David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants
by Malcolm Gladwell

Not Just Another Airport Book

By: Ian C. Rice

David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants

Malcolm Gladwell

London: Little, Brown and Company, October 2013 ISBN-13-9780316204385 Hardcover: US$22.99 304 pages

The American-led campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq led to an outpouring of thought and debate on the subject of irregular warfare. The most recent American military counterinsurgency doctrine, Insurgencies and Countering Insurgencies (FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33), definitively characterized such struggles as being asymmetric in nature, and insurgents as operating most often from a position of weakness.1 But, if these actors are so weak, why is fighting irregular conflicts so difficult? On the assumption that understanding what makes a relationship asymmetric in the first place would help us better appreciate the nature of irregular conflicts, Malcolm Gladwell's David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants is about understanding various asymmetries in the world around us.

Gladwell begins with an ancient Biblical tale that epitomizes the concept of a lopsided battle between a strong side and a weak side. A mighty and undefeated warrior named Goliath, wielding his massive war club, faced a mere shepherd boy named David, who was armed only with a staff and a sling. The two were to meet in individual combat to decide the fate of their respective tribes. The result, of course, was the classic "surprise" victory by the young and apparently outmatched shepherd, who struck down the towering Goliath with a single stone from his slingshot and cut off the giant's head, thus securing freedom for his people. As Gladwell points out, perhaps we have misunderstood this legendary tale all along: it was not in fact an uneven contest between the weak David and the mighty Goliath, but single combat between two different types of warriors. David simply shot Goliath with the ancient equivalent of a .45-caliber pistol, while Goliath had no weapons to match him at that distance.2 It is perhaps the first known use of "smart power" to defeat brute force in Western culture.3

Gladwell explores two central ideas in his book. The first is that lopsided contests that sometimes end with underdog victories may not actually be as they seem. In other words, we all may be failing to identify the true capabilities of our opponents, and are instead assessing them on attributes they might not themselves value. Second, we persistently regard only certain qualities as important (advantages) while failing to appreciate that the most valuable qualities may be born from adversity (disadvantages).

Gladwell maintains the same style as in his four prior best-selling books, each of which sought to explain other social phenomena.4 David and Goliath continues this mission, presenting Gladwell's alternative perspective on asymmetries in the world around us through a mélange of exciting storytelling, history, and a large helping of of social science theory. In a manner that quickly hooks the reader, Gladwell initiates each subject with a personal narrative that threads throughout the chapter. Yet, even as each story snags the reader's interest, Gladwell cleverly interweaves some social science theory that serves as the explanatory weft of his argument.

In "Part One: The Advantages of Disadvantages (and the Disadvantages of Advantages)," Gladwell asks whether we understand the true value of what we perceive to be advantages, and whether we can find anything positive in what we assume to be disadvantageous. More than a play on words, this first section presents three chapters that explore the famous maxim of Sun Tzu: "Know the enemy, and know yourself; in a hundred battles you will never be in peril." 5 In the course of this exploration, Gladwell wonders: Are we asking the correct questions? Do we understand our own capabilities, strengths, weaknesses, and circumstances as well as those of our opponents? He answers these questions by examining the dynamics of some commonly accepted advantages, such as the notion that smaller is better when it comes to elementary school class size, and that conventional university rankings are a reliable measure of whether a student will receive a first-class undergraduate education.

In one of these stories, Gladwell describes a young woman's struggle to succeed in a science and technology undergraduate program at an Ivy League university. Her story illustrates a behavior known as "relative deprivation." Gladwell describes how those who work in elite environments become victims of their own success and lose confidence in their abilities because they compare their progress only to their close peers, those who are operating within what is a highly selective microcosm. This sense of relative deprivation often leads to disillusionment and failure versus appreciating one's accomplishments and overall value on a more global scale.

For studying population-centric conflicts, the concept of relative deprivation may be instrumental to understanding the grievances people have on both the micro and macro scales. Do people in areas with regular public services, such as garbage pickup and sewage, complain more when services are discontinued due to conflict or crisis than those who have never had those services? If the theory of relative deprivation applies to perceptions of prosperity and government services, then the answer is yes. When conducting assessments of a population's attitudes in conflict, being able to disaggregate actual from perceived grievances could be vital to preserving or rebuilding civil society. In other words, the needs of the people should be analyzed relative to both their immediate communities and the society at large.

"Part Two: The Theory of Desirable Difficulty" discusses the coping and adaptation mechanisms that evolve from disadvantages. Gladwell draws on a wide range of examples to illustrate that hardship and handicaps can breed resiliency and innovation, traits that allow people to achieve a degree of success that may not have been possible otherwise. He uses three examples—a child's frustrations growing up with dyslexia, a research oncologist's work treating childhood leukemia, and the daily struggles of organizing the civil rights movement in the American South—to illustrate how people can grow through adversity. The parallels to dealing with irregular conflicts abound. Military adaptations and innovations are a direct result of the opponent's actions. For example, insurgent forces often suffer setbacks that appear to be defeats, but experience has shown that these setbacks frequently mean that the insurgency is changing and adapting to work around the obstacles erected by their opponents.

In particular, what happens when awe-inspiring force (such as bombing) is used against an opponent population? If not defeated outright, conventional logic holds that the opponent will either give up in the face of overwhelming odds or just melt away. This logic has been found to be false. Studies such as Robert Pape's Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War and Jason Lyall's "Bombing to Lose? Airpower and the Dynamics of Violence in Counterinsurgency Wars" demonstrate that direct, overwhelming military coercion through aerial bombardment is ineffective in breaking the will of opponents, especially civilian populations.6

Gladwell draws the same conclusion, but where these other theories of coercion focus on state-on-state behavior and the workings of state military apparatuses, Gladwell discusses how horrific experiences may create resiliency in individuals. He cites studies of World War II bombing campaigns, which concluded that people who saw bomb blasts but were too far away to be in direct danger tended to become resilient in the face of further bombing, compared to those who experienced a near miss and were naturally more traumatized.

So why were Londoners so unfazed by the Blitz? Because forty thousand deaths and forty-six thousand injuries—spread across a metropolitan area of more than eight million people—means that there were more remote misses who were emboldened by the experience of being bombed than there were near misses who were traumatized by it.7

Thus, military coercion, if used incorrectly, might actually inoculate populations to be more resistant to violence.

Using this analysis to explore the conventional wisdom regarding bombing could change how we understand some of the unforeseen consequences of heavy-handed military coercion. If Gladwell's analysis holds true for the modern use of precision guided munitions, then we would expect to see even more boldness in the face of military coercion. Each "smart bomb" produces a deadly and precise local effect, and thus, in turn, potentially hundreds of people will experience it as a remote miss. Under this logic, modern technology is essentially vaccinating opponents against trauma with each precision bomb dropped, and may actually embolden resistance.

In "Part Three: The Limits of Power," Gladwell directly engages asymmetries that are at the heart of why people rebel against authority—the very basis of irregular conflicts. Using Nathan Leites and Charles Wolf, Jr.'s Rebellion and Authority: An Analytic Essay on Insurgent Conflicts as a departure point, Gladwell asks the question: What are the limits to legitimate authority?

Leites and Wolf believed that all that counts are rules and rational principles. But what actually matters are the hundreds of small things that the powerful do—or don't do—to establish their legitimacy, like sleeping in the bed of an innocent man you just shot accidently and scattering your belongings around his house.8

As he shows in case after case, the less force regimes use to administer their authoritarian power, the more readily will the population agree to be ruled. Gladwell cites California's "three strikes" law and Britain's heavy-handed tactics in Northern Ireland to demonstrate that when state officials use coercive authority to lessen civil violence, their tactics often have the opposite effect. Both of those measures actually increased violence and crime. Gladwell suggests instead that programs that carry visible, but less coercive, signs of state authority will be more successful in reducing violence and unrest. To illustrate, he points to an innovative tactic used by police in a poor New York City neighborhood: in addition to targeting criminals, the police conducted community outreach to encourage youngsters to stay in school. They also made a practice of handing out hugs and turkeys on Thanksgiving to families of at-risk young people, as a visible sign that the state's authority was both legitimate and positive.

Can Gladwell's approach in David and Goliath help us disentangle current events? Two ongoing examples of asymmetric war are useful tests. The recent conflict in Ukraine between the government and Russian-backed separatists is setting the stage for another misinterpretation of what is commonly valued as a strength. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) has grown from 16 member states to 28 members since the end of the Cold War. This expansion naturally raises the question of whether NATO has grown too large to be effective. If one of its small new members is invaded or becomes politically unstable, will this alliance of 28 states mobilize itself to defend that state's sovereignty, and perhaps risk a continent-wide war? Or, reflecting on Gladwell's analysis, did the returns on being a NATO member start to diminish with the addition of 12 new members in Eastern Europe? In other words, might strength through increasing numbers be the wrong way to counter potential military or political threats in Europe?

The second example of asymmetric warfare is also at the forefront of today's news: the meteoric rise of DAESH, the Islamic State of Iraq and Ash-Sham (the so-called Islamic State, aka ISIL or ISIS).9 Beyond the near-daily reports of the medieval human rights atrocities its members commit, DAESH now appears to be a visibly functioning political entity—an actual state. The group's own news outlets, via online sites, stories, and videos, boast of its newfound political development and institutional capacity. But the question remains, has DAESH developed too quickly? Like NATO, will bigger also be better (e.g., will it promote the emergence of state legitimacy?), or will this so-called "state" be short-lived because, if they are to actually administer a state, the agents of DAESH must leave the relative security that shadowy networks often provide?

Like any study, David and Goliath has its shortcomings. The personal stories Gladwell uses to illustrate his theoretical positions were selected because a general readership can easily connect to them, not because he uses them systematically to analyze a particular social phenomenon. In so doing, Gladwell successfully breathes life into what otherwise are niche interests in specific social science fields. Thus, a sharpened academic pen could poke holes in the examples, the findings, and the generalizable inferences that most readers will be tempted to draw from Gladwell's analysis. The important point, however, is that David and Goliath will lead the reader to think differently about the concept of asymmetry and how the world identifies what are assumed to be advantages and disadvantages.

About the Author(s):
Ian C. Rice is a US Army officer and a PhD candidate in political science at the University of California, Los Angeles.

This is a work of the US federal government and not subject to copyright protection in the United States. Foreign copyrights may apply.

  1. Irregular warfare is "a violent struggle among state and non-state actors for legitimacy and influence over the relevant population(s). … Insurgency in the most basic form is a struggle for control and influence, generally from a position of relative weakness, outside existing state institutions." Headquarters, Department of the Army, Insurgencies and Countering Insurgencies, FM 3-24/MCWP 3-33.5 (Washington, D.C.: Dept. of the Army, 18 May 2014), 1-1, 1-2. 
  2. Gladwell, David and Goliath, 11. 
  3. Joseph S. Nye, Jr., The Future of Power (New York: PublicAffairs, 2011), 22–24. 
  4. Books by Malcolm Gladwell: Outliers: The Story of Success (Boston: Back Bay Books, 2011); What the Dog Saw: And Other Adventures (Boston: Back Bay Books, 2010); Blink: The Power of Thinking without Thinking (Boston: Back Bay Books, 2007); and The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference (Boston: Back Bay Books, 2002). 
  5. Sun Tzu, The Art of War, trans. Samuel B. Griffith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1971), 84. 
  6. Robert A. Pape, Bombing to Win: Air Power and Coercion in War (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1996), 25–27; and Jason Lyall, "Bombing to Lose? Airpower and the Dynamics of Violence in Counterinsurgency Wars," working paper (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University), 9 August 2014, 2:  
  7. Gladwell, David and Goliath, 132–33. 
  8. See Nathan Leites and Charles Wolf, Jr., Rebellion and Authority: An Analytic Essay on Insurgent Conflicts (Chicago: Markham, Publishing Company, 1970). 
  9. DAESH is the Anglicized acronym for ad-Dawlat al-Islamiyya f?'l-‘Iraq wa'sh-Sham. See David Stansfield, "What Does ISIS Really Stand For?" Infowars, 27 June 2014:  
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