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.

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Major, you are the most insubordinate officer I have ever met!

The headline here is the top search term of the week, which led the searcher(s) to my reaction to American Spartan, the book that chronicles the journey of retired Major Jim Gant in Afghanistan. It’s odd, because I don’t use the phrase in the article and I’m not even sure it turns up in the book. The phrase also reminded me of something that may have been in Lawrence of Arabia, but a Google search turned up nothing on that.

Incidentally, as far as I can tell, the quote is actually from the 1996 movie SGT Bilko starring Steve Martin. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen the movie, but considering I’ve written before about how movies of that genre – making fun of the military – have become less appropriate (which is a bad thing), it might be worth watching.

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T.E. Lawrence and my social media revolt

Originally published in 2013.

“Their ideal was ease in which to busy themselves with others’ affairs.”

T.E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom (1926)

Seven Pillars of Wisdom can be a chore to read. It’s massive, and Lawrence at times muses like Holden Caulfield.

But there are many gems found throughout that have stayed with me, like this, his thoughts on the military man, the veteran:

“Some of them had obeyed the instinct of lawlessness: some were hungry: others thirsted for glamour, the supposed colour of a military life: but, of them all, those only received satisfaction who had sought to degrade themselves, for to the peace-eye they were below humanity.”

Most of my favorites, though, have little to do with military matters, language, or his travels. The one that sticks with me most is the end of the quote I opened with. Lawrence, in pure orientalist fashion, expresses his thoughts on the Syrians:

“All these peoples of Syria were open to us by the master-key of their common Arabic language. Their distinctions were political and religious: morally they differed only in the steady gradation from neurotic sensibility on the sea coast to reserve inland. They were quick-minded; admirers, but not seekers of truth; self-satisfied; not (like the Egyptians) helpless before abstract ideas, but unpractical; and so lazy in mind as to be habitually superficial. Their ideal was ease in which to busy themselves with others’ affairs.”

“…busy themselves in others’ affairs.”

It was 2006. I was still fresh out of the Army and I shot out like a rocket ship. I had a full time job and I went to community college full time, trying to catch up with my education while not sacrificing my livelihood. I exercised daily and had a healthy social life. I was busy and happy.

“You should start a Facebook account,” my fiancé said.

“Why? I have a MySpace,” I replied.

I held out for a year. I just wasn’t interested.

Eventually, I relented and created a Facebook account, my modest little garden on the internet. I started connecting with ‘friends.’ Old friends and new. I was in college and meeting lots of people. It was fun. I have always enjoyed socializing online. AOL chat rooms. Internet forums. Online video games. This was a natural evolution of that.

I’d meet someone and say before leaving “Are you on Facebook?”

I enjoyed it. Pictures and comments and the opportunity to display your best self in a steady parade of best selves.

But something changed. The whole experience is no longer fun. It’s exhausting and depressing and it’s making me nuts.

More and more I’m finding myself rotating through a digital cycle of Facebook and Twitter, clearing out my ‘reds,’ those cruelly painted notifications designed to excite my brain and grab my attention. I’ll sit down at my computer to do something and find myself some time later staring at three open tabs that each say ‘Facebook (1)’ and I wonder what the hell it was I meant to do in the first place.

Or I find myself staring at a Twitter avatar, a brilliant, tiny photograph next to a quip, some moral grandstand that dares me to respond. I click ‘reply’ and tap out a response and stare at it, cursor blinking, asking me, “done?”

I think, and delete it. I almost always delete it. I don’t want to get sucked into a whole thing.

Except sometimes I send it and get sucked into a whole thing. Then comes the reply, an electric torpedo from the dark. And I’ll send another one back. And then I have to go out and actually do something in life.

I’m at lunch, checking my phone. My wife rolls her eyes. I’m waiting for a reply. Pitifully, my phone allows for ‘push notifications,’ allowing someone to reach me like a vine growing out of my phone and wrapping around my neck.

My day can be ruined by what someone says on the Internet. And I’m tired of it.

I’m tired of writing little notes and pressing enter, sending it into the ‘stream’ and watching it get carried away, or rather, pushed away by other peoples’ notes. I hate waiting and wanting those other people to look at my note and think it is so great that they’ll pass it along to their people, all sending their own little notes.

I’m tired of the ridiculous conspiracy theories from people I respect, and trying to gently make the correction.

Mostly, I’m tired of the unending gazing. The incessant scrolling. The comparing and wondering. The constant tugging from the social media ether-space, beckoning me to check again, to see what’s going on.

I can no longer stand to have people I don’t know or with whom I share some limited, past experience, suck me into their world. It’s too much.

Aa Lawrence hints: is it wrong to be interested chiefly with one’s own affairs?

Don’t get me wrong. I love social media. I wholeheartedly believe in it as a tool for fun and personal growth as well as a platform for mobilization. I’ve made some of my best friends through it and it allows me to maintain and develop relationships in a way not as readily available in the past. I wrote my undergraduate thesis on the role of social media in an Egyptian social movement, using Facebook to reach out to and interview some of its leaders.

No, social media is great. Just not for me. I can’t survive in it. It’s quicksand. Others, I’m sure, walk along like it’s a gorgeous beach, waving and smiling and enjoying the sunset

I take a few steps and sink.

That’s my problem.

So, I’m in rebellion. I declare war on social media. I’ve deleted Facebook and Twitter from my phone and I’ve resolved to checking them both just once a day. From my computer.

Oh I’ll still post. To withdraw completely would be to lose. To win is to control this beast. To use the space and turn their weapons to my own use. To pillage the trains left smoldering on their tracks, as Lawrence did with the Arabs.

Take back your day. It’s a revolt.

“All men dream, but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds, wake in the day to find that it was vanity: but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act on their dreams with open eyes, to make them possible.”

T. E. Lawrence

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