Air Force General Counsel Blog The chief legal officer and chief ethics official of the Department of the Air Force


Dan Trombly on Blowback

Daniel Trombly has a very thoughtful post on the concept of "blowback"--the concept that actions taken against us are the result of "blowback" from previous actions we have taken.  Trombly suggests that the concept has not been applied with sufficient analytical rigor:

It is entirely possible to make blowback arguments in a rigorous fashion, but establishing motivation, let alone actual causality, is very difficult, particularly when you are trying to extrapolate from what is very often the equivalent of a suicide note. Just as an explanation is not inherently a justification, a stated justification is not inherently an explanation. Simply because somebody says that "multiculturalism/Iraq/Islamic terrorism/the Zionist conspiracy made me decide to kill people" does not inherently tell us that whatever policy they are upset about exerted some kind of gravitational pull on their agency.

More than an accurate self-assessment of the forces of history upon our psyches, these kinds of justifications are narrative elements in how a person presents themselves to the world. People tell narratives to and about themselves because that renders our lives and the worlds comprehensible and meaningful, especially when they're about to undertake an action that will alienate them from wider society and possibly result in their own death. But from a social science perspectives, we know the stories that people tell too and about themselves don't necessarily reflect the underlying causal forces.  The stuff that makes for good last words can help inform us about somebody's ideology and beliefs, but to give credence to their grievances simply because of what they said just grants them that their ideology and beliefs accurately reflect how the world works.

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None of this is to dismiss entirely the concept of blowback - only to suggest we need a more sophisticated and less polemical way of thinking about it. At the scale of insurgencies, we have a lot of evidence to understand why and how violence can provoke more violence in retaliation. Yet we should also recognize the primary costs of this violence are usually borne by civilians, and often enough contributes to the defeat rather than the triumph of insurgent groups. If our goal is simply to highlight unintended consequences, blowback is often too narrow in what it helpfully describes or useful in what we can predict from the mechanisms offers. Certainly when a concept can describe everything from a murder in London to a coup in Iran is clever rhetorically, but woefully insufficient for the weight we often give it in debates about policy. Particularly as the U.S. increasingly delegates the majority of violent action to allies and partners, and decreases its involvement in foreign conflicts generally, rectifying perceptions of blowback rooted in the Cold War era is a worthy task for those seeking to understand and limit the violence afflicting international politics.

Read it all here.  It's a rich and thoughtful essay  essay and well worth a read. 

Charles A. Blanchard
General Counsel
United States Air Force