Calling Chuck Norris

Or, “’Life doesn’t have to suck’: On Psy-Ops in Africa and How America Has Learned Abuse Is BAD.” Thomas R. Lansner’s take on a profile of America’s top “terrorist fighter” in Africa offers clear lessons on counterinsurgency, but inspires doubts that Chuck Norris is the best man for the job.


Joseph Kony is as elusive as he is murderous. He and his Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA) followers have wreaked havoc across a vast swath of bush and forest covering the remotest corners of four African countries since launching a “holy war” in Uganda a quarter century ago. The Uganda Army’s endless pursuit, even with American special forces advisors over the past five years, seems… well… endless.

The Uganda field commander in these cross-border operations, Colonel Michael Kabango, complains that the hard men America has sent to help, are in fact, not so. Weanies, really, who require resupply of water every four days. “[T]hey actually slow us down,” he says. Their bush camp in southeastern Central African Republic—as we learn from the New York Times Magazine’s recent adoring profile of the boss of U.S. Special Operations forces in Africa, Brigadier General James B. Linder—has “an air-conditioned mess tent stocked with Red Bull, energy bars and a flat-screen TV tuned to CNN International.”

This raises the pressing question of who would ever haul an old fat-ass tube TV to the African bush, and whether the American special forces “operators” ever watch Al-Jazeera—but that we leave aside for now. Lessons [re]learned in insurgencies must be addressed.

With the campaign to kill or capture Kony yet to be rewarded with its trophy, his pursuers are ramping up psychological warfare against the remaining LRA fighters. One effort Colonel Kabango (interviewed outside the air con mess tent, where “tiger-striped butterflies darted through air filled with the scent of wild cucumber”…lovely!) appreciated was “fastening loudspeakers to airplanes and flying them over the jungle playing messages telling the guys to come home. Recently, six men defected after one such outing.”

“Quite simply, it’s marketing,” General Linder told the NYT. “You’re essentially teaching psy-ops marketing. The message is: ‘You don’t have to be L.R.A. War is over. Life doesn’t have to suck.’” Indeed! And how to make life not suck? We’ll return soon to what I will dub “Lansner’s Linder Lessons”… hard earned, no doubt, as Linder “has appeared on every significant battleground of the last 30 years,” the Times tells us, “Central and South America, Afghanistan, Iraq, the Philippines and Africa.” Every significant battleground? Ahhh… all of America’s significant—and far-flung—battlegrounds, that is….

Enter Chuck Norris

There have been a few near misses in the hunt for Joseph Kony and the decimated but still deadly remnants of his Lord’s Resistance Army [please see “Messianic Foes” here]. “In more than one raided camp,” US Kony hunt commander in Uganda Colonel Kevin Leahy told NYT reporter Eliza Griswold, “there were DVDs of Chuck Norris films.” Griswold apparently did not ask if there were flat screen TVs or movie nights at the abandoned camps, but intelligence on Kony’s movements is sketchy at best, anyway. Col. Leahy explains he has “reached out to Chuck Norris to create a ‘come home’ message” that could be broadcast to LRA fighters … or perhaps made into DVDs and dropped into the bush? It seems still in the concept stage, although the colonel sounded optimistic: “We’ve gotten some feedback from his agent.”

So, could “soft power” trump the guns, and America’s global pop culture dominance yield real-world gains? Surely a fine notion. And culture as transformative propaganda is not a new idea. Stalin regarded books as “the most important weapon of strategic propaganda,” The Atlantic recently reported, and the CIA seemed to agree; it smuggled millions of books into the Soviet Union, including works by Orwell and Pasternak’s banned Dr Zhivago.

This was in TV’s early days, long before DVDs or Internet, but at first blush Chuck Norris seems as appropriate to the action-loving LRA as Pasternak was to literature-hungry Russians. Yet, are we sure? Is there some chance that the massive and casual carnage that carries the 80s action movies the LRA favors was actually instructive? Cultural transference can be dangerously viral; only celluloid victims never feel real pain. Not that General Linder seems too interested in the finer details of ethnicity and local mores. “It’s not an anthropologist telling me about tribes and nomadic patterns,” he airily told the Times, “I’ve got Wikipedia for that. What I need is the operator.”

And a question for Colonel Leahy, before he troubles Chuck too much more. Think: the Chuck Norris DVDs were left behind! Not to make fun of Chuck, but maybe they were chucked intentionally. Is there compelling HUMINT [“human intelligence” to those unversed in what must be the basis of all good psy-ops] that Chuck is favored above Sylvester Stallone? Over Jet Li? Arnold Schwarzenegger? Or Jean-Claude Van Damme? Or even Dolph Lundgren?? Maybe the LRA guerrillas, with recently-watered US commandos hot at their heels, risked all to save those action stars’ DVDs, discarding Chuck’s in the dust and detritus. This raises a point surely troubling to some that American soft power—“weapons of mass distraction”, as writer Matthew Fraser describes—may not be all so ubiquitous after all… for another discussion.

Perhaps some of the recent “defectors” (for gawdssake, let’s name them more psy-war sensitively as “returnees”!) could tell us. My utterly unsolicited suggestion is to show recent LRA returnees the 2012 film The Expendables 2 (although this—no joke here—leaves aside concerns that watching an action movie could inflame PTSD LRA returnees might be suffering.) They would pick from among the stellar cast of international action stars which should best be asked to make a “come home” appeal. Arnie, Chuck, Dolph, Jean-Claude, Li, Sly…? Most of the global action hero gang’s all there. Yes, this would exclude Mickey Rourke, who shined in the original The Expendables and was unjustly cut from the sequel… but this we could do safely, I think, leaving out also Mel Gibson and Harrison Ford, who finally appeared with the resurgent Rourke only in The Expendables 3. The debate is joined. Comments are always welcome.

Lansner’s Linder Lessons

Now, last and very serious notes on the promised “Lansner’s Linder Lessons”—and how America has apparently discovered that abuse and economic injustice are BAD—as extrapolated from three quotes in the NYT article:

Quote 1: “One primary lesson learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, [General Linder] notes, is that if security forces abuse the local population, they alienate their best source of intelligence.” Too true. Think Abu Ghraib! Or the history of warfare.

So, Lansner’s Linder Lesson 1: An abused and disenfranchised population resents its oppressors, and lends support to a “legitimized resistance”… be it the LRA in its very early days, Boko Haram in Nigeria, ISIS in Iraq today… or the “good guys” of the Free Syrian Army.

Quote 2: “The tactics of special warfare can look quite a lot like those used by the Peace Corps, which arrived in Niger in 1962 and left in 2011 because of security concerns.” This is a way far stretch, so I will offer it as:

Lansner’s Linder Lesson 2: More equitable development can undermine extremism. Or even more pithily, as General Linder himself declared, “Life doesn’t have to suck,” … a quote that should be in Wikipedia.

To restate plainly: Respecting basic rights and providing a modicum of social and economic justice is a path to peace. Learning can be priceless, no?

Well, no; let’s name the price of America’s recent wars: hundreds of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans killed; 7,000+ dead American soldiers; trillions of dollars flushed in a cesspit of hubris, dismissing history and painfully “re-learning” simple and self-evident lessons.

We do hope that Chuck or one of his action-hero brethren can soon help convince the LRA to come home. Or that Boko Haram can be persuaded by some similar ploy [Nollywood, anyone?] to #BringBackOurGirls. Action-hero brethren?  Yes. Angelina, even as Lara Croft or Evelyn Salt, won’t do, especially after her recent real-life hero turn in #timetoact.

But I’ll still wager my pension that applying Lansner’s Linder Lessons 1 and 2—not abusing, and working to see that life does not suck—is the best long-term strategy to ending, or even better, pre-empting, insurgencies—fundamentalist, millennialist, or otherwise. Popular movements are far more often sparked and sustained by desperate resistance than lofty ideals.

And finally, Quote 3: “One of the first lessons that Special Operations teaches in Africa and other places,” says General Linder, “is that a good soldier serves the population, not the leader.“[emphasis added]

So, to close, Lansner’s Linder Lesson 3, this one verbatim: “A good soldier serves the people, not the leader.” A revolutionary idea, indeed. This does not suggest mutiny, even retrospectively, against a genuinely democratically elected leader. But that America’s good soldiers—or at least the good ex-General Powell—had heeded this advice in 2003, much of Linder’s work in Africa today would be moot. ###

Chuck Norris and Marshall Teague with U.S. Marines at Camp Al Taqaddam, Iraq, during a USO tour in 2006. USO Photo.

Chuck Norris graffiti dated 2009, in Osijek, Croatia: “Don’t Worry… I’m Coming To Rescue This City… Chuck”  photo by Objavljeno, 2013.

About Thomas R Lansner

Thomas R Lansner is visiting professor at the Paris School of International Affairs of Sciences-Po Paris, and taught on international media and communications at Columbia University from 1994-2011. From 1980-1990, he covered numerous conflicts, mostly in Africa and Asia, for the London Observer, the Guardian, and other media outlets. Lansner writes regularly on media/human rights/conflict issues, and offers media/presentation training for human rights and social justice advocates.

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