Standing in front of a dusty wall-sized map in late 2005 in West Baghdad with an intelligence officer and a civil affairs officer, the three of us realized the pieces of our intelligence picture didn’t fit together. The intelligence summaries we got from higher headquarters weren’t matching the debriefs our small unit patrol leaders were giving. Moreover, the local political leaders complained of problems that ran counter to the problems we were tasked to solve. We started to believe that the intelligence picture we’d been given – and which we’d been trained to develop – was faulty, and dangerously leading planning to the wrong operations. Though we had some of the most sophisticated equipment and processes for gathering, analyzing and disseminating information, we were going into the wrong towns on the advice of the wrong people for the wrong reasons. It had to stop.
In 2005 the US military began to re-discover truths about insurgencies and counterinsurgencies it’d long forgotten or even fully ignored. Successful counterinsurgencies from Algeria to Malaya and even Northern Ireland stressed the need to gather what became known as Atmospherics – personal local sentiments about the conflict going on all around us from a political, economic and social perspective. As Counterinsurgency (COIN) theory became COIN doctrine in the coming years US forces began to change their strategies and tactics to ensure that more face-to-face contact and discussion with locals was included in intelligence assessments. These interactions provided a layer of reality and practicality to the whole process – where time and location analysis of improvised explosive device (IED) detonations painted one picture, talking to the local shopkeepers about their concerns and motivations painted another. Once we started regularly talking to those shopkeepers, our intelligence picture became much more accurate. The funny thing was, we were already there in front of their shops every day – what was so hard about walking up a few times a month and having a chat?
In 2011 after leaving nearly a decade in the Army, I read Charles Murray’s Coming Apart which had just been released. In the book he offers a survey that purports to identify whether or not you live in a bubble – meaning a social circle that excludes a lot of the world around us. Murray, knowing that most of his readers would be upper middle to upper class with advanced degrees, designed the survey to prove a point: cultural elites in the US don’t know how the rest of America lives nor do they understand why most Americans do the things they do. It identifies things that characterize life for the majority of whites (Murray constrained his study racially for a few reasons) in the US and checks to see how familiar the reader is with them. You come away realizing that you thought you knew a lot about all Americans, but the reality is that you don’t- and that creates blind spots.
Being a newly minted civilian with more than a few experiences in foreign conflict, Murray’s points in his book hit me hard. I’d worked with a good cross-section of young to middle aged American men from all over the US, including recent immigrants from Asia and Africa, and I felt like I knew their interests and concerns, but I was coming from a different bubble. Americans then seemed no more focused than they are today on the fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan (which was our whole lives), and the 2007 financial crisis only really hit those servicemembers who’d just bought homes. So I was in the middle of moving from one bubble to another – all-volunteer military to upper middle class. It concerned me – maybe I really didn’t know what my country looked like, what it did or cared about. It meant the level of understanding I had about my surroundings was low – and most of my life experiences up until that point told me that this isn’t good. I read the news, I talked to people on social media- but the counterinsurgency truths about Atmospherics – about having regular face-to-face interaction with the population – told me that none of this was enough. What could I do to get a better sense of what’s happening in my own country?
Not long after reading the book I moved to Northern New Jersey and stumbled upon the answer. Weeks after unloading the moving truck I walked down the street and joined a local Veterans of Foreign Wars (VFW) post. At that time it was filled almost completely with Vietnam veterans – men who’d literally inherited the post from their Second World War veteran fathers and who opened the bar every day for members and their friends. They brought me in enthusiastically and before I knew it, I was elected an officer of the post and joined them for monthly meetings, fall and spring cleanups, holiday parties, the annual Memorial Day parade and Super Bowl party. What I began to become regularly exposed to was a group of people outside my social, economic and political bubble. I built relationships with them over draft beers. I attended wakes and funerals for members, talked about chemotherapy with guys undergoing it, and learned about their viewpoints through actual discussion year in and year out. And it began to affect my own viewpoint because it became part of my life.
I never realized it at the time, but I’d actually carried out what Robert Putnam (another political scientist on the other side of the political spectrum from Murray) had recommended in Bowling Alone – reinvesting in local civic organizations in order to bridge the divides we find all over the US today. The interesting thing, for me at least, was how painless it was to do so. I show up to VFW meetings and events because I want to – not because I feel like I have to. They provide not just a sense of community – but real community – actual support when you need it. If you end up in the hospital, the post finds out and contacts your family to see if how they can help. But in the meantime I get to hear from friends outside my bubble what they think and feel and care about – and that means my overall situational awareness about life is better.
The ironic lesson of the success of COIN Atmospherics from 2005-2008 was the simplicity and obviousness of it – all we had to do to improve the accuracy of our assessments was get out of our comfort zone and talk to the people we saw nearly every day on the street and contrast that to what we were seeing in our analysis and news-watching. The lesson of my VFW experience has been the ease of building that outreach into my activities every month. And as far as work is concerned, CI Reichel told us two weeks ago how it can improve your business. The question for any reader is how each person can build a bubble exit into their own activity patterns – and how much better their picture of their surroundings will become.
This post first appeared in The Quartermaster Newsletter on 29 July 2019. Read more and sign up here.