The essence of guerrilla war, according to the late great military theorist John Boyd, is moral conflict. The side that can destroy the moral bonds (those that permit the organic whole to exist) of the other side first, wins. One problem we face is that the moral bonds of our enemies are seemingly opaque.
One potential explanation for this opacity is that the moral bonds of our opposition are often tribal (both traditional tribes and "manufactured" tribes like gangs and al Qaeda). To explore this, let's start with a insightful paper by David Ronfeldt (of RAND) that provides a very useful exploration of tribal organizations (David told me he is writing a book on this subject).
The TribeA tribe is the oldest and most successful organizational type ever devised. Its main purpose is to create a sense of social identity that strengthens the ability of the individual and the collective to survive. Traditional tribes rely on kinship ties (families, clans, etc.) and share a common mythology (lineage and place). Manufactured tribes promote brotherhood ("fictive kinship") and create their own mythology (anything that sets them apart). All tribes are based on mutual defense, respect, and honor. They also share common organizational dynamics. Organizationally, tribes are:
- Egalitarian. Every member of the tribe is roughly equal to all others. Order is maintained through mutual respect, ritual, and honor.
- Segmental. Each major section of the tribe is like any other. It can also operate autonomously if needed. Everything the tribe is can be cloned from a segment of the tribe.
- and Acephalous. There isn't a hierarchy. Elders or "big men" are seen more as advisors, brokers, facilitators, and role models than leaders. Roles shift depending on need.
Tribes at WarTribes fight wars over honor, respect, and encroachment. Once engaged, they do not fight as a cohesive group but rather in segments. Each tribal segment acts autonomously to attack its target (usually with ambushes and raids). Religion plays a strong role in that it can be used to justify and reinforce the tribe's actions.
The tribalism we face today is a combination of these ancient mindsets and modern systems thinking (economics, networks, communication, etc.). It's a very dangerous combination made stronger by the forces of globalization -- which has levelled the playing field in the competition between tribes and states. Today, networked tribes thrive economically (particularly as participants in the multi-trillion dollar black economy) and project power globally:
- In Iraq, we don't face a single tribe (either traditional or manufactured). We face dozens. Wholesale systems disruption and violence has forced great many people (particularly young men) into tribal organizations for economic support and defense -- a pattern we see repeated in other failed states.
- In Afghanistan, we see tribes in control of most of the country as well as a multi-billion dollar opium industry.
- Globally we see rapidly growing manufactured tribes like the Mara Salvatrucha (already over 700,000 strong) and al Qaeda in open war with states. The appeal of these tribes -- the sense of belonging they represent -- transcends borders. It is able to motivate young men in the UK and Honduras to undertake acts of extreme violence in the hope of gaining membership.