Lessons on Counterinsurgency from the Human Body

Kristina Talbert-Slagle, Ph.D., GHLI Associate Research Scientist

The worlds of public health and war don’t often collide, but over the past two years I have had the opportunity to work with retired General Stanley McChrystal relating my research on HIV/AIDS to counterinsurgency warfare strategy. When we compared notes, we found many parallels between a human body that is under attack from infectious disease and a nation that is under attack from an insurgency. 

This month, Gen. McChrystal and I spoke at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC. where I outlined the basic theories behind infection and the human body’s immune system response to disease – specifically, how infections in the human body can be “outmaneuvered” by the body’s defenses. Similarly, Gen. McChrystal noted that, “Human bodies aren’t the only things that get infected … if you think in terms of a nation … you can have infections, and we’ll call it insurgency … that are threats to a nation.”

We compared the way HIV destabilizes the human immune system and enables opportunistic infections to the way that long-term instability in Afghanistan enabled the Taliban insurgency. Success in treating the HIV virus is not simply about anti-viral drugs – it’s more than just rebuilding the immune system. It is a multiparty, multi-aspect approach to rebuilding health. In a similar way, counterinsurgency requires a multi-faceted and holistic approach rather than a single, magic bullet solution. Ultimately, in both cases, sustained stability is the essential factor for both healthy bodies and nations.

After our presentation, Gen. McChrystal and I took questions from audience members and reporters, which included, “Can this model be applied to help us understand challenges to the health of the world, such as climate change?” and “How can we apply the role of stigma to our understanding of improving health?” The genuine interest in our work was a rewarding part of this experience.

This work is truly helping me to understand that counterinsurgency and public health strategies have more in common than I once thought…we ultimately share the same goal, which is to help people live happy, healthy, peaceful, productive lives.

Click here to get the full audio from our presentation at the Brookings Institution.


2 thoughts on “Lessons on Counterinsurgency from the Human Body

  1. A great example of an interdisciplinary approach to better understand our world. Congratulations to both Dr. Talbert-Slagle and Gen. McChrystal for truly “stepping out of the box”!


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