Stigmergy is scientifically defined as, “a mechanism of spontaneous, indirect coordination between agents, or actions, where the trace left in the environment by an action stimulates the performance of subsequent actions by the same or different agents. This swarming effect is a form of self-organization that produces complex, apparently intelligent structures. There is no need for any planning, control, or even communication between the agents. Stigmergy is derived from the Greek words stigma (sign) and ergon (action), and captures the notion that an agent’s actions leave signs in the environment. These signs are then sensed by the agent, and determine the agents subsequent actions. While loaded with occult connotations, in this essay we will explore stigmergy as applied to human conflict, specifically the Selous Scouts of Rhodesia.
In warfare, the first and most difficult task of a combatant is to find the enemy. In a large country consisting of thousands of square kilometers of a diverse and varied landmass, such an endeavor can cause even the most expert warriors to become desperate when up against an enemy who cannot – and does not want – to be found. Such was the case in Rhodesia in 1973 in that nations struggle against Marxist terrorists. The terrorists preferred tactic consisted of randomly attacking and murdering farmers throughout the country. Police units like the Special Branch received incidental bits of information about what was happening in their sectors. Unfortunately, the information the authorities wanted most was the most elusive: the location of the enemy personnel and their intentions. This is referred to as a problem of HUMINT, the human intelligence aspect of military intelligence operations. It took the civil authorities of Rhodesia years to admit that the problem the country was facing could no longer be contained through law enforcement. With great protest the police resisted the idea that the problems facing the country could be solved with anything other than standard police work. However, events forced the police commissioners to admit that the game had radically changed for the worse.
Once reliable sources of information dried up amidst intimidation by communist forces among the African population. As communists ranks swelled in the early 1970s, the situation became even more difficult.
Among Rhodesians, whose full citizens never numbered more than two hundred and seventy thousand people, a standing army built along the lines of the British Army (complete with Light Infantry and SAS formations) was implemented in the uncertain times of colonial authorities in the 1950s. The armed forces primarily consisted of white careerists and a small proportion of Africans. Even up until this day, military scholars often write of the high level of professionalism and outstanding service displayed by the men in uniform. These soldiers exemplary conduct is nearly universally acknowledged twenty-nine years after the fall of Rhodesia. Few people know that a primarily African regiment was among the most skilled and effective fighting force of the all white Rhodesian government. In 1973 a regiment was commissioned called the Selous Scouts, which by the year 1979, when the war had peaked, accounted for 68% of confirmed terrorist kills. The Selous Scouts were referred to as a pseudo gang and were deployed in the bush as fake terrorists. To the chagrin of the more conventional officials in the government, most of the African members of the regiment were recruited from captured terrorists who switched sides when given an offer they couldn’t refuse. (The charge of terrorism was a capital offense.)
The regiment was led by white officers who often hid their appearance with blackface that they would remain in for weeks at a time. The Selous Scouts had a unique operational campaign that crossed national boundaries and brought the fight to the enemy, man to man.
An explanation of who the Rhodesian people were fighting is necessary to understand why the Selous Scouts were formed. In the civil war, Rhodesia was facing two primary opponents. The two groups were referred to by their initials: ZANLA and ZIPRA. Both were communist-funded and communist-trained. The USSR and China jockeyed for influence in the region. Secondary opponents existed in the international arena. The governments of the UK and USA were openly hostile to Rhodesia and used organizations such as the UN against the Rhodesians as much as possible. Although the focus of this article is on the mixed fighting units on the ground, it cannot be stressed enough that the eventual defeat of Rhodesia lay in the complacent hands of the USA and UK. These two nations enacted complete trade embargoes against Rhodesia through the UN. They were hell-bent on bringing egalitarian democracy to the entire population of Rhodesia. In actual practice, this meant giving the country to the Communist forces waiting in neighboring countries. The uncompromising intent of these foreign powers led directly to Robert Mugabe’s seizure of power in 1980.
On the ground the Selous Scouts were organized as an elite unit and much of their existence was classified. As their mission was top secret, their official cover was that they existed as a group dedicated to tracking enemies by the trail said enemies left in the African bush. Black and white operators were trained to live off the land, become expert trackers of game, and to become more ferocious than the prey they hunted. Remarkably few casualties were the result of superb training, the caliber of men in the units ranks, and the element of surprise that the men invariably employed when contact with the enemy commenced. A typical operation consisted of a team of four to eight operators searching for terrorists in a given district. The team members carried the same weaponry and equipment as the terrorists, and would develop trust with locals. The locals would then arrange meetings with the real terrorists. Depending on the mission, engagements with guerrilla forces took place either ad hoc or planned in conjunction with other units. With the help of these secondary units, a net would be created from which the terrorists could not escape. White Rhodesian personnel were expected to remain behind the scenes or literally hidden most of the time they were in the field. The whites were often proficient in the local language and customs of the tribal people and would never venture out into the bush without the complete respect of the men with whom they served. The black pseudo-terrorists were paid the same wage as the whites. Black personnel also had their immediate families provided for with housing and medical care. Both of these practices were unusual.
This regiment is an example of a type of stigmergic process. With little or no intelligence information, regiments would approach a local population and seek information on “comrades” that they could link up with. With guile and the knowledge of terrorist practices (most of the Scouts had been terrorists a short time before), the members of the regiment would be introduced to local terrorists. The enemy personnel would then be eliminated, sometimes in coordination with the military. This practice of posing as terrorists and gaining the trust of the local population greatly confused the terrorist forces, who soon began to distrust any other groups that came into their areas. The results were often lethal. Morale plummeted in terrorist circles, as friends turned upon friends and desertion soared.
In a backhanded compliment, the Scouts were called in the Shona language ‘Skuz’apo.’ This was a nickname given them by the terrorists. Skuz was a corruption of the English ‘Excuse me’ & ‘apo’ is a Shona word meaning here. Hence, the phrase might be translated as, ‘Excuse me for being here. However, the phrase was the type used by a pickpocket who bumps into you and mutters ‘Skuz’apo’ as he smiles and makes off with your wallet!
The most celebrated operation undertaken by the Scouts was the 1976 Nyadzonya raid in Mozambique. About seventy Scouts wore the uniform of the communist government of Mozambique and infiltrated into the country one morning. They set off in a caravan of vehicles painted in the same colors as the opposition. They cunningly made their way to a camp that consisted of over five-thousand terrorists. As the inhabitants of the camp jubilantly welcomed the Scouts, the order was given to commence fire. The devastation that resulted was so great that the terrorists successfully bade the United Nations to list the camp as a refugee station.
The experiences of the Selous Scouts illustrate the metapolitical character of political struggles. They also reveal the process of turning weakness into strength. In the case of the Scouts, small teams often consisting of no more than four men, became super-powered. They radically increased productivity in conflict by adopting and improving the modus operandi of the enemy. This allowed high rates of innovation, increased survival among friendly groups, more frequent attacks, and the ability to swarm targets. These are traits characterized by the term “4th Generation Warfare” that even modern militaries in the present day have yet to fully understand.
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