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Wargaming or: Men Are Not Blocks of Wood

(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.)

eleven comments

Sorry gentleman, Mr. Packer’s eloquence nor all the eloquence of all the “walk a mile in the other guy’s shoes” sermons are not going to make me understand a thing that can look women and children in the face just before putting a bullet into them. Every bit of hardship and disappointment the thing suffered was suffered by others who did not use M-4 rounds to fill civilian houses with blood spatter of the people who lived there. Many more men retained their humanity and honor is spite of suffering more physical pain heart breaking frustration more often than the thing did.

It is a mass murderer and like all mass murderers it liked what it did and isn’t sorry for having done it. Put it in the same pen with the killer of the unarmed in Ft. Hood.

And in the interests of stopping the “just snapped” argument, look up the history of the killer. It includes several incidents of criminal violence and several instances of major league fraud. This action didn’t come from nowhere. It has a history of sticking it to people and this is just the biggest score yet.

Would that it wasn’t at heart a coward and ran home to mother Army to be protected from the friends and relations of the people it killed. It would have saved us a lot of trouble if it had stayed outside the wire. But then, that isn’t how cowards roll is it?

I will say this though, it has a winning smile.


What Mr. Packer wrote in the way it is presented here is an apologia in spite of saying it isn’t. An instance of horrific mass murder does not make one understand the military and the people in it at all unless that military is composed of black evil people. No matter what the thing’s military career was, nothing in it can make me understand what it did. Simply put, nothing justifies what it did. So how can it be understood?

Look at the image at the top of the blog on the left, the statue of the hammer wielder about to bash out the brains of the recumbent figure in a pose of supplication. The hammer wielder is the thing about to bash out the brains of a child. I can never understand that.


As I made clear in the post, I “don’t excuse Sgt. Bales. At all.” But I don’t condone anything of what he did, or think his history justifies it.

I’m just trying to understand him.


My second point: the same can be said of terrorists, or insurgents. How can we understand them? They are pure black evil, we just have to kill them.

I say we have to try to understand them. This is a battle we’ve been arguing in our culture for the last ten years.

And the statue at the top is of Cain killing his brother Able. And that story includes a why—God favored Able—that doesn’t justify his actions.


Eric C.: I apologize for my tone. I get very exercised about this incident and I let it affect me when I should restrain myself.

The problem with trying to understand one who commits these actions is, as an average person, you can’t. You can try to, and some people pretend to, but unless you can imagine looking into the eyes of a terrified child and then putting two between those terrified eyes and feeling a thrilling rush of pure pleasure, you can’t understand it. The psychopaths who do these things can describe what they do, why they do it and what they feel when they do it to researchers and those researchers can write up the results in detail, but you won’t understand it. The best you can do is understand that they like it and they would do it again if they could. You base your actions upon that. I think that is the best we can do.

Maybe we can come a little closer in a general way in recognizing that the beast exists in many of us, not all, there are some genuine saints, but in most of us. We try to keep the beast in and most of us succeed. Often we need the help of others, culture mostly, but we do it. When those restraints are taken away you have things like Rwanda, an unspeakable horror. So the beast is there. But this incident is different. It involves an individual who throws off the restraints and allows the beast to come out on his own. That is where we will never really understand why the restraints were thrown off. We know that they were and we know that it was fun for the killer but, God have mercy on our souls, if we are lucky to have even a little bit of character, we will never really understand it.

What is that photo or art work on the right? I like it because it graphically shows what evil looks like. That is important nowadays because so many people in the US go through life without ever really seeing it and that piece can help them realize that it really exists. That is important.


Carl if you have read us for a minute (and I don’t know how long you have exactly) you know I absolutely do not condone or excuse war crimes by soldiers. Like your initial comment, I have been there, I have been through it and I never came close to contemplating war crimes. That is why any war crimes horrify me, and I believe our culture has done a lot to protect soldiers who commit war crimes, by trying to exonerate every single soldier accused of committing war crimes.

But I do think the idea that “the beast” as you put it, is in all of us comes closest to the mark. NPR’s Planet Money podcast had a post last week about how people commit fraud and other “evil”, but don’t consider themselves bad people. No one does, but the capacity exists.

So we do not condone or even begin to understand why Sgt. Bales committed his crimes. However, the more important, and neglected story, is how many soldiers and veterans have returned from combat and killed themselves/other people. Those murders (self and others) are in large part due to the experience soldiers had with combat. As we said above, soldiers are not blocks of wood, and combat affects them deeply.

The picture on the right is from the Iran-Iraq war, which seemed fitting. One of our first posts explains why we chose the pictures. (The ideas in our first posts are still really good, but our writing has improved.)


Michael C: I haven’t read you for very long. I should have read more of what you have written before I shot my mouth off. I will try to do better next time. I made the mistake of getting you mixed up with some of the other apology type things I have read. That was my error.

I will go back and look at the post where you explain why you chose that picture.


Sorry about the tone of my reply as well. My main point is that I believe a strict ROE helps the counter-insurgent. More importantly, I don’t think strict ROE puts soldiers under some impossible standard. I can say this because I have been in that situation. I also don’t know if we have written about this extensively, but I think war crimes are under-prosecuted in our current wars.

Our “war is war” series really captures my arguments against that. We have some posts on that coming up next week too.


Here’s the link Carl. http://onviolence.com/?e=7

And excuse some of the writing in the post; it’s terrible.


Also Carl, I think your comment and response opens up a range of reactions and directions for this post to go in.

Here’s another post on a very similar topic, about a veteran using violence against an innocent civilian. http://onviolence.com/?e=259

In this case, though, I directly connect it to (possible) military training and military values.


I thought the photo was an art work and the figures were representations of death moving forward to claim victims with the modern weapons most closely associated with lethal chaos. They looked like death figure skeletons. The impact is the same even if it is a photo.

I don’t know if war crimes are undereported, you are in position to judge that. I am not. One thing I have noticed is that even when there are prosecutions and convictions, the punishments handed down seem light given the crimes committed. I can’t recall too many specific instances but that was the impression I formed in reading Stars and Stripes over a few years. And in the “Black Hearts” rape and murders, I read most of those guys will be out in 2015. If they had done the same to Americans in the US, they all would have received the death penalty.

I will have to read all the post and comments in the killing Eric C. referred to. (Part of it was obscurred by ads.) One thing I would like to know before determining if military training had something to do with it would be the history of the individual involved. Did he have history of violence, threatening people with weapons, etc? That is a mistake some people make when judging the killings Mr. Packer wrote about, they conflate military status with pre-existing criminality or disposition to criminal behavior.

There is a reason I don’t use the name of the killer Mr. Packer wrote of. Those killers love to see there names in print and on people’s lips. That is one reason they do it, so the world will know who they are. So I think it would be good that when those things happen, their names are never used. Maybe that will have a dissuasive effect on others thinking they could be famous by doing something similar.