Socratic Warfighters: Courage in the Grey Zone
"The society that separates its scholars from its warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting done by fools.” -- Thucydides
Today’s non-warfighters have largely forgotten that Western civilization’s art and style of thinking was invented by a grunt, a decorated hero, a veteran of three wars—Socrates. We know of the famous philosopher’s military bearing and martial virtues from the dialogue LACHES, in which we find the first self-conscious attempt in the Occidental tradition to define the proper subject of military education.[i] That subject turns out to be courage, which Socrates defines as “knowledge of the fearful and hopeful in war and every other situation.”[ii]
As defined by the iconic thinking veteran, courage is not only moral and intellectual excellence demonstrated in high-stakes, do-or-die situations. It’s also a moral disposition of being maximally cognitively receptive to knowledge of the fearful and hopeful. The truly courageous downrange leader, for example, keeps his team cognitively open to that knowledge even under fire, in high-stakes situations of extreme risk. Courage, up-range, among commanders and civilians who never deploy, is also a moral disposition, of being cognitively receptive to the knowledge of the fearful and hopeful that Socratic warfighters gain downrange, in the battlespace. Laches reminds us, moral knowledge and martial knowledge in the Western tradition are Siamese twins born in the battle-space. Attempting to separate the two usually leads to the immediate death of both. [iii]
Martial Courage: Athenian TRADOC
The dialogue of Laches is staged amidst catastrophic battlefield failures that threaten to destroy the democracy of Athens and deliver it into Spartanic tyranny. In dire need of strategic council, Athenian Top Brass seek out Socrates. They pick his battlespace brain. And the sagacious veteran promptly advises them to reconsider the true nature of military education. If you want a better democracy, train better Soldiers, especially better NCOs. However, Socrates does not council the Generals to turn from the battlefield back to the classroom. Instead, Socrates radically redefines the battlefield as its own kind of classroom whose elementary subject is courage. (In this regard, Laches represents the CALL of the classical age.) An explicit lesson of Laches is this: How we define the true nature of courage radically informs both our training and our doctrine (TRADOC). The key question is what and how should we train the assets we deploy to the battlespace? However, there’s more at stake in our definition of courage than military training and doctrine. The knowledge of fear and hope that we gain in the battlespace, as Socrates argues, is the key to communal survival.
What gives Socrates so much sway on strategic issues that the top generals of his era seek his council amidst the fog of war? He’d already proven his physical and moral courage in the battlespace. His character -- the true source of his persuasive power -- had been unquestionably earned by his comportment as a man among Soldiers. He’d risked body, mind, and soul gaining first-hand knowledge of the merciless moral crucible that is the battlefield. And, by his fellow Athenian citizens, Socrates was rightly regarded as a three-time war hero.
However, it’s not only that Socrates has “been there” (and won medals by hauling his battle-buddies to safety) that makes him a credible authority on the subject of military education (courage and moral excellence). Laches insistently demonstrates that it’s what the lover of stubborn and irreducible truths, the thinking veteran, does with his having been there, after he’s been there, that becomes the richest soil of his post-deployment moral and intellectual authority.[iv]
What does the veteran do with his direct experience of war? How does he make his hard-won experience of war-fighting serve his fellow citizens after he de-deploys? And what does that have to do with his moral courage? Those are questions of the social value we place upon personal character -- what the Greeks called “elenchus.” Laches puts those questions into play for our contemplation. Today’s Warfighters and their kith and kin in our alphabet agencies should be contemplating them. The greyer today’s battle-spaces become, the more urgently we need fierce critical understanding of the full nature and deepest resources of martial (biological) courage. But we also need better understanding of the full nature of moral courage. In Socrates, the two forms of courage are holistically fused.
Socrates not only explicitly defines the true nature of courage as “knowledge of the fearful and hopeful in war and every other situation,” (moral excellence gained under duress and applied to the political sphere),[v] he also stubbornly embodies trustworthiness as ethical leadership. Evaluated in both his military and his civilian careers, Socrates reveals that trustworthy leadership, both military and political leadership, is the wellspring of moral courage. Socrates the scholar cannot be alienated from Socrates the warrior. His soul refuses that split. As a scholar he is brave. As a warrior he is wise.
A powerful, but often overlooked, lesson of Laches is that it’s the trustworthy leader who has the moral power to inspire courageousness in those he leads.[vi] And courage is what Socrates recommends to his fellow citizens as their salvation from impending political disaster.
Can we really educate trustworthiness -- the basis of the moral and martial courage that small fighting units need to get their jobs done -- into our military leaders? Are trustworthy leaders born or made?[vii] Aristotle, who was tutor to the greatest military genius of his day, Alexander the Great, believed that leaders could be made and educated. And he gave us our first strategic and tactical leadership FM—The Rhetoric.
In an article about Aristotle’s Rhetoric as a Handbook of Leadership, originally written for the US Naval Academy and then adopted by TRADOC, Dr. Jonathan Shay, former Bradley Chair of Strategic Leadership, reminds us of the three moral and intellectual virtues that Aristotle isolated as being key to competent battlefield leadership. Shay explains what troops are looking for in a leader: [viii]
- Professional competence, spirited personal integrity (aretê)
- Intelligent good sense, practical wisdom (phronêsis)
- Good will and respect for the troops (eúnoiâ)
The centrality of rational explanation (“argument”), rather than coercion or deception, shows the leader’s respect for the troops, who are his or her fellow citizens. You can’t separate respect from good will. What reasons, examples, and maxims the leader chooses from the infinity available, provide evidence for phronêsis and aretê. The persuasive power that comes when a leader appeals to reason comes more from the degree to which it provides evidence for the leader’s respect toward the troops than from the power of reason to compel assent, or having compelled assent, to guide or restrain behavior.
Critical intelligence, courage, trustworthiness, and respect ought to intersect in the character of even the minimally competent battlefield leader. The scholar adds:
The spirited self-respect that Homer called thumós becomes particularly critical to leadership in a combat situation. To trust the leader, the troops need to feel that the leader is his or her “own person,” not a slave. In combat, trust goes to the leaders who give critical obedience, rather than blind obedience, to their own bosses. A leader giving blind obedience to a militarily irrational or illegal order gets the troops killed without purpose [“wasted”] or irretrievably tainted by commission of atrocities.
As Shay explains, the military leader that Socrates and Aristotle imagine as worthy defenders of society effectively create and maintain (under fire) the foundation of team trust upon which courage (“knowledge of the fearful and hopeful in war and every other situation”) is based.
The effective downrange leader is the person who can create and maintain the psycho-emotional conditions in which his or her team members become maximally cognitively receptive to knowledge of the fearful and hopeful. The effective downrange leader keeps his team cognitively open to that knowledge even under fire, in high-stakes situations of extreme risk.
As most readers of this journal have learned firsthand, the key to optimal tactical performance in the high-stakes environment is being able to trust your downrange colleagues, especially your leaders. If you can’t trust their judgement, honesty, loyalty, intelligence, resourcefulness, equanimity, diligence—if you can’t trust their overall character, you’re sunk before you even begin. Without absolute trust in the character of your team, you will not succeed in your mission and you will very likely not survive the tremendous psychic strains of living and working in a war zone, especially in today’s rapidly greying zones.
Conversely, as one Red Team Leader I know put it when discussing the lethality of cultural incompatibility between Afghan and US forces, “In war, lies get people killed.” Lies anywhere along the kill chain kill the team trust that enables martial and moral courage.
Distinguishing Between Biological and Social Trust
In the Marine Corps Manual for Small Unit Leadership, Colonel Malone describes in detail how knowledge of the fearful and hopeful is gained in the battlespace:
…candor...means openness plus honesty plus simplicity. On the battlefield, it is the prime rule governing communications….It operates to ensure the best possible transfer of meaning among people. The stakes are too high, and time is too short to screw around with anything else but the essence and the truth. Men in battle can’t mess around with little white lies and private secrets and little games. Communication of fact, and of feelings as well, must be clean, simple, whole, accurate. The candor of the battlefield serves to develop and support the trust upon which …commitment to each other is built. The candor of the battlefield is why “buddy groups” form there so quickly and permanently. The candor of the battlefield is why lies told there are punished, not with gossip, but with action. The battlefield is the most honest place in the world.[ix]
Candor is the communication means by which accurate knowledge of courage is shared among Warfighters within the battlespace. Candor is also the tone of downrange trust. It’s what honesty sounds like in the high-stakes environment. The Colonel’s description of the combat utility of candor reminds us, like Socrates’s Laches, that trust and courage are inextricably linked in the battlespace.
The Colonel recommends the candor of team trust on deployment. That kind of trust is what psychologists call biological trust, as opposed to a broader social trust. The distinction between these two levels of trust, the biological and the social, is key to understanding the knowledge of the fearful and hopeful gained in war zones. It is also key to understanding the fragility of the moral bonds that should tether civilian leaders to the assets they send downrange. Social trust is what we extend beyond our immediate unit, outward to the company, battalion, the Pentagon, and right up to the Oval Office.
Social trust – the trust that fighting forces place (beyond their unit or company) in their sponsoring institution, Army, Navy, Marine Corps, ISA, or the Republic of the United States – is highly perishable. It is perishable because we are programmed and conditioned by our evolutionary past to live in small groups—not in armies, nations, nor even in corporations.
Downrange, we live and operate in groups of biological trust marked by candor and courage. Up-range we don’t. Why?
Professor of Evolutionary Psychology, Robin Dunbar has discovered that there’s a direct connection in primates between the size of their neo-cortex and the size of the social groups in which they live. Human beings are socio-biologically restricted -- neurologically hardwired -- to live in groups of about 150 members. Within this size of group (the size of a modern combat Company), we experience biological trust.
Our formative evolutionary setting gave rise to small groups of 150 that required altruistic virtues, like courage, from its members for group survival. The survival of small teams in today’s grey zones depends on each member possessing the same altruistic virtues. We survived for many hundreds of thousands of years only in groups of 150. As we adapted our bodies to our most formative physical environment, the African Savannah, we eventually adapted our brains to our social environment. At some point in our relatively recent evolutionary past, both environments, the physical and the social, became drivers of evolutionary change. In short, our evolutionary past conditioned us to be both emotionally and morally bonded (and neuro-cognitively captive) to any group upon whom we are dependent for our survival. Neuro-socially speaking, we have not reached a degree of development in which we are easily capable of extending biological trust beyond the small group, the 150.
To iterate: True biological trust is possible only with the 150-group. Beyond the 150-group, however, true biological trust diminishes and quickly disappears altogether because the human neo-cortex simply cannot keep track of more than about 150 individuals.
In the Marine Corps manual for Small Unit Leadership, Colonel Malone is describing not biological but social trust (vertical integration) when he recommends this:
Relations among all leaders—from corporal to general—should be based on honesty and frankness regardless of disparity between grades. Until a commander has reached and stated a decision, subordinates should consider it their duty to provide honest, professional opinions even though these may be in disagreement with the senior’s opinions. However, once the decision has been reached, juniors then must support it as if it were their own. Seniors must encourage candor among subordinates and must not hide behind their grade insignia. Ready compliance for the purpose of personal advancement—the behavior of “yes-men”—will not be tolerated.[x]
All downrange operators will want to heed the Colonel’s admonishment to get and stay vertically integrated. However, we need to augment the Colonel’s insights with an unflinching acceptance of the bio-cognitive limitations that our evolutionary past has placed on social trust. We need to be realistic about the difficulty of getting, “Relations among all leaders …based on honesty and frankness regardless of disparity between grades.” Vertical integration is an issue of not of biological but of social trust. And, as a country, we currently suffer from a widespread breakdown in social trust.
Our biologically based social restrictions make it difficult to truly trust anyone outside of our “150 group.” Therefore, social trust is not only highly perishable. It is highly difficult to create in the first place. Of course, different 150-groups working within the same institution -- different Companies operating for the same Army within the same battlespace -- can be and are linked, emotionally and morally and neuro-cognitively, through myth or masternarratives. Myths extend the emotional bonds of the primary 150 (biological trust) -- through symbols, narratives, and rituals -- and fuse together otherwise discrete 150s. A union of emotion is melded into a union of symbols to include groups of overlapping 150s. This is essentially today’s modern Military organization, although most military personnel do not think of themselves as belonging to a mythic organization or imagined community.[xi]
However, the quality of social trust can that we extend beyond the Company and back to the Oval Office is only as good as the quality of our symbols, our masternarratives, and the myth that binds us together as a community into a union of words. The ancient Greeks understood the socio-neurological power of symbol and myth five-thousand years ago. Homer’s two war epics attest to and embody the tensions between team trust (biological) and social trust (union of words). We gain profound insight into the primal realities of the socio-psychology of the battlespace from those epics. They offer profound knowledge about the fearful and hopeful.[xii]
Another aspect of biological trust, as opposed to social trust, that grey-zone operators will want to consider is that group loyalty is purchased at the cost of both individual and group perceptual independence. With the primary 150, you see what the group tells you to see. To explain by reference another example from our evolutionary past, in order to get everyone in a hunting group hurling its spears at the same antelope and, after hitting that target, in order to get the group chasing the same speared beast until it bled out or died from exhaustion, the group had to sense see, hear, feel, sense, that is, focus its entire perceptual apparatus on the same antelope. Equally adaptive in this setting was the ability to refocus group attention amidst the hunt in order to defend the group from ambush by lions or jackals or hyenas. That required perceptual synching, which emerges from group trust.
Downrange operators will want to review Greg Bern’s neuro-cognitive experiments, which strongly suggest that group cohesion has been purchased, evolutionarily speaking, at the cost of perceptual accuracy. If group survival is paramount, then loyalty to the group (cooperation) is selected before individual perception. We have long known how easily a group can hijacks an individual’s limbic system. We have long known, since Solomon Ash’s experiments, that groupthink overrides individual volition. Know we also know that individual perception is overridden at the neurological level by group pressures to be cohesive, loyal, cooperative—trustworthy. We know from Bern’s very clever MRI experiments that the limbic system bypasses the neo-cortex and directly activates the networks responsible for visual and auditory perception and processing (the occipital-parietal network). If the group to which you belong pressures you to see 2 plus 2 as 5, you will see 2 plus 2 as 5. In fact, you may not be able to see 2 plus 2 as anything other than 5, because your neo-cortex gets shut down by the limbic system. We might call this process coercive cohesion.
Not only trust (coercive cohesion) but perceptual synching is nearly absolute in the high-stakes setting. Neurologically considered, groups in high-stakes situations survive only insofar as they operate as a nearly single neuro-network.[xiii] In our formative evolutionary setting the need for group trust and perceptual synching was paramount wherever the larger group (the 150) was dependent on each of its hunting sub-groups sharing its kill, upon returning from the hunt, with the rest of the group. Our ancient hunting grounds evolved the social virtues of cooperation, mutual altruism, group loyalty—and courage.
And if that setting sounds vaguely familiar to today’s battle-space setting, it should. The socio-psychological similarities between the modern battlefield and the hunting fields of our evolutionary past are uncanny.
The biological realities of small-team trust make any discussion of vertical cohesion within any military organization, such as Colonel Malone recommends, a matter of accounting and adjusting for the durability of biological trust and the perishablity of social trust. The chronic disconnect in our recent wars between those working at the tactical level (reality) where biological trust and courage are matters of life and death and those working at the doctrinal level (at one or more echelon above reality) is the result of our military’s failure to understand and adapt to the socio-biological realities of trust
Because social trust is so highly perishable, it must be vigilantly maintained. And because biological trust so stubbornly durable, it must be opened up to Socratic dialogue, so that those outside of the team can also gain knowledge of the fearful and hopeful.
While I believe we are quite capable with a few adjustments in TRADOC of improving, significantly, the quality of biological trust that motivates downrange teams, I do not believe we can as easily restore social trust between those who deploy and those who blow their ballast at the mere thought.
As a society, we have taken the battlefield out of the classroom, separated scholars from warriors, and largely stopped listening to and learning from our Socratic veterans. As Colonel David Grossman might put it, the sheepdogs and sheep deeply distrust each other, which leaves the pick of the flock to the wolves.
The Bio-cognitive Substrates of Courage
“The basis of an organic social order is fraternity uniting parts that are distinct.”-- Richard Weaver
It will not surprise those who’ve worked downrange to hear how the Marine Corps echoes Socrates’s dialogue about courage as knowledge of the fearful and hopeful in war and every other situation:
Leaders must study fear, understand it, and be prepared to cope with it. Courage and fear are often situational rather than uniform, meaning that people experience them differently at different times and in different situations. Like fear, courage takes many forms, from a stoic courage born of reasoned calculation to a fierce courage born of heightened emotion. Experience under fire generally increases confidence, as can realistic training by lessening the mystique of combat. Strong leadership which earns the respect and trust of subordinates can limit the effects of fear. Leaders should develop unit cohesion and esprit and the self-confidence of individuals within the unit. In this environment,…unwillingness to violate the respect and trust of peers can overcome personal fear.[xiv]
The Marine Corps’s understanding of the courage-fear nexus is essentially a Socratic admonishment to know thyself. However noble moral injunctions might be, if we want to do more than merely sermonize about leadership virtues, we need to integrate our most recent insights about the bio-cognitive bases of cohesion, trust, courage, and downrange performance tightly into both our teaching and practice of strategic leadership.[xv]
Describing courage is not the same as creating or inspiring, let alone embodying courage, like Socrates. We must, as the Corps explicitly urges, study the socio-psychology of the battlespace.[xvi]
Our capacity for biological trust may be pre-programmed into us by our collective evolutionary past, but it is awoken and given distinct education by the specific culture into which we are born. Another word for the feeling of being born together is congeniality. In military settings, congeniality is typically synonymous with fraternity. Our pre-programmed capacity for biological trust begins its education by culture when we discover a sense of familiarity with those around us, as we develop within our “Dunbar 150.” Family is at the heart of the word familiarity. And family is, of course, the first culture most of us are born into.
Richard Weaver fuses these concepts together into a remarkable paragraph that speaks directly to the kind of trust that binds fighting units into bands of non-genetically related brothers:
…fraternity has existed in the most hierarchical organizations; it exists, as we have noted, in that archetype of hierarchy, the family. The essence of cooperation is congeniality, the feeling of having been born together. Fraternity directs attention to others…The frame of duty which fraternity erects is itself the source of ideal conduct. Where men feel that society means station, the highest and the lowest see their endeavors contributing to a common end, and they are in harmony rather than in competition.[xvii]
Basic military training in the western tradition has long exploited the social-technology of drilling to create a sense of congeniality and familiarity among genetically non-related individuals.
In his 1995 book Keeping Together in Time: Dance and Drill in Human History, William McNeill describes his experience of basic training in the Army (1941) in Texas like this: “a more useless exercise would be hard to find…we drilled, hour after hour, moving in unison and giving the numbers in response to shouted commands, sweating in the hot sun, and every so often, counting out the cadence as we marched: Hut! Hup! Hip! Four!.” Initially, McNeill found the drills a pointless waste of time. However, he soon discovers this aspect of drilling with the group:
…the marching in time together somehow felt good and led to a pervasive sense of well being, a strange sense of PERSONAL ENLARGMENT; a sort of swelling out, becoming bigger than life, thanks to the participation in the collective ritual. Moving briskly and keeping in time was enough to make us feel good about ourselves, satisfied to be moving together, and vaguely pleased with the world.[xviii]
McNeill later explains how marching in time between fights during WWII lifted his spirits and helped restore morale and social and command trust (martial courage) among his fellow fighting men.
Like Socrates, McNeill adduces his hard-won experience in the Army on the battlefields of WWII as a platform upon which to build a broader argument about communal trust-building: Making music, drilling, and dancing create, they do not merely reflect, the feeling of group unity, fraternity. We now understand the bio-neurological reasons why we feel bonded as a group when we synchronize our movements. Because mirror neurons are globally distributed in our brains, synchronicity of movement leads to synchronicity of feeling and thought. (ISIS leadership have been demonically exploiting this biological fact to create out of complete strangers a tightly bonded bother and sisterhood of terrorists.)
As the cognitive archaeologist (brain evolution) Steven Mithen notes, ”Music aids the performance of collective tasks by rhythmically facilitating physical coordination. But in the majority of cases it appears to be cognitive coordination that is induced by the music, the arousal of a shared emotional state and trust in one’s fellow music-makers.”[xix] McNeill cites many examples, Greek villagers and Kalahari Bushmen, as well as his own brothers-in-arms in the Army.
Robin Dunbar has recently suggested that communal music-making (and drilling and dancing) precipitate endorphin bursts in the brains of those doing the music-making, drilling, and dancing. Paul Zak’s research has confirmed his suggestion.[xx] If so, the question arises, one Mithen’s already posed: “Why did evolution design our brains in this manner: Why is communal activity [music making, dancing, drilling] so important?”
In John Blacking’s studies of the Venda people of South Africa we find an answer to that question. They make music together and dance together not when they are facing times of stress, hunger, or crises. Rather, they make communal music when food is plentiful. Blacking argues that the Venda make music together in order to drive selfishness out of the group/tribe. Communal music-making lures individuals away from pursuing their own self-interest which, as Mithen explains, “ensures the necessity of working together for the benefit of the society as a whole.” Their reward from synchronized movement is a strong hit of feel-good oxytocin. By making music and dancing together during times of plenty, the Venda maintain the level of communal cooperation necessary to survive during times of scarcity and crisis. They maintain social trust, vertical cohesion. That’s a moral lesson to which the small-wars community should be paying close attention.
As McNeill explains, Western military trainers, going all the way back to Homer, have ruthlessly exploited the trust-activating social technology of drilling/dancing, which biologists umbrella term “synchronized movement.” What’s going on in the minds of the “drilled” (the socio-psychological mechanism) is known as “ego boundary loss.” Ego boundary loss works like this. Mithen:
All group activities start in a similar way. When five or six hominids or Early Humans set out together to hunt or to look for carcasses, one of them might have been feeling hungry, another fearful; some of them may have wanted to go one way, while others believed the opposite direction was best. When each individual begins a group activity in a different emotional state, the situation is ripe for conflict. Those individuals who practised the hunt and enhanced their levels of coordination would have been reproductively more successful.
Anyone who’s conducted a downrange op knows how critical it is to get everybody “onto the same page.” In war, lies get people killed. So do egotists, renegades, and rogues.
“Making music” together in high-stakes situations diminishes the strong sense of self in individuals who are born and raised in vibrant democratic pluralities such as the United States. Individualism is good for political debate, perhaps, but too much individualism in tactical situations can get people killed. Too much uneducated individualism, as Socrates points out, can also lead to an anarchic situation that destroys what Richard Weaver calls, “the minimum consensus of value necessary to the political state.”[xxi] Social trust withers among egotists.
Keeping together in time (drilling) momentarily breaks us out of what is known as the prisoner’s dilemma.[xxii] Music-making together “moulds the minds and bodies of the group into a shared emotional state, and with that will come a loss of identity and a concomitant increase in the ability to cooperate with others.” Here is the key to this process: “As identities are merged, there is no “other” with whom to cooperate, just one group making decisions about how to behave.” The key to solving the prisoner’s dilemma lies in the degree to which the individuals involved (the “players”) “see themselves as a collective or joint unit, to feel a sense of WE-NESS, of being together in the same situation facing the same problems.”[xxiii]
The neuro-biologist Walter Freeman explains why music-making is our most powerful tool for creating social-bonding (courage-enabling trust) within the context of brain chemistry.
Our forebrain never fully closes. Our neurological capacity for forming a “We” neuro-network remains perpetually open. Group music making/drilling releases massive doses of oxytocin into the basal forebrain. When oxytocin floods the basal forebrain, it “loosens the synaptic connections in which prior knowledge is held, this clears the path for the acquisition of new understanding through behavioural actions that are shared with others.” Freeman calls music making, drilling, dancing, and myth making/story telling the “bio-technology of group formation.”[xxiv] A surfeit of oxytocin, induced in the brain by communal music-making, drilling, and ritual, creates hyper-strong group ties. The “I” network is dissolved into the “We” network.
The knowledge of the fearful and hopeful, the courage for which Socrates calls, is what Freeman calls the “bio-technology of group formation”; what McNeill calls “boundary loss”; what Axelrod calls “escaping the prisoner’s dilemma”; what Robin Dunbar calls “the magic 150”; what Steven Mithen simply calls “making music together,” what Colonel Malone calls “candor.”
The Leadership Predicament
Neuro-cognitively considered, we encode social cohesion as trust, and we encode trust as courage. As noted above, the loss of perceptual independence (coercive cohesion) represents a serious downside to biological trust/courage. But there’s yet another serious downside to the bio-cognitive realities of team trust: Amygdale hijacking. That’s the group process in which the more recently evolved parts of our brains (what Daniel Khaneman calls, System II, deliberation) get hijacked from the inside by a threat-detection mechanism that was built into human beings when we were running daily marathons in groups of 150 on the Africa Savanna hunting antelope and defending our tribe from predators, human and non-human.
As Daniel Goleman tirelessly explains, amygdale hijacking is contagious among human beings. In small-group settings, whoever has the strongest amygdale will have the strongest influence over the danger-awareness level of other group members. Put this in the context of COIN war-fighting: Within the demands of COIN operations, you have to be watchful of any one individual’s amygdale hijacking the limbic system of the entire unit. As a team leader and as a team member, you need to guard against getting led astray by the amygdale, which, once activated, will tell you that everything in sector is a potential danger, including a kid flying a kite from the balcony of his parent's apartment. Even the kite my appear threatening. It might look like an RPG. Or a sniper.
This is why trigger discipline is so absolutely essential. There’s always at least one guy who wants to shoot at anything that moves. And, as his NCO, you don't want his amygdale setting the danger-awareness level of the entire unit. Hijacked amygdale’s can lead to violations of ROEs. Yet, as his NCO or unit leader, how do you regulate his amygdale to keep it from adversely affecting the entire group?
Flipside, if the amygdale is not properly activated, you might not recognize legitimate threats fast enough to shoot them before they shoot or RPG you and your unit. How do you know at what level you should set your threat-detection system? To adopt Goleman’s language: How do you maintain a proper balance between amygdale activation and executive function? Executive functions can override and veto information gathered by the threat-detection system. But that takes time, you have to make a conscious effort to switch from system I (intuition) to system II (deliberation).
The real leadership predicament, what we might call on-the-ground courage, is made even more complex by amygdale contagion and coercive cohesion, which represent serious bio-cognitive limitations in the battlespace. And those limitations, among many others, is what makes Socrates’s investigation of moral and martial courage enduringly relevant to Warfighters, be they SF teams or DEA teams. Real leadership begins by understanding, acknowledging, and adjusting for our bio-cognitive limitations. Socrates would understood these limitations as primary ethical challenges that emerge from our primal moral predicament as human beings.
Leadership courage consists in keeping oneself and one’s teams cognitively receptive to knowledge of the fearful and hopeful in war.
However, if courage is trust and trust is biological cohesion, then how can Socrates or anyone else speak of courage as a moral accomplishment? If courage boils down to evolutionary pre-programming, then it’s really bio-chemical processes that lie outside of our volitional sphere that compose courage. Courage, as such, is not a choice. And if it’s not a choice, it cannot be a moral imperative. Isn’t all we really need to do to promote courage among Warfighters is create the conditions in which social trust can thrive? Won’t courage automatically follow?[xxv] Isn’t courage merely a matter of activating evolutionary pre-programming during training and keeping it activated during deployment?
As Jonathan Shay reminds us, by reference to Aristotle, real military situations requiring real leadership invariably have these two elements:
- Conflicting, incommensurable goods
Even biological trust (coercive cohesion) must be actively and rigorously maintained in the deployed arena because there will always be a discrepancy between operational doctrine and tactical, on-the-ground realities, a rift between theory and practice, perceptual ambiguities about ROEs. Even when operational doctrine is highly appropriate to the deployed arena, the gap between doctrine and reality poses a serious, on-going threat to trust relationships among Warfighters at all levels of operation. It poses an especially pernicious threat to the trust relationship of those working at the tactical level, between Warfighters and battalion command.
In Afghanistan, the op-doc/tactical reality gap too often completely obliterated trust between company-level operators and battalion-level commanders. Members of other downrange teams often found that gap alienating them from their colleagues or handlers safely up-range at “home office.” As readers of this journal will know, leaders at all levels of operational reality must actively strive to mend the breach between doctrine and tactical reality. They must strenuously work to prevent the doctrine-reality breach from becoming a source of mistrust among team members. This is where team trust (biological courage) and social trust (moral courage) intersect. This is where horizontal and vertical integration converge. Downrange leaders must strive to keep that intersection from becoming the cross on which they and their team members get crucified.
Vertical disintegration is always a pernicious threat in the grey zone. That’s why Socratic courage remains firmly within the volitional sphere of individuals, units, and institutional leaders. That’s why courage remains a choice, a choice that downrange leaders must continuously make, day by day. Real leadership, and therefore real courage, is always practiced in the midst of a moral and epistemological goat rope. Real leadership is always risk choice in the absence of complete and perfect information and knowledge, under hostile fire and under the moral crossfire of conflicting loyalties.
Real leaders can always choose to use “rational explanation (“argument”), rather than coercion or deception” with team members, thereby demonstrating their “respect for the troops, who are his or her fellow citizens.” Because “you can’t separate respect from good will,” the deliberate use of rational explanation in the leadership setting itself creates cognitive receptivity to knowledge of the fearful and hopeful among team members.[xxvi]
Thus understood, the leadership goat rope reveals the naivety of the stubbornly inextirpable belief among those who have traditionally formulated strategic leadership doctrine in this manner: All we need for optimal deployment performance is “excellent individual training in uniform tactics, techniques, and procedures, in the context of passionate, positive esprit de corps.”[xxvii] Those components are certainly needed, but without knowledge of the fearful and hopeful, they remain inert, disassembled and unloaded weapons—or worse, assembled and loaded but un-maintained weapons that jam at the moment of truth.
Today’s Drill Sergeants are our best living practitioners of our most ancient social technology for creating group bonding (cohesion) and small-fighting-unit cooperation (courage); they know exactly how to use drilling to hack into our “social-trust programming” to create a life-long feeling of congeniality among total strangers, non-genetically-related individuals. Unfortunately, those experts in the social-technology of small-group trust do not deploy with the men and women they train.
Like Drill Sergeants, our best NCOs in Afghanistan and Iraq have been required by the necessities and exigencies of the COIN battlespace to exploit well-known ancient social technologies for maintaining cohesion, trust, and unit courage.[xxviii] They’ve lived and led in the permanent grey-zone of the tactical-necessity-op-doc gap. That gap forced them to find and maintain a delicate balance between threat-detection and executive function. As we well know, Soldiers/Marines often have milliseconds in which to identify a threat (or non-threat) and then respond (or not) with an appropriate level of force with ROEs. (It’s important not to forget, that this delicate limbic balancing act has also been performed by many teams other than combat units in the downrange battlespace. My comments are not restricted to combat units.) Considered from a neuro-biological perspective, this is probably the most difficult cognitive and socio-psychological state to achieve and maintain for even a short period.[xxix]
In the classical terms of Socratic courage, we have a generation of proven leaders who have figured out how to remain maximally cognitively receptive to knowledge of the fearful and hopeful. If we do not want their knowledge going to waste, we need to find a means of lodging their hard-won courage in institutional memory, in both civilian and military institutions.
Cohesion, Operational Readiness, Training: Retooling COHORT
Given what we know about the bio-cognitive substrates of trust and courage and how profoundly they influence small-group dynamics in high-stakes situations, there is really no defensible excuse for not revisiting and revamping the Army’s Cohesion, Operational Readiness, Training (COHORT) model of training and deployment.[xxx]
When the Army implemented this program in the 1980s, TRADOC leaders did not have the benefit of our recent watershed in neuro-cognitive science. We must take advantage of this new science to retool COHORT, as our best means of equipping the next generation of Warfighters (and other downrange assets) to cope with the extreme trust-busting challenges presented by the grey zones of today’s small wars. We need to update COHORT to take fuller advantage of our biological pre-programming, so that downrange teams remain maximally cohesive trust units from basic training through and to the end of all deployments.
The sweaty murk of Central American small-wars in the 1980s inspired TRADOC to invent and adopt COHORT as the bare-minimum means of keeping tactical necessity from becoming completely alienated from operational doctrine. Today’s grey wars look and feel a lot like Central America in the 80s. SOCOM should immediately review and revisit COHORT, refitting it with relevant insights into the neuro-anatomy of small-group courage.
The “replacement” model too often fails to create congenial Warfighters, once they’ve been deployed. Warfighters who do not share a sense of congeniality perform poorly, regardless of their individual skills, training, and bravery because they lack an organic sense of the fraternity from which a vital, courage-enabling trust emerges. When viewed as machines with replaceable and interchangeable cogs, combat units and downrange teams become uncongenial cultures for the war-fighters who inhabit them. They become micro-cultures breeding potentially lethal, highly contagious psychic bacteria of maltrust. Where Warfighters lack the congeniality for which they fight, they lack trust. And where they lack trust, they lack (as units) courage. Corollary: where mistrust, distrust, mal-trust are abundant, Warfighters get avoidably killed.[xxxi]
Although an updated and retooled COHORT can prevent unnecessary downrange casualties by creating and maintaining biological trust/courage, it cannot mend the broader breach in social trust.[xxxii]
(Sidenote: The insights into the socio-biology of small-group dynamics derived from direct participant observation of tribes like the Veda should motivate us to embed competent anthropologists, cultural analysts, and anthroposemioticians directly with downrange teams, provided they are smarter and less dysfunctional than the Human Terrain System.[xxxiii] Recalling how Scott Atran and Carolyn Nordstrom went undercover on their own initiative, we may even want to consider placing nervy scientists, like them, as clandestine agents among clans, gangs, and other extra-legal small groups who pose threats to state stability.[xxxiv])
Battlespace as Classroom: Escaping Socratic Irony
Considered from a socio-neurological perspective, COIN in Afghanistan and elsewhere (especially in SOCOM) have been exemplary battlefields-as-classrooms, with the primary subject being the small-unit collective limbic system, small-group psycho-dynamics in high-stakes situations. Grey-zone wars will require us to be even better students and teachers, downrange, in medias res.[xxxv] We will need to be even better scholars of and in war. And that will require Socratic courage and self-critical discussion, maximum cognitive receptivity to knowledge of the fearful and hopeful from both sides of the looking glass, up-range and downrange.
Based on current knowledge of the importance of trust-courage to deployment performance, my primary training (TRADOC) recommendation is for all downrange agencies (including private contractors) to revisit and adopt a retooled version of the Army’s Cohesion, Operational Readiness, Training (COHORT)[xxxvi] model of training and deployment. That model is already part of institutional memory, at least in the Army, and it provides a proven means of stablizing downrange units. COHORT can provide the face-to-face unit courage, the ethical and expertly supported leadership, and the continuous, realistic training required for waging the coming grey wars, wars which already look, feel, and smell like the murk of Central America in the 1980s.[xxxvii] We need a revamped version of COHORT that both integrates and applies recent insights into the cognitive-biology of small group dynamics in high-stakes situations. It’s that simple.[xxxviii]
The biological trust required for survival in the battlespace is authorized by broader social trust in the society that sends Warfighters and other assets downrange. When these two levels of trust, the biological and the social, the military and civilian, the classroom and the battelspace, the scholar and the warrior, become alienated from each other in pluralistic democracies, the state tends to splinter into tribal or clannish subgroups, like Syria before 2012. Rampant lawlessness, such as we witness in Northern Mexico, and civil war, such as we witness in Syria, are the worst consequences of the social splintering that emerges from a breakdown in social trust between law enforcers and law abiders, or between the defenders of a society and the defended. [xl] That threat haunts the entire dialogue of Laches. It’s a spectre haunting us today.
The issue of moment turns not so much on how we earn knowledge of the fearful and hopeful in war and every other situation in the battlespace but on how we subsequently transmit that knowledge to non-warfighters, post-deployment. If we want to keep martial and moral knowledge tightly bonded, then we must keep scholars in touch with warriors and we must keep the classroom in the battlespace. Warriors must be wise. Scholars must be courageous. Keeping marital and moral knowledge in Socratic dialogue with each other is the key to our communal survival.
But what exactly have we learned from our current generation of Socratic veterans? And what measures have we taken to get their knowledge lodged in the memory of institutions outside of the military and its attendant agencies? Have we really been listening to what they have to teach us about the inseparability of martial knowledge and moral courage?
Socrates’s entire post-war philosophical career is a rigorous moral effort to serve his fellow Athenians after having served them physically on the battlefield.[xli] His philosophical career is formed in response to his experience of war and derives from defending his country from its enemies on the battlefield. [xlii] There is no Socrates the philosopher without Socrates the Soldier, just as there’s no Athenian democracy without the knowledge of courage won from the battlespace. It is, after all, the civilization that Socrates partly helped found for which we risk our lives downrange.
By contrast to our own culture, it’s almost painful to note that most of Socrates’s fellow citizens respected his self-critical intellect so much they listened to him. Most of his fellow citizens valued the hard-won knowledge that their veterans had gained in the battlespace as knowledge directly relevant to the survival of their society. (It was actually a small group of elite prigs who condemned Socrates to death.) Do we respect our current generation of Socratic veterans enough to hear what they have to teach us about the fearful and the hopeful?
As we enter into the next generation of small wars – so-called grey wars – we’ll need to convene our own Socratic circles and listen closely to what they have to teach us about the fearful and hopeful in war and every other situation.[xliii] In this regard, we are uncommonly fortunate and should be equally grateful to have Small Wars Journal as a venue in which to share that knowledge with each other.
Listening to Our Socratic Warfighters: How to Prevent PTSD From Making Us Dumb to Knowledge of the Fearful and Hopeful
However, social trust remains the tricky issue. The generation with whom I deployed was born asking, “What’s your con?” They intuitively sense when another person, especially those in positions of authority and power, accrue economic, career, or psychic capital out of their hard-won experience of war and other life-endangering environments. They call these cowardly predators “vampires.” (Curiously, the favourite TV series of my favourite Combat Infantry group was True Blood. I also noticed that they loved to play Zombie-themed video games. And they used the term “zombie” to refer to those who’ve been so co-opted by the system that they’re emotionally and intellectually dead.) When Officers accrue psychic or career capital at the expense of Enlisted, the latter call it, “greasing the pole.” I forget what Marx called it when one class does this to another class. It’s what my downrange students meant when they referred to themselves as “tools.”
Athens ultimately refused to listen to their smartest veteran, condemned him to death, and subsequently collapsed into tyranny. Socrates drank the toxic hemlock with a smile on his face. We might call that “Socratic irony.” I fear we’re in danger of pulling an Athens on our smartest veterans. The hemlock we’re forcing them to drink is a wicked brew of a PTSD ideology and mind-deadening psycho-pharmaceuticals.
By slotting our current generation of Socratic veterans with PTSD, we dismiss any and all knowledge of the fearful and hopeful that they gained in the battlespace. We make ourselves stupidly and maximally unreceptive to their knowledge of the fearful and hopeful in war and in all other situations. Reducing their knowledge to an acronym, we become conveniently deaf to what they have to teach us about the one virtue that may be capable of restoring our broken community—moral courage.
The world’s leading expert on positive psychology and on negative psychology (“learned helplessness”), Martin Seligman, has called PTSD a bogus diagnosis. Seligman, we should recall, also developed the Army’s Comprehensive Fitness Program and the Army’s Mental Resiliency Program. [xliv] In a chapter of his book Flourish called “The Dirty Little Secret About Drugs and Therapy,” he notes that PTSD medications do not restore the patient to a flourishing lifestyle. Instead, they make it impossible to do anything at all with hard-won knowledge of the fearful and hopeful because they dumb down the verbal centers of the brain. They dull and wither our inner “narrative homunculus,” the guy inside our brain who’s responsible for keeping our story straight, our sense of where we’ve been, where we are, where we’re going. If we cannot compose that story, we cannot tell our story. We cannot share our knowledge of the fearful and hopeful with anyone.
Sharing war narratives is highly recommended by Marine Corps. See what their FM on Small Unit Leadership says about the need to tell and to share knowledge of the fearful and hopeful (to narrate and share warfighter stories):
Want to build some teamwork in your company, Captain? Well, one thing that’s always different in any unit is the unit’s history. Send a letter up through channels and find out what A Company did in the last war or two. Then sit down sometime and tell the troops about their team at war and how it fought in wars in the past. Do this two or three times, covering two or three wars, and watch what happens with “teamwork.”[xlv]
The ability to tell troops (or civilians) about “their team at war” is severely inhibited by the hemlock of PTSD drugs. Imagine if Socrates had been diagnosed with PTSD. Surely he would have. He walked around by himself talking out loud about crazy things like courage, truth, justice, wisdom—totally nuts! He’d have been prescribed mind-killing drugs, and western philosophy, science, and culture never would have happened. We are using PTSD as an excuse not to learn anything at all from our richest communal resource—our Socratic veterans.
As an ideology, PTSD contributes to a general sense of not understanding the world because it inhibits our ability to narrate, coherently, our experience of the world, especially when coupled with mind-dulling drugs. The PTSD ideology can make Warfighters feel morally helpless even before they see combat. In this sense, the PTSD “narrative” is morally toxic, because it undermines the power of the communal word to unify the mind. It also undermines both the biological and the social trust a Warfighter requires to survive the battelspace. As a front-loaded narrative of the combat experience, PTSD erodes the will to fight.
Consider closely what might happen to the combat motivation of anyone preparing to deploy downrange when they are taught the following:
Primary psychological injury from combat is a set of biologically ancient ways of surviving lethal danger and learning how to identify and avoid that danger in the future. It may never be possible to absolutely prevent primary psychological injury from combat, short of ending the human practice of war. Advances in medical knowledge may offer pharmacologic protection in the future, but this is not around the corner. Some aspects of simple psychological injury may reflect irreversible (with current medical knowledge) brain changes.[xlvi]
What Socrates called knowledge of the fearful and hopeful in war and all other situations is reduced, in this now-standard description of combat experience, to psychological injury. Implied in that description is that any combat experience will leave the combatant’s brain permanently and negatively altered. The “set of biologically ancient ways of surviving lethal danger and learning how to identify and avoid that danger in the future” is, by this definition of PTSD, which has become the normative definition, psychological injury. No mention is made here of post-traumatic growth. Nor is any mention made of combat providing knowledge of the fearful and hopeful, knowledge that Socrates recommended as vital communal salvation.[xlvii]
Seligman’s professional dismissal of PTSD and his promotion of post-traumatic growth prompt me to wonder if pre-deployment trainees are so overwhelmed with PTSD training that they’re primed and pre-programmed to get PTSD, whether or not they ever deploy. And I wonder if this pre-programming is being authorized by psychiatrists who have a vested interest in the pharmaceutical companies who get government contracts for providing PTSD medications. How many trainees ever get taught anything about post-traumatic growth?
Never to be forgotten is post-traumatic growth (PTG). A substantial number of people also show intense depression and anxiety after extreme adversity, often to the level of PTSD, but then they grow. In the long run, they arrive a higher level of psychological functioning than before. “What does not kill me, makes me stronger,” said Nietzsche. Those old war soldiers who populate Veterans of Foreign Wars posts and tell war stories are not in denial—war was indeed the best time of their lives. [xlviii]
What Seligman identifies as a “higher level of psychological functioning” after trauma, is what Socrates calls courage, knowledge of the fearful and hopeful.
Every trainee who is given a PTSD course should be given a PTG course, one that focuses on the career of Brigadier General Rhonda Cornum, who was shot down over Iraq, had both arms and legs broken, got captured by the enemy, was gang raped for days, and finally released. Thereafter, Cornum did not suffer from PTSD. Instead, when she got back home, she worked with Seligman to develop a non-therapy, non-drug-based course in post-traumatic growth. She reveals what she told herself while she was captured. She explains how she used inner-narrative strategies to maintain psychological resiliency. She trusted her command narrative. After getting home, she extracted from her experience of the battlespace all knowledge of the fearful and hopeful, and then, Laches-like she made that knowledge available to her fellow Warfighters. Cornum is a paragon Socratic Warfighter.
In the psychic landscape cultivated today by what has become an unscientific ideology that justifies a PTSD industry, there is no place for the true leadership that Shay, via Aristotle, defines above. I sometimes wonder if PTSD, as an ideology, has become a cunning form of psychological warfare.
As Seligman reminds us, the story you tell yourself about what you are experiencing in combat and in high-stakes situations largely determines how you will experience the powerful psychotropic hormones (neuropeptides) that get released during combat. Those hormones require constant narrative structuring.[xlix]
As General Cornum’s career demonstrates, the ability to tell your own story as part of a larger communal narrative (of shared martial values like courage) is key to mental resiliency and to post-combat growth because it keeps social trust primed and active. Your self-narrative can keep your mind open to knowledge of the fearful and hopeful or it can close your mind to that knowledge. The hemlock of PTSD medications keeps you from telling any story. As a former downrange students puts it, “One pill makes you shorter, and one pill makes you tall. And the ones that Uncle Sam gives you keep you from doing anything at all.”
Over-prescribing PTSD medications that inhibit the transfer of knowledge from downrange to up-range is the logical but irrational outcome of a nation that no longer believes in the power of shared narratives to heal social wounds. Socratic hemlock is indicative of catastrophic loss of social trust.
Socrates, Seligman, and General Cornum admonish us to care fiercely about our direct experience of war, to care for that experience as our most precious personal and collective possession, as our most solid evidentiary source about human nature, as sacred stuff that we should under no circumstances allow ourselves to be dispossessed of, denigrated with psychological acronyms like PTSD, or pharmaceuticalized into a post-deployment zombieland of victim-hood by war-innocent civilians who deeply and rightly fear the powerful psychic energies that combat activates in the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, and all downrange operators whom they and their government send into harm’s way downrange. The one percent who do a hundred percent more for their country than the 99 percent who condemn them or misunderstand them or fear them for doing need to heed the example of Socrates and General Cornum, among others, like Bing West.
To emphasize, I worked closely with combat leaders downrange. Many “Tops” (NCOs) were my students in the art of leadership, known in days of yore as rhetoric. I learned far more from them than they from me. I am worried for our current and next generation of NCOs, the leaders who must bridge the gap between operational doctrine and tactical reality in whichever AO they find themselves, West Africa or Kurdistan. I am especially worried about how PTSD (or “moral injury” as it is getting called) is being taught not only to our combat units but to all of our downrange agents. This issue circles back to social trust.
Loss of social trust is the hallmark of true post-traumatic injury. Moral injury is the result of leadership betrayal. Restoration of social trust often leads to post-traumatic growth, without drugs or prolonged therapy. Social trust can be restored if and when we collectively start listening to what our Socratic Veterans have to teach us about what they have learned in the battlespace of the fearful and the hopeful. We exacerbate the loss of social trust when we use PTSD as an excuse to shut ourselves down to knowledge of the fearful and hopeful gained in the battlespace.
Repairing social trust, especially between the Warfighting community and the civilian world is, to borrow an insight from Richard Weaver, fundamentally a question about “…how to persuade to communal activity people who no longer have the same ideas about the most fundamental things.” Too many downrange students told me they do not believe that words have the power to persuade us into communal activity because there is no longer the bare-minimum consensus of value required to determine what we mean by community or by what is good for the community. Evolutionary psychologists can explain how our communal, social capacities, like courage, got developed on the Savannah a hundred thousand years ago. But telling us that multilevel selection is the driver of “eusociality” in human beings does not create social trust in today’s downrange community. It merely describes community. We need to listen to our Socratic veterans.
Once the Humpty Dumpty of authentic community gets shattered into a million egotistical shards, the evolutionary psychologists are helpless to put him back together again. What I admired about the few truly tribal peoples I observed in East Africa, Afghanistan, and Central America is that they are still alive as a community in the word, alive together in shared stories based in shared experience and shared communal values. Whether Moskito in Honduras, Isa or Afar or Somals on the Horn, or Pashai on the Af/Pak border, ideas still had consequences because words still possessed the power to tell community-bonding narratives that rivet the attention of the community, direct a tribes’ eyes and ears and souls to the same events and characters, and engross them in the same master-narratives of collective identity. Myth was still alive as the gorilla glue by which the moral tribe was bound together.
The same was true of the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines and other assets I had the privilege of teaching downrange: Ancient warrior myths, which we studied, provided reminders of the deepest wellsprings of the cohesion and the leadership courage that we needed to maintain trust in the battlespace. And that trust, in turn, was a guide to bridging the gap between operational doctrine and tactical reality.
We understood this reality, which was articulated a long while back by Richard Weaver: “The community of language gives one access to significances at which he cannot otherwise arrive. To find a word is to find a meaning; to create a word is to find a single term for a meaning partially distributed in other words. Whoever may doubt that language has this power to evoke should try the experiment of thinking without words.”[l] Socratic Warfighters know the power of words to create community.
In the long run, our understanding that words have the power to define the common good and compel communal action will take us much further than the current PTSD mania. Seligman should be heeded. If we can keep our understanding of our shared narratives alive, then and only then can we keep our “tribe” strong.[li] But it is our Socratic Veterans and Warfighters who should be leading this discussion. Our Socratic Warfighters can teach us how to exploit the full resources of biological courage that are absolutely necessary to surviving impending future imperfect grey-zone war, wars that are by their very nature lethally toxic moral environments that breed the maltrust that get assets avoidably killed. It is amidst such wars that Warfighters start asking themselves if the society for which they are risking their body and soul really merits the sacrifice.
Moreover, as a political community, we need our Socratic Wafighter’s knowledge of the fearful and hopeful in order to restore social trust among ourselves, to mend the widening trust breach between the Warfighting community and the hard-core civilian community. Overcoming today’s rampant maltrust will require us to tap all of our resources of courage. And our best, most knowledgeable citizens on the true nature of courage are our Socratic Warfighters.
[i]For an excellent discussion of Socrates as a thinking Soldier, see Debra Hamel’s “Socrates at War: The Military Heroics of an Iconic Intellectual” in MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military (Autumn, 2001).
[ii] See Laches translated by Benjamin Jowett (A Public Domain Book).
[iii] In terms of our greying small-wars, courage is managing not to betray your Warrior’s Code even when deployed to grey zones like Columbia, East Africa, Eastern Europe, the AF-Pak or the Tex-Mex border. For serious discussion of the warrior’s code as a psycho-prophylactic, see Shannon French’s The Code of the Warrior: Exploring Warrior Values Past and Present (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2005). She notes: “the privileged warriors of today increasingly will find themselves pitted against adversaries who fight without any rules or restraints because they see no other way to advance their objectives. These desperate adversaries are likely to employ methods that are rightfully viewed as horrific and appalling by the rest of the civilized world, such as terror attacks on civilian populations…since these adversaries are willing to die, they will not be deterred by any threat of punishment for continuing to disregard the laws of war.”
[iv] See Martin Seligman’s Flourish, see specifically the chapter “Post-Traumatic Growth.” (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2011).
[v] Today, we might call this capacity blink think or thinking fast. See Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking (London: Penguin, 2005).
[vi] At first glance, Socrates’ definition of courage appears to be a tautology. Courage is trustworthiness, and trustworthiness is courage. Viewed from the vantage of Socrates’ entire career -- what he did and what he said; his military and his civilian career -- we can see that he embodied the definition of what he believed was the cornerstone virtue of a moral character. All other virtues depend upon courage. Socrates’ recommendation of moral courage is based upon what Richard Weaver would call the “unsentimental sentiment.” See Ideas Have Consequences (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1948).
[vii] For further insight into the emotional aspects of leadership, see Daniel Goleman’s Primal Leadership: Unleashing the Power of Emotional Intelligence (Cambridge: Harvard Business School Publishing, 2013).
[viii] My understanding of Dr. Shay’s science of combat psychology is derived from hundreds of hours of phone and Skype conversations and multiple hundreds of emails with him about the trust study he was paid to conduct for the Pentagon, The Commandant of the Marine Corps Trust Study. It also derives from our meeting at the Einstein Institute in Potsdam where we discussed the biological and neurological origins of courage in downrange agents and other Warfighters.
[ix] Colonel Malone, FM-1, Warfighting, p. 83. Many thanks to Dr. Shay for drawing my attention to this remarkable Socratic Warfighter.
[x] FM-1, Warfighting, p.58
[xi] See Benidict Anderson’s Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (New York: Verso, 2006); see also Wayne Fields’ Union of Words (New York: The Free Press, 1996).
[xii] More recently, the NAZI regime made spectacularly successful use of masternarrative techniques in the 1930s and 40s. Today, Jihad-inspired terrorists have deviously exploited the internet to link otherwise atomized cells of 150 to each other across time and space with symbol, narrative, myth, ritual, the whole panoply of masternarrative.
[xiii] See Greg Bern’s “The Neurological Correlates of Social Conformity and Independence During Mental Rotation,” in Biological Psychiatry (2005).
[xiv] Marine Corps Doctrinal Publication No. 1, Warfighting, p.15
[xv] See Christopher Kolenda’s Leadership: the Warrior’s Art (Army War College Foundation Press, 2001).
[xvi] In our downrange classrooms in Afghanistan and Africa, we linked core military values to the six Character Strengths that Martin Seligman classifies in his handbook on the subject: Wisdom and Knowledge; Courage; Humility; Justice; Temperance; Transcendence. The Army built those values into its “mental resiliency” GAT, which Seligman developed. Cognitive resiliency and well-being are built out of those strengths. By specifically linking the psychic data about combat that Homer and Aristotle make abundantly available in the Iliad and The Rhetoric to Seligman’s character strengths, we developed a clever and intelligently useful method for improving psychological resiliency on the battlefield, which is key to winning what Major Scales has called “human warfare.”
[xvii] See, Weaver Ideas Have Consequences, pp. 42-3.
[xviii] William McNeill Keeping Together in Time: Dance and Drill in Human History. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995).
[xix] See, The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind, and Body (London: Phoenix, 2005).
[xx] See, The Moral Molecule: The New Science of What Makes Us Good and Evil (London: Bantam, 2013) For a discussion of the social dangers to pluralistic democracies of clannish social cohesion, Joshua Greene’s Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them (London: Atlantic Books, 2013) and Mark Weiner’s extraordinary The Rule of the Clan: What and Ancient Form of Social Organization Reveals about the Future of Individual Freedom (New York: Picador, 2014).
[xxi] Ideas Have Consequences.
[xxii] See Robert Axelrod’s The Evolution of Cooperation (London: Penguin, 1984).
[xxiii] Quotations in this paragraph are from Mithen.
[xxiv] See Mithen and Zak.
[xxv] The primary cause of so-called PTSD is the loss of social trust resulting from the moral betrayal and abuse of power of a commander. See all of Dr. Shay’s scholarship and his recent Youtube talks on this subject.
[xxvi] For a discussion of how respect creates cognitive receptivity, see Goleman’s Primal Leadership, chapter “The Neuro-anatomy of leadership.”
[xxvii] I owe the quotation to Dr. Shay.
[xxviii] With the Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, and Alphabet Agents I’ve had the privilege of knowing downrange, I learned how derive a robust Warrior’s Code from reading and discussing Homer’s ILIAD, which provided the deepest, most ancient wellsprings of the cohesion, courage, and leadership reminders that we needed to maintain trust in the battlespace. And that trust, in turn, was a guide to bridging the gap between operational doctrine and tactical reality.
[xxix] From the Warfighter’s perspective, there are vital neuro-cognitive lessons in the Iliad worth heeding. The Warfighters who taught me how to interpret the epic in sector not only heeded but augmented these lessons, especially senior non-commissioned officers, who tenaciously seized upon Homer’s classic as an in-the-battlespace manual for maintaining and protecting their Warfighters’ psychic resiliency amidst the turmoil of war fighting. To us, the Iliad is a leadership FM.
[xxx] For an evaluation of COHORT, see Faris Kirkland’s Unit Manning System Field Evaluation: Technical Report No. 5. (Washington DC: Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, September 1987); John Tillson and Steven Canby’s Alternative Approaches to Organizing, Training, and Assessing Army and Marine Corps Units, Part I: The Active Component. (Report C-MDA 909 89 C 0003/T-L6-1057 for the Assistant Secretary of Defense (Force Management and Personnel). Alexandria VA: Institute for Defense Analysis, November, 1992. Page III-8.); Richard Betts’ Military Readiness: Concepts, Choices, Consequences. (Washington DC: Brookings Institution, 1995).
[xxxi] See, Stephen Ambrose’s Citizen Soldiers: The U.S. Army from the Normandy Beaches to the Bulge to the Surrender of Germany June 7,1944 – May 7, 1945. (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997); FD Jones’s “Psychiatric Lessons of War,” in Jones, et al., eds. War Psychiatry. (Office of the [Army] Surgeon General, Borden Institute, Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, 1995); Kinzer & Mates’s Muchachos: Unit Cohesion in the Falklands/Malvinas War. (Washington DC: Brassey’s (US), 1991); Linderman, Gerald F. The World Within War: America’s Combat Experience in World War II. (New York NY: Free Press, 1997).
[xxxii] For an overview of our social-trust predicament, see Major Donald Vandergriff’s Spirit, Blood, Treasure: The American Cost of Battle in the 21st Century (New York: Presidio Press, 2001).
[xxxiii] See General Patreaus and Montgomery McFate’s Social Science Goes To War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).
[xxxiv] For a powerful argument about why we need to study the bio-cultural dynamics of today’s resurgent clans, see Mark Wiener’s The Rule of the Clan.
[xxxv] The US Warfighters with whom I studied the Iliad downrange broke a kind of psychic bread with each other while reading and discussing Homer. We engaged in an ancient ritual practice that went way beyond what the leading expert on ritual psychology, William Swan, calls, “identity fusion,” in which the individual dissolves the compound of his identity in the liquid of the group. The value of teaching Classical Warrior Myth and Ritual to Warfighters DIRECLTY IN THE BATTLESPACE has NOT been self-evident to my civilian friends and colleagues. My downrange students, however, did not suffer from my colleague’s moral idiocy. Instead, my “students,” US Warfighters, seized upon Homer’s primal knowledge of combat psychology as a means by which to protect themselves from the many devious ways in which the battlespace conspires to get a warrior to betray his or her warrior’s code.
[xxxvi] See F.J. Manning’s “Morale, Cohesion, and Esprit de Corps.” in Handbook of Military Psychology, edited by A.D. Mangelsdorff. (New York: John Wyly & Sons, 1991).
[xxxvii] The author knows whereof he speaks; he was in Central America in the 80s.
[xxxviii] Again, I am grateful to Dr. Shay for sharing his ideas on this subject with me in the context of my helping him edit a book about trust among small-fighting units.
[xxxix] I also recommend placing downrange classrooms directly in the battlespace. They should be non-profit branches of our service academies and staffed by Army, Marine, Navy, and Air Force civilian PhDs, but I will not unfold a supporting argument here.
[xl] See Mark Weiner’s Return of the Clan.
[xli] We recognize similarly vigorous moral effort on behalf of fellow citizens today in the post-war careers of Bing West and the late Bernard Knox.
[xlii] Jakob Beer expressed this truth: “A man’s experience of war never ends with the war. A man’s work, like his life, is never completed.” I owe the quotation to Anne Micheals’s bizarre but unforgettable novel, Fugitive Pieces (London: Bloomsbury, 1996).
[xliii] I am not convinced that the Minerva Initiative has successfully integrated battlespace-educated veterans into its crew of Ivy League scholars.
[xliv] See Flourish, the chapter “Army Strong.”
[xlv] See, Malone.
[xlvi] I owe this quotation to Dr. Jonathan Shay.
[xlvii] For a refreshingly Socratic approach to assessing what we can learn in the battlespace, see Barbara Frederickson’s Emotional Fitness and the Movement of Affective Science From Lab to Field in American Psychology (Jan 2011; 66 (1), pp. 35-42.)
[xlviii] See Flourish. See Seligman’s detailed discussion of the career of Brigadier General Rhonda Cornum.
[xlix] As a Professor to US Warfighters in Afghanistan, at FOB FENTY (Jalalabad), we tailored our classes to address the specific psychological, cognitive, and emotional needs of Soldiers conducting phase IV operations. My chief pedagogical duty was to reinforce the Warfighter’s mental and emotional resiliency. I taught subject material that explains why Warfighters need a code, how to protect that code, and how to promote that code in fellow Warfighters on the battlefields of Afghanistan. Our primary source of raw data about the psychic realities of combat was Homer. We studied the Iliad as war; the Odyssey as the return from war. Jonathan Shay’s books on those two works were extraordinarily helpful. So were Seligman’s books. We returned to the themes of character and character strengths, how to identify and enhance them in ourselves and in each other, how doing so benefits our teams and our missions. The NCO’s ability to enhance emotional resiliency in his or her unit is, as we discovered, closely linked to his or her rhetorical skill. We discovered this psychological oddity: It is possible to FLOURISH in a war-zone—not a psychic truth that most civilians want to accept.
[l] See, Ideas Have Consequences.
[li] Study all of Bing West’s works on the subject of courage.
About the Author(s)
As a senior Captain and Infantry officer currently engaged in literary study in the academy, it is refreshing to read about the bio-cognitive through a Socratic lens. I have not read the referenced dialogue,"Lashes", but after reading this article it seems required. As a former Company Commander responsible for the development of a similar "150-group," my concern lies in the training of Soldiers in a garrison-training environment where citizen-warriors operate and train in a Platonic Timocracy; that is, a system circumscribed by attributes of courage and nobility, while, conversely, leading and training the same warriors within a system of Democracy, where information and access are ubiquitous. Developing the knowledge and understanding of fear is difficult when unit leaders compete with social aspects of technology and other distracting aspects of life within our Democracy; especially considering the idea that the average citizen-Soldier's conceptual understanding of war and conflict are mediated by video games, for-profit media outlets, and social-media life-filters. There seems to be a responsibility for scholars to "make warriors wise"...the "wolves," as Grossman speaks of, come in the form of unintelligible bodies.
Thank you for the insight and exigence for inquiry.