Subtle intrusions of comfort

Posted in American, Asian, Culture, Reading by Alex L. on February 20, 2011

Mountains in AfghanistanI have recently been reading Pete Blaber’s memoir, The Mission, The Men, and Me: Lessons from a Former Delta Force Commander, about his experiences during training and in combat around the world (including action in Iraq and Afghanistan). As may be gleamed from some of my previous posts, I have a high degree of admiration for battle-tested warriors such as this Chicago-born operative in the military’s perhaps most unconventional unit.

During late 2001 and early 2002, when Americans special forces were making their first incursions into Afghanistan, Pete Blaber was commanding a detachment of advanced force operations (AFO) soldiers. He describes this early phase of the war in Afghanistan as an uncharacteristic one.

The U.S. government, according to Blaber, knew very little about the country they were invading, and special forces were sent in to acquire contextual information and carry out the initial attacks on the enemy. Since the character of the war to come was still unknown, these various units were allowed to organize and operate in a way that did not necessarily reflect their usual departmental divisions. Combat teams were frequently formed and reformed around a mix of AFO, the Green Berets, and CIA agents as need dictated without a regard for traditional military structure. In true special forces fashion, the only thing that mattered was completing the mission no matter how unconventional the means.

Much like I am in awe of master craftsmen who restore old aircraft, I am stunned by the audacity of the challenges that such special forces troops undertake. My confusion about the morality of war aside, when viewed simply as a problem-solving endeavor, the task of entering a hostile country in small teams of a few dozen men to chase out the entire ruling class baffles the mind. Sure the U.S. soldiers were equipped with the latest supplies and technology to help them accomplish this mission (not to mention scores of Northern Alliance soldiers as allies), but as Blaber describes and the U.S. military had to learn the hard way, technology is never a substitute for one of the basic assets of warfare: contextual knowledge of the people, locations, customs, and ways of thinking of others, especially the enemy.

Blaber writes of how important it was to win the support of locals in Afghanistan to be able to effectively fight the Al Qaeda (who were foreigners from the Middle East) and Taliban forces. One day, he recounts, an Afghan chieftain walked into Blaber’s mud-fort compound and requested an audience with the commander. Blaber met him in the courtyard as both the U.S. sentries and the Afghan bodyguards uneasily watched each other’s every movement.

The Afghan warlord diffused the tension by getting to the point. Via a translator, he told Blaber that he was reaching out to the Americans because the previous night his cousin had been killed not too far away from their compound. Wouldn’t Blaber please use his magical and all-knowing computer machine to find out who had perpetrated this crime?

Though taken aback, instead of correcting the warlord (who had probably only heard stories but had never seen a computer in his life) about his false perception of the omniscience of the wondrous glowing screens, Blaber thought on his feet. He needed this exact situation – Americans and local warlords in Afghanistan cooperating to chase out extremists from the country – to play out over and over again if America would ever have a chance of succeeding in Afghanistan. Yes, Blaber told the warlord, he would help him uncover the mystery of his cousin’s death with the aid of the mysterious computers.

Although the intelligence analyst in Blaber’s compound scoured the previous day’s satellite imagery of the surrounding area, Blaber’s soldiers uncovered the solution to the mystery by more low-tech means. Sending out a team to the site where the warlord’s cousin was murdered, Blaber’s men talked (again, via translators) to some of the children who had witnessed the crime and told the American soldiers that the warlord’s cousin was killed attempting to steal some wood from a truck.

The satellite imagery observed by the intelligence analyst showed the truck at the exact location where the crime occurred, but could not reveal the critical facts of the story. That intel was provided by simple immersion in the context of the stituation. The warlord was grateful to the Americans for using their godlike computers to confirm what he had suspected were the facts of his cousin’s death (the true source of the evidence, the Afghan children who witnessed the crime, were kept secret from the chief for their safety).

Blaber’s way of thinking as he describes in his book is remarkably elegant. He says that the most important asset of the warrior is to be able to recognize meaningful patterns that occur and reoccur in our world. To this warrior unencumbered by any kind of rigid ideology or habit, a sense of humor is as much if not more of an indispensable weapon of war as the latest innovations in digital technology. When his primitive frontier base started being heavily reinforced, he lamented that it was changing “from a South Bronx shithole into an Upper East Side condominium” and told his colleague, “‘Let’s pack it up, Jimmy, we’re heading for the frontier'”. Why was semi-permanent residence and comfort a problem for Blaber’s nimble force? He writes,

Technology and comfort items such as the Internet, satellite television, and hot chow, are hugely net positive for men and women serving long tours in a combat zone. But they also combine to create subtle intrusions that slowly but surely rob a warrior of his most precious weapon: time to saturate, incubate, and illuminate [i.e. time to think].

This military asceticism makes a lot of sense from the perspective that accomplishing the mission should be the utmost goal of the group, even unto death. Ultimately, the appeal of the aesthetic of the special forces for me is this: nimble and adaptable to the extreme, these individuals, working together in closely-knit tribes, can outwit and outperform almost any enemy and overcome any obstacle that it is humanly possible to surmount. Like Jacob fooling Isaac and Esau to win the birthright, such warriors will do whatever it takes to succeed. Not your stereotypical grunt, they are men of cunning and action par excellence.

I think about the comfort items that Blaber describes his team had to leave behind for the sake of the mission. My world is saturated with such things. Mobile phones, computers, cars, apartments, careers, fine dining, hobbies, and countless other distractions permeate civilian existence. They are so omnipresent and so much at the center of conversation in some places that, for some people, these goods, services, and status-symbols become their mission.

And yet they’re hard to resist. For me, asceticism needs to have a very specific goal for it not to smell of masochism. Being the unsystematic philosopher that I am, I sometimes have Nietzsche’s voice rattling around in my head reminding me (out of its original context, as usual) that self-denial for its own sake is a kind of moral depravity, a hankering for the tomb because one has grown sick of life. And in sleepy American suburbia, is not life itself this striving for comfortable things, this putting to use of our natural strength and smarts to leave ourselves (or our children) a little bit better off than we were in the past?

I think this materialistic philosophy makes good sense up to a certain point before it begins to destroy itself. Sure we want a roof over our heads, a good education, healthy food, and all that. But the quietude of settled existence has a nasty momentum that grows the appetite, sharpens the eyesight in the direction of our neighbor’s estate, and ultimately destroys the joy of living.

Naively, I may dream all I want that the elite warriors with their challenging missions and bonds of brotherhood live a heroic existence, but of course they pay for their honor and adventure with long days of drudgery and heartache (if not their lives). And fetishizing war has been the folly of many a young man. Still, I can’t help but admire that for some cadres of individuals, the priority remains “the mission first, the men second, and then me” and not “the mission is me, man”.

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