Small Wars Journal

Getting Rid of the Chicago School of Counter-Insurgency

Getting Rid of the Chicago School of Counter-Insurgency

by Michael Cummings

On Violence


Since the 1980s, Arlington Williams, an economist at Indiana University, has been trying to create stock market bubbles. He can. Every single time. His students sit down at a virtual stock market that consists of one stock to trade. Sure enough a bubble grows, then pops, leaving some of his students short by tens of dollars.

More amazing is that this bubble forms as he gives a class on economic bubbles. He explains to the students exactly what is happening, how they are creating a bubble. The students agree with him. Still, the bubble continues to grow, then pops. (Listen to the full story on NPR’s "Planet Money" podcast.) In short, the basis of “neo-classical macro-economics”, as popularized by the Chicago School of Economics, doesn’t work very well. The Chicago School believes that humans always act rationally when it comes to money.

Turns out they don’t. And guess what? Humans don’t act rationally when it comes to war either.

Yet, when it comes to counter-insurgency, military theorists continue to ignore humanity’s underlying irrationality. Consider Andrew Exum’s article in the Daily Beast:

“Populations, in civil wars, make cold-blooded calculations about their self-interest. If forced to choose sides in a civil war—and they will resist making that choice for as long as possible, for understandable reasons—they will side with the faction they assess to be the one most likely to win.”

I dub this the “Chicago School of Counter-Insurgency”, the idea that in warfare--with death and subjugation on the line--mankind’s rationality trumps his unconscious thoughts and emotions.

Fortunately, plenty of journalists have written about the lack of human rationality. Like our greatest living conservative commentator, David Brooks, who wrote an entire book on unconscious thought and emotions. In a column a few weeks back he doubled down on this assertion: we don’t have rational explanations for many of our actions.

"Before Kahneman and Tversky, people who thought about social problems and human behavior tended to assume that we are mostly rational agents. They assumed that people have control over the most important parts of their own thinking. They assumed that people are basically sensible utility-maximizers and that when they depart from reason it’s because some passion like fear or love has distorted their judgment."

Brooks’ heroes, Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, conducted psychological experiments. They proved that actual human behavior often deviates from the old, rational models, revealing flaws in the machinery of cognition. They demonstrated that people rely on unconscious biases and rules of thumb to navigate the world, for good and ill. And, like Brooks, they know that emotions, even subtle emotions, interfere with rational thought. (A Philosophy Bites episode in this vein also reveals the fallibility of rationality.)

Combine irrational actions with boatloads of money, and you have the financial system, which pretty much describes all of investment-banker-turned-sports-writer Michael Lewis’ writings. In Lewis’ Panic!, rational investors frequently make irrational decisions, believing they are rational. As a result the stock market crashes, again and again. Lewis also reveals how stock market investors frequently trade on attributes not highly correlated with value, like the height of a CEO or his good looks. This happened in Lewis’ Moneyball too; scouts valued a good-looking body more than On Base Percentage. Only one measurement actually affected a player’s baseball ability. (Another book on subconscious thought, and how it limits "rational" thought, is Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink.)

When it comes to warfare, we shouldn’t suddenly expect humans to drop their irrationality. In fact, we should expect a mixture of rational thought and irrational behavior.

Rationally, populations try to pick winners. They also resist making choices in a civil war, as Exum noted above. As John Shy wrote in A People Numerous and Armed, irregular warfare forces people to make political choices. They also try to side with the faction they think will win the conflict.

That said, people aren’t rational when it comes to killing and death. In warfare, cold blood is impossible to find. When you go to war, emotions dominate thinking. They cloud fine judgement, they muddy the water. Irrational, sub-conscious motivations influence actions. Some emotions will cause some individuals to never consider joining the winning side.

Consider the insidious suicide bomber. For the suicide bomber, this could be a rational act in that insurgents will provide for his family. In actuality, foreign occupation triggers suicide attacks. And the more foreign the invading army, the more suicide attacks. But there is nothing “rational” about a foreign actors “foreign-ness”. This is just another unconscious trigger.

This applies to both sides of the conflict. Heroism and valor are actually defined by their irrationality. I will always remember my deployment to Afghanistan for its wild swings of emotions--the highest highs and lowest lows, often in quick succession. Most of the incidents of war crimes in Afghanistan or Iraq stem from the emotional toll of warfare.

In short, we cannot fall into the trap of the Chicago School of Counter-Insurgency. We cannot pretend that killing people won’t cause emotional reactions. We cannot pretend that in a war zone people always act rationally, because people don’t. As a counter-insurgent, we must balance our views of insurgents and the population as both rational and emotional actors.




Thu, 12/22/2011 - 10:32am

Your description of the Chicago School of Economics is roughly 180 degrees off. Rather, you are describing a central command economics view of the economy as the "bad" view. Chicago school theorists rather postulate that individual choices based on personal values are too numerous to account for, and therefore there is no one "rational" answer for the use of money, and therefore any fiscal policy that depends for its success upon individuals acting "rationally" (whatever that means) is doomed to failure. At any rate, the funadmental Chicago School insight is that individuals know what is in their own individual best interests better than a central brain trust does. So it seems to me you are rather proposing the Chicago-ication of COIN strategy.

Dave Maxwell

Wed, 12/21/2011 - 11:52am

This should lead to a discussion of the paradoxical trinity - primordial violence, hatred, and enmity...chance and probability... reason alone - which I think applies in all wars and across the spectrum of conflict (regardless of however we might define conflict).


Wed, 12/21/2011 - 11:46am

There are plenty of examples of combatants and civilians not doing the "rational" thing. The jewish revolt in Warsaw , Bastogne, and on. I suspect that, rather than a belief that people always behave in a rational manner, the assumption of "rational" behavior (in both economics and warfare) is an attempt by the analyst to simplify the analytical process be removing variables you can't account for or model. In the area of economics, rationality does appear to seep in, in fact, that is what "bursts the bubble". So some of this dichotomy depends on the time frame of the analysis.
My 2¢