‘Military Sociologist’ Zoltan Barany Predicts How Armies Respond To Revolutions

May 18, 2016

In February 2011, President Obama criticized the U.S. intelligence community for not accurately forecasting the unrest in Tunisia would spread to Egypt and other Middle East countries, sparking a region-wide Arab Spring, an unremitting civil war in Syria, and the rise of ISIS.

The president had harsh words for the Director of National Intelligence James Clapper about how quickly the forces in Tunisia turned against the authoritarian regime, The New York Times’ Mark Mazzetti wrote at the time:

Some officials have focused their criticism on intelligence assessments last month that concluded, despite demonstrations in Tunisia, that the security forces of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali would defend his government. Instead, the military and the police did not, and Mr. Ben Ali and his family fled to Saudi Arabia.

One American official familiar with classified intelligence assessments defended the spy agencies’ Tunisia analysis.

“Everyone recognized the demonstrations in Tunisia as serious,” said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity because he was discussing classified intelligence reports. “What wasn’t clear even to President Ben Ali was that his security forces would quickly choose not to support him.”

That uncertainty, and Obama’s response, caught the attention of Zoltan Barany, a self-described “military sociologist” and political scientist at the University of Texas at Austin. He studies the interaction of military, governments, and society.

“He was right. It was indeed predictable if you were asking the right questions,” Barany said.

Barany spent a winter in Washington, D.C. talking to various intelligence officials, and that project culminated in his new book How Armies Respond to Revolutions and Why.

Read The Introduction To How Armies Respond to Revolutions and Why

“I set up a framework. What are the questions that you need to ask in order to have, at the least, an educated guess about which way the military will go?” Barany said. “In some cases you can make a confident prediction because it is just so clear that the military will not oppose a regime."

Barany described four spheres of questions to determine how the military will respond to revolution against authoritarian regimes or dictatorships, with the qualification that there are hardly ever revolutions against democracies.

Military Make-Up

He says the cohesion of the armed forces is probably the most important question – whether or not the generals see eye-to-eye, as well as the religious makeup of the troops. That also extends down the chain of command to divisions between officers and enlisted men. How the members joined is also important.

“A conscript army will be much less likely to shoot people than a voluntary army,” Barany said.

Troop Morale

Barany argues the state’s treatment of its soldiers and the clarity of its orders also matter.

“Is the state giving the armed forces clear direction of what they are expected to do? Because, surprisingly, in many cases they don’t get instructions,” Barany said. “Also, what kind of autonomy does the military have? Is it a military that is straightjacketed by the ruler or the author of the authoritarian state, or is it something where its professionalism has earned it more autonomy in terms of which way it acts?

Societal Structure

In the case of the Arab Spring, you also have to look at who is protesting.

“Is it young thugs? Or is it demonstrators consisting of the entire society, young women, old people?” Barany said. “The response is likely to be very different from the armed forces.”

External Factors

Finally, Barany says outside variables also weigh in the prediction.

“Is the army expecting an invasion or some sort of threat either to the army, or to the opposition?” Barany said. “Is there something like a revolutionary diffusion, for instance, so a revolution that recently spread from India or from one place to another?”

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SUZETTE GRILLOT, HOST: Zoltan Barany, welcome to World Views.

ZOLTAN BARANY: Pleasure to be here.

GRILLOT: I'd like to start with just your discipline, your field. You've been called a military sociologist. Can you tell us a little bit about what you mean by that? Are you studying civil military relations? Relations within the military? What does a military sociologist do?

BARANY: So basically I think I would describe myself as a military politics/military sociology. And, essentially, what I'm really interested in is how the military interacts with the government and how it interacts with society. So, basically the way I look at the civil military relations, which is really what I do, is a triangle. The points of which there's the state, there's society and there is the armed forces. And so the armed forces obviously is an institution of the state, but the armed forces come from society, the conscripts or the professional soldiers and so their societal links are extremely important. And I think they are often neglected or underplayed and as we see all the time whether for instance an army, the conscript army that comes and represents all parts of society, or whether it is a professional or a self-selected group makes an enormous difference in how armies behave.

GRILLOT: But you are studying official, formal state military institutions. I'm just curious, since you just defined what you do, if you are focusing on strictly on formal state military institutions or if any of what you study might be relevant for paramilitary forces or insurgents or any kind of military activist, if you will, that is perhaps operating outside the state?

BARANY: Yeah, I think it is a very good question since in the last half-century the paramilitaries, militias and so on have become extremely important, especially in certain parts of the world, but I am really interested more in the armed forces as an institution of the state. Now, I also study how the states maintain all kinds of paramilitary forces. And that is mostly my purview. So, in the Middle East, for instance, but not just the Middle East, in many other areas, where in other authoritarian systems the state or the regime is afraid of the military, in many cases for good reasons and they create duplicate militaries and they might call them different names. So these were in communist systems and in all kinds of other authoritarian states. So, yes, that I do study and I just don't want to pass myself as an expert on militias or insurgents or that kind of thing because I certainly am not.

GRILLOT: Well, let's talk about your book that you published in 2012. The Soldier and the Changing State. This book is about building democratic armies and particularly in Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas. But I'm particularly interested in this concept of democratic armies. What is it that you mean by that? Clearly you are getting to these relationships between state and society but what is a democratic army?

BARANY: So, yeah, I think it's one of those things that you have to sort out very quickly because obviously militaries are not democratic institutions, they are very hierarchical and so on. But, the key here is that I am interested in how our states build armies that are supporters of democratic rule. So, building armies that will support the state as opposed to armies that may be vacillating or turn against the state.

GRILLOT: So, just to follow up on that, I mean, most of us think of militaries as being in existence to secure the state, to defend the national interest. But, are you suggesting it goes further than that? That it is more than security, it is about protecting a democratic way of life? Institutions like elections and rule of law and checks and balances and other kinds of things that you have in democracies. That it is this dual purpose?

BARANY: No, I think the army that I am interested in that particular book is that is interested in and supporting of democratic states, not authoritarian states, but democratic states. So, in most cases so this book actually deals with 27 case studies from around the world and basically from all continents except for Australia and New Zealand and I'm interested in non-democratic states and how do they become democratic and how does the army, how do they create democratic armies, armies that will support democracies and, if necessary, defend democracies even within the state kind of either insurgencies or maybe even in parts of the armed forces that is not yet committed to support or defend democracies.

GRILLOT: So, based on those case studies then, what did you learn? How is it that we build democratic armies?

BARANY: It is very, very complex and so what you find out that it works in very, very different ways. So, I actually had several categories because the categories will be extremely indicative of how this work will happen. So, for instance, I one of my categories of building democratic armies is after major war. Like after World War ll, my cases were Germany and Japan and a socialist state just to counteract how that doesn't happen, how democratic armies do not evolve in communist countries. And other wars, such as civil wars because obviously the tasks of building an army in a society that was driven by all kinds of major conflict will be very different than in a more unitary society. Then, I looked at another category which is very common and very large and it is after military rule. How, in various places, and I actually had I think I looked at nine different countries from three continents, Europe, Asia and Lain America and how in these countries, after military rule, the military was taken out of politics, which is obviously the most important objective. Then, I looked also at societies that were passing by communism, so actually communist states, and what were the problems in those. And so the problems are very, very different and they are really complex and where you show your starting point, in other words, whether it is civil war or socialist state will make a huge difference. And then in the end I also looked at post-colonial states, both in Africa and in Asia and in the end in countries that were divided and unified and so how when you come from, for instance, a divided Germany, or a divided Yemen do you build a new entire army from two states and from two armies how do you have one and finally and also post-apartheid South Africa. So, actually, I went to most of these countries and did a lot of field research and talked to all of the politicians and generals and so on if they were available to get their insights as well as you know all the literature that is obviously excellent in most of these cases.

GRILLOT: Very interesting. I think this leads us to your most recent book, published this year in 2016 about how armies respond to revolutions. So, you were talking about how armies respond after civil war, after military rule, after colonialism, but how specifically might they respond to revolution? You talk in your book about how generals, in particular, how military personnel have a certain mindset about how to respond to these things. Tell us a little bit about that book and what we can imagine regarding the response of armies to revolution.

BARANY: Right, so, so, it has been an old insight that people like Lenin and Mao and many other social thinkers, political thinkers had already established that without the support of the armed forces no revolution will succeed. And so my book certainly confirmed that, but the big question and so I hope my contribution is, I think, in many cases, you can actually predict whether the army, which way will the army go. Will it support the revolution, will it oppose it or will it actually be divided in its response. And so the idea for me to write this book was actually a speech by President Obama in February 2011 when he was very critical, and openly so, of the American intelligence community for not having foreseen the quick collapse of the state in Tunisia and so I looked into this a little bit better and read whatever I could on Tunisia and I thought that he was right. It was indeed predictable if you were asking the right questions. And I went and spent a winter in Washington talking to people in various intelligence agencies and basically they agreed that they were asking the wrong questions all along because these were very stable regimes and they did not ask the questions, did not look into the instabilities of these regimes which were also, if you scratched the surface a little bit, would become more apparent. So basically this is what I do is I set up a framework, what are the questions that you need to ask in order to have at the least an educated guess about which way the military will go. In some cases you can make a confident prediction because it is just so clear that the military will not oppose a regime, for instance, that is an authoritarian regime that is socially divided and have different sectarian groups and so on and so forth. In some other cases, however, it is very difficult to actually predict and at that point you really just have an educated guess. You ask the right questions, I hope and then you come up with what hopefully will be something that you can, that intelligence analysts, can build on.

GRILLOT: So, I mean interesting that you are talking about prediction as I'm curious about how it is that you really do get to know the military mindset and if you can generalize from one military to another. I mean we have just been having this discussion about democratic armies, I mean some of these you are talking about studying militaries that aren't terribly, you know, that are not operating in democratic governments so how is it that you are really able to understand, to know the military mindset and then predict given the different circumstances, the complexity, all the things we were talking about before how a military will respond?

BARANY: Yes, so, so actually there are hardly ever any revolutions against democracies so it is all of these contexts in the authoritarian context or dictatorships. And so how do you find out? Well, this is what my framework actually does. Basically, I am posing a number of questions that you need to find the answer too. Some of these are very easily knowable, right. So, for instance, is the army the cohesion of the armed forces is probably the most important question, whether or not are the generals seeing with the same eyes, are the religious divisions within the armed forces. Are the conscripts and the noncommissioned officers have the same views as the officer corps? Are they, more importantly, for instance rival institutions, like there is the security institution that maybe is getting marginalized as opposed to the armed forces and vice-versa. Most of these countries actually have them. Then you look at still in the armed forces, is there conscript or is it an army of volunteers. A conscript army will be much less likely to shoot people than a voluntary army. And, also, what is the military's view of the regime’s legitimacy? Now, in some cases, in most cases, it is quite clear. In some cases it is not everything. And so this is the first sort of first of the four spheres of questions that you ask. The second is the state itself. How does it keep the military running as an institution and how does it treat the military as individuals? How well are military people taken care of? Another important question with this regard is the regime, the state, is it giving the armed forces clear direction of what they are expected to do because surprisingly in many cases they don't get instructions. Also, what kind of autonomy does the military have? Is it a military that is straight jacketed by the ruler or the author of the authoritarian state or is it something where its professionalism has earned it the more autonomy in terms of which way it acts? The third of the four spheres is society, right? So basically you are looking at the demonstrations. How large are they? Who is demonstrating? Is it young thugs? Or is it demonstrators are consisting of the entire society, young women, old people and so on and so forth, because the response is likely to be very different from the armed forces. Is there any fraternization between the demonstrators and the military? All of these are important. And then, finally, the fourth sphere is external affairs or external dimension, if you will, things like is the army expecting an invasion or some sort of threat either to the army or to the opposition, is there something like a revolutionary diffusion, for instance, so a revolution that recently spread from India or from one place to another and there are some other considerations that are more minor.

GRILLOT: Well Dr. Barany, thank you so much for sharing this information. Your framework is really helpful for us I think in helping us to understand what we might expect from revolution, war and conflict around the world, so thank you very much.

BARANY: It was my pleasure.

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