Home > COIN, Decision Making, Rationality, Socio-Cultural Systems > The Carrot or the Stick?

The Carrot or the Stick?

December 23, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments

As a new but now dedicated reader of Small Wars Journal, I came across the following piece regarding the role of armed forces in warfare:


War is about Killing and Destruction, It is Not Armed Social Science

A Short Response to Andrew Mackay and Steve Tatham

by Colonel Gian P. Gentile

I feel sorry for the British Army for they seem to have been taken in by the American Army’s consumption with Counterinsurgency and its theoretical premise that military force can “change entire societies” for the better. Of course this quote is attributed to one of America’s leading Counterinsurgency experts retired Army Lieutenant Colonel John Nagl.

The irony is that the American Coin experts in their own campaign to transform the American Army to a Counterinsurgency force from 2005 to 2007 used the British Army as an example of the proper way to do “classic” Coin: e.g., Malaya, and Sir Robert Thompson’s recommendations for the United States in Vietnam. Yet as the Iraq Triumph Narrative is now written, the British Army lost their way and failed in Iraq where the Americans succeeded. Now, just as with the American Army, the British Army based onthis essay by Mackay and Tatham have succumbed to the flawed theories and notions promoted by General Rupert Smith in his hugely influential but deeply flawed book The Utility of Force.

Download the full article: War is about Killing and Destruction

Gian Gentile is a serving American Army Colonel and teaches military history at West Point. He commanded a Cavalry Squadron in West Baghdad in 2006.


The article is worth a read, but I believe the author’s point is flawed.  Here is my take on the subject, portions of which I posted as a comment on SWJ:

The fundamental question is this:  Is war about killing and destruction? Or is it about hearts and minds (i.e. “convincing”)?

I would argue that they are two sides of the same coin (the carrot and the stick, so to speak). In other words, people respond to incentives, and convincing implies offering incentives, while killing and destruction are most certainly disincentives. Our problem here in the American Army (in a general sense) is that we rarely understand what incentives people are likely to respond to and how they are likely to respond.  The reasons for this are numerous, but I would point to two primary reasons:

First, our mechanistic view of warfare as evidenced by our obsession with “effects”. While cause and effect is a good model for a physical, energy-bonded system, it is a poor model for a socio-cultural system. People are not machines – they make choices. Second, we don’t understand why people make choices. We ASSUME they will act rationally in their own best interests, but this view is flawed.

Choices are a confluence of rationality, emotion, and culture. Rationality is a subjective rather than objective calculation.  In other words, the “rational” choice is not necessarily the choice that is in the chooser’s best interests, it is only the one he PERCEIVES to be in his best interests. Emotion speaks to the excitement of choice.  Whereas rationality is concerned with minimizing risk, emotion is not.  Anyone who has jumped out of a perfectly good airplane for “fun” can attest to this fact. Culture has the most influence, yet tends to be understood the least.  This is because to us it appears irrational, stupid, or self-defeating (which it may be, but it doesn’t appear that way to THEM), and because for them it is just the way things are (the problem with unwritten laws is that no one knows where to go to erase them). When they don’t act they way we think they will (cause and effect mentality), we dismiss them as backwards and irrational.

To sum up, killing or convincing, stick or carrot, are complimentary ideas.  However, understanding how and when to apply them effectively is an art few have mastered.  Perhaps few care to, espousing an “all or nothing” approach.

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