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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End of War Reading List: American Spartan

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I’m not going to mince words: I didn’t enjoy reading this. It took me well over a month, and often because I didn’t have the energy to slog through it. In fairness, I might be a bit jaded about the whole thing, reading about places I am currently working around – it can get bothersome.

I’ve written before about the saga of Major Jim Gant, the Special Forces officer known for spearheading the Village Stability Operations (VSO) program in Afghanistan and was later relieved and forced to retire after an investigation into his behavior. Major Gant is also mentioned in One Hundred Victories – another book I read recently about the VSO program.

As Joe Collins points out in his review of the book, the book is important – I’m just not sure that it was very good. It is written defensively and with venom laced words for anyone who stood in Major Gant’s way (top brass, the West Point Lieutenant who wrote the sworn statement that began the investigation, etc.). Ann Scott attempts to write with the detachment of a journalist covering a story that she is an emotional part of, and it doesn’t really work.

The book is fascinating for someone interested in either the VSO program, the intricacies of Pashtun tribal dynamics or what an illicit affair in a war zone looks like.

Major Gant, for his part, is an interesting persona to read about. And as a character study, there isn’t anything better out there (however biased the account may be). Outside of the book, I’ve met people who think he is the greatest soldier ever while others thought he was out of control. I’ve never met him, but from what I’ve read and heard, he is the absolute product of the Global War On Terrorism. A dedicated, motivated leader that tried to – in his words – Win the War – and destroyed himself in the process.

There are some good quotes in the book that are worth highlighting, like this one:

“We will never win in Afghanistan,” he told the team. “But know – now and always – that does not matter. That is an irrelevant fact. It gives us a place to go and fight, it gives us a place to go and be warriors. That’s it.”

The book is full of small windows into Major Gant’s personality and thought process.

Often he told me he wished he had died fighting in Afghanistan.
“Not a cheap death, something hard,” he said. “Then I could have proven to everyone, in that one action, that I am who I say I am.”

After Jim had his Special Forces tab rescinded, he did this. Is this a guy with a good sense of humor or a man obsessed with an idea?:

Jim placed the tab in a small picture frame over a bloodred image of Marlon Brando as the bald Colonel Kurtz. A short time later, Jim shaved his head.

The last couple of chapters are the most fascinating in the book, describing Jim and Ann’s days in Fayetteville, North Carolina, as Jim completely collapses as a soldier and Ann reports it with the detachment of a journalist – one reporting on her own behavior with the subject. It’s odd to read, but fascinating nonetheless.

Anyway, I’m glad to be done with it.

The End of War Reading List

Into the Land of Bones (gift from a friend) – done (Dec. 31, 2013)
One Hundred Victories (recommended by a guy on the ground) – done (March 2014)
American Spartan – done (August 2014)
The Defense of Jisr Al-Doreea (recommended by a couple of friends)
The Massacre at El Mozote (recommended by Matthew Bradley)
Every War Must End (recommended by Jason Lemieux)
Black Hearts (recommended by “Jim”)
Can Intervention Work (recommended by “Lincoln”)
A Question of Command: Counterinsurgency from the Civil War to Iraq (recommended by Robert)
Blink: the Power of Thinking without Thinking (recommended by Laura and a friend)
Friend by Day, Enemy by Night: Organized Vengeance in a Kohistani Community (recommended by Laura)
War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (recommended by Joao Hwang)
Romance of the Three Kingdoms (recommended by Joao Hwang)
The Forever War (recommended by Shelly)
How Wars End: Why We Always Fight the Last Battle (recommended by Tim Mathews)

“On Deck”

The Operators (recommended by Nathalie)
The Liberation Trilogy (recommended by Allen)
The Village (recommended by Robert)
Koran, Kalashnikov, and Laptop (recommended by “Kyle”)
The Junior Officer’s Reading Club (recommended by “Kyle”)
The Enlightened Soldier – Scharnhorst and the Militarische Gesellschaft in Berlin, 1801-1805 (recommended by Laura)
Storm Troop Tactics: Innovation in the German Arm (recommended by Laura)
Utility of Force; Art of War in the Modern World (recommended by Laura)
The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century (recommended by Laura)
Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise to Western Power (recommended by Laura)
Brave New World (recommended by a fellow infantry officer)
Sympathy for the Devil (recommended by Wesley Morgan)

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“We will never win in Afghanistan…”

“We will never win in Afghanistan,” he told the team. “But know – now and always – that does not matter. That is an irrelevant fact. It gives us a place to go and fight, it gives us a place to go and be warriors. That’s it.”

Major Jim Gant
“American Spartan”

Currently reading “American Spartan.”

Related: The Rains of Castamereand How to Win in Afghanistan.

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Damn it feels good to be a veteran

Forever War

Do you want to know why it feels so good to be a veteran, and why “it” is so addictive?

It’s because often times, you feel like you are at the center of the world. That feeling of being the “decisive operation” goes into overdrive while deployed, but even when you are just sitting at home, watching the news, it’s easy to get lost in yourself because you are a small part of this much bigger thing that gets a whole lot of attention.

Look at this past week’s big news stories. All of them are in the military sphere. Front page news:

On Tuesday, President Obama announced the troop numbers for Afghanistan post-2014, ending speculation over what would happen when this year came to a close.

On Wednesday, the President laid out his foreign policy agenda at West Point, which has serious implications for the men and women who serve to execute it.

On Thursday, the military portion of the internet exploded in response to comments made by Gwyneth Paltrow in which she compared receiving nasty internet comments to war (my response here).

On Friday, Secretary of Veterans Affairs, General (R) Eric Shinseki resigned after mounting criticism concerning recent VA scandals.

Then yesterday, it was announced that SGT Bowe Bergdahl, the only remaining prisoner of war from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan was released in exchange for prisoners being held at Guantanamo Bay.

All of these stories generated lots of hot air and conversation. Fodder for the media and blogging-heads (myself included). Sitting on the couch and tuning to the evening news, story after story is related to MY WORLD.

How can that not be addictive? All of these stories ruled the day, and in each of them, only a tiny number of Americans can actually say they are somehow involved or can relate to them.

It’s exciting. And I think that “center of attention” feeling is what makes getting out and transitioning to being “normal” so damn hard.

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The End of War Reading List: One Hundred Victories-Special Ops and the Future of American Warfare

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This is another book that wasn’t on the original list, but it’s relevant and was recommended to me by someone on the ground. One Hundred Victories (by Linda Robinson) is about ‘Village Stability Operations‘ (VSO), which is one of the principle missions of special operation forces in Afghanistan. The author tells the story of of the VSO mission in Afghanistan and in attempt to make the book more palatable to generalists, she wraps it all up in the final chapter on what the future of war might look like.

One Hundred Victories will appeal to anyone interested in what special operation forces are currently doing in Afghanistan, classic Special Forces missions, and to those who may interact with the VSO mission at some point in the future (SFAAT staff, infantry uplift personnel, CA/MISO, etc.). Outside of talking to those who have done a VSO mission, there really isn’t much else to read on the subject other than some articles on Small Wars Journal or whatever is out there in open source (not much). Right now, this is the definitive book on the VSO mission.

In terms of narrative, the author bounces around from team level stuff outside the wire to big boss decisions being made at headquarters. With the exception of some of the notable Generals, there are no ‘characters’ that are followed from start to finish. The bulk of the research comes from team embeds and interviews that the author conducted over the course of a few years. There are some familiar names that pop up through the book who are associated with the VSO missions. Notably, MAJ Jim Gant, the author of ‘One Tribe at a Time‘ and profiled in the just released book ‘American Spartan’, and SSG Robert Bales, the American soldier who murdered 16 Afghans in 2012. SSG Bales was assigned to a VSO team as part of the the aforementioned ‘infantry uplift,’ the pairing of conventional infantrymen to a VSO team to augment security.

I only highlighted three things as I read through the book. The first, mentions a friendly-fire incident:

“A US soldier from a conventional unit was killed at Sar Howza one night in a friendly-fire incident. He approached on of the local police checkpoints and was mistakenly shot by an ALP policeman.”

The Afghan Local Police (ALP) is the program that the VSO mission is all about. It is a ‘bottom up’ recruitment, training, and fielding program that develops a local security platform. It is separate from the Afghan National Army (ANA) or other security programs.

The second thing I highlighted was in reference to MAJ Gant:

“Finally, a young conventional infantry lieutenant attached to Gant’s ad hoc team decided to blow the whistle after being asked to falsify a situation report. “This is just not right,” he told Gant’s superiors, adding that things were out of control in the camp. The command ordered a “health and welfare” inspection of Gant’s camp in early March 2012. It appeared that Gant had been living out some kind of a sex-, drug-, and alcohol-fueled fantasy, becoming, as one officer put it, “a legend in his own mind.” Alcohol and steroids were found in his hooch, along with large quantities of Schedule II, III, and IV controlled substances and other drugs. Classified material were also found unsecured in his quarters, a violation compounded by the fact that Gant had been keeping a reporter-turned-lover at the camp, moving her around to prevent his superiors from learning of her presence.”

Lastly, on human terrain:

One special operations officer confided his dismay at seeing a terrain model in a senior general’s office in Afghanistan that was festooned with labels such as “block,” “attrit,” and “isolate” — a pretty clear indication that the general viewed the contest as a fight over physical terrain that could be addressed with a conventional scheme of maneuver.”

For a review of the book in the New York Times, click here.

The End of War Reading List

Into the Land of Bones (gift from a friend) – done (Dec. 31, 2013)
One Hundred Victories (recommended by a guy on the ground) – done (March 2014)
The Defense of Jisr Al-Doreea (recommended by a couple of friends)
The Massacre at El Mozote (recommended by Matthew Bradley)
Every War Must End (recommended by Jason Lemieux)
Black Hearts (recommended by “Jim”)
Can Intervention Work (recommended by “Lincoln”)
A Question of Command: Counterinsurgency from the Civil War to Iraq (recommended by Robert)
Blink: the Power of Thinking without Thinking (recommended by Laura and a friend)
Friend by Day, Enemy by Night: Organized Vengeance in a Kohistani Community (recommended by Laura)
War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning (recommended by Joao Hwang)
Romance of the Three Kingdoms (recommended by Joao Hwang)
The Forever War (recommended by Shelly)
How Wars End: Why We Always Fight the Last Battle (recommended by Tim Mathews)

“On Deck”

The Operators (recommended by Nathalie)
The Liberation Trilogy (recommended by Allen)
The Village (recommended by Robert)
Koran, Kalashnikov, and Laptop (recommended by “Kyle”)
The Junior Officer’s Reading Club (recommended by “Kyle”)
The Enlightened Soldier – Scharnhorst and the Militarische Gesellschaft in Berlin, 1801-1805 (recommended by Laura)
Storm Troop Tactics: Innovation in the German Arm (recommended by Laura)
Utility of Force; Art of War in the Modern World (recommended by Laura)
The Sling and the Stone: On War in the 21st Century (recommended by Laura)
Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise to Western Power (recommended by Laura)
Brave New World (recommended by a fellow infantry officer)
Sympathy for the Devil (recommended by Wesley Morgan)

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Preparing for the ‘End of War’ in an era of uncertainty

2014 is a very strange year for the military. We’re still in Afghanistan, but whether we’ll be there past December is uncertain. Units are training and deploying, trying not to be distracted by the strategic level decision-making that actually has a direct impact on their and their families’ lives.

The recently proposed Defense budget will likely shrink the size of the military and could potentially reduce benefits of service, including cuts to Basic Allowance for Housing and Commissary subsidies. The upcoming ‘Officer Separation Board‘ will likely result in some 2,000 Captains and Majors – most combat veterans – being kicked out. Some of them will get the word while deployed.

Meanwhile, Iraq and Syria are blurring into a single conflict. Russia invaded Ukraine. It’s all very discombobulating and is creating an odd climate of uncertainty.

Writing for the New York Times ‘At War’ blog, Air Force Major Brandon Lingle captures this in his piece titled Watching Football, Waiting for War:

In the midst of the American drawdown in Afghanistan, after more than 12 years of war, we could be among the last United States forces headed into the country. We’re headed overseas against the current. We have a long, long way to go.

After Budweiser’s “A Hero’s Welcome” commercial, a senior airman said: “What’s with all the military commercials? It’s like they’re trying to make the war cool again.”

These words ricocheted in my head. To me, they acknowledged that our Afghanistan odyssey drones on in the background of our national dialogue. They underscored that a vast majority of Americans have no connection with the military, especially the 37,500 service members still serving in Afghanistan. They argued that commercials, tributes and ceremonies were no substitute for a meaningful conversation about the war. They showed that young Americans who joined the military after 9/11 know that their country isn’t really paying attention.

And then there is this, a quote from a young First Lieutenant in Stars and Stripes, finishing up a sleepy deployment in Afghanistan:

“Honestly, at this point in the war, is anything really worth someone’s legs or their life or something like that?” Vaughn said. “I’d argue no. We’re not here to conquer or gain more ground. We’re trying to leave.”

2014 is a shaping up to be a very strange year.

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How to Win in Afghanistan

If you are a real Paladin, then put your sword away and endure it! There is something even more important than justice and righteousness. Someday, the time will come when you understand this.
– ‘Mysterious Voice’ on Mt. Ordeals

If the video above is familiar to you, you might enjoy ‘Legends of Localization‘ which is where the above quote came from – a more literal translation of some of the text from the Paladin/Dark Knight fight.

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