Tag Archives: COIN

Irregular Conflict and Cartel Dynamics in The Wire

5 Mar

The Wire, praised as the best TV series of all time, has inspired its fair share of academic analysis.  Multiple universities have devoted entire classes to exploring themes such as poverty and drug policy through the medium of David Simon’s creation.  The journal darkmatter even published an entire issue devoted to analysis of The Wire.  Recently, Joseph Young rightly nominated The Wire as one of the three best TV series in its portrayal of political violence.  However, I have not come across any blog posts or articles that analyze the show’s depiction of the dynamics of violence.  The show is chalk-full of useful examples, but because a complete study of violence in the Wire would require an entire book, I’ll limit myself to four examples that speak to broader themes of irregular conflict and cartel dynamics.

The first example comes from Season 3.  Stringer Bell, the archetypal illicit businessman, realizes that competition for corners among various gangs is driving down drug quality and decreasing overall income.  He proposes a drug co-op, with the goal of providing access to the best quality drugs for multiple gangs.[1]  Income levels are then high enough that gangs no longer need to fight over corners, and disputes are encouraged to be aired before the groups, lest violence ruin the money-making enterprise.  Mexican drug cartels often  pursue a similar strategy.  Especially when it’s unclear who would win a violent encounter, it makes perfect business sense to work together.  The need to resolve disputes peacefully and internally occurs in other contexts.  For civilians living through insurgencies, if they are to escape large-scale violence, they must prevent internal disputes from leading to a divided community siding with different armed actors.  For Kaplan, dispute resolution leads to civilian protection.  For Stringer, it’s all about business.

The problem for Stringer is that the motives of others, and mostly importantly his boss Avon Barksdale, do not correspond simply to business.[2]  In a revealing exchange, Avon says to Stringer, “I ain’t no suit-man business-man like you.  You know I’m just a gangster, I suppose.  And I want my corners.”  Barksdale is less driven by a desire to simply make money than a personal code that dictates how the leader of a drug organization should act.  A co-op might make economic sense, but for Barksdale, it’s uncharted territory he doesn’t fully understand.  Cartels often face this dilemma.  While they are ostensibly business entities, they recruit individuals for their violent ability.  These individuals often choose to pursue violence for its own sake rather than using violence to achieve specific economic objectives.  Secondly, the co-op causes its own problem.  Stringer does his best to create a veneer of legitimacy through money laundering, real estate development, and political connections, but this forces him into conflict with a whole new set of characters.  When corrupt State Senator Clay Davis fails to come through for Stringer, Stringer orders Slim Charles to kill him.  Slim Charles and Avon Barksdale successfully object because of the chaos killing a senator would cause, leading to serious friction within the gang.  Bell describes himself as a businessman, but he fails to recognize the potential consequences of his actions when his ambitions are stymied.

One of the series’ most terrifying characters is Snoop, a young hitwoman for the Stanfield organization (which largely replaces the Barksdale organization as the dominant drug-dealing force at the end of the third season).  Her proclivity for violence is sometimes as asset for Stanfield’s crew, but it also occasionally gets her into trouble.[3]  Following the demise of the Barksdale organization, some drug dealers from New York move down the coast and take up residence in Baltimore.  Snoop, and her partner in crime Chris, are directed to violently eliminate the New York dealers, partly out of an economic logic and partly because of a “tribal” desire to keep outsiders from making money in Baltimore.  However, because Snoop and Chris do not personally know every street-level dealer they devise a strategy to tell Baltimore and New York corner boys apart.  Chris proposes they ask unknown dealers questions about Baltimore-specific music to figure out their origin.  They first time they try this tactic, the dealer in question answers Snoop’s query about a particular DJ, but doesn’t give the answer Chris had earlier stated.  Snoop quickly puts the gun to his head and is about to pull the trigger when Chris stops her.  The named DJ is another Baltimore DJ that Snoop herself had never heard of.

While Chris’ and Snoop’s tactic is certainly fraught with problems, it also demonstrates the identification problem perfectly, the central dilemma for insurgents and counterinsurgents.  Soldiers fighting irregular wars face a chronic lack of information, and are therefore usually unable to figure out with certainty who is collaborating with whom.  Combatants rarely even have the ability to tell if the denunciations they receive are truthful.  Kalyvas writes that the majority of collaborators during civil wars escape denunciation, while the majority of those punished for collaboration are innocent.  Even though Snoop and Chris are able to tell drug-dealers (combatants) and non-drug-dealers (noncombatants) apart, they are nonetheless unable to correctly evaluate intelligence (see footnoote three) or differentiate between allies and enemies.

In “Unconfirmed Reports”, the second episode of the fifth season, Snoop and the young hitman Michael have one of the most interesting exchanges in the series.  They are on a mission to kill June Bug, who has been spreading rumors about Marlo Stanfield being a homosexual.[4]  Michael, who has a gentle side, questions Snoop over why the killing is necessary if Marlo is not in fact gay.  Snoop replies that it’s not about whether Stanfield is actually gay, but whether people think he’s gay.  On one hand, Snoop grasps that need for reputational violence.  If Marlo Stanfield is perceived as weak, then rivals are more likely to cooperate to target him.  On the other hand, Snoop’s comment demonstrates the extremely violent and paranoid nature of the Stanfield organization.  Any backtalk or perceived disloyalty is lethally punished.  Stringer, for example, was more willing to tolerate small deviations from the Barksdale line if it didn’t result in a loss of revenue.  For the Stanfield organization, loyalty is a black and white issue, but ultimately this harms its business interests.  Some of its best dealers, like Bodie, are killed for (incorrectly) perceived collaboration with the police, while the co-op starts to fall apart because of Marlo’s inability to share power.

Eventually, the Stanfield organization falls apart as a direct consequence of its extremely violent nature.  Unlike Mexico’s Los Zetas, which have the ability to publicly demonstrate their brutality, the Stanfield organization is unable to successfully execute the same tactic.  Los Zetas’ tactical superiority over the Mexican armed forces and their extensive corruption network provide them protection not afforded to Marlo Stanfield.  Ultimately, brutal violence attracts the attention of law enforcement, and they don’t have the ability to fend off the police.

The last episode of the series centers around the demise of the Stanfield organization.  Marlo’s fall, however, opens up opportunities for personal promotion through violence.  We see Michael, now freed from his organizational shackles, violently rob another drug dealer, while Slim Charles murders Cheese Wagstaff as Baltimore’s drug dealers try to re-institute the co-op.  This is no accident.  Cartel fragmentation is a major cause of drug violence in Mexico, and the writers of The Wire get the dynamics of gang breakup spot-on.  Every viewer of the series was rooting for Detectives McNulty and Freamon in their seemingly impossible battle against the Stanfield organization, but ultimately, as the series unflinchingly shows, their efforts are entirely in vain.  Other dealers and organizations pop up to take their place, and significant violence occurs during the transition.  McNulty and Freamon, despite their heroic qualities, are agents of a counterproductive drug policy.  The irony of this is certainly not lost on David Simon.

The genius of the Wire is that it is able to compellingly demonstrate the corrosive organizational effects of violence and the many drivers of human behaviors.  No individual is completely free from cultural, normative, and institutional effects or is singularly good or evil.  The result is a cast of complex characters grappling with their often incredibly challenging circumstances.  Its portrayal of violence is an extension of its nuanced characters, and few TV shows or movies can plausibly claim to come close to its excellence.[5]  The dynamics of violence for the drug gangs is fascinating, but it would certainly take at least another 1700-word blog post to sufficiently examine the dynamics and politics of police action in the series.  For example, the portrayal of Colvin’s attempt to end the War on Drugs is brutally crushed by city politics which is unable to tolerate a sensible drug policy.[6]  Wish I had time to write that piece as well.

__________________________________________________________________________________________

[1] It’s fascinating that the co-op always meets in a fancy hotel’s conference room.  Though Stringer Bell angrily tears up meeting minutes taken by a younger drug dealer, they never seem to have serious security concerns.  In fact, they are probably more secure meeting outside of the neighborhoods they deal in because rivals will be less comfortable attacking them there (think Omar robbing Marlo Stanfield at a back-room poker game) and police can less feasibly arrest them on dubious charges.

[2] Much later in the series, a new incarnation of the co-op is imperiled when Slim Charles murders Cheese Wagstaff.   Again, a co-op makes economic sense, but a desire for revenge supersedes greed.

[3] It also gets her killed.  She and Chris assume that it must be Michael snitching on them, even though in reality information was obtained through a semi-legal wiretap.  Perhaps it was a reasonable assumption with imperfect information, but it also fits into a general pattern in which Snoop shot first and asked questions later.

[4] The politics of gender here are also really interesting, because while calling Marlo gay is a slur, Snoop is a lesbian.

[5] Personally, I’m undecided on whether The Wire or Friday Night Lights is better.

[6] Ellis Carver says of the War on Drugs, “You can’t even call this shit a war.  Wars end.”

The Responsibility to Do What We Can: Understanding and strengthening local, nonviolent strategies for civilian self-protection in the context of mass atrocities

9 Dec

*The Sentinel Project has published my final report on strategies for civilian self-protection during mass atrocities.  This blog post summarizes my report and you can find the report itself here.

The Responsibility to Protect doctrine, instituted in 2005, exemplifies the dominant paradigm for action during mass atrocities: international intervention.  While R2P places the primarily responsibility on states, the international community is nonetheless positioned as the final authority on issues of civilian protection.  This approach has many benefits, but suffers from an inherent response gap.  The international community is simply unable to react effectively to every mass atrocity scenario because of structural constraints.  Therefore, most civilians that survive mass atrocities do so with little organized or institutionalized help from anyone beyond their immediate communities.  But exactly how civilians manage this is a severely understudied phenomenon even within the larger (already neglected) subfield of mass violence against civilians.  The lack of empirical work on civilian self-protection makes drawing concrete solutions on how to improve future civilian protection strategies difficult, and therefore a more apt approach combines theory on how mass atrocities function with non-comprehensive empirical work.

There are many schools of thought on why mass atrocities happen and how they work.  Despite the many legitimate points scholars have made over the years, one seems beyond challenge: mass killing is an instrumental process.  For political leaders, mass atrocities serve some other political goal and only occur after other attempts to accomplish the goal fail.  Another point of agreement among scholars is that mass atrocities are much more likely to occur during war; the upheaval caused by war gives extremist leaders a better chance of seizing power.  A point more contested among scholars, but no less convincing, is that beyond the leadership directing mass atrocities, ideology plays only a peripheral role.  Perpetrators of mass atrocities are not bloodthirsty killers, but rather more like, as Christopher Browning termed it, ordinary men.  For the most part, they are more convinced to kill by in-group coercion than ethnic hatred or sadism.

Broadly, there are two types of mass atrocities that commonly occur today: counterinsurgent (COIN) and communal mass atrocities.  Many mass atrocity scenarios, such as the violence we see today in Syria, has an element of both.  Strategies for civilian self-protection are significantly different between COIN and communal mass atrocities.  Therefore, for the purposes of understanding them, categorically separating the two types is necessary despite the potential analytic simplification.

During counterinsurgent mass atrocities, civilians have the best chance of escaping violence by attempting to remove themselves from the conflict.  If they can gain the trust of armed actors that they are not providing information or aid to either side, they may be able to avoid conflict altogether.  During communal mass atrocities, the task is similar, but the tactics are different.  Instead of simply removing themselves, civilians must change the logic that makes them targets in the first place.  Misinformation and social myths are rampant in every communal mass atrocity, and countering these rumors is crucial in preventing the outbreak of violence.  Secondly, leaders manipulate information to whip up ethnic hatred and instigate attacks.  Therefore, either discrediting these leaders or removing them from power can have positive effects.  Research on civilian self-protection during communal mass atrocities is still in its infancy, and scholars could do practitioners a huge hand by emphasizing the topic more in the future.

Unfortunately, there are plenty of instances in which nonviolent, local civilian self-protection strategies don’t work.  Violence during mass atrocities is an escalatory process, and the more entrenched cycles of violence become, the harder it is for civilians to bargain their way out of trouble.  This happens for multiple reasons: the collective action problem intensifies, psychological pressures harden combatants’ violent instincts, and lines of command falter.  Finally, armed groups with inflexible ideological commitments or significant economic incentives are much harder to work with for civilians in mass atrocity contexts.

NGO’s are in an ideal position to improve civilian self-protection strategies because of their ability innovate and their relative lack of institutional constraints.  NGO’s should always seek to work with existing community structures rather than inventing new ones, because in mass atrocity scenarios, nearly every social structure serves a protective purpose.  NGO’s should also be pragmatic, refrain from making moral judgments, and place civilian survival above every other consideration.  NGO’s have the ability to provide and disseminate crucial information communities often lack and should focus their efforts here.  Once civilians have this information, NGO’s should assist civilians in their efforts to protect themselves, but ultimately defer to civilian choices.  Civilian self-protection does not present a comprehensive strategy for ending mass atrocities, but understanding and aiding the process could go a long way in filling the atrocity response gap.

Why “Genocide” Had To Come First, And Why “Mass Atrocities” Should Come Next

19 Nov

In 1943, Polish resistance member Jan Karski secured a meeting with American Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter.  Karski was desperate to find a sympathetic audience for the intelligence he had obtained by sneaking into Nazi concentration camps.  At the time, there was little understanding in United States or Western Europe of the scale and intensity of Nazi atrocities.  In Samantha Power’s telling of the encounter, Frankfurter waited for Karski to finish before saying, “I don’t believe you.”  Karski protested, before Frankurter responded, “I do not mean that you are lying.  I simply said that I cannot believe you.”  Frankfurter was unable to comprehend the scale of atrocities Karski was accurately describing.  Frankfurter wasn’t alone.  At the time, the concept of massive violence directed at civilians didn’t exist.  Civilian casualties were certainly accepted as a part of war, but no specific word or phrase existed to fully encapsulate the deliberate targeting of civilians.

Raphael Lemkin, a Polish-Jewish lawyer who had narrowly escaped the Holocaust, fought hard for years to make the world fully appreciate the realities of mass killing.  Beyond his personal experience during World War II, he was also fascinated by the horrors of the Armenian genocide and other episodes of mass killing.  Lemkin had a keen understanding of the capabilities of governments to murder civilians on a large scale.  To help others gain the same understanding, Lemkin placed in faith in language, feeling that if there were just a distinct word to describe the extent of the crimes of the Holocaust, societal rejection of future potential mass killing episodes was more likely.  In A Problem from Hell, Samantha Power describes Lemkin’s quest:

“Ever since Lemkin had heard Churchill’s 1941 radio address, he had been determined to find a new word to replace “barbarity” and “vandalism,” which had failed him at the 1933 Madrid conference. Lemkin had hunted for a term that would describe assaults on all aspects of nationhood-physical, biological, political, social, cultural, economic, and religious. He wanted to connote not only full-scale extermination but also Hitler’s other means of destruction: mass deportation, the lowering of the birthrate by separating men from women, economic exploitation, progressive starvation, and the suppression of the intelligentsia who served as national leaders…Lemkin saw he needed a word that could not be used in other contexts (as “barbarity” and “vandalism” could). He self-consciously sought one that would bring with it “a color of freshness and novelty” while describing something “as shortly and as poignantly as possible.” But Lemkin’s coinage had to achieve something Eastman’s did not. Somehow it had to chill listeners and invite immediate condemnation.”

The word Lemkin chose was “genocide” which combined the Greek root “geno” (meaning “race” or tribe”) and the Latin root “cide” (meaning “killing”).  Lemkin’s persistence assured the word was in fact ingrained in international law, and almost single-handedly, Lemkin planted the notion that governments can and do kill huge numbers of civilians in the world’s collective conscience.

At the time, Lemkin’s success was revolutionary.  However, it’s time to move on from using the word “genocide”.  “Genocide” simply doesn’t cover all episodes of mass killing because its legal definition excludes political groups from potential victims and genocide and stipulates that there must be an intent to destroy “in whole or in part” the victim group.  The definition is too focused on the specific experience of Jews during the Holocaust, which problematizes the generalization of “genocide” to other episodes of mass killing with different characteristics.  The Khmer Rouge’s action in Cambodia and counterinsurgent mass atrocities (the Syrian conflict) don’t count as genocides, but one would be right to question why certain types of mass killing are any worse than others.  Does it really matter if something constitutes genocide if large number of people are dying as a result of an intentional policy?  The use of “genocide” privileges certain types of killing over others, and as activists seek to draw attention to mass violence by using the word “genocide” whether or not it’s accurate, the meaning of the word is simultaneously diluted.

Ironically, Lemkin’s success in promoting the word “genocide” allows us now to abandon it.  The idea that “genocide” exists and is something we as a global community should fight is a well-diffused norm.  From my anecdotal experience telling people what I’m interested in, regular Americans with no connection to politics or academia understand the basic tenets of a genocide.  Now that the concept of “genocide” has been successfully propagated, there is a perfect opportunity for civilian protection advocates to diffuse a new norm that leads to a more complete understanding of the nature of mass killing.  “Mass atrocities” is the most widely used term in the academic and activist discourse on episodes of mass killing, and adopting it  in place of “genocide” to describe various types of intentional mass killing makes sense in the future.

For various reasons, “mass atrocities” makes the most sense in the present historical moment to serve as a catch-all term for different variations on mass killing.  Unfortunately, it is not without its flaws.  From my own personal experience, different people have different interpretations of what “mass atrocities” implies.  In my personal view, it’s limited to lethal attacks, but a very reasonable argument could be made that rape and mutilation should also be included.  Even if we decide that rape and mutilation are a potential component of mass atrocities, can a death-less mass atrocity exist?  Do a certain number of rapes and mutilations equate to a death?  Therefore, perhaps “mass killing” is more appropriate, but it suffers from a lack of use outside of certain academic circles.  Another problem is that both “mass atrocities” and “mass killing” suffer from not fully conveying that the killings must be a part of a fairly coherent and intentional plan, rather than an aggregation of totally unrelated violence.  Perhaps in the future, another time will present the need to diffuse another norm.

A Blueprint for Local, Nonviolent Responses to Mass Atrocities (Part II)

18 Aug

*This post originally appeared on the Sentinel Project blog.

Separating mass atrocities into categories risks oversimplification, but different response strategies apply to different types of violence.  Therefore, modern-day mass atrocities can broadly be separated into two categories: counterinsurgency (COIN) and communal.  While this division risks empirical oversimplification and many scenarios have elements of both, delineating the two allows for a more concise construction of the logic behind civilian self-protection.

During counterinsurgencies, the flow of information is the central cause of mass atrocities.  Combatants use civilians to gather information about enemy troop movements and the identity of civilian supporters of the opposition.  Because armed actors need this information, but are often unable to verify it independently, civilians have quite a bit of power in determining the strategic use of violence.  This power is often abused.  Kalvyas and Kaplan have both extensively documented how civilians partner with armed actors not because of ideologies, but to settle personal scores.  Fear is also a powerful explanation for civilian cooperation.  Kalyvas argues that physical control by armed groups is a highly influential factor in explaining civilian cooperation, especially as the conflict progresses.  Finally, when armed actors lack information to determine who’s working with the enemy and who’s not, they may resort to indiscriminate violence to intimidate would-be enemy collaborators.  This strategy, however, is not very effective, and so combatants will likely only pursue this strategy when there is a lack of resources to devote to information-gathering.

To counter these issues, there are a few basic measures civilians can take.  Collectively, these measures are most coherently contained within the concept of “Zones of Peace” (ZoP’s).  ZoP’s have been established in varying forms and with varying levels of success around the world.  They rest on the basic principle of civilian non-participation in COIN.  In his study of ZoPs in Colombia, Kaplan lists a few generalizable strategies communities can use: Creating a culture of peace, implementing conflict resolution processes, creating internal investigative bodies that have the trust of armed actors, and naming and shaming.  The first two help prevent civilians from using armed actors to settle disputes, while the second solves the information problem for armed actors.  If combatants on are confident that a certain community is not aiding any armed group, then they are much less likely to target the community.  Finally, the last strategy allows civilians to shame certain armed actors that have committed abuses.  If the guilty parties need to maintain good relations with NGOs, foreign governments, and local civilians, they may refrain from committing atrocities in the future.  One final strategy is for civilians to confront armed groups en masse and demand an end to atrocities.  While confrontation carries a high element of risk, if an armed group is hesitant to kill large numbers of civilians at the same time, it can be effective.

Responding to communal conflict differs from COIN mass atrocity mitigation, but the difference is not as clear as one might think.  In both situations, civilians become the intentional targets of violence as part of a process in which other goals necessitate the use of violence directed against civilians.  One commonly advocated strategy to address communal violence, particularly among studies examining the Holocaust, is to identify societies with deep social cleavages and cultures conducive to mass killing, and then attempt to positively change those elements through public messaging.  However, since explanations focused on pre-existing societal rifts seem to poorly explain why mass atrocities emerge and these rifts are widespread and deeply-rooted in many societies, addressing such issues directly would require huge resources (human, financial, and institutional).  Instead, addressing “hot spots” (as mass atrocities are often committed and directed by a very small group) with contact programs or education aimed at violence-reduction could be effective.  Perpetrators beyond central leaders often have fairly apolitical motives for participating in mass atrocities, with group dynamics being a more important cause.  Therefore, creating an atmosphere in which potential perpetrators feel increased social pressure to not participate mass atrocities could have a positive mitigating effect.  Similarly, the public challenging of perpetrator leaders early in the process of mass atrocities can also reduce violence by creating the political will to withdraw the public complicity necessary to commit large-scale violence.  Communal violence is also often driven by misinformation.  This misinformation helps to create the social myths necessary to justify the killing of others, but it also can create erroneous beliefs about the opponent’s actions or motives.  Initiatives such as the Sentinel Project’s proposed text messaging service in the Tana Delta that would verify the truthfulness of rumors can help stop the spread of false information that leads to violence.

Two other locally-focused strategies that hold promise for mass atrocities violence mitigation are locally-led advanced mobile aid (LLAMA) and localized conflict early warning systems (LCEWS). LLAMA provides, quick, mobile humanitarian aid to communities at risk that are beyond the political, geographic, or temporal reach of traditional aid agencies.  It can also be adapted forcivilian protection in conflict situations.  It can improve information flow to isolated, at-risk communities and provide them with the information and the means to move to lower-risk areas when physical escape is the best option.  LCEWS are another important strategy.  Currently, early warning systems mostly exist at the level of national or international organizations, which according to Barrs, creates the problem that “alerts, bulletins, and reports are sent around the world in real time. Yet they rarely touch ground where the killing happens. They fly through cyberspace, high over the victims’ heads. People at risk on the ground might never learn that the ‘demarches’ we write on their behalf even exist.”  Therefore, localized early warning, especially ones with advanced vertical integration, could greatly improve the flow of information to at-risk communities, allowing them to better assess their options.

Ultimately, there are plenty of strategies out there for nonviolent, local mass atrocities mitigation, but the growing abundance of such studies has been largely ignored by policy makers.  So while policy makers would do well to accept less bureaucratic, nonviolent, and local methods for preventing and responding to mass atrocities, scholars also need to expand this idea theoretically, rather than the conceptually and geographically limited studies that populate the majority of the relevant literature.  A key question still remains: how do perpetrators and victims actually interact?  The dearth of scholarship that addresses this question on the theoretical level is a real shame, and better analysis could seriously improve our understanding of how civilians can protect themselves during mass atrocities.  It’s a question I’d love to see answered as work in this field progresses.

Musings on the Excessive Silliness of Red Dawn

29 May

It’s a senior week at Swarthmore, so I have a lot of free time.  With that free time, I watched the 2012 remake of the 1984 classic movie Red Dawn.  In the Cold War version, the Soviets and Cubans invade, but are partially fended off by a group of Colorado high-schoolers.  In the new (and probably not improved) film, it’s the sinister North Koreans invading, and the setting is shifted to Spokane, Washington.  The movie includes a plethora of implausible scenes, but also sparked some good discussion among the four of us that watched the movie.  I can’t take credit for all the below ideas, so this post was more of a collaborative effort (thanks Taryn, Lorand, and Sam) that I’d like to share.

Unlike in 1984, it’s pretty hard to identify an obvious invasion threat to the United States, and therefore the filmmakers were forced to create a three minute montage in the beginning to set the stage for a North Korean invasion.  Everything from the bailout in Greece, Islamic terrorist in Russia, cyberwarfare, and new conflicts in the Middle East were thrown into the mix to create a sense of impending crisis.  While it was a hoot to watch, it probably didn’t really help the movie at the box office.  The film’s target audience, middle America, is unlikely to fully understand the complex international problems that were subsequently exaggerated in order to make the movie somewhat plausible.  While NK is does exist in the American public consciousness as a threat, it isn’t comparable to the imagined threat previously posed by the USSR.  The filmmakers were forced to cast North Korea as the bad guys to give the movie a chance at the box office in China, but even China, if potentially more scary, doesn’t carry the same ideological threat that the Soviets did.  The threat of communism was enough to get people on the edge of their seats, but there isn’t a single word that can describe the Chinese threat to the American way of life in the same way.

In the film, following the North Korean invasion, our heroes (who adopt the name “Wolverines”) escape their cookie-cutter suburb and make for the wooded hills, where they set up a base from which to launch attacks on the occupiers.  While they can be forgiven for being disorganized both organizationally and strategically in the beginning of the film, their strategy fails to develop.  Their only goal seems to “resist” by killing North Korean soldiers.  The group’s rhetoric is peppered by references to freedom and patriotism, rather than a fixed final goal they are working toward.  Though they attempt to contact American central command through a North Korean EMP-resistant communication device, the group failed to use the radios they had all along.  They never make any effort to link up with other guerrilla groups, and only begrudgingly accept help from Marines they run into.  Similarly, while they seek help from people in town when necessary, they never attempt to recruit new members until the final scenes of the film.  Finally, in one of the most interesting scenes, the group’s leader Jed, a former Marine who had previously fought in Iraq, gives the group a quick rundown of guerrilla warfare.  He says that in Iraq, he was one of the good guys who helped to enforce law and order.  Now however, Jed says, the Wolverines, are the bad guys, who need to unsettle their North Korean occupiers.  Despite using moral rhetoric, the speech actually totally avoids the tricky issues of morality at play as the audience is supposed to accept that no matter where they are in the world or what they are doing, Americans are the good guys.

While it’s not the most glaring, the film’s portrayal of NK’s counterinsurgency (COIN) tactics is its most absurd aspect.  Firstly, North Korean paratroopers parachute in the Wolverines’ tranquil suburb, but miraculously avoid trees and power lines.  Once firmly in power, the first action is to set up reeducation camps (the cliche variety complete with loudspeakers extolling the errors of American society) for a randomly selected group of people, which prove to be entirely ineffective.  Over the course of the film, NK’s COIN strategy is ultimately very gentle.  There are only two portrayed executions of American resisters (another is implied), and excluding numerous checkpoints, there seems not to be any punishment handed down to American residents despite the Wolverines’ repeated attacks.  This strange facts comes down to the American public not understanding how COIN works.  Collective punishment is never even threatened in the film, and while North Koreans are quite gruff in their dealings with Americans, this film is not Battle of Algiers.  Finally, NK is entirely incompetent as an occupier.   Though less than ten people make up the Wolverines, North Korea is unable to stop them from moving in and out of town despite knowing their identities.  Finally, the Wolverines are able to inflict very disproportionate losses on North Korean troops despite have inferior technology, almost no formal training, and a much smaller fighting force.

Red Dawn’s portrayal of military engagement is the most obvious object of criticism, especially for people watching it with an interest in political violence, but the movie also has a race problem.  There are three black characters: Mayor Jenkins, his son Daryl, and Wolverines member Danny.  They fulfill three common stereotypical roles for black actors: a morally weak Uncle Tom, the first-to-die, and the selfless yet underdeveloped individual who sacrifices himself for the (white) group.  Mayor Jenkins is one of the first Americans to defect to the North Korean side, and meekly attempts to convince the Wolverines to surrender.  Danny is the first Wolverine to die, and we learn little about him before his death.  Daryl survives until the end of the film, but inexplicably decides to stay behind and fight on alone after being implanted with a tracking device that endangers the group.  There is no attempt made to remove the device before the decision to leave him behind is made.

The film is not a cinematic masterpiece, but is worth a viewing solely for the number of laughs it produces.