A House Divided: A Look at SOF Values | Small Wars Journal

A recent paper at Small Wars Journal discussing SOF ethics. The author leads off with the below:

SOF operators are selected for a willingness and aptitude to conduct traditionally immoral acts, trained to be proficient at the conduct of those acts, but then expected to refrain from those acts outside of approved operational circumstances.

A House Divided: A Look at SOF Values | Small Wars Journal

I’m not sure I necessarily agree with that, but there is certainly something there.

The paper is worth the read. I agree that operators need to be able to “flip the switch.”

However, I always felt that SOF imperative #1 (understand the operational environment) wrapped up everything I needed to know pretty nicely.

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“Toxic mentorship” through Boss and Snake

“The Boss” is Snake’s mentor, for those who know their Metal Gear lore. She is a legenedary soldier and the “Mother of Special Forces.

In a few of the early scenes in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, this mentorship relationship takes center stage. It becomes the proximate drama that drives the story: a mentor who betrays her country versus her disciple sent to stop her.

What became clear to me, though, during these scenes, is just how “toxic” this mentorship has become.

Toxic leadership is a well-known phenomenon, especially in the military. Army doctrine (AR 600-100) defines toxic leadership as “a combination of self-centered attitudes, motivations, and behaviors that have adverse effects on subordinates, the organization, and mission performance.

Usually, we’re talking about toxic leadership in regards to a leader who has direct influence over subordinates in an organization. His or her toxic behaviors can be destructive to the organization. Effects can include lowered morale, decreased productivity, lower retention and more.

If you have served with a toxic leader, which I am willing to bet most people would attest, you know how difficult these periods can be.

But what if it is your mentor who is toxic? And worse, what if your mentor “wasn’t always that way” but has changed over time?

Our mentors are supposed to be the ones we go to for advice. Usually, our mentor is not our direct supervisor or even in the chain of command. It’s someone we can return to over time to check-in with, making sure we’re on the right path. The ones who can be honest with us and give us unvarnished feedback.

What does toxic mentorship look like? It’s hard to say. Conversations with mentors can seem different than conversations with your boss.

Many of us have experienced this. The advice given might seem a little more raw or cut-throat. Sometimes, this feels like you are being let in on a secret, or maybe as a mentee, you’ve reached a point where you can “handle” this level of advice.

Have you ever left a mentorship session or hung up the phone thinking, “Hm, that was not what I expected.”

And in truth, maybe the advice just is a little more raw. Maybe you are being let in on a secret.

Sometimes, though, people just change.

A toxic mentor – especially in a military context – might be someone who implores you to demonstrate loyalty to an individual as opposed to a unit or a specific mission. Or to engage in potentially destructive behaviors or practices that would otherwise be off-limits.

In the below three scenes, we witness Boss’ mentorship to Snake degrade from one of sage advisor, discussing the intricacies, contradictions, and challenges that professional soldiers face, to demanding individual loyalty from one of her “disciples.”

The Boss’ mentorship begins at 4:30.

Scene 1: In this CODEC call, the Boss is reintroduced to Snake. It is clear that they have a long-standing mentorship/mentee relationship and then offers some sage advice on patriotism, loyalty, and what it means to be a career soldier. To this point, it seems standard fare.

Toxic mentorship begins at 1:14

Scene 2: In this scene, the Boss states that she is defecting to the Soviet Union. She is also bringing two “Davy Crockett” nuclear warheads as a gift. Snake feels betrayed by his mentor, and to add injury to insult, she breaks his arm and tosses him over the bridge.

“What is it going to be? Loyalty to your country, or loyalty to me?”

Scene 3: Soon after arriving on the mission to eliminate Boss, Snake gets ambushed – by the Boss. For some context to the below, Snake is wearing the Boss’ bandana, which fell with him when she tossed him off the bridge. They exchange some words, and as Boss is leaving, Snake demands answers:

Snake: Why’d you defect?

Boss: I didn’t. I’m loyal… to the “end.” To my purpose. What about you, Jack? What’s it going to be? Loyalty to your country, or loyalty to me? Your country, or your mentor? Your mission, or your beliefs? Your duty to your unit, or your personal feelings?

You don’t know the truth yet. But sooner or later, you’ll have to choose. I don’t expect you to forgive me. But you can’t defeat me either. You know me too well. Just look at that bandana. If you can’t put the past behind you, you won’t survive long. If we meet again, I’ll kill you.

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Stanley McChrystal on FTGN Podcast

A helicopter takes Gen. Stanley McChrystal to Garmsir District, Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Photo: ISAF

This is the second time I’ve written about a FTGN Podcast episode. The first was on retired General Joseph Votel. This one is their recent episode with retired General Stanley McChrystal. Retired generals do a lot of interviews, and they are (often) master communicators. It’s rare, then, that I actually find myself latching onto something that really grips me. In General Votel’s case it was his thoughts on reflecting that got me thinking.

For no other reason, you should listen to this episode because in it, McChrystal discusses how he dealt with his resignation in the wake of the infamous Rolling Stone article. This is the only time I ever really heard him talk about that. It’s a mini case-study in resiliency. And he makes an argument for narrative patience – what seems like an overwhelming avalanche today mostly dissapears by tomorrow.

Outside of that, it was three little things that caught my attention.

First, McChrystal mentioned John R. Vines as one of his significant mentors. John Vines is one of those names that you hear a lot in the Airborne/Ranger community of yore. He was the Division Commander of the 82nd Airborne Division when I arrived in 2001. When the GWOT started, he held roles in Afghanistan and later went on to command Multi-National Corps-Iraq in 2005-2006. I’ve only interacted with him in the way that a Private normally interacts with a Division Commander – from the position of attention or parade rest, far away in a formation. What I remember, though, is he had an incredible reputation for being a paratrooper’s paratrooper. I always had the sense that he was revered as the epitome of what it meant to be an officer in the 82nd.

His name is not one you hear much about these days. He retired shortly after the GWOT began. But I suspect his leadership and mentorship had a significant hand in the careers of many of the General Officers we know today. McChrystal, Petraeus, and Votel were all Deputy Commanding Generals of the 82nd Airborne Division, and Vines’ thumbprint was (and is) deeply embedded there. I can only imagine there is still a cadre of senior officers who can point back to Vines as their chief mentor.

Second, McChrystal discusses the fact that many of the most professional, courageous, and competent special operators he knew and served with were not all that different from the adversaries he faced in Iraq and Afghanistan. “Not that different,” in the sense that they too were wholly committed to a cause and willing to die for it. They were stoic, dedicated, and professional. It is refreshing to hear this from someone of McChrystal’s stature. Too often, our enemies or adversaries are simply dismissed as maniacal or incompetent. No one wants to give credit to an adversary, but in refusing to do that we blind oursevles to reality. McChrystal says that it is by “accident of birth” that he – and others like him – are on this side of the battle.

And finally, when asked to recommend a book, McChrystal recommended the classic Once an Eagle.

Still haven’t read it.

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The counter influence operations safety brief

I was listening to a recent podcast of The Cognitive Crucible featuring Dr. Jan Kallberg and COL Stephen Hamilton of the Army Cyber Institute where they were discussing the challenge of foreign influence operations in the smartphone era. Specifically, they were discussing the fact that our service members are active target audiences of foreign adversaries, and this manifests mostly online.

To date, there have not been a lot of great suggestions on how to combat this. The most common recommendation is some version of digital literacy traning with modules that would discuss things like foreign influence operations, source checking, and bias. This sounds good – and honestly, it might be one of the only things we can do – but if the only thing we do is add another annual yearly training, my gut tells me this will fail.

Off the cuff, one of the participants in the podcast brought up the standard formation speech, and how odd it must be for a commander to have to address his or her formation and warn about foreign influence operations that are targeting them through their smartphones. Put that way, it sounds kind of conspiratorial, but we know it’s real.

Which got me wondering: are commanders out there discussing this with their formations?

Certaintly these things are known and discussed in the special operations community, but what about the rest of the military?

I’ve never been a big fan of the weekend safety brief – as both the guy in the back standing ‘at ease’ and the guy up front doing the best he can. They can sometimes seem disingenuous, often just a list of the things that need to be discussed to ensure everyone was warned.

On the other hand, the formation speech is a powerful platform for a commander to make a claim and empahsize what is important. If done well, this can have a tremendous impact. I can think back on formation speeches from twenty years ago that have stuck with me. One of my Battalion Commander’s ended every speech with “Take care of your three feet of space,” a maxim that kind of wraps up everything in eight words. Frequency, by the way, is an important tool in getting your point across. Say it, say it again, and keep saying it – the more mediums, the better.

Discussing a list of all the ways a soldier can hurt themselves or get in trouble will likely be ignored.

But what if instead of that list, a commander just spoke about foreign influence operations for a few minutes? Would that have an effect?

I don’t think it would change much, but I’ve also been repeatedly surprised by the things that I assume everyone in a formation knows, only to later learn they only just learned it after myself or someone else informed them in some innocuous way.

And at the very least, it would be informative. The military faces a litany of challenges every day, both internal and external. Foreign influence operations are one of them. We don’t have all of the solutions (and likely won’t ever have all the solutions), but just like everything in the militay, commanders play a key role. The way that a commander communicates about this specific challenge could have an impact.

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The Best Years of Our Lives

A couple of months ago I was listening to an episode of the Angry Planet podcast that featured a conversation with Gregory Daddis about his book Pulp Vietnam (now on my reading list). The conversation meandered towards depictions of the American war experience, the military and ‘homecoming’ in film. For the most part, we’ve reached a place where these depictions have become mostly cartoonish or simply exploitative (10 second “surprise homecoming” videos on the nightly news). There are exceptions, of course, but it is rare that the true essence of “what it’s like” is captured in media.

Anyway, Daddis mentioned the film “The Best Years of Our Lives” as one of the best in this category (homecoming). I had never heard of it, and I am endlessly fascinated with the subject, so I made a note to check it out.

Produced at the end of World War II, the film follows the story of three veterans who return home at the war’s conclusion to the same Midwestern hometown – a grizzled infantry NCO who is actually a wealthy banker with a family, a dashing officer and bombardier who comes from a poor family and lived in a shack, and a young sailor who lost both his hands in an accident during the war. The film follows the three through their homecoming experience over time. The elation of being home and free, the dissatisfcation with “regular life,” depression and flirtations with alcoholism, and the frustration of trying to get things going.

The film was a commerical and critical success – winning seven Academy Awards while also selling out theaters during its release.

Given its contemporary popularity and critical success, how could I have not have heard of it?

It’s not a war movie. It’s not about combat. It’s about people and family – the veterans and the folks around them – and the real struggle that they all face when veterans return home.

It’s odd to me that perhaps the best film to capture “what it’s like” – even now – came out right as the big war ended nearly 80 years ago. It kind of makes sense though. It was still so raw and new, there wasn’t time to mythologize the war as it would be shortly thereafter. Things were still too fresh and the only way to tell the story was the way it was being experienced. Anything else would have been a fantasy.

It’s 2021 now. We’re twenty years removed from the start of the Global War on Terrorism. So many men and women have run through that gauntlet (and still do today). Personally, I’ve been so wrapped up in the machinations of that grind that it’s easy to forget what’s going on.

The movie holds up. I found that the characters are more relateable today than most of the archetypes depicted in other media – film, games, literature, whatever.

For a much better synopsis of the film, here is a 2007 review by Roger Ebert.

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Starting social media over feels like New Game+ mode

Had this thought the other day as I continue to slog through rebuilding. When I pulled the plug in 2016, I was in a pretty good place. My Twitter/Facebook accounts had thousands of followers and just about every blog post got attention. Daily traffic to CTG was high. It was something I had built over five years.

And then zap – it’s all gone.

Well the blog is still here and has plenty of followers. And each day I am moving forward towards a goal of rebuilding.

The whole thing feels very similar to what happens when you beat a video game, and then are offered the opportunity to replay the game in “New Game+” mode. New Game+ is where you get to play the whole thing over from the beginnning, but you retain whatever skills, equipement, and experience you earned in the first playthrough. The experience is also easier because you know the rules of the game and have gotten pretty good. I know how to write, I know the world map, and I know which oracles to visit. It’s definitely starting over with an advantage. The goal of New Game+ mode is to explore the things you missed while getting another opportunity to enjoy the game.

But boy, it’s still a slog.

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…and PSYOP in one more place

Before I pressed “publish” on yesterday’s roundup of PSYOP across recent podcasts, I paused, thinking I had heard PSYOP discussed on at least one more podcast, but I couldn’t remember.

Then, today, I remembered it was this one – straight from the Mother Ship. Really great episode that discusses narrative.

I had even made a note to write about that one. There’s a discussion on the type of skills needed to conduct influence operations (cultural competence, language proficiency, media fluency, etc.).

With slight tweaks, it’s the same argument that flag officers and senior defense civilians pounded their fists about in the mid-2000’s when we were fighting COIN.

“We need people who speak the language, soldier-scholars, a modern day Lawrence of Arabia..”.

I forget who said it (Andrew Exum?) but there is a quote somewhere out there about how if we need PhDs to fight our wars we have already lost. Maybe.

Anyway, during the discussion, there’s a question as to whether we have those folks or could get them, train them.

The reality is, building those skill sets takes a long time. Years. And specialized study. These are skills that cannot be fully trained during a standard military course.

However, they can be achieved over time. Those people exist. There are lots of folks who have put in the work. Part of the problem is by the time these skill sets are actualized, the folks who can use them are usually billeted in positions where they are no longer that useful.

Still, I think there is a way for individuals to “worm” their way to the job where they might be most effective, but it really should be the other way around. Identify talent, and put that person where he or she is needed and where their talents can be fully exploited.

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PSYOP, PSYOP, everywhere

Just a quick post to point out that I’ve seen PSYOP leaders making the rounds this past week on at least two separate podcasts.

First, from the Cognitive Crucible / PSYWAR Podcast:

This is a very special dual release episode of the Cognitive Crucible. Our friends over at the PSYWAR podcast are also releasing this via their channel. During this episode, IPA founding member, Austin Branch, is joined by COL Jeremy Mushtare, who commands the US Army’s 8th Psychological Operations Group. Jeremy discusses PSYOP manpower matters and then Austin contrasts roles and responsibilities between PSYOP soldiers and FA30s who tend to be more on the staff integration side of information operations. Then, the discussion turns to cognitive security partnerships, competition below the level of armed conflict, and initiatives.

About the PSYWAR Podcast: Cognitive Crucible listeners can follow this link and check out the PSYWAR podcast. The PSYWAR podcast demystifies psychological operations, informs soldiers about how they can join the PSYOP regiment, discusses the future of Information Warfare, and sprinkles in some cool war stories.

And then, quite boldly, COL Jason Smith and COL Jeremy Mushtare (4th and 8th PSYOP Group Commanders) joined US Army WFT Nation radio for a discussion on PSYOP. I haven’t listened to this one yet, but looking forward to it.

It is refreshing to see this increased appetite for getting out there and telling the story. There’s a lot of good work being done and there’s no reason to be shy.

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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 it
Nevertheless, 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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