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?

Delusions of System Change

black and white photo of the trinity atom bomb 16 milliseconds after trigger
Trinity Explosion-16 milliseconds after trigger

Weren’t nuclear weapons supposed to end war?

Because mechanical models of system change have been our go-to for decades, we have developed wrong notions about how complex adaptive systems change and how we might guide that change. Our efforts to tap change through simple assumptions are doomed, but we keep doing them.

Because complex systems change unpredictably when disturbed (that’s how they are different from complicated mechanical systems like a 787 airplane, which simply breaks if it is disturbed too much), changing them is more like a game with a large set of possible moves from our target. While we might be able to make a good guess about what the target will do, we are almost never exactly right, and we can never know if this particular attempt at change will be the one where we are right.

This post is about the habits that we have substituted for the creation of a real change strategy:

  1. Myth of Mechanical Change: We can use the same plan to make any specific change we want in a complex target system, in the same way that we can change a dirty oil filter in an engine.
  2. Myth of the Simple Target: Our target is not as smart, committed, complex, nuanced, or capable as we are.
  3. Myth of Resistence: The only way we can counter our target is by resisting their initiatives.

Mechanical Planning

All techniques of change (step by step procedures) become less and less useful over time when they are used against complex systems. This is a direct result of the target becoming familiar with the technique (habituation) and developing mitigation approaches to minimize the impact of the plan (better control in the streets, more efficent arrest processing, better armor, a better social media plan, etc.).

When public protest first hit the national television airways in the 1960’s, it had an enormous impact on the thinking of audiences throughout the United States. Today, a public protest has to have a twist of some kind to be truly noticed. For example, the recent Women’s March had a spectacular turnout, and occurred in a hugely wide range of locations. The March was indeed noticed. The airport protests as DHS turned back Muslim passengers has also been noticed. But think about how effective the airport protests would be if the passengers had never been allowed on the flight to the US in the first place.

Follow-up me-too marches will have less and less impact, and if the best we can do is public protest, we are in for a long and unpleasant 4 years.

Our Target is Dumber Than We Are

We often use arrogance and contempt to substitute for strategic focus. I suppose we do this because it is scary to take on a complex system that has real power. If we see genuine risk in our efforts, it is consoling to think that our target just isn’t in the same league as we are. A simple way to assess the effect of this myth is the amount of grief and surprise you have when the target wins.

One of the hardest (and hopefully earliest) lessons a soldier new to combat must learn is that assuming the other side to be less capable, and thus not really deserving of careful consideration, is a quick way into a body bag.

American social, political, and military history is full of examples of this. You would think we would have gotten it by now. B. H. Liddell Hart reviewed roughly 3,000 years of military failure, in which arrogance and contempt for the enemy was a primary source of poor combat decisions. There is a famous aphorism that says those who start wars lose them more often than they would if chance were the determinant of victory, and arrogance and contempt are the primary reasons why nations start wars that they are doomed to lose.

Resistance is Futile

Well, not futile. Resistance is necessary, but not sufficient. Meet the new boss,
Same as the old boss. Resistance basically says that we want the target to stop doing this specific thing, or some list of things, and if the target stops, we will go back to our daily routine.

If all we do is resist, we may improve our prospects for a time. But complex systems adapt without altering their underlying dimensions of control. There can be real improvements by changing bosses (especially if you are part of a devalued, marginalized community). But don’t relax too much, because the cycle of life will come back around in a decade or two or three and kick you or your children in the ass once again.

If you really want to change a complex system, you will need more than operational planning, contempt for your target, and reactive resistance. You will need to challenge the control dimensions of the target through disruption.

Next Post: Disruption of Complex Systems


The Adaptive Cycle and The Aging of Complex Systems

The four phases of the adaptive cycle-reorganization, growth, conservation, release
The Adaptive Cycle

You can find more versions of the Adaptive Cycle at https://goo.gl/iY3539

Corruption (as a system characteristic, not a moral failing) is inevitable in the life history of complex systems. I am using corruption as a pointer to the use of resources for purposes other than the apparent or first use by the system.

The increased diversity in the use of system generated and stored resources can start anytime in the life cycle of a complex system, but will begin during the conservation phase because of the trade-offs that arise from putting aside resources for some purpose other than the core mission.

It’s easier to think about the phases if we pull them out of the cycle and examine each  in turn:

  1. Reorganization: Imagine an open field, soon after a large fire has burnt over it and seems to have rendered it empty of life. Although it might seem that you could create any system in this emptiness, that isn’t true. The system that begins to form will be one populated by the fast and the furious species. These “pioneers” (start-ups, leaders, initiators, etc.) will be able to quickly grab the remaining scattered resources and use them for rapid growth and turnover.
  2. Growth: While pioneers burn out quickly, they are also preparing the field for longer term residents by mobilizing resources into a form that can more easily be used by others, and, with their individual death, returning their own personal resources to the common evolution of the field. The replacements for the pioneers can last longer, can use the residue of the pioneers, and can create novel relationships that expand their reach not only into the area outside the field but more deeply within the field.
  3. Conservation: At some point, a complex system has enough resources to prevent simple disintegration because of random events. Also, the system is producing resources that last longer, and that don’t disappear after use (say, financial skills).It is at this point that corruption becomes a critical part of the complex system’s dynamic. A simple example is the creation of cash reserves in a small advocacy nonprofit. These reserves serve the obvious purpose of buffering the organization against the unpredictability of outside events, i.e., short-term funding problems, unanticipated opportunities, loss of grants, and so on. But, the reality is that these reserves could just as easily be used for the core mission of the organization. Of course, once the reserves are gone, the organization is once again subject to the political and financial weather.

    This decision point or the tradeoff of short-term mission use and long-term stability produces an easily exploited ground for the expansion of system and personal corruption. A general model for both is the use by staff, managers, and stockholders (or stakeholders) of the organization’s resources for the gratification of their individual desires.  This is so common that most of us tend to think of it as a normal expected part of a corporate or organizational function. It is the reality that this small corruption won’t destroy the system. Think of it as opportunity corruption.

    System corruption tends to expand over time, and while it may stall when someone important is punished for it, the underlying causes of it continue to drive it forward.
    In addition, the resources required for repair and maintenance of the complex system increases over time. Think about your own experience as you have aged. This too is driven and the dynamic can’t be eliminated, though, of course, it can be reduced through careful planning and actions that, nonetheless, suck up resources that might be used for other purposes.

  4. Release: As long as the complex system is growing, it can tolerate a large amount of system corruption. But no complex system grows forever. Because the corrupt dynamics in the system are relatively separated from the larger dynamic of the whole, they are able to ignore the contraction in growth drivers better than the core dynamics. The effect of this (protecting the corruption instead of the system as a whole), is to make the corruption more stable than the core, and an increasing part of the dynamic of the whole. Much like cancer.When the combination of lost growth drivers and expanding corruption reaches a certain point, the complex system disintegrates in whole or in part, and its resources are released into the larger environment for use by unknown pioneers. And the cycle begins again.

Note that this dynamic is inevitable in the long run. You can modify its impact, but you can’t stop it. You can, of course, still think about changing this dynamic by embracing the possibility of beginning again when the cycle has “prepared” that possibility.

But we all deceive ourselves about how easy or possible it is to change an existing complex system that is late in its conservation phase. Say, our current society.

Next Post: The Delusions of System Change



All War Is Deception

Wizard of Oz scene exposing the man behind the curtain
Ignore the Man Behind the Curtain

“All War is Deception” is a sentiment reaching back to the early days of Taoism and “The Art of War” by Sun Tzu. At the time, as was the case in all human cultures at some point or another, war was evolving from ritual combat to a collective action that was entirely deceitful. Even the actions that seemed to be real were shaded, tweaked, exaggerated, and so on, to fool the enemy (and eventually, to fool your own troops). The reason why deceit replaced ritual conflict resolution was because those who stuck to the honorable approach to war lost and died.

This change was not that all war was ritual and suddenly turned into deceit. Soldiers have always tried to fool their enemy about where they were so they could avoid being targeted, even when the soldiers were all marching in formations. The change I’m describing above is that all of war gradually became deceit, through the expansion of the use of lies. Most importantly, war strategy came to assume deceit as a basic (strategic) organizing framework. Such a choice is a complete rejection of honorable conflict resolution in war, and I suspect, comes as no surprise to most modern people.

At roughly the same time that war was rejecting ritual resolution, there was again a Taoist sentiment supported by Sun Tzu that while war had to be deceit, governance had to be honorable, or the balance of the world would break.

When government becomes strategically deceitful, politics becomes war-not metaphorical war, but war. Just as it is unrealistic to expect war to stop being deceitful, it is no longer realistic to expect government as a whole to be honorable. While this is hardly a new idea, the entirely public exposure of the political culture of deceit in the 2016 election by almost every stakeholder in the fight and even some in other countries has demonstrated just how far our governance has drifted toward the “dark side”. Deceit in government has become not just a way of attaining short term goals or preventing “targeting”, as it were, but the underlying framework for all political strategy at all levels of society. Those who insist on maintaining more than a veneer of honor will be and are being culled from the body politic, not with death or gulags, but using the tools of social and political irrelevance.

And what is our collective response to this devolution in political culture? We seem unwilling to give up the idea that honorable people from somewhere will be able to eliminate these deceits and corruption. Much like those soldiers who thought that if they maintained commitment to honorable war, the move to deceit can be remedied.

Those of us who have worked in the disability community over the decades are well aware that policy decisions can cause death in our community. And not just abstract death, but the death of our friends, members of our family, people we love. Individuals who die because a policy change is deemed necessary to support a larger deceitful political strategy are just as dead and just as grieved as if they were shot dead by a soldier. Our brothers and sisters become collateral damage in a war where we have no importance, no political, and therefore, no social worth.

“When elephants fight, the grass gets crushed.”

Next Post: How Corruption Affects Complex Systems

The Harsh Realities Series

Picture of creepy black and white outside hall with statement,
What Future Will We Fight For?

I’ve had some notions about our common future that I haven’t put into posts because I was afraid they would be viewed as too wacky to be useful to our disability community. The election has changed my mind about that, so I’m going to post those ideas under the rubric, “Harsh Realities” over the next few weeks.

The Basics:

  1. The phrase “Culture Wars” is no longer a metaphor and hasn’t been for a while. The underlying framework of war is not the surface violence that we see in games and the news (or in actual combat for that matter). The real strategic framework of war is global deception, and deception is now the purpose of almost all public, and an increasingly scary percentage of private, communication.

    Deception includes lies, misdirection, oversimplification, provocation, and similar propagandist techniques. More importantly, strategic deception has no boundaries that segregate private life from public. Every communication becomes an opportunity for deceit and pursuit of an overarching strategy.

  2.  Closed system approaches, like law enforcement, ethical standards, logical argument, courts, and similar procedural disorder resolution methods that rely on common agreement and common ritual, are far too slow, and are already doing less and less to counter this situation. Instead, consensus conflict resolution is drifting relentlessly toward being no more than a reflection the ideologies of disruption that constitute our political system.

    The militarization of police forces and the rise of market-driven terror organizations like drug cartels are  particularly obvious examples of how we are being pushed toward a universal insurgency that would have been unthinkable two decades ago.

    There are many other examples; universal surveillance and the expanding corruption of organizations, institutions, and communities are trends over which we have no control as well. Deception is the first sign of corruption.

  3. Strategic Deception always creates unintended pools of chaos in communication in addition to the apparent immediate purpose of the deception. This has been most obvious in the financial crashes of recent decades, none of which were “planned”.

    They occurred because corrupt financial forces were seeking short term benefit and lost control of the impact of their more or less successful corruption.  Complex systems are full of unintended consequences, and deception as strategy increases the complexity, range, and reach of such consequences.

    These eddies of chaos arise and die unpredictably and dramatically enhance the overall uncertainty of the future, degrading our efforts to communicate real meaning and value.

    This reality of universal deception has always been accepted as unavoidable in what we have traditionally thought of as war. The so called “fog of war” is now becoming the fog of everyday life.

  4. The best (if not the only way) to think about the ideological insurgencies we have seen globally in recent years is that their goals have been disruption, not persuasion.  That is why countering propaganda memes with truth or rational analysis has had no impact on the belief systems of insurgencies or their electoral support. If disruption is the goal, lies are a great way to provoke it.
  5. There are excellent reasons to think that if our community doesn’t absorb these lessons, our advocacy will go the way that all ritual approaches to war have in the past-that is, our disability community rights advocacy may be rediscovered  by historians (or worse, by archaeologists) in some conceptual dustbin of our future.

Don’t immediately reject these ideas because they seem so strange.

We already have models in our community of how to move our advocacy in the direction of  an insurgency without losing our moral compass. The core of those models are community organizing, mutual support, and peaceful disruption of the increasingly likely retrenchment.

But, before we can actually make use of those models, we have to understand more deeply the necessity of doing so.

Next Post: All War is Deception