How a U.S. Army major prevented a riot

1: The year was 2004, the early days of the Iraqi War.  Riots were occurring in Kufa, a small city 90 miles south of Baghdad.   

While meeting with Kufa’s mayor, a U.S. Army major made an odd request: “Could they keep the food vendors out of the plazas?” Charles Duhigg writes in The Power of Habit.

The mayor agreed to the request.  A couple of weeks later, a crowd began gathering in front of Masjid al-Kufa, or the Great Mosque of Kufa.  As the afternoon went on, more people joined.  The crowd began chanting angry slogans.  Sensing trouble, the Iraqi police radioed the U.S. base requesting for U.S. troops to standby.

“At dusk, the crowd started getting restless and hungry.  People started looking for the kabob sellers normally filling the plaza, but there were none to be found,” Charles notes.  “The spectators left.  The chanters became dispirited.  By 8 p.m., everyone was gone.”

2:  What happened here?

“Understanding habits is the most important thing I’ve learned in the army,” the major told Charles.  “It’s changed everything about how I see the world.”

Soon after arriving in Kufa, the major had studied videos of recent riots.  He noticed a pattern.  “Violence was usually preceded by a crowd of Iraqis gathering in a plaza or other open space, and over the course of several hours, growing in size.  Food vendors would show up, as well as spectators.  Then someone would throw a rock or bottle, and all hell would break loose,” Charles writes.

We don’t necessarily think about a crowd’s dynamics in terms of habits, the major observed.  He had, however, spent his entire military career “getting drilled in the psychology of habit formation.

“At boot camp, he had absorbed habits for loading his weapon, falling asleep in a war zone, maintaining focus amid the chaos of battle, and making decisions while exhausted and overwhelmed.  He had attended classes that taught him habits for saving money, exercising every day, and communicating with bunkmates.

“As he moved up the ranks, he learned the importance of organizational habits in ensuring that subordinates could make decisions without constantly asking permission, and how the right routines made it easier to work alongside people he normally couldn’t stand.

“And now, as an impromptu nation builder, he was seeing how crowds and cultures abided by many of the same rules.  In some sense, he said, a community was a giant collection of habits occurring among thousands of people that, depending on how they’re influenced, could result in violence or peace.

“In addition to removing the food vendors, he had launched dozens of different experiments in Kufa to influence residents’ habits.  There hadn’t been a riot since he arrived,” Charles writes.

3:  Are our lives just “a giant collection of habits”?

The U.S. Army major from Kufa lays out the evidence:  “You want to fall asleep fast and wake up feeling good?  Pay attention to your nighttime patterns and what you automatically do when you get up,” the major suggests.  

“You want to make running easy?  Create triggers to make it a routine.  I drill my kids on this stuff.  My wife and I write out habit plans for our marriage,” he states.

It’s the same with our professional lives.

“No one person in Kufa would have told me that we could influence crowds by taking away the kabob stands, but once you see everything as a bunch of habits, it’s like someone gave you a flashlight and a crowbar and you can get to work.”

His final bit of advice?

“I’m telling you, if a hick like me can learn this stuff, anyone can.  I tell my soldiers all the time, there’s nothing you can’t do if you get the habits right.”

More tomorrow.

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Reflection:  What is an existing habit I want to stop?  Are there any lessons I can learn and apply from the story above about the riots in Kufa?   

Action:  Journal about it.  Today.

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