Rethinking Revolution: Lawfare

Recently, Palestinian ‘Freedom Riders’ conducted direct action non-violent assaults on Israeli checkpoints. This mounted land maneuver is a continuation of a non-violent strategy of intervention that hopes to invoke memories of the civil rights Freedom Riders maneuvers to Mississippi in 1961 and the naval confrontation with Israel during the Flotilla Raid in 2010.  These actions are deliberate.

When illegal political groups lack resources, ability or will to employ violence, they historically employ lawfare and other forms of non-violent resistance to force change. 

Shane Bilsborough’s Counterlawfare in Counterinsurgency examines these events from the viewpoint that since one group is going to conduct lawfare, we must develop counterlawfare and really devise a way to beat the other groups at their own game. 

Anne-Marie Slaughter’s War and law in the 21st century: Adapting to the changing face of conflict approaches these types of conflicts from the idea that the world has changed now because it is faster due to new technology, and we need to adapt to face these threats.

As we zoom into the Civil Rights movement throughout this series applying a military lens to traditional political science theory, I hope that we can begin to differentiate changes in tactics between changes in the nature of revolution.  That is, while Slaughter is correct that new technology will change the way communication happens, the events of today are nothing new.   From a military theory lens, this is the difference between war and warfare.  In Bilsborough’s argument, with a better understanding of revolution, perhaps we will conclude that we do not have to necessarily counter it in the same fashion.

For example, one could look at the early rise in Christianity and Islam and see illegal political groups conducting non-violent maneuvers to force change.

So, why did six Palestinians activists call themselves “Freedom Riders” get on a bus, head down to an Israeli checkpoint, and hope to get arrested?

The answer and understanding behind the history of the group’s name is an important one.

Editor’s Note: This should be the last primer in the series.  Next up, Doug McAdam’s Political Process and the Development of Black Insurgency, 1930-1970

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Can I add a non-American viewpoint and one that ponders the internal impact of these issues, whether in the USA, UK or other liberal democracies.

You started with 'non-violent strategy of intervention...When illegal political groups lack resources, ability or will to employ violence, they historically employ lawfare and other forms of non-violent resistance to force change'.

For a host of reasons the political space to make changes in liberal democracies has narrowed and what maybe considered unusual, radical, militant, unconventional and as non-violent revolutionary has been hemmed in legally. Note most of this activity has been extra-parliamentary, simply because they have been supported by minorities and failed to gain representation.

Yes, some of the actions of animal rights groups have been criminal under existing laws, but in the UK additional laws have appeared which some see as draconian and too restrictive on political activity. I read recently that the USA has some law on animal rights issues that has led to activity being labelled as terrorist; something about animal (pig) welfare IIRC and trespassing to take photographs.

My point is that liberal democracies have made illegal some of this non-violent, extra-parliamentary activity. Not by denying the 'cause', making espousal of 'X' illegal, but the methods used.

Returning recently to some of the books written in the early 1980's by the extra-parliamentary left on the UK developing a 'strong state', way before modern technology gave a greater capability to observe, I was struck by the potential application today as socio-economic tensions may escalate and lead to protests.

Nor should we think the non-violent approach is solely used by those who are not the traditional 'Left' or 'Right'.

In the UK we have seen the rise and currently a weakening of the nationalist extreme right. Who are usually seen in street protests (see the English Defence League EDL) and by some with their participation in elections (see the British National Party BNP). Their support is widely considered to arise from some political issues being 'off the table' and the politics of fear which notable impact within the white, urban working class.

I am more concerned about how liberal democracies engage with their electorate and the exercise of tolerance / intolerance towards those who hold different opinions. Our success since 1945 has many roots, IMHO these two factors have contributed and we should be eternally vigilant we don't forget. Making illegal the different. the contrary is a slippy slope we are moving along.

David, I think this is an excellent point and a tough one- how do we view these engagements that are not quite military and not quite political? As we relook revolution, we may have to relook DEMILITIRIZING our approaches to domestic policing, cyberwar, and international peacekeeping.

Looking at statements like these...

I see Lawfare as one side of the tactical armoury insurgents can apply against Western forces


with a better understanding of revolution, perhaps we will conclude that we do not have to necessarily counter it in the same fashion.

I have to come back (repetitively, I know) to the idea that what we need to reassess is the assumption that revolution and insurgency are inherently incompatible with western interests, and thus something to be countered. I suspect that with a better understanding of revolution we might conclude that in many cases we not only don't need to counter it in the same fashion, we may often not need to counter it at all.

Our own civil rights movement should help open our eyes to the possibility that revolution and insurgency are among the ways that societies evolve, especially when peaceful routes to evolution are artificially obstructed. I don't see why we should feel fundamentally threatened by evolution, or why we should reflexively side with those who obstruct it.

If we build an understanding of revolution on a desire to find new and better ways of countering it, we miss half the point and risk placing ourselves on the wrong side of history. We might better ask how we can maneuver to position ourselves with, rather than against, the tide of social evolution.

To me one of the great failings of our obsession with counterinsurgency is that it's produced a reflexive assumption that insurgency is by definition something we must counter. That assumption needs to be questioned.


One interesting early finding is that when reviewing the late 19th (Reconstruction Period) and early and mid 20th century primary literature from the pro-segregation, pro-Jim Crow, pro-separate but equal crowd, there is a lot in common with both 1. the pro counterinsurgency literature of the colonial era and 2. the current pro population-centric counterinsurgency literature with a paternalistic attitude towards an assumption that you can win hearts and minds, and souls. This distinction, and this is an early hypothesis, appears to be a failure to understand the difference between perceived legitimacy and immediate respect. Which, of course, goes back to the rights of man.

That is an interesting point... I haven't studied it in detail, but I have some familiarity with some facets of the "colonial COIN" literature, and I can certainly see the similarities. Would be interesting to see more detailed comparisons.


I see Lawfare as one side of the tactical armoury insurgents can apply against Western forces, even if the group has access to weapons.

In fact Im surprised that this approach is not used more often given how powerful it could be to shift political and public opinion. How would Western forces in Afghanistan deal with non-violent action that was deployed specifically as a propaganda tool into the living rooms of our homes?

Lawfare could be used to manipulate our societal psychology. If we are to go beyond the classic materialistic military definitions of asymmetrical warfare and look to the exploitation of an opponent’s moral weaknesses, then lawfare would be a smart move. Our populations are already exhausted from to long wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. If I were an advisor to these insurgents then I would be using lawfare in time with national elections in key countries to complicate our domestic political decision makers.

Maybe Im on an eclectic rant but I think you have raised a smart little topic that we have not thought much about in the past.



MikeF---would actually like to see Army and MC personnel reading the various research publications done on the US civil right movement as well as those written on the Indian/Ghandi experiences.

Understanding what causes a society/ecosystem to first start a movement, then watching that movement development and how that movement then maneuvers (from a non violent and if need be from their perspective violence if needed) when there is push back from the state/counter insurgent should be the basic primer of all military officers as part of their professional development and part of our various military schools' POI.

Being sensitized is a good thing when asked to do COIN, FID or SFA.

Concur Outlaw

Social movement theory is good reading for all of the above reasons. Recruiting, indoc, organization, etc is all very similar between violent and non-violent SMs. I'm somewhat fascinated by the social services, recruitment, etc that groups like HB use to bring people in. Gangs do the same. See Martin Sanchez-Jankowski's "Islands in the Street." Research out there shows that people sensitized by non-violent SMs are more likely to make the transition to violent organizations. One source I remember is Doug McAdams on the Freedom Summer. Mike, in another shameless plug, I refer to these in the notes of my book. I imagine you're already into this literature from your DA curriculum, but if not I can look at my notes tonight and comment with some titles.

Yes, and I've asked McAdam's to visit us for an interview in January to talk directly about the rise and fall of the civil rights movement. He can tell it directly better than me opining. As long as Occupy Wall Street doesn't overwhelm Stanford, I assume he'll be here :).

MikeF---they chose to use the non violent civil rights maneuvers as it is difficult for the state/counter insurgent to use force/violence as a response---it as well is a very effective IO.

In some aspects one needs to look at the non violent maneuvers used by Gandi which the US civil rights groups analyzed/adapted to a large degree.

The movement shifted to violence to a degree later in it's development as the state/counter insurgent used violence as a maneuver.

Out of the open source warfare theory this falls into the following concept.

The ability to repeat disruptions targeted on specific groups generates changes in behavior (economic, social, and psychological) akin to an excessive tax. This is in contrast to large, one-off, attacks that cause massive disruption and then quickly dissipate as the targeted system returns to equilibrium. The standing order for this is:
...repetition is more important than scale....

Simple, low cost, easy, and repeatable (in that nobody is caught) attacks are both sustainable and generate the greatest potential returns. This doesn't mean that these attacks don't have a significant impact. Network effects from disruption almost always guarantee and outsized return -- the great is the enemy of the good enough.

Attacks in this above paragraph refers to both non violent as well as violent---allows for the movement/insurgent to adapt to the state power/counter insurgent.

Wow. In my mind, following Charles Dunlap and Bilsborough (admittedly, I've only skimmed through his concepts) off the rails on this lawfare thing is maybe OK as a thought exercise but I really hope that we, the military, don't get wrapped up in trying to militarize issues of law. Who decides a suit is frivolous? Much worse, I can't tell if Bilsborough's comment about legal actions being unpatriotic is solely a reference to others' positions or if he truly believes that this should be a determination brought against them. Where do we draw the line between cases against Navy SEALs being "lawfare" and being the proper legal workings of a society that believes in innocence until proven guilt, but that no one is above the law or exempt from the legal process that should determine validity of charges for consideration, the presentation of such charges, and trust in the legal system to properly adjudicate those charges?

As for the Civil Rights movement, haven't we as a nation more or less found something approaching consensus that their actions, however you want to term them, were courageous and more-or-less virtuous? Haven't we enshrined the rights they were seeking in our laws and our culture?

So, when others aspire to be like these civil rights movements, instead of examining lawfare and counterlawfare concepts, maybe shouldn't we be examining the contrasts between or moralizing foreign policy which promotes what we think are universal, end of history ideals and the status quo stability interests that sees people who pursue versions of these ideals as threats?

I can't quite tell if you are casting the Palestinian Freedom Riders as potential enemies, but I'd ask if (a) are we on the wrong side of history and our own professed ideals if we think that way and (b) shouldn't we just stand back, meddle a little less, and let other societies work these things out without interference as we did?


My opinion is irrelevant. What is important is that the Palestinians CHOSE to study and use images from the Civil Rights Movement. Why is that? What are they not studying? What are the motives and methods behind it?

Civil rights issues are alive and contentious in the United States today. I would recommend taking a look into the fight BG (Retired) Tony Tata, now Superintendent of Wake County Schools in Raleigh, NC stepped into last year. If you look at it in terms of military strategy, you'll see the same tactics.

In a non-violent sense, it's still maneuver.

They are using the Civ Rights Mvmt model because they (and a lot of others around the world, to include at least one former U.S. president) see themselves as victims of a similar form of racism and segregation.

I know that Civ Rts are contentious in the U.S. and still contentious, but my point is that our national narrative, given the honors we've given to the CRM, is that it was just and virtuous. The problem arises when we end up on the other side of others' CRMs. You aren't going to convince them that they are wrong and often, they are fighting for principles we hold dear in the U.S. But the world is not as neatly categorizable as we would like and we end up putting ourselves on the horns of a dillema when we simultaneously foist our morals on others by crusading foreign policy, and also get ourselves mixed up in every issue around the world, in some of which we cannot have our stability and our morals too.

Back to being on the wrong side of public opinion and legimacy in the eyes of our external audiences, I argue that there's no way to avoid this when we use armed conflict to remake societies. When we use armed force, we have to expect others to demonize it. If we're really worried about lawfare and opinion, we should curtail our FP aims when it comes to armed interventionism. We just can't conceive that others see the world in a different way and we get really upset with others think we're bad people. Example: If you're an Iraqi or a Palestinian or an Afghan, how is an IED, ambush, or even suicide bomber any more cowardly than sailing a LGB into a building from 15,000 feet? Some people will want to pillory me for that statement, but try to see it from the other side for a minute. We call them cowards, but they think we are cowards too. The same goes for perception of law and legitimacy. When you start using bullets and high explosives, you're not going to convince everyone that you are virtuous and just. The guy getting arrested at the checkpoint by the other guy with the guns is also probably going to end up looking better to the target audience than we'd like.

Finally, if we're going to get ourselves mixed up in these sorts of messy conflicts, we have to consider perceptions, lawfare, etc. The lowest hanging fruit here is our PA stance. I mean, do we even take our PA statements seriously as members of the U.S. armed forces? They're late, they're tone deaf, and they seem absurd even to the converted many times. I don't know how you polish the proverbial scat, but we have to at least try a little harder.


If you are correct, then why is our own Counterinsurgency manual based off the experiences of Malaya, Algiers, and Vietnam?

When the Army and Marine Corps meet soon to revisit the Manual, will they begin studying the Civil Rights Movement?

Not to pre-empt Peter but the questions deserve thought from several points of view.

I believe thw answer to the first question is -- because we were too intellectually lazy and too conformist or conservative and thus wanted 'experience' (ours or of others) on which to base our doctrine. The regrettable thing is that while the experiences of the British and French (and our own in Viet Nam) have some merit, we drew many wrong conclusions to suit our presumed end state and failed to realize that both other nations experiences were unique to their governments and style and to particular wars. As Viet Nam was based on those flawed ideas, it too was flawed (and we drew many wrong lessons from that one all on our own as well...).

The US Army penchants for lowest common denominators, ease of implementation, use of mass and reduction of risk all conspired to produce flawed doctrine.

On the second question, dunno -- but they should -- and they should also consider similar issues in other nations. They will hopefully conclude that in the absence of Colonial power and given the World today, the entire COIN / FID / 'Support to a host nation' model needs a serious relook. I say to be discarded, actually but I'm unsure we're smart enough to do that.

I am aware the common wisdom says we have to do what the politicians decide and that such wars will always beckon. My answers to those two bromides are that we need to offer the politicians more and better (and yes, more risky and more expensive if they truly want success as opposed to merely be seen as doing something) options and be more honest in laying out the pros and cons of what they think they want done. The fact that such wars beckon does not require us to play by the opponents rules on his turf...


James Khalil stated it well today in “New Wars Revisited,”

“What appears to be an overstatement in the actual levels of evolution of insurgency is undoubtedly attributable to problems frequently associated with small-N research. More specifically, the ‘contemporary’ characteristics are often identified through a narrow focus upon a limited number of prominent cases such as Afghanistan and Iraq, whereas the ‘classical’ traits are disproportionately drawn from the likes of Malaya and Vietnam. Thus, at best, accounts that stress the distinction between ‘new wars’ and their ‘classical’ predecessors obscure pronounced variations between cases irrespective of the era, and at worst through focusing upon a limited number of examples they may identify ‘contemporary traits’ that do not reflect reality.”

As for your first question, either I don't understand what I'm arguing or am not reading the intent behind your question. Maybe state what you think I'm saying and restate your question more specifically.

Will they study the Civil Rights Movement? I doubt it.

Maybe I'm saying that short-term stability and our desire to remake societies with a legitimacy that extends beyond that created by force are incompatible goals in most cases?

From what I read, I interpreted that you believe,

1. Groups are currently revolting across the globe for their perceived Civil Rights.

2. The United States foreign policy is focused on remaking the world.

3. Sometimes, conflict erupts when number one and two are at odds.


This is good. You're forcing me to actually make thesis statements rather than ramble and rant. Not all of the below is contained in my rambling here, but in my broader body of rambling, its all there.

1. Stated United States policy is focused on worldwide economic development and assisting populations to realize the freedoms and other values enumerated in various US policy statements. Broadly stated, our policies tend to promote human/civil rights.

2. Stated US policy is to seek stability in the world. Policy specifically links 1 and 2: economic development and attainment of freedoms will lead to stability.

3. 1 and 2 are often at odds in the short term, both in results of 1 and in the reality of how we attempt to pursue 2. Economic development and aspirations to freedoms increase stability in the short term in the vast majority of cases. The artificial suppression of volatility through cooperation with illiberal regimes is pursued to avoid short term instability to the detriment of stated policy in number 1 and to the detriment of long-term aims in number 2. See Taleb and co-author in "The Black Swan of Cairo."

4. People are revolting for a number of reasons, including civil rights and freedoms more broadly and the more equitable distribution of the rewards of economic development. To whit, they're pissed because their countries are developing, but the profits of the development projects are going into the pockets of elites living in gleaming flats across from their hovels and driving Beamers past their donkey carts, literally. Meanwhile, this is driving inflation that is undercutting their stagnant wages and the shrinking subsidies provided by their governments who are trying to wean them off. Result is explosion.

5. These people do not see the US as acting in their interests. Most often, they see us mouthing platitudes of change, but acting as a status quo power.

So, what do we want? Stability or change? You can't have both. And if we dont' want change, then we can forget being on the right side of perceptions of legitimacy. And if we want change, we cannot manage it the way we want to. We need to let go, take our fingers out of all these pies, as Kennan says, and realize that we're much more likely to die due to second hand smoke or a car accident than from the spin-off results of an MB win in Egypt. Incidentally, people are saying the current round in Egypt could have totals as high as 70% for the MB's Freedom and Justice Party. Gasp. Not.