Killing them Softly: Warriors Lost in a Twilight of Sentimentality and Nostalgia

Selfish bastard 

Originally published 21 September 2010 at Kings of War (RIP). Reposted here with the permission of the author. I am thrilled to be able to post this here – it’s one of my favorite pieces on the concept of the ‘warrior’ as archetype. I’ve done my best to restore this post to its orginal form, to include the photo at the top and caption. I did make some edits though – mostly rebuilding links. Enjoy.

Don’t ask me why I read this. But having read it, I cannot refrain from commenting.  

Messenger spends some time looking at the death of Marcel Bigeard and finds in his passing an occasion to indulge in some, well, indulgent sentimentality about the ‘Twilight of the Warrior’. Using Bigeard as both an archetype and a springboard, Messenger laments the death, not of an individual, but of an idea:  

Bigeard thrived in the dirty war (guerre sale) of the postcolonial era, amassing an extraordinary combat record at the head of paratroop units he trained to fight in his image and helping to develop the most successful counter-insurgency strategies of the postwar era. Yet his obituaries this summer were dominated by a continuing dispute within France over the use of torture during the Battle of Algiers in 1957—action sanctioned by the French government of the day. Such is the fate of even the greatest warriors in the West’s post-military popular culture.  

Gone are the days of the butch hero, who took names and kicked ass. Gone are the days where the ends justified the means. Gone are the days of the true warriors…almost:  

What Bigeard…did at the Battle of Dien Bien Phu should be remembered in the way that the 300 Spartans’ defense of the Hot Gates has stirred boys’ dreams for 2,500 years. Few do so remember it, but among their number are the American generals who have been prosecuting our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  

Like who, you ask?  Messenger gives us a clue by opening with a quotation from Stanley McChrystal’s farewell address:  

Caution and cynicism are safe, but soldiers don’t want to follow cautious cynics.  

(McChrystal’s idea of someone whom soldiers would want to follow is perhaps better left to a more apt publication…like Rolling Stone.)  

Aside from these few tortured, unappreciated souls, the rest of us, well, we ‘just don’t get it’. This is the familiar trope found in so much of the current jazz about the ‘warrior caste’ in America. I find the whole thing a little predictable, to be frank, and more than a little pathetic, as my previous posts on this subject on KOW can attest.  

But, for the sake of argument, let’s look at the idea of the warrior for a moment. I want to postulate that despite the veneer of self-sacrifice, the Warrior is actually a narcissistic, self-obsessed figure. (Ed from Kings of War: note that the ’W’ in Warrior is capitalised, to denote the ideal-typical Warrior. This is an editorial change from a previous version of this post, added for clarity’s sake.)  

Achilles, one of the original heros–and perhaps the model for our concept of the heroic warrior today–is portrayed by Homer as a sulking, spoiled, vainglorious prat who refused to fight because he felt under-appreciated and slighted by his king, Agamemnon. It was not until Hector killed his companion Patroclus that Achilles, fuelled by personal feelings of revenge, entered the fray. Alexander, a slightly more historically realistic character, but a stylised warrior hero nonetheless, likewise fought for personal glory:  he is purported to have whined to his father that by the time he was old enough, there would be nothing left of the world to conquer. The Spartan 300 did not die at Thermopylae for the sake of others. They fought to avoid shaming themselves.  

Morris Janowitz, writing in 1964, follows this line of thinking. He states that the biggest obstacle to the ‘constabulary concept’ (essentially, a model of warfare that incorporates what we would now label ‘stabilisation’ operations) is the particular ‘tastes’ of the self-styled warriors in the professional military:  

Heroic leaders…tend to thwart the constabulary concept because of their desire to maintain conventional military doctrine and their resistance to assessing the political consequences of limited military action which do not produce ‘victory.’  [Morris Janowitz, “The Future of the Military Profession,” in Malham M. Wakin, ed. War, Morality, and the Military Profession. 2nd ed., (London: Westview Press, 1986): 59]  

I find it fascinating that ’heroic leaders’ feel that it is legitimate for them to ‘thwart’ anything. They appoint themselves as the guardians of what is ‘proper’: the proper role of the military; the proper kind of fighting; the proper size of the military budget, etc. Just as Achilles feels that he can pick and choose his battles according to his own preferences, so does the contemporary warrior hero. McChrystal’s words in his French hotel room, as reported in Rolling Stone, are reminiscent of the cossetted Achilles in his tent.  

Perhaps the contemporary warrior believes that the Greek notion of the warrior hero, as exemplified by Achilles, is so powerful that it is deserving of the Roman epithet ‘quod ubique, quod semper, quod ab omnibus creditum est’. To think so would be to ignore an important aspect of the Greek hero. His role was not immortal and everlasting; indeed, quite the contrary. He was the exemplar of a particular image of Greek society at the time. He is an idealised creature tied to the particular values esteemed by those in Greek society who held ideological or normative power and could set the agenda, with regards to meaning, norms, and practices. Just as Zeus knew that he would eventually lose his position as the king of the heavens, so too the Greek hero’s days were numbered.  

There is no global, objective definition of what it means to be a warrior, despite the existence of a persistent Classical narrative, largely based on readings of Greek epics. As Christopher Coker admits, “morality is embedded in a social context. Ethical codes are not arrived at by universal agreement any more than they are discovered by universal reason.” [Christopher Coker, The Warrior Ethos: Military Culture and the War on Terror. (London: Routledge, 2007): 146.]  

But, the hero’s defenders would cry, that is just the problem. There is nothing wrong with the hero, it is the society that is flawed. Messenger reminds this in his article when he says:  

As so often when political issues are intertwined with military, hindsight is blind.  

Now, dear reader, you know where this post is headed, don’t you?  

Just as the Greek hero did not exist solely on the battlefield, but also in the agora, the contemporary soldier cannot retreat from reality into the cocoon of rock’em sock’em action. He, too, must exist in the real, shabby world of workaday normality: with mortgages, MTV, and misaligned morals. Clausewitz (of course!) entreated us to bear this in mind:  

War is not an independent phenomenon, but the continuation of politics by different means…According to this point of view, there can be no question of a purely military evaluation of a great strategic issue, nor of a purely military scheme to solve itNevertheless, it has not yet been fully accepted, as is shown by the fact that people still like to separate the purely military elements of a major strategic plan from its political aspects, and treat the latter as if they were somehow extraneous. War is nothing but the continuation of political efforts by other means…It is this principle that makes the entire history of war comprehensible, which in its absence remains full of the greatest absurdities. [See this familiar message stated not in On War, but in Clausewitz’s private correspondence here.)  

Even if it worked for Achilles and Alexander, it cannot work today. Soldiers do not fight the wars they want, the way they want. They must fight the wars their masters want, the way their masters want. As one military observer noted, after interviewing officers returning from operations in the Balkans in the 1990s:  

What it means to ‘feel good’ about being a soldier should now have an expanded dimension. The traditional warrior ethic and the comments of ‘wasting their time with peacekeeping’…must change. The soldiers who complain of not ‘feeling the hero’… as a result of humanitarian service must not be encouraged to cling to…obsolete expectations.  

As Janice Gross Stein observed, as she confronted foreign policy makers reluctant to make policy in the topsy-turvy post-Cold War world:  

Well, get a life! Frankly! [The world] is disorderly, messy and disorganized, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have policy. [Janice Gross Stein, “Policy Is Messy Because The World Is Messy. Get Used To It.” Policy Options.  January-February 2001: 73.]  

We cannot afford to allow ‘warriors’ fight the wars that make them ‘feel good’. In the West, as Michael Mann points out, we moved, long ago, from a schema were the military is an “insulated caste” to one where it is a “political institution…answerable to parliament” [Michael Mann, The Sources of Social Power.  Volume II.  CUP, 1993: 62.]  

Where does that leave the warrior?  His choices are two:  

1.  Stay in his tent, like Achilles, waiting for his moment, defeated by his own hamartia, Aristotle’s tragic flaw.  

2.  Disappear altogether, replaced by a new ideal-type, one in keeping with the contemporary values operant in our societies.  

Perhaps the problem, and not the solution, are the Greeks. The Talmud, for instance, adopts the inverse position to that of the Greeks: it defines a hero as one who conquers his urges, rather than giving in to them.  

Now that would be heroic. 

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The “Mother of Special Forces”

Photo of Col. Aaron Bank (credit: arsof-history.org)

Hm. This was a bit surprising. The ‘Boss’ is considered the “Mother of Special Forces” in Metal Gear lore.

“Voyevoda.” Relevant conversation between Johnson and Kruschev begins at 4:06

Fiction, of course. The actual “Father of Special Forces” is Col. Aaron Bank, who died in 2004. Anyone who has gone through special operations training has spent time wandering the halls of the building that carries his name – Bank Hall – at Fort Bragg, NC.

I love how the front door to Metal Gear lore seems legitimate, and then once you step inside it just gets bonkers.

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Operations in the Information Environment: Irregular Warfare Podcast

Wow, that was really good.

The Irregular Warfare podcast (quickly becoming a bump everything, “listen now” podcast) recenlty hosted Dr. Thomas Rid (recent book: Active Measures: The Secret History of Disinformation and Political Warfare) and Lt. Gen. Lori Reynolds (USMC Deputy Commandant for Information). The topic was “competing for influence” and information operations broadly speaking.

Great back and forth and they get into topics in information operations that are often neglected. It’s particularly refreshing to hear a discussion on IO that goes beyond “we’re getting our ass kicked in the information environment.”

We need more conversations like this.

Some choice quotes below.

“There are types of tactics in information operations that democracies should not use…You cannot excel at disinformation and democracy at the same time, because, you have to fight with one hand behind your back.”

Dr. Thomas Rid (emphasis his)

Agree. Democracies have to fight with one hand tied behind their back – and that’s a good thing.

On questions about the need for a new or different cooridinating agency for information operations.

The more that we can infuse this thinking of Multi-Domain Warfare inside our tradional way of command – that would be my preference. I think another stove-piped commander is not necessarily helpful in this area. I think it doesn’t make things faster.

Lt. Gen. Lori Reynolds

Yes! Every year, I see another think-piece calling for a new super-organziation that would serve as the coordinating element for information operations or information warfare or some flavor thereof. It seems like an ‘easy-button’ solution – build a new organization. The organizations we have now work. Lt. Gen. Reynold’s puts it this way: “We have to infuse this thinking and figure how we do this at echelon inside the commands that we have today.

We should focus on building IO thinking into organizations that are effective now. I think this is happening. Sure, it’s slow. But building a new headquarters and then getting the ‘whole of government’ to work with it is 1) expensive, 2) hard to accomplish, and 3) probably ineffective.

On why our adversaries ‘seem’ to be better at this than us.

Our adversaries [China and Russia], from a gray zone perspective, they are a lot more willing to put themselves out there than the United States has been. Call it “willingness to impose friction”

Lt. Gen. Lori Reynolds

This is another area where I think things are changing. Sometimes the face of operations needs to be the American military officer on the ground or the diplomat in country. This is an area where we need to improve, for sure, and I think it starts with setting left and right limits and letting folks go for it. There will be mistakes, but if we do this right, those will be factored in and written off as part of the cost of operating at this level in the IE.

One more from Lt. Gen. Reynolds:

“I think the challenge is in the competition space. How do you action the information environent in great power competition? And to me, I think it starts with definining the measurable objectives you want to get after, [and then] define what success looks like in the information environment.”

Lt. Gen. Lori Reynolds (emphasis mine)

This is so important. Too often, success in the IE is amorphous. “I know it when I’ll see it.” IO professionals need to have conversations with their commanders and build a shared understanding of “what success looks like in the IE.” Is it the adversary getting smeared by the public? Is it a partner force highlighting their own success? Is it praise for government institutions? Having an understanding of what success looks like is paramount – otherwise it is likely you will miss the good stuff if it happens, or find yourself chasing tweets and counting ‘likes.’

Finally, on advice for practicioners, researchers, and policy makers who are approaching this problem set (IW, IO, political warfare, etc.):

“Understanding information operations in the 21st century is impossible without first understanding information operations in the 20th century. Although they happen in a different technological environment, the logic, and sometimes the dynamics have not changed. So for example, the temptation to overstate effects, is a large one.”

Dr. Thomas Rid

He goes on to discuss that the sum of ‘clicks’ and ‘likes’ often leads people to believe (falsely) that IO today may have a greater effect than IO of the past. There is so much to learn from the past.

This episode, coupled with the recent PSYOP deep dive from the PSYWAR podcast is a good indication that this community is coalescing and growing more professional every day.

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PSYOP Deep Dive: PSYOP and the Shining Path

The PSYWAR podcast recently hosted Special Forces Warrant Officer Jason Heeg who researches the Shining Path’s use of psychological warfare in Peru. It’s a deep-dive that also gets into how the Peruvian government employed PSYOP to counter the Shining Path. It’s a great discussion on a niche topic.

To date, the PSYWAR podcast has mostly focused their episodes on paths to joining PSYOP and personal experiences of current PSYOPers. This was a refreshing departure and I hope they do more like this in the future. It’s especially great to hear perspectives (on PSYOP) from folks outside of the PSYOP bubble.

Here is the link to one of Jason’s articles from Special Operations Journal. From the abstract:

Psychological operations are an important component of special operations campaign planning. It is critical for military commanders and staffs to understand the propaganda of the opposing side. This article examines a compelling example of how terrorist organizations use ideology to justify political violence. Unconventional warfare and psychological operations practitioners will be interested in how the Shining Path employed political indoctrination to establish its cadres and build support among the rural and urban masses. What follows is an in-depth look at the Shining Path’s psychological warfare campaign against the people and government of Peru from 1970 to 1992.

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Some recent articles on Chinese political warfare

I’ve been digging into the “Ministry of Truth” series from War on the Rocks discussing Chinese political warfare.

It’s a three part series, and to date, the first two have been released.

Each is packed with links and sources. You can go deep down the rabbit hole if you’re interested in building a better understanding of Chinese political warfare.

A couple of choice excerpts below.

Part I Contrasting China’s and Russia’s Influence Operations.

On the fact that political warfare is “standard operating procedure” for Russia and China:

The operational differences, for all their practical implications, may be less important than the simple recognition that Beijing and Moscow both approach influence operations and active measures as a normal way of doing business. 

On the different approaches Russia/China take in regards to political warfare:

Undoubtedly, more can be said about how to understand the distinctions between Chinese and Russian influence operations and political warfare. Perhaps the best way to describe the differences between the two approaches is that the Chinese are human- or relationship-centric while the Russians are operation- or effects-centric. 

Part II China’s ‘three warfares’ in perspective.

Looking at the PLA in strictly military terms lacks a true understanding of their purpose:

When analysts look at the PLA, they are looking at it as a military — at its warfighting capabilities and the resulting security implications. It is a purely military view that lacks a clear concept for appreciating political warfare.

Influence operations are directly connected to political power:

The party leads, the PLA follows. The purpose of influence operations is political power.

Lessons learned from watching the US in the Persian Gulf war (emphasis in bold mine). I’d love to see more on this, by the way:

The Persian Gulf War to expel Iraq from Kuwait taught the PLA the value and power of information in the modern context. Most obviously, precision-guided bombs blowing out buildings on CNN cameras demonstrated the value of targeting intelligence and guided munitions. However, the PLA also drew lessons from the George H.W. Bush administration’s diplomatic effort to paint Iraq as the aggressor and to rally an international coalition, including Iraq’s Arab neighbors. They also admired the psychological warfare efforts to induce Iraqi commanders to surrender or retreat without fighting.

Related, a short (and kind of choppy) article in Small Wars Journal that couches China’s approach as war, not competition. The author seems to be inferring that we should not be using the “great power competition” construct because our adversaries aren’t.

Image at the top: “The Boss” mentoring “Naked Snake” (MGS3).

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Reflecting on reflecting

I’ve been thinking of the below exchange between retired General Votel and Joe Byerly from the FtGN podcast over the past couple of days (emphasis mine):

Joe: “You alluded to this idea of reflection. Your career was extremely fast-paced… you took a lot of challenging assignments. And so, I was just curious, did you have time to reflect on your career? If so, did that play a role at all?

Gen. Votel: “I did, and I think you’re raising a really great question…. and that is taking time to think through things. I think it’s a really important opportunity just to be able to — I used to call it the opportunity to have a discussion without the burden of having to make a decision.”

From the Green Notebook Podcast, Season 2/Episode 1

We’re so busy these days, and it certainly feels like we need to build in time for reflection.

Reflection, as an activity, is left undefined. I always thought of it as a kind of mindfulness activity. If I was to set aside some time to reflect (which I don’t), I’d imagine myself sitting at my desk, alone, hands folded neatly in my lap as I think about whatever it is that I need “reflect” on.

I don’t think anyone actually does that.

Conversely, I know my mind is at its best when I’m busy and engaged in a stimulating activity – ofen unrelated to the problem. Exercise – especially running – has my mind churning with ideas. Free-wheeling conversation on a focused topic often generates thoughts I didn’t know I had. Even reading a book, I can become lost in a parallel narrative in my mind while reading the words on the page (this, of course, is disrtaction – but sometimes it too generates ideas).

It does then, make sense to build in time for these types of activities and count them as reflection.

In a military context, scheduling time to discuss a problem or issue “without the burden of making a decision” seems like a good technique to foster reflection – as a group. Important here, is that everyone who is participating understands that. It’s no good to have a discussion on an issue to foster thought and reflection only to have it turn into another “information brief” to please the boss.

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Reflection, the “basics,” and role modeling as mentorship: General Votel on FtGN podcast

My podcast diet is out of control. There’s so much good content and I add new podcasts to my “up next” list daily and mostly never get to them.

I have not listened to From the Green Notebook’s podcast until this morning. I’m a fan of General (Ret.) Votel, though, and when I saw that he was the interviewee for episode 1/season 2 of their podcast, I decided to give it a shot.

Great podcast with lots of insight! I like the duo approach to the interview and especially appreciated Joe’s questions – most of which bypassed thoughts on grand strategy or comments on current operations, but instead focused on “how” a leader like General Votel manages himself.

Those types of questions are often avoided when senior military leaders are interviewed.

I’ve captured some of the excerpts that resonated with me below.

On the importance of setting aside time for reflection:

Joe: “You alluded to this idea of reflection. Your career was extremely fast-paced… you took a lot of challenging assignments. And so, I was just curious, did you have time to reflect on your career? If so, did that play a role at all?

Gen. Votel: “I did, and I think you’re raising a really great question…. and that is taking time to think through things. I think it’s a really important opportunity just to be able to — I used to call it the opportunity to have a discussion without the burden of having to make a decision.”

They go on to talk about the importance of conversation and deep-dives as reflection.

This struck me, because I think when people hear the term “reflection” or building time to reflect – especially in a senior leader context, they envision the leader sitting along in his or her office, staring out the window and pondering the great questions of life.

I don’t know anyone who does that. Hearing General Votel couch reflection as a process of conversation, however, resonated with me. I know that I do my best reflection when I’m engaged in some other activity – exercise, free-wheeling conversation, or just watching a movie or playing a video game. Thoughts come to me and being away from the problem – whatever it is – provides the space for that reflection.

Discussing the similarities and differences of serving as the Commander of JSOC/SOCOM/CENTCOM:

“When it comes to leadership, the basics matter.”

Gen (Ret.) Votel

This is so true.

Earlier in my career, a General officer I worked for was adamant that everything you need to know about serving in the Army you learn in your first three years – from there it’s just refinement. I believe that. Yes, there are skills that you pick up along the way that take time – but the things that matter – those basics – you learn them early. If you can learn them, reinforce them, and grow, that’s how you get really good.

Another great question from Joe:

“Sir, you mentioned when you were talking about your emotions, you talked about shock…. and as leaders, we don’t always get the news that we thought we were going to get, and we still have to lead through that. Thinking back on those days in December [Syria withdrawal decision], was there anything that you did inparticular, like go in an office and shut the door, or sit down and write something down in your notebook to collect your thoughts? You had to quickly get over that shock to lead throught it.”

Joe Byerly (emphasis mine)

I love that question. “What did you actually do?” Not in terms of the decision you made or grand plan that unfurled, but as a human, what did you do in response to that? We’re all human after all – even combatant commanders.

On role modeling (and observation) as mentorship:

“I have a tendency to think about mentorship not so much as just ‘mentorship,’ but I have a tendency to think of it as role modeling – ‘role modeling-ship’ for example. To me, that has been the most influential thing in my military career – is watching how other people have handled things and internalizing that.”

Gen (Ret.) Votel

General Votel goes on to discuss how observing can teach you what to do and what not to do. True.

Towards the end (about 34:00 minute mark), Joe raises a great question about books or “scenes” that stick with you as a way to think about the military profession – especially as it relates to going to war. He goes on to talk about a scene from the book Gates of Fire that symbolizes leaving the family man behind as you go off to war and only bringing the military man – the one who can “kill another human being.”

It’s a great frame for a question, and it reminded me of these old CTG posts (going to the “dark place” and “why we fight.”)

And now I’m a subscriber!

You can listen to the podcast here and subscribe there as well.

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Clash of Loyalties

I came across this short video on the Iraqi film “Clash of Loyalties.” It was part of Saddam’s effort to shape perceptions of the Iraqi state, this one with an eye towards an international audience. It’s a bonkers story. The film features British movie star Oliver Reed who spends much of his time boozing in Baghdad bars during the shoot. The whole thing was shot during the Iran-Iraq war and Saddam insisted that filming continue to project a sense of normalcy.

The film is about the early days of Iraqi state formation and features well-known figures of the time, including Percy Cox and Gertrude Bell. It’s a fascinating story that has really only been told through books, mostly memoir. T.E. Lawrence is the more well known orientalist of the day because of the Arab revolt in the Hijaz, but the political scheming of Cox and Bell would have a more significant and long-lasting impact on Iraq and the region.

The political intrigue stems from “who” would control Iraq – a struggle between the British colonial service’s Cairo office and India office with little thought towards the Iraqis themselves.

Looking at it now, the episode looks very similar to a combatant command rivalry. 

The film was never released in the West, but through the magic of the internet, you can watch it on YouTube. It’s mostly in English, but there are some drawn out scenes fully in Arabic. 

Watching the movie, it felt like the British got a fair portrayal. The personalities of the key figures (Cox, Wilson, Leachman, and Bell) were all exagerated for sure, but the gist of the film accurately portrayed Iraq (and the proto-Iraqis) as a canvas for British imperial interests. Wilson, who preferred a more militant approach versus Bell and Cox who preferred a gentler, scheming approach, in the end were all working towards improving the Crown’s prospects in Mesopatamia. 

In going down this rabbit hole, there are a number of good articles on the film – mostly interviews with the director Mohamed Shukri Jameel (Vice, Esquire). 

Lastly, I just want to point out there is a shot of a fantastic map board used by one of the British officers – complete with a sling.

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Strategic Guidance at the Tactical Level

Originally published in 2015.

Sometimes, the things that I read about online that seem to be important to the Army or the military are very different from the things that seem to be important at the platoon level.

The other night I was reading something online – probably from the Army Times or Stars and Stripes – about some initiative or plan that the Secretary of the Army was talking about. I don’t remember what it was, but I remember thinking that it would be very unlikely that I would ever hear about it again.

This guidance was unlikely to make its way down the chain of command and to me through any official channels.

Every now and then I’ll be poking around online and click on a link that takes me to a “message to the force” from someone at the Army strategic level, and I’ll think about how odd it is that I found it on my own, and not in some more “official” way. I discovered a message to myself by accident.

My question: how is a junior leader supposed to respond to something like this? Is it the junior leader’s responsibility to carry out the initiatives of the SECDEF or SECARMY or CSA if he simply reads about it online, on accident?

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