The Banana Spider at Face Level

a banana spider on a web yellow

Another episode from the Pineland Underground. This one discusses Robin Sage, the boss level of the Special Forces Qualification Course.

On today’s episode we are joined with the SWCS Chief of Staff COL Stu Farris, and MSG (Ret) Chris Rogers. We discuss unconventional warfare and how it applies to the Special Forces culminating exercise known as Robin Sage. We address some common misconceptions that typically are associated with military exercises that occur within the local population to help inform and educate the public.

Robin Sage and Unconventional Warfare | The real story of the Special Forces culmination exercise (YouTube / Apple Podcasts)

If you’re curious about what this thing is and why it is so important (or why it seems to always surprise the media), the episode is worth listening to.

Did you ever wonder where the name Robin Sage came from? It’s in the episode.

Robin Sage, derives its name from the town of Robbins, N.C., a central area of operations for the exercise, and former Army Colonel Jerry Sage, a World War II veteran and an Office of Strategic Services, (OSS) officer who taught unconventional-warfare tactics. Steve McQueen’s character Hilts in the film “The Great Escape” was based on Sage. Sage was an OSS operative, the forerunner of today’s Green Berets and CIA.

Robin Sage: Why The Final Test For US Army Green Berets Is Truly Unique, 1945

There’s a great vignette deep in the episode (~40:00 mark) that highlights how the ethical dilemmas leaders face in training can emerge years later in very similar ways during actual operations. This one features an NCO spending a little too much time with one of the indigenous partners and finding himself at the center of an ethical dillema that includes a potential forced marriage.


A little later, they discuss the ways that war gets “harder” after the bureaucracy sets. It’s an interesting conversation, and one that I’m accustomed to hearing, but don’t necessarily agree with. The reason we get “worse” at doing things isn’t always because of additional bueracracy or pedantic military systems. It’s often (and mostly) the fact that the strategy is flawed. The whole thing is an exercise in futility. There’s only so much you can do with what you have.

If only they loosened restrictions. If only they let us do our job.

“Well if they sent us some more guys and bombed the hell out of the north, they might, uh, they might give up.”

-Animal Mother, Full Metal Jacket

As the saying goes, “we can’t kill our way out of this.

But that will never stop leaders who are committed to winning from trying to find ways to win. It’s a Kobayashi Maru and it’s how you get the GWOT effect.

Two closing thoughts: there is a quick mention of Yuri Bezmenov, the former KGB defector who many people will know from his interview where he discusses Soviet ideological subversion efforts. Interestingly, portions of that video found its place in the Call of Duty: Black Ops Cold War trailer a couple of years ago which spurred some informative articles exploring that video in a wider context.

And finally, I appreciated the recognition that one of the most terrifying things in the world is walking face-first into a banana spider while doing land navigation in the woods at night.

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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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Conscientious Objection and The Moral Responsibility of Volunteer Soldiers

a deserter being executed ethics
The Deserter

This has been sitting in my queue of things to write about for two months now. It is an essay in the Boston Review titled ‘The Moral Responsibility of Volunteer Soldiers.’ It is written by Jeff McMahan, a professor of philosophy at Rutgers University.

One of the topics on war that interests me is the ‘why we fightstuff. I wrote recently about the ‘virtue of the conqueror,’ and how the disappearance of that as an actual thing makes the whole episode of war more difficult to swallow for the individual charged with fighting it.

Professor McMahan writes about the moral dilemma soldiers in an all-volunteer military face when thrust into an unjust war. What are they to do?

Much of his essay is an exploration of the all-volunteer military and just war theory and how the two interplay. Then, he posits that it would be in our best interests as a nation to allow for selective conscientious objection.

I furrowed my brow at that, thinking, we already had a means to exit the service through conscientious objection. I remembered from my enlisted time the stories of soldiers deserting and fleeing to Canada shortly after the Iraq War began and the groups that sprouted aiming to assist soldiers get out of the military as conscientious objectors.

I thought that it would be a pretty glaring error to publish something in the Boston Review without checking first, so I dug into Army Regulation 600-43 (Conscientious Objection) to find out more.

Interestingly, I found that one cannot attain status as a conscientious objector “based on objection to a certain war” (para 1-5, no. 4). That is, if an individual soldier thinks a certain war is unjust or whatever, that is not criteria to attain status as a conscientious objector and either be moved into a non-combatant role or discharged from the military altogether.

Being a soldier is hard. It’s especially hard when faced with ambiguous situations (which is why I compare war to the game Mass Effect, not Call of Duty). It’s been shown time and time again that “I was just following orders” is not a defense for illegal or immoral behavior on the battlefield. Individuals are charged – rightly or wrongly – with processing orders from superiors through filters of appropriateness before acting. In the grander scheme of things, a soldier has to decide whether he can live with himself after taking this or that action. That is hard. Soldiering is hard.

All that said, it’s often not that hard to know whether a given action is right or wrong. Usually, just asking the question “is this the right answer?” is enough to know what to do.

Back to Professor McMahan: his charge is that individual soldiers should have a way out of specific conflicts, which the current regulation prohibits. Ethically, that seems to make sense. How can we ask an individual who has voluntarily put his faith into “the system” to go to war in a conflict that he or she sees as unjust or immoral?

There are pitfalls here, which McMahan concedes. One being the test of sincerity. How do you know that one is really opposed to a specific conflict and not just trying to avoid going to war, especially if that war is particularly gruesome?

It’s tough being a soldier. And without writing a long thesis on it, I’ve personally found solace through “believing in the system” as cold and distant as it can seem. If you fundamentally believe in the American project, then carrying out its orders doesn’t come with great difficulty.

The individual always reserves the final vote, however – the ultimate veto. And in the end, each of us – as individuals – has to be prepared to answer for our actions. “I was just following orders” will not work on the front page of the newspaper or the trial of our gods.

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The Ethics of the Marine Corps Urination Case


A couple of weeks ago two really interesting things emerged in military writing. One is this story on the Marine Corps urination case in the Marine Corps Times (“Exclusive: Marine scout sniper in urination video controversy speaks out“). The other was an article from Military Review that was featured on Tom Rick’s Best Defense (“The Myths We Soldiers Tell Ourselves“). One an article based on an interview with one of the Marines being punished for the urination video, the other a scholarly article by two active and one retired Army Lieutenant Colonels that taught Ethics at West Point.

I read both of these articles within a day of each other and couldn’t help but notice how they unintentionally bleed into one another. I encourage you to read both articles in their entirety and make your own judgments. While you’re at it, you should also read this – “Warriors, the Army Ethos, and the Sacred Trust of Soldiers.”

I pulled these paragraphs from the articles, because they appear to be talking to each other:

From the Marine Corps Times:

What really led up to it is they desecrated one of our Marines,” Richards said of the video. “When you’re under that much stress and in that environment, your whole mental being changes. You’re no longer Joe the Family Man. You’re a warrior, and if you read back to biblical wars and wars since the dawn of time, men have been doing this to men for millennia.

From “Myths”:

The authors argued in a previous essay, “War is a Moral Force,” that the most critical considerations of human conflict are the moral ones. These considerations were as important to the Romans as they are now to us, not something new to modern war. However, the information age has amplified the effects. There may have been a time when mythologizing served a useful purpose in war, but only ignorance could make it work. Today, in an age in which information flies around the world at the speed of light, immediately bringing a great coherency and power to moral opinion, we can no longer assume such ignorance will last. We cannot long hope to be allowed to say we are one thing while actually being something else. Our spoken words (and values) must be indicative of our actions.

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“There is a beast in every fighting man…” Ethics and the ‘Right Way’

air force general smoking cigar

Once an Army is involved in war, there is a beast in every fighting man which begins tugging at its chains. And a good officer must learn early on how to keep the beast under control, both in his men and himself.”
George C. Marshall

That was a gem of a quote towards the end of ‘Finding “The Right Way”: Toward an Army Institutional Ethic” by LTC Clark Barrett. It is a product of the Strategic Studies Institute (SSI) which is a part of the US Army War College. If you are interested in the ethics and morality of soldiering, and especially how one might institutionalize those values in a fighting force, I recommend you make time to read the paper. It’s long (75 pages, although 35 pages are covers, contents, and footnotes) but not dry.

The author uses the events of Abu Ghraib, Mahmudiyah, and the “kill team” as a backdrop into his investigation of the history and current state of the US Army “ethic.” He looks at ethics programs used by some of our allies (including Great Britain, Canada, and Israel) and makes recommendations on how the Army might move forward.

LTC Barrett does not argue that a more robust ethics program will eliminate war crimes or unethical behavior like the ones mentioned above. He points out that in many of the cases involving war crimes there is often a “charismatic leader” who is himself unethical and guides others to unethical behavior. With proper training, though, these charismatic leaders might be stunted by others long before they get to the point of making the wrong decision.

There are a number of interesting things that the author recommends – including the development of a kind of “ethics check” through the use of a mnemonic. In the old days at West Point, cadets used to ask other cadets “All right?” as a way of reminding them that they adhered to the honor code. A cadet who understood that he/she was bound by the honor code and was in compliance would then respond with “All right.”

LTC Barrett writes:

Envision a circumstance in which Soldiers, angered by death and destruction on the battlefield and tempted towards immoral conduct, check themselves when one wise Soldier asks the timely question, “All Right?” It may appear Pollyannaish, but this method worked for many decades at USMA. As long as the use of “All Right” is not abused, it could provide the outward daily symbol to remind Soldiers of their code and honor, and provide some small check on improper behavior (33).

He also discusses the idea of adopting a “military covenant” in the same way that the British have done (this is something I have written about before). The idea is that in exchange for military service, the “people” or the “government” (it’s not really clear) are indebted to those who serve(d) and that they “should always expect the Nation and their commanders to treat them fairly, to value and respect them as individuals, and to sustain and reward them and their families.”

I’m glad that these types of products are being produced at the US Army War College and I hope that this particular thesis is widely read (so pass it around) and that its recommendations are taken seriously – even if only by those individuals who care so much to read it.

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