Voyevoda

I recently finished Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, a game I began in 2004 and never finished.

It fills in much of the story I’ve been missing in the saga. I’m not done yet though. I still need to finish MGS 4 / Portable Ops / Peace Walker.

Then, I really owe myself another playthrough of MGSV – so much more will make sense (hopefully – I know that’s a stretch).

Whenever I’m engrossed in a game, I tend to write about it. MGS3 inspired a few posts on the blog.

The “Mother of Special Forces” – There’s a fascinating cut-scene early in MGS3 where we learn a little bit about Snake’s mentor – the Boss. She is referred to as a the ‘Mother of Special Forces.’ The codename the Russian’s give her is Voyevoda – warlord. This was an opportunity to write about the actual “Father of Special Forces” – Colonel Aaron Bank.

“Toxic Mentorship” through Boss and Snake – Mentorship is such an important aspect of military life, but it is rare that we talk about “toxic” mentorship. The Boss’ defection to the Soviet Union and the way she tries to leverage her relationship with Snake as a mentor is a form of this type of toxic mentorship.

Some thoughts on Colonel Volgin – Colonel Volgin terrified me. The combination of ambition, impulsiveness, and brute physical power is frightening.

The saga of Tom Olsen – This is not necessarily tied to MGS3, but it took place while I was playing it so I was very Metal Gear-primed. It was fascinating to watch the Metal Gear fandom go bonkers for a small-scale deception operation.

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Smith-Mundt as Counter-Political Warfare

Glad to see Matt Armstrong on a recent Cognitive Crucible podcast – this one on his passion project, the much-misunderstood “Smith-Mundt Act.”

If you’ve been around the “information operations” space, the Smith-Mundt act is usually taught during a class on “authorities.” There will be a slide that usually includes some text lifted from the act and then a “bottom line” that the US government is prohibited from informing/influencing/targeting/propagandizing/etc domestic American audiences.

Next slide, please.

Once that nugget buries itself into someone’s head, it gets carted out usually as a bulwark to doing anything in the info-space.

“Yes, but don’t forget the Smith-Mundt act…”

The history of the actual legislation is much more nuanced. Instead of “prohibiting” domestic dissemination, it was actually intended to “allow” dissemination abroad (by the State Department) as a direct counter to burgeoning Soviet political warfare.

“…we have nevertheless been too preoccupied in the past with feeding the stomachs of people while the Soviets have concentrated on feeding their minds.”

1947 European CODEL (MountainRunner)

If we’re going to conduct political warfare effectively, we have to understand this history. This is wonky territory, but that’s ok, because as Matt states in the episode, this stuff starts with President of the United States. It should be wonky – it’s incredibly important.

Anyway, the episode is worth your time – especially if you are an information warfare practicioner, or more importantly, if you are (or will be) in a position to make command decisions in an operational environment. You, more than anyone else, can make a huge impact if you understand what you can do – which is a lot.

Some interesting tidbits in this episode:

  • Opening: Defining “public diplomacy” and why that even matters
  • ~18:00: Smith-Mundt as a way to counter Russian political warfare
  • ~19:00: “We feed stomachs, the Russians feed minds…”
  • ~19:30: The importance of strategic vision – “We used to have an idea of where we were going…”
  • ~23:00: Our system is obsessed with bueracractic responsibility as opposed to methods, means, and outcomes – and this is bad
  • ~28:00: On the “terminal limits” of PSYOP leadership – if PSYOP officers terminate at the O6 level, can we really make a difference?
  • ~28:30: It is an unfortunate truth that the person who is most likely to influence an operational commander’s decision making is not the PSYOP officer giving advice on the psychological impacts of activities and operations, but the PAO, or worse, the JAG
  • ~37:00: “Stop it policy” – we are too reactive. Instead of seizing or defining the narrative, we are constantly reacting to nonsense in an attempt to “make it stop”
  • ~41:00: We need to get way more comfortable making mistakes – let subordinates fail in the IE – it’s ok – our adversaries are doing it every day
  • ~45:00: What even is “propaganda?”

Also, towards the end Matt references the fascinating topic of a PSYOP officer who wrote a book shortly after WWII arguing that influence operations should be banned via treaty. I’m now officially on the hunt for it.

It’s a great episode. Check it out.

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The saga of Tom Olsen

A really fascinating thing happened on Twitter over the past month. Long story short, a fan of of Metal Gear created a Twitter account (@TheTomOlsen). “Tom” is just a regular guy who happens to work on “Big Shell,” the ocean platform that is the setting for most of Metal Gear Solid 2.

Over the course of the month, he posted innocuous photos of daily life on the platform.

The official Metal Gear Twitter account retweeted one of these and rumors began to spread rapidly that the “Tom” account might be a guerilla marketing campaign intended to build enthusiasm for an announcement of a new Metal Gear game. Lots of gaming websites picked up on this and spread the same rumor.

In the end, it was all just the work of a dedicated fan.

Metal Gear Solid 2 is credited as being prophetic of our current environment. A key theme is the spread of misinformation, disinformation and how that plays with our expectations. The game itself constantly teased and harrassed the player, breaking the fourth wall over and over again to make the point.

In the video embedded in tweet below, the force behind “Tom” explains this.

In a strange way, it’s been a very fitting way to memorialize MGS2 — by demonstrating how the rapid transmission of information can lead to the suppression of truth.

Lies spread faster than truth. And even when the lie is refuted, there is a percentage of people who will still only remember the lie.

What I find particularly interesting about this saga is the fact that this must have been well planned and thought out in advance. The deluge of posts, photos, and videos that were shared that “chronicled” the attack on Big Shell were done with purpose – it was polished and professional. The screenshots made it look like Tom was walking through Big Shell snapping photos, taking video, and sharing it with the world. These photos needed to be digitally staged. The force behind Tom knew his target audience. He knew what would get people churning.

This all took work and I’d love to know how long it took to get everything prepped.

The account didn’t respond to others, it had its own agenda. But that didn’t stop others from using it to fit their own narratives or desires.

The account hijacked the fans collective desires and weaponized them for fun. People want a new game, so that’s what they believed. “Tom” never said anything about it, but others filled in the gaps.

Just a really fascinating story.

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A Cold War, fought with information and espionage

As we move further and further into this new thing – great power competition – I’m struck by how much more difficult this is going to be than anything we’ve done before.

Counter-insurgency was supposed to be the “graduate level of war.

If that’s the case, then great power competition and political warfare must be the doctorate level of war.

We are going to have to do more planning, more work, and more activity just to slightly move the dial.

And that is what winning looks like.

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Man and Machine

This sequence terrifies me (bottom).

A hunk of metal, high above the ground, completely out of control.

The pilot’s dead and you know you’re going down.

You have to try to do something but at this point there’s really nothing to be done.

The way the world swirls through the windshield – spinning and spinning – is sickening.

The alert sounds. You don’t know what it means, but you know it isn’t good.

Pulling on the stick, trying to make it do something.

Rapidly changing gravity makes every movement a challenge.


When I first joined the Army, there was an older guy in my basic training course. He was 29 and I was 19. We got along well enough and he said he thought I should try to become a helicopter pilot. I don’t know why, but that stuck with me.

I’ve always been fascinated with helicopters. As a kid, I used to play ‘HIND‘ on an old Mac and loved trying to pilot the hulking mass low to the ground to a landing zone to drop off Soviet Spetznaz under fire.

I never seriously considered trying to fly.

Being in an aircraft as a military person is a special experience.

There is the thrill of the infil.

But there’s also the terror of the portal. Looking out the door of a Blackhawk into the night, down the ramp of a CASA at the hazy ground as it passes by slowly, or through the round porthole of a C-130 as it corkscrews for a landing under threat of attack, the world spinning and spinning.

It is a reminder of how out of control you are. You’re a passenger. You are completely at the mercy of the pilot, the crew, and the machine.

At least the pilot and the crew have something to do.

Rewatching the above clip reminded me of this horror story, about a helicopter that was shot down in Iraq in 2005. The helicopter was carrying Blackwater contractors who all died after the helicopter was struck with a missile. Miraculously, the pilot somehow survived both the missile strike, the fall to Earth, and the subsequent crash.

The insurgents who shot down the helicopter found the pilot near the wreckage and shot him. The whole thing was captured on video and released.

It’s easy to forget that these kinds of things were happening on a regular basis in those days.

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“Toxic mentorship” through Boss and Snake

“The Boss” is Snake’s mentor, for those who know their Metal Gear lore. She is a legenedary soldier and the “Mother of Special Forces.

In a few of the early scenes in Metal Gear Solid 3: Snake Eater, this mentorship relationship takes center stage. It becomes the proximate drama that drives the story: a mentor who betrays her country versus her disciple sent to stop her.

What became clear to me, though, during these scenes, is just how “toxic” this mentorship has become.

Toxic leadership is a well-known phenomenon, especially in the military. Army doctrine (AR 600-100) defines toxic leadership as “a combination of self-centered attitudes, motivations, and behaviors that have adverse effects on subordinates, the organization, and mission performance.

Usually, we’re talking about toxic leadership in regards to a leader who has direct influence over subordinates in an organization. His or her toxic behaviors can be destructive to the organization. Effects can include lowered morale, decreased productivity, lower retention and more.

If you have served with a toxic leader, which I am willing to bet most people would attest, you know how difficult these periods can be.

But what if it is your mentor who is toxic? And worse, what if your mentor “wasn’t always that way” but has changed over time?

Our mentors are supposed to be the ones we go to for advice. Usually, our mentor is not our direct supervisor or even in the chain of command. It’s someone we can return to over time to check-in with, making sure we’re on the right path. The ones who can be honest with us and give us unvarnished feedback.

What does toxic mentorship look like? It’s hard to say. Conversations with mentors can seem different than conversations with your boss.

Many of us have experienced this. The advice given might seem a little more raw or cut-throat. Sometimes, this feels like you are being let in on a secret, or maybe as a mentee, you’ve reached a point where you can “handle” this level of advice.

Have you ever left a mentorship session or hung up the phone thinking, “Hm, that was not what I expected.”

And in truth, maybe the advice just is a little more raw. Maybe you are being let in on a secret.

Sometimes, though, people just change.

A toxic mentor – especially in a military context – might be someone who implores you to demonstrate loyalty to an individual as opposed to a unit or a specific mission. Or to engage in potentially destructive behaviors or practices that would otherwise be off-limits.

In the below three scenes, we witness Boss’ mentorship to Snake degrade from one of sage advisor, discussing the intricacies, contradictions, and challenges that professional soldiers face, to demanding individual loyalty from one of her “disciples.”

The Boss’ mentorship begins at 4:30.

Scene 1: In this CODEC call, the Boss is reintroduced to Snake. It is clear that they have a long-standing mentorship/mentee relationship and then offers some sage advice on patriotism, loyalty, and what it means to be a career soldier. To this point, it seems standard fare.

Toxic mentorship begins at 1:14

Scene 2: In this scene, the Boss states that she is defecting to the Soviet Union. She is also bringing two “Davy Crockett” nuclear warheads as a gift. Snake feels betrayed by his mentor, and to add injury to insult, she breaks his arm and tosses him over the bridge.

“What is it going to be? Loyalty to your country, or loyalty to me?”

Scene 3: Soon after arriving on the mission to eliminate Boss, Snake gets ambushed – by the Boss. For some context to the below, Snake is wearing the Boss’ bandana, which fell with him when she tossed him off the bridge. They exchange some words, and as Boss is leaving, Snake demands answers:

Snake: Why’d you defect?

Boss: I didn’t. I’m loyal… to the “end.” To my purpose. What about you, Jack? What’s it going to be? Loyalty to your country, or loyalty to me? Your country, or your mentor? Your mission, or your beliefs? Your duty to your unit, or your personal feelings?

You don’t know the truth yet. But sooner or later, you’ll have to choose. I don’t expect you to forgive me. But you can’t defeat me either. You know me too well. Just look at that bandana. If you can’t put the past behind you, you won’t survive long. If we meet again, I’ll kill you.

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The “Mother of Special Forces”

Photo of Col. Aaron Bank (credit: arsof-history.org)

Hm. This was a bit surprising. The ‘Boss’ is considered the “Mother of Special Forces” in Metal Gear lore.

“Voyevoda.” Relevant conversation between Johnson and Kruschev begins at 4:06

Fiction, of course. The actual “Father of Special Forces” is Col. Aaron Bank, who died in 2004. Anyone who has gone through special operations training has spent time wandering the halls of the building that carries his name – Bank Hall – at Fort Bragg, NC.

I love how the front door to Metal Gear lore seems legitimate, and then once you step inside it just gets bonkers.

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Some recent articles on Chinese political warfare

I’ve been digging into the “Ministry of Truth” series from War on the Rocks discussing Chinese political warfare.

It’s a three part series, and to date, the first two have been released.

Each is packed with links and sources. You can go deep down the rabbit hole if you’re interested in building a better understanding of Chinese political warfare.

A couple of choice excerpts below.

Part I Contrasting China’s and Russia’s Influence Operations.

On the fact that political warfare is “standard operating procedure” for Russia and China:

The operational differences, for all their practical implications, may be less important than the simple recognition that Beijing and Moscow both approach influence operations and active measures as a normal way of doing business. 

On the different approaches Russia/China take in regards to political warfare:

Undoubtedly, more can be said about how to understand the distinctions between Chinese and Russian influence operations and political warfare. Perhaps the best way to describe the differences between the two approaches is that the Chinese are human- or relationship-centric while the Russians are operation- or effects-centric. 

Part II China’s ‘three warfares’ in perspective.

Looking at the PLA in strictly military terms lacks a true understanding of their purpose:

When analysts look at the PLA, they are looking at it as a military — at its warfighting capabilities and the resulting security implications. It is a purely military view that lacks a clear concept for appreciating political warfare.

Influence operations are directly connected to political power:

The party leads, the PLA follows. The purpose of influence operations is political power.

Lessons learned from watching the US in the Persian Gulf war (emphasis in bold mine). I’d love to see more on this, by the way:

The Persian Gulf War to expel Iraq from Kuwait taught the PLA the value and power of information in the modern context. Most obviously, precision-guided bombs blowing out buildings on CNN cameras demonstrated the value of targeting intelligence and guided munitions. However, the PLA also drew lessons from the George H.W. Bush administration’s diplomatic effort to paint Iraq as the aggressor and to rally an international coalition, including Iraq’s Arab neighbors. They also admired the psychological warfare efforts to induce Iraqi commanders to surrender or retreat without fighting.

Related, a short (and kind of choppy) article in Small Wars Journal that couches China’s approach as war, not competition. The author seems to be inferring that we should not be using the “great power competition” construct because our adversaries aren’t.

Image at the top: “The Boss” mentoring “Naked Snake” (MGS3).

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Metal Gear Deep Dive: COLD WAR, PROXIES, and PHANTOM PAIN

I’ve been on a Metal Gear kick for the past 6 months so when this video popped up in my feed I was excited to watch it. It’s a deep dive into the historical lore that courses through the Metal Gear series and does a good job of tying the game to history, and the genius of Hideo Kojima.

If you’re fan of Metal Gear, or think that video games can’t be intelligent and informative, the video is worth your time.

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