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.


Ullstein Bild/Granger Collection

The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by Gavrilo Princip, 1914; drawing by Felix Schwormstedt

To wage a long campaign of nonviolent resistance, underdog rebels need strict discipline and self-control, and they need a leader with the charisma of King. If the leadership is weak or divided, it is easy for nonviolent resistance to slide into violence and for violence to slide into terrorism. Violence means doing physical harm to wielders of power, such as soldiers or politicians. Terrorism means doing physical harm to innocent bystanders or to whole populations. As a rule, nonviolent tactics give legitimacy to resistance, and terrorist tactics give legitimacy to oppressive government. Another inconvenient truth about underdogs is that many of them are terrorists.

Asymmetric wars are usually small wars, fought between a big country and a colony or a group of rebels. But big wars may also be asymmetric. World War I and World War II were big wars, and they were both in important ways asymmetric. World War I was asymmetric if we look at it from the point of view of the man who started it, Gavrilo Princip. Princip was a Bosnian Serb, belonging to a small group of underdogs who were resisting the power of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, which ruled Bosnia. He assassinated the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie when they drove through Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. To kill the archduke was an act of resistance. To kill Sophie was an act of terrorism.

Princip started the war and he won it. He achieved both of his grand objectives, the total destruction of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the independence of the kingdom of Yugoslavia, including his homeland. He did not even pay with his life for his victory. He was first imprisoned by the Austrians and then transferred by them to a hospital where he died peacefully of tuberculosis. From the point of view of Princip, the war was a complete success, and the deaths of a few tens of millions was only collateral damage. The war was also a complete success from the point of view of another group of underdog rebels, the Bolsheviks, who took advantage of the war to achieve their aims in Russia.

World War II was asymmetric in a different way. It was started in Europe by Germany and in Asia by Japan, as a conventional war to be fought by big armies on the ground. The aim of Germany was to fight World War I over again and this time win. The aim of Japan was to complete the conquest of China without interference from the United States. The war became asymmetric because Britain and the United States were determined not to fight World War I over again. Britain and the US made the decision, before the war started, to build large bomber forces that could destroy the enemy homelands from the air.

Germany and Japan did not build strategic bomber forces. The bombing of London was done in a haphazard way by forces not designed for the purpose. The German V-1 and V-2 bombardments were too little and too late to have any substantial effects. Whether the bombing of Germany and Japan was militarily effective is still a matter of dispute. One fact that is not in dispute is that the British and American peoples supported the bombing campaigns, partly for military reasons but mainly to teach the enemy populations a lesson that they would not forget.

Both the Germans and the Japanese had fought all their earlier wars in other people’s countries, and now they would finally feel the horrors of war on their own skins. The Germans called the firebombing of their cities Terrorangriffe, terror attacks, and they were right. The British public knew that they were terror attacks and was willing to pay the price, forty thousand bomber crewmen dead.

Now, seventy years later, we can see clearly that terrorism worked. In 1945, the year when spectacular firestorms raged in Dresden and Hiroshima, something happened in Germany and Japan that was more profound than military defeat. The traditional cultures of Germany and Japan, which had been the most militaristic on earth, changed abruptly to become the most pacifistic on earth. The change was deep and lasting. Terrorism did not defeat the German and Japanese armies. The Russian and American armies did that. Terrorism did something more difficult and more permanent. It cured the German and Japanese insanities. Terrorism is shock treatment of the crudest sort, but it sometimes works when all else fails.

Gladwell’s book is not about big wars and big history. It is about individual people and their problems. In addition to those that I have mentioned, there are seven more underdogs who each has a chapter. They are real people and Gladwell brings them wonderfully to life. The book is divided into three sections. The first is called “The Advantages of Disadvantages (and the Disadvantages of Advantages).” After Vivek Ranadivé comes Teresa DeBrito, a schoolteacher who is now principal of the Shepaug Valley Middle School in Connecticut. Her problem is a shortage of kids. The Shepaug Valley has been so gentrified that families with young children can no longer afford to live there. Nearby is the elite Hotchkiss private school, where parents pay exorbitant fees to have their children taught in small classes. Teresa’s classes will soon be smaller than those at Hotchkiss. Parents and politicians think that smaller classes mean better education. But Teresa knows from her experience as a working teacher that bigger classes are usually better. One of the best classes she ever taught had twenty-nine kids.

Caroline Sacks wanted to become a scientist and had a talent for it, but was turned off because she was accepted by a highly competitive Ivy League university. She had the choice of enrolling at the mass-market University of Maryland or at the top-of-the-line Brown University. She says that if she had gone to Maryland she would still be in science. Instead of what? The author is careful not to tell us what Caroline Sacks is doing instead of science. Gladwell interweaves her story with the French Impressionist painters who were not turned off when they were rejected at the Paris Salon exhibition in 1873. The Impressionists held their own exhibition in a set of small rooms on the Boulevard des Capucines, and from there they changed the way the whole world thinks about painting. The moral of these stories is: things that appear to be disadvantages often turn out to be advantages, and vice versa.

The middle section is called “The Theory of Desirable Difficulty.” It begins with David Boies, who is an underdog because he is dyslexic. He struggled through high school and then enjoyed life as a construction worker. Building houses did not require reading. Now he is a famous trial lawyer in California. He says he is a good trial lawyer because he listens. His dyslexia is an advantage because he trained himself to learn everything by listening. He listens to the opposing lawyers and to the witnesses in trials and remembers every word they say. Remembering every word gives him the upper hand.

Emil Freireich had a horrible childhood in extreme poverty in Chicago. During his career as a doctor he was fired seven times for bad behavior. But he devoted his life to finding a cure for childhood leukemia. Leukemia was then a leading cause of death in children. The leukemia ward was a gruesome place soaked in blood, with children in terminal stages bleeding to death. Freireich worked there for twenty years, and is largely responsible for the fact that childhood leukemia is now a curable disease. To find the cure and prove that it worked, he had to inflict pain on a lot of children, breaking rules and antagonizing his colleagues. To be tough helped. Freilich said to Gladwell, “I was never depressed. I never sat with a parent and cried about a child dying…. As a doctor, you swear to give people hope. That’s your job.”

The last section is called “The Limits of Power,” and begins with Rosemary Lawlor, who was a young mother in Belfast when the Troubles began in 1969. The British army imposed a curfew on the Lower Falls area of Belfast, and the people there were running out of food. An army of mothers, pushing prams filled with bread and milk, broke the curfew. Rosemary describes how it happened. “We got the hair pulled out of us. The Brits just grabbed us, threw us up against the walls. Oh, aye! They beat us, like.” And then the tide turned. “Once all the people started coming out of their houses, the Brits lost control…. The Brits gave up…. We forced and we forced—until we got in, and we got in and we broke the curfew…. We did it.”

The next underdog is Wilma Derksen of Winnipeg in Canada, mother of a thirteen-year-old daughter who was raped and murdered. Wilma is a Mennonite, raised in a community that practices nonviolence and forgiveness. Twenty years later, the murderer was found and brought to trial. She had to meet him face to face. “I’m not a saint,” she said to Gladwell. “I’m not always forgiving. It’s the last thing you want to do.” But she found the strength to forgive.

The final chapter belongs to André Trocmé, the pastor of the village Le-Chambon-sur-Lignon, which saved the lives of hundreds of Jewish refugees in France under the German occupation. One of the Jews saved was Pierre Sauvage, who was born in the village during the war. He later became a film producer in Hollywood and made a famous documentary film, Weapons of the Spirit, with some of the original villagers on screen, describing how the saving of Jews came about. The villagers were ordinary people, living lives of hardship and doing what they thought was right. Gladwell concludes: “It was not the privileged and the fortunate who took in the Jews in France. It was the marginal and the damaged, which should remind us that there are real limits to what evil and misfortune can accomplish.” Trocmé was marginal and damaged. He saved the Jews in the village but lost his son. He wrote afterward: “I am like a decapitated pine. Pine trees do not regenerate their tops. They stay twisted, crippled.”