What lessons can people learn from being in a war? Part III

Fear Inoculation

Fear inoculation is exactly what it sounds like. It is a process of becoming partially immune to the effects of fear. Lt. Col Dave Grossman describes in his books On Combat and On Killing, it is the experiences, conditioning and training to deal with events which would cause fear or stress and managing them to a level your body and mind can handle. Fear, causes people to forget things. It causes a reduction in the amount of blood reaching the brain and reduces the effectiveness of our vital sensory inputs. Fear makes your body do many, many things that it shouldn’t to maintain your effectiveness in high stress situations. Basically, fear makes you a stupid sack of meat. It is put perhaps the best in the science fiction classic Dune,

“Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration.”

I’m not saying that Marines and soldiers are some sort of superhero caricatures of real people who can’t feel fear. It’s quite the opposite. These are people who go into some of the worst periods of places where it is impossible to not feel fear. General George Patton even said, “All men are frightened. The more intelligent they are, the more they are frightened.” I tend to agree. Since their jobs force them into intense periods of fear, though, it is necessary to develop mechanisms to suppress and manage your fear. Perhaps an example would be more appropriate.

I have a phobic reaction to heights. I don’t like being near balconies or high places where all there is preventing my fall is my ability to not somehow stumble off the wall or guardrail. I recently had this sensation when visiting a local historic watchtower overlooking our local lake. When I say I have a phobic reaction, I mean that when I am in these situations I can feel my heart rate spike, my breathing changes, and I get cold and perhaps a bit sweaty in the course of a single minute. I know that my fear is also not rational because I can reason that I won’t possibly accidentally trip and stumble off the four foot wall on the edge of that tower. I’ll still go up there, because my wife, completely immune to heights, likes the view. I even can acknowledge that it is a beautiful scene of the lake, but I can’t enjoy it. My body tells me this is a time to be afraid, whether it really is or not. That is a phobia.

So it surprises me that, when I needed to, I willingly stood on the edge of a fifty foot tower, leaned over and jumped off. Repelled is the more correct  term. Either way, heights are one of my greatest fears, yet I jumped off a tower for no other reason than that someone who I knew wouldn’t kill me told me to with nothing but a rope and a fall, which might. This process I would later come to realize, was the Marine Corps training me time and time again to overcome my fears and find a way to perform. While I still use it to go with my wife to be with her while she enjoys a view I very much do not, it was put in me for a very different reason. The Repel Tower, along with many other exercises in warrior training was intended to help Marines survive the wars they may face with some degree of mental clarity.

When I actually went to war I remember the first time I was really afraid. Years later, I realized how this worked. The first time I ever received indirect fire, a rocket attack on the base, I was naturally very scared. It was my first week in Iraq. It was a loud boom that you could feel, like the feeling of standing near a massive drum in a small room. We all scurried to our pre-planned locations. This wasn’t a new thing in 2005 so everyone knew what to do, at least, enough people knew what to do that the rest were able to follow along easily. I followed a Corporal who made his way to one of the bunkers. I didn’t know how long we would be there or if we were still in danger, or what came next. I remember being confused and a bit frustrated at how cavalier the Corporal was about the attack. I remember geared up and sitting under the concrete bunker, built for such purposes. After a long time, I turned to my Corporal and asked him, “Isn’t someone going to go after them?” He just laughed at me without saying anything.

The truth was, there was nothing we could do about the guys with rockets. Those rockets were ingenious little devices set to go off long after the person who set it up had gone home. By the time the blast hit, he was probably at home watching The View. It was a popular show back then. They were also fired from the center of the town of Habbaniyah down below the base, so we couldn’t just blanket the area with artillery fire, because that would be like using a grenade on an ant hill to kill one ant. There was nothing we could do about it. The constant threat of enemy rocket attacks was just something we were going to have to deal with.

So we did. I remember many days when my good friend and fellow comrade at arms Cody Solley would be asleep in our tent and an explosion would go off somewhere on the base. I’d roll over lazily and say to him, “Did that sound like inbound or outbound?” and he would say that it sounded more like us firing at them. “Good.” and I would try to go back to sleep. Moments later, the sirens would cry and we would angrily roll out of our cots, don our protective armor, grab our weapons and make our way to whatever rally point we were instructed to go, the whole time muttering colorful expletives about the stupid terrorists ruining our sleep.

While I fully accept that this story demonstrates how utterly complacent we had become, it also showcases how inoculated to the fear of being struck with one of these rockets or mortars we had become. After telling this story to others who didn’t go through it, people have told me that they don’t know how they would have ever been able to deal with the not knowing. They said that it would be terrifying not knowing if death would just come from anywhere at any time. I thought that was more dramatic than the situation deserved, but there were cases of people that definitely succumbed to this kind of pressure. There also were some casualties throughout the base, and several people I knew had close calls, but mostly just damage to the base itself. The church was hit, as was the mosque, and my blessed chow hall once, as well. The flight line was hit numerous times and as I understand, at least one of the birds was taken out. The worst we saw was a relay hub where a large number of our cabling and communication equipment was taken out, disrupting communications through half the base. That was a bad few weeks, especially for the wire guys. I can think of one person who most certainly lost his wits under the stress, though there were other factors, as well. As for those of us that were able to adapt, we knew not to let it trouble us and were able to focus on our work, in spite of the random timing and locations of these attacks. It could have come at any moment, that was true, and I can see many people being unnerved by that, but we had been conditioned to the point that they were really just nuisance.

I think this is an important time to mention the importance of training for the military. I’ve gone in very deep on the importance of boot camp as well as rationalizing how crazy it is to people who haven’t gone through it in What is U.S. Marine Corps boot camp like? The synopsis of that answer can be found in the first line:

“It is a place where you have to train 18 year olds to run to the sound of gunfire and perform under fire and the threat of death.”

One of the most intriguing descriptions I have seen for Marine Corps Boot Camp is in the way it conditions its warriors towards focused aggression and repression of fear through combat conditioning. Combat conditioning isn’t the same as working out. Regularly recruits are put into situations which simulate high stress, fear inducing events, whether it is jumping off a tower or being yelled at by six different people for minor infractions. Recruits face nonstop situations where they will be tested under extreme stress levels. This isn’t anything like test anxiety, or deadline anxiety. I can state for a fact that we can still fail at those like anyone else. This is high impact stress where in the course of two minutes a person can go from completely calm to a heartbeat of 180 beats per minute. At that heart rate, usually only brought on by the fear of death, extreme exercise or in the sultrous throws of passion (which better be seriously good since you are close to dying from it) much of the brain and body stops working predictably. You lose fine motor control, some of your senses may fail or deceive you, and you might only be capable of thinking at the very base level of mammalian instinct. The Marines train in this environment, know how to induce it under safe conditions and expect the recruit to dismantle and put back together a weapon consisting of numerous extremely tiny parts in under a minute while in it.

This type of training doesn’t just focus on higher order thinking. That is there as well. Military history, customs and courtesies, structure, communications systems, first aid, weapon characteristics, and all manner of scholastic knowledge will be trained. An example would be re-calculating the trajectory of an object traveling at 3,110 ft/s for a three inch change in elevation at 5 times the length of a standard football field when factoring in for wind speed and direction as well as differences in elevation. That’s basic rifle marksmanship. Marine Corps boot camp goes deeper, though. They focus also on mid-brain thinking. This is the mammalian brain and the one where most of our innate, instinctual reactions come from. You might think that because I said, “instinctual”, that one can’t train it, but you would incorrect.
Combat science has shown that most of the time a kill is rendered in combat for infantry, it is a reactionary response. This means that to prepare warriors, you have to train them to react to dangerous situations, not to rationalize their way through them. Essentially, modern militaries know that their soldier is being pitted not against the rationality of the other soldier, but against their enemy’s innate instinctive responses, trained in the middle brain. Under ideal situations, they will be able to take a well aimed shot from cover and concealment at a time of their choosing, but more likely for the young infantryman, they face the danger of needing to react faster than they can think of what to do. To do this, the Marines use numerous operant conditioning mechanisms that reward their reactions to stimulus and condition them to ignore non-important information instinctively. This channels their brain’s cognitive abilities to react to stimulus and building the same neural pathways connecting their reactionary subconscious brain to their bodies muscle receptors. This means that when the training is applied correctly, a person can recognize a target from a non-target, sight in and kill the bad guy, before the average person would rationalize that they are in danger. Yeah.

I’ve made a point of promoting training as the single most important trait that businesses should learn from the military. I’m not saying that businesses should start pushing their accountants off of buildings to see how they handle mid-April or that we should scream at the receptionist for messing up the coffee, but the Marines and most modern militaries have mastered training not only a of a Marine’s ability to analyze a situation when calm is allowed, but to even groom the other parts of the brain to function when it isn’t. This is happening when most civilian companies are wasting millions of dollars in human resources on recruiting because they still pride themselves on a “Sink or Swim” model of management from the nineteenth century. It isn’t that sometimes it doesn’t work, but usually it will just ensure an unnecessarily high turnover rate and fearful company culture, rife with paranoia, politics, and unproductive competition. This isn’t because it is a better system, but because civilians don’t have experience of a better model. While this feels tangential, I can honestly say that I have had a profound respect for the Marines’ education system of training its individuals for success after seeing the failures of the business world, even very successful companies, in this regard. The United States Marines are one of the most successful organizations on the planet because of their training, which doesn’t make them fearless, but which makes them immensely competent under stress. I only really realized after the war and one only really appreciates it when he is wondering what to write in this article, and can think clearly enough to find inspiration from the top of a very, very tall tower.


Thanks for reading. This blog is supported entirely by fan donation. If you would like to support the author, please visit: Support Jon Davis creating Short Stories and Essays in Military, Science Fiction and Life.

Advertisements

One thought on “What lessons can people learn from being in a war? Part III

  1. Incredibly insightful series of posts on understanding the psychological training that every recruit has to undergo in order to be effective– very cool.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s