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Lessons from Behavioral Science in a Warzone

How Reason, Skepticism, and Compassion Can Win Hearts and Minds


I am amemberof the U.S.Army Special Operations community and Defense Department, with time spent in Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Europe, as well as time at U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM). When I returned home from a tour of duty in the Afghanistan warzone several years ago and saw how deeply divided and viscerally polarized this country had become, it was heartbreaking. Over there, our team could sit down with tribal leaders and sometimes even the Taliban, and occasionally find productive ways to discuss problems in spite of enormous barriers. Returning to the states, however, I saw how many Americans would not even talk to their neighbors, especially if they were of a different political persuasion. This political polarization, and the deep distrust and hostility that I saw it produces, was often more jarring than the tribal infighting I had become so accustomed to dealing with in the Middle East and Central Asia. In a way, I felt as if my own backyard had become a tribal warzone. The situation on many of our college campuses seems to be one of the most acute strains of the problem. This observation led me to think about how skepticism and behavioral science, combined with some of my experiences in a warzone, could possibly lead to solutions to our divisiveness. Here are a few ideas on how a new roadmap might be realizable.

Nonlethal Counterinsurgency

Very few civilians understand how counterinsurgency works. It is not just about kicking in doors or engaging insurgents with lethal weapon systems such as rifles, tanks, or Striker vehicles. A crucial yet underrepresented part of counterinsurgency1 involves the use of nonlethal tools of face-to-face communication and cultural expertise. It is about working productively with villages, with tribal councils, or simply with the population at large. Some of my most enriching memories involve engaging with a variety of people, from everyday farmers to local government and tribal leaders. We did this amidst enormous differences in cultural and religious perspectives and points of moral conflict. These differences and frictions would arguably blow the minds of most people here in the Western world, yet we accomplished things together across divides that students at campuses such as Yale, Berkeley, Portland State, and Evergreen—where controversies have erupted into protests and, in some cases, violence— could not even imagine.

In this sense, counterinsurgency takes an approach grounded in credibility, respect, and trust, as well as a realistic grasp of the tribal systems and cultural nuances of places like Iraq and Afghanistan. Interestingly, American discourse—from university campuses to cities and rural countryside, coast to coast—seems to follow its own kind of tribal system, set along ideological and identity fault lines. People are increasingly bound into a team sport mentality, of “my tribe versus your tribe”, and this attitude clouds not only reason and clear thinking, but compassion for others outside your moral or political in-group.

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About Skeptic

SCIENCE AND MORAL VALUES Jordan Peterson Phenomenon; Thought Crimes: Jordan Peterson and the meaning of the Meaning of Life; Special Section on Science & Morality. Getting Real About Right and Wrong; No, Being Religious Will Not Save You from Suicide; Lessons from Behavioral Science in a Warzone: How Reason, Skepticism, and Compassion Can Win Hearts and Minds; Moral Philosophy and its Discontents: Can science determine moral values? An Exchange with Massimo Pigliucci, Michael Shermer, and Kevin McCaffree; Facilitated Communication Redux: Persistence of a Discredited Technique; The Mystery of Elite Religious Scientists: A Cognitively Impenetrable Illusion; Five Questions About Human Errors for Proponents of Intelligent Design; The SkepDoc: Beware Stem Cell Clinics that Offer Untested Treatments; Junior Skeptic: Astral Projection