Conquering as Virtue

Originally posted in 2013.

Recently, I sat talking with another officer about what a deployment to Afghanistan in 2014 might look like, especially in its historical context with the writing on the wall making it close to the end of the war, if not the end. What, I thought, is the driving force of a young soldier going to Afghanistan in 2014?

In 2001, it was revenge. In Iraq, 2003, it was pre-emptive defense (or so they said). In the years leading up to today, it was some form of chasing down the last remnants, battling out the long slog, “surging,” mopping up, “setting conditions” or some other conglomeration of words that hinted at elusive victory.

A deployment in 2014 will likely look very different than other deployments. The 2d Cavalry Regiment is currently rolling through a sleepy deployment where the most exciting thing in months can be *almost* getting to fire an illumination round. The – workout twice a day and evenings at Green Beans coffee – kind of deployment.

OBL is dead and whether we stay in Afghanistan past 2014 is up in the air.

What then, motivates a soldier to fight?

I started thinking that maybe it is the mechanical aspect of war, the fight itself. There is certainly a pull to it, especially for young men (and women) who want to prove themselves in battle. But sitting there in that conversation, mind buzzing with caffeine, I thought back to my own experience. Getting shot at was not fun – at all. I felt exposed and on the brink of destruction.

But afterwards! Afterwards was amazing. The feeling of escaping death. Looking it in the face and winning. Not wanting to do it again because it felt so close, but wondering if I could.

Back in my office, I said, “No, it’s not the mechanical fight, running a battle drill – and surviving – that provides the pull.”

We discussed what it must have been like for soldiers in ancient times, wielding sword and shield, fighting face to face. Slashing and hacking.

No, while romantic in hind sight, having an extremely short life expectancy couldn’t have been very “fun.” While there were certainly some who relished the actual fighting (as there are now), we agreed that most ancient soldiers probably loathed it and feared it.

But, what they had that we don’t was the Virtue of the Conqueror.

That is, winning the battle and winning the war was virtuous in its own right. It was generally understood. Conquering was a virtue. Invading, advancing, reaping reward for your people – that was valued in and of itself.

For the modern American soldier, conquering is not a virtue. Outside of military bases, there are no banners hailing the conquering hero, or even welcoming them home. War, now, is an afterthought. Something “over there” that really needs to end soon so we can get this country back on track, or so they say.

Without the Virtue of the Conqueror, the whole notion of “why we fight” is so much trickier today. If this were ancient times and we served in an army of conquerors, it is doubtful that Vietnam vet turned Hollywood screenwriter William Broyles would have felt the need to pen “Why Men Love War” or British Iraq vet turned journalist would write “Iraq is always with you.” It was much easier to explain the whole thing when everyone just understood that you went to war to win and bring victory. That’s it.

So, as always, I offer nothing that brings us closer to understanding why, but I do posit that without the Virtue of the Conqueror, it is easier to understand why we have such a hard time reconciling it now. I like the thought of two ancient grizzled veterans getting drunk in a dank tavern, discussing the meta-physical elements of war, wondering “what it all means.” But I’m not sure they had to do that because they were too busy celebrating victory, or dead.

Incidentally, Jill Sargent Russell posted ‘The Art of Victory‘ on Kings of War yesterday. It’s a good post that I think is talking about the same thing I am, but in a more academic way.

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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.

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