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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Cloud Strife: A Veteran Lost in the Twilight of Sentimentality and Nostalgia

Originally written in 2015, but still true.

Final Fantasy VII was the first game I ever pre-ordered. I went into a KB Toys (RIP) and saw a sign announcing that the game would be available for pre-order and that if you pre-ordered it, you would get a free Final Fantasy t-shirt.

When the game was finally released, I was happy to receive the promised shirt. It was white with a picture of the main character Cloud Strife on the back. Next to the avatar was some biographical data.

If you look closely, his job is listed as “former soldier.”

I remember thinking at the time – and I was just a 15 year old kid who had no idea I’d be writing about the oddities of veteran life in 2015 – “isn’t it kind of weird to list your job as something you were formerly?”

Cloud Strife is a veteran, lost in the twilight of sentimentality and nostalgia.

As fans of the game know, the word ‘soldier’ probably should have been written in all upper-case, since it was more akin to a unit than an individual job profession.

But fans of the game also know that the crux of the story revolves around Cloud’s latent PTSD and his self-delusions of grandeur and heroism. Before I even knew what PTSD was, I watched Cloud struggle with it. He also struggled with transitioning out of the military. With no skills, he joined a bunch of ‘freedom fighters’ for no reason other than to keep fighting, really. He broke down – over and over – clasping his head as memories of the past surged into his mind.

As you slowly tease out the story of what happened at the Nibelheim Reactor, the big reveal is that Cloud isn’t who he says he is. What’s particularly interesting to me, is it’s not exactly clear whether he deliberately misremembered the past of his own accord (to trump up his deeds) or if he just didn’t remember, because of the psychological trauma or injury. I always thought it was a combination of the two.

“Former soldiers” or veterans tend to embellish their war stories. While war can be exciting, it doesn’t always match the vivid imagination of the listener, whose frames of reference are action movies and video games. Each time the story is told, a gentle adjective sneaks its way in. The next time, you were a little closer to the explosion – “it was right in front of me!” Usually, these retellings are innocent enough – and they don’t involve the release of a murderous psychopath bent on destroying the world. But the idea of a former soldier mistelling his past for whatever reason – fame, power, gil – is common.

I’ve always wanted to dig into the Nibelheim Incident and Cloud Strife’s PTSD and memory as a larger piece for this blog. It’s a good way to tell the story of something important (veteran PTSD issues, moral injury, stolen valor) in a way that is interesting and might capture the attention of an audience that normally would be uninterested in veteran issues. It was only recently that I remembered the pre-order t-shirt and I wanted to get this idea out there. I doubt I’ll ever have the time to explore Cloud’s lore and background to give the idea the attention it would deserve to do it justice, so in the meantime, these half-baked ideas will just have to sit here, and wait.

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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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