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.

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One Response to “Vacation Rebel: Why Chris Jeon is Not a Rational Insurgent”

  1. Kurt Braddock September 7, 2011 at 7:19 am #

    I find his comments about looking for action pretty interesting, not only for the reasons you mention above, but because it reminded me of something I read in David Kilcullen’s The Accidental Guerrilla. In it, Kilcullen recounts an instance in which a U.S. military patrol in Afghanistan was moving into a dangerous area in which there was one escape route and they were exposed on all sides by higher ground from which they could be attacked. Unsurprisingly, they came under heavy fire. The patrol was surprised to find however, that some of their attackers were local villagers who showed no love for the Taliban and were actually friendly toward U.S. forces there. When they were asked why they attacked the U.S. forces they welcomed, many of the villagers replied that they did it because they would have felt shame if they hadn’t– not for honor, glory, or any of the reasons with which the Taliban recruits fighters, but because it was actually something to do.

    I agree that it seems doubtful that Mr. Jeon was just looking for some action–he could have played rugby for that. It does raise an interesting question though: what factors push an individual looking for “something to do” toward violence? I think notoriety, as you mention, may be a pretty big motivator.

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