video games

Cloud Strife: A Veteran Lost in the Twilight of Sentimentality and Nostalgia

Final Fantasy VII was the first game I ever pre-ordered. I went into a KB Toys (RIP) and saw a sign announcing that the game would be available for pre-order and that if you pre-ordered it, you would get a free Final Fantasy shirt.


The shirt. Found this oddly on John Saddington’s blog – who happens to be the creator of Desk PM – an app I love!

When the game was finally released, I was happy to receive the promised shirt. It was white with a picture of the main character Cloud Strife on the back. Next to the avatar was some biographical data.

If you look closely, his job is listed as “former soldier.”

I remember thinking at the time – and I was just a 15 year old kid who had no idea I’d be writing about the oddities of veteran life in 2015 – “isn’t it kind of weird to list your job as something you were formerly?”

Cloud Strife is a veteran, lost in the twilight of sentimentality and nostalgia.

As fans of the game know, the word ‘soldier’ probably should have been written in all upper-case, since it was more akin to a unit than an individual job profession.

But fans of the game also know that the crux of the story revolves around Cloud’s latent PTSD and his self-delusions of grandeur and heroism. Before I even knew what PTSD was, I watched Cloud struggle with it. He also struggled with transitioning out of the military. With no skills, he joined a bunch of ‘freedom fighters’ for no reason other than to keep fighting, really. He broke down – over and over – clasping his head as memories of the past surged into his mind.

As you slowly tease out the story of what happened at the Nibelheim Reactor, the big reveal is that Cloud isn’t who he says he is. What’s particularly interesting to me, is it’s not exactly clear whether he deliberately misremembered the past of his own accord (to trump up his deeds) or if he just didn’t remember, because of the psychological trauma or injury. I always thought it was a combination of the two.

“Former soldiers” or veterans tend to embellish their war stories. While war can be exciting, it doesn’t always match the vivid imagination of the listener, whose frames of reference are action movies and video games. Each time the story is told, a gentle adjective sneaks its way in. The next time, you were a little closer to the explosion – “it was right in front of me!” Usually, these retellings are innocent enough – and they don’t involve the release of a murderous psychopath bent on destroying the world. But the idea of a former soldier mistelling his past for whatever reason – fame, power, gil – is common.

I’ve always wanted to dig into the Nibelheim Incident and Cloud Strife’s PTSD and memory as a larger piece for this blog. It’s a good way to tell the story of something important (veteran PTSD issues, moral injury, stolen valor) in a way that is interesting and might capture the attention of an audience that normally would be uninterested in veteran issues. It was only recently that I remembered the pre-order t-shirt and I wanted to get this idea out there. I doubt I’ll ever have the time to explore Cloud’s lore and background to give the idea the attention it would deserve to do it justice, so in the meantime, these half-baked ideas will just have to sit here, and wait.


Revenge as Tactical Purpose


When I was in graduate school, I came across the below paragraph, a rough attempt at painting the Arab tribal code in the time before the dawn of Islam:

Bravery in battle, patience in misfortune, persistence in revenge, protection of the weak, defiance toward the strong, generosity to the poor, hospitality to the visitor, loyalty to tribe, fidelity in keeping promises.

I always found it interesting that “persistence in revenge” was in there. The idea of revenge as a virtue is foreign to modern forms of law and behavior control. Or rather, we prefer the term justice. Revenge is personal, emotional. You wrong me, I’m going to wrong you, to even the score. Justice, on the other hand, is something legal. It’s more clinical, and often not as satisfying. Life in prison for a mass murder doesn’t always seem to square things out. Neither does the death penalty, for that matter.

Still, there is something very human about wanting to seek revenge. Look at our media: Kill Bill, Django, Game of Thrones. Revenge courses through our stories as one of the chief drivers of action. Zero Dark Thirty, a movie about the real life hunt for Osama bin Laden, is essentially a revenge thriller.

With the recent terrorist attacks in Paris, there are renewed calls for “punitive” strikes on ISIS. That is, I suppose, strikes that we may not have carried out previously (why?) but now conduct to “teach them a lesson” or something.

While I think revenge has a place in the human psyche – it is something we feel, after all – summoning it as a tool of the state seems misguided, childish, and dumb, a device used to appeal to the masses who want us to “do something.”

If our goal is to destroy ISIS, then we should seek to do that, however the policy makers decide is best.

But revenge should not be a part of the mission statement.


Fire Night: West Point on the night Osama bin Laden was killed



I have this theory that as an OCS or ROTC officer, by the time you make Captain you will have pieced together the major themes of your corresponding year group’s experiences at the United States Military Academy at West Point. Over the course of the past four years, I’ve learned more than anyone would ever care to learn about what went on at USMA between 2008-2012, simply by virtue of being around a lot of West Point officers and hearing them recount their stories.

In the wake of the now infamous pillow-fight-gone-viral, I began chiding fellow officers for the behavior of cadets, asking probing questions about what the hell is going on over there. From more than a few officers, I got a response similar to “you should have seen what happened on the night Osama bin Laden was killed.” Talking to them individually, they’d simply say it was a crazy night and there were lots of chants of “U-S-A!” But if there was more than one West Pointer in the room, more of the story came out. It is like a dull aura that lingers between them begins to glow and become alive. They suddenly become nostalgic for their alma mater and they become more animated. One starts telling the story and others jump in, filling out details that are being left out, constantly trying to one up the other with something crazy that happened.

For this particular story, it was a late Sunday evening. Cadets were getting ready for the next day, many of them studying for final exams. The semester was coming to a close. A bunch of them would be commissioning shortly to officially join the Army and contribute their piece to the Global War on Terrorism. Just about everyone who has told me this story takes no responsibility for starting it. As they tell it, they either got a text or call from a friend telling them to come outside or that “something was going on,” or they heard the ruckus outside and went to investigate themselves. Cadets began gathering outside. American flags and chemlights appeared. Impromptu chants of “U-S-A!, U-S-A!” broke out all over the campus.

The cadets made their way as a group to the superintendent’s home, which is located right on campus. The superintendent, mind you, is a 3-star General (Lieutenant General). The cadets cheered (SUUUUPPEEE! SPEEECCCCHH!) and eventually the superintendent emerged, leading the cadets in a chant of “U-S-A!” and a rendition of the ROCKET. A bullhorn is passed up to the superintendent who then goes on to say it is a night to celebrate, but it is also a night to remember those who are still in the fight and all of those who died in the past decade. He then gently urges to the cadets to head back to the barracks to laughs and boos.

A bold cadet shouts “NO SCHOOL TOMORROW!”

Another cadet shouts “FUCK AL-QAEDA!” to the “oohs” and a muffled “too much” from another cadet.

Things are getting out of control. There’s a struggle happening between the senior officers’ desire to allow the cadets to celebrate (and them wanting to celebrate themselves) and measuring the event with a dose of discipline, respect, and maturity.

The night continues to spin. The cadets move about en masse, hurling toilet paper around. Green chemlights are waved and thrown as at a rave. Small fires burn casting an eerie glow over the cadets.

Someone douses a printer in lighter fluid, sets it ablaze, and sends it out a window.

The cadets sing the Star-Spangled Banner.

I imagine classes resumed pretty much as normal the next morning. Such a strange place, where in the evening things can be completely out of control, and the next morning, order and discipline.

middle east

The Post-9/11 Veteran and Middle East Studies


When people ask me what my major in college was and I tell them Middle East studies, they almost always follow up with “was it because you went to Iraq?”

The answer is yes. That is exactly why.

I remember very clearly, sitting in decrepit telecommunications building in Baghdad sometime during the summer of 2003, scouting for a supposed truck loaded with rockets while having a conversation with a buddy about “what to do when we get out.” It struck me that had we known more about Iraq, the Iraqi people, and the language, we would have had an easier time getting things done there.

So as a pragmatic solution to a complicated problem, I thought it would be good to study the Middle East in college.

When I left the military I dealt with all of the normal transition issues that most veterans face – getting money, dealing with the VA, interacting with civilians, hyper-awareness. On top of that, I jumped head first into the academic world of Middle East Studies, which has its own subculture of norms and biases that are difficult to navigate, even for the most well-adjusted student.

Over the years I’ve had a number of strange experiences as a post-9/11 veteran Middle East Studies student. These often came in the form of anti-military tirades from both professors and students, but sometimes were more intimate interactions. There was the time a graduate student in a class of mine casually dismissed General Petraeus and members of the military as akin to the Nazis; the time a girl in a history class thought only “thirty or something” soldiers had died in the Iraq war; a very uncomfortable exchange with my Middle East Studies professor in Egypt when she learned I had served in Iraq – she visibly became uncomfortable, shifting in her seat and suddenly ending the converation; being asked by a good professor to talk about my Iraq war experience to add color and context to a class, which was probably helpful for them but odd for me. The list goes on.

Six years ago, when we were still knee-deep in Iraq, Middle East Studies scholar Marc Lynch wrote a a couple of articles on the topic (here and here). He was generally optimistic about the idea of veterans pursuing the field.

When they enter academic programs, these veterans will (and already do) bring a great deal of on-the-ground experience to the classroom and to their research. Many will (and do) enter their programs with far more advanced language skills than did earlier generations of students, although perhaps with more familiarity with colloquial spoken dialects than with Modern Standard Arabic (reversing a common traditional pattern). Their point of reference will be (and is) Iraq and the Gulf, not Israeli-Palestinian affairs, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, or other areas where a great number of current faculty began their encounters with the region. And they will have much greater familiarity and comfort with military and security issues than do many currently in the field.

In my experience, I think that prediction is accurate. As a graduate student, despite wanting to, it was hard to focus on Iraq because of the lack of source material. In the general Middle East Studies literature, Iraq is often left out, its history put on hold due-to-war.

In response to Marc Lynch’s article, commenters posited other points, which I think are also true.

“I wonder if you are not overly sanguine about the likely result of the influx of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. I agree that many will have a tremendous amount to offer. But what has tended to bother me is how instrumental some of their perspectives tend to be. I’ve taught many returning vets as a professor at the National War College from 2004 to 2006 and at Georgetown’s Security Studies Program since 1997 (fulltime 1997 to 2004, as an adjunct since). And for every one who has a rich and granular understanding and an ability to put his experience in some sort of broader analytical perspective, I have three who have great experience but whose insights run to: “here’s how to get Arabs (or Afghans) to do what I want.” They have instrumental knowledge, but not necessarily the kind of empathy that is conducive to kind of positive outcome you envisage.

History is, unfortunately, not always kind to the notion that experience as a occupier translates into durable understanding. The Brits had plenty of career colonial administrators and soldier, as did the French. I am not really sure that their often voluminous writings on their areas always holds up well. Will they be mostly Bernard Falls or Rudyard Kiplings?”

Even in my most recent deployment in 2014-2015, the amount of boiling down that occurs when discussing “the Afghan” in terms of how to get him to do this or that based on very old stereotypes and ideas is prevalent – even among highly educated officers and NCOs.

I think there is one interesting aspect of the trends you describe that you didn’t touch in your very thoughtful post on veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan joining ME Studies. This is that, given the current generational composition of the professoriate in the field (the senior professors being mainly of the Vietnam and post-Vietnam generations) and the ideological and philosophical views that dominate amongst its membership regarding the US’s role in the world, the bias or prejudice these veterans might face in the classroom is most likely to come from their professors, not their fellow students. Like many folks, I sat through a lot of tirades on US imperialism and perfidy in college classes over the years, as well as many manifestations of the denigration of government service and antimilitary prejudices that pervade US academia overall. I never had a reason to take it personally, and of course US policy should be discussed and debated, but for a veteran it will feel awfully personal. So it’s a challenge faculty should keep in mind, to be more sensitive and thoughtful in their dealings with their students, to recognize the value of students’ experiences and perspectives coming from government service, and to avoid alienating this generation of potentially very rich contributors to the field.”

As the commenters above noted, there is an extra challenge for the veteran navigating Middle East Studies precisely because there is a generally speaking, an anti-imperialist bent in the discourse. That’s not to say that veteran MES students are imperialists, but as I once told a professor who asked, for a veteran who fought in Iraq, whether he agrees with the war or not, he or she left something there, and to hear it casually dismissed as a mistake can feel extremely personal.

Over the years, I’ve only met a handful of other student veterans who pursued Middle East Studies. They almost all followed a similar path to myself, interested in learning more because of their wartime experience. Having been out of school since 2011, I’m not sure how many student veterans took this path. The VA could probable produce the number based on GI Bill date paired with their declared majors.

With both Iraq and Afghanistan significantly scaled down in terms of American military action, I wonder what effect that will have on veterans who leave the service and pursue an education. The Middle East is no more well-understood now than it was six years ago, and with the Arab Spring, the rise of ISIS, and the war in Syria, we are no closer to figuring it all out. I finished graduate school in the midst of the Arab Spring, and it was wildly perplexing to students and teachers alike, who spoke in class about long-standing and seemingly intractable dictatorships that were suddenly crumbling. I wonder if current discourse in the classroom is hyper-focused on the contemporary situation. I hope it’s not, because I think understanding “how we got here” is important in figuring out “how to get out of here.”

life lesson

Tactical Patience: Let the battle develop

The Thick of It

About 2/3 through my first deployment to Iraq, my unit went to the middle of the desert somewhere outside of Baghdad to train. It seemed really stupid at the time. We were literally deployed to a war, and to most of the junior soldiers (myself included) the fact that we had been a part of the initial invasion validated us as permanently trained. Training while at war just didn’t seem to make much sense.

As a junior NCO, I thought I knew everything there was to know about being a good tactical leader.

Looking back at it now, I realize just how much I didn’t know. And training while at war  is much more understandable.

As part of the training, we did a live fire training exercise that consisted of a squad attack on a bunker. Our weapons squad was attached, so they’d be using their machine guns to help. At the time, I didn’t really understand how my fire team fit into the bigger picture. I thought that if I could shoot, and my guys could shoot, and we could perform our tasks violently and aggressively, we’d be successful and win.

During the attack, the weapons squad opened up fire on the bunker and my squad leader released me to flank to one of the sides with my team. I’d call the shift fire and lift fire, and then we’d assault the bunker.

I moved quickly and made the calls. The firing stopped, my team rushed the bunker and we knocked out the bunker.

Within a few moments, ENDEX was called. I was pleased with how aggressively and violently we’d moved. We took the bunker quickly and it felt like a success.

In the AAR, the main topic of discussion was why we didn’t let the weapons squad fire up the bunker more.

“Who called the shift and lift fire?”

“I did,” I responded, confidently.

“Why didn’t you let the weapons squad fire more?”

“Uh, I figured it was better to knock out the bunker faster. Shock value, before the enemy knew what was going on.”

“Ok. Good initiative, but bad judgement. You have to have tactical patience. Let the weapons squad prep the objective a little bit beforehand. Don’t just rush the bunker. Let the battle develop.”

That was the first time I had heard the phrase “tactical patience” or “let the battle develop.” During a firefight, there is a tendency to want to move quickly and get things done in a hurry. The chaos, noise, and energy elevates your heart rate, and the fear and physical exertion pushes the action. For leaders who have to make important life and death decisions under these conditions, exercising “tactical patience” can mean the difference between life and death, success or failure.

Tactical patience is simply taking a moment before making an important decision to confirm that it actually is what you want to do. It’s easy to say, but much harder to do in practice.

In the example above, I would have exercised tactical patience if I understood how effective the weapons squad could be in degrading the bunker and felt more comfortable sitting there, waiting, while the bullets flew and noise filled my ears. In those moments, seconds feel like minutes. For the calm observer behind us, watching, he sees a much different picture. Because he isn’t “in” the fight, he’s able to assess from a removed position. A good leader is able to exercise that level of detachment while being in the fight himself – something that comes from a high level of self-awareness and experience.

While tactical patience obviously has great applicability in the military, I’ve found it useful in a number of situations outside its original intended scope. I try to exercise tactical patience before making a major purchase, for example. Something that I’m just about certain I want to buy one moment becomes suddenly less desirable if I’m able to resist the urge for just a day or two. When it comes to writing, I’m often tempted to “just post it” when I get done with the first draft. It seems good enough, after all. When I’m able to resist that urge and show some tactical patience, I find that upon second look I’ll often make some significant edits before publishing.

In college, I had a professor who was a former foreign service officer. He spoke about the constant writing he did as part of his routine duties. For most of his peers, their first draft was their final draft. He strongly encouraged us to start writing early – just get something down – and slowly polish it and grind it out as time goes on. Resist the urge, he pushed, to give a great first effort and submit. Rather, get it down, save it as a draft, and come back to it later. In time, ideas and input that may have not been evident initially might present themselves. Let the battle develop.

Conversely, if tactical patience is misapplied, you might find yourself in a position where you didn’t move quickly enough, or you may appear to be dithering. The same goes with “letting the battle develop.”

Exercising tactical patience and letting the battle develop are two little Army-isms that have helped me get along, both in the military and out of it. With practice, experience, and confidence, they can be used to great effect in regular life.