POWs in the Digital Era

Source: National Museum of the United States Air Force

This is the second Cognitive Crucible episode I’ve heard that features Professor Jan Kallberg and COL Stephen Hamilton from the Army Cyber Institute. The first discussed the idea that service members are all very likely targets of foreign influence operations – regardless of whether or not there is active armed conflict.

In this recent episode, they go a step further and discuss the need to prepare for a future where our POWs (prisoners of war) will be further exploited through the use of enhanced deep-fake technology, deception, and instantaneous communication.

More importantly, they discuss how our own institutional structures can be exploited at home by the same.

During this episode, Prof. Jan Kallberg and COL Stephen Hamilton of the Army Cyber Institute return to the Cognitive Crucible and discuss prisoner of war (POW) considerations in the digital world. After Jan recaps his recent article, In Great Power Wars, Americans Could Again Become POWs, the conversation covers the will to fight, cognitive preparation of the battlefield, and ways the enemy might harvest information about service members in advance to identify exploitable information. Both Jan and Stephen give some policy suggestions, as well.

Cognitive Crucible, #58 Kallberg and Hamilton on POWs in a Digital World

This is the type of warning that should scare you. It’s nightmare fuel.

Some things I found particularly interesting:

  • Our personal information is already out there

When social media started to emerge over a decade ago, general security guidance was to avoid putting personal information out there, be mindful of what you’re doing online, and increase your privacy settings.

Good advice, to be sure.

Further, some advised not having social media at all, while others warned that not having social media in an increasingly connected world seemed suspicious.

Well, now we’re at a place where whether you want your “stuff” to be out there or not, it’s out there. If an adversary (or a troll, or harasser) wants to scrape the internet for your stuff, it’s not hard to do.

And for the generation growing up in the shadow of all this, there will be even more “stuff” out there for the foreseeable future.

The genie is out of the bottle. It’s not going back in.

My take – this is over. We’re moving toward a society where the ability to maintain pure privacy is ending. There is little we can do at the individual level to protect ourselves completely. When you combine the growing digital ecosystem with nefarious cyber activities of state and non-state actors, our default position should be that “our information is going to get out there.”

Accept it, plan for it, and move on.

We’re really starting to put this thing together. Researchers and practitioners are weaving a quilt of what information warfare is likely to look like in the near future. It’s already happening, but we haven’t quite got it all figured out yet.

Personally, I think it’s important that we start talking – and implementing policy – that will defend us from this. We can’t just warn that it’s going to happen. We will be caught off guard if we are not prepared.

  • POWs have congressional representatives

This was very spooky. The guests discuss the fact that in future-war, there may no longer be a need to have a POW make a public statement disparaging the United States or the war effort. A hyper-realistic fake could be easily created and beamed out to the world.

That captured service member has a congressional representative somewhere back home. What happens when these POWs are exploited with the intent of influencing domestic politics? What happens when a reporter asks Congressman X what she is doing about the captured soldier who comes from her district?

What is her statement when a dramatic video is released of that servicemember begging his congressional representative – by name – to end the war?

What happens when public pressure is placed on that same congressional representative – from her constituents – to “do something” about this?

  • Television is an instrument that can paralyze this country.” -General William Westmoreland

There was a quick discussion on how what we are seeing now in the information age is just an extension of what we started to experience during the Vietnam War. When there are pictures and images, we pay attention. As much as we like to think we are rational creatures, our decision-making process – even at the strategic level – is often guided by emotions, “optics,” and a burning desire to “control the narrative.” These are often not rational decisions, but decisions that seek to please some interest.

How would things be different if there were no dramatic images? No compelling video? If you had to read the results of overseas operations the next day in your local newspaper, splayed out dispassionately?

I think we would address things more rationally. But I’m not certain that our decisions would always be “better.”

Again, the genie is out of the bottle. There is a role for education. There is a very important role for leaders (at all levels) to be patient and take the longer view. But there is also the realization that words, images, and video matter.

” Television brought the brutality of war into the comfort of the living room. Vietnam was lost in the living rooms of America – not on the battlefields of Vietnam.”

Marshall McLuhan
  • A picture is worth a thousand words
1st Lt. Anthony Aguilar wears the ballistic protective eyewear that prevented a bomb-fragment from possibly damaging his eyes when an IED detonated near his Stryker vehicle while on patrol in Mosul. (Photo by Company C, Task Force 2-1, Feb. 2006.)

COL Hamilton discussed an anecdote from a deployment where he witnessed the rapid purchase of a particular type of eye protection after one of the Generals was shown a picture with a piece of shrapnel lodged in the eye protection that would have almost certainly caused tremendous damage to the soldier’s vision. All of the statistics and lab reports in the world might not move someone to action. But a single image that demonstrates the effect might do the trick.

I don’t like it either – I wish we could be more Spock-like and make decisions based on the evidence.

But there it is.

This was a good episode – one that should have us thinking, and more importantly, moving towards crafting policies and procedures to prepare us for the kinds of deception and smear tactics we’re likely to see in both in the day-to-day operations of Great Power Competition and in the next shooting war.

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A Tiny Girl with Paratroopers’ Wings

That’s the title of an editor’s note from a February 1968 issue of Life Magazine. I heard about it on a recent episode of On The Media (link below).

Before the Vietnam War there was a law that banned women from reporting on the frontlines of any war for the U.S. When President Johnson refused to officially declare a state of war in Vietnam, an opening appeared: no war, no ban. A handful of pioneering women bought one-way tickets into the battlefield. They had no editors, no health insurance and little or no formal training. This week, Brooke spoke about this time to reporter Elizabeth Becker, formerly a Washington Post war correspondent in Cambodia, NPR’s foreign editor and then national security correspondent for the New York Times. Becker is the author of a new book: You Don’t Belong Here: How Three Women Rewrote the Story of War.

“You Don’t Belong Here” | On the Media | WNYC Studios

While the profiles of all three women were impressive and fascinating, I was struck by the story of Catherine Leroy. The lines that grabbed my attention are below:

Brooke: The photographs that she took were legendary. Of course, later tremendously celebrated. You mentioned in passing, she was a parachutist, she was the first photojournalist to take photos from the air.

Elizabeth: She was the first and only because that was the first and only airborne assault of the whole Vietnam War. She was the only one in Vietnam at the time who was even qualified. You can imagine this teeny woman jumping with these big American airborne helmet, boots, she jumps and she’s got three cameras around her neck and you’d think one of them would have flown in her face but no, she managed to get gorgeous photographs that they almost look like ballet. Then, she lands in a combat zone. I get shivers when I think about it.

There’s also this retrospective from the New York Times: The Greatest War Photographer You’ve Never Heard Of.

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10 Days and a Wake Up

Vietnam

Scrawled on the inside doors of latrines were dozens of instances of one singular phrase: “63 days and a wake up.”

10 days and a wake up.

36 days and a wake up.

If deployed, 414 days and a wake up.

Initially, I remember being very confused by the term, because I rarely heard it spoken, I only read about it in bathroom stalls, porta-johns, in wooden shacks at the rifle range, and in soldiers’ wall lockers. Wherever I found it, the phrase sat their, etched with the kind of certainty and legendary wisdom that colors most military language that keeps outsiders at bay.

Eventually, other new soldiers began using the phrase themselves and I wondered how they were clued in on what it means, exactly, themselves. I figured that most new recruits were just as clueless about the intricacies of military culture as I was, and the first place they encountered the phrase must have been in the bathroom as well.

This is a recurring theme of military service – wondering if everyone else knows what’s going on (they don’t).

The phrase is a way for soldiers to count down the days left of a tour, whether it be combat or training. If a soldier has 22 days left before the end, and he is leaving on the 22nd day, he has 21 days and a wake up. I always figured instituting the “wake up” was a way of making the event seem shorter, even if only by a single day. It’s also true that on the “final” day of a rigorous training school or deployment, the excitement of it ending is enough to erase the day’s monotony and pain.

A few cursory searches of the term suggests it originated in Vietnam. I don’t know how prevalent the phrase is today, but I still hear it thrown around every now and then, so it’s still alive.

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Book Review: Hearts, Minds, and Coffee

About a month ago I was sent a book called Hearts, Minds, and Coffee: A Vietnam Peace Odyssey. It is the first novel by Kent Hinckley, a veteran who served in Military Intelligence for a year in Vietnam. In the book, Mr. Hinkckley slipped in a note with the following:

I judge by the address that you are stationed in Afghanistan. I’m sorry to hear that and hope we can bring our troops home. What a difficult situation.

If you have any questions, please let me know. Thank you for your service.

All the best,
Kent Hinckley

The younger me would have been offended by that sentiment. Shortly after coming home from Iraq, I remember hearing statements like that from lots of people I met. I didn’t like it. I was proud of my service, and it was hard for me to understand how someone could feel “sorry” for me or the situation and still be thankful for my military service. I just couldn’t compute it, and I am sure many readers of this blog probably still feel the same way.

Over the years, however, I’ve come to understand that war and military service are subject that generate deep emotional feelings, and none of them are more right than the other.

The book follows the tale of a young officer “Slater” who joins ROTC to help pay for college, despite his anti-war leanings. The story takes him from his days as a farmhand in Iowa, his time at Officer Candidate School under the strict tutelage of Captain Gray, and then to Vietnam. Slater is pegged early in his military career as being a trouble-maker and anti-war. When he gets to Vietnam, he is given an austere and dangerous assignment with Special Forces, despite him being branched Adjutant General. For military readers, this is one drop in a bucket of seemingly incredulous things (blanks being fired without blank adapters, the wearing of an NVA ribbon on the dress uniform, etc.) that might drive by-the-book military types nuts.

The book flows well and is engaging. The characters that Slater interacts with – especially in Vietnam – reminded me a lot of the guys in “Bravo Squad” in Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk. Hinkley manages to paint the reader a vivid image of what it must have been like to be in the mind of an anti-war military officer in Vietnam, focusing often on the inner-monologue of Slater and his thought process. The situations that Slater finds himself in border on the ridiculous, which led me to think that if this were to be made into a movie, it might be a comedy. Hinckley even named two staff officers Major’s Laurel and Hardy after the comedians. The two intercede the narrative occasionally to update the situation, often with information the reader knows to be false.

In Vietnam, Slater sets out to make sure he and his team make it out of Vietnam alive. Without spoiling the book, the team goes to pretty extreme lengths to ensure they are “at peace.” It’s a wild story, and the reader wonders how much of it is fiction and how much of it is inspired by true events – and if it could have even happened at all.

There’s a “forbidden love” story embedded as well, which felt a bit forced and obvious at times.

For me, the most powerful part of the story came at the end, in what at first felt like a tacked-on epilogue following Slater and his team on their return to America and eventually the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington DC. Sitting in my room in Afghanistan, I couldn’t help getting a little choked up as I followed Slater’s eventual pilgrimage to The Wall, something he avoided for years.

Overall, the book is an interesting look into a rare genre – the anti-war military man. Slater is a character who did not believe in the Vietnam war, but went anyway. Once there, he did everything he could in his power to “make peace.” The usual depiction of the anti-war soldier is one of indiscipline – the pot-smoking draftee or the deserter. In this case, Slater and his team are actually pretty efficient, despite being anti-war.

While there may be more “Slaters” out there, this is the first I’ve read about the anti-war military man who still managed to work through the system. The author writes in the notes at the end that this is a story that needs to be told. I’m sure there were many who went to Vietnam who didn’t believe in the war but felt that it was their duty to serve as they were called.

Check it out if you’re interested. Thanks for sending the book, Mr. Hinckley!

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Tom Finton Vietnam

fmj-born-to-kill

Week ending March 2, 2014

I didn’t do a search term of the week last week because it was just the usual suspects. This week, the term was Tom Finton Vietnam. I had no idea what this was in reference to. I’ve written a number of posts orbiting Vietnam but the name Tom Finton didn’t mean anything to me.

After searching around my blog, I found a comment referencing Tom Finton on my post titled Conscientious Objection and the Moral Responsibility of Volunteer Soldiers. A little more searching and I learned that he wrote a book titled “The Folks Back Home Won’t Believe This.” Tom Finton didn’t agree with the Vietnam War and the book chronicles his service in the Army and in Vietnam. I haven’t read it, but it does seem interesting.

Here’s how he opens the book:

On the rear bumper of my ZX3 I have a 10- by 3- inch Vietnam campaign ribbon sticker. On the left rear side window I have a peace sticker. I put both stickers on the car when Bush went to war after 9/11. Occasionally someone will recognize the campaign ribbon and comment as if we have a symbiotic patriotic bond. When that happens I just nod politely and go on my way. But one day a woman who appeared to be in her mid-40s spoke to me in the grocery parking lot. She had seen both stickers and it piqued her curiosity. “I was in the Army,” she said, “Don’t you think it contradictory to display both stickers?”

As a former Concerned Officer Against the War in Vietnam I responded, “Not at all.” She didn’t stop to talk. Her bemused smile turned to a disapproving scowl as she walked past me.

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Vietnam Draftees

PL and RTO

Week ending February 2, 2014

The top search of the week was ‘vietnam draftees.’ I actually have no idea which post this search term led to, as I’ve never really written about Vietnam draftees. I’ve written quite a few posts referencing Vietnam though – a war I become more and more interested in as time passes. Growing up, I knew quite a few Vietnam veterans who were friends with my dad. They were young and building their lives. Even then, as a child, I knew them as “my dad’s friend, the Vietnam veteran.” That’s how he was identified. That’s how I – as a child – identified those grown men.

Here are the posts I’ve written that I’ve tagged ‘vietnam’:

Book Reviews: The Things They Carried and Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk

Grunt lingo: “There it is” (Vietnam)

Book Review: The Short-Timers

The Black Magic of the Infantry

Jacob’s Ladder and the need for “serious talk” for veterans

Don Draper on war, youth, and military service

Not my Vietnam (~July, 2003)

The Command Sergeant Major’s Nightmare

There It Is Vietnam

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There It Is Vietnam

Week ending January 26, 2014

There was actually a bunch of ties for top search of the week. ‘Ranger concierge’ and ‘ranger concierge services’ were tied with ‘infidel’ and ‘Iraq’. At the top of it all was ‘there it is Vietnam’.

A little over a year ago I started reading a bunch of books and articles about the Vietnam War and one of the things I kept picking up on was the language. Soldiers in Vietnam had a unique lingo that has pretty much disappeared. It seemed hip and relevant.

One of the phrases I saw over and over again was “There it is.” That phrase was often used as a way to validate the entire experience of the war in a single moment or event. You come in from patrol and find out the chow hall was destroyed in a mortar attack. There it is. Your new platoon leader gets killed in a helicopter crash before even getting to his platoon. There it is, man.

I wrote a post on the phrase linking to another blogger who served in Vietnam who was able to explain its use way better than I could.

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The Command Sergeant Major’s Nightmare

Patrol Base Diamond II in Vietnam, 1969 - Archive Photo of the Day - Stripes

I saw this picture in Stars and Stripes (online) and kept it open in my browser for a few days. I kept coming back to it. It’s one of those “cool” war pictures that came out of Vietnam – the sunglasses, cigar, ammunition around the neck and machine gun hanging over the shoulder. He even has a dust brush in his helmet band. “Fuck it,” he’s saying, “I’ll do it.”

It looks cool, but it’s a Command Sergeant Major’s nightmare.

Back in OCS, a well-respected CSM was speaking to the class shortly before we graduated, instilling us with his parting words. He wanted to talk about standards and discipline – surprise! The movie ‘Restrepo’ and its companion, the book ‘War’ by Sebastian Junger had recently come out and he wanted to use these to paint his words.

He couldn’t remember the author’s name, but was pretty sure it was Sebastian Bach.

I remember sitting there in the front row, biting the inside of my lip to keep from laughing. There was something about the forcefulness of him saying again and again that it was Sebastian Bach that got to the absurdity of it all.

Anyway, he said he was able to stomach Restrepo and enjoyed it, but couldn’t finish War because he kept wanting to throw the book across the room because of all of the glaring discipline infractions he kept reading about.

He then went into a story about meeting a fresh 2LT outside of a dusty chow hall in Afghanistan. As the 2LT approached, the CSM gave him the usual once-over, checking out his uniform and appearance.

“He had these boots,” the CSM recalled, “that looked odd. And as he got closer, I could see that they weren’t Army issue boots at all, or even a pair of authorized aftermarket boots. They were some fancy brand of boots, that had been spray painted tan to make them look passable.”

The CSM went on to talk about why shaving is professional, rebutting the thoughts in some of our heads “but special forces!” by telling us we’re not in Special Forces.

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Don Draper on war, youth, and military service

Don Draper Inferno

A couple of weeks ago, Don and Arnold sat down to discuss Arnold’s son’s predicament. He was avoiding the draft. The Vietnam War has been the background song of this past season, and I found myself enthralled by this conversation between Arnold and Don, talking about war, youth, and soldiering, topics I’ve been thinking a lot about lately.

Arnold: It doesn’t matter if he goes to school, he’s 1A, his induction can be tomorrow, he’s on a damn list for the rest of his life.
Don: On some level you have to admire his idealism.
Arnold: You sound like Sylvia. But she doesn’t really buy his bullshit. You think she’s gonna let her baby rot in jail for a cause?

<sigh>

I don’t know what to do. What would you do?

Don: What I’d do with my kid? Or if it was me?
Arnold: You were in the service right?
Don: I was.
Arnold: You see action?

Long pause.

Don: It was very different. I wanted to go. I did when I got there.
Arnold: That’s the trick. Kid’s 18, 19 years old they have no sense of their own mortality.
Don: Or anyone else’s. That’s why they make good soldiers.
Arnold: Well the Army paid for Med School. I served in a hospital in Pusan.
Don: We were very lucky.
Arnold: Lucky enough to live in this country. And service is a part of that bargain, sacrifice. We knew that.
Don: The war is wrong.
Arnold: I’ll tell you if there’s anyone that’s going to get it it’s going to be him. He’s soft.
Don: I’m sure he’s a good kid.
Arnold: The best.

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Jacob’s Ladder and the need for “serious talk” for veterans

I watched Jacob’s Ladder last night. I saw it once when I was a kid, probably around ten years old. My parents had HBO and it was on one day. It was a sleepy Saturday afternoon and I had control of the television and it was rated R. I remember being chilled to the bone when I saw it then and I was surprised by how much of it stayed with me some twenty years later. It all felt very familiar.

It’s a great movie and before its time. Seeing it now, as a veteran, it gripped me in a way it didn’t – it couldn’t – the first time. The movie is still terrifying, but less so because of the psychological/horror aspect of it and more because of the similarities some veterans face on homecoming.

The scene above (not in its entirety, unfortunately) [Don: 2020 – video no longer available] was especially powerful for me. Here are two Vietnam veterans in New York City who haven’t heard from each other in years. One calls the other and pleads, saying he has to speak to him. Without question, they meet at a bar. They speak in whispered tones, and admit to each other that they are both being chased by demons that others can’t see. Worse, they can’t talk to anyone about it, because no one else understands.

But they understand.

You can sense the relief they feel, just knowing there is someone else out there that gets it.

It reminds me of one of the key findings from my research, that many veterans need “serious talk” in order to successfully transition from military service.

There’s another scene – of which I can’t find the clip – that demonstrates this perfectly. The group of vets are together at the funeral of a buddy and Jacob begins to talk about the demons. Most of the veterans pause and look up at him, wanting him to say more, to confirm that what they’re facing is real. One of them nervously makes a dick joke, not wanting to deal with it. None of them find it funny. The time for jokes and war stories has passed. These are older men now, out of Vietnam and trying to get on with their lives but still haunted by demons from the jungle. They want to get better and figure out. They want to move on.

I don’t want to spoil the movie for those who haven’t seen it – so if you want to call me out on some major plot points, don’t bother – I know.

For a movie that really isn’t about war or homecoming, it manages to capture both of those things in a way most movies don’t. There are some stereotypical Vietnam images in the film, but nothing that stood out as offensive.

Sometimes fiction speaks the truth better than the truth.

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