The most committed wins The psychology of war in the 21st Century

prev
next

By Michael G. Brock
MA, LLP, LMSW

Note: this article was first run in September of 2004 and again in July of 2007. After the last publication I resolved that I would stop editorializing about matters that were not areas of my professional expertise. However, I am old and it no longer matters much to anyone what happens to me, but it should matter to everyone what the outcome of endless war will be.

I woke up the morning of 9/3/2004 to the radio announcing that the Russians had stormed the school where Chechen terrorists had taken 1200 people hostage, resulting in the death of 320 people. The Chechens were shooting at escaping children, making the Russian soldiers feel they had no other choice. Somehow at least one of the terrorists escaped and they were hunting him down.

This was not the way I wanted to start my Labor Day Weekend. I had been making a point not to watch or listen to the news in recent months because I found it filled me with a sense of anger and futility, and reminded me that we had learned nothing about war since the end of World War II. Russia’s inability to deal with terrorism effectively mirrored our own ineptness in this area, and in the way we were prosecuting the war in Iraq.

On this particular day, all the while I was performing the tasks I had assigned myself, I kept thinking of the movie, The Siege, and especially the line stated early in the movie and repeated near the end, “In this game the most committed wins.”    

At length I had to go buy the DVD. The film was shot in 1998 and stars Annette Benning, Denzel Washington and Bruce Willis. In many ways this movie was eerily prophetic of the current state of world and internal US affairs. Terrorists had brought the war to New York City and destroyed FBI headquarters with a truck bomb, killing over 600 people. The good guy is Denzel Washington’s character, the FBI agent who wants to wage the war against terror with due process. The bad guy is Bruce Willis’ character, a two star general who chooses to wage the war with military might and the torture of captured terror suspects.

But Benning’s character is truly the most interesting. A CIA operative, she is essentially a pragmatist, but with a conscience. It is her voice that expresses the most important psychological truth about the war on terror—in truth, about any war, anywhere and anytime. The simple statement, “The most committed wins,” is backed up in the film by her decision to make the terrorist shoot her and take away his ability to use her as a hostage. Her character demonstrates her conviction with action, proving her point at the expense of her own life.

The psychology of war begins with a major philosophical decision: one is either against war under any circumstances, as were Gandhi and Jesus, or one believes that in certain circumstances war is unavoidable. As much as I admire both of these men and would like to believe in “non-violent resistance”, “resist not evil”, and the rest of their admonitions, and as much as I believe these principles are effective under certain circumstances, I tend to accept the statement that, “Only the dead have seen the end of war.”1    

What I do believe is that a country should only make war when there is no other alternative, and that once committed to making war, a country should do whatever it needs to do in order to win. Once having decided that immoral behavior — and, as any veteran knows, all war is immoral behavior — is necessary; one cannot be bothered by the ethics of what it takes to win that war.

This is particularly true in the case of the currently most popular form of war, terrorism. Terrorism is a different form of war in that it deliberately targets civilians and non-combatants, and that one of its chief strategies is the suicide attack. These facts make it entirely reprehensible to Western sensibilities because it is completely outside the realm of what we consider acceptable behavior, even in war.    

But what we fail to consider is that terrorism is really the only alternative available with which to fight a superpower. The terrorist knows that he cannot win this kind of war by following the Geneva Convention. The issue of whether or not terrorism is a legitimate war tactic is moot. Every soldier knows that in the final analysis you use whatever tools you have at your disposal. You do what you have to do to win. Under certain circumstances, otherwise moral people will kill civilians or captured enemy soldiers, or engage in torture in order to find out crucial information about enemy positions and intentions.

A good example is World War II, generally considered to be a moral war. Knowing that my father’s unit parachuted behind enemy lines, and that under certain circumstances it would be impossible to send captured German soldiers to the rear, I asked my father if they ever shot prisoners. He told me that it was unusual to shoot healthy prisoners if there was anyway to get them back to your own lines, but that wounded prisoners were frequently shot because they required too much attention and to care for them would call for unacceptable delays to accomplishing the mission.

My father did not live to see either the movie or the miniseries (Saving Private Ryan and Band of Brothers) that focused not only on the 101st Airborne Division, but also on his regiment and his battalion. In the miniseries, Ronald Spiers, a noncom in my father’s company, is portrayed as shooting about 20 captured German soldiers after giving them all a last cigarette. According to George Koskimaki, 101st historian, Spiers also shot one of his own men for disobeying orders on the field of battle. However, he was given a battlefield commission and put in charge of E Company, 2nd Battalion, 506th PIR as a result of an act of heroism in which he ran through enemy lines during a firefight to make contact with an American unit on the other side of the village, then ran through enemy lines again to get back to his own men. After the war he chose to make the military his career.

What does all this have to do with the war on terror and the war in Iraq? Just that we have lost every war we have fought since World War II. We lost in Korea because we were afraid to blow the bridges separating Korea from China, or to bomb the bases on the Chinese side that were being used by their Mig fighter jets, and as a consequence we are now faced with a nuclear power in that region; we lost in Viet Nam because we were afraid of angering the Chinese and bringing them into the war by continued bombing or invasion of the North; we lost in Iran when they invaded our embassy — by international law our sovereign territory — and we allowed them to occupy US territory for over a year and did nothing, and they will soon be a nuclear power; and we are losing in Iraq because we don’t want to inflame world opinion by using any means necessary to bring the war to a successful conclusion.

I don’t know whether the war in Iraq is necessary or not. It seems to me very likely that this war is alienating the more moderate members of the Muslim community, and in this way will make us more vulnerable to terrorist attack. It also seems probable that the main reasons we are there are to protect or oil supply, and maintain our standard of living. I suspect this is not sufficient reason to go to war, and the other reasons given, that Iraq has weapons of mass destruction, and that we are liberating the people from Sadam Hussein do not seem to hold water. Regarding this last reason, I am reminded of the words of Gandhi, when he asked, “What person would not rather be ruled by a despot from his own country than a benign power from a foreign country?”

This having been said, we have decided to go to war. We are finding, and will continue to find, our enemy to be highly resolved, and to have a level of commitment beyond our comprehension. I believe this is true because he is fighting for national autonomy, protection of his religion and culture, and the right to control and profit from his own natural resources. These goals are powerful motivators.

I got up that Saturday morning after hearing about the tragic outcome of the Russian hostage situation and pulled up the online news, where I learned that seven marines had been killed that day by a car bomb that went off as an American convoy passed by a town nine miles north of Fallujah. MSNBC reported, “US forces have not patrolled inside Fallujah since April [2004], when US Marines ended a three-week siege. The city has since fallen into the hands of insurgents who have used it as a base to manufacture car bombs and launch attacks on US and Iraqi government forces.”

The psychology of modern warfare is basically quite simple; the most committed will prevail in the end. Take away all the hype and posturing and I see no indication that we are any more committed in this war than we were in Korea, Viet Nam, Iran, Somalia, etc. Therefore, I have no reason to believe that the outcome will be any different.


Addendum 11/15/2015

After hearing about another atrocity committed by “Islamic terrorists,” an enemy our president insisted earlier in the day was “contained,” I asked myself why it was so hard for us to understand that we are locked in a life and death struggle? Moreover, we are facing an enemy that deliberately targets soft, civilian targets with weapons of war, while we trivialize these acts of the most brutal and vicious kind of warfare as if they were mere criminal acts that can be dealt with effectively with due process of law. And the governments they are perpetrated against lack even a law to take such a perpetrator’s life.

I hear people talking about a proportionate response, but what is the proportionate response against an enemy whose goal is the extermination of our culture? At some point soon we will have to decide to face reality or it will be too late. Our enemy is very clear what his goals and motives are, but we don’t believe he means it. He can’t possibly mean it, can he?

—————

My father didn’t talk much about the war — not the fighting. He did talk about capturing the Eagle’s Nest and what great “hooch” Hitler had stored there. And he talked about liberating Buchenwald, and how the American soldiers unwittingly gave the starving prisoners their c-rations; solid food that these pitiful, starving creatures could not physically tolerate and some died from ingesting.

And he also told me a story about charging a German position in the Ardennes forest and seeing a fellow soldier’s head taken off by an 88 shell, which the Germans were firing as an anti-personal weapon.

“Isn’t that against the Geneva Convention,” I asked?

My dad shrugged, “When you’re attacked, you fight with what you have.”

They took the enemy position.

Sometimes I wonder if I’m still living in the same country.

—————

1This statement was attributed to Plato by Douglas McArthur in his farewell address at West Point.  However, scholars dispute whether Plato actually said this or words to this effect.  It did appear in a work of George Santayana in 1924, and he did not attribute the statement to anyone else.  Regardless of who said it; it seems an undeniable truth.

––––––––––

Michael G. Brock, MA, LLP, LMSW, is a forensic mental health professional in private practice at Counseling and Evaluation Services in Wyandotte, Michigan. He has worked in the mental health field since 1974, and has been in full-time private practice since 1985. The majority of his practice in recent years relates to driver license restoration and substance abuse evaluation. He may be contacted at Michael G. Brock, Counseling and Evaluation Services, 2514 Biddle, Wyandotte, 48192; 313-802-0863, fax/phone 734-692-1082; e-mail, michaelgbrock@ comcast.net; website, michaelgbrock.com.
 

Comments

  1. No comments
Sign in to post a comment »