FICINT: Imagining our own destruction

This blog is becoming a shill for great podcasts.

During this episode, Mr. August Cole discusses fictional intelligence (or FICINT) and how it can help leaders understand emerging concepts such as the cognitive warfighting domain. August observes that plausible fictionalized future scenarios which are rooted in academic research communicate to leaders and decision makers better than do white papers and powerpoint slides. He also emphasizes the importance of experimentation and stress testing ideas. One of August’s primary goals with his writing is to use FICINT and narrative to prevent strategic surprise.

The Cognitive Crucible Episode #33 Cole on FICINT and the Cognitive Warfighting Domain

When I read Ghost Fleet, it scared me. Future war is terrifying.

But it also motivated me to work, and to keep working to get ahead of some of the challenges it prophesizes.

Ghost Fleet is a work of “FICINT” or “fictional intelligence,” a play on the other “INTs” of the intelligence community (SIGINT, HUMINT, etc.).

One of the key findings of the 9/11 Commission Report is that we suffered from a failure of imagination. FICINT offers a way to imagine future threats, and then, hopefully, prepare for them.

This was a great episode. Things that stuck out below:

On writing about a “Crimea-like” unconventional warfare campaign waged by the US (Underbelly).

“What rules would US and allied forces break in wartime? When you go back in history, it’s quite clear that norms and rules are broken in every single conflict, like unrestricted submarine warfare in the 20th century – so what’s the equivalent of the 21st century? Is it going to be breaking down all the barriers of data access?”

Returning to the idea of “what rules are we going to break,” Cole empahsises the point that we can use FICINT to start thinking through these problems now.

“The more time we can invest in understanding the ethical, legal, operational, and doctrinal implications now, the better chance we have to make those decisions as carefully as a country like ours needs to during a large scale conflict.”

The podcast wraps up with Cole recommending listeners read Agency by William Gibson. Gibson, for the uninitiated is the author of Neuromancer, which is the inspiration for much of the “cyberpunk” genre of fiction.

I haven’t read either (yet), but Cyberpunk 2077 is up next.

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.


The Best Years of Our Lives

A couple of months ago I was listening to an episode of the Angry Planet podcast that featured a conversation with Gregory Daddis about his book Pulp Vietnam (now on my reading list). The conversation meandered towards depictions of the American war experience, the military and ‘homecoming’ in film. For the most part, we’ve reached a place where these depictions have become mostly cartoonish or simply exploitative (10 second “surprise homecoming” videos on the nightly news). There are exceptions, of course, but it is rare that the true essence of “what it’s like” is captured in media.

Anyway, Daddis mentioned the film “The Best Years of Our Lives” as one of the best in this category (homecoming). I had never heard of it, and I am endlessly fascinated with the subject, so I made a note to check it out.

Produced at the end of World War II, the film follows the story of three veterans who return home at the war’s conclusion to the same Midwestern hometown – a grizzled infantry NCO who is actually a wealthy banker with a family, a dashing officer and bombardier who comes from a poor family and lived in a shack, and a young sailor who lost both his hands in an accident during the war. The film follows the three through their homecoming experience over time. The elation of being home and free, the dissatisfcation with “regular life,” depression and flirtations with alcoholism, and the frustration of trying to get things going.

The film was a commerical and critical success – winning seven Academy Awards while also selling out theaters during its release.

Given its contemporary popularity and critical success, how could I have not have heard of it?

It’s not a war movie. It’s not about combat. It’s about people and family – the veterans and the folks around them – and the real struggle that they all face when veterans return home.

It’s odd to me that perhaps the best film to capture “what it’s like” – even now – came out right as the big war ended nearly 80 years ago. It kind of makes sense though. It was still so raw and new, there wasn’t time to mythologize the war as it would be shortly thereafter. Things were still too fresh and the only way to tell the story was the way it was being experienced. Anything else would have been a fantasy.

It’s 2021 now. We’re twenty years removed from the start of the Global War on Terrorism. So many men and women have run through that gauntlet (and still do today). Personally, I’ve been so wrapped up in the machinations of that grind that it’s easy to forget what’s going on.

The movie holds up. I found that the characters are more relateable today than most of the archetypes depicted in other media – film, games, literature, whatever.

For a much better synopsis of the film, here is a 2007 review by Roger Ebert.

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.

War: Less like Call of Duty, more like Mass Effect

Originally published in 2014.

I forgot what prompted me to make this comparison. I think I had heard someone making the comparison of war to the popular game ‘Call of Duty.’ They may have been disputing the comparison, but the linkage was made. I remember shortly after getting out of the Army, a young boy’s first question upon learning that I had served in the Army overseas was to ask if it was like ‘Ghost Recon,’ another popular war game.

I’ve never been a big fan of Call of Duty or any of the ‘realistic’ first person shooters. They are flashy and visually stunning, but they are simple in their execution. For the most part, you navigate your avatar across a generally linear course, destroying everything in your path. Granted, I’m leaving out some things, but that is generally how the games work. Move. Destroy. Repeat until complete.

Those games reflect the exciting, but proportionally minute experiences of wartime service. Even out on the tip of the spear, the shooting war happens infrequently. I’ve never been in a Ranger or special operations unit – maybe their experience is Call of Duty-ish, but I’d venture it isn’t. A very tiny proportion of the American public experiences military combat, and the most visceral link the rest of the population gets comes displayed on an electronic screen in the form of movies and ‘realistic’ war games.

But if these games are zooming in and exploiting those tiny moments and expanding them to feature length, what then might serve as a better comparison?

Instead of looking at Call of Duty et al, I’d compare military service and wartime service to the game ‘Mass Effect,’ where the key events driving the plot in that game are the decisions made in non-combat situations, the interactions between leaders, subordinates, and outsiders, and the development of relations over time. Mass Effect has its share of kinetic combat, but it happens less frequently and chaotically, and usually between long periods of ‘inactivity’ filled by user-driven dialogue, planning, and preparation.

The choices made by the protagonist across the Mass Effect series have real consequences for the player and the universe he inhabits. The dialogue choices made when speaking with teammates can either build or erode the trust and cohesion of the fighting force. The application of force is weighed against sympathy and aid in key decisions, when the ‘right answer’ is not usually apparent. Act too harshly and you risk alienating potential allies. Too soft, and you open yourself to exploitation.

These nuances seem much more familiar to my military experience than anything I’ve seen in a ‘realistic’ combat game.

I don’t know, maybe I just missed out.

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.

Sniper-baiting: “The oldest trick in the book”

MGS1-Snake-Sin

This is essentially one of the nightmare scenarios that opponents of women in the infantry use to deflate the argument. In a mixed infantry, the argument goes, (some) men will be unable to control themselves when their female comrades are in harm’s way. Their masculine protective instincts will kick into gear, and they’ll be unable to perform their soldierly duties properly.

Somehow, Solid Snake manages.

Enjoy these posts? Sign up for my monthly newsletter.

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.

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.

IMG_0154

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.”

IMG_0160

Here’s the conversation referenced:

And the survivor will love 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:

IMG_0157

“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.”

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.

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.

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.

The Faces on the Wall

I love Army breakfasts. During my enlistment, just about every battalion had its own Dining Facility (DFAC). Generally speaking, I ate most of my meals at our battalion’s DFAC, which was conveniently located in the same building as my barracks.

After awhile, it became a fun treat to explore other DFACs across the Brigade, Division, and post – to see how the other side lives. If we were feeling especially adventorous, we might even drive all the way across post to the Air Force side to eat in their DFAC. After finishing a wonderful lunch, I remember standing up with my tray to bring it to the turn-in when my much wiser comrade gently placed his hand on my tray, pressing it back down to the table. “The Air Force waiters come for it. There is no work for you here, brother.”

Maybe it’s cheap nostalgia, but I feel like our DFACs today just aren’t like they used to be. More likely, I’ve become more picky as I’ve gotten older.

At Fort Hood, I’ve searched for a long time to find a great DFAC. While I haven’t tried them all, the one I prefer the most is the OIF (Operation Iraqi Freedom) Memorial Dining Facility. It’s over on the 1st Cavalry Division side of post, and as the name implies, it is in honor of 1st Cavalry Divison soldiers who died serving in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Inside the main cafeteria, the walls are lined with photos of the fallen. The pictures are mixed; some are official Army photographs displaying stoic faces, others are candid shots from deployment, the soldier usually smiling widely, the picture slightly pixellated.

They completely surround the room, hundreds of them.

Soldiers go on enjoying their breakfast.

Eating there a couple of weeks ago, I was a bit struck by how far we’ve come from the heyday of that war. The deaths, deployments, and knocks at the door.

It all kind of just slipped away. And the Army goes marching along.

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.

Going to the “Dark Place”: The Role of Hate in War

Commando Noir

I almost missed this post at Kings of War from last week on the role of “hate” in war. It starts off with a simple assertion from an officer:

When I was replacing the outgoing Infantry battalion in eastern Afghanistan in 2010, an outgoing staff officer and I were casually discussing life, combat, and the year ahead. He said something that stuck with me throughout my second deployment, “You know, if you want to be successful here (in Afghanistan), you have to keep hate in your heart.”

Shortly before this deployment to the same place, I remember sitting in on a briefing describing the conditions and the operational tempo of the unit we would be replacing. There were no frills; the unit we were replacing was getting into contact almost daily. I scribbled down notes and watched slide after slide go by with all kinds of ominous photos and statistics. As the lights came on and everyone stood to get up, I turned to an NCO and said “Well, looks like it’s time to go back to the dark place.” He grimaced, then took a deep breath and gave me a nod, and then we went to lunch.

As the deployment loomed, I remember tearing my garage apart, pulling out old gear from previous deployments that I never thought I’d have to use again. Knives and pouches. My workouts became more aggressive.

I haven’t really given the concept of the “dark place” much thought other than the fact that it felt like the right thing to say at the time after that briefing. As the Kings of War piece points out, it’s very difficult to be appropriately aggressive in a mechanical way without turning on the hate. In the piece, the author points out the French Foreign Legion as an example of an aggressive but disciplined force.

This reminds me of another concept that might be easier to swallow. There are a number of physical fitness events in the Army that you can do well in (or barely pass) not through being in great shape, but through “digging deep” and “letting it all out” on the day of the event. The twelve mile foot march can be muscled through – with great pain – if the marcher is out of shape or hungover. You can also squeeze out a sub-thirteen minute two mile run even if you haven’t been training for awhile. You’ll pay for it at the finish line by throwing up, but if you have the intestinal fortitude, it can be done. Of course, you can just train regularly (which requires discipline) and be in great shape and manage these same feats with much less pain and suffering. In the same vein, one can be an effective soldier without harboring “hate” for the enemy if he takes pride in soldiering. Turning to hate as a mechanism for mission accomplishment is like turning to the bottle to deal with your problems – it will eventually backfire.

This whole discussion is related to the “why we fight” question I find so interesting. There’s not really a good answer right now, so any time there’s a piece of the puzzle floating around, I like to grab it and throw it in the pile for the future.

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.

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

cod

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.

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.

Veterans Drifting to the Dark World of Conspiracies

269233_10100281334884626_713066802_n

I’ve been thinking about how to accurately communicate this for awhile now, and the best I can come up with is to be blunt:

The veteran community has a problem with losing our own down a rabbit hole of conspiracy theories that gets them in trouble.

I’m not talking about the sometimes antagonistic ramblings of conservative or liberal veterans. I’m talking about the ones who go off the deep end, who jump over the White House fence to warn the President about the “atmosphere collapsing.” I’m talking about Navy veteran Chris Dorner and his wild manifesto. I’m talking about your war-buddies who casually call for the internment or genocide of all Muslims on social media. The ones who lash out at you or call you naive if you disagree with them that 9/11 was an inside job.

Over the past few years, I’ve watched a number of my buddies – intelligent, good people – start drifting towards the dark edge of the internet. At first, this manifested itself innocently enough – angry rants about the civilian-military divide or the cheapening of modern culture and the indifference of the media towards things that matter. Over time, that morphed into links to “false flag” operations and whispered hints and giddiness at prepping for a coming inevitable revolution.

At first, I ignored it mostly, understanding that some people tend to gravitate towards conspiracy almost like a hobby. Growing up, it is fun to explore conspiracies like aliens at Roswell or the search for Bigfoot or Loch Ness Monster.

It hit home for me when a personal friend and combat veteran started drifting down that path. I spent years sporadically trying to convince him that he was not the “chosen one” to warn people of a coming apocalypse.

When I spoke with someone about my friend, they said what I was describing sounded a lot like the plot of the 2006 film BugWhen I finally got around to watching it, it felt like some of the dialogue was lifted right out of the mouths and Facebook postings of veteran friends. I wish the exchange below was available online, because it is delivered brilliantly in a manic, quickly strung together manner. In the scene, Peter, a war veteran who believes he is being tracked by the government, is explaining to Agnes what he believes is going on – this is his world:

Peter Evans: Listen! Listen! If you want to know what is going on, you have to listen to me! You have to! Because you don’t know the fucking ENORMITY of what we’re dealing with! Listen: May 29th, 1954, the consortium of bankers, industrialists, corporate CEO’s and politicians held a series of meetings over three days at the Bilderberg Hotel in Oosterbeek, Holland… they drew up a plan for maintaining the “status quo.”

Agnes White: What’s that?

Peter Evans: It’s “the way things are” – it’s “the rich get richer, the poor get poorer.” They devised a plan to manipulate technology, economics, the media, population control, world religion, to keep things the way they are. And they have continued to meet once a year, every year, since the original meeting. Look it up! Under their orders, the CIA had smuggled Nazi scientists into the States to work with the American military and Calspan, developing an inter-epidermal tracking microchip.

Agnes White: A what?

Peter Evans: It’s a surveillance tool. It’s a microchip that’s been implanted in the skin of every human being born on the planet since 1982. The test group for the prototype was the People’s Temple! And when the Reverend Jim Jones threatened to expose them, he and every member of his church were assassinated!

After it was revealed that the White House fence jumper was an Iraq War veteran and may be suffering from PTSD, the Minutemen quickly assembled and began to fire warnings off about linking PTSD to violence – in this case, jumping over the White House fence being considered a violent act. When it was revealed that Mr. Gonzalez was trying to warn the President about the “failing atmosphere” so he could “get the word out” my mind instantly raced back to friends I see posting links to off-the-wall blogs with 5,000 word diatribes about this or that conspiracy.

Last year, I posted about the movie Jacob’s Ladder. In that film, a group of Vietnam veterans believe they are being chased by demons. They become paranoid and only find solace in one another because together they are able to confirm the existence of the demons. While that film isn’t about conspiracy or even veterans per se (it’s a psychological horror) it captures some of the zeitgeist of what I think is going on in a small segment of the veteran community.

The stuff folks find online and take to believing becomes real when other veterans egg them on and agree (and click ‘like’) – a special few who “get it” while the rest of us remain brainwashed.

What really bothers me about this phenomenon is that it seems uncrackable. Anytime I’ve tried to intervene or explain I’ve been either lashed out at or dismissed as naive. I think there is an easy reaction to explain it all away as a function of mental illness, and while that may be the case for some, I’m not convinced that drifting towards conspiracy means someone is mentally ill. I’ve seen too many well-adjusted, successfully transitioning veterans slide in that direction.

The purpose of writing this is a hope that by acknowledging that “something is going on,” something can be done. I really don’t know what it is, but my hunch through experience is there is a link between military service and drifting towards conspiracy. I’ve always thought that one of the things that makes military service so special – and what makes the transition to civilian so difficult – is the feeling of being important and the center of attention when you’re in the service. Once you get out, you really don’t matter much anymore (in a grand, geo-political way) and conspiracy is a way to keep you “in the game.”

From here, it’s left to the experts to figure out what is actually happening.

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.