Mad Max, ISIS, and the Psychological Aspects of War

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I saw Mad Max over Memorial Day weekend. The reviews do it justice, and it was a fun movie. The whole film is an ode to our baser desires; adrenaline, rock and roll, and killing.

There’s an egregious amount of skulls on display throughout the film. Skulls are used as ornamentation on the grills of cars, as masks, and as the chief symbol of the War Boys.

The movie prodded me to write about something in a more forward way than I have before. I’ve always been interested in the question “why we fight.” I’ve tackled it before and have always hinted at the fact that some people (lots of people) do it because they like it. They want to do it because it’s fun. This is a psychological aspect of war that is often ignored or dismissed.

Seeing all of the skulls in the deserts of Mad Max reminded me of my ISOF GOLD posts, especially the ones where the operators are wearing skull masks. If you scroll through the pictures on the ISOF Facebook page, you’ll notice they’re trying to project an image of their military that isn’t simply professional; they are attempting to instill fear into their enemies. There are no FRG updates or holiday BBQ plans – just war. The skull mask imagery is all over the place, and it’s not uncommon to see an ISOF soldier wielding an axe or machete. On some of the “unofficial” ISOF pages – and occasionally on the main page – you’ll find pictures of ISOF soldiers posing triumphantly over the dead bodies of supposed members of ISIS.

A recent article about American forces in Iraq assisting with training highglighted the phrase “kill Daesh” as being the chant used by Iraqi recruits as the de-facto motto, the thing they scream when they’re called to attention or stick a bayonet into the chest of a training dummy.

The skull mask, the chants, wearing an infidel patch – these are all small aspects of the psychological draw to war that are stymied by the modern profesional military. Which, by the way, I think is a good thing. Emotion in war leads to war crimes. The professional military is clinical, and emotions are supposed to be controlled. Others have tackled this issue by highlighting our own military’s obsession with referring to ourselves as warriors instead of soldiers. They argue (and I agree) that to think of ourselves as warriors is unprofessional at best, and dangerous at worst.

But the thing that draws a professional soldier to urinate on the dead bodies of his enemies, to slap an infidel patch on the front of his body armor, or pull a skull mask over her face before a patrol comes from a real place in the human psyche. It’s part of the same base emotion that has us cheering when the opposing side’s star quarterback is carted off the field with a game-ending injury. It’s emotion and absence of mind.

Secretary of Defense Ash Carter recently attributed the Iraqis’ inability to hold Ramadi to a lack of will. He said “What apparently happened is the Iraqi forces just showed no will to fight. They were not outnumbered. In fact, they vastly outnumbered the opposing force.”.

The psychological aspects of war, having a reason to fight, even if for the most base reasons, might be necessary if you lack a more sophisticated reason for getting in the arena.

Having introduced this topic on the blog, I’ll try to come back to it from time to time when something comes up. As always, I welcome your comments.

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The Fire of COIN is Gone

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As I was getting out of the Army in 2006, the debate about “how to win” in Iraq and Afghanistan was heating up, and counter-insurgency (COIN) was gaining traction as the “graduate level of war.” As a college student who liked to read about what was going on in Iraq and Afghanistan, it was an interesting time. I enjoyed reading about junior officers struggling to make an impact, and the importance of the strategic corporal.” I told friends that getting out of the Army in 2006 felt a lot like being taken out of the game at halftime and having to watch the rest from the sidelines.

COIN was hot. Very smart and eager men and women ground themselves to the bone trying to figure out what it was and how to employ it. It provided an organizing purpose to be excited about. Field manuals, books, debates, blogs, dreamy instructional videos – it was the constant topic of the day.

And now it’s dead.

No one is really talking about “winning” anymore, because the wars just kind of faded away. Back in the Army, no one is really talking about COIN or strategy. We lack that kind of overarching purpose to drive us on.

In the midst of cutbacks, drawdowns, and realignments, I think I am starting to see a trend towards what the “next big thing” is in terms of organizing principle, something to get excited about. It seems that what the Army struggles with today is how to satisfy all of the ever-increasing demands placed on it while still empowering junior leaders and building lethal teams. It’s not as exciting as COIN, and it doesn’t get any cool monikers like “the graduate level of war,” but effective management in the 21st century Army seems to be the holy grail. It feels like in order to accomplish everything that is being asked, something (and likely, many things) have to fall off the table.

The new COIN isn’t getting simply back to basics, exactly, but more like figuring out what a true modern Army looks like, how we train, and how we fight. If the wars never happened, what would the Army have become? It feels like that’s where we are, or where we’re trying to get to.

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Afghanistan Adventures

I imagine a time when this intersection was always busy.

With post-deployment leave over, I thought I’d wrap up the end of war with a single post, pulling in whatever was significant over the past year, and some thoughts that seem relevant.

Of course, the actual deployment started long before actually deploying. Once the word came down that we were going, there’s an instant gravitational pull to start reading and studying. I began the End of War Reading List as an attempt to get a grasp on what one might expect as the end of a war nears. Before deploying, I wrote about how strange it was to be preparing to deploy to a war that we knew was coming to and end, all while other officers were being handed pink slips and the writing on the wall told of a coming smaller force.

Pre-deployment musings generated this popular post on “why we fight.” The answer: force protection.

Keeping with the Game of Thrones theme, the Battle of Castle Black seemed remarkably familiar to what a deployment to a small outpost can feel like.

And then, the deployment actually began.

I wasn’t really sure if I was going to be able to post while overseas. My last deployment was in 2005, and I quickly learned that things had changed significantly and war in 2014 comes with a 3G data plan for your smartphone (not really, you have to pay for it). I had my own room and I had nearly 100% reliable WiFi from my quarters. And if I didn’t, there was always a green line somewhere nearby. It became clear, rather quickly, that the standard model of soldier morale (chow, mail, pay) was changing.

I read a lot about Major Gant.

I also read about the careful balancing of humanity and iron discipline in maintaining a lethal force.

After almost 20 years, I finally finished Tactics Ogre, and continued to pull amazing lessons from it.

Working for 9 months straight confirmed to me why deployment experience actually matters, and why it is so valuable.

The M9 continues to serve as the Army’s vanity weapon (I’m not saying I didn’t have one, I’m just saying).

I published a longform version of the Battle of As Samawah after it was rejected somewhere else.

9/11 in Afghanistan was like any other day.

FOBs are kept running by an unseen, mysterious bevy of small green insect looking creatures.

I thought a lot about drones – and how they are our Magitek Armor.

I tracked down Richard Johnson while passing through Bagram, and he graciously drew a sketch of me, which was rapidly corrected.

I got seriously good at PowerPoint.

The absurdity of war continued to fascinate me. The axiom “pics or it didn’t happen” became ultra-apparent, and I was pleased to learn that the Taliban follow the same general guidelines.

Nostalgia floweth over.

I discovered my new favorite military force, and pondered the role of “hate” in war.

I got really, really sick and then the war ended (over and over again).

The platoon leader is responsible for all the platoon does or fails to do. 

American Sniper came out. I still haven’t seen it.

We all feared the reaper.

As the deployment came to a close, the Universal Truths of Relief in Place were once again, confirmed.

We waited and waited. And waited.

And then we came home, and the adjustment period began.

Last week, the May-June issue of Military Review was released and a piece that I co-authored was published there highlighting some of the steps our platoon took in operating resiliency at the platoon level.

Interestingly, and somewhat surprisingly, our NTC experience and all of the troubles and gripes that accompanied it, was actually validated by the deployment. Of course, we were only at NTC for a month, but it did a good job at replicating a lot of the problems we would face in Afghanistan. In many ways, it was easier to accomplish some things in Afghanistan than it was at NTC – which is good.

I’m not sure it’s all over. There are no clean breaks.

Leave is over, work begins, and everyone is still adjusting.

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Afghanistan Post Mortem: Moments of Dread and Waiting

Not much to say on this, other than there are often moments during a deployment where there is an event, there is a report, and there is a lot of time spent waiting for the other foot to drop. What is going to be the result of this? Who is going to get fired?

What may have seemed like a big deal in the moment may be ridiculously insignificant by the time it makes its way up the flagpole. Other times the lamest things become huge deals.

The recent infusion of the immediacy of communication in a deployed zone heightens this phenomenon.

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Afghanistan Post-Mortem: Adhan during a mortar attack

Oh puh-leaz.

Early one morning, sleep was interrupted by a mortar attack.

Generally speaking, the scariest part of an indirect fire attack is the adrenaline spike that occurs as a result of alarm – something I experienced during the Scud attacks of early 2003 as well. The speed in which someone needs to launch a mortar attack while also avoiding being killed in a counter-attack – usually – prevents any reliable accuracy.

So the alarm goes off and you kind of wait for the boom, and imagine for a half-second what it would be like for a fist sized piece of shrapnel to come flying at your neck.

I was already awake, getting ready to go to the gym. The mortar exploded with a dull thud far from our area, and the platoon went back to sleep. I started walking to the guard towers to check on the guys. As I was walking, I heard the the low melodic sound of the adhan, the Islamic call to prayer, drifting through the still night from a nearby mosque.

I remember physically laughing at how cliché that was.

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