“Psychological” isn’t a dirty word

Really good thread on this the other day.

Friends of the blog Matt Armstrong and David Maxwell chimed in as well.

As a society (especially in the West), we have elevated anything having to do with the human brain to an almost sacred position. It is often said that it is easier to put a “warhead on a forehead” than it is to put an idea between someone’s ears.

My sense is that this aversion comes from a fear that attempting to influence using any kind of “technique” is somehow morally or ethically repugnant or dishonorable.

This, of course, is silly. We use these “techniques” every day. If we can use non-lethal methods to gain advantage in competition, change the tide in battle, or ultimately lessen suffering in war, shouldn’t we?

I also think there is an underlying fear born of conspiracy theory and pseudoscience that any form of influence is an attempt at ‘mind-control’ or ‘brain-washing’ – terms that have no basis in reality.

To Cole’s point, the constant word-shifting – psychological to informational – isn’t helpful. It’s an attempt to sanitize the effort, but only works to strip it of its essence. Everything we do is inherently a human endeavor. As such, there are psychological aspects at play and we should take them into account.

The more we try to avoid that, the less effective we will be.

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On Morale

EIB

Originally published in 2015, and still true.

Every year or so, an article appears sounding the alarm over morale in the military. This piece from World Affairs Journal is no different, analzying recent data and polling on the state of military morale.

I made a note to write about it, because it seemed alarmist and disingenuous.

Reading through the text, there isn’t a lot of hard evidence that indicates morale is actually low. Most of the data comes from informal polls that don’t directly correspond to “morale” but instead touch on things like pay and job satisfaction.

Morale, as an idea, should to be defined before it can be analyzed.

morale |məˈral|
noun
the confidence, enthusiasm, and discipline of a person or group at a particular time: their morale was high.

That’s a book definition, and it seems ok for a start. But I’ve been unable to find an agreed upon military definition of morale, which seems odd, since it is always touted as a chief concern. With no firm definition of morale, it’s hard to say if it is high or low.

This Stars & Stripes article from October 2003 (a time where I can personally attest to as a period of low morale) unpacks the discussion of morale and trying to define it. All soldiers know it’s important, but not everyone can agree on what it is, only, like pornography, you know it when you see it.

Of course, there are the three pillars of morale: chow, mail, and pay. Mess with any of those and morale will sink. For today’s troops, I’d add in free time and connectivity, to a lesser degree. These are elements of “big tent” morale. These are things that depend on acts of Congress and the Department of Defense to deliver.

Polling as a means of measuring “big tent” morale is ineffective. Soldiers, since time immemorial, always gripe, no matter how good or bad the situation.

Instead of polling, recruiting and retention numbers serve as a better measure of “big tent” morale.

At a time when the military as a whole is downsizing, benefits are becoming scarcer, and the operational tempo remains high – despite the wars “being over” – recruiting and retention numbers remain at one-hundred percent and above in a recovering economy. That is, there isn’t a rush to the exit. Servicemen and women continue to join and stay in the service.

Anecdotally, the grass is always greener on the other side. Troops today talk about wanting to deploy more, like we did in the mid-2000s. There’s also a post-COIN running discontent with trying to accomplish a myriad of seemingly distracting tasks while being told to always find and exploit opportunities to train.

Even some of the guys who served back then talk about those days with a tinge of nostalgia.

It’s easy to forget how tough those times were. Friends were being killed, deployments lasted 15 (+) months, and the military enacted policies like “stop-loss” and Individual-Ready Reserve (IRR) call-ups to make numbers.

When the military has go to the small print in enlistment contracts to make numbers, that’s a sign of overall low morale.

Just like the APFT is simply a benchmark of physical fitness, recruiting and retention numbers only provide a snapshot of overall morale.

Still, individual units can have high morale when morale across the force is low, even (or, especially) down to the squad level. Plenty of units had high morale during the mid-2000s when things were tough. This morale is different from the “big tent” morale discussed earlier. This is the morale that comes from small-unit cohesion. The biggest factor in this is, of course, leadership. A good leader who can filter out the nonsense while still accomplishing the mission can (mostly) insulate his or her element from low morale. This is why you’ll often hear soldiers talking about how great “their last unit” was. What they’re really saying is that they liked it better with their previous leadership.

This type of morale might be better measured through polling, but not in the aggregrate. This morale is better measured through small unit sensing sessions, informal discussions, and listening to the remarks from soldiers as you pass them by – the things they say in your presence, just to see how you respond.

On the other hand, simple measures of low morale and discontent would be desertion rates and “fragging” incidents. Although there may be others, these two in high number, or beyond the infrequent lone episodes would be a good indicator that there is a true morale issue in the force.

Interestingly, new Sergeant Major of the Army Dan Dailey is looking at troop morale through the prism of small, common sense changes that can be made, to include allowing headphones to be worn in fitness centers while wearing the phsyical fitness uniform (a source of much emotional heartache for this author). While small things like headphones and socks might seem inconsequential to troop morale, these micro-policies can have a significant effects over time.

There are so many other places the morale discussion can go. Discipline and punishment in a unit has an effect on morale. A soldier who goes unpunished for an infraction only to see another soldier who commited the same infraction receive an Article 15 can be a blow to overall morale, as it reeks of favoritism and selective enforcement.

Admittedly, I didn’t do a ton of research for this post. I’d be curious to know if an actual military definition of morale exists (it doesn’t in Operational Terms and Graphics). It’s also an interesting discussion to have, even in terms of our allies. The Iraqi Army, as a whole, likely suffers from low morale, as indicated by the high rate of desertion in the face of the enemy. Individual units, though, like the elite Counter Terrorism Service, seem to have higher morale. What is the cause? Leadership? Pay? Equipment? Sense of purpose? Skull maks?

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Iraqi Security Forces and the Will to Fight

Iraqi Flag

Originally I wanted to write a longer post on the Iraqi film al-Qadisiya (القادسية). I’ve been fascinated by it since graduate school when I first learned it existed. Unfortunately, there’s not a lot written about it English, and most of the basic Arabic articles I’ve seen say similar things.

The movie was commissioned by Saddam Hussein himself sometime around 1979. He hired prominent Arab film-makers to make what was widely reported at being the most expensive Arab film ever made. The excellent score was written and composed by the late Walid Gholmieh who later would work with the Gorillaz shortly before his death in 2011.

I haven’t been able to find a version of the movie with English subtitles, but just by skimming through it, you can see the scale of the film. Lots of extra, lots of costumes. It was an epic.

The film depicts the battle of qadisiyyah between the early Muslims and Persians. The Muslims win and later go on to seize territory in both Persia and the rest of the Middle East.

Without question, Saddam chose this battle because of its resonance with Muslims and its tie-in to contemporary nationalist aspirations. This was the eve of the Iran-Iraq War, and while both Iraqis and Iranians were Muslim, only one side consisted mainly of Persians. Saddam wanted to stoke pride in the ability of his citizens, and those who served the nation by “carrying the gun.”

But there really isn’t much more for me to say about the movie without doing some serious research.

It did get me thinking about the will to fight, and the issues the Iraqi Security Forces have been facing. As a military, Iraq has been the butt of jokes, for seemingly fleeing in the face of a small force of religious zealots.

It’s easy to just write off the Iraqis as cowards, as plenty of people do, but it doesn’t tell an accurate story.

Service in the Iraqi Army just about guarantees combat. Training is accelerated to get soldiers to the front as soon as possible. Incentives and benefits are generous (steady work) to encourage enlistment, where just showing up to sign up can get you killed in a fiery car bombing.

And what is it that they are signing up for?

An Army that suffered through a terrible war of attrition with Iran that left indelible scars on the entire populace.

An Army that was demolished in the Persian Gulf War in days and sent reeling back to to Baghdad.

An Army that atrophied under crushing sanctions and airstrikes for twelve years.

An Army that melted away during the invasion of Iraq.

An Army that was told not to return after being disbanded in 2003.

An Army that struggled to rebuild itself in fits and starts throughout the 2000s.

And all to defend a state that suffers from severe corruption and can barely govern.

On the other hand, the enemy they face appears well-organized, motivated, and aggressive. Their ideology is rooted in familiar terms and promises much more than a steady pay-check. They are unafraid to die for their cause, and in fact, welcome it. They have a worldwide fanbase that injects them with the certainty that their cause is righteous.

A young Iraqi soldier signing up for the Army today was likely born in the mid-1990s. His youth was spent under sanctions and US occupation. His life, thus far, has probably been pretty shitty. He has few job prospects and is being encouraged to join the Army, to fight ISIS.

He will likely see combat.

If he should be injured, where and how will he be treated?

If he should die, will he go to heaven?

It’s very easy to sit on this side of the world and sling the word “coward.” It’s much more difficult to consider what is actually happening over there.

There are examples of successful Iraqi units, though. Iraqi Special Operations Forces’ Gold Division is touted as the most successful Iraqi force. But it’s small. And the training required is more intense and longer in duration than typical units. And there there is a risk of relying too heavily on one, well-trained unit to the detriment of others. This is what happened to the Special Republican Guard under Saddam. They eventually became a praetorian guard for the dictator.

From what I’ve seen, the only sort of appeal to to something higher from the Iraqi state has been the “othering” of ISIS through state-sponsored cartoons and propaganda. For all of its disgusting elements, ISIS remains appealing to a disenfranchised youth. Simply making fun of it isn’t enough. What alternative does the state offer? What motivates an Iraqi soldier to give his life in service to the state?

When placed in those terms, it’s easier to understand why a poorly trained Iraqi regular might drop his weapon and flee Ramadi or Mosul in the face of an approaching enemy. Where is the example of the stalwart Iraqi soldier?

Saddam knew.

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Mad Max, ISIS, and the Psychological Aspects of War

MAD_MAX_FURY_ROAD_sci_fi_futuristic_action_fighting_adventure_1mad_max_apocalyptic_road_warrior_1624x900

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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