Revenge and the Backlash Effect

Guy Burgess
Heidi Burgess
Michelle Maiese

July 2004

In July 1941, the U.S. threatened Japan with an oil embargo unless Japan withdrew from China. The threat of embargo was intended not to deter Japan from taking some considered action, but to compel them to withdraw from a current activity. However, rather than withdraw from China and abandon its imperialist aspirations, Japan chose to attack the U.S. while it still had the oil reserves needed to wage war. George argues that in this case "coercive diplomacy provoked the adversary into a decision for war." -- From Alexander George, "United States-Japan Relations Leading to Pearl Harbor," chap. in Forceful Persuasion: Coercive Diplomacy as an Alternative to War, (Washington, D.C.: United States Institute of Peace Press, 1991), pp. 19-23. Summary available here.

Understanding Backlash and Revenge

Parties in conflict, especially parties with considerable power, tend to assume that they can prevail quickly and easily by using threats and/or force. They assume that the opposing party will simply submit and the problem will be resolved. Unfortunately, the use of force is seldom this simple. Most people hate to be forced to do things against their will, so the threatened party will usually resist if they can. If the party that initiates the force does not first consider the likely response of their opponent, they can easily be faced with defeat instead of victory.

Even if the target group submits to the threat or use of force, they are likely to become resentful, and will work to build up their power so they can resist or challenge their opponents at a later time. This is what we refer to as the "backlash effect," the tendency of the victim group to lash out against the threatening party once it has gained the power and means to do so.

Mari Fitzduff comments on revenge in Northern Ireland.

The level of resentment and resulting backlash are likely to increase dramatically when the force used is seen as illegitimate or immoral---as is often the case if it is seen as unwarranted, excessive, or unnecessary. If, for example, the police were to threaten innocent drivers with reckless driving charges as a means of extracting bribes, this would widely be seen as illegitimate. The likely result would be widespread resentment and hostility toward the police and government in general. Similarly, because the use of military force for conquest is widely seen as illegitimate, it is likely to produce an intense backlash effect.

Why is Backlash Dangerous?

This resentment to force and the resulting backlash may serve to escalate conflict and lead to violent behavior on the part of those who feel they have been wronged, as the examples in the boxes on the right illustrate. In many cases, the response to coercive force is far more intense than the initial provocation. If this sort of cycle continues, conflict is likely to become increasingly destructive, especially if both sides have military force at their disposal.

In May of 2004, a group linked to al-Qa'ida released a video showing five of its members beheading an American businessman in Iraq, in what it said was revenge for the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib jail by US troops. "It had been predicted that the pictures of the abuse and sexual humiliation of prisoners that have been broadcast around the Arab world would make the perilous situation in Iraq even more dangerous for US troops and civilians." -- From: "American Beheaded as Torture Backlash Grows," Available here.

However, problems also arise in cases where one of the parties currently lacks the means to fight back. While the threatened party may do what is required of them over the short term, they are likely to initiate an intense search for effective resistance strategies. In some cases they may pretend that they are submitting to the demands of the party who is threatening them, while in reality they are doing as they wish and plotting for future revenge. Even after a conflict seems to be over, if the victims of aggression do not feel that justice has been done, they are likely to try to build up their power to "get even" at a later time. This is one of many reasons why apparently "resolved" conflicts tend to re-ignite. Once the original "losers" gain enough power, they may seek revenge against the earlier "victors."

Even without such violent confrontations, backlash can lead to costly and rapidly escalating arms races, in which both sides devote an ever-greater proportion of their resources to a desperate effort to make sure that they have the power needed to defend themselves or at least deter the threatening actions of opponents. In all of these situations, the result is continuing conflict rather than resolution.

Reducing the Backlash Effect

Paul Wehr talks about the importance of "multi-modal," culturally-appropriate interventions. Inappropriate interventions can cause backlash, he says.

The key to reducing the backlash effect is to only use force when it is broadly viewed as legitimate, which means when it is based upon moral principles in which all parties believe. In other words, force must be more than an excuse for pursuing purely selfish objectives. (This topic is discussed extensively on the section on integrative systems.) Rather it must be used to obtain ends that are deemed widely legitimate, which cannot be obtained in any other way.

In general, it is more desirable for force to be administered locally by forcing parties with similar cultural traditions, which are acting on behalf of the larger community. For example, community policing policies seek police officers who are members of the community that they patrol and not outsiders. (Still, this is not an absolute rule, and there may be cases in which external intervention is the best available option.) When force is used beyond the local level, it generally works better if it is reserved for situations in which most, if not all, parties would recognize that its use is legitimate--for example to enforce the maintenance of international laws or treaties.

Force is also more likely to be viewed as legitimate if it is only used as a last resort against parties who have violated widely accepted rules of behavior. For example, use of force against military forces involved in unacceptable behavior is more widely seen as more legitimate than the use of force used against innocent civilians. This is one reason why military forces often try to avoid attacking civilian targets. (There are, unfortunately also cases in which war is waged against civilians intentionally---a pattern that has become increasingly frequent in recent years.)

The legitimacy of using force is also increased (and hence the backlash effect decreased) when the parties use the least destructive type of force possible. For example, an attempt to work within existing laws should precede efforts to change those laws by political or other means. Similarly, diplomatic solutions should be pursued before military solutions. Legitimizing the use of force also requires that the parties publicly explain and justify their actions. Without such justifications, it is easy for misunderstandings to arise, which threaten legitimacy.

Since force is often used in illegitimate ways, one important key to increasing the constructiveness of conflict processes is to develop increasingly effective, but legitimate, strategies for opposing illegitimate uses of force. Although force used in self-defense is generally considered legitimate, it still tends to escalate conflicts further and prolong their duration. Consideration should therefore be given to developing stronger and better nonviolent ways of countering force--among these are utilizing external intervention, civilian defense, and/or nonviolent sanctions instead of automatically using force to oppose all other force.

The Backlash Coefficient

A useful calculation is "the backlash coefficient (B.C.)." This is the estimate of the number of new enemies one creates as a proportion of the number of old enemies one vanquishes or otherwise eliminates in any use of military force.

B.C.  =  
New Enemies Created
Old Enemies Eliminated

So, for example, the 2004 U.S. Bush administration appears to assume that the backlash coefficient that would result from its war in Iraq is far less than one: that many more "enemies" are being captured or killed (the denominator) than are being created (the numerator). Therefore the B.C. is less than one. Many opponents of that war believe the opposite: they believe that the U.S. policy in Iraq is creating far more enemies than it is eliminating, therefore diminishing U.S. security, rather than enhancing it. One's estimate of the backlash coefficient is a key determinant of one's support for military action. At the same time it helps determine one's faith in the ability of military force to solve international political and military problems.

Use the following to cite this article:
Burgess, Guy, Heidi Burgess and Michelle Maiese. "Revenge and the Backlash Effect." Beyond Intractability. Eds. Guy Burgess and Heidi Burgess. Conflict Information Consortium, University of Colorado, Boulder. Posted: July 2004 <>.

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