(To read the rest of "Over-Reacting to COIN (Again): On Cultural Empathy and 'Gratitude Theory'", please click here and scroll to the bottom.)
Reading Michael C’s follow-up posts on rationality, emotion and counter-insurgency this week, I thought of an excerpt from Stephen Vincent Benet's pulitzer prize winning poem, John Brown’s Body that perfectly describes the role emotion plays in war, and how tacticians do their best to ignore it:
If you take a flat map
And move wooden blocks upon it strategically,
The thing looks well, the blocks behave as they should.
The science of war is moving live men like blocks.
And getting the blocks into place at a fixed moment.
But it takes time to mold your men into blocks
And flat maps turn into country where creeks and gullies
Hamper your wooden squares. They stick in the brush,
They are tired and rest, they straggle after ripe blackberries,
And you cannot lift them up in your hand and move them.
It is all so clear in the maps, so clear in the mind,
But the orders are slow, the men in the blocks are slow
To move, when they start they take too long on the way -
The General loses his stars, and the block-men die
In unstrategic defiance of martial law
Because still used to just being men, not block parts,
In an ideal world, soldiers move as ordered; in the real world, the environment bogs them down, getting stuck in bushes or chasing after berries. In an ideal world, insurgents give up when faced with certain death; in reality, some insurgents will never submit to foreigners. Since most young men--and certainly every military strategist alive--played and loved "Risk" as a kid (and as adults), we naturally view men as blocks of wood.
But men are not blocks of wood.
This poem eloquently sums up what Michael C has been writing about all week: we can try to model rationality, but if we don’t model for emotion, we’re missing a piece of the equation. Men are men, and soldiers are soldiers, after all.
This poem also speaks to the pressures suffered by soldiers who have been fighting for too long. George Packer, in an excellent comment for The New Yorker about the alleged mass murder of innocent civilians in Afghanistan, eloquently sums it up:
Three deployments over six years in Iraq, including one during the “surge” with intense fighting. A wound that cost him part of his foot, then a head injury in a vehicle accident. Frustration at being unable to find and kill the enemy. Over the years, as the deployments pile up and the mission gets lost, he starts to sound jaded, coarsened. Ten years in, he misses out on being promoted to sergeant first class, and he doesn’t land the recruiting job he wanted, or the coveted posting to Germany or Italy. Instead, he’s sent back to the wars—this time to a remote combat outpost in Kandahar province, Afghanistan, where he sees a buddy lose a leg to a land mine.
As Packer makes clear, this doesn’t excuse Sergeant Bales, at all. But it does make you understand him, and our military. He wasn’t, after all, a block of wood.
(H/T to Manager Tools for finding and celebrating this quote. You’ve read about them here and here on the website before. I haven’t read the entire poem--I plan on it--but if the rest of it has as many good ideas as this one, it seems like a must-read.)