Going to the “Dark Place”: The Role of Hate in War

Commando Noir

I almost missed this post at Kings of War from last week on the role of “hate” in war. It starts off with a simple assertion from an officer:

When I was replacing the outgoing Infantry battalion in eastern Afghanistan in 2010, an outgoing staff officer and I were casually discussing life, combat, and the year ahead. He said something that stuck with me throughout my second deployment, “You know, if you want to be successful here (in Afghanistan), you have to keep hate in your heart.”

Shortly before this deployment to the same place, I remember sitting in on a briefing describing the conditions and the operational tempo of the unit we would be replacing. There were no frills; the unit we were replacing was getting into contact almost daily. I scribbled down notes and watched slide after slide go by with all kinds of ominous photos and statistics. As the lights came on and everyone stood to get up, I turned to an NCO and said “Well, looks like it’s time to go back to the dark place.” He grimaced, then took a deep breath and gave me a nod, and then we went to lunch.

As the deployment loomed, I remember tearing my garage apart, pulling out old gear from previous deployments that I never thought I’d have to use again. Knives and pouches. My workouts became more aggressive.

I haven’t really given the concept of the “dark place” much thought other than the fact that it felt like the right thing to say at the time after that briefing. As the Kings of War piece points out, it’s very difficult to be appropriately aggressive in a mechanical way without turning on the hate. In the piece, the author points out the French Foreign Legion as an example of an aggressive but disciplined force.

This reminds me of another concept that might be easier to swallow. There are a number of physical fitness events in the Army that you can do well in (or barely pass) not through being in great shape, but through “digging deep” and “letting it all out” on the day of the event. The twelve mile foot march can be muscled through – with great pain – if the marcher is out of shape or hungover. You can also squeeze out a sub-thirteen minute two mile run even if you haven’t been training for awhile. You’ll pay for it at the finish line by throwing up, but if you have the intestinal fortitude, it can be done. Of course, you can just train regularly (which requires discipline) and be in great shape and manage these same feats with much less pain and suffering. In the same vein, one can be an effective soldier without harboring “hate” for the enemy if he takes pride in soldiering. Turning to hate as a mechanism for mission accomplishment is like turning to the bottle to deal with your problems – it will eventually backfire.

This whole discussion is related to the “why we fight” question I find so interesting. There’s not really a good answer right now, so any time there’s a piece of the puzzle floating around, I like to grab it and throw it in the pile for the future.

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Together Strong: Tackling PTSD and Suicide through the Mass Effect conversation wheel

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Honestly, when I first heard of the Together Strong App, it looked terribly boring and similar to the myriad of mandatory computer based trainings soldiers are forced to endure to meet mandatory training requirements. Still, given it sits at the intersection of the military world and gaming, I thought I should give it a fair shot before dismissing it.

I downloaded the App for iPhone (free) and launched it. It asked for some basic information; zip code, service status (active, veteran, etc.), gender (to include trans and other) and age. Then it launched into an introduction of the character you would be role playing as, a well-adjusted Marine who transitioned into the civilian world, not without his own transition issues though. After a brief introduction – which seemed a little long, actually, for the ADHD-induced norm of smartphone gaming – I began a conversation with ‘Hector,’ a veteran who is normally outgoing that suddenly stopped returning phone calls and text messages.

For a game whose chief action is conversation, it’s actually done pretty well. The characters speak in a manner you’d expect from veterans – often a little rough around the edges without being cheesy. You are given options on what to say next based on previous choices. Thankfully, there is no clear “right” answer, and unlike a lot of the similar mandatory training games soldiers go through, you are not fenced in to take a certain path. There are multiple “good” answers and often the best answers are the ones that don’t really accomplish anything but simply moves the conversation along, gets the characters talking.

The conversation system here is very similar to the conversation wheel used in Mass Effect – it’s never exactly clear what the reaction of the characters are going to be when you choose to say something – which makes the conversation actually exciting. There was a point in which I called out Hector for trying to solve his problems with booze, to which he reacted aggressively and defensively with me. Unlike Mass Effect, however, there are no quick-button triggers to go Renegade on poor Hector.

In this first conversation, it becomes apparent that Hector has been thinking of killing himself and you are presented with the option of asking the hard question: “Are you thinking of killing yourself?” Army leaders who have participated in ASIST suicide intervention training will know that that question is one the most important steps in intervening in a potential suicide. Hector admits that he has, and then you are presented with more options on what to do next.

I don’t want to reveal too much about the conversation – it’s worth exploring on your own. As a “player” you are awarded with stars throughout the conversation if you manage to steer it the right way. I’m not sure if it’s possible to “lose” in a conversation – I only went through it once and managed to get all five stars.

The dialogue, for its part, seems pretty realistic. It’s not sugar coated or overly emotional. It sounds like two veterans talking, curses and all.

The first conversation, including setup and introduction took me about 20 minutes to get through. I actually felt pretty engaged while playing, but admittedly, this isn’t something I’d play on a subway train to work or for “fun” to blow off steam. It felt akin to learning a skill, something I was doing to better myself at handling these types of conversations, which I’ve faced in real life many times – often choosing the wrong things to say.

When the conversation ended, there was a dialogue box that asked me to check it if I’d like to be reminded in a week to do the next conversation. I thought that was a nice touch, because now I don’t feel forced to sit and continue more conversations, but would like to explore it more at a later time. When I get the reminder, I’ll do it.

The App is joint project between the NY/NJ Veterans Affairs Health Network and Kognito. There’s a bunch of research behind the software and the methodology which says its effective. You can read more about that here. Important to note is that the App is free until December 31, 2014, at which time it’s unclear how much it will cost (just download it now).

Obviously, this App isn’t going to appeal to everyone. There are lots of folks that will immediately be turned off to it because no matter how much lip service it gets, there is still a stigma attached to seeking care for mental health. However, if you’re an Army leader, I urge you to at least download the App. Let it sit on your phone and when you get a quiet moment and nothing is going on, open it up and give it a few minutes of your time. That’s what I did and I was surprisingly impressed. You might even gain a valuable skill or two on handling these situations in the future, which you are sure to encounter.

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Major, you are the most insubordinate officer I have ever met!

The headline here is the top search term of the week, which led the searcher(s) to my reaction to American Spartan, the book that chronicles the journey of retired Major Jim Gant in Afghanistan. It’s odd, because I don’t use the phrase in the article and I’m not even sure it turns up in the book. The phrase also reminded me of something that may have been in Lawrence of Arabia, but a Google search turned up nothing on that.

Incidentally, as far as I can tell, the quote is actually from the 1996 movie SGT Bilko starring Steve Martin. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen the movie, but considering I’ve written before about how movies of that genre – making fun of the military – have become less appropriate (which is a bad thing), it might be worth watching.

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Press X to Pay Respects: The absurdity of war in one stupid prompt

cod

I have never been a big Call of Duty fan, but as a military gamer I know how popular it is both at large and in the military community. Word has spread about the now infamous “funeral scene” in which the player is prompted to “pay respects” by holding F or X, depending on the gaming platform. I’ve read a number of short pieces on it, mostly deriding the scene as a cheap gimmick by quick-button prompting a funeral on one hand and disrespectful to veterans on the other.

I usually don’t get worked up over things like this, and honestly, I’m not worked up over this either. I’ve written aggressively in the past defending the right to depict war in art – even if that art is in the form of a video game. No one has a monopoly on the right to discuss or depict war – it is a human condition, not simply the purview of military folk and veterans. The funeral sequence is in the game and it will be played by millions of people. It is there and it is done. There will be no calls to pitchforks from me.

However, I do think that the funeral prompt perfectly encapsulates how far we’ve come in the meaninglessness of “support the troops” slogans and “thank you for your service” accolades. In that one short sequence, the death of a Marine is used as a plot device – fair enough. But the prompt to “Pay Respects” by simply pressing a button with no understanding of what that means is troubling. How exactly will I “pay respects” once I hold the X button? Will I break down and cry? Will I silently think something solemn and vow to live a good life? To avenge his death? Or is the simple act of pressing X enough to satisfy it all. What if nothing happens? That’s it? Where’s the explosion!?

Conversely, by choosing not to press the X button am I paying disrespect?

I can imagine a player out there, somewhere, who is a strong opponent of America’s wars in foreign lands, but who happens to love the rush of playing first person shooters. This fictional person believes that anyone stupid enough to join the military in a time of unpopular war deserves no sympathy, and perhaps deserves to be punished for knowingly choosing to serve. When prompted to pay respects, he or she will choose not to do so – a jab at the dead Marine and a nod to his own self-righteousness. His way of taking back control of something he has absolutely no control over – US foreign policy.

Even the term “pay respects” bothers me. I know we say it from time to time, “have you paid your respects?” or “you should go pay your respects” for example. But the way the phrase awkwardly floats there over the silent funeral begging you to push it as everyone sits there waiting for you to make a decision feels so forced and a little gross. Absent of the context of an actual conversation, “Pay Respects” as an action sounds stupid and even a little cute, in the same vein as people who talk about “getting on the Twitterz” or “internets”; the needless pluralization of words to be playful.

Thinking on it, the funeral scene is not a departure of the Call of Duty franchise from its realistic depiction of combat, because it has never featured a realistic depiction of combat. It has always been a cartoon, a caricature of combat. The funeral scene is no different, except for the fact that the military funeral is a sacred event, especially for the families of the over 6,775 service men and women who have died fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

For Call of Duty though, the funeral is a plot device. Before the player even leaves the funeral, he is approached by a very realistic looking Kevin Spacey character, the father of the slain Marine, who shows little emotion concerning his son’s death and instead invites the player to join his company as the shots of the 21 gun salute ring out in the background. Charming.

Like I said, I’m honestly not worked up about this. If I played Call of Duty, I’d probably laugh at the scene and try to skip past it so I could get back to blowing shit up. I don’t need Call of Duty to kick me in the gut with the feels or prompt me to press X to pay respects. I’ve done it enough for real.

And Kevin Spacey is never there to offer me anything.

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Chow, Mail, and Wi-Fi: Pillars of Modern Soldier Morale

Field Chow

The other day I was having a conversation with another solider about morale, as soldiers tend to do half-way through a deployment. We were having a back-and-forth on the pros and cons of adopting different policies “for the sake of morale.” At some point, I brought up the ancient “three pillars of soldier morale”: chow, mail, and free time.

Now, I’ve actually heard “chow, mail, and pay” as the three before, and that might be true, too. But rules of three are important, and pay is not something junior level leadership can really influence (unless it’s taking it away), so I like to think of the big three as chow, mail, and free time.

I don’t know where these “pillars” originated, although I remember reading about them in reference to the Korean War. General Ridgway was a big proponent the big three. He was keen on ensuring his soldiers got hot chow at least twice a day while fighting the war – and to this day there is no question that hot chow is a morale booster – whether the soldier is in the field or at war. MREs are modern miracles, but there is nothing better than a “fresh” meal served hot in an austere environment.

Mail has always been a morale booster – especially care packages. For most of our history, “mail” meant physical mail; letters and notes, sealed in envelopes and traveling across the world, from the kitchen table in Indiana to a fighting position in Da Nang, Verdun, or Helmand province. For today’s modern soldiers, the physical letter has been aggressively outmatched by email, and to a greater extent, Facebook. I haven’t written a single hard-copy letter since arriving in July – I wrote a half-dozen a day in Iraq in 2003. Take away my ability to get online though, and I would revert back to writing letters, without a doubt.

Free time, or rather, unstructured time, is time for soldiers to do whatever it is that pleases them – movies, video games, reading, staring at the wall for hours – whatever. The point is, if a soldier’s time is micro-managed from the time he wakes up until the time he goes to bed, he will slowly become bitter. For leaders, striking a balance between structured and unstructured time is important, and more of an art than a science. There is no perfect formula. It’s all based on understanding the context, which changes daily. A leader has to sniff out the rhythms and know when to give it some gas and when to let up (and when to shift to neutral!).

Going back to the conversation, when I brought up the classic three pillars, this soldier retorted that “this isn’t World War II or Vietnam,” meaning this model of morale is outdated for the modern soldier. While I certainly agree that this generation of soldiers (like every generation of soldiers) is different from those of the past, I always considered the morale model to be solid and enduring. Is hot chow, reliable mail, and a degree of free time not enough anymore? Do we need to ensure high-speed internet is available at the front lines? Should leaders cave at the requests to relax uniform standards for the sake of “morale?”

My immediate reaction to the idea that today’s soldiers require a different morale model was incredulity – not possible. My thought process has always been that if the big three are being satisfied – chow, mail, free time – then a soldier has no reason to have low morale, personal issues not withstanding.

I let the thought stew for a moment and then, with a flash of humanity, thought that maybe – just maybe – it is possible that for today’s soldier, a different model is required. Context is important here, and while every deployment experience is different (none of my three have been similar), it can generally be said that unless you are on a forward COP or invading a country, counter-insurgency or stability operations lends itself to a higher living standard. Amenities are plenty. Hot showers and hot chow are the norm, not the exception. Mail arrives regularly. War is famously boring, and soldiers usually have ample free time. Those three pillars being met, is it possible for a soldier to then have low morale because he wants more, or that he has grown accustomed to those good things? Like an addict, do we need to inject a stronger medicine to get our fix?

Again, context matters. All of this can be wiped away in an instant with a more austere environment. But I do wonder about the ramifications of a generation of soldiers who are accustomed to bringing their smartphones with them to the field and being at all times, a click away from home. Maybe it’s not all bad. Maybe it’s the worst thing ever.

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