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

shepard looking out at a reaper mass effect

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 madmen.

The absolute strength of our power, to the sadness of the modern noble warrior, rests in the pure economic and scientific dominance we maintain overall. 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.

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The Secret Brilliance of “You go to war with the Army you have…”

donald rumsfeld press conference

“You go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you might want or wish you had at a later time.”

That infamous quote by former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, absent of the context in which it was spoken, is actually brilliant in its simplicity and reflects the reality of modern combat, or really, modern combat logistics.

Secretary Rumsfeld, of course, was chided for making the comment, which was in response to a Specialist who asked why his unit has to rummage through trash heaps to find scrap metal to weld onto old humvees. The more palatable answer would have been to mumble something about resourcing the Greatest Army in the World and that the process takes time. Instead, Secretary Rumsfeld spoke the truth, which came out as insensitive. Context matters, and in this case, the Iraq War was wildly unpopular at the time, and Secretary Rumsfeld was under fire for (mis)managing the war. The quip came off as another one of his dodges in the same vein of his famously fiery press conferences.

It’s unfortunate, because the statement is both true and can be used on an almost daily basis in military life. It can hardly be said today, though, without a chuckle or raised eyebrow.

The truth is, as former Secretary Gates would say, the American public, and by extension, the American military, often has a “cartoonish” view of what our own military capabilities are. We can land a man on the moon, so of course, ipso facto, we can outfit an entire expeditionary Army with the correct armor to defeat a growing and adapting threat, right?

An interesting challenge for modern military leaders is the fact that we know that there are capabilities and resources out there that we would absolutely love to have on every mission. Someone can send me a picture with their iPhone of the exact part I need for one of my Strykers that’s sitting in a shed somewhere on the other side of the world. It’s exactly what I need, but it’s still on the other side of the world. If the mission calls for me to roll out now, then I have to roll out right now.

Assets that may have been available for one mission or one conflict or one deployment might not be available for another, even though they are indeed “available” in the grand context of that meaning – they exist. If they exist, then to the modern military leader who is accustomed to being in the Greatest Army in the World, they should be available for use, at all times.

When I originally joined the Army, that myth existed pretty strongly in my imagination. I remember rolling my eyes (figuratively, not literally) at my Sergeants who were telling me that we would have to make sure we stow away our magazines when we change them under fire; we would not have the luxury of resupply. My thinking was, if I was in a firefight, screw trying to fiddle with stuffing a magazine in my cargo pocket, I’m concentrating on shooting, there would be more magazines in the supply office after the mission. That imagination was smashed by the reality of actual combat service, including running out of food for a couple of days during the initial invasion of Iraq. I remember actually saying to my Squad Leader in the middle of the desert: “Out of food? This is America! This is 2003! How the hell do we run out of food?” Yet, we did.

We went to war with the Army we had.

All the gizmos and gadgets and assets that flood the modern battlefield are great. But if they’re not there (for whatever reason), then the assumption should not be that the mission should be scratched. Same for training.

Transportation got nixed? Walking is an option, you know.

Anyway, the point of all this is that it is actually hard to stand up in front of soldiers and say to them “you go to war with the Army you have,” probably because of Secretary Rumsfeld’s gaffe.

With that said, the Army I need includes a 900’ REAPER.

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The counterinsurgent’s dream; Or, how I learned to eat soup with a 900′ power glove!


I love(d) Grand Blog Tarkin. I love(d) writing for them. It’s fun and different.

My latest piece is about a fictional dream I had, imagining a different way to fight the COIN fight. Please, check it out.

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