Psychology

Love Potions

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Recently, my friend, Dr. Michael LaBossiere, wrote a series of articles concerning determinism. In these articles he examines the possibility that all animal behavior, including human behavior, is essentially determined by hormones–impulses generated on the physical plane that are easily identified, their effects on the body leading to behaviors, such as in the realm of sex.

In two articles he uses the Vole, a gerbil-like creature, as his subject.  Voles are monogamous animals, a rarity in the mammalian world. Their monogamous behavior correlates with the secretion of oxytocin and vasopressin. And so, Dr. LaBossiere argues that the monogamous behavior of Voles is purely mechanistic, based on the addictive qualities of oxytocin and other pleasure-inducing hormones.  And so, if this behavior is mechanistic in nature, so are the human romantic ideals, such as love, honor, and loyalty.  The same argument can and is made for homosexuality, that it is not a choice, but an urge induced by a heretofore undiscovered  biological mechanism. Dr. Labossiere states that he believes in free will, but in his articles he seems to mostly argue for a deterministic world.

Before I endeavor to deconstruct and ultimately destroy the mechanistic view of human behavior (and it must be destroyed because, besides the fact that I believe it untrue, it is a danger to human life and happiness), let me reveal a bit of my history as a teenager and a young man.

I ran away from home 4 times before I was 16. Looking back, I consider that I was surrounded by adults that were dysfunctional and in some cases border-line insane.  I felt no love from the adults that I spent the most time with at that time. I did feel anger, hatred, enmity, and even an odd sort of competition and jealousy from them.  Their insanity was evidenced by their deep unhappiness.

An adept cut-purse, I stole voraciously, from book stores especially, and constantly conspired with other kids my age to relieve adults of the cash in their wallets. I lied constantly, skipped school regularly to the point where I had no idea what was going on in my classes. I began to fail and fail badly in school.  I enjoyed throwing rocks through windows and destroying others’ property in general and was arrested for burglary. Eventually, I dropped out of high school, and became involved with a woman who was 10 years older than I eventually siring a child out of wedlock.  My life was a disaster.  Mind you, that I was brought up Catholic, was an alter boy and a Boy Scout.  But the pain from home tore me apart, and before I was 14, I thought often of suicide.  I’ll be the first to admit that luck has a great impact on each and every one of us. Heck, as Kurt Vonnegut once observed, none of us even asked to be born so far as we know.  I don’t want to say there were no good times as a kid, but there weren’t many.  Even today when I think of my teenage years, I get nauseous.  But regardless of my circumstances, I am without excuse; I was an evil person. And don’t underestimate the age at which kids know good from evil.

Now that you know why I can never run for political office, let me indulge myself for a moment. Fast forward a decade and move further along in time after that. I graduated from college, became a police officer, and eventually joined the Army. I’m currently a staff sergeant in the US Army. My last NCO Evaluation report, written by a lieutenant, captain and major, states the following about my performance: “the most competent Senior Intelligence Sergeant in the Brigade; continuously remained well-versed on the evolution of conventional and asymetric threats…intellectual prowess and continuous mentorship developed Soldiers in analytical skills….promote to Sergeant First Class now…a top 1% NCO that always accomplishes the mission to the highest standard”.  

What changed in the last 25 years of my life? Did my hormones or brain chemicals shift to such a degree that my life did a 180 degree turn? And if they did, why?

Don’t get me wrong. All animals are influenced by hormones. Wild animals’ behavioral changes during hormonal shifts  are well documented. But it is humans’ self-awareness, reason and morality that sets us apart.  Even the much vaunted humaness of dogs seems to be overrated; dogs feel no shame, despite the sheepish look after Spot defecates in the hall.  In fact, humans seem to be the only animal that will behave in ways that spite hormonal tides.  Before I make the crux of my argument, let’s look at a couple of Dr. LaBossiere’s arguments. He writes that if fidelity is mechanistic, than humans are merely reacting to the pleasure provided them via chemical actions on the brain.

He states:

While fidelity is praised, one important question is whether or not is worthy of praise as a virtue. If humans are like voles and the mechanistic theory of human bonding is correct, then fidelity of the sort that ground pair-bonding would essentially be a form of addiction, as discussed in the previous essay. On the face of it, this would seem to show that such fidelity is not worthy of praise. After all, one does not praise crack heads for their loyalty to crack. Likewise, being addicted to love would hardly make a person worthy of praise.

One obvious counter is that while crack addiction is regarded as bad because of the harms of crack, the addiction that composes pair bonding should be generally regarded as good because of its good consequences. These consequences would be the usual sort of things people praise about pair bonding, such as the benefits to health.  However, this counter misses the point: the question is not whether pair bonding is good (it generally is in terms of consequences) but whether fidelity should be praised.

I feel these two paragraphs miss the mark, primarily because fidelity between man and woman seems anything other than an addiction–it seems like work.  People struggle to remain faithful.  Why do most people at least try to resist the urge to be unfaithful in marriage? Because they know very bad things can happen if they follow their immediate instincts.  Fidelity involves a crusade against our hormones (though there’s a lot more to sex drive than hormones).

JRR Tolkien wrote a series of letters to his oldest son, Christopher, warning him of the dangers of untamed sexual desire.

Faithfulness in Christian marriage entails that: great mortification. For a Christian man there is no escape. Marriage may help to sanctify and direct to its proper object his sexual desires; its grace may help him in the struggle; but the struggle remains. It will not satisfy him–as hunger may be kept off by regular meals. It will offer as many difficulties to the purity proper to that state, as it provides easements. No man, however truly he loved his betrothed and bride as a young man, has lived faithful to her as a wife in mind and body without deliberate conscious exercise of the will, without self-denial.

Tolkien’s view is precisely the opposite of LaBossiere’s; people struggle with fidelity, they are not addicted to it.

Before going further, let me state explicitly my thesis: the things that provide pleasure to people via increases in dopamine, seratonomin, and oxytocin can change over time, and they change primarily because thinking changes.  I used to gain pleasure from stealing and breaking windows. Now I gain pleasure from working hard, learning, writing, playing with my kids and physical training. The chemical reactions that cause me to feel pleasure remain the same, but the little understood mind changed greatly.  And I know why my mind changed: I experienced true Christianity.  I struggled for years after first experiencing it, but slowly changed over the years, like a metal refined by fire.  Consider a man who is overweight and out of shape. He does not exercise but knows he must for health reasons.  At some point his thinking on the matter changed and the seed was planted for future action. When he first starts exercising, he only feels pain. His body is telling him to stop. He is not deriving much pleasure from it at all. But he pushes through, and eventually morning runs start to feel good, his mind seems to work better, fat begins to melt off him. And so it is with almost all good habits. There is an initial period of discomfort. But as beings above mere wild animals, we can push through that pain using reason to form a vision of our goal.  After a while, we have formed a habit, and there is no longer pain, but probably quite a bit of pleasure to be gained from accomplishing what was once very difficult.

The French Renaissance philosopher Michel de Montaigne, a famous skeptic, disliked passionate feelings of love because he felt they interfered with freedom.  Many people are critical of the Christian views on sex and passion, they view (improperly) Christians as prudes whom dislike others feeling any type of sexual pleasure. This is not the case of course.  As its root, the Christian values concerning sex is about keeping one’s mind. W.B. Yeats once observed that he had witnessed more men destroyed by chasing after women then he had seen destroyed by alcohol. This from an Irishman.  Yeats and Montaigne understood that for man to act like Man, (big M intended), and not destroy himself, he must not follow every fleeting hormonal impulse.

Michel de Montaigne
Michel de Montaigne

As a man thinketh, so is he~Proverbs 23:7. And so as a person’s thinking changes, so do his habits. The ancients knew the power of habit. In fact, I believe it is the most powerful tool in existence when it comes to effecting human behavior. The first thing that I myself do when I want to accomplish something, is figure out how I can make aspects of the task a habit. This usually involves setting aside a time and place in which I always practice part of the task. I always write in the morning. I even learned a way of getting things done that aren’t pleasing: Just do one thing a day that you don’t want to do, but needs doing at some point. Just one thing. You’ll be surprised at how effective it is. And this is what I think of homosexuality: it is a habit, not something hardwired from the beginning in a homosexual’s genome.

Almost anything can become a habit, good and evil. Vince Lombardi said quitting can become a habit, Dale Carnegie said the habit of feeling sorry for yourself is the worst habit of all.

Aristotle said of habit:

Moral excellence comes about as a result of habit. We become just by doing just acts, temperate by doing temperate acts, brave by doing brave acts.

In this article, I am primarily writing about physiological determinism, not cosmological determinism. That is, the idea that man does not have free will at all.  That is for another time. But it must be said here that determinism, is a major theme in leftist politics.  The belief, nay, the focal point, of this political system being that the determining factor in a man’s life is summed in the advantageous or disadvantageous situation into which he was born. That rich men are rich because they were born to lucky circumstances, and the poor people are poor because they were born to poor people.   But my interpretation of conservative politics, as I practice them, is to ask each person: What can you do right now to improve your lot and the lot of others? I see leftist politics as one giant antithesis of Carnegie’s admonition,  the leftist declares: The best habit is to feel sorry for yourself. And he hopes that men who don’t feel sorry for themselves, ie the men who make the world work, will give him some free stuff.  In other words, the view is self-serving, not “sympathetic.”

Finally, we must ask: How is the deterministic view helpful? If I truly am moved about like a puppet by hormones and impulses randomly bursting in my brain, what changes if I believe otherwise? But now ask yourself, what if we are not absolutely controlled by a domino effect of physiological input, but I believe and act as if I  am, what changes then? A great deal. A very great deal.

Confessions of a lifelong introvert

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Today I feel better than usual. Today I realized something about myself, saw what I am more clearly than I have ever before seen myself; I am an introvert.

I’m fairly skilled at hiding the fact that I’m an introvert, and all but my closest friends, and my wife, would likely be surprised by this revelation. In fact, I’m so adept at hiding my own introversion, that the discovery even shocks me.

By introvert, I do not necessarily mean that I cannot be around people, only that being forced to engage with people whom I do not completely trust is a painful, exhausting ordeal. This sort of engagement condemns me to interact when I would prefer to disengage.

I discovered this fact about myself while examining the cause for my discomfort in the Army. I do well at everything the Army asks me to do, but I never feel comfortable. Hardly ever a day of peace. Then it came to me, as if on the Damascus Road. The Army celebrates extroversion almost as much as a Gay Pride parade. Not only are the top NCOs extreme extroverts, but introverts are actually quite severely punished.  I’ve seen NCOs relieved of duty for not yelling at soldiers. NCOs are expected to scream and rant and rave. They are supposed to have strong personalities. That’s ‘leadership.”  Believe me, it takes an extreme extrovert to eyeball a complete stranger from across the street and yell at him for not wearing his patrol cap correctly.

From the very first day in the Army, I have felt a deep sense of discomfort, bordering on manic unhappiness. It began in Basic training when I was forced to lodge with dozens of other people, in very close quarters. Again, in everything I excelled. I was voted the best soldier in my platoon in Basic, Soldier of the Year at my previous unit. In AIT, a school that teaches soldiers their specific jobs right after Basic, I spent my weekends almost completely alone. I felt euphoria finally being able to experience solitude. Almost all the other soldiers would hang out together, but not me. I literally just wanted to go somewhere and read a book. I would go to restaurants, and read while eating my meal. If I saw someone I knew, I would turn and avoid them, afraid they would ask me to do something with them, which would take away from my time alone.

I hate Army “formations” in which soldiers are told to gather daily. Hate them with a passion.

One of the most euphoric feelings I recall in my entire life is my first day in Germany, after graduating Army AIT. The Army provided me with a hotel room in Frankfurt, Germany. Finally, I was a lone.

Looking back, I realize that almost all of my problems as a child in school were the result of being an introvert. The other kids seemed so open and desired to be with the group. I didn’t enjoy feeling like an outsider, but I didn’t particularly enjoy extroverts either. I did not feel comfortable in school until college, when I was finally given the power to run my own life. I could choose when and where to interact with people. The Army took away much of my power to be alone.

When I was a young man, one of my good friends said to me, “You’re the biggest loner I know.”

I’m sure he was being truthful; I’m the biggest loner I know, too. Characteristic of an introvert, boredom is never a problem for me. I am almost never bored. German philosopher, Arthur Schopenhauer, an arch-introvert, said that introverts are rarely bored because they gain pleasure from an intellectual world, whereas extroverts gain pleasure more from the external, and more temporal, world. I am constantly amazed by some of the people I work with. They will complain about their work, and the moment they get a chance to relax, they say they are bored.

Arthur Schopenhauer: Kindred spirit

“That I could clamber to the frozen moon. And draw the ladder after me.”~Arthur Schopenhauer

I am never bored. And I am almost never lonely. The things that make me feel lonely are being away from the people whom I love dearly. But I do not need to be around people with whom I have only passing relationships. I work with many people who cannot do anything unless they are doing it with someone else.

Schopenhauer pointed out another characteristic that he had and shares with me, and is apparently an almost universal aspect of the introvert: Hatred of noise. He said that all his life noise bothered him significantly, and on one occasion, his weakness got him into trouble when he physically assaulted a woman in his apartment building whom he claimed was a chronic noise-maker. He was forced to pay her money from a lawsuit for the rest of her life. So while the introvert has significant advantages in certain areas, such as an ability to think deeply, lack of boredom, maintaining long-term friendships, and very creative, they are easily distracted by the outside world, do not maintain a “network” of people that can help them, and may come off as cranky. So easily distracted am I by other people, that I must do all of my writing and thinking in complete solitude, or I must have a drink of beer, which seems to dull the effects of external stimulation and allows me to remain in my own mind and continue writing amid possible distractions. . At work, I must sometimes shut myself in a room, telling my Captain that I need him to use his rank to keep people from bothering me, while I read intelligence reports and make sense of things.

At times I will return home from work feeling utterly exhausted, as if I had just run a marathon. I often ask myself what I have done that could have made me so tired that I do not do on my days off from work. The answer is that I interact with large amounts of people. I do not want to come across as someone that is a crank all day, though I find myself being more so than when I was younger. Only that my exhaustion is from trying to act like the extrovert I am not. Oddly, I feel dumber when I am with people I know only at a surface level. My instinct is to speak like them, to think like them, so as not to offend. Yet in my inner-most being, I almost never think like them and feel ashamed to tell most people the things I think about: Philosophies, metaphysics, religion, demographics, grand-strategies. All near useless trivia, really.  This facade is draining and debilitating.

I have just today, come to grips with what I am and what has caused me so much pain throughout my life. I am fine with it. I know now that I don’t have to appear gregarious if the mood doesn’t strike me. That being quiet is ok. I know that some may doubt my claim to introversion, being that I say some things on this blog and in other writings that may shock some. But I read that introverts are more likely to be intimate online, and I think it fair to say that many historic writers were notorious introverts, recluses, and hermits. All of these things bring to mind wisdom, and even in the age of the extrovert, they are something to hold dear.

There are people in this world that I look forward to speaking to often and I am lonely without.  Nothing can replace the smiles of my children.  But other than that, I rather look forward to being the old hermit on the top of the mountain, surviving on his own, beholden to none, just thinking, thinking….

Technocrats vs Theocrats

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“We just heard of a brand new way..we’ll have to wait and see if it’s half of what they say.” ~Loverboy, The Kid is Hot Tonight

On a friend of mine’s blog, I often present alternate views to the blog’s author and to many of the people who leave comments.  Predictably my opinions tend to be more conservative than others.  One line of comments was about global warming.  Being a global warming skeptic, I felt it necessary to point out some problems with the current model as it now stands.  The author of the blog asked why I would believe the minority of scientists over the majority’s opinion.

It is a legitimate question and I’ll give only a short answer here because this post is not really global warming. My primary arguments against the global warming model is not so much with the individual scientists that conduct the studies, though several of them have been caught fudging data in order to strengthen the perception that more warming is taking place than is actually occurring.  My main argument is against the alarmists such as Al Gore, who claim warming will lead to imminent catastrophe.  But there are also loopholes in the logic employed by the scientists themselves.

I’ve written articles on global warming, diet and evolution. In most cases my arguments are not the mainstream argument.  I also see some major problems with Psychology as a science.  I could be accused of being anti-intellectual or anti-science.  I don’t believe this is the case.

Essentially, my argument is one of Empiricism vs. Rationalism.  Both views hold legitimate value.  The Empirical view essentially says that human beings are limited in their knowledge because the only knowledge they can truly have is gained through limited senses.  Rationalism says that humans have innate knowledge and can extrapolate facts that are beyond human senses.  It is possible that a person take an empirical view of some phenomena and a rationalist view of others.  For instance, in my view of global warming and the current model of evolution, I am an empirical skeptic.  In the case of God and Christianity I am a rationalist.

Let me explain why I am a skeptic in some cases but not others.  I’ll use techniques that intelligence analysts employ to develop what is called the Enemy Course of Action.  As an analyst, I develop the enemy’s Most Likely Course of Action (COA) and his most Most Dangerous Course of Action (MDCOA). The analyst may compose several COAs. Think of these as hypothesis in scientific terms. Using information, gathered intelligence and careful thinking, the analyst draws up the plan that the enemy is most likely to employ against the friendly military.  The analyst also creates a product that shows the most dangerous actions an enemy may employ.  Much of the process is rational.  An analyst cannot know for sure where the enemy will be in the future, but he can extrapolate using analysts tools and logic.  But there are parts of the process that are empirical, too.  The analyst has to provide ways that his hypothesis can move up the scientific slide-scale to theory.  To do this, he creates Known Areas of Interest (NAIs)and Indicators.  NAIs are areas of terrain that would be monitored with intelligence assets in order to cull Indicators.  Indicators are “proofs” that the enemy is committing to a certain predicted course of action.  So, if a MDCOA states that the enemy will use chemical weapons against friendly battalion headquarters, an indicator may read like this:  “In NAI 1, enemy soldiers are wearing or carrying personal protective chemical gear. ” If intelligence collection assets see this, and the information makes it back to the analyst and commander, they can both begin focusing on the MDCOA as the enemy’s plan of action.

So what’s my point?  The point is that analysts can only give the most likely event that will occur as well as their opinion on what is the most dangerous. He has to back up his claims with potential indicators.  And here’s where I see the problems with global warming.  If I were an analyst using the above model to figure out what is going to happen because of global warming, I would say it global warming will have have very little impact on people’s lives.  Scientists can look at the empirical facts, like temperature measurements at various points around the globe.  They can see that CO2 is a greenhouse gas, because they can create closed systems and inject CO2 into that system and observe CO2’s effects on heat conservation. But there are many things that scientists cannot see empirically with global warming.  They cannot see the end result of global warming, they can only rationalize what the end result may be.  And if we use the past as an indicator for what may happen in the future, than we must come to the conclusion that the predicted temperature increases do not present a clear and present danger to mankind, because the Earth has been much warmer and contained much more CO2 in the past than it does now.  And let’s remember that the Earth is not warming as fast as climate models predicted, thus the weakness of rationalism.  Several years ago, Al Gore assured us of catastrophe.  But man-made CO2 is an extremely small percentage of greenhouse gas, and we know that temperature does not increase in a linear fashion with CO2.  The impact of man-made CO2 on temperature is not known.  It may be so low as to be immeasurable.  If someone tells me that human survival is threatened by global warming, they have to give me indicators and they also have to show how much impact human activity has on the warming in the first place, because otherwise we have very little control of what the weather does.  They also have to give explanations for past warming before the industrial age and why no warming has occurred in the last 15 years.  Most importantly, they have to show me why nations should spend trillions of dollars on programs such as the Kyoto Protocol.

Science is not very good at predicting.  The major areas of current scientific practice that most trouble me are the ones that seek to extrapolate over very long periods of time.  I see the problem like this: If a man who is shooting a rifle at a target 50 meters away misses by 4 inches, that same shot would have missed a more distant target by an even wider margin.  And yet in the case of evolution, scientists seek to tell us what happened millions of years ago.  Is it not reasonable to surmise that they may be off the mark just a bit? Global warming too seeks to tell us what will happen in the year 2040.  Both evolution and catastrophic results of global warming are fine hypothesis. But empirical evidence does not yet support those hypothesis as scientific fact.

Ideological thinking can and has damaged the science.  Take diet for instance.  In many cases, the thinking goes like this: “I like animals, therefore I don’t like to kill animals, and therefore eating meat and fat damages my health.” “I like nature, nature is the environment without man in it, therefore any man-made technology is bad for nature.” “I do not believe in God, therefore evolution is true.” The opposite also happens.  “I don’t believe in evolution because I believe in God.”  In other words, people do not believe certain things because of science, they believe the science because of certain other things.  As we know from the Nazis, science can be used to support any ideology. And times and thinking change.  Scientific consensus, like religious consensus, is subject to change.  As Loverboy sings: The kid is hot tonight, but where will he be tomorrow?  The hot new idea may fade, and thus laws should only be made in the case of strong empirical evidence.

The truly damaging aspect of this is the linear thinking that science and religion can never mix.

Do I hold Christianity and the existence of God to the same standard I hold evolution and the global warming catastrophe hypothesis? Yes I do.  The primary difference is that in one case, global warming, some people want to spend trillion of dollars  to change and in most cases slow down modern economies.  As far as my belief in Christianity goes, I do not want laws made that require people to be Christians because 1) That kind of Christianity would be wholly inauthentic 2) I may be wrong.

 I especially may be wrong on the small minute details of the religion, for God had to constantly correct the men in the Old Testament and the New. No man can conceive fully, God.  Moreover, no two men’s concept of God can be exactly the same, mathematically speaking.   Theocrats, such as the Taliban, want to calcify thinking.  So do the Technocrats or those that make laws based on science that extrapolates and does not see first hand.

I have come to the conclusion through rationalization, that there is probably a God, something or someone that created the universe.  And the logical conclusion I draw is the same as Nietzsche’s, that without God, there is no good and evil, that people can only make claims to right or wrong based on how they feel about things.   And the problem with that is that there will always be someone who feels differently.   The Taliban feel it’s ok to shoot disobedient women in the head.  No Atheist could argue with the Taliban on any moral grounds, because life had no meaning without the sacred, it only has fleeting feelings.

In the end, my belief in God does not harm people, at least as far as I can tell.  Indeed, using the classic model or what makes a man right and just, Christianity improved me significantly, so there is a utilitarian argument for Christianity in my case.  Should a law be made that all people had to believe exactly as I do, that law would most likely harm even me, because it’s unlikely my views in 20 years will be exactly as they are now.

And yet the Technocrats want to make laws that tell us exactly how we can think and act, sometimes based on very poorly understood and complicated things, like brain chemistry. I am not saying that we can never reach a level of adequate surety in these various areas, but it doesn’t seem like we’re there yet.   When an engineer builds a plane that cannot fly, the results are immediately evident. When climate scientists or pundits claim Florida will be under water in 50 years so we’d better spend millions, well show me the money.

Schools cannot teach alternative views to evolution, nor do they even talk about the unanswered aspects of the hypothesis.  Some children are forced by state law to take medication for ADD before they can attend school.  And our society accepts this Technocratic rule because it believes people who think otherwise are unscientific and stupid.  In essence, we have accepted science’s version of the Taliban.

Kierkagaard, Facebook and Socialism

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“Pressure makes diamonds”~General George S. Patton

The stress of being in the military has changed me.  And for the better.  Though never one to rest on my laurels, my time in the Army has made me sharper, a better organizer and tougher and driven me to expect more of myself and others.  I’ve learned not only how to give orders as an NCO, but how to take orders from officers who want something done–and they want it now.  My learning experiences were not always pleasant.  I’ve dealt with some downright evil people who used authority as a tool for bureaucratic punishment.  But all this only drove me to learn the system as well as they had learned it.

We live in the age of vastly lowered expectations.  I’ve read several accounts of older people’s experiences in grade school and high school in which they received an “F” on any paper with misspellings, regardless of the quality of the content.  Now, some teachers take no points off final grades for spelling mistakes.  We lowered the bar for our children and they have sunk to our expectations.  Our society pats itself on the back for “helping” little Johnny, when in reality it was just trying make things easier for teachers and slack parents.

Anyone can now join a revolution or even a war.  Just press ENTER.  In Evgeny Morozov’s excellent book, The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, he writes about “Slacktivism”, or the opportunity that social media like Facebook and Twitter provide for anyone living in their mother’s basements to suddenly become a warrior for freedom and democracy, with virtually no danger to themselves.  Merely click the “Like” button, and you’re running with the Libyan rebels through Tripoli.  But not really.  Morozov goes on to study one of my favorite philosophers, Kierkagaard, (I’m an existentialist at heart).  Morozov himself, conducting an experiment, even joined Russia’s Cyber War against Georgia and all it took was a laptop, an internet connection, and one hour.

Morozov states in his book:

But whereas the majority of contemporary philosophers and commentators lauded this great leveling as a sign of democratization, Kierkagaard, thought that it might result in a decline of social cohesion, a feast of endless and disinterested reflection, and a triumph of infinite but shallow intellectual curiosity that might prevent deep, meaningful, and spiritual engagement with a particular issue.[1]

The author continues:

This is the kind of shallow commitment that Kierkagaard detested and saw as corrupting the human soul.[2]

Kierkagaard’s main thrust seems to have been: That which costs us little, we value little.  In order for something to have value, its acquisition and maintenance must require effort.  We do not grow as humans or as societies when all of our needs are met without any danger to ourselves.  And thus is my problem with the creeping proto-socialism of Europe and America.  It is not that I am against helping the poor, but as with children, we have to know when to take the training wheels off the bike.  Otherwise we create the society we have:  large groups of people with their hands out but who have never contributed in any way to the strength of the system–and more importantly–have no desire to.

Talk about pressure.  Let’s look at a typical Israeli Defense Force Lieutenant.  Israeli society has benefited greatly from two things:   1) Mandatory service in the military. 2) The incredible pressure placed on young conscripts faced with warding off Israel’s myriad enemies.

This is not an endorsement for conscription in America because America is missing the key ingredient that Israel has:  Pressure from an existential threat.  Few Americans fear death or dismemberment as a result of the Iraq of Afghanistan wars.  This is a hugely under appreciated aspect of daily Israeli life.  But the result of this pressure is an army that allows its NCOs and junior officers to make serious decisions.  Young officers and NCOs are expected to perform and with that expectation they’re given the flexibility they need.  Also, Israel’s small population necessitates conscription.

As one Israeli Major puts it:

The most interesting people here are the company commanders.  They are absolutely amazing people.  These are kids–the company commanders are twenty-three.  Each of them is in charge of one hundred soldiers and twenty officers and sergeants, three vehicles. Add it up and that means a hundred and twenty rifles, machine guns, bombs, grenades, mines, whatever. Everything.  tremendous responsibility.[3]

Perhaps readers have heard of Parkinson’s Law, which states: work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.  It’s likely that most people can do the same amount of work in 4 hours as they can in 8.  Perhaps no person better used the power of Parkinson’s Law than Fyodor Dostoevsky.  Saddled with debt from his gambling addiction, and ordered by his publisher to produce books quickly or have the rights to the scripts taken from his, Dostoevsky worked feverishly on two novels: Crime and Punishment and The Gambler–and finished them both in one month.  Hit with an “impossible” deadline and facing dire straits kicked in Dostoevsky’s survival mechanism and enabled the miraculous.  Today, however, the average American looks to government to save him, squandering the opportunity of strife.  We can imagine now, Dostoevsky on the government dole, waiting not for his next inspirations for a great novel, but his next block of government cheese.

As I age, I make a point not to settle and to keep pushing myself.  I make things difficult on myself, but not so much as to ensure failure. First, I take online college classes while working full-time.  A couple of tricks I use to ensure I get things done (procrastination is a weakness of mine) is first, to try to do one thing a day that I don’t absolutely have to do, but should be done anyway.  Secondly, I make a list of things I need to in a day, and check them off as I finish them.  This is a good little poke to my psyche, the list is always nagging at my mind and there’s an odd satisfaction from checking off the achievements.

I’ll end with a thought from Sabastian Junger in his book on the war in Afghanistan, aptly titled:  War.  In his mid 40s and working as an embedded journalist in Kunar Province, Junger has to keep up with 20-something Soldiers climbing mountains at 7000 feet above sea level.  Junger made a statement in his book that stuck with me.  He says that even when he was hurting badly, he knew from his days running cross-country in college that when the pain begins to set in, you haven’t even come close to going as long or hard as you can.

Anyone who stops when life starts to hurt, anyone who quits at the first sign of trouble is short-changing not only themselves, but the world.  If something costs us nothing, it’s worth nothing.  And we don’t need Kierkagaard to tell us the truth, we only need our high school football coach:  No pain, no gain.    

[1]Morozov, Evgeny. The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom. Public Affairs, 2011.

[2] ibid

[3] Singer, Dan Senor and Saul. Start-Up Nation: The Story of Israel’s Economic Miracle. Twelve, 2009.

Taking Responsibility

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I’m on two weeks leave, so in between satisfying my voracious appetite for reading and Heineken, I have time to watch Dr. Phil.

There was a woman on the show who claims her childhood ordeals as an excuse for her current bad behavior, which included cheating on her husband at least 5 times.

I did not have a particularly great childhood, but even the bad experiences I had made me who I am today. Some of what I am today is good, some bad. I hope that most is good. While I have in the past thought  a lot about my childhood, and still think about it some today, I cannot remember at any time using my childhood as an excuse for anything that I have done wrong. I’m not saying that my childhood didn’t have some negative effect on the ways that I’ve acted in the past (and probably in the future), but it doesn’t excuse my own bad choices. Afterall, where does it end? Hasn’t everyone had some bad experiences as a child? And it’s kind of like my argument against  Darwinism: Darwinists point to specific traits and give reasons for those traits. For instance, a giraffe has a long neck so that it can eat the buds atop a tree. Really? So any animal without a long neck can’t eat the buds atop a tree? There are many very great people who had “bad” childhoods. I think about many authors (I like to read about authors’ histories’; they give me insight as to what motivated them) who had tyrannical fathers, or hovering mothers, or who grew up without their biological parents or were adopted.  Winston Churchill had almost no relationship with his father.

When we are mature enough to make the excuse that our past “caused” our bad actions, paradoxically we condemn ourselves. For at that moment, we admit we did wrong, and we even suppose to know the cause.

We can never be free of our own choices. No matter our blessings or curses. We cannot from one side of our mouth parrot Nietzsche: “Whatever doesn’t kill us makes us stronger”, but from the other side utter, “bad things happened to me, so I do bad things.”

Ultimately, nothing of value comes without a price. When we decide that we are responsible for every one of our intentional actions, it at once both horrible and beautiful–and supremely empowering.

Crime, video games, and how men really act in war

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Some of my readers may have heard about the recent video, published by an organization called Wikileaks, a self-proclaimed government and military watchdog organization. The video shows an Apache helicopter crew engaging a group of people in Iraq during the 2007 surge. At least eight people are killed and two children are wounded. What seems to outrage the critics the most is the verbage used by the pilots. Things like: “Good shooting” and “(laughing) They ran over a body.” Also, “Come on buddy…all you gotta do is pick up a weapon.” One pundit commented: “It’s almost like they’re playing a video game.”  Several times the pilots express glee at the sight of their kills.  

Here’s the video. Interpret the propoganda by Wikileaks as you see fit:  

But no. It’s not like they’re playing a video game. It could be said of those playing video games, that it’s almost like the gamers are at war. The people at war are not copying what they’ve seen in video games, people playing video games are obeying the animal urge to fight.  

Perhaps the greatest of all myths when it comes to war, is that men don’t like to fight and kill. What they really don’t like is to lose a fight, die or receive a catastrophic wound. This myth is a primary reason that the intelligentsia, who only study the cold movements of armies, the logistics and the death tolls, fail to fully grasp the nature of war. War is not–primarily–concerned with morality or rationality. This is particularly true in third world countries where the male urge to fight is not blunted by organized sport or entertainment.  

Many American men denied the opportunity to enter the military during WWII committed suicide. I can say from my experience in the Army that people in our current Army love to deploy to a combat zone. I rarely hear anyone complain that they are going to fight. Except for being away from their families, they’d rather be fighting than sitting in garrison. How much more does the insurgent want to fight, since after killing some Americans, he can simply walk back to his home and wife and children at night? It is primarily young males that play video games and engage in contact sports. And let’s not forget that males constitute 93% of the prison population, as of 2003.  

The nature of war and crime are closely related. Let’s look at some crime statistics from the Bureau of Justice Statistics.   

The first thing that jumps out is that violent crime in the US has declined considerably since the 1970s. Contrary to the popular myth propagated by an ever-chugging media. violent crime has been declining for decades in the US and also in many parts of Europe. Let me suggest the un-suggestable: Could violent video games actually be partly responsible for reducing violent crime? Is the natural male urge to engage in violence being sated by virtual killing? Is it a coicidence that the fifth generation of home video game systems–possibly the most revolutionary leap in gaming realism ever– spawned in 1993? The early to mid 90s brought us the Playstation, Sega Saturn, and Nintendo 64. The groundbreaking game, GoldenEye 007 dazzled gamers with a level of realistic warfare never before seen. 

I am not suggesting that moral lessons and teaching the value of non-violence are of no use or that other factors aren’t involved in the fall of violent crime rates since the 70s.  I’d also have to point out that violent crime rose considerable from the turn of the century until the 60s.  I’m merely noting that there is a natural male urge to engage in violent, reckless and dangerous activity and that perhaps artificial violence has diluted the real thing, whereas is the 40s and 50s it seems real values did the job.. Left to himself, a young male will probably find himself in trouble with the law sooner than later. One needs only look at crime statistics in the inner cities, where fatherless young males roam the streets. These places have more in common with Sierre Leone than the American heartland. So, in the absence of moral teaching in youth, there is also the absence of internal safeguards against the use of violence. It could be that violent video games quench a thirst that exists precisely because the male has not been taught proper social interaction methods.  

What people really don’t like when they see the above video, is that the pilots seem to like what they are doing. The critics expect men fighting to experience horror with every falling enemy body. To cringe over each wounded opponent. If fighting were that psychologically trying, men wouldn’t do it. If the insurgents felt the same guilt from killing Americans that they felt from say, accidentally killing their own child, there would be no insurgency. What men have and always will search for, is a socially acceptable reason to fight. And in the absence of fighting, they engage in other activities that stress the subcortical regions of their brains and their adrenal systems.  

I can give first hand attestation. Nothing gives me the same high as competition.  I know many men who feel the same. War is the ultimate competition, and killing a socially acceptable target gives many men the ultimate high. As a police officer, there was a thrill in the chase, to violence–and it was socially acceptable. When criminals resisted arrest, I was more than happy to use legal violence. Afterwards, I felt euphoric. Lying about this will not change what every cop and soldier knows: We didn’t get into those types of jobs for the paperwork.  

The Apache pilots acted as men have for thousands of years at the sight of a dead enemy: They celebrated. Our politicians should set aside for a while the intellectual texts (though they have their place) that drive foreign policy and pick up a copy of The Iliad. Homer captured the sheer joy of combat experienced by warriors better than anyone since. The Greeks never separated sports from warfare, and in their myth, their best warriors were also their best athletes.  

Better than Clausewitz' On War

So, men who are victorious in war act in precisely the same ways as men who are victorious in sports or in video game sessions: They celebrate. They denigrate their enemy. We lie when we speak of the savagery of ancient man. We are the same now, only now we’ve figured out ways to expend our violent energies without actually killing anyone.  

Small Wars define the current generation of fighting. Warrior cultures, composed of youthful males without much to lose and nothing else to do but fight are the enemy. The enemy is not a professional but does gain much local prestige and even food, women and a place to live by being willing to kill Americans. Our politicians fail to accurately perceive the nature of our enemy and his reasons for fighting;  not so much a sense of injustice or outrage, which are only the social phantasms used to justify the fighting. An educated Demos will not  take away the reasons for people in Somalia and Afghanistan to fight unceasingly. It will only give them a way to create methods to channel aggression into other areas besides killing humans.

The Second Voice

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We are not our first thought, but our second. Sometimes we are tempted to do wrong, but it is the second voice in our heads that determines what we think about our potential actions. A Solider who is approaching a battle may consider running before he is in danger, but it is his second voice that reminds him of his duties, that points to the other Soldiers facing the same dangers he is and urges him to carry the same burden.

Have joy and never quit

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Never give in–never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in except to convictions of honour and good sense. Never yield to force; never yield to the apparently overwhelming might of the enemy ~Sir Winston Churchill, 1941

My favorite statesman, Churchill,  at his heart was a warrior. He refused to leave London at the urgings of his advisors when the Germans commenced to bombing it night and day. Churchill struggled with a melancholy disposition his whole life, and yet something seemed to awaken in him when it came to a good struggle. A demeanor of joviality.

To keep our faith and humanity while carrying on with tough tasks is the mark of high maturity. To keep our joy is a mark of the divine:

The Apostle Paul writes in  I Thessalonians 5:16-18:

“Be joyful always; pray continually; give thanks in ALL circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.”

As Christians, we are ordered to pray continually, and to maintain a positive attitude. If we have grief or doubts, we should let God minister to them. But in the end, we can rest assured that He will take care of us, and even when we face death, we know that while man can kill the flesh, only God can touch our souls. (Jesus–Matthew 10: 28-31).

If you’ve tried “pretending” things are ok, even when most people would say a disaster’s occurring, you know that happiness if the face of adversity actually helps you to make your thoughts a reality. There are those who will pout their way through tough times, waiting for others to fix their problems. Thank goodness there are those that can remain joyful and continue to work things out.

The Old Testament’s greatest warrior–David–faced off mano-a-mano against the Philistine champion, Goliath. Goliath stood, terrorizing and taunting the ranks of Hebrews, when David, a boy, steps forward:

“Let no one lose heart on account of this Philistine; your servant will go and fight him.”

King Saul has little faith:

“You are not able to go out against this Philistine and fight him; you are only a boy, and he has been a fighting man from his youth.”

One can imagine a wry smirk on David’s face as he confronts an impressive foe. He then let’s Goliath know of his impending doom:

“Today I will give the carcasses of the Philistine army to the birds of the air and the beasts of the earth, and the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel.  All those gathered here will know that it is not by sword or spear that the LORD saves; for the battle is the LORD’s, and he will give all of you into our hands.”

The writer of  I Samual records what happens next:

David ran and stood over him. He took hold of the Philistine’s sword and drew it from the scabbard. After he killed him, he cut off his head with the sword.  When the Philistines saw that their hero was dead, they turned and ran.

There was no logical choice but to remain confident in the face of overwhelming odds. David knew that the Israelites were too afraid to fight. They would likely break ranks and be slaughtered by the pursuing enemy. But David remained confident and joyful.

David came before al-Qaeda when it came to beheadings for terrors purpose.
David came before al-Qaeda when it came to beheadings for terror's purpose.

The British Royal Marines must endure one of the longest and toughest training programs in the world. 32 weeks of arduous and stressful operations that determine if recruits have what it takes to be part of an elite fighting force. The program is devided into 6 “modules”. It’s interesting to see that the purpose of Module 5–The Commando Course–is described as the following:

“To confirm a recruit is professionally prepared for service in an operational unit, is at a Commando level of fitness and has the requisite qualities of determination, courage, unselfishness, professional skill & cheerfulness under adversity”

 

The beatings will continue until morale improves!
The beatings will continue until morale improves!

British soldiers are well known for remaining chipper in bad situations. It’s part of their military’s culture. And it shows in their performance.

So, keep your chin up, and drive on. Things are never quite as bad as we imagine them and you can get through anything with the right mindset. Some Shakespeare dude said that that there’s no evil but thinking makes it so. He was on to something.

Navy SEALs mental conditioning

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This is a great article, presented here in full, that I first read in Men’s Health magazine a couple years back.

Here’s the link to the article.: http://www.menshealth.com/yoga/living-well/Master_Bravery_Like_a_Navy_SEAL.php

Full article:

The U.S. Navy SEALs are among the most courageous men on earth. Their secret: mental conditioning. Learn their secrets and you, too, can conquer any fear

At precisely 9:21 p.m., the marine sitting beside me at the Baghdad LZ, the helipad inside the Green Zone, stands and strides toward the bomb shelter. His gait is brisk but not panicked. I follow, fumbling with my helmet.
 
A nanosecond earlier, we’d heard the muffled ka-whompf that announced the launch of a Russian-made Katyusha rocket.
 
Overhead, the keening hiss of the projectile intensifies before terminating with a deafening and, to me, terrifying explosion just as we reach the tunnel-like concrete shelter.
 
“Jesus,” somebody says as the scrum of bodies—marines, soldiers, airmen—crushes inside.
Whether from the piled humanity or the rocket’s concussion (doubtful, since I learned later that the shell landed hundreds of yards away), the lenses of my glasses pop from their frames. I grope around the dark dirt floor with the flat of my hand. Someone not far down the row shines a penlight. “Grab that light, will ya?” I say to the marine next to me.
 
He is a broad, blond sergeant named Bill Cullen from the First Battalion of the Fourth Marines. He is 26, from Walton, Kentucky, and wears a tan, fire-resistant, U.S. Marine-issue flight suit. He grabs the flashlight.
 
“Shine it in my face,” I say. He hesitates. I take off my wire frames. “It’s an experiment. Just do it, please.”
 
In the dark of the shelter my face illuminates; a score of eyes turn toward me.
 
“What do you see?” I ask. “What’s it look like? The color.”
 
“Pale,” someone says.
 
There’s a snicker. “Yeah, real white.” More laughter.
 
Sergeant Cullen agrees. “Pretty ashen, I would say.”
 
I take the flashlight and shine it in Cullen’s face. It’s nearly crimson, a much darker shade than the desert tan he’s acquired during his unit’s nearly completed 6-month tour. “What’s this supposed to mean?” he asks.
 
Over the sound of the air-raid siren, I explain: I’m a reporter for Men’s Health, traveling from Baghdad to Fallujah to embed with the Navy SEALs camped outside that central Iraqi city. One of the purposes of my assignment, I say, is to acquire some knowledge of the physiology of fear and stress—in this extreme case, the behavior of men struggling to overcome their innate instinct for self-preservation when other men are trying to kill them. Science stuff in a war zone.
 
Blank stares.
 
“Fight over flight. Running toward the sound of gunfire.”
 
Recognition.
 
I point to my face and explain: This is an example of what’s called vasoconstriction, and I have no control over it. The blood pumps from my heart through my arteries, but as my fear-induced heart rate rises, nonessential blood vessels automatically constrict. The capillaries drain. My brain is signaling my body, “Alert!” and stopping the superfluous blood vessels in my face from dilating. My brain needs to ration the oxygen in my blood to send elsewhere—to protect vital organs or into the muscles of my legs so I can run away.
 
 
Go on to the next page for more on the secret behind a Navy SEAL’s courage…

“Then how come I’m not white?” Cullen shines the penlight on the face of a fellow marine.
 
“Or him?”
 
Training, I say. Habituation, the military calls it. It’s the difference between my heart rate rising after a workout—something I’m used to, when my vessels dilate and my face reddens—and being terrified during a rocket attack. The more you train, the more tricks you employ, the more you can program your body to adjust.
 
Essentially, you’re bending the body’s software to control its hardware. It works standing over a putt on the 18th green. It works shooting a final-second free throw. It works banging down a door with a bad guy on the other side.
 
There are a few seconds of silence. Someone says, “And you’re headed down to embed with the SEALs?”
 
I nod.
 
Cullen laughs. “You’re going to have plenty of opportunities to compare your white face with their red ones.”
 
I have just interrupted the disquisition of the square-jawed and, yes, ruddy-faced executive officer of SEAL Team 10, the lean and muscular Lieutenant Commander Mike H.
 
“What are you guys doing here anyway,” I ask, noting that there’s not a hell of a lot of water in and around Fallujah to justify the presence of the U.S. military’s waterborne special operators.
 
We’re inside the makeshift (and air-conditioned—it’s 117°F outside in the Anbar desert) Special Operations Task Force command post. Before I blurted out my question, the 36-year-old Mike H. had been delineating which details I could and could not write about in regard to the previous night’s “kinetic”—or lethal—mission, a gunfight with al-Qaeda zealots clad in suicide vests. All six insurgents, eager to die, did so. Mike H. stops, exasperated.
 
“Because the L stands for land,” he says. “SEAL: sea, air, land.” At 6’5” and 230-odd pounds, Mike H. has the build of a classic college tight end. “You’re right, though,” he quickly adds. “With Afghanistan and Iraq, we have been very land-centric over the past couple of years.” He sweeps his left arm, a gesture encompassing the gated and gritty tent-and-trailer SEAL compound tucked away in a hidden corner of Camp Fallujah. “But there’s plenty of water in the showers.”
 
Here, I suppose, is a good a place to explain the restrictions that were placed on me and our photographer, Max Becherer, for this story. SEALs are notoriously elusive with the media. It took a year of lobbying to secure access to the SEAL base in Fallujah, and no other media outlet has been here. During our stay last September, we weren’t so much welcomed as tolerated. Chilly graciousness.
 
The SEALs are a semicovert organization, deployed in countries from Colombia to the Philippines, and all special operators in Iraq and Afghanistan are high-priority targets of insurgents. Because a SEAL scalp is a major enemy coup, you’ll notice that this article contains almost no last names or photographs of faces or other identifying features.
 
The real SEALs are nothing like the Hollywood ones—the “knuckle-dragging Charlie Sheens,” as one officer put it. Established in 1962 by John F. Kennedy, the U.S. Navy SEALs are a separate, elite force charged with clandestine reconnaissance and unconventional warfare. To a man, they are tough and smart.
 
Consider the 27-year-old SEAL lieutenant and Naval Academy graduate I meet in Fallujah whose job it is to work with Sunni sheikhs to build coalitions against al-Qaeda in Iraq. “I’ll explain everything I can about our Anbar outreach operations within the normal parameters of security,” he tells me one afternoon in his tiny workspace. “But the less you know about me personally, well, the better. Please don’t even use my first name.” He then embarks on a half-hour discourse on the history and proclivities of the local Arab tribes, a talk that’s worthy of T.E. Lawrence.

Go on to the next page for more on the secret behind a Navy SEAL’s courage…

Today’s SEAL is built buff and, per tradition, conditioned to overcome the instinctive Homo sapiens fear of mortal combat. He (there are no female special operators) also scores far higher than average on standard military intelligence tests. He typically holds a bachelor’s and often a master’s degree. It is one thing to be primed to run toward the sound of a gun. It is quite another to be expected—in this era of what’s called asymmetrical warfare—to possess the combined skills of an emergency-room doctor, diplomat, and rodeo cowboy.
 
“When I first came into the community, our operations were far simpler,” says Mike H. “Big boat to little boat, little boat to beach, recon or direct action, back in little boat, reach big boat. Today, our primary weapons systems are our people’s heads. You want to excel in all the physical areas, but the physical is just a prerequisite to be a SEAL. Mental weakness is what actually screens you out.”
 
Mike H. graduated from College of the Holy Cross in 1993, and then completed 2 years of SEAL conditioning, including basic underwater demolition/SEAL training, SEAL qualification training, and various “workups” like jump school and close-quarter combat training. Five years ago, he went back to school (Harvard, no less) and earned his master’s in public policy.
 
“At that point I had been 10 years out of Holy Cross, and I said, ‘My brain’s probably turned to rubber, but let me see if I can re-engage.’ Because I want to sit in that Harvard classroom with the 100 smartest people I can hang with and say, ‘Wow, I can still do multivariate calculus or statistical regression.’ ” (Well, who can’t?) A little incongruously, he shakes the desert sand out of his hair. “Or something like that.”
 
Being, well, smart, Mike H. realizes that I’m looking for a sample of this mental agility in action. “Last night’s operation is a prime example,” he says. The mission’s components, he explains, included a “double stack of fixed and rotary wing platforms.” (That would be jets and helicopters.) Once on the ground, the raiding party of 50 or so SEALs and their Iraqi Special Forces counterparts was divided into three assault teams, each including translators, door breachers, interrogators, and other specialists. The SEAL ground commander coordinated movements of not only the air cover but all three house-hunting teams, too, with the understanding that each individual SEAL had been trained well enough to make impromptu decisions as an evolving situation warranted. Thus the success of the gunfight: No good guys were injured.
 
“There was a new guy out there with us, first mission, and he was in charge of one of the assault teams,” says Mike H. “No one—nobody—had any problem with that. Because we know that if he made it this far, he couldn’t be stupid.”
 
I later meet this raw SEAL, the compact but hardly muscle-bound Mason B. The great joy of the SEAL community, he tells me, “is that from the get-go everybody has the same mutual respect for your physical and mental ability, regardless of rank. We all come from the same place.”
 
The fact, however, remains: Intelligent people get scared, too.
 
Go on to the next page for more on the secrets behind a Navy SEAL’s courage…

Recent experiments at Harvard, Columbia, the University of California at Irvine, and other labs around the world have begun to unlock the mystery of both primal fear and remembered fear. Once an animal has “learned” to be afraid of something, that memory never vanishes from the animal’s amygdala. But Gregory Quirk, Ph.D., and researcher Kevin Corcoran, experimenting on lab rats at the University of Puerto Rico school of medicine, have uncovered a very interesting phenomenon. We can overlay those bad memories—and the emotions they evoke—by forming new memories in the brain’s prefrontal cortex that supersede those stored in the amygdala.
 
The catch? Humans have to be intelligent enough to repeat an action, any action, over and over, with the knowledge that they are “unlearning” the bad memory. Lieutenant Commander Eric Potterat, Ph.D., a Naval Special Warfare Command psychologist, quotes Hamlet on the subject: “‘There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.’ That’s my favorite Shakespeare quote.”
 
I visited the slim, bespectacled, and well-pressed Potterat at the Naval Special Warfare Center in Coronado, California, before leaving for Iraq. A 12-year Navy man, the 39-year-old operation-psychology expert and former SERE (survival/evasion/resistance/escape) trainer was selected by the SEAL command 2 years ago to work with incoming candidates. “Intelligence-wise, we’re getting some absolutely amazing people at the door,” he says. “And those who complete the training go from amazing to elite from the neck up.”
 
To hone this SEAL initiation, Potterat reached out to the sports psychologists at a nearby U.S. Olympic training center to glean insights on the making of a world-class athlete. “It really opened my eyes,” he says. “Physically, there’s very little difference between athletes who win Olympic gold and the rest of the field. It’s like the SEAL candidates we see here. Terrific hardware. Situps, pushups, running, swimming—off the charts, superhuman. But over at the Olympic center, the sports psychologists found that the difference between a medal and no medal is determined by an athlete’s mental ability. The elite athletes, the Tiger Woodses, the Kobe Bryants, the Michael Jordans—this is what separates them from the competition. Knowing how to use information.”
 
Thinking makes it so.
 
During my research, many SEALs shared the mental tricks they use to instill what we might call bravery. A SEAL in Fallujah told me that a single 16-man platoon of SEAL candidates fires as many small-arms rounds in 2 weeks of training as an entire marine regiment fires in a year. “We push ourselves so far that we reach that level of fear where we think we’re going to die,” he said. “You’ve done it a thousand times, so when you do it for real, there’s less fear. You go and do it just like you trained for it.”
 
Another SEAL in Fallujah, a weapons instructor, pointed out that the same “adrenaline bombs” that involuntarily whiten your face and loosen your bowels (the brain deems the sphincter and bladder nonessential muscles, so SEALs always hit the john before a mission for what’s called a combat dump) also shut down the capillaries in your fingertips, causing a loss of fine motor control. (Try signing your name right after a rigorous workout.) To counteract these involuntary reactions, he teaches his charges to never pull back the slides of their automatic weapons with their fingers, but rather to use the edges of their hands, as if karate chopping.
 
This is, he added, the same muscle memory he teaches his family to utilize when dialing 911. “Unplug the phone and have everyone in the house, yourself included, do it a couple of hundred times,” he told me. “This may come in handy. You won’t be fumbling with the phone during a real emergency.”
 
A SEAL “breacher” named Brian A. emphasized that, before he blew open any door in Iraq or Afghanistan, he steadied his hands and the explosives he was handling “with four of the biggest, deepest, gut-filling diaphragmatic breaths a human being can possibly take, to flood my body with as much oxygen as possible.”
 
Says Potterat, “I don’t for a minute doubt that Tiger Woods does the same thing, over and over, when he’s practicing on the putting green.” Woods’s father, you might recall, was a Green Beret—the U.S. Army equivalent of a Navy SEAL.
 
Go on to the next page for more on the secret behind a Navy SEAL’s courage…

In his cramped office in Fallujah, the 27-year-old Naval Academy grad—the liaison with the Anbar sheikhs—opens his laptop and shows me a screen filled with floating, intersecting circles of various sizes and colors. He hits a key and the circles mesh; another, and they separate. Fourth, fifth, and sixth screens show parallel lines of various colors. The circles and graphs represent local tribes and their changing alliances over the past few years.
 
“These Bedouin tribes—their loyalties shift with the sands,” he says. “This is where we stood when we arrived a couple of years ago.” The screen fills with “hostile” circles. “This is where we are now.” Most of them morph into “friendly” circles. “Of the 101 tribes out here, 31 are major. They’re the ones we’ve targeted to bring over to our side against al-Qaeda in Iraq. Bigs come. Smalls follow. They’re not stupid. They’re clever. So how do we do this? We volunteer to, er, solve problems they may be having with insurgents.”
 
That work consists basically of bartering, says 32-year-old Lieutenant Chris W., whose unit, SEAL Team 4, recently returned from Anbar. “When we arrived in Ramadi, we weren’t engaging these tribes in any consistent way.” Army and marine units were transferring in and out so rapidly that American outreach ebbed and flowed—and potential allies were lost.
 
But in November 2006, Chris W.’s SEAL team, sensing an opening, used an al-Qaeda attack on a local Iraqi sheikh as its first wedge. Working with U.S. Army units stationed in the area, SEAL Team 4 wiped out about 30 of the sheikh’s enemies, set up sniper positions overlooking his home and village, and began a brisk lend-lease program of supplies, such as generators, water pumps, and ovens. In return, the sheikh encouraged his followers to become Iraqi police and army recruits. That was the start of the now famous, if controversial, Anbar awakening.
 
“Money came to this man’s tribe,” Chris W. tells me. “People want to be part of that. Other tribes that for thousands of years had butted heads with his tribe started to come on board once they saw what he was able to accomplish by partnering with us.”
 
To barter successfully, however, a man must know—and trust—his trading partner, have a familiarity with his partner’s language, and have a deep understanding of his partner’s customs and heritage. It’s more Gertrude Bell than Charlie Sheen.
 
“Being a warrior, being what you call ‘brave,’ requires attention to something greater than just martial activity,” says Master Chief Will Guild, a 27-year SEAL veteran who runs a mentorship program for incoming candidates. “These men are problem solvers, and there are many ways to solve problems. I think you have to be ready to do whatever it takes, and that includes using diplomacy.
 
“We’re not trained to be automatons,” he continues. “There’s no shortage of physical courage in the SEALs or Marine Corps or any active military branch of the service. Moral courage is something else. And if you want to inspire moral courage in your troops, you have to teach them how to make decisions.”
 
Go on to the next page for more on the secret behind a Navy SEAL’s courage…

On one of my last nights in Fallujah, I have a round-table discussion with five SEAL officers—three Incredible Hulks and two Batmen. They’re all older than 35, and they agree to speak freely on condition of anonymity. Our session takes place a few hours before these SEALs gear up for a midnight raid.
 
There is the usual talk about courage emanating from strategy and tactics, from comradeship and shared responsibility, from training and muscle memory and diaphragmatic breathing. Then we reach the meat of the discussion. Which one of these officers would trade places with the lieutenant working with the sheikhs? Big hoots all around.
 
“You have the wrong guys,” says one. “We’re the door breachers, and proud of it.”
 
Another: “We don’t do so well with the hugging and kissing.”
 
A third: “You’ll never meet a team guy who says that’s what he wants to do. It might be what he has to do, but all team guys want to do is hunt down and kill bad guys. That’s it.”
 
When I describe this exchange to Guild, he laughs. “They were putting you on a little bit. Part of the tough-guy ethos is getting the right guys to hunt the right enemy by the right means, at the right time and place. But courage is not being reckless and cavalier. One of the biggest parts of being a special operator is showing restraint.”
 
Later that evening, I stand in a shadowed corner of the ready room as these same men don their war paint for that night’s intended “snatch.” Whitesnake screams over the loudspeakers. Cans of Rockstar and Red Bull are emptied. Blue extra-sticky tape is attached to explosive charges. K-bars are sharpened. A bomb-sniffing German shepherd, his fur neatly shaved into a mohawk, growls. A Pussycat Dolls video plays on a large-screen TV. A 50-caliber machine gun is oiled, and chem lights and headlamps are tested. Slides are racked onto sidearms. There is much burping and farting.
 
The SEALs, several dozen of them, fly at midnight. They return 3 1/2 hours later with 16 handcuffed prisoners. As they file past me, the SEAL officer who’d been most vociferous about wanting to kill people winks. “No dead,” he says, nodding toward the captives. “Now that’s courage.”

 

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Heroic Psychological Paradigms, Part 3

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And here’s The Boss, smacking Snake around like he’s her Boy Toy.