“Tell them I held the line…”

Originally published in 2012.

Tell them I held the line…

I just finished Mass Effect 2, having rolled into it right after playing Mass Effect. 

I know I could have looked online to see how to make it through the last mission with everyone, but I enjoy playing the game blind – it’s more realistic that way.

Everything was going well on the Collector Base, and when I had to choose a leader for the diversion team, I thought Mordin would be a good choice given his background with the Salarian Special Tasks Group.

Well, that didn’t work out, and Mordin didn’t make it.

The rest of the squad made it, but only Dr. Chakwas from the Normandy.

I’m looking forward to finishing the fight, sometime before Christmas.

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.

War: Less like Call of Duty, more like Mass Effect

Originally published in 2014.

I forgot what prompted me to make this comparison. I think I had heard someone making the comparison of war to the popular game ‘Call of Duty.’ They may have been disputing the comparison, but the linkage was made. I remember shortly after getting out of the Army, a young boy’s first question upon learning that I had served in the Army overseas was to ask if it was like ‘Ghost Recon,’ another popular war game.

I’ve never been a big fan of Call of Duty or any of the ‘realistic’ first person shooters. They are flashy and visually stunning, but they are simple in their execution. For the most part, you navigate your avatar across a generally linear course, destroying everything in your path. Granted, I’m leaving out some things, but that is generally how the games work. Move. Destroy. Repeat until complete.

Those games reflect the exciting, but proportionally minute experiences of wartime service. Even out on the tip of the spear, the shooting war happens infrequently. I’ve never been in a Ranger or special operations unit – maybe their experience is Call of Duty-ish, but I’d venture it isn’t. A very tiny proportion of the American public experiences military combat, and the most visceral link the rest of the population gets comes displayed on an electronic screen in the form of movies and ‘realistic’ war games.

But if these games are zooming in and exploiting those tiny moments and expanding them to feature length, what then might serve as a better comparison?

Instead of looking at Call of Duty et al, I’d compare military service and wartime service to the game ‘Mass Effect,’ where the key events driving the plot in that game are the decisions made in non-combat situations, the interactions between leaders, subordinates, and outsiders, and the development of relations over time. Mass Effect has its share of kinetic combat, but it happens less frequently and chaotically, and usually between long periods of ‘inactivity’ filled by user-driven dialogue, planning, and preparation.

The choices made by the protagonist across the Mass Effect series have real consequences for the player and the universe he inhabits. The dialogue choices made when speaking with teammates can either build or erode the trust and cohesion of the fighting force. The application of force is weighed against sympathy and aid in key decisions, when the ‘right answer’ is not usually apparent. Act too harshly and you risk alienating potential allies. Too soft, and you open yourself to exploitation.

These nuances seem much more familiar to my military experience than anything I’ve seen in a ‘realistic’ combat game.

I don’t know, maybe I just missed out.

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.

Mental health and suicide in the Army – A lesson from Mass Effect

Kelly Chambers. BA, Psychology.

Originally published in 2012.

This past week has seen a couple of sobering reports released by the Pentagon concerning suicide in the military. The first confirmed that in the first 155 days of 2012 there have been 154 confirmed suicides by active duty servicemembers across the force. 136 servicemembers were killed in Afghanistan during the same period.

On Wednesday, suicide was named as the second highest cause of death for servicemembers (after combat), outpacing car accidents, cancer, and other causes of death.

Suicide has been a growing problem for the Army over the past ten years. Understandably, people often point to the pace of deployment and the over-stretching of the all-volunteer force as the likely antagonizer. It makes sense to assume that deploying the same people over and over again might result in an increase in mental health issues (which it might). But in the Army’s 2009 study on suicide, 79% of soldiers who committed suicide had one or no deployments. So while the pace of deployments might have an effect on overall mental health, it does not correlate with the increase in suicides.

What this means is that we still do not know why this is happening.

For its part, the Army has worked hard to try to combat suicide. Even before I got out of the Army in 2006, suicide was already a topic that was treated seriously by commanders. If someone threatened to kill himself – even in jest – it was a threat that needed to be taken seriously.

I’ve been back in the Army for under a year, but I have already seen the introduction of some great programs that are intended to get ahead of mental health problems and ultimately suicide. Comprehensive Soldier Fitness (CSF) is a program designed to build “resilience” in soldiers (and family members) to prepare them for the rigors of not only combat and military service, but life in general.

I have not taken the Master Resilience Trainer Course (yet) but I have taken some of the individual modules while at IBOLC. Without question, the program requires a “buy in” from the participant. Essentially, the person engaging in CSF needs to “want” to get better or become more resilient. In a military where a mental health stigma still exists, getting that “buy in” is the hard part. Hopefully, I’ll get a chance to take the course before leaving Fort Benning. I’ve already bought in.

Anyway, like the title of this post hints, I’m going to talk about Mass Effect. Readers of this blog know that I take inspiration from fantasy – be it art, music, or video games. I’ve been playing the series for the past couple of months and recently began playing Mass Effect II. One of the things that stuck me was the presence of Kelly Chambers aboard the Normandy. Kelly serves as Commander Shephard’s Executive Assistant, but she also serves as the chief mental health officer. Her job is to monitor the mental health of the entire crew to ensure that any problems can be addressed before they come to fruition. It struck me as the kind of thing that would be helpful at the platoon, company, or battalion level.

Given the nation and the Army’s shortage of mental health professionals, it would be aspirational at best to try to implement something like that across the force.

Still, it made sense to me that there should be someone – a human being – monitoring the mental health of the fighting force over a period of time. Questionnaires and tests are okay, but they lack the understanding that a person who has been around for months or years would have. I think if CSF is implemented effectively across the Army, the platoon MRT might serve this role. While not a true mental health specialist, this would be preferred to the little that is in place right now.

Be it mental health specialists at the platoon/company/battalion level, effective use of the CSF program, or something we haven’t though of yet, it is clear that something more needs to be done to address suicide in the force. I don’t pretend to have the answer, but when I see something that I think might be helpful, I’ll bring it up. Thus, the vignette from Mass Effect.

Here is a great resource from the Army G1 on Suicide Prevention.

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.

Eating Soup with a 900′ Powerglove: Mass Effect, Mechanical Armies, and the Reaper as Counterinsurgent Fever Dream

This event, entirely fictional, is inspired by chapter 33 of T.E. Lawrence’s Seven Pillars of Wisdom. In it, Lawrence lays out his vision for how the Arab Revolt  might defeat the Turks in Arabia. In this, I lay out the counter-insurgent’s dream, a fantastical imagination of the introduction of the Reaper, a la Mass Effect fame, as the ultimate weapon in counter insurgency.

About four weeks I spent lounging in that stuffy barracks, eating – no, gorging – on what they allowed, my body soaking up the calories, exhausted from weeks of neglect. As usual, in such circumstances, my mind began to spin and process, finally turning towards that perpetual thing, war, but more accurately, insurgency. Till now, our moves and methods were built upon our mistakes and their remedies, solidified in doctrine and then presented as the final antidote, tried and deemed successful, though it was not. So, in this forced mental solitude, I began to look towards those things I knew of the subject from study and experience, as well as my many digital travels. In this caffeine-free environment, my brain shrunk and made the world around me a haze, in which I pondered the subject at hand.

I am as well read as any on the subject. I have read Petraeus, McChrystal, Kilcullen and Nagl. I follow @abumuqawama and the War Kids. I’ve read the ideas and actually did them, seeing their effects, better now with the luxury of time, distance, and results, or lack thereof.  All this has resulted in me and my peers an almost unquestioning acceptance of the way – drink tea, be nice, be patient.

To win, it is argued, the key lay in the population. Win them, their hearts and minds, and you shall know victory. It had become an obsession of ours. Learn the language, study the culture, be persistent and kind and absorb casualties if needed but by all costs, win the population. Then, and only then could one expect to find victory. Now that l was in this broken, recovering state, it became unclear to me if this goal was worthy and just. What again, did we want this for and why were we doing so much to achieve it?

The barracks ebbed and flowed with the chow hours. Breakfast followed by post-breakfast naps, then lunch and then more napping. Only come dinner did the camp come alive. Debate mixed with the agonizing stories of recent failure. While they gossiped, I lay in my bed, lower back aching from too much rest – the king’s ailment – and thought more of our aim in this war. Win the population. Only we showed no prospect of winning anybody’s population.

I flopped over on my bunk, relieving the pain in my lower back temporarily and closed my ears to the nonsense around me. What if winning the population was not the key? Maybe the goal was in fact, the destruction, or at least the permanent defeat of the enemy, that vapour, blowing where it listed. Population be damned.

A trio of soldiers laughed and debated the merits of wholesale annihilation vice the softer approach. I listened in as one made his point, struggling to convince the others of the foolishness of such a barbaric tactic. They would come to no conclusion.

This unending insurgency, this vapour, how to defeat it? The tools provided, we knew not, with any certainty, if they worked. A confluence of events in that vilified theater led to a sort of victory, while those same events attempted to be replicated in the virtuous theater, are at this time indecisive. Perhaps to win the long war, winning the people is the essence and necessity. But what might be done in the interim? Better, a cheaper, yet permanent solution that does not annihilate the insurgents but threatens as much?

They wanted after all, the removal of us from their lands – an understandable goal if ever there was one. To do so they harassed and sniped and bombed and generally caused havoc, not just for us but for the people of whom we have made it our goal to win. As much as we killed them, which wasn’t much enough to secure victory, we could not do so to that end. They fought for their own freedom, or notion of it, and we ours. Killing to killings end would not accomplish these war aims.

Days went by and my gorging increased before slowing to something recognizable. Vigor returned in small doses and I milled about, chatting lightly and raising spirits with riddles and games. My chief concern, as fantasist, lay still with the house of war, it’s tactics, strategy, and psychology, for my personal duty was service, and my service was to all.

The first confusion lay with the idea that this enemy could not be destroyed, or again, defeated. Their base was their idea, and how does one really kill an idea? This, given the proper gathering of intelligence, technology, and imagination might be overcome.

To hold this territory of square miles: sixty: eighty: one hundred: perhaps two hundred thousand square miles, we would need troops there, on the ground. Impossible! Yes, but perhaps, the counterinsurgent would argue, we could partner with the locals, our host nation brothers and sisters who would exponentially increase our numbers. True, I say, but would it yet be enough? And to be there and to win the population? And even then, we know they will not come to fight us with an army of banners, lest it be online, in the info-space. No, they do indeed come as an army, in small numbers, happy to exploit our size and vulnerability, knowing fully we must be careful in our application of violence to win the population. Armies, it was argued, are like plants, immobile, firm-rooted, nourished through long stems to the head. They, the enemy, they are the vapour. Their kingdom lay in the mind. A regular soldier might be helpless without a target, owning only where he sat and subjugating only what he could poke his rifle at.

Yes, all this being true, to do the deed as we know it, we would need hundreds of thousands of light infantrymen, with support, to garrison the land. An expensive and altogether unlikely scenario.

Now then, we get to the rub of his whole thing. Let us take the assumption that what we need to win is an immovable Army large enough to poke his rifle at whatever it is he seeks to subjugate. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers. Instead of drafting the rank and file for the colourless duty on the imperial frontier, why not leverage the incredible advantage in technology that we solely possess and develop and deploy a new concept of counter-insurgent?

Imagine a gigantic spider of steel and electrons, nuclear powered and nearly invulnerable to small arms and explosives. Tall and wide, imposing and always there. Part of its weaponry is its size, imposing, a mobile skyscraper. Rooted into the ground, an immovable army – only it moves! Rapidly it does, descending from the air or creeping along the land, watching all around, threatening to strike. It is ever present and sinister. That is the nature of it, to strike fear into the hearts of men who wish to oppose it. It cannot be defeated, only avoided. And even then, assisted by its junior siblings, the drones, and their network of spies, it captures the vital element of the modern battlefield – information – and quickly processes that into a strike from it’s all seeing eye.

Yes, this might be the irrational tenth, the kingfisher of the pond, the test of generals, for there lay in this no real predecessor except in the minds of children and mad men.

The absolute strength of our power, to the sadness of the modern noble warrior, rests in the pure economic and scientific dominance we maintain over all. To engage in ground combat with the insurgent is madness. It provides the enemy with that chance to fight and win against an icon of his hatred. To send the Reaper, is to show that there is no hope. It cannot be defeated. It can be there forever or be there not at all, only to return in an instant.

Some, understandably, might object to the black nature of such a weapon. Is this not more humane than the alternative? Flooding a land with hundreds of thousands of individuals all guided by their own hearts, attempting to stroke a hostile population to neutrality, instead of deploying a dozen Reapers to act as statues of justice?

Battles in Arabia or its cousins were a mistake, since we profited in them not at all. But if we must, honesty may do more for the case of victory than ill-conceived notions of pure intent. Our power is not in patience or numbers, but technology and imagination. Our developments have been lateral, not horizontal. We saddled our trucks and troops with armor and a brief class on “culture” and called them counterinsurgents. Our power is our strength, and a failure of imagination stunted its development and deployment.

Time passed, and my weight restored, somehow more natural than even before. These thoughts solidified and were packaged and stored away.

It seemed to me that our forces are strong but not prepared for the enemy they face. Our enemy is sophisticated only in that it faces us as we are and not as we should be. Our own population is supportive so long as we remain safe, and so enamored by technology are they that the introduction of the Reaper would be the crown achievement and marvel of our time. On its first landing, the absolute folly of opposing it would become apparent, and in that the war would be won.

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.

The Keepers of the FOB

Originally published in 2015.

The other day, as I exited my room, there was an older man in civilian clothes with a clipboard putting a fire extinguisher back into its wall-mounted cradle nearby. I nodded to the worker and he barely nodded back. A few days earlier, there was a small fire and all of the fire extinguishers were used and then seemed to dissapear.

And now, a few days later, they were recharged and back in their original place. No coordinations were made.

Something I’ve noticed more on this deployment than previous ones is the level of maintenance and upkeep that occurs on the FOB (Forward Operating Base). While some of it is done by military personnel, much of the day-to-day life functions are carried out by private contractors and local workers. It all kind of happens in the background, wrenches turning, equipment moving, fire extinguishers being replaced, all without anyone ever really noticing or even asking.

It reminded me of the Keepers on the Citadel (from Mass Effect). We’re warned early on not to mess with them; their origins are mysterious, but hey, they keep things running so why mess with a good thing?

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.

Admiral Anderson on military life, intuition, and the calamity of leadership

Originally published in 2013.

I jumped back into Mass Effect today to play the Citadel DLC and was inspired by some of the things in this interview between a journalist and Admiral David Anderson. I’ve pulled out the parts I found the most interesting.

Whoever wrote this is spot on. For all of the military training we have, things often come down to instincts. Thousands of years of warfare there for us to study, to inform our training, but instinct is still the thing that sits there at the unforgiving minute, the last hundred yards.

And isn’t that the truth concerning the terrible burden of leadership? How horrible is it that we ask our military leaders to choose the mission over the men, and to carry that cross for the rest of their lives?

But then, is war not terrible? I love how Admiral Anderson makes that final statement. To me, it is a critique on war, and a warning to avoid it at all costs, because there truly are no winners, just better-off losers.

Journalist: Does the program make the man, or do you think you were born for this?

It is a bit of both I suppose. Every soldier reaches a point in their career, sometimes more than once, when they are asked to give more than they ever thought they could. That moment is the test. I’ve seen men and women almost sure to fail, persevere long past the point of breaking. That experience changes them. Others, with all the gifts and abilities, fail in that moment. Sometimes they pick themselves up and carry on, sometimes, they’re just done.

JournalistDo you trust your intuition? Do you follow your heart or your mind?

No, I suppose if I were to be honest, I do trust my instincts. The problem is… war isn’t orderly. And the enemy is never predictable. Even the most experienced veteran is going to find themselves in situations they haven’t trained for. In those instances – and there is more than I’d like to admit – your instincts are the only thing keeping you alive. That, and the men and women you’re fighting aside.

Journalist: But soldiers are only as good as their leader, isn’t that true?

Yeah, a good leader can make an ‘ok’ squad great. And a bad leader, well, war tends to make examples of them.

Journalist: What makes a good leader then?

Hm… a good leader is someone who values the life of his men over the success of the mission, but understands that sometimes, the cost of failing a mission is higher than the cost of losing those men.

JournalistThat’s a terrible line to have to walk.

Yes it is. But war is a terrible thing.

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.

Life is Strange: You can’t un-know what you already know

Gone Girl

The last episode of Life is Strange came out last week, and I rushed to finish it so as not to have the ending(s) spoiled by the internet. I didn’t think I’d be so engrossed by the game when I first read about it from eastern Afghanistan, but I honestly can’t remember the last time I’ve been so sucked into a game’s story. After each episode – and this one is no different – I suffer from a morose melancholy for a few days. From the moment the credits roll, I stumble through the drudgery of work and life, thinking about what happened and trying to make sense of it all.

I remind myself, on a number of instances, that’s it’s only a game. But that doesn’t really work.

It’s been a great journey. One that led me to think about the way we interact with one another, suicide, and how veterans are portrayed in the media.

I’m not reviewing the game here. I can’t really be objective about it because I loved it so much. There aren’t many games I would describe as beautiful, but that’s the word that comes to mind.

Like a lot of fans of the game, I’m sad that it’s over. As much as I love narrative based, choice-and-consequence games, once I finish them, they kind of lose their magic for me. I can achievement-hunt and explore the world, but I’ve already exhausted my path.

When I played Mass Effect, I played it as I think I would if I were actually Commander Shepard. When presented with choices, I chose what I thought I would choose in that circumstance. It’s for that reason that in my story, Commander Shepard never had a love interest. It’s generally frowned upon to sleep with your subordinates, as it goes.

Once I destroyed the Reapers (the only right choice), I thought about going back and replaying the game and playing as a totally different “character.” I liked the idea of doing it, and I even started, but I think I only lasted about an hour before I grew bored with it. It was hard for me to role-play the game as someone I’m not.

It was the same for Life is Strange. The decisions I made as Max were the decisions I think I would have made if I were walking in her shoes. Now that it’s over, I’m already thinking about how I can replay the game, to try to experience it some more. I can explore different decisions, or play as a different kind of Max, but that really doesn’t appeal to me.

I know how the story goes, and I can’t un-know what I already know.

Which leads me to the whole point of this post. A friend once described part of the problem with the civilian-miltiary divide as one that stems from the fact that once someone joins the military, they never really get out. Sure, they can separate from service, but instead of becoming a civilian, they are more likely to identify as a veteran, an identity separate from being a civilian. They’ve been militarized, and you don’t really ever become de-militarized.

Once you’re in, even when you get out, you can’t un-know what you already know.

When I finally finished Tactics Ogre last year, I wrote about how even though it felt good to finally beat it, the final playthrough was tainted by the first, some twenty years ago. The way I experienced it the first time was canon – I can’t go back and change things. And even if I do, it never feels quite right.

When a young man or woman chooses to join the military, that doesn’t become undone when they come home. They can never go back to “normal,” whatever that even means. You can’t un-know what you already know.

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.

The Effect of Narrative Based Games On Real Conversation

Life is Strange was one of the games on my list of games to play when I got back from Afghanistan. It’s a beautiful game, and it’s narrative-based, meaning the story is driven forward by conversation and decisions you make through the game.

Between Life is Strange and Mass Effect (and others), I’ve noticed that recently, when I’m talking with someone, and especially if we’re just standing there and the conversation is going back and forth, I’ve been hyper-aware of the things I was saying and understood that what I say and how I behave might significantly effect real outcomes.

Ok, I know there’s a “no shit” aspect to this, as in, of course this is the case – that’s called real life. But there is something strange about it when you are actually thinking while still in the conversation about how this or that response might affect the outcome.

While this is all anecdotal, I feel like being hyper-aware of the conversation is a good thing. Too often, it feels like we just breeze through conversations without really thinking about what we’re saying and what the outcome might be. “Game-ifying” conversations feels a little manipulative, but only in that you’re being mindful of what you’re saying. We’ve been taught to “think before you speak” but not really to think of the potential outcomes.

Anyway, I like being more aware of what I’m saying, and if it’s a result of games, awesome.

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.

Saving Catiua

Catiua Suicide
Catiua’s suicide.

I’m still slogging through Tactics Ogre: Let Us Cling Together. I’ve finally reached a point in the game that I remember reaching the first time I played it and abandoned it. I know I am nearing the end. Or, at least, I think I am nearing the end. When I played originally, I followed the Law route (which means you know what I did at Balamusa). I eventually got to the part where Catiua kills herself in front of you. It was pretty heavy stuff for the the fifteen year old me. Shortly thereafter, I stopped playing.

The other day, I finally rescued Catiua only to see her kill herself again. The game let me save just before the dialogue and I was presented with a couple of choices on what to say, which hinted at alternate outcomes. I took a deep breath, and before I continued with the game, I decided to reset it and see what would happen if I chose a different dialogue option.

Given the two options of dialogue, I chose the “other” one, which kept the conversation going a little longer opening up a second pair of dialogue options. I chose the option that I thought most natural, and she killed herself a second time.

I reloaded again, a lá All You Need Is Kill / Edge of Tomorrow and went through the dialogue again, choosing the “other” option again, which resulted in Catiua collapsing and apologizing, and most importantly, not committing suicide.

A new cut-scene appeared and Catiua joined the party. I saved the game and went to lunch.

There, I started to regret resetting the game (twice!) in order to make sure Catiua joined. One of the things I love about Tactics Ogre (and Mass Effect) is how your in-game decisions have lasting effects. The in-game dialogue options hinted to me that there may have been a way to save Catiua – whom I assumed always killed herself on the Law route from my first play through over ten years ago. As I finished my lunch, I felt guilty for having made the wrong decision that led Catiua to kill herself and not accepting that fate and replaying it for a more favorable outcome.

The game, now, feels a bit skewed. I’ll finish it out, and once complete, there is an option to go back and make different decisions to “see what happens” and fully explore the game. That’ll be the first thing I do. But I feel a bit like an impostor.

The whole episode is similar to the death/saving of Shadow in Final Fantasy VI, which gets a great write-up over at the A.V. Club. In the era of GameFAQs, it is getting harder and harder to be surprised in video games anymore. Perma-death and game-changing decisions are still too easy to avoid or double-back over. Despite resetting the game to get the result I wanted, I know I would have enjoyed this part more if I would have accepted the consequences of my initial decision, which is why I did what I did at Balamusa, by the way. It’s also why I will forever “Tell them I held the line…

It’s all a bit complicated. I thought it interesting and I wanted to get it down here before I forgot about it. There’s so much to say about Tactics Ogre – a very adult game, way before it’s time.

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.