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How to Be an Underdog, and Win

Rann Chandric/eyevine/Redux
Malcom Gladwell, 2008

The RAND Corporation is a think tank in Santa Monica, California, where scholars from many disciplines work for the Department of Defense, mixing academic research with practical advice concerning military problems. The experts at RAND consider themselves the brains of the military establishment. Two fat documents were among those produced at the RAND Corporation during the years of the American war in Vietnam. One was a magnum opus in six volumes with the title Oregon Trail, written by a large group of historians, many of them eminent university professors. The other was a single volume with the title Rebellion and Authority, written by two economists, Nathan Leites and Charles Wolf.

The two works were discussing the same problem, made urgent by the situation in Vietnam, of a big and powerful country fighting a weak but determined enemy. The problem was later given the name “asymmetric warfare.” The two RAND Corporation studies were both trying to elucidate the strategy of asymmetric warfare. They reached diametrically opposite conclusions.

The historians writing Oregon Trail looked in detail at a hundred examples of asymmetric wars, most of which were colonial wars with a large and wealthy imperial power fighting a group of native rebels. Examples that they examined in depth were the American war of independence, the French colonial wars in Algeria and Vietnam, and the British colonial wars in South Africa and Malaya. Their purpose was to find the general pattern of such wars, to understand why the rebels sometimes won and sometimes lost. They found that the outcome was determined more by psychological than by military factors. Most of the wars lasted between five and ten years, and they usually ended because one side or the other lost the willpower to keep on fighting.

The most important conclusion of the Oregon Trail study was that the rebels usually won if the empire spent most of its effort on military operations, but that the rebels usually lost if the empire spent most of its effort on political and social responses to grievances. It was obvious to anyone who read Oregon Trail that the American war in Vietnam was likely to be a losing proposition. Unfortunately, very few people had a chance to read it. By one of the worst abuses of the secrecy system that I ever encountered, the military authorities stamped the whole thing secret. By keeping it secret, they made sure that it had no influence on public discussion of the conduct of the war in Vietnam. I do not know whether it was later declassified. Meanwhile, Rebellion and Authority was published openly with the blessing of the Department of Defense. It has become a widely accepted guidebook for armies occupying foreign territory and dealing with insurgency.

Forty-five years later, Malcolm Gladwell has written another book about asymmetric warfare, beginning with the combat between David and Goliath recorded in chapter 17 of the first book of Samuel. He describes many examples of asymmetric conflict, in civilian life as well as in warfare. He reaches conclusions similar to those of Oregon Trail, telling stories that are now fortunately available for all of us to read. Although he had no access to Oregon Trail, he has studied Rebellion and Authority and explains why he disagrees with it. He quotes a sentence that summarizes the thinking of the economists: “Influencing popular behavior requires neither sympathy nor mysticism, but rather a better understanding of what costs and benefits the individual or the group is concerned with, and how they are calculated.” To this piece of economic wisdom, he adds the comment: “In other words, getting insurgents to behave is fundamentally a math problem.”

Gladwell goes on to describe the struggle of the British army to subdue the rebellion of the Catholic minority in Northern Ireland, as the economists would see it:

If there are riots in the streets of Belfast, it’s because the costs to rioters of burning houses and smashing windows aren’t high enough…. If you were in a position of power, you didn’t have to worry about how lawbreakers felt about what you were doing. You just had to be tough enough to make them think twice.

Gladwell’s main conclusion is that the outcome of an asymmetric conflict depends on legitimacy. The stronger side wins if it can persuade the weaker side that the authority of the stronger side is legitimate. The weaker side wins if it can maintain a firm belief that the stronger side’s behavior is illegitimate. This conclusion is expressed in different language by the authors of Oregon Trail, but the practical implications of Gladwell and Oregon Trail are the same. If the stronger side tries to crush the weaker side with physical force, the stronger side loses legitimacy; the weaker side becomes more determined to resist and usually wins. If the stronger side works hard to redress grievances, it gains legitimacy; the die-hard resisters become isolated and usually lose. The tragedies of Vietnam and Northern Ireland were to some extent a consequence of the fact that the censors gave a voice to the authors of Rebellion and Authority and silenced the authors of Oregon Trail.

Each of Gladwell’s ten chapters carries the name of an underdog. An underdog is a person who struggles with disadvantages in the game of life. Only four of them, including David, were engaged in resistance against superior physical power. The other six were overcoming obstacles in civilian pursuits. Typical of the peaceful heroes is Vivek Ranadivé, who found himself unexpectedly serving as coach of a basketball team of twelve-year-old girls in Redwood City, California. His daughter was a member of the team and persuaded him to volunteer for the job. His disadvantage was the fact that he had grown up in India playing soccer and knew nothing at all about basketball. Because of his ignorance, he trained his girls to play the game like soccer players, constantly running fast after the ball and giving the opposing team no chance to take a breath. This was quite different from the customary way of playing basketball, which has the players concentrating their attention on defending the basket rather than on running. Vivek’s team trained hard and played hard, and soon began to beat the other teams who had superior skills but inferior endurance.

Gladwell compares the Redwood City girls with Lawrence of Arabia’s team of rebellious Arab tribesmen who beat the Turkish army of occupation in 1917. He quotes Lawrence describing how his tribesmen traveled through snake-infested desert to attack the Turks in the port city of Aqaba: “Three of our men died of bites; four recovered after great fear and pain, and a swelling of the poisoned limb. Howeitat treatment was to bind up the part with snake-skin plaster, and read chapters of the Koran to the sufferer until he died.” Then Gladwell continues:

When they finally arrived at Aqaba, Lawrence’s band of several hundred warriors killed or captured twelve hundred Turks and lost only two men. The Turks simply had not thought that their opponent would be crazy enough to come at them from the desert.

The Redwood City girls beat all the other local teams and ended up playing in the national championships. In the nationals they won their first two games, but then they ran into disaster. The third game was in a town where public opinion was bitterly hostile and the referee was unfair. The referee penalized them repeatedly, declaring their style of play to be illegal, and the public was enthusiastically on the side of the referee. Vivek understood that his girls had lost their legitimacy and there was no way they could win. He told them to play the way the referee wanted them to play. As a result, they lost the game and the championship. In peace as in war, the underdog does not always win.

Gladwell emphasizes three inconvenient truths that make the life of underdogs difficult. First, in order to win, underdogs must be disagreeable. The strength of character that enables them to fight against heavy odds makes them insensitive to other people’s feelings. Second, they must be prepared to lie and cheat and swindle when necessary. It often happens that they can only escape from bad situations by lying and cheating and swindling. Third, they must be prepared to die for their cause. It frequently happens that they do not live to see their causes prevail.

These three truths are exemplified in several of the stories that Gladwell tells. Vivek Ranadivé is the only one of the underdog fighters who is unquestionably a nice guy, and in the end he does not win. Even David, the innocent shepherd-boy hero of the Goliath story, has his dark side. A few years after his victory, he becomes king and steals the wife of his servant Uriah the Hittite. When she gets pregnant, he arranges for Uriah to be killed in battle. When the baby dies, he refuses to mourn. “Unscrupulous” is a good word to describe underdog fighters in general and David in particular. David achieves his purpose in the end when his stolen wife gives birth to Solomon and supplies a legitimate heir for his kingdom.

Wyatt Walker is the hero of a chapter describing the battle between civil rights protesters and segregationist authorities in 1963 in the city of Birmingham, Alabama. This was a classic example of the underdog as trickster, cheating and making mischief in order to win. Wyatt Walker was second-in-command to Martin Luther King in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference. Walker organized operations on the ground while King attracted the attention of the world outside. Their strategy was based on two principles. First, provoke the enemy to violent actions that will horrify the world outside and destroy the legitimacy of the authorities. Second, never hit back. Make sure that all protests remain nonviolent and are seen by the outside world to be nonviolent.

But Walker had a problem with carrying out the strategy. He had only twenty-two protesters, and it was difficult to provoke the authorities or to attract worldwide attention with such a small number. He played two tricks to make a small number look big. The first trick was to announce a protest march and then delay the start until a large number of spectators came out onto the streets to watch. At that point the television cameras and reporters could not tell the difference between protesters and spectators. The newspapers on the following day reported that eleven hundred protesters had marched. The second trick was to invite all the black high school children in the city to skip school and join the parade. Many hundreds of children came, prepared with freedom signs and singing freedom songs.

After some days of increasing crowds and increasing chaos, the authorities did what Walker had intended them to do. They tried to disperse the crowd by turning high-power fire hoses and police dogs onto the children. A picture appeared on television and in newspapers all over the world, showing a vicious dog attacking a nonviolent black teenager. The teenager was in fact a spectator, not a protester, and he was not hurt. Walker said afterward, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” His strategy succeeded, and the result was the passage of the Civil Rights Act a year later, enforcing the right of blacks to vote in elections and overturning the political power of white segregationists in southern states.

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