Monday, December 7, 2015

On Fighting

“Americans love to fight,” declared George Patton in his speech to the third army in 1944; it’s clear to me now that although this assertion might well be true in general, most Americans have no real idea how to fight. Many people mistake raw aggression for martial prowess. They don’t realize that this sort of bluster shouted loudly and naively in the media-driven, over-opinionated echo chamber of US politics weakens our capability to form effective military strategy, fight, and defeat our enemies.

We are at war with the atrocity-embracing terrorist warriors of the Islamic State. Now, more than ever, we need to understand what is involved in fighting, and also to understand what the consequences of fighting are. With full disclosure, my thoughts on this matter are not derived from any military experience but from fencing and martial arts; I’m not a soldier, have never served and have only handled a firearm three times in my life. I think there is an important difference between fighting to defeat someone and fighting to kill them (and, thank God, I’ve never known the latter).

In conflicts between animals of the same species, the act of fighting is a small subset of aggressive behaviors that serve to establish dominance in social relationships. Most of the time, situations involving aggressive behavior consists of threats, chest-beating, bullying, and intimidation: schoolyard antics that establish dominance but usually don’t lead to anything serious. This is typically what people think passes for being a badass but is not necessarily anything to do with actually being good at fighting per se. When most people think about any sort of conflict that could possibly involve violence, they might offer such pearls of wisdom as ‘We need to show them who’s boss’, ‘We’re going to fuck you up’, or possibly ‘Don’t mess with Texas’ (my favorite).

This is how most people think fighting is done.

And although this may be enough reason for silverback gorillas to go at it, just establishing some sense of national dominance should not be the reason we send our soldiers to war. Given its costs and dangers, I would hope that the underlying reasons of why we fight would be more evolved, humanitarian, and practical than that (but I could well be wrong).

Beyond that, anyone adopting a blusterous, over-confident, hyper-aggressive approach in a fight typically puts themselves at a tactical disadvantage. Tactics in a combat setting always involves deception and misdirection. Brute force and overwhelming power has its place, but skill, sneakiness, and intelligence are more effective (just read Sun Tzu’s The Art of War to see how ancient Chinese military geniuses approach this whole question). Fundamentally, discipline, capability, courage, deception, and skill are the determining factors that make good fighters.

Also, it pays to take your adversary seriously. There’s a great scene in HBO’s The Pacific when Sgt. John Basilone confronts his soldiers for saying that they just want to get out there and ‘slap a Jap’. He screams, “You can call them anything you want but never ever fail to respect their desire to put you and your buddies into an early grave!” Know your adversary and you will be better able to defeat them.

Furthermore, if you can find a way to treat your adversary with humanity and respect then you may avoid paying the grave cost of losing that humanity. In his chilling but brilliant book On Killing, Lt. Col. Dave Grossman carefully elaborates how warfare causes moral injury and PTSD to combatants as natural individual consequences of fighting and killing. At length, he describes how some groups resort to the deliberate use of the ‘Dark Power of Atrocity’ as a means of fighting: the use of reprisals, targeting civilians, terrorism, carpet bombing of cities, and sexual violence such as systemic rape. Grossman writes:
There are many benefits reaped by those who tap the dark power of atrocity. Those who engage in a policy of atrocity usually strike a bargain that exchanges their future for a brief gain in the present. Though brief, that gain is nonetheless real and powerful. … One of the most obvious and blatant benefits of atrocity is that it quite simply scares the hell out of people. The raw horror and savagery of those who murder and abuse cause people to flee, hide, and defend themselves feebly, and often their victims respond with mute passivity…
In a following passage, Grossman then goes on to say:
Once a group undergoes the process of bonding and empowerment through atrocity, then its members are entrapped in it, as it turns every other force that is aware of their nature against them.
In simple practical terms, a groups that adopts atrocity in its methodology will create enemies that will never surrender or submit to them. When faced with an adversary like that, the only recourse you have is to fight tooth-and-nail to the death. Also, in so doing, the degree to which you then embrace atrocity and inhumanity to fight your enemy is then the degree to which you will be trapped by the same dark power. To quote Nietzsche: “Battle not with monsters, lest you become a monster. And if you gaze into the abyss, the abyss gazes also into you.”

Another movie, The Boxer, beautifully illustrates the difference between a fighter and a killer. This is the story of Danny Flynn, a boxer wrapped up in the politics of IRA-controlled Belfast. His character contrasts with that of Harry, an IRA commander responsible for the fight against the English and the Unionists. The main difference between the two men is that Danny simply fights without rancor or murderous intent, Harry fights to kill and destroy his enemies. Of the two men, Harry is far more damaged, more inhuman, and less likely to function well in a time of peace. The horror of war lives and breathes in Harry; he embraces it; he likes it; he uses it.

We should be wary of becoming like Harry when we fight.

So, in the current fight with IS, we face a calculating, barbaric enemy whose main goal is to terrorize us. To fight them well, we must pursue a military strategy that defeats their soldiers (by killing them, capturing them, or causing them to surrender) and undermines the narrative through which they gather supporters. We must also avoid the dark trap of using their own barbarity against them. The cost of that path is too great and will only lead to a greater spiral of death in the next monstrous enemy rising from ISIS’s defeated remnants.

So then, what are we really fighting for? I’m not sure if have a good answer for that question. I do know that we need to fight well with intelligence, cunning, and humanity to win.

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