Change Agent: Why Use Insurgent Strategies to Create Peaceful Change

Group of smiling balls in a line. One sad ball is going to bounce the other balls.
Group of smiling balls in a line. One sad ball is going to bounce the other balls.
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

In March of 2007, our family lost my stepbrother Chris Dana to a suicide brought on by a post traumatic stress injury he received while deployed in Iraq. Our family got together after his death and decided to advocate for change in our our nation cared for the hidden wounds of our military service members returning from combat.

I didn’t have any background in creating change or any type of political advocacy at that point.

The main tool that I had was I studied Insurgency Strategies under LTC(R) John Nagl D.Phil. as the focus of my major while at West Point. The structure of those campaigns made a lot sense to me. Instead of trying to learn a different structure, I decided to alter that the insurgency doctrine to fit the goals, objectives, and tactics of this fight.

I have been using Insurgency Strategies to create change for more than a decade. They have been essential to passing two bills at the federal level, dozens of bills on the state level, and in partnering with amazing researchers and stakeholders.

What Is Insurgency Strategies

Insurgency strategies are a type of “Asymmetrical Warfare.” Asymmetrical Warfare is defined as:

“[O]ne actor seeking to offset the other’s strength by utilizing different approaches or means in order to attack identified vulnerabilities; it is the deliberate strategy chosen by one side to exploit the weaknesses of an opponent.”
- Major John W. Reynolds, “Deterring and Responding to Asymmetrical Threats.”

Basically, it’s a theory of warfare that takes in mind that you have different strengths, skills, and weaknesses than your opponent. Therefore, it does not make sense for both of you to use the same strategies and tactics against each other.

Insurgents are generally the weaker force based on weapons, troop numbers, and resources. Insurgencies are typically founded after as the result of an invasion by another country or empire when the insurgents are the local population that fights against the invaders.

There is a lot of intricacies involved in the definition of strategy, but for these purposes the broad Wikipedia definition will work.

Strategy is a general plan to achieve one or more long-term or overall goals under conditions of uncertainty.

So, we’ll use a definition of Insurgency Strategies as how a traditionally weaker force plans to achieve their long-term goals despite pressure from a stronger opponent.

Insurgency Strategies Are Proven and Powerful

As a U.S. citizen, my favorite examples of the success of Insurgency Strategy is the American Revolution. General George Washington transitioned from conventional military strategies to insurgency strategy of “winning by not losing” in 1776 after the disastrous battles for control of Manhattan. (Founding Insurgents, Foreign Policy) The U.S. has also been on the attacking side of insurgencies in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Insurgencies of one form or another have taken place on every inhabitited continent. The are natural part of human beings battle for power. The strategies behind these campaigns have been honed over thousands of years. While they are not always successful in achieving their overall objectives, insurgency strategies offer a smaller weaker force a legitimate chance regardless of how powerful their opponent.

Insurgency Strategy Does Not Require Violence

I hadn’t thought about applying insurgent strategies to create nonviolent change until I needed them myself. My education as West Point definitely highlighted the political and economic aspects of insurgency, but every case that we studied also involved large-scale warfare.

I didn’t think about how nonviolent activists and politicians had used many of the same strategies for years to affect change. These were the same tools that were used so successfully during the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, the anti-colonialism movement in India, etc.

I read accounts of the strength and courage of people like Dr. Martin Luther King, Ph.D. and Mahatma Gandhi without realizing that the toolset that they were using to create change (mobilizing a population against a stronger force to achieve certain objectives) was almost exactly what I had studied in my insurgency research at West Point.

Insurgency Strategies Focus On Mobilizing the Population To Create Change, Not Fighting Directly Against the Stronger Power

Traditional warfare strategy is like chess. There are two opponents and they go after each other. The victor is who can use their assets to defeat their opponents assets. The purest form of this in traditional warfare was a set of soldiers in a line fighting another set of soldiers in a line. The only variables that mattered in that situation were those that directly served the soldiers that were fighting in that line. (supplies, reinforcements, fighting tactics, geographic terrain, etc.)

The difference between traditional warfare strategy and insurgency strategies depend on mobilizing the broader civilian population.

History is littered with examples of traditional armies that won the conventional war against their opponents, yet lost the insurgency that followed when the broader population mobilized.

Analyzing Insurgency Strategies, From How I Use Them

In the course of the next few months, I will write articles on the points of Insurgency Strategy that I use in setting up campaigns. They should feel similar to other strategic writing on creating change, because these are timeless principles of humanity. There is and should be a lot of overlap in what works and doesn’t in different fields.

Here is a rough list of what we will cover:

  • Identify the problem (cause). What keeps you up at night?
  • Set clear and definable objectives.
  • Understanding the terrain. Where will the fight take place?
  • Study your adversary. Or, string of adversaries.
  • Do not be intimidated. The power in weakness.
  • Identify potential allies. Small and large.
  • Craft a narrative. Story matters.
  • Strike hard. Audacity is essential.
  • Getting the story out. How to reach who you need to reach.
  • Overcoming the dangers of intermediate success.
  • Maintain humility. It’s hard to for jerks to maintain causes.
  • Utilize combat patience. Don’t expend time, energy, and resources until you can get full use out of them.
  • Stay flexible in your thoughts and actions
  • Expect roadblocks. Every action has a reaction.
  • The long fight favors the insurgent.
  • Financing the effort. As a solo fighter and beyond.
  • Do not overextend. It will be really tempting.
  • Have faith. Massive goals require broad mental models to support.
  • Have outside interests. No one follows a one-dimensional leader.

Thank you for joining me on this journey.

Written by

A weird mix of mental health, policy, tech, writing, and Montana. Views are my own, not of any organization I’m involved with.

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