Non-Lethal Weapon: How Lessons Learned in War Can Make Peace at Home

A US Army Sergeant speaks with a civilian in Al Madinah, Iraq (photo by Sergeant Bobby J. Segovia)

We’ve all heard of a “win-win” situation before. When it comes to a conflict, people on all sides tend to better flourish when they embrace the idea of a nonzero—that is, a situation where all parties are better off. Sometimes this happens through cooperative dialogue, and from people expanding their empathy circle to include others outside their “tribe” or in-group.

This seems more relevant than ever these days, in light of police reform, social justice activism, national protests, riots, and Black Lives Matter debates. As we see social unrest flare up across communities, it appears that no one is being served by the status quo of failed conversation, nor of strained police-community relationships. Can science and cooperative dialogue get us to a nonzero, in which all of the above groups are better off? I argue that it can—and that our war veterans coming back home can help.

Legendary urban planners like Jane Jacobs advocated a bottom-up approach to respecting the human pulse of communities. This means listening to and respecting the local population—empower them and let them take the lead. Soldiers practicing counterinsurgency or civil affairs in Afghanistan or Iraq while working with the local village also understand this. When we respect and empower local communities—and understand how to do this as well as teach it to others—we are all more likely to win. This is perhaps the focal point where Black Lives Matter, members of law enforcement, and community residents have an opportunity to embrace an active dialogue with one another, as well as with many in the wider science and skepticism community.

Non-Lethal Lessons from Iraq and Afghanistan: The People Are the Center of Gravity

A key takeaway from my time in Afghanistan is echoed by a main principle of Counterinsurgency (COIN): The ability to understand and work with this human layer—the human terrain, so to speak—is at the forefront. A similar ethos was echoed by what were known as the “Special Operations Forces’ Truths” at Camp Mackall and Fort Bragg’s JFK Special Warfare Center and School: Humans are more important than hardware.

Consider how this works in a rugged war zone and how it could work in our communities back home. From 2011 to 2012 I was embedded in Nangarhar and Kunar Provinces in Northern Afghanistan, near and sometimes right along the Pakistan border, working as a member of a Human Terrain Team (HTT). HTTs were essentially designed to apply human behavioral understanding to the battlefield in a way that helped both the coalition forces (especially the soldiers out on patrol, risking themselves working in an often confounding and complex cultural environment) as well as the local population. When telling people what we do, I would often explain with a side of light humor that we were supposed to be the “Oprah Winfreys of the warzone,” using cultural expertise and applied social science to mitigate misunderstanding and prevent violence. Essentially, our job was to be a like a marriage counselor between the brigade combat teams and the Afghan population. Often, we would wear local Pashtun attire and sit down over chai with the Afghans and elders of the village.

Scientific, skeptical thinking and analysis were indispensable for helping us understand the deeper picture of why people were upset and how to resolve different ongoing or potential conflicts with respect and trust. Building a relationship through culturally skilled conversation could prevent unnecessary hostilities. Our team, as well as the soldiers and the Afghan elders, would come together to find a way to avoid conflict, and this often turned out to be best for everyone.

Imagine now, for a moment, if this was applied in Ferguson, Missouri, by citizen teams working with the local community and its residents, well in advance of the 2014 riots.

Imagine if the local police and local authorities decided to prioritize how citizen teams consulted the community, how residents could be engaged in meaningful dialogue through active listening and local immersion. Even a small mapping team could have done this—a team comprised of a few experienced participatory mappers and skilled veterans working cooperatively alongside the neighborhood’s population.

Participatory mapping is the ultimate form of listening. From youth to senior citizen, across race, gender, and income, participatory mapping looks at the people of a community as primary stakeholders in their own backyard. It is an inclusive, bottom-up, locally driven approach to engaging communities through open-ended discussion and ethnography. It is a true window into how locals see things. It looks, for example, at how residents view foreign aid, NGOs, governance, and local police or security forces. It maps out current and historical perceptions across groups (such as age, race, demographic location). Equally important, it looks at the intangible, often “hidden” layer of grievances and frustrations.

Essentially, it is a tool for respectfully listening to a community by allowing it to “map out” its own problems and concerns, as well as solutions and aspirations. This map (described in detail by links at the end of this article) is built and owned by the people of the community  and can even be represented by geospatial software, as with Participatory Geospatial Information Systems (PGIS). What is perhaps most remarkable — aside from being truly ground-up —is that the process  works across a wide range of cultures and levels of literacy. BBC ran a report on “The Akassa Approach” in 1998, and there is much to learn from studying it.

Why Social Science, Law Enforcement, and Local Communities Should Start Working Together

Social unrest within neighborhoods and communities can be described to an extent by common features: failed relationships, deeper grievances, and information gaps, leading to potentially dangerous misunderstanding or even violence, riots, and social breakdown. These cases, in short, often involve a failure to adequately understand the human terrain. Civil and effective policing must understand how best to approach the local community it is operating in. It should understand how to engage its residents and leaders. To listen and learn, to become aware and attuned. As with science, it is not just about having answers, but about how to ask the right questions.

Community mapping can work as a bridge between police and communities by meaningfully embedding itself in the local areas. Teaching people this approach can be a huge asset. As many of our war vets understand, demonstrating a willingness to merely sit down with people, and listen with sincerity and open-mindedness can be quite powerful. Giving people a genuine sense of being listened to, by having a voice and a stake in their own future, can itself be a major pivot point in mitigating social breakdown, as well as rebuilding, healing, and restoring social relations. Many have done this in warzones. Now we must do it in our own backyards. Our veterans, in partnership with science and skepticism, can help.