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.

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Analyzing the Virtual Terrain: Pokemon Go and Military Planning

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There’s not much to say here other than what I think many in the military are already thinking: what are the implications for military operations in dropping a virtual layer of terrain over the world?

If you’re unaware, Pokemon Go is a mobile game that uses GPS and terrain data to generate virtual locations through a smartphone. Basically, a historic monument, mural, or local bar might have an additional existence in a virtual dimension. A space in the “real” world of limited significance (a painted fire hydrant, for example) might be very important when viewed through he augmented reality of a smartphone app.

It feels like we’re on the cusp of a complete reimagining of how we look at at terrain, from a military viewpoint.

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The Soldier-Warrior Dynamic in Metal Gear Solid

I’ve recently been replaying the Metal Gear series after completing MGSV:TPP. I’ve always been a Metal Gear fan, but this was the first in the series I’ve completed since Metal Gear Solid on Playstation. I decided I would go back through the series (by order of release) to completey unpack the smart, complicated, and often absurd story.

Over the past two weekends, I finished the original two Metal Gears for MSX and then moved on to Metal Gear Solid. While reading through the SPECIAL files that recap the events of the first two games, I came across this narrative of the final words exchanged between Solid Snake and Big Boss.

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And the surivivor must live his life as a warrior until he dies.

Since I’ve been writing a lot about “warriors” lately, this stuck out in my mind as odd. Plus, I had literally just finished Metal Gear 2 and I was fairly certain Big Boss didn’t use the term “warrior,” but instead opted for “soldier.”

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Here’s the conversation referenced:

And the survivor will live out the rest of his days as a soldier.”

Granted, these are both translations from Japanese, and it would be interesting to know what word was in the original script. I don’t even know if there is a distinction between “warrior” and “soldier” in Japanese, so it might be inconsequential.

Still, I think it is interesting to see how even back in 1998, when Metal Gear Solid was released, there seems to be a shift in terminology, where “soldier” gives way to “warrior.” This is before the Army began using “warrior” in any official or widespread way.

There was another part of this conversation that piqued my interest, though. Big Boss, in explaining the raison d’être for both him and Solid Snake, says the following:

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“It” being a place to fight, a place to be “warriors.”

That quote reminded me of this quote by former Special Forces Major(Ret) Jim Gant:

“We will never win in Afghanistan,” he told the team. “But know – now and always – that does not matter. That is an irrelevant fact. It gives us a place to go and fight, it gives us a place to go and be warriors. That’s it.”

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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.

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Life Is Strange: Learning to make better decisions through gaming

Reflections

If you’ve been following me on Twitter, mostly on very early mornings on the weekends, you know that I’ve been playing Life Is Strange. I learned about the game back when I was in Afghanistan, a time when the prospect of being an 18 year old female hipster in the Pacific Northwest seemed very, very appealing. I caught up with the game and recently finished Episode 4 (The Dark Room) and one Episode remains. The game is beautiful and highly emotional, and I’ve been convincing as many of my friends as possible to play it, mostly to make them as miserable and depressed as me.

I’m currently working on a longer post about one of the game’s seconday characters, David Madsen, who’s a combat veteran. I actually have quite a few posts in the works that will be coming out related to the game, mostly because the game tackles a lot of important issues (suicide, youth, emotions).

In the mean time, I wanted to comment on one of the interesting features of the game, or rather, one of the interesting side effects that I think the game has. I recently wrote about how through playing narrative-based games, like Life Is Strange or even Mass Effect, the game forces the player to grapple with difficult dillemmas, and that these in-game interactions have actually made me think about the way that I engage with real people. Following up on that idea, what I’ve started to really think about is the way that the game allows you to sit back and really think about what decision you are going to make before actually making it, and the inherent training value this has.

I remember when I was playing Mass Effect, there were times that I would get to a critical decision point and actually get up, pour myself some more coffee, and then sit there, face twisted in thought as I contemplated how my decisions might affect the fate of the galaxy.

In Life Is Strange, the stakes are usually smaller, but often feel more personal (and seemingly real). I’ve been playing the game – as I do most non-linear games – the way that feels right for me. That is, I’m making the decisions as I think I would make them. There are times where I feel like the game is pushing me in one direction over another, like in the scene where I choose whether to make fun of Victoria or comfort her. Seeing those options, I knew that comforting her would be the right thing to do, but I also didn’t think I would actually do that in person. Victoria, to this point, has been a total pain and this was my opportunity to get revenge. I wasn’t going to pass it up.

Mass Effect was much more deliberate in this regard. Decisions colored red pushed you towards being a “renegage” whereas decisions colored “blue” pushed you towards being a “paragon.”

The point is, these in-game conversations, and more importantly, the agency the player has over choice, potentially has real value outside of the game.

Months ago I reviewed a game for iOS that works in this regard (Together Strong), using narrative-based interaction to help prepare veterans and their family members to recognize and effectively communicate with veterans or military members who may need help. Although I thought it was good as a training simulation, I wasn’t that interested in “playing” it again because it never really felt like a game. It felt like effective training. I really ought to revisit it.

I think there is real value in this kind of computer based interaction. Game design has advanced to a point where these types of games can be used to help better prepare people – especially veterans – for facing the tough conversations all of us will undoubteldy find ourselves in. Suicide, depression, alcoholism, anger, PTSD – if you’re in the military or around veterans, these are things you are going to see. And as much lip service as we give to making people “aware” of these issues, very little of substance is done in terms of actually arming ourselves with the tools to help someone.

We like to play games. Instead of another class on recognizing signs of suicide, maybe we simulate a conversation with someone who is really struggling in a context that is comfortable for us – games.

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The Battle of Fabul

The Battle of Fabul, a sequence early in Final Fantasy IV, still represents one of the most exciting pieces of gameplay I ever experienced – especially in a role playing game.

There are a number of things that heighten the tension. This is the first castle that the player is able to get to before The Red Wings show up to capture the crystal, so there is a feeling of “hold the line” that settles in early. Before the battle begins, the game does away with music initially and there is just silence and the sounds of footsteps as Fabul’s soldiers move about, preparing the defenses. When the first wave of soldiers show up, the traditioinal battle music is replaced by one of the “boss” themes, which hints to the player that this is going to be more serious. They also keep the theme going even between the multiple battles, which helps keep the tension up. After the first fight, The Red Wings bomb Fabul, which is in line with what happened earlier at Castle Damcyan when their crystal was taken. As a player, it really felt like you were “in it” and by being there before The Red Wings show up, there is a chance at actually protecting the crystal. The battle begins, and the party is constantly falling back, deeper into the castle (despite always winning the battles). Of course, Edward trips en route to the Crystal Chamber, requiring the team to rescue him, which admittedly is less dramatic than it sounds. Finally, the party finds itself in the chamber, ready to hold out, when an old friend shows up in one of the series’ great plot twists.

The whole thing is just really well done. The first time you go through it, without knowing exactly what is going to happen and whether or not there are potential multiple outcomes, it really pulls the player into the game.

Also, I imagine Fabul rhymes with Kabul.

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Game Review: Door Kickers

Since I’ve been in the Army, there has always been a special fascination with urban warfare, or Military Operations in Urban Terrain (MOUT). Infantrymen love doing MOUT. MOUT, as opposed to some other infanftry maneuvers, is aggressive, violent, and fun. There’s a science to it, involving lines and angles that you don’t find (as prominently) in other battle drills. I’ve always had a suspicion that part of the fun of MOUT is the fact that it’s usually not as physically exhausting as humping a rucksack in the woods for miles and shooting at shadows in the trees. But conduct a house-to-house clearing operation in any of the Army’s numerous “MOUT Villages” and I guarentee you will find panting, drenched-in-sweat, happy infantrymen at ENDEX. MOUT is a sprint; an explosion of adrenaline and muscle, whereas those other battle drills are more of a marathon, a slow, painful sapping of energy over time.

When I first came across the trailer for KillHouse Games’ Door Kickers, I was intrigued. The game, put simply, is Battle Drill 6 (Enter and Clear a Room/Building). It looked like a graphically enhanced version of what I’ve seen in infantry manuals for years – and fun!

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I haven’t been a big PC gamer (or in this case, Mac) since I was in high school. It’s been too hard to keep up with the technology and I’ve always preferred consoles and handhelds. Door Kickers runs well on my old 2008 Macbook though. The game is pretty simple in design, putting you in charge of a growing squad of SWAT team characters whose task is to clear buildings and areas of enemies. The crux of the game is planning out just how you are going to enter and clear, given the level layout and a known number of enemy (although in unknown locations). This is accomplished by either pre-planning routes for your guys and then letting them execute or in real time, clicking and dragging them where you want (the enemy also moves when you move).

I haven’t spent much time with the game yet, but it is dangerously addictive. As someone who has done a good deal of MOUT both in training and deployed, it feels realistic and captures the challenges of getting the angles right, freezing in the “fatal funnel” and making the tough choice between the path of least resistance versus the immediate threat. At first go, I couldn’t help but think about how this could be used as a training tool for junior leaders, setting up a room or series of rooms and then asking them to demonstrate how they would go about clearing it – and being able to see the results in real time.

The game features a campaign mode and mission editor. There’s also a feature to replay the last level (as an observer) and to export the video. Unfortunately, that feature isn’t currently available for Mac, so you won’t be able to see my master room-clearing skills. The developers seem determined to keep the game fresh, having just released an update that includes a new campaign. The game features multiple weapons, different characters, and multiple scenarios (to include hostage rescue). It’s a simple premise that’s packed with detail. I’m enjoying it.

All that said, this game (for me) is an absolute must on mobile. Right now it is available for Mac/PC/Linux, but it is no-brainer port for iOS and Android. I’m actually a bit worried about how much time I am going to spend dumping into this once it gets an iOS port, because it is the perfect game to attack in the moments inbetween things, as missions can last as short as 15 seconds (if planned correctly).

It’s cool to see a game get some of the finer points of CQB down in a way that feels realistic and still fun, just like MOUT tends to be – in training, at least.

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Together Strong: Tackling PTSD and Suicide through the Mass Effect conversation wheel

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Honestly, when I first heard of the Together Strong App, it looked terribly boring and similar to the myriad of mandatory computer based trainings soldiers are forced to endure to meet mandatory training requirements. Still, given it sits at the intersection of the military world and gaming, I thought I should give it a fair shot before dismissing it.

I downloaded the App for iPhone (free) and launched it. It asked for some basic information; zip code, service status (active, veteran, etc.), gender (to include trans and other) and age. Then it launched into an introduction of the character you would be role playing as, a well-adjusted Marine who transitioned into the civilian world, not without his own transition issues though. After a brief introduction – which seemed a little long, actually, for the ADHD-induced norm of smartphone gaming – I began a conversation with ‘Hector,’ a veteran who is normally outgoing that suddenly stopped returning phone calls and text messages.

For a game whose chief action is conversation, it’s actually done pretty well. The characters speak in a manner you’d expect from veterans – often a little rough around the edges without being cheesy. You are given options on what to say next based on previous choices. Thankfully, there is no clear “right” answer, and unlike a lot of the similar mandatory training games soldiers go through, you are not fenced in to take a certain path. There are multiple “good” answers and often the best answers are the ones that don’t really accomplish anything but simply moves the conversation along, gets the characters talking.

The conversation system here is very similar to the conversation wheel used in Mass Effect – it’s never exactly clear what the reaction of the characters are going to be when you choose to say something – which makes the conversation actually exciting. There was a point in which I called out Hector for trying to solve his problems with booze, to which he reacted aggressively and defensively with me. Unlike Mass Effect, however, there are no quick-button triggers to go Renegade on poor Hector.

In this first conversation, it becomes apparent that Hector has been thinking of killing himself and you are presented with the option of asking the hard question: “Are you thinking of killing yourself?” Army leaders who have participated in ASIST suicide intervention training will know that that question is one the most important steps in intervening in a potential suicide. Hector admits that he has, and then you are presented with more options on what to do next.

I don’t want to reveal too much about the conversation – it’s worth exploring on your own. As a “player” you are awarded with stars throughout the conversation if you manage to steer it the right way. I’m not sure if it’s possible to “lose” in a conversation – I only went through it once and managed to get all five stars.

The dialogue, for its part, seems pretty realistic. It’s not sugar coated or overly emotional. It sounds like two veterans talking, curses and all.

The first conversation, including setup and introduction took me about 20 minutes to get through. I actually felt pretty engaged while playing, but admittedly, this isn’t something I’d play on a subway train to work or for “fun” to blow off steam. It felt akin to learning a skill, something I was doing to better myself at handling these types of conversations, which I’ve faced in real life many times – often choosing the wrong things to say.

When the conversation ended, there was a dialogue box that asked me to check it if I’d like to be reminded in a week to do the next conversation. I thought that was a nice touch, because now I don’t feel forced to sit and continue more conversations, but would like to explore it more at a later time. When I get the reminder, I’ll do it.

The App is joint project between the NY/NJ Veterans Affairs Health Network and Kognito. There’s a bunch of research behind the software and the methodology which says its effective. You can read more about that here. Important to note is that the App is free until December 31, 2014, at which time it’s unclear how much it will cost (just download it now).

Obviously, this App isn’t going to appeal to everyone. There are lots of folks that will immediately be turned off to it because no matter how much lip service it gets, there is still a stigma attached to seeking care for mental health. However, if you’re an Army leader, I urge you to at least download the App. Let it sit on your phone and when you get a quiet moment and nothing is going on, open it up and give it a few minutes of your time. That’s what I did and I was surprisingly impressed. You might even gain a valuable skill or two on handling these situations in the future, which you are sure to encounter.

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Press X to Pay Respects: The absurdity of war in one stupid prompt

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I have never been a big Call of Duty fan, but as a military gamer I know how popular it is both at large and in the military community. Word has spread about the now infamous “funeral scene” in which the player is prompted to “pay respects” by holding F or X, depending on the gaming platform. I’ve read a number of short pieces on it, mostly deriding the scene as a cheap gimmick by quick-button prompting a funeral on one hand and disrespectful to veterans on the other.

I usually don’t get worked up over things like this, and honestly, I’m not worked up over this either. I’ve written aggressively in the past defending the right to depict war in art – even if that art is in the form of a video game. No one has a monopoly on the right to discuss or depict war – it is a human condition, not simply the purview of military folk and veterans. The funeral sequence is in the game and it will be played by millions of people. It is there and it is done. There will be no calls to pitchforks from me.

However, I do think that the funeral prompt perfectly encapsulates how far we’ve come in the meaninglessness of “support the troops” slogans and “thank you for your service” accolades. In that one short sequence, the death of a Marine is used as a plot device – fair enough. But the prompt to “Pay Respects” by simply pressing a button with no understanding of what that means is troubling. How exactly will I “pay respects” once I hold the X button? Will I break down and cry? Will I silently think something solemn and vow to live a good life? To avenge his death? Or is the simple act of pressing X enough to satisfy it all. What if nothing happens? That’s it? Where’s the explosion!?

Conversely, by choosing not to press the X button am I paying disrespect?

I can imagine a player out there, somewhere, who is a strong opponent of America’s wars in foreign lands, but who happens to love the rush of playing first person shooters. This fictional person believes that anyone stupid enough to join the military in a time of unpopular war deserves no sympathy, and perhaps deserves to be punished for knowingly choosing to serve. When prompted to pay respects, he or she will choose not to do so – a jab at the dead Marine and a nod to his own self-righteousness. His way of taking back control of something he has absolutely no control over – US foreign policy.

Even the term “pay respects” bothers me. I know we say it from time to time, “have you paid your respects?” or “you should go pay your respects” for example. But the way the phrase awkwardly floats there over the silent funeral begging you to push it as everyone sits there waiting for you to make a decision feels so forced and a little gross. Absent of the context of an actual conversation, “Pay Respects” as an action sounds stupid and even a little cute, in the same vein as people who talk about “getting on the Twitterz” or “internets”; the needless pluralization of words to be playful.

Thinking on it, the funeral scene is not a departure of the Call of Duty franchise from its realistic depiction of combat, because it has never featured a realistic depiction of combat. It has always been a cartoon, a caricature of combat. The funeral scene is no different, except for the fact that the military funeral is a sacred event, especially for the families of the over 6,775 service men and women who have died fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

For Call of Duty though, the funeral is a plot device. Before the player even leaves the funeral, he is approached by a very realistic looking Kevin Spacey character, the father of the slain Marine, who shows little emotion concerning his son’s death and instead invites the player to join his company as the shots of the 21 gun salute ring out in the background. Charming.

Like I said, I’m honestly not worked up about this. If I played Call of Duty, I’d probably laugh at the scene and try to skip past it so I could get back to blowing shit up. I don’t need Call of Duty to kick me in the gut with the feels or prompt me to press X to pay respects. I’ve done it enough for real.

And Kevin Spacey is never there to offer me anything.

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The Nostalgia of Old Places

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A couple of weeks ago I found myself on a camp somewhere in Afghanistan for a few days. This was the camp where my deployment began. For the two weeks I was there back in July, the camp was busy, hot, and active. We did a lot of good training and then I left and went to another part of Afghanistan. Being back on that camp, the weather cooler and far fewer people around, an old nostalgia kicked in the way it seems to whenever I revisit a familiar place after a long absence.

It’s something I experienced powerfully when I passed through Kuwait en route to the United States on mid-tour leave from Iraq in 2003. I spent over a month at TAA Champion in Kuwait as the US was gearing up for the invasion. Thousands of soldiers busily milled about, preparing for war. When I returned on my way home, the tents were gone and it resembled an empty lot, the way the amusement park looks in the movie Big near the end of the movie when Tom Hanks returns to Zoltar.

It’s a nostalgia that I’ve experienced a lot in video games, too. At the end of Mass Effect 1 when Commander Shepard uses the conduit to get back to the Citadel – where the journey began – I felt that pang of nostalgia. I felt that same nostalgia when Cloud and team re-entered Midgar – where their journey began.

I think part of the nostalgia isn’t just the old place, but the way it is different when you return, in these examples, emptier and less active. There is something about the change in dynamic and the passage of time that pulls the nostalgia right up. The place is different now.

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