Over the past days, riots have been sweeping cities and towns across America like a tidal wave, devastating local economies and lives in their wake. Disinformation campaigns by white supremacist groups and others have added a dangerous catalyst to this volatile recipe. There is a possibility of widespread civil conflict and ethno-sectarian violence. Extremists are waging psychological warfare by trying to pit us against each other, to bait us into overreacting and embracing fear and hate. The military has been brought in, and police and civilians are feeding off their mutual distrust. Veterans across the country, myself included, took an oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. We will not let the country we love and served abroad become a permanent warzone or failed state.
The events of the last week bear a terrifying resemblance to my years of training and real-world warzone experience as a psychological operations soldier and counterinsurgency analyst. I’ve seen this stuff before—but never this close to home. While riots across American cities are far from unprecedented, the prevalence of disinformation tactics and the risk of a militarized collision with a sensitive population make these riots stand out. To wind down this dangerous civil unrest and restore basic faith in our system, certain things must happen. People of color need to be heard and know that they are being listened to. I obviously cannot lead such a conversation, but I want to urge people to understand why such a conversation must occur immediately. Root grievances cannot be left unaddressed, or more riots, racial animosity, radicalization and extremist violence could fill the vacuum. Provocation through escalation will probably make things worse, while engaging and listening can save lives on all sides. Lessons from the warzone abroad—in particular, from counterinsurgency and civil engagement—can seriously help us here at home. Let me do my best to give you a breakdown of some relevant insights.
An Army-Style Situation Briefing for Our Political Leaders
I want to start by giving an army-style overview of the situation as I see it, with key points on why de-escalation is so urgent.
—First, our country is in a vulnerable position, due to our deeper problems of racial injustice and unaddressed grievances. This has been amplified by hyperpolarization and wider economic insecurity. We must address root causes and grievances. Our country and its officials must acknowledge and give a voice to people of color, and enact changes based on truly listening.
—Second: disinformation amplifies our current instability. Social media and a lack of fact checking make us highly susceptible to dangerous disinformation. Fringe provocateurs have capitalize on this tragedy to weaponize the riots further. Belligerents and extremists from different ends of the political spectrum are ready to engage in real fighting across our soil, in order to spread their recruiting and radicalization campaigns. White supremacist groups are working to stoke resentment, division and hate between blacks and whites.
Many Americans are afraid. Tactical, smart de-escalation by the police is key. Aside from responding to destructive violence by rioters, de-escalation should be the priority. We see a widening, dangerous gap in trust between the nation’s police and our citizens. Such a widespread trust gap is highly unhealthy for any democratic nation and must be addressed.
Empathy and listening are more effective than tanks and batons. When people feel that they are being listened to, and genuine efforts are made to engage them, in order to solve a problem, human beings (Americans included) are surprisingly likely to respond favorably. When they are pushed and threatened, they are surprisingly likely to lash out in return. I’ve seen both dynamics both within and outside warzones. More escalation on the part of the police needs to be avoided. In addition, turning our military out against peaceful protesters could be disastrous, as many war veterans will tell you, as it could break the bond of trust between the military and the citizenry.
An overly militarized response could create a terrifying false conflict between our military and the American population. It could provoke more protests and riots, as well as fuel conspiracy, disinformation and racial animosity. White supremacists and far left groups could use it as a rallying cry and civil conflict could erupt as a result. Even if a city is secured, unrest can take off in another city, provoked by the militarization. It would be an unwinnable game of whack-a-mole, and, like many failed attempts at counterinsurgency, no amount of up-armored weaponry or striker vehicles will make this tactic work. We must find alternatives.
War veterans’ insights can help us avoid violence and move towards peace
I’ve served in Iraq (via the US Army) and Afghanistan (via the DoD) in various capacities, with an emphasis on understanding the nuances of culture, people and how to effectively engage with them. I have an extensive background in psychological warfare and insurgency dynamics in and out of warzones and advanced training environments. I would therefore like to offer a roadmap for de-escalation and avoiding further riots and instability, based on generous listening and a demonstrated commitment to addressing deeper grievances. In counterinsurgency, our coalition forces have a history of responding to problems by listening and using conflict de-escalation techniques, by sitting down with key leaders and influencers and understanding the root problems at stake. This often requires letting people know that the military or the local authorities are actually listening to them. Psyop and civil affairs (CA) units work towards this aim regularly. Sometimes, this approach can help us win without having to fire a single shot.
One example of this took place amid the rugged but beautiful Kunar and Nangarhar provinces of Afghanistan. I was a GS-13 DoD civilian on a human terrain team (HTT) and cultural sensitivity and civil engagement were central aspects of my mission. I went on mission with, advised and assisted commanders and combat units to avoid missteps with the local population. We often found alternatives to overly militarized responses, which can produce blowback and make things worse. Our HTT helped these units navigate the civil terrain, by understanding human behavior and how to mitigate conflict intelligently. In one instance, villagers were habitually engaged in dangerous rock throwing at our soldiers, and the combat unit in the area didn’t understand why. They were prepared to conduct patrols and step up aggression if needed. They called in our team to help understand the reasons for the rock throwing, and we arranged a series of meetings, including one with local tribal elders and political leaders, in a sit-down that was similar to an Afghan jirga council. We asked deeper questions and negotiated a mutual understanding to avoid violence. Here at home, failing to apply this type of proactive thinking, and failing to listen and demonstrate a desire to work together with the aggrieved, can lead us down a dangerous path. Lessons from counterinsurgency and civil engagement abroad can help us now more than we can imagine. Demonstrating a willingness to listen and address root causes is where our leaders should start.
Counterinsurgency: Addressing Root Causes of Conflict
Both the Ferguson and the George Floyd riots reveal something of crucial importance: a parallel between the dynamics of conflict, insurgency and instability in places like Iraq, and in our own American cities. The solutions to all these problems involve a need to address root grievances among the population. They all reveal a trend: when sources of instability go unaddressed, it creates a vacuum in which violence, militancy and radicalization can thrive. In my years of analyzing social dynamics in conflict zones, including propaganda and ideology narratives in Russian, Arabic and Farsi, I’ve often seen conflict (such as between disaffected Shia and Sunni in Baghdad) fueled and amplified when people feel isolated, marginalized and desperate, pushed into a corner, without options.
Violent extremists always join the fight, even when most others don’t want them to (just as we have seen with the George Floyd riots). The dynamic between violent protesters, Antifa and white supremacists right now has terrifying parallels for me with sectarian conflict in an insurgency environment, as does the use of disinformation, recruiting and psywar by white extremists and others. The fundamental pattern here needs to be noted, not ignored. In many global insurgencies and failed states, a vacuum of stability is filled by violence and extremism. As this occurs, competing belligerents often follow suit in a contest of ideological resolve, and the effects on the regular population are devastating. We are getting a taste of this, and it can get worse. These riots, for example, are a perfect medium for white supremacists and radical leftist factions to recruit, grow and spread conflict, and for dangerous disinformation to catalyze hate, resentment and suffering across the country. The lesson for America right now is to listen, reach out and insist that grievances be addressed. Our leaders must listen, give people of color a voice, and show commitment to real change. As Dwayne Johnson recently said in an impassioned video, our country is “down on its knees, begging, pleading, hurt, angry, frustrated, in pain. Begging and pleading with its arms out … just wanting to be heard.”
If we want de-escalation, if we want to protect against future riots, and if we want this vicious cycle of social unrest to end, we as a nation need to acknowledge the core grievances and address the root problems. Demands for police reform at the highest levels must be echoed through every channel and venue of public relations that our government has at its disposal. This should happen immediately, not only at the federal level but at state and city levels. Leaders should reach out to black leaders, intellectuals, public figures and organizations and work with them to let the public know that this conversation is happening, once and for all.
In the immediate future, the key is to demonstrate a true, sincere and trustworthy commitment to this effort, not mere lip service. Actions must follow and leaders must put skin in the game, and go all-in. They must be sincere and show a determination to move towards a system where inequalities between blacks and whites are honestly identified and reliably addressed. Just as with provincial reconstruction in Iraq or transitional justice in Afghanistan, there must be a willingness to demonstrate commitment. We were able to sit down with tribal councils and leaders in Afghanistan to solve problems (such as reducing violence) only because we showed commitment to helping, partnering with and listening to them. Without this commitment and demonstration of good faith, there would have been no mission success. This ability to sit down in good faith and commit to the process often allowed us to develop a mutual trust, which created a true partnership. We have been witnessing a fundamental break in trust in our system, and that needs to be seriously addressed. Trust may take much longer to repair (and has never even existed for many), but immediate steps can be taken. These lessons of tribal engagement, of hard-won relationships in the rugged mountains of Afghanistan, can greatly help our leaders understand what they must do to sit down with black leaders and black communities in a way that will actually be credible—and be seen as such.
Areas in Which Listening and Commitment to Change Can Occur
We need to have a serious national conversation on how to reform our police system. Is it possible to move towards this in a timely manner? I believe it is. If our leaders come together in this time of crisis and pain to let people know they are listening and will be responsive to their grievances by holding serious discussions about policing, it may make a world of difference. This should happen at every level—especially at the national level, but also at the local level, in people’s communities. This can truly be locally led, by residents themselves. Issues with policing must be addressed at the top levels, but a lot can happen at the local level as well. If enough cities address this locally and we see this happening across social and mainstream media, the rest of the country may eventually follow suit through the power of social pressure.
A good model here could be the kind of locally-led dialogue that has been happening for years in Red Hook, Brooklyn, a wonderful neighborhood I’ve been involved in since the Hurricane Sandy rebuilding efforts of late 2012. Here, participatory working groups and discussions are led by local residents and various neighborhood stakeholders: from nonprofits and churches to small businesses, youth organizations and senior citizens. Officials come and listen. This often involves consulting elders in the community, as well as listening to the youth. In these participatory systems, government officials try to listen more than they speak, and this not only gives them a better snapshot of the area and its issues, but can lead to a much more open and dignified relationship between the local residents and the government, including the police. As I explain here, there are benefits in this for everyone, which is why police leadership at the highest levels may be persuaded to get on board—and, until then, local level police definitely should be. The time to move this discussion forward is now.
A Veteran’s Plea to our Leadership
I will not pretend to be able to directly relate to the pain and outrage of African Americans right now, nor am I comparing my feelings to theirs. But seeing the country I love with all my heart devolve into a warzone hurts me beyond description. I remember how it feels to go from one kind of warzone to another. Seeing the deep divides and injustice upon returning home from Afghanistan in 2012 was one of the most soul-crushing things I’ve experienced. It seemed as if, in spite of all our efforts at nation building abroad, we were abandoning our own home. When root causes and grievances go unattended, insurgency and violence tend to fill the vacuum, and any policy that fails to address this in a meaningful way will fail the wider population—and ultimately lose to the tragic forces of instability and conflict. This may seem like an unthinkable fate for America, but it is a fate we seem to be facing at this very moment. We cannot, we must not, cede to our lesser emotions and fears. We must not embrace an overly militarized response and feed into the psychological warfare games of these provocateurs, nor fuel their campaigns and narratives of civil strife. This can lead to open, extended conflict, a police state or even a failed state. In the end, the very worst and most foolish thing we can do is fail to listen and address root causes. Our leaders must choose the better path—and our war veterans are here to help whenever our insights are needed. We simply ask that people listen—to our experiences and lessons from abroad, and above all, to people of color here at home.