If you want to be a successful disruptive thinker, I’ll give you a little hint: if you humiliate your supervisors in front of their own bosses, make people cry, and get called behind closed doors for a dressing down, you’ve probably failed.

Yes, it really was that bad.

Let me give some background first.  First, I am a hard INTJ in the world of Meyers-Brigs personality types, meaning that I have a compulsive need to improve everything I come in contact with.  As you can probably imagine, that is a double-edged sword.  Second, before I began Arabic studies at the Defense Language Institute, I had been working as a Flying Safety Officer at my C-17 base.  That meant my entire job was dedicated to continual improvement.  My colleagues and I were constantly tweaking base processes to ensure maximum safety for aircraft operations.  If a mishap occurred, we ran investigations, identified causal findings, and made specific recommendations to reduce the chances of a similar mishap ever occurring again.  My entire job consisted of identifying areas for improvement, then making constructive recommendations.  Nothing about that, I thought, would be controversial in an organization that valued its own improvement.

When I began at DLI, the Arabic program was a work-in-progress.  The school had tripled in size since September 11th, and it had growing pains.  My classmates and I were appalled to discover that the pass rate at graduation was only 14%–so low that the DOD had to re-evaluate its Arabic DLPT.  Because teachers received merit pay linked to student DLPT scores, the entire school–from the lowest students to the highest administrators–was in a state of constant panic.  Methodology seemed to change every week or two.  Students were failing out left and right because they couldn’t handle the stress.  As for our curriculum, it was an experimental monstrosity of more than ten volumes that had just come out of production and had cost more than a million dollars.  It was terrible.

I though the administration might value some feedback, so I did exactly what I’d done as a flying safety officer: typed up a lengthy list of detailed concerns.  For each of them I listed specific, actionable recommendations that would mitigate the concern.  Nothing about this seemed controversial to me, and I ran it by my classmates before sending it up.  We focused our comments specifically on the curriculum, not on particular teachers or administrators.  I provided my feedback to our Military Training Leader, an NCO embedded within the mostly Arab, civilian faculty.  We all felt pretty good about ourselves for trying to make the organization better.

A few days later, I was stunned when I was called into our head teacher’s office–a wonderful mother-bear of a woman who loved us like her own children, but was as vicious and demanding as a drill sergeant.  She was crying.  ”Yacoub,” she choked, using my Arabic name.  ”What’s this?”  Then she held up a copy of my paper.  ”I thought you liked us, Yacoub.”

Oops.

We suffered through a horrible day, as each of our hurt, confused teachers interrogated us about our “complaint.”  Later that afternoon, the administrator who supervised our teachers paid his first-ever visit to our class… to berate us for violating our chain of command, and complaining to the higher administration without coming to him first.

Here’s what had happened: the NCO had taken our feedback directly to the Dean, the head of the entire Arabic school.  The Dean had then called up his subordinate administrators, wanting to know what this was all about, and they were completely blindsided.  The NCO had also left a copy somewhere on the shared drive where, by complete coincidence, my teachers had stumbled across it. Even as the administration was exploding, the teachers were passing around copies of our “secret” complaint.  Everybody felt betrayed.  Even though our critique was focused on the curriculum, our teachers felt that we were complaining about them.  Both they and the junior administrators were humiliated in front of their bosses.  Even though we had intended our feedback as an impersonal means of organizational improvement, few of the civilians understood that.  This was also my first exposure to how complicated cross-cultural relationships can be.  These were teachers from cultural backgrounds in which personal honor was everything, and shame was an unbearable fate.

Damage control took weeks, and some relationships never recovered.  None of our recommendations were put into effect, although to her credit, our lead teacher tossed out the curriculum and began working late every night to create her own.

Epic, disruptive failure.

This was one of the most illuminating experiences of my life.  The INTJ profile says that we “do not readily grasp… social rituals”, which is extremely harsh but also–just maybe–a little bit true.  At the time I dwelled in a world of ideas, and naively thought that good ideas would stand on their own merit.  The inevitable response to our constructive critique, I thought, would be gratitude and implementation of our ideas.  Not so much.  We weren’t dealing with neutral ideas, I realized; we were dealing with people and feelings and careers and pride and shame.

In my SWJ article, the #1 principle for disruptive thinkers is this: “The goal is persuasion.”  That flows directly from this experience.  My classmates and I were in no position to implement our own recommendations.  We needed buy-in from teachers and administrators, so our goal should have been to persuade them.  That meant presenting them with good ideas, but it also meant constructing positive, trusting relationships in which we could sell our ideas as win-win opportunities.  Our failure to do that (which was largely my failure) led to one of the most awkward situations in my career.

I wish I could tell you I changed forever after that, but I’m not always the fastest learner.  In my next post in this series, I’ll share one more story.  Then, right around the time I’ve convinced you that I’m a hopeless idiot, I’ll share some of my positive experiences with creating change.

To complement my article Finding Common Ground: Harnessing Disruption for the Good of the Service, I will be writing a series of posts about my own personal efforts at “disruptive thinking” within the military.

I wish I could tell you that all my advice for disruptive junior officers is born of my own innate wisdom.  Alas, that’s not the case.  I learned most of these lessons the hard way.  In the coming posts, I’ll tell it all.

Only a few minutes after I commented sympathetically on Last Wishes of a Dying General, I read Crispin Burke’s devastating takedown.  The subsequent online discussion about both these pieces has given me a lot to think about.  Although Carr’s essay was received quite well among his readers and colleagues, Crispin’s critique resonated with many other officers, who see Carr’s piece as an arrogant, angry rant.

Because I know Carr and what he stands for, I didn’t read his piece that way.  I think a lot of his frustrations are legitimate, and believe he speaks for a lot of Air Force officers.

But as the discussion has continued, and I’ve had more time to reflect on it, it looks to me like Carr’s piece–and the reaction to it–exactly fits the unproductive cycle that I described in Finding Common Ground.

The essay violates several of the principles I suggest for disruptive officers who want to make a difference.  Its biggest fault is that it’s too personal, severely undermining its legitimate points.  It focuses on problems without proposing specific, actionable solutions.  Finally, it is written in a tone and manner that is not likely to persuade senior leaders.

On the other hand, I haven’t been impressed by some of the reactions from older, more senior officers.  I have seen little engagement with Carr’s concerns, or acknowledgement that these concerns are widespread in the Air Force.  Instead, I’ve seen assaults on Carr’s character, statements of good riddance, and dismissals of his critique on the basis that the private sector is worse.

All of this is quite disappointing, so once again, I point to the suggestions for both junior and senior officers in my essay.  These debates need to move forward in positive, constructive ways and I see responsibilities on both sides.

My friend and former Air Force colleague Tony Carr has written a thought-provoking new piece about dysfunctional Air Force culture, titled Last Wishes of a Dying General.  Tony was a Major when I was a young captain and one of the fastest burners I’ve ever seen in the Air Force.  Air Force Intern program, weapons school, SAASS, you name it… he’d done it all, and anyone who knew him would tell you that he was going to be a general, probably with more than one star.  Then, after completing his squadron command, this would-be general stunned everybody who knew him by separating.  This article explains why, and it has everything to do with the ongoing “disruptive thinking” and “bleeding talent” discussion.

In my recent essay Finding Common Ground, I wrote that it’s not especially helpful to talk about the “best and the brightest” leaving in frustration.  However, this really is an example of the best and brightest leaving in frustration.

I won’t repeat Tony’s points here–you should read his essay for yourself–but I want to hit on a couple tangential issues.

First: most of these frustration/disillusionment discussions have focused on the U.S. Army.  I thought it was obvious that these issues are common to the services, so I was shocked to hear a recently retired Air Force general tell me that this was an Army-only issue.  When I pressed him and offered up numerous stories from my own experience, he told me that I was guilty of projecting my own narrow perspective, then finally suggested that perhaps Air Mobility Command was this way, but we’re oddballs because we have such good career prospects on the outside with the airlines.  I couldn’t believe he actually thought that.  The Air Force is boiling with frustration, and Tony’s essay–and the extensive commentary on it–gives us a glimpse of what personnel are talking about across the Air Force on their lunch breaks or at Flight Level 350.

Second, senior leader response.  Shortly after its publication, this article appeared on an e-mail discussion list that I participate in, one which has many senior military leaders.  Only one senior leader (retired) responded, with a disparaging comment about how if Tony really cared about the Air Force, he would have stayed in to make a difference.  On the one hand, I was once again dismayed by how many senior leaders are content to blow off the exodus of talent–one of the primary reasons I wrote my essay.  On the other hand, I recognize the importance of this point.

Somebody raised this same point in the comments section of Tony’s blog: why don’t you stay in so you can be part of the solution?  Tony’s response is one of the best I’ve seen.  I’ll post it in its entirety:

The reason I ran a 9-yard route is pretty simple. I took a look at what my boss was doing and realized I had zero desire to do it. Then I looked at what his boss was doing and realized I had even less than zero. The problems outlined in this post (and many more not in this post) were so intractable, and the authority to address them at my level and 1-2 echelons above so limited, that I could see very little prospect for “difference making” in the next 5-10 years. My career was always driven by making a difference, which most successful careers are. Thus, it was simple to me … if I can’t make a difference for the next decade in this system, it’s too broken to ask my family to endure what that decade would mean. Most people willing to stay under such conditions are the type who don’t think they can do anything else with their lives … hence the dynamic you describe.

The notion of unfinished business will always haunt me. But I concluded I could probably make a bigger difference from the outside than from within. Many others have felt the same and acted accordingly. I’ll tell you what might make me different … had I been free to write an article this vocal (or speak these words in a boardroom this clearly) without being either professionally ostracized or cast aside as a malcontent … I would have been much more likely to stay. Behind all of this dysfunction is a drive for mental conformity that prevents us from talking openly about, let alone solving, our problems.

At the risk of being labeled a malcontent myself, these paragraphs literally make me ache because they ring so true.  I am driven by that same impulse to make a positive impact on the world, but when I look ahead, I feel despair at the prospects of making a difference within the existing system.  Tony is exactly right: the argument that “you should stay in to make a difference” breaks down, if the system is so rigid that it can’t be changed except from the very top.

As for me, I’m still young and plan to stay in for a while.  I owe the Air Force a lot, especially because it’s entrusted me with a spectacular education.  But the Air Force isn’t making it easy for me, and I earnestly hope that senior leaders somewhere are reading essays like Tony’s and paying attention.

My new article is now available on Small Wars Journal, Finding Common Ground: Harnessing Disruption for the Good of the Service.  It is about how disruptive junior officers and their senior leaders can work together for the continual improvement of their organizations.

If you are visiting Building Peace for the first time from SWJ, welcome!  I began this website to chronicle my time as an Olmsted scholar, and multiply the impact of my education.  Although Olmsted is now behind me, this site continues to follow my ongoing education as a student of war and peace… and whatever else catches my interest.

I love a good post-apocalyptic novel.  The Road shook this young father to the core, and over the years I’ve enjoyed watching the world destroyed countless times over in various ways: alien invasions, plagueescaped biological weapons, economic ruin, gamma ray bursts, and nuclear weapons, just to name a few.  The breakdown of society is a favorite theme in my own writing as well.  My novel The Lords of Harambee is about a peacekeeping operation on a hellish world torn apart by economic ruin and genocide, and my current work-in-progress is about the rapid dissolution of an empire.  It isn’t the ruin I necessarily enjoy; it’s watching human beings stripped down to their essential nature, then fighting to survive and to build something new and good.

So I’ll never shy away from a promising post-apocalyptic novel, but when I downloaded the Audible version of The Grapes of Wrath, that was hardly what I was expecting.  I had fallen in love with East of Eden a couple years ago, and was looking for an equally powerful experience.  I had read “The Grapes of Wrath” in High School and despised it, but I’ve spent my adult years rediscovering and falling in love with many of those books I’d been too young to appreciate.  So when I returned to this novel, I had some idea of what was in store.  However, I was deeply surprised, midway through the book, when I realized I was listening to one of the greatest post-apocalyptic novels ever written.

This is a beautiful and compassionate book, and the Audible version is phenomenal.  Despite a huge cast of characters, the narrator brings each of the main characters to life with a diverse range of believable voices, and does an excellent job managing the many secondary characters. I couldn’t wait to get into the car at the end of each workday, so I could listen to another segment.  But make no mistake: this novel is also brutal.  In the Audible version, the listener has more than 21 hours to witness the tragic dissolution of the Joad family.  By the end, I just wanted it to be over.  I didn’t remember much about the book from High School, but I did remember how it ended, and I knew it wasn’t well.

There are no alien invasions or stray asteroids, but this is John Steinbeck’s apocalypse.  It is nothing less than the destruction of America, and the members of the Joad family are the classic post-apocalyptic survivors, inching their way across a tortured landscape in search of a better future.  Merciless corporations, a runaway financial system, and weak or oppressive government institutions have conspired to make life unbearable for the average American.  While the upper crust of society grows impossibly rich, the masses eek out miserable lives, simply trying to survive.  Many of them don’t, and we watch their downfall in painful slow motion.

Steinbeck’s critique of capitalism might be overstated.  After all, the 20th century was not exactly a race to the bottom, and our lives today are substantially better today thanks to the innovation made possible by a capitalist system.

However, Steinbeck’s devastated world looks uncomfortably familiar today, at a time when something is so clearly broken in American society.  We live in an era when wealth disparity is growing rapidly, and when neither capitalism nor the American government serves the common interest.  The middle class is disappearing, and the masses struggle to stay afloat in the face of the new economic and political reality: crushing debt, unaffordable higher education, disappearing jobs, dysfunctional governance, totalitarian surveillance, unjust legal systems, and dwindling government services.  Thankfully most of us aren’t reduced to the misery and desperation of Steinbeck’s world, but the novel is haunting and familiar for those of us who are worried about where our country is headed.

With all that said, Steinbeck makes one significant deviation from most post-apocalyptic novels.  In the majority of these novels, humanity descends into Mad Max barbarism; every man is for himself, and every stranger is a likely enemy.  Many of today’s survivalists, who anticipate a rapid collapse of society, hoard food and ammo so they can ride out the end of the world in fortified isolation.  But as John Robb pointed out in a blog post I’ve since lost track of, collapsing societies don’t always turn every man against the others; in most cases, neighbors band together to survive.  As national institutions crumble, local ones become essential.  Read the news about Syria, and you’ll read stories about neighborhoods forming local councils to tackle urgent problems and women smuggling medicine into besieged communities.  Anyone who has visited a war zone will testify to these remarkable stories of compassion and bravery.  This is how human beings ride out the end of the world: with every act of terror or tyranny matched by an act of courage or kindness.

“The Grapes of Wrath” illustrates this beautifully.  Despite the horrific world that Steinbeck has created, the weary, destitute refugees show extraordinary generosity to one another.  No man survives at another’s expense.  Every last crust of bread is shared, every favor returned.  At one point Ma says, “I’m learin’ one thing good…If you’re in trouble or hurt or need – go to the poor people. They’re the only ones that’ll help – the only ones.”  The contrast between rich and poor in the novel is striking, and perhaps exaggerated–but it also rings true, just as Orwell’s treatment of poverty did for me.  Steinbeck succeeded in unsettling this reader’s conscience.

So when you’re planning for the end of the world, don’t limit yourself to stockpiling ammo.  Consider the possibilities for cooperation, generosity, and kindness despite the terror.  And if you’ve had all of the Zombie fiction that you can possibly handle, consider a less orthodox interpretation of the Apocalypse.  Steinbeck’s slow unraveling of American civilization will make you stop and think, and it will absolutely make you feel.

Nathan Lean’s The Islamophobia Industry: How the Right Manufactures Fear of Muslims is an important addition to the cultural conversation about Islam in America. I follow this conversation with interest, because as a graduate student in Jordan, I wrote my master’s thesis about different narratives about Islam in the United States. In particular, I focused on the relationship between language and power. I read dozens of books from across the spectrum, from Islam’s most ardent defenders to its most vitriolic critics. My research confirmed by sense that so much of the debate about Islam isn’t fully honest. It is less concerned with debating meaningful issues than with attempting to dominate the debate and squelch dissent. In general, I find this to be true of both “Islamophobes” and “apologists.”

This book fits within my overall sense of the debate. It is an apologetic work, dedicated to defending Muslims by destroying the credibility of Islam’s fiercest opponents. The author offers a relentless exposé of the sheer ugliness of individuals like Pamella Gellar, who profit from and take a perverse delight in hatemongering. This critique is important and necessary. Although I believe many Americans have legitimate concerns about Islam, at some point I have to call a spade a spade: many of the individuals who get involved in this debate are hateful, ignorant bigots. Lean exposes some of them, as well as the financial incentives undergirding their little empire. That is the book’s main strength.

But the book suffers from the same deficiency that so many other apologetic works do; it doesn’t engage at all with legitimate questions or concerns that non-Muslims have about Islam. To cite just one example, Lean tells us how terrible it is that Islamophobic organizations distribute material claiming that Muhammad slept with a nine year-old. However, he never engages with the fact that this tidbit is actually true, according to early Islamic sources. Nor does he engage with problematic aspects of shariah codified in classical Islamic jurisprudence. He writes off concerns about Islamic organizations in the US, despite extensive documentation that many of these groups grew out of the Muslim Brotherhood. The “Islamophobic industry” blows many of these things out of proportion, and I think honest analysis would dissipate many fears, but I don’t find approaches like Lean’s particularly helpful. Pamella Gellar and Robert Spencer may be hatemongers, but they are so successful because their work finds traction among average Americans who see things in Islam that legitimately concern them. Blowing off those concerns will not help things; what this debate needs is more patient, honest discussion about these critical issues. Perhaps Lean would argue that such discussion is beyond the scope of his book, but if he really wants to disarm the Islamophobes, this is where the conversation must go.

Lean’s book does a service in exposing the worst aspects of the Islamophobic industry, but I fear it will only speak to an audience that already agrees with him. Those who have sincere questions or concerns about Islam will find little to satisfy them, and will need to look elsewhere for answers.

This is part II of my series of language learning strategy.  Read part I here.

In my view, the single most important thing to growing foreign language comprehension is the consumption of large amounts of comprehensible input.  Memorizing vocabulary words in isolation won’t get you far; it is far better to read and listen to language in a natural context, to get acclimated to the “flow” and hear how words and phrases are actually used.  In my “clear, hold, build” strategy, I call this “clearing.”  Your goal is to clear as much comprehensible input as possible.

This material should be at the “i+1″ level, where “i” is your current knowledge base.  In other words, you want to consume material that mostly consists of words you already know, but that also pushes you to the next level.

So where do you find new material to clear?

If you’re just beginning a new language, brute force memorization of vocabulary is probably inevitable.  However, there are better and worse ways to tackle this challenge.  I plan to explain my Anki flow in a future post, but it essentially goes like this: when I started Turkish, I create a word template with four fields: English, Turkish, EnglishExample, and TurkishExample.  My flashcards contain both the word and the example, and I strive to embed audio whenever possible.  The result, if done properly, is a flashcard deck with full-audio example sentences.  This deck is extremely versatile, because in the future it’s easy to experiment with different flashcard structures…. for example, cutting out the English entirely and simply showing the Turkish word on one side and the Turkish example sentence on the other.

As you are beginning your new language you can also look for phrases to memorize.  I am a huge fan of Pimsleur language courses as a first step in learning a new language, as these programs use the “i+1″ principle to help you clear a significant amount of material.  They are expensive, but your local library might have them.  Another good source of material is phrasebooks, especially ones that include audio CDs.  For example, In Flight Turkish is a 60-minute CD that consists entirely of common phrases and words.  You will need a system to memorize and practice the material, but the phrases themselves are perfect for “clearing.”  My preferred technique is to use Audacity to strip out the audio for individual phrases, then create flashcards for them in Anki.

As your knowledge grows, your options increase and also become significantly more interesting.  You will obviously want to look for material that suits your current skill level, but you can also use more challenging material if you can somehow make it comprehensible.  For listening texts, that means having access to a written transcript.  And for difficult written texts, it means having access to an English translation.  Such materials make up the majority of my Arabic intake.

BBC is a great place to start, because news articles are written in a simple, direct style with easy vocabulary.  A variety of web browser plugins will give you real-time translation of words or phrases that you don’t know, meaning that if you have a certain baseline skill level, almost any webpage can become comprehensible input.  The vast majority of my early Arabic learning came from reading BBC Arabic with a browser plugin.  I have used several, but my current plugin is Franker for Safari.  I also use the Franker app for my iPhone and iPad.

Don’t underestimate Google.  If you are learning about a specific topic, like getting around an airport, it’s easy to Google “مطار” or “havaalanı” and find websites for major airports.  You’ll certain to see many of your new vocabulary words in context.

Parallel texts are incredibly useful.  Most holy texts like the Bible and Qur’an are available in parallel languages.  Many foreign affairs-related reports, such as those from International Crisis Group, are available in multiple languages.  You can also find books written in parallel languages.  In Jordan I was thrilled to discover a vast series of classic English-language novels (many of them simplified for children, some not) translated into Arabic, with the two languages on facing pages.  They are even rated by difficulty level.  I amassed a huge collection of these novels, and they continue to play an important part in developing my reading comprehension.  I have yet to find anything similar in Turkish, although I did discover some bilingual children’s books in the DLI library.  I also have both the English and Turkish versions of Orhan Pamuk’s Snow, so when my Turkish improves I could conceivably study with the two copies side by side.

When it comes to listening, I’m always on the lookout for material that has transcripts.  If you are in the military or are affiliated with a university, you likely have access to SCOLA, which publishes weekly mini-lessons in many languages. Each lesson includes an MP3 and MP4 news clip, a native transcript, an English transcript, and a vocabulary list.  These are perfect for comprehensible input.

Every once in a while you can stumble across a goldmine.  Rob of the now-defunct Arab Media Shack introduced me to the transcript collection on Al Jazeera.  The website has a huge collection of full-length TV episodes, with complete transcripts attached.  More recently, I was delighted to discover a huge repository of dialect clips with bilingual transcripts attached.

Movies with subtitles are another source of comprehensible input.  For example, the web TV series Beirut I Love You has dozens of short episodes in Lebanese, subtitled in English.  And although I could only find one episode with subtitles, the famous Turkish melodrama Gümüş is available on YouTube.  Another great resources is Viki, which lets users crowdsource subtitles for foreign-language movies, TV shows, and music videos.

Lastly, there is no substitute for spending time with native speakers, especially in native contexts.  A good language tutor or partner can make language comprehensible by offering explanations or clarifications when necessary.

For most of us, life is a constant work in progress.  As I wrote in my post about New Year’s resolutions, we typically see a gap between who we are and who we want to be.  For many of us, that includes not just ourselves but our life situation.  We are constantly looking for ways to make our careers more fulfilling, to pursue our passions, to give more time to our families and friends.  As we get older, that can be increasingly challenging.  We get busier in our careers and our time dries up.  As our families grow and our expenses rises, we become more dependent on our jobs and less willing to make disruptive changes.  Life takes on an inertia of its own.

I am wrestling with that right now.  I love serving in the Air Force and am committed to my military career, but I have wide-ranging interests and passions that extend beyond my day job.  The irony is that many of these passions, like foreign languages and regional studies, are intimately linked to my vision of officership and service to the country–but have virtually nothing to do with my day job.  Even reading and writing novels, which on the surface might seem disconnected from military service, is essential; it is through fiction that much of my deepest thinking and personal engagement with world affairs has developed.  But because these things are all outside my daily job, the only time I can allocate to them is what I can scrape together outside of work, and those few hours largely belong to my family.

I have bookcases all over my house, but the one immediately beside my desk is given to current projects–the ones I’m most passionate about.  Here is an impromptu picture taken this morning:

The bookcase of unfulfilled ambitions.

The bookcase of unfulfilled ambitions.

On the top shelf are the religious and political classics I return to time and again–some of which I’ve read cover-to-cover, and some of which I need to spend more time with.  Beside them are several DVD series that I want to watch, to expand my knowledge of history.  The second shelf is devoted to Arabic and Turkish.  I spent much of the last year learning Turkish, but after a planned trip to Turkey was canceled because of work requirements, I was pretty crushed and stopped studying; I also felt like I was losing my Arabic, because I didn’t have sufficient time to do both.  Even now that I’m focusing on Arabic again, I’m struggling to find time to work through any of these resources.  The third shelf consists of books I want to read or am currently reading; I am halfway through many of them, but set them down when I got busy.  On the right are books about the Mongols and ancient Persian empires, which are research for my next novel.  Stacked in front of them are reference books for a nonfiction book I am trying to write about Islam.  The stacked DVDs are a Turkish TV series dubbed in Syrian Arabic, for language practice.  Finally, the fourth shelf is my writing library.  The two books that are pulled and turned sideways are about nonfiction writing and book proposal writing, also for my planned Islam book.

This all might look audacious to someone who thinks I should simply focus on my job.  But for someone who is dual-hatted as a Middle East Regional Affairs Specialist and seeks higher-level government service in the future, the bookshelf does make a kind of sense: slow, steady growth in relevant languages, the study of politics and culture and military science, and the ability to translate my knowledge into writing for the benefit of others.  Unfortunately, achieving any of this is maddeningly difficult.

I’m not sure why I’m sharing this.  Maybe nobody cares, but then again, maybe everybody else can relate and we can at least bond over the cruelty of time.

On the other hand, I have a lot to be thankful for.  I’m so grateful I was chosen for the Olmsted scholar program, when I did have abundant time to pursue these passions.  As we enter an age of budget cuts and downsizing, I hope the DOD realizes how important these programs are–and what a tremendous education investment is.  And as much as I love my current C-17 squadron, I’m looking forward to attending SAASS this summer.  I can’t believe they’re going to pay me to read books for a year.

The first time I heard of Gene Sharp was during the early weeks of the Arab Spring, when the masses were filling Tahrir Square in Cairo.  I heard about how-to pamphlets going viral among the demonstrators, written by an obscure writer in his mid-80s who had never really found a home within formal academia.  Writing out of his basement and a minimal organization known as the Albert Einstein Institute, Gene Sharp had somehow earned a reputation as the “father of nonviolent revolution” and inspired nonviolent activists from Burma to Egypt.  He’d even been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2009, and is now the subject of a documentary called How to Start a Revolution.  Once I knew who he was, his name cropped up repeatedly.  On one occasion, a military strategist with COIN experience in the Philippines recommended studying his work.

Most of Sharp’s work is available for free on the Albert Einstein Institute website, so I loaded up my iPad before my most recent C-17 mission and spent my crew rests engaged with titles like From Dictatorship to Democracy, Self-Liberation, and There are Realistic Alternatives.

Taken together, Sharp’s body of work is based on a simple premise: dictators only function because frightened, demoralized people believe in the dictator’s power and grant their consent.  If they remove their consent, even the most brutal authoritarian regime will weaken and possibly even crumble.  Using violence against such a regime–whether direct or indirect–is dangerous, because it attacks the regime’s strength and is likely to end in violent tragedy for the revolutionaries.  Even if the revolutionaries find victory, the power distribution in the country remains the same and there is a risk of continued authoritarianism under the new government.

Nonviolent action is far more likely to bear fruit, Sharp writes, because it attacks the regime’s vulnerabilities and simultaneously sows the seeds for the thriving civil society and democratic mindset that will hopefully lead to better governance once the dictatorship ends.  Much of Sharp’s work is practical, helping would-be revolutionaries analyze their unique circumstances, plan strategy, and choose appropriate tactics and methods to enable those strategies.  He often references a list of 198 methods of nonviolent action.

Skeptics of nonviolent action need to understand something: Sharp’s nonviolence is not about cowering, spineless submission to tyranny.  It is not about “negotiating” deals with dictators and calling the resulting absence of bloodshed “peace.”  It is not about turning the other cheek.  Sharp’s nonviolence is about deliberate, courageous, and defiant effort to exercise power and undermine the pillars of a dictatorial regime.  Such nonviolent action is hard and exceptionally dangerous, and will probably be met with brutal repression.  Nonetheless, it can transform societies and governments.

It is fascinating reading Sharp’s work two years into the Arab Spring, because there is so much evidence to consider when evaluating his theory.  On the whole, Sharp’s theory seems to fit the facts quite well, with a couple notable exceptions.  I’ll comment on just a few points.

First, nonviolent action is indeed capable of leveraging tremendous power against a regime’s vulnerabilities.  Nonviolence can even be more powerful than violence.  The initial uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt, which culminated in the hasty departure of both dictators, seem to confirm Sharp’s overall thesis.  Nonviolent action collapsed both regimes within weeks; I dread to consider what revolutionary violence would have led to. One might argue that Egypt would never have “flipped” without the backing of the Army, but this doesn’t necessarily contradict Sharp’s thesis.  He often notes the importance of institutions like the police and Army, and urges revolutionary strategists to consider ways to bring elements of these organizations to their side.  Also, the role of the Egyptian Army  illustrates Sharp’s point that a dictator depends on the consent of his people for survival; if that consent is withdrawn, the regime has nothing.

Second, strategy is essential.  Sharp laments that most revolutionaries and democratic activists have no grasp of strategy and no long-term plan for their actions, and warns that isolated use of nonviolent action will seldom bring real change.  I can’t think of a better example than Jordan, where a vast array of activists have engaged in countless demonstrations, sit-ins, grassroots campaigns, and online efforts.  These efforts–while often admirable–are characterized by a lack of higher organization and strategy, weak cooperation or outright conflict between groups, ambiguous goals, and a lack of sustainment and follow-through.  The result is frustration, burn-out, and a demoralizing failure to achieve tangible gains.

Third, nonviolent strategy must incorporate steps to prepare the society for what’s to come after the dictator departs.  To successfully transform from a dictatorship to a democracy, Sharp writes, a country’s power distribution must change.  People must feel empowered to speak and contribute to their future.  A lack of adequate planning is likely to result in the hijacking of power by a small group, perhaps even a group that didn’t play a central role in the nonviolent campaign.  It’s hard to think of a better example than the current situation in Egypt under the Muslim Brotherhood.

Fourth, it is very dangerous for nonviolent strategists to count on foreign assistance.  Sharp argues that there are no guarantees a foreign power will intervene on behalf of nonviolent activists, and even if they do, that intervention could lead to a host of new problems.  Although Syrian revolutionaries are not waging a nonviolent campaign at this point, it’s perhaps worth mentioning here, because the Syrian effort has depended from the beginning on foreign assistance that has failed to materialize.

If anything from the past two years appears to undermine Sharp’s work, it is the examples of Libya and Syria.  Qaddafi and Assad took a lesson from Ben Ali and Mubarak: if you want to survive, don’t capitulate when consent is withdrawn from your rule.  Instead, respond with savage violence.  That strategy seemed to work, and it ultimately took violent foreign intervention to end Qaddafi’s rule.  In Syria, initial efforts at nonviolent action were met with so much violence that the situation devolved into civil war.  I am still reflecting on what these examples mean for Sharp’s work; is it possible to imagine alternative histories, in which sustained nonviolent action would have worked despite the level of violent suppression?  Or is there a threshold at which nonviolent resistance is destined to fail?

Such questions deserve more scholarly attention, and I hope to find more good writing on the subject.  However, despite such questions, Gene Sharp’s work is important and needs to be read by anyone who cares about democratic activism or about strategy in general.