for example, they are behaving in a particular way, their underlying attitudes about the appropriateness of that behaviour may shift in line with it. 'If I am doing it, it must be right' - that's the gist of it. This sort of psychology had been evident in the behaviour and attitudes of US prisoners taken during the Korean war, and later examined by American psychologists. I've written a little about that before. What's interesting about the French school, and indeed the Communist revolutionaries they learned from, is that they arrived at this before Festinger set down the results of his fascinating research, including with a fabulously wacky doomsday cult. The two traditions, counterinsurgency and academic social psychology were both inquiring into the same things: how do the attitudes of groups change, and what can outsiders do to influence that? But they were doing so largely in parallel.

For Galula, meanwhile, these ideas about control leading to attitude change are not developed at all - he saw control simply as a way of separating the insurgent from the population - a security measure, not an approach to influencing attitudes by exploiting the commitment-consistency trap. Elsewhere in his slim book, he makes another classic error - one beloved of counterinsurgents down to our own day - in his conviction that while insurgents can lie and deceive, the counterinsurgent had better be truthful and strive to match word and deed. Of course, it's not good for ones credibility to be caught lying and, to be true to one's own ethics, one ought to avoid it. But what is a lie? Galula, as do so many others, present a rather a sixth form notion of truth and lies that ignores decades of social psychological research on the social validation of a great many 'truths'. Much of this was appreciated at the time, of course. Muzafer Sherif had already conducted his classic experiments on norm formation in groups, Gordon Allport had already published his magnificent account of the formation of prejudice between social groups - pre-empting in some respects the much later work of Henri Tajfel on Social Identity Theory and minimal group formation. The essence of all this was that people have multiple identities, which may be salient at different times and each of which may engage different attitudes about appropriate behaviour.

But for Galula, propaganda was a simple, objective and Manichean struggle of truth and lies. Appeals to ethereal truths, like justice, or honour; or the role of emotions like fear and anxiety -- none of that is as important as matching words and deeds, and trusting that the perceptual filters though which social groups interpret such messages wouldn't obscure the inherent rightness of the counterinsurgent.

As for Pye and Carothers, perhaps more on them another time - for now it's enough to say that Pye is an exemplar of good psychology in counterinsurgency, and Carothers of bad. Pye provided some compelling insights into the way in which group identities emerge and shift, based on sound fieldwork. His revelation that most of the prisoners harboured no violent grudge against either ethnic Malays or the government until they were part of the communist movement is fascinating: in adopting that communist identity, mostly for reasons of personal self advancement and in order to stay in contact with friends, the newly-minted communists assumed a package-deal identity that included violent attitudes towards a newly despised outgroup. As with the French theorists of guerre psychologique Pye was in some ways ahead of the social psychological game, and bases his cutting edge findings on some solid empirical research.  Which is more than can be said of Carothers and his harebrained ideas about a Kikuyu 'forest psychology'.