Engagement

During my second tour in Vietnam, I spent most of my time at the 1st Cav Division base camp in Phuoc Vinh.

Street in the Village of Phouc Vinh with family shops
Street in Phuoc Vinh in the 60’s

Phuoc Vinh had maybe 2,000 villagers including its farming “suburbs” and had been for most of its history an agricultural community. The French had used the area around the village as a base in the 40’s and early 50’s, and when the 1st Cav moved there, an early task was the removal of a large number of mines, some left over from the French. Also, the village became progressively dependent on commerce with Americans.

Phuoc Vinh was an “open” village. That meant that regardless of which side you were fighting for, as long as you didn’t do anything violent, everyone was accepted in the town during the day. Vietnamese friends told us that NVA troops had some dialect and accent differences and were easy to spot. I thought that there were small differences in the way they dressed, but I could never be sure. There were some accidents, but never deliberate assault while I was there.

The open village was not sanctioned and would never be publically sanctioned. It was, however, an enormous convenience for us, the villagers, and presumably the NVA troops. You could eat, buy, relax, drink, and do other things that were illegal without having to worry about being shot as you did them. This was as true for officers as it was for us grunts. Since there could be no official acknowledgment of this, it all happened without explicit effort; everyone who knew respected it and never brought it up in a way that would require any official attention. It was, as it were, an open secret.

If this implicit understanding had been violated, the town would have been cut off and would have suffered devastating economic collapse.

During this time in my tour, several members of my unit and myself decided that we would try to support some villagers in a more direct way. Basically, we saved pop cans and gave them to a family that made large trunks out of them, and a variety of other items for sale. We also encouraged other American troops to buy these. The cans were spread around through the village to people who did this kind of work, and there was a general uptick in the production. None of this was sanctioned.

This resulted in two benefits to us:

  • On occasion, some of us were invited by the village mayor or other VIPs to eat dinner with them. Since we were grunts and not officers, we had to get permission to do this, though refusing the invitation wasn’t really an option. We would eat Vietnamese dishes and get drunk and stagger back singing to the main gate of the base after dark. Fun for all.
  • For some weeks at the end of my tour, we would be told by villagers if there would be a rocket or mortar attack that night. The NVA always warned the villagers so that they wouldn’t be accidentally killed during the attack.

We would pass the information around but never acknowledge it publically because any official response would destroy our understanding with the village and eliminate the benefits. We would set alarms for 15 to 20 minutes before the time of the attack and go to our bunkers until the attack was over.

Does this strike you as bizarre, or somehow a violation of your assumptions about combat or the relationships between enemies in war?

You might think that these arrangements are rare. They are not. In every war, there are thousands of such arrangements customized to deal with some common good for all the participants. None of them are public even if they have components that are or become public over time. The point of the arrangements is to secure a good for all, and securing that good requires the cooperation and support of all the participants, even when there can’t be any talk ever about the reality of the agreement.

All such arrangements show the power of engagement over contempt. In my next post, I’ll explore more about how engagement can overcome contempt in any context.

Next Post: The Nuts and Bolts of Engagement

Operational and Tactical Dimensions of Disruption

4 persons in wheelchairs occupying a congressional office presentinga statement of demands
ADAPT action in a DC Congressional Office

Nonviolent disruption is unique among frameworks for contesting political and cultural control of lives because it assumes that all who are here now will still be here after the conflict is resolved. The point of nonviolent disruption is to force reflection and discourse on an issue, such as a re-distribution of community resources, political decision-making, or enhanced community understanding, rather than the elimination of an enemy.

In the early history of human communities, violent conflict tended to be resolved by ritual or annihilation. Because of the latter, there are unknown thousands or tens of thousands of human communities that were simply wiped from the face of the earth-the elimination of conflict by the elimination of everyone who is on the other side, however that is defined.

Ritual conflict tried to maintain the larger framework of community relationship by banishing the current conflict but did not alter the underlying dynamic. Annihilation often included variants such as the incorporation of the enemy by the preservation of resources through selective murder and rape.

Not paths anyone would freely choose for our common future…..

Yes, we have.  These approaches remain the primary ways that solutions to conflicts are seen to operate in the so-called “real” world. This is true even though the price for any annihilator today is extremely high, and ritual (i.e, negotiation) has a terrible record in modern times of actually resolving conflicts.

No one argues anymore that a negotiated settlement is an actual resolution. They are all seen as “cease-fires” that somehow allow substantive negotiation that never seems to get at the underlying issues.

One way of viewing the impact of traditional solutions to modern community conflict is to see them as more or less stable processes that cycle through different states of conflict forever without any resolution. To describe this forever war between the traditional and modern use of ritual and annihilation, there is no better example than the Middle East.

In the streets of Jerusalem on the day after the end of the 1948 war (the negotiated agreements were finalized in February of 1949), I doubt there was anyone who thought that the issues then facing the peace would still be on the table nearly 7 decades later.

The current actors have all developed a tolerance for their citizen’s deaths that, while having limits in the short term, seem to have no limits at all over the long-term (70 years and counting). All the actors accept a level of violent death as though it were the unavoidable requirement for the tactical creeping toward their various objectives that passes for sophisticated strategy in that degraded moral environment.

There are many people on the various sides who privately discuss the possiblity of an actual genocide of their enemy whoever that might be. But, any attempt to implement such a plan would result in the loss of all that is most valuable to the responsible actor. So, such talk remains private.

Additionally, the current actors seem oblivious to what they are losing with their continuous use of mini-violence. They make the “hard choices”; they defend some set of values to the last drop of anybody’s blood but their own.

While violent insurgency is the most obvious way that we seem to be chasing our own tails, modern politics has been drifting toward this same view of conflict resolution and there is no reason to think that political insurgency will be any better at resolving underlying conflict dynamics than the quasi-military/political/propaganda battles being continuously waged across our”global” human community. Not unlike mushroom blooms when the conditions are right.

I have an abiding interest in the eternal rebirth of books that claim permanent and boundless victory for some political ideology or insurgency after a temporary victory in the polls or on a battlefield if only to remind myself that the only thing that is truly permanent and boundless is the human capacity for delusion.

There are many entangled human issues involved in these violent human choices (always described as unavoidable and “realistic”, like the laws of physics) and I hope to carve out those entanglements over the next few posts. For now, it is worth reviewing the state of nonviolent disruption as it stands today, and I know of no better primer than 198 Methods of Nonviolent Action.

Next Post: Contempt and Engagement

Disruption of Complex Systems

black and white electron microscope photo of viruses attacking a cell
Viruses Attacking a Cell

Most change initiatives that focus on complex systems are organized to outcompete for the resources that the system currently uses to maintain and grow itself. For example, political parties in the United States fight in cycles both short and long to control the tax and decision resources of government.

Although competition for resources seems the most natural way in the world to change a complex system like government, competition has built-in problems:

  • No way of framing the use of taxes and decision-making (i.e., a political ideology) is perfect. Each model (and there are a lot of them) will produce different outcomes in the short term (with winners and losers), and if the frame is around long enough will deplete the government of resources and capabilities in specific and different patterns. Losers will organize themselves and expend more energy, money, and time to gain control of what they lost. Thus, a cycle of political control.What this means is that US politics is like professional football (or professional wrestling for that matter). There is a superficial appearance of total victory, but only until the next game or season or election cycle. The actual outcome of the competition is stable, if shifting, change in control, that mimics more or less well the current perceived needs of the social system. The point of the system is rough stability, not any particular pattern of resources and decision-making. The death of the cycle would embed the particular flaws of the winner in concrete.Elites invest in the stability of the long-run, not the particulars of the short run. They care only about the rough stability. As a whole, elites could care less about marginal or devalued communities and the hard realities they might face, other than the use they might be put to in supporting or undermining the larger stability.
  • The core assumption that supports the willingness of people to compete for a long time in such a complex system that is “big-picture” stable is the idea that the resources and decision-making power are easy to convert to the winner’s goals. Like the cash in your pocket or purse, taxes and decision-making seem to be simple resources that can be used for any purpose. But they aren’t.Taxes and decision-making are deeply embedded in the system that uses them, and they can’t be drawn out the way cash can be pulled out of your pocket or purse. Instead, like any complex system, all of the particulars of funding and decision-making are tied to each other in ways that aren’t clear and which take a long time to discover. As you make the changes that drove your victorious political effort, you find that the changes cause changes cause changes, etc. and that the very people that supported your victory get hurt, as well as the ones you were deliberately trying to turn into losers. This networked complexity supports the longer sort of stable cycle.
  • What I’ve just described is another way to look at the aging of complex systems. The cycle is maintained by the aging of the current winner’s reformulation of the funding and decision-making pattern. The winners’ plan becomes gradually encrusted with the control they have gained, just as a ship becomes encrusted with barnacles in its purposeful journeys.

Well, if competition does not produce a deep change in complex systems, what does?

Disruption does. It changes the processes that reproduce the system and drive the particular cycle of that system. Disruption focuses on altering the process of maintaining the system, not the superficial appearance of, in our metaphor, governmental policy and resource allocation. And disruption often does this from outside that cycling complex system.

Next Post: How Does Disruption Work?