Tradecraft: What a military mindset can teach activists

Washington, DC (TFC) – There is a reluctance on the part of activists to embrace a military mindset when fighting the “war against police brutality,” “the war on poverty,” “the war on GMOs,” or any other campaign. The mindset of the soldier has a singular goal: victory. Abandoning proven tactics because of disagreements with institution that developed them is extremely short-sighted. Martin Luther King, Jr said:

“Those who love peace must learn to organize as effectively as those who love war.”

It’s probably best to start with a rule that helps illustrate the importance of understanding what the military mindset can teach activists.

Use any weapon the enemy offers

There is an overwhelming reluctance on the part of many to use products, tactics, technologies, or systems that were produced by their “enemy.” If you examine the weapons of the Mujahadeen in Afghanistan, you’ll see that they were primarily Soviet-made. They used the weapons the enemy provided them. You often see Hamas-affiliated insurgents using US-made weapons taken from the Israelis. Many times, using the opposition’s weapons and technology allows a force to meet them on equal footing.

Image Source: Instagram

Image Source: Instagram

How many times have you heard that someone is hypocritical because they own an iPhone? It’s such a common occurrence that a notorious Twitter troll produced a photo about it that was immediately latched onto and turned into dozens of memes. If this person uses the iPhone to primarily broadcast messages against capitalism, she is simply using her opposition’s weapons against them. There is no technology company of any prominence today that doesn’t exploit workers and profit from neo-colonial efforts. Should she forego the use of social media because there is no way to access it without using a product of her opposition? Imagine the effects if Allies had not exploited the Enigma machine when it was captured from the Nazis because it was produced by their enemy. Imagine if Anti-Communist forces in China refused to use the internet because it was produced by the communist regime. Using the opposition’s weapons against them has been part of the military mindset since the days of Sparta. There is a reason it has stuck in the subculture that long: it works.

You are expendable

This is the toughest concept for people to grasp, but one of the most important. If you are actively in service to a cause, whatever that cause is, and you are willing to devote a significant portion of your life to that cause, you are expendable. You may get arrested, silenced, killed, or otherwise be rendered ineffective. If the movement you are a part of is worth anything, your absence will not alter its effectiveness. You are replaceable.

Don’t protect your knowledge

Given the fact that you are expendable, it should be a priority to make certain that you share any unique skills you have with as many people as possible. Soldiers are cross-trained. They learn the skills of other team members. A well-organized movement will not be brought down because a key person is rendered ineffective. You can do your part to make certain this doesn’t happen by sharing your knowledge. If you are a social media wizard, teach others. If you have a great deal of tactical expertise, teach others.

This requires that people set aside ego and realize that they don’t become less important by strengthening those around them. One of the most memorable speeches given by an Irish militant/terrorist/activist/whatever named Michael Collins included the question “If they shut me up, who will take my place?” You have to make certain that the people willing to take your place have the necessary skills to do so. It is your job to make certain that people can fill your role if you are no longer able to carry out your mission effectively for whatever reason.

Education and Training

One of the things activists fail to do is train and educate themselves with any frequency. While most activists stay abreast of the news related to their particular cause, few continue to advance their own level of expertise within their skill set. Even fewer attempt to apply the Sun Tzu’s advice of “know your enemy.”

Many environmentalists will be able to tell you every detail about every decision BP makes that threatens the environment. Not many will be able to tell you who the shareholders are, where the corporation makes the majority of its profits, or how its franchising works. Understanding these things allows the activist to better plan operations to impact the company where it matters most: the bottom line.

Proper use of propaganda

Activists tend to only tailor their message to sway public opinion. The military knows that not only are you attempting to win the hearts and minds of the viewing audience, but propaganda should be crafted to demoralize the enemy.

In the corporate world, where productivity is essential to profitability, the effects of demoralizing the employees of company cannot be overstated. Targeting propaganda against the employees of Monsanto, for example, because some of the company’s products have been demonstrated to cause cancer. Imagine the effects of flyers bearing cancer-ridden children, a bottle of Roundup, and the tagline: “Every sale you make/bottle you produce is responsible.”

Plan for failure

Every military operation has a contingency plan for failure at every step of the operation. If activists don’t know where to regroup in the event of a protest getting dispersed with tear gas, the planners have set the march up for failure. If individual activists don’t know how to make their way home from the protest in the event that they are separated or a member of their party is arrested, they have failed to plan.

US Army Rangers training exercise. Image Source: "MPOTY 2014 U.S. Army Rangers prepare to lay cover fire during task force training" by Spc. Steven A. Hitchcock

US Army Rangers training exercise.
Image Source: “MPOTY 2014 U.S. Army Rangers prepare to lay cover fire during task force training” by Spc. Steven A. Hitchcock

Leave no man behind

Activists get arrested. It happens. On a long and active enough timeline, being arrested for exercising your First Amendment rights is an inevitability. Those that end up confined must be supported in any way they can be for a number of reasons.

First, it’s the right thing to do. If someone ends up in a cage to support the cause, there is a moral requirement that you continue to support them as much as you can. Beyond that the practical aspects of having an incarcerated person to use as a propaganda tool are immense. There is also the knowledge that jails and prisons are prime recruiting grounds for people that are disaffected with the system and have already demonstrated that they will break the law to achieve their goals. The organization should want its members behind the wire to be recruiting.


The final piece of the mindset that activists should adopt is commitment to the cause. The military is one of the few places where you will find people willing to lay down their lives for a mission they may not even agree with personally. It’s a subculture that produces those willing to go to extremes as an individual to achieve a collective goal. Nowhere else will people find slogans like “I will fight on and complete the Ranger objective, though I be the lone survivor.”

That level of commitment to a cause is what makes the military so effective. A sense of camaraderie and unity that is almost never found within activist circles brings military units a level of cohesion and adaptability that is not found elsewhere.

Instilling this level of commitment in your fellow activist requires that we are all reminded occasionally of the stakes we are playing for. In many of the causes listed above, we are in a fight for the very future of our society, way of life, and planet. We aren’t at war with any single symptom. We are at war with a system that has failed. The most important part of this is that we are at war. It’s time we start acting like it.