In my previous post in this series, I explained that the basic assumption of counterinsurgency is that combat troops can live with a local population, protect them, and obtain a measure of communal respect such that the population will form relationships with our troops versus our opponents. To do this, the doctrine requires that our troops accept high, short-term tactical risk in exchange for long-term strategic gain. COIN requires troops accept much higher risk to themselves and their comrades and to exercise a very high level of restraint when responding to violence. The doctrine takes people trained to be the most lethal fighting force on the planet, men and women intentionally fashioned into a brotherhood/sisterhood of warriors who “leave no one behind,” and puts them in a very, very high stress environment and expects them to watch their comrades be injured and then *not* call down the thunder.
That….sounds like a really bad idea.
Let’s take this apart a bit, starting with the psychology of combat situations:
“To understand the nature of aggression and violence on the battlefield, it must first be recognized that most participants in close combat are literally “frightened out of their wits.” Once the bullets start flying, most combatants stop thinking with the forebrain (that portion of the brain that makes us human) and start thinking with the midbrain (the primitive portion of our brain, which is indistinguishable from that of an animal).
“In conflict situations, this primitive, midbrain processing can be observed in the existence of a powerful resistance to killing one’s own kind.”
“By 1946, the US Army…subsequently pioneered a revolution in combat training, which eventually replaced firing at targets with deeply ingrained conditioning, using realistic, man-shaped pop-up targets that fall when hit. Psychologists assert that this kind of powerful operant conditioning is the only technique that will reliably influence the primitive, midbrain processing of a frightened human being…[A]pplication and perfection of basic conditioning techniques increased the rate of fire to approximately 55 percent in Korea and around 95 percent in Vietnam…The extraordinarily high firing rate resulting from these processes was a key factor in the American ability to claim that the United States never lost a major engagement in Vietnam.”
Right at the start, we’re dropping large numbers of troops whose midbrains have been conditioned to facilitate firing on humans based on their shape into an environment where their opponents look like the rest of the population (i.e. no uniforms). The techniques used in their training are specifically designed to overcome resistance to killing, and then we drop them into a deadly environment with a gun, to execute a strategy based on resistance to killing.
But the ways in which this strategy conflicts with troop training does not stop there. A troop’s training inculcates him with prime importance of looking after the safety of his fellow soldiers. Says 12-year Marine Corps veteran Tyler Bordreau:
“Soldiers are encouraged to make an effort to accomplish the mission efficiently enough to save as many lives in the unit as possible while doing so. “Saving lives,” particularly at the ground level, is not done merely in the spirit of preserving firepower, but out of a genuine desire not to see friends die. …The deaths of a soldier’s comrades are always dealt with in the most solemn manner. “
D. Grossman and B.K. Siddle make a similar point when discussing the reasons soldiers overcome the innate animal resistance toward killing one of their own kind:
” For example, combatants do not do what they do in combat for medals: they are motivated largely by a concern for their comrades…”
However, when prosecuting a counterinsurgency strategy, the troop is asked to raise his tolerance not just of violence directed at oneself, but also of violence directed at one’s comrades.
Keep in mind, for a soldier, an insurgency is a situation of maximum stress. A 2007 Washington Post article described that stress in Iraq:
“And although U.S. casualties in Iraq are far lower than in the Vietnam War, for example, military experts say that Iraq can be a more stressful environment. In Vietnam, there were rear areas that were considered safe, but in Iraq there are no truly secure areas outside big bases. “The front in Iraq is any place not on a base camp” or a forward operating base, the report noted. “
In this situation where anyone may be an opponent or a supporter of the opponent, soldiers receive a kind of “training” similar to their reflexive fire training. Their opponents wear no uniforms; they are indistinguishable from the general population. When in situations where the forebrain is disengaged and the midbrain is engaged, the troops are constantly in conflict and firing on people “shaped” like the general population which they are supposed to protect. In Iraq, an Army study uncovered the results. From the same 2007 WAPO article:
More than one-third of U.S. soldiers in Iraq surveyed by the Army said they believe torture should be allowed if it helps gather important information about insurgents, the Pentagon disclosed yesterday. Four in 10 said they approve of such illegal abuse if it would save the life of a fellow soldier.
In addition, about two-thirds of Marines and half the Army troops surveyed said they would not report a team member for mistreating a civilian or for destroying civilian property unnecessarily. “Less than half of Soldiers and Marines believed that non-combatants should be treated with dignity and respect,” the Army report stated.
In his recent column, Tyler Bordeau summed up the contradiction at the heart of counterinsurgency strategy:
Contrary to current military doctrine, empathy and aggression do not go hand in hand. The more extreme one’s environment, the more obvious this reality becomes. It is not possible to reduce one’s regard for an enemy’s life without reducing one’s regard for all life. And it is not possible to genuinely strive to help a people, to reach out to them, while simultaneously preparing to kill them. You cannot achieve excellence in both war and humanity at the same time.
“A preliminary U.S. military investigation indicates that more than 40 Afghans killed or wounded by Marines after a suicide bombing in a village near Jalalabad last month were civilians, the U.S. commander who ordered the probe said yesterday.
“Maj. Gen. Frank H. Kearney III, head of Special Operations Command Central, also said there is no evidence that the Marine Special Operations platoon came under small-arms fire after the bombing, although the Marines reported taking enemy fire and seeing people with weapons. The troops continued shooting at perceived threats as they traveled miles from the site of the March 4 attack, he said. They hit several vehicles, killing at least 10 people and wounding 33, among them children and elderly villagers.”
If we flood Afghanistan with more troops for the purpose of resourcing a counterinsurgency strategy, be ready for more incidents like this. I’m not arguing that every soldier, or even most soldiers, will snap and repeat this episode. But it doesn’t take many incidents like these to fuel a massive surge in insurgent recruiting and violence.
Next: The economic damage caused by massive counterinsurgency deployments.
What you can do until then:
- Call your Member of Congress and let them know you oppose escalation in Afghanistan. If you’re not sure who represents you, visit the House of Representatives website and input your address–it will give you the name of your congressperson (and, it will take you to their email form). You can reach them through the Capitol switchboard: 202-224-3121. United for Peace and Justice prepared some fantastic fact sheets to help you prepare.
- Call the White House and tell the President you oppose escalation in Afghanistan: 202-456-1111.
- Sign the petition over at Rethink Afghanistan calling for oversight hearings on the Afghanistan policy. (They’ve also just posted part 2 of their excellent film…see the trailer.)
- Sign Sojourner’s petition to Obama (mentioned above).
- Sign the Friends Committee on National Legislation’s petition calling for an investment in peace, not war, in Afghanistan.
- Learn more about the reasons to oppose counterinsurgency strategy by reading Alex’s post on counterinsurgency vs. counterterrorism.
- Read the previous post in this series.