Handshake Con

The Counterinsurgency Manual.

I’m reading the Marine Corps / US Army Counterinsurgency Manual, available here on Amazon. I’ve never been a news junkie so I never followed the US’ counterinsurgency strategy closely. This manual provides a fascinating in-depth look at how the US has developed its understanding of non-conventional warfare, and how to achieve non-military objectives (regardless of the extent to which the US has actually been successful at this).

There’s a lot of useful writing here about various topics, including where power comes from, how to cooperate, and where governments get their legitimacy. Many of these lessons seem applicable to everyday life as well. This is a story that the handbook relates from the first Iraq war in the early 90s, by the multinational force commander of an operation there, Anthony Zinni:

The Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff asked me: ”The lines in your command chart, the command relationships, what are they? OpCon [operational control]? TaCon [tactical control]? Command?”

“Sir, we don’t ask, because no one can sign up to any of that stuff.”

“Well, how do you do business?”

“Handshake Con. That’s it.”

No memoranda of agreement. No memoranda of understanding… [T]he relationships are worked out on the scene, and they aren’t pretty.And you don’t really want to try to capture them… [it's] Handshake Con and that’s the way it works. It is consultative. It is behind-the-scenes.

Imagine yourself in a foreign desert, thousands of miles away from where you live, trying to achieve a very risky and dangerous objective. Your partners are people who you have very little in common with, except, probably, similar objectives. Perhaps because the situation is so tenuous, you can’t secure any kind of formal agreement, and even if you could, how would you enforce it or cure any problems with it? So, Handshake Con; what else can you really do?

I think the truth is that we face this much more than often than we realize, just in our everyday lives, though. If you think about it, very rarely do you actually have formal agreements with anyone, and most of your day-to-day interactions run smoothly because everybody’s operating a high-trust environment.

And almost any job that’s worthwhile depends on Handshake Con. Good bosses (almost) never pull rank to justify a decision, they welcome pushback and want you to be convinced rather than relying on the fact that you technically have to do whatever they ask. Similarly, finding good people to work for you means that you’re looking for people who can operate – and expect to operate – in a high-trust environment.