This is an idea I’ve been taught in days of yore (something that makes me look way older than I actually am, but it seems like a previous life!), and which, while originally invented in the context of small scale conflicts, is with the odd alteration something worth thinking about in the context of conflicts and disputes of any size, kind or environ. I’ve been reminded of this by Sgt Rory Miller’s excellent book, Facing the Unexpected (which will have a rave review of its own here in a bit), the sequel to his equally worth-reading Meditations on Violence, which makes a virtually identical point.
120 seconds is the half-life of adrenaline. An aggressor steadily pickles his brain in adrenaline, preparing for confrontation, even if he initiates it (some people appear to have misunderstood adrenaline being the fight-or-flight hormone as being only relevant for fight when it’s an alternative to flight - this is not so).
Adrenaline is the immediate messenger of aggression. A number of chemicals contribute to aggression as a long term process (an example being testosterone, which increases the propensity to aggression), but when it comes to the fight, it’s adrenaline that does the heavy lifting. It has, mainly, two purposes: facilitate superior fighting capacity by, first, facilitating a stronger fight response, second, enhancing injury-resilience.
The first is accomplished by four synergistic effects: cardiac, respiratory, muscles and metabolism. Adrenaline is an inotrope and chronotrope, meaning it increases the contractility, and so output per heartbeat, of the heart muscle, as well as the number of contractions given time (aka heart rate). It is a smooth muscle relaxant, which means it relaxes the smooth muscles that line the bronchioles in the lungs and allows them to expand, increasing lung capacity (FVC), while also increasing respiratory rate. It increases the contraction strength of muscles, allowing more power to be exerted. Finally, it makes a significant change to metabolism - it diverts the body from long-term to short(ish)-term metabolism. Smooth muscle relaxation means also that the smooth muscles lining the stomach and intestines, responsible for peristalsis (moving food along your innards), become less active, and your digestion slows down. In a fight, there’s no point in spending time working on your lunch which may become energy in a few hours at best. What’s needed is quick energy once the ‘flash’ energy stores of the body, adenosine triphosphate, stored in cells runs out (a couple of seconds). Adrenaline stimulates the process for this, called glyconeogenesis, which makes glucose out of glycogen, the passive storage material.
The other side of adrenaline is to prepare for injury: as a vasoconstrictor, it constricts blood vessels and thereby decreases bleeding (which is why you get lidocaine epi in minor dental surgery). Biology lesson over: back to 120 seconds. With the beginning of a conflict, your body goes on battle stations, and prepares for the fight.
The downside is that in 120 seconds or so, it will start to fizzle out, and not only does your body become less effective at fighting, it also becomes aware of that, consciously and sub-consciously. Consciously, you feel less ‘pumped up’. Adrenaline is anxiogenic, meaning that it may cause you to feel anxious and that may make you misinterpret innocuous things as threats - this clears up once adrenaline breaks down. Subconsciously, your mind will interpret signals of sudden weakness (suddenly decreased heart rate) and the feeling of exhaustion and being out of breath that befalls most people after a stressful situation, as a sign to maybe cut back on the aggression and posturing.
The lesson, then, is this: a lot of conflicts can be de-escalated by ‘adrenaline attrition’: you try to keep the other dude talking for two minutes. You manage it, you win. More than likely, the most pumped up attacker will after two minutes flick his utterly illegal balisong back together and decide he didn’t really want to stab you for looking at his girlfriend in the first place. At this point, buying him a drink may be a good idea.
That solves how the 120 seconds may save your life against Dick the Pissed Redneck Boyfriend with a Flick-knife. Really, however, it demonstrates a larger principle: readiness is a good thing, but it has an expiry date. For you, the lesson is to know when to get ready, because it will start a ticking clock and when it runs out, your window of opportunity to benefit from preparation will close and it will become a disadvantage real soon. The lesson if you’re O-3 or below is simple, know when to prepare. The lesson for O-4 and above, as well as the Washington and London REMFs political and military who like to meddle with field ops, should be equally clear: If you see someone’s op has reached preparation stage, stop fucking with it <-> if you want to fuck with a field op, for Chrissakes do it before it reaches preparation stage.
The broader lesson (COIN nuts skip all of the above and start here) for counterinsurgency warfare would be this: attriting the insurgents’ preparations can deliver massive tactical advantages. Ok, you say, that’s basically Bismarck era military wisdom, what’s new? Here’s the ‘new’ thing: let’s start adopting a workflow perspective to insurgency. I’d even suggest to bring in a few project managers and supply chain management experts to help (in the worst case, if this doesn’t work out, send them to teach Six Sigma to the Taliban - guaranteed defeat within a month).
A million ways have been tried to map insurgency and insurgent ops and analyse them. Let me suggest anew one: Gantt charts. Now I’m the last person who wants to burden intelligent, hard-working S-2s (all two of them*) with such management nonsense. It does, however, reveal something the whole network view should’ve revealed but was mainly hidden under Everestesque piles of bullshit: insurgency takes place inside a huge web of supply relationships, and the further you move from the centre of the web, the more bang you get from your buck.
The local terrorist leader may be heavily guarded, inaccessible and when you take him out, you’ll have a new one well before he’s buried, swearing bloody revenge. Chances are, he’ll be even crazier than the last ‘un. But how difficult is it to stage an op against the unwitting agricultural supplies storekeeper who sells to the front man who supplies the local IED knitting circle? The mobile phone dealer in Kabul who sells a hundred phones a day, and only one of which ends up in an IED killing soldiers in the Helmand? The way to catch a spider is not to shake the middle of the net - it will only run away on the sides. You close in from the edges of the net and cut it away until it has nowhere else to go.
A Gantt chart would facilitate identifying dependencies of operations. This can then traced to the end and mapped as a web of supply influx towards a particular insurgency op. Finding the most critical external dependencies and disrupting them gradually from the outside in is a good, cost-effective method of combating insurgency. The S-2 impact of this is to ask less what the local insurgency is planning: unless you have a top level source, you are not going to get reliable info, and if you do and act on it, you have an Atlantic Convoy/ULTRA problem. The new key question should be: what are the local fundie jundis buying? (apart from Toyota Land Cruisers - what’s it about the Land Cruiser that makes fundies love it? Does it come with a special compartment for the black turban?). It’s cheaper, less risky to assets and operatives alike, can be done by NOCs a lot better, and seeks info available to a very wide range of pretty low level assets.
So remember how to catch a spider. And how to deal with someone so his supply chain will have enough bottlenecks so that his 120 seconds are up before he can act. I could couch this in very Boydian terms, but I’m on a Boyd diet :) As the truly admirable work of Chet Richards bought mathematics and the then nascent field of mathematical operations research to bear on Boyd’s work, it’s time to see if some business management, supply chain, lean management ideas would assist with exploiting our enemies’ weaknesses.
And in the worst case, we can always sell the supply chain people to the fundies.
* This is a joke. I love S-2s, but I also love having a joke at their expense. They’re just too easy! Most of them, after having punched me out a few times, have learned to be ok with it. I’m sorry if you’re offended. I’ll buy you a Snappy Cow, ok?