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Vacation Rebel: Why Chris Jeon is Not a Rational Insurgent

6 Sep

Many of you have no doubt heard about Chris Jeon, the young UCLA student who flew to Libya two weeks ago to fight alongside Libyan rebels. In case you missed it, here’s a sum-up from Spencer Ackerman (h/t to Maria Stephan):

Photo credit: Bradley Hope/The National

Bradley Hope, a reporter covering Libya’s uprising, writes in Abu Dhabi newspaper The National that he recently made a curious discovery near An Nawfaliyah: Chris Jeon, a 21-year old University of California–Los Angeles math student. That’s Jeon in the picture above, very unsafely resting his rifle on the ground with the barrel pointed up while his new buddies crowd around. Spoiler: He doesn’t have any military experience.

Why’d he make the long trek from L.A. to L-iby-A? “It is the end of my summer vacation, so I thought it would be cool to join the rebels,” Jeon told Hope. “This is one of the only real revolutions.”

In the following video, you can hear Jeon say “I did it because of the action, because of the fighting.”

A couple of thoughts:

1. Silly as Jeon sounds, it’s refreshing to hear a young man be truthful about his motives in joining in the fight. In fact, I suspect that his desires for “action” and “fighting” are pretty common, though others conceal those motives under “grand designs” that sound less selfish. But Jeon’s motives are pretty a-strategic. They suggest he essentially joined the fight because he wanted to fight. Why not, “I wanted to help liberate them from tyranny,” or “I wanted to bring justice to an oppressed people?” We hear the latter often. It makes me wonder: how many Chris Jeons are there in the world who say they want to achieve some political goal, even though they really just want to see battle, look cool posing with guns, and (maybe) shoot some people with impunity? Jessica Stern wrote a piece a few years back arguing that global jihad was a fad, like ganster rap. Maybe Jeon was trying to be a trend-setter for a new fad: vacation rebel.

2. Although Jeon claims that “action” and “excitement” were his motivations, I don’t know whether that’s the full story. If he wanted those, he could just join the U.S. military. Boot camp probably involves more “action” than he experienced in the Libyan revolution (which, like any war, must have had considerable periods of mind-numbing monotony). It’s also quite a bit more lucrative, including steady pay, signing bonuses, educational benefits, heaps of camaraderie, etc. My guess is that he was less interested in “action” and more interested in notoriety. For instance, Jeon wasn’t bothered by the fact that he didn’t understand what his Libyan comrades were saying to him, nor did he care whether they understood English. Notoriety doesn’t come easily in the military, but it does if you’re the only LA jersey-wearing hood in newly-liberated Libya. He also arrived after Tripoli had fallen. Pretty bad timing if you want to take part in the revolution.

3. Jeon’s story illustrates what I see as a massive challenge for civil resistance scholars and practitioners, as well as policymakers interested in encouraging civil resistance. That challenge is convincing people who want to use violence for violence’s sake (or for notoriety’s sake, perhaps) that nonviolent resistance is a superior strategic choice. Jeon apparently believes that notoriety, action, and excitement can only come from running around in armed camps, firing Kalashnikovs in the air. But these practices serve no strategic purpose and, unfortunately, can ultimately undermine strategic gains if they continue for long enough. This type of behavior does not lead to strategic success. Instead, it leads to personal or ego fulfillment. Because of that, it’s very difficult to persuade such characters to put down the gun and think strategically about how to take on a militarily superior opponent — a process that usually reveals the need for an asymmetric approach involving civil resistance methods, which tend to work more often than not. Many civil resistance movements in the future will be challenged by this problem: they will have to convince people in their societies to maintain nonviolent discipline, even though lots of people are itching to use violence because the opportunity seems to be presenting itself. Someday I want to conduct some research on how to persuade people in this category to have a more neutral — or at least instrumental — approach to violence. This would make them use it more thoughtfully and, in all probability, more sparingly (if at all). I’ll have to wait until I have tenure to write that book.

Regardless, taking his own word for it, I can conclude with some certainty that Chris Jeon’s vacation rebel approach disqualifies him from being a rational insurgent.

Wednesday Roll Call: Rational Stuff I Like

30 Aug

Navid Hassanpour finds that you can Tweet your way to a failed revolution.

The Syrian Revolution News Round-Up provides daily updates with news, protester videos, official statements, etc., of the ongoing Syrian conflict.

Maria Stephan argues that Libya is no “model” for the region.

Stephan Zunes looks at lessons learned and lessons to avoid in Libya.

Iran tells Bashar al-Assad to tone it down.

In an editorial, the Christian Science Monitor mentions the research in Why Civil Resistance Works.

Chibli Mallat weighs in on designing democracy after revolution.

Syrian businessmen show their dissatisfaction with Assad.

Anna Hazare gets the Indian government to budge on his proposed corruption law.

Over a dozen papers on nonviolent resistance (or some variation on that theme) will be delivered at the American Political Science Association‘s annual meeting this week.

Think Again: Nonviolent Resistance

24 Aug

Check out my Think Again piece at Foreign Policy magazine.

Wednesday Roll Call: Rational Stuff I Like

23 Aug

Joshua Goldstein argues war is on the decline for good.

Verizon employees continue to strike, making Verizon start to sweat.

Juan Cole dispels myths about the rebels’ success in Libya.

Chilean students conduct thousands-strong protests to demand fair education policies.

Mary King analyzes security force defections (or the lack thereof) in Syria.

Anna Hazare continues hunger strike against corruption in India, prompting the government to offer talks.

Jay Ulfelder lays out the prospects for democracy in the Arab world.

China continues to witness country-wide protests against environmental abuses (among other things).

Gene Sharp weighs in on Syria.

Rational Insurgent gives an interview on Portland’s KBOO radio.