Friday, June 25, 2010

Combat

If I understand Sebastian Junger's argument in War (which I've just
finished reading and which should have been entitled Combat), American
soldiers in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan have fought for the
same reason that Taliban soldiers ("insurgents") fight -- the same
reason German soldiers and Japanese fought in World War II. That
reason is neither ideology nor patriotism. It is love for their
brothers ("comrades" was the old word for this). Junger draws a
distinction between "war" and "combat." War is what politicians and
generals plan and execute. Wars can be wars of conquest or liberation
or something in between. For civilian populations caught up in them,
wars are an unmitigated calamity. Combat, on the other hand, is what
soldiers on the ground do to help their brothers, and to survive.
(Never mind that much of the killing in Afghanistan and Pakistan is
now being done by unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, by operators
sitting in Creech Air Force Base, near Las Vegas, and other locations
in the U.S. -- a fact Junger barely mentions). Here's an excerpt from
Junger's book:

One night a few weeks later I'm sitting on the ammo hooch listening to
the monkeys in the peaks. A temperature inversion has filled the
valley with mist and the mist is silver in the moonlight and almost
liquid. There's been a big fight over by the Pakistan border and F-15s
and -16s have been powering overhead all evening looking for people to
kill. O'Byrne wanders out and we start talking. His head is shaved but
dirt sticks to the stubble so you can see where his hair ought to be.
He says he signed a contract with the army that's almost up, and he
has to figure out whether to re-enlist. 'Combat is such an adrenaline
rush,' he says. 'I'm worried I'll be looking for that when I get home
and if I can't find it, I'll just start drinking and getting in
trouble. People back home think we drink because of the bad stuff, but
that's not true… we drink because we miss the good stuff.'

O'Byrne is also worried about being alone. He hasn't been out of
earshot of his platoonmates for two years and has no idea how he'll
react to solitude. He's never had to get a job, find an apartment or
arrange a doctor's appointment because the army has always done those
things for him. All he's had to do is fight. And he's good at it, so
leading a patrol causes him less anxiety than, say, moving to Boston
and finding an apartment and a job. He has little capacity for what
civilians refer to as 'life skills'; for him, life skills literally
keep you alive. Those are far simpler and more compelling than the
skills required at home. 'In the Korengal, almost every problem could
get settled by getting violent faster than the other guy,' O'Byrne
told me. 'Do that at home and it's not going to go so well.'

It's a stressful way to live but once it's blown out your fear levels
almost everything else looks boring. O'Byrne knows himself: when he
gets bored he starts drinking and getting into fights, and then it's
only a matter of time until he's back in the system. If that's the
case, he might as well stay in the system – a better one – and
actually move upwards. I suggest a few civilian jobs that offer a
little adrenaline – wilderness trip guide, firefighter – but we both
know it's just not the same. We are at one of the most exposed
outposts in the entire US military, and he's crawling out of his skin
because there hasn't been a good firefight in a week. How do you bring
a guy like that back into the world?

Civilians balk at recognising that one of the most traumatic things
about combat is having to give it up. War is so obviously evil and
wrong that the idea there could be anything good to it almost feels
like a profanity. And yet throughout history, men like O'Byrne have
come home to find themselves desperately missing what should have been
the worst experience of their lives. To a combat vet, the civilian
world can seem frivolous and dull, with very little at stake and all
the wrong people in power. These men come home and quickly find
themselves getting berated by a rear-base major who's never seen
combat, or arguing with their girlfriend about some domestic issue
they don't even understand. When men say they miss combat, it's not
that they actually miss getting shot at – you'd have to be deranged –
it's that they miss being in a world where everything is important and
nothing is taken for granted. They miss being in a world where human
relations are entirely governed by whether you can trust the other
person with your life.

It's such a pure, clean standard that men can completely remake
themselves in war. You could be anything back home – shy, ugly, rich,
poor, unpopular – and it won't matter because it's of no consequence
in a firefight. The only thing that matters is your level of
dedication to the rest of the group, and that is almost impossible to
fake.

War is a big and sprawling word that brings a lot of human suffering
into the conversation, but combat is a different matter. Combat is the
smaller game that young men fall in love with, and any solution to the
human problem of war will have to take into account the psyches of
these young men. For some reason there is a profound and mysterious
gratification to the reciprocal agreement to protect another person
with your life, and combat is virtually the only situation in which
that happens regularly. These hillsides are where the men feel not
most alive – that you can get skydiving – but the most utilised. The
most necessary. The most clear and certain and purposeful. If young
men could get that feeling at home, no one would ever want to go to
war again, but they can't. So here sits Sgt Brendan O'Byrne, one month
before the end of deployment, seriously contemplating signing back up.
'I prayed only once in Afghanistan,' O'Byrne wrote to me after it was
all over. 'It was when Restrepo got shot, and I prayed to God to let
him live. But God, Allah, Jehovah, Zeus or whatever a person may call
God wasn't in that valley. Combat is the devil's game. God wanted no
part.'

Some men make better soldiers than others, and some units perform
better than others. The traits that distinguish those men, and those
units, could be called the Holy Grail of combat psychology. They could
be called the basis for what people loosely refer to as 'courage'. An
Israeli study during the 1973 Yom Kippur War found that
high-performing soldiers were more intelligent, more 'masculine', more
socially mature, and more emotionally stable than average men. At the
other end of the spectrum, eight out of 10 men who suffered
psychological collapse in combat had a problem at home: a pregnant
wife, a financial crisis, a recent death in the family. Those
collapses were most likely to be caused not by a near-death
experience, as one might expect, but by the combat death of a close
friend. That was certainly true at Restrepo. Nearly every man had
missed death by a margin of inches, but those traumas were almost
never discussed. Rather, it was the losses in the unit that lingered
in men's minds. The only time I saw a man cry up there was when I
asked Pemble whether he was glad the outpost had been named after Doc
Restrepo. Pemble nodded, tried to answer, and then his face just went
into his hands.

Cortez was another man who struggled with the loss of Restrepo. 'His
death was a bit hard on us,' he told me, months later, with typical
understatement. 'We loved him like a brother. After he went down,
there was a time I didn't care about anything. I didn't care about
getting shot or if I died. I'd run into the open and not care and I'd
be getting chewed out by a team leader and not care.

I wasn't scared, honestly, but I just didn't care if I died or not.'
Someone finally pointed out to Cortez that if he got hit, someone else
was going to have to run through gunfire to save him, and the idea
that he might get one of his brothers killed was enough to get him to
knock it off. His reaction points to an irony of combat psychology –
the logical downside of heroism. If you're willing to lay down your
life for another person, then their death is going to be more
upsetting than the prospect of your own, and intense combat might
incapacitate an entire unit through grief alone. Combat is such an
urgent business, however, that most men simply defer the psychological
issue until later.

Statistically, it's six times as dangerous to spend a year as a young
man in America than as a cop or a fireman, and vastly more dangerous
than a one-year deployment at a big military base in Afghan istan.
You'd have to go to a remote firebase like the KOP to find a level of
risk that surpasses that of simply being an adolescent male in the US.
Combat isn't simply a matter of risk, though; it's also a matter of
mastery. The basic neurological mechanism that induces mammals to do
things is called the dopamine reward system. Dopamine is a
neurotransmitter that mimics the effect of cocaine in the brain, and
it gets released when a person wins a game or solves a problem or
succeeds at a difficult task. The dopamine reward system exists in
both sexes but is stronger in men, and as a result men are more likely
to become obsessively involved in such things as hunting, gambling,
computer games and war. When the men of Second Platoon were moping
around the outpost hoping for a firefight it was because, among other
things, they weren't getting their accustomed dose of endorphins and
dopamine. They played video games instead.

Women can master those skills without having pleasure centres in their
brains light up as if they'd just done a line of coke. One of the
beguiling things about combat is that it's so complex, there's no way
to predict the outcome. That means that any ragtag militia, no matter
how small and poorly equipped, might conceivably defeat a superior
force if it fights well enough. 'Every action produces a counter
action on the enemy's part,' an American correspondent named Jack
Belden wrote about combat during the Second World War. 'The thousands
of interlocking actions throw up millions of little frictions,
accidents and chances, from which there emanates an all-embracing fog
of uncertainty.'

Combat fog obscures your fate – obscures when and where you might die
– and from that unknown is born a desperate bond between the men. That
bond is the core experience of combat and the only thing you can
absolutely count on. The willingness to die for another person is a
form of love that even religions fail to inspire, and the experience
of it changes a person profoundly. What the army sociologists, with
their clipboards and their questions, slowly came to understand was
that courage was love. In war, neither could exist without the other,
and that in a sense they were just different ways of saying the same
thing. According to their questionnaires, the primary motivation in
combat (other than 'ending the task' – which meant they all could go
home) was 'solidarity with the group'. That far outweighed
self-preservation or idealism as a motivator. The Army Research Branch
cites cases of wounded men going AWOL after their hospitalisation in
order to get back to their unit faster than the military could get
them there. A civilian might consider this an act of courage, but
soldiers knew better. To them it was just an act of brotherhood, and
there probably wasn't much to say about it except, 'Welcome back.'