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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Desert Wolverines: Living the ‘Red Dawn’ fantasy

Wolverines!

I came across a few good articles challenging some of the common notions of what inspires ISIS fighters and supporters.

The first describes the worldwide phenomenon as more akin to a youth revolt, with Islam as its unifying thread. It’s not the radicalization of Islam, but the Islamization of radicalism.

The second discusses the “joy of ISIS.” That is, the general lack of understanding the West has towards recognizing that there is something that draws people to the cause in the first place: meaning, sense of purpose, happiness, joy.

I also revisited this short piece from five years ago on the Islamic State in Iraq (the predecessor to ISIS) where they repurposed the Call of Duty:Black Ops poster for their own propaganda. Youth and fun.

What I enjoyed about these articles is that they’re looking a little deeper at the ISIS phenomenon. The loudest voices I hear scream that it’s the religion that is to blame; it’s a “death cult.” Those voices flame more paranoia and fear which stoke stupid events like burning Qurans, lining streets with pig heads, proudly displaying ‘infidel’ labels, and so on.

Even before ISIS, I had a hard time believing that it was simply religion that inspired the IEDs, snipers, and ambushes I faced in Iraq after the invasion and later just before the surge. I was younger and dumber then, and while it would have been easy to simply say “It’s the religion, stupid!” and cast all of “them” as the other, just a tiny amount of critical thinking said there was something more going on.

Years later, sitting in a room with David Kilcullen, one of the chief advisors to Gen. Petraeus during the surge, I asked him if the chief motivation for some of the insurgents might simply be “the thrill of it?”

“Maybe,” he said.

When you peel back the layers of why young men and women join our own military, you’ll often find they do it for the experience – the thrill. As William Broyles wrote in Why Men Love War, “War offers endless exotic experiences, enough “I couldn’t fucking believe it!’s to last a lifetime.”

Similarly, James Jeffrey, a former British Armor officer describes the thrill this way:

“I defy anyone in a Challenger 2 tank, looking back over the commanders cupola at 20 armored vehicles kicking up curtains of sand, speeding across the smooth desert while enveloped in warm winds as the gunner traverses the turret to test fire the coaxially mounted machine gun, and then claim not to have enjoyed themselves.

One of the most addictive things about being in or around the military is the feeling of being “at the center of the world.” The obsession and interest people have with the military (news, movies, games, literature, etc.) makes it very easy for those who are a part of it to feel unique and a part of something greater. If you’re born in America, you can get close to that center through joining the military.

If joining the military isn’t your thing or isn’t possible, you can get on the same stage simply by joining ISIS. You don’t even have to join, you can just pledge loyalty and get on with it.

In the run-up to the Iraq War, there were some pundits that claimed Saddam was stalling on allowing Weapons of Mass Destruction inspectors, simply because he liked the attention. He liked being on the world stage. If America (and Iran) believed he had WMDs, it made him relevant and important.

Many of my peers in the military love the film Red Dawn, the story of a group of teenagers who find themselves waging a guerrilla war against an invading Soviet force. They call themselves the ‘Wolverines’ after their school mascot. It’s a fantasy, where they get to ambush the invading enemy, steal his weapons to grow more powerful, be the underdog and be the hero.

Invading a country is an odd experience, and when you think about it and talk about it, it doesn’t take long to realize that once you get to the insurgency, the “enemy” might simply be living that Red Dawn fantasy.

The Pashtuns, former Baathists, ISIS fighters – it’s Red Dawn, in reverse.

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