Too nice to be effective?

I met a retired Air Force vet today, and he was just the nicest guy.  Kind, thoughtful, enthusiastic.  In that, he resembled all of the other career military people I’ve met over the years, whether currently serving or retired.  I’ll admit  that my sample is small, since I don’t move in military circles, but it’s still a 100% hit rate for the 20 – 30 I have met:   nice people.

In many countries — mostly military dictatorships — the military is to be feared, not  just by the enemy, but by the citizens at home.  They are lethal weapons at home and abroad.

The question that floated into my mind was whether the fact that our military demands decency, and that really nice people  seem  to serve, impairs our fighting strength.  Let me phrase this another way:  Are our guys and gals too nice to be truly effective?

This is not a new thought for me.  I  remember during the First Gulf War watching the news with my parents, and hearing U.S. soldiers saying that they didn’t hate the Iraqis.  My Dad, who had seen fighting all  over the  Mediterranean during WWII was stunned:  you  have to hate to fight, he said.

Your thoughts?


16 Responses

  1. They’re not always too nice to be effective, but there has to be a balance. I will testify again and again that they are good men. Sometimes, they are also total jerks. They can be both without being contradictory.
    By and large, you want them to be nice people because you want them to represent the values that make the fight (and our way of life) worthwhile. I’m sure that I don’t have to come up with too many examples of how chivalrous servicemen (used as a gender neutral term) can be.
    On the other hand, we’re deeply steeped in understanding “the family business”: we kill people and break their stuff. Even in the Air Force, the most panty-waisted of Services, we’re clear on the idea that we exist to blow things up. We value execution of the task at hand, regardless of what role it plays in the overall mission.
    Good leadership knows when to encourage the latter, and when to balance it with the former. If troops begin to live without a sense of honor, they also stop following commands. Being respectful is an enormous component of being disciplined.
    To a degree, we’re all trained a bit on the balance. LOAC is the Law of Armed Conflict (Services call it by different names), and it guides actions governed by the Geneva Conventions. OPSEC is Operational Security, and it’s the idea that you don’t talk about unclassified information the enemy might put together to use against you. Well, LOAC is for Exercises, and OPSEC is for Operations. That is, you train to be nice, but you maintain some personal discipline in discussing how you undertook the real tasks at hand.
    The real difference between the US Military and those dictatorships (which, sadly, we often train), is that we’re taught to fight for what we love, rather than what we want. That is, the disciplined serviceman will fight for love of the man on his right or the family left behind praying with the other families at the chaplain on base or the honor a a family tradition of military service. There’s no money in it, and not a lot of prestige. The kleptocrat thugs that fight in disordered units may terrorize a civilian populace, but they often don’t make the personal sacrifices or strong bonds necessary to be truly effective against people who fight back.

  2. I suspect that the degree of hatred experienced and/or expressed is dependent on two variables. 1. How intimate is the fight? A grunt who’s eyeball to eyeball with the enemy will experience much more intense emotions and will have to steel himself to do what is is profoundly repugnant – kill another man. For another man in another fight the enemy may be no more than a blip in the crosshairs, and won’t feel much of anything when he pushes the button. This is my experience, anyway.
    2. What motivates the fight? This is dependent to some degree on propaganda, as well as discipline and duty. In previous wars there was a real, organized and concerted effort to demonize, and thus dehumanize, the enemy, to make us hate him and eager to kill him. Only in recent times has the concept of ‘politically correct war’ even existed, much less become a dominant theme. The bulk of propaganda most Americans experience is aimed against them and the prosecution of the war. This also is something new. Its hard to hate an enemy when we are being constantly told that they are right and we are wrong. Fortunately the warriors in the fight have seen the enemy and his works and have little doubt of the rightness of the cause. But that may mean only that they loathe and despise the enemy in the aggregate, and may not translate that to an individual enemy who is already dead, captured or disabled.
    Anyhow, that’s my two cents.

  3. I think the “nice” folks in our military love something (freedom, country, family, fellow fighters, etc.) more than they hate the enemy.

  4. “Too nice to be effective”, that is the question. My bonefides; I am a retired Air Force vet, combat aircrew member during a tour in Viet Nam, 1970-1971. 200+ combat missions, and, yes, I was shot at many times, and some of the enemy did not survive those missions. Did it bother me? Absolutely. Did I hate as I was dropping bombs, or even the much maligned napalm on what were described as enemy troops? No. Would I on the other hand go back to Viet Nam as a tourist? Definitely not.
    As a retired Colonel, working in the business of preparing our troops to go to combat zones, I meet many ‘soldiers’, some in the Navy, some in the Air Force, but most Army or Marines. I do not see hate. I see instead a desire for these folks, both men and women, to want to get the job done. There is a professionalism in the US military that is incomprehensible to those who rant and rave about military excesses. There have been hundreds of thousands of American troops in Iraq alone in the past 3 years. Yes, there have been excesses, but the percentage of those involved must be in the single digits. Are they effective, can they do the hard things as they live in areas which most Americans would rate as primitive and dangerous? Yes, they can be and are now, with the right leadership. Gen Patraeous has the right attitude, is getting the right people and making very good progress.
    War for the modern American fighting people, is not about hate, it is about doing what is necessary. Going to dangerous and lousy places is not top on our list of desired assignments. Being the last out of a building, area, or hostile place while others exit safely is not the way we (OK, I don’t do this anymore) wish to die. Will we do it? You bet! Effective? Absolutely!

  5. The question that floated into my mind was whether the fact that our military demands decency, and that really nice people seem to serve, impairs our fighting strength. Let me phrase this another way: Are our guys and gals too nice to be truly effective?

    Not really. The Marines are trained killers, soldiers, and warriors. Take your pick, they do. The niceness is due to discipline and fortitude. People that are capable don’t need to act like bullies, they just do what they say and get on with life. Other militaries act like bullies because they are thugs, murderers, and criminals. While our military has the best and brightest of America, if not of the entire humanity.

    My Dad, who had seen fighting all over the Mediterranean during WWII was stunned: you have to hate to fight, he said.

    Your thoughts?

    It is true that in order to fight injustice you must hate those committing injustice. However, that doesn’t mean hating them all, and so there was no particular reason why American soldiers would hate Iraqi conscripts that didn’t want to fight in the war in the first place. Saddam was the problem, he was the one you should hate. And those that didn’t hate Saddam, that didn’t want to kill and blow him up, were those that were okay with Not Fighting, Book. There are exceptions, such as chaplains and what not pacifistic individuals. But those are just that, exceptions. Systems are not run on exceptions as we know.

    Btw, the Air Force tend to be the least military branch. The Zoomies as folks call them, zoom in the air and their warriors are the pilots. However, not a lot of people in the AF are actually pilots. The military has their own little particular cliques and factions. NCO vs officer, junior officers vs senior officers, etc. You might wish to factor this in concerning the “niceness” factor. Infantry tend to be the most “unnice” in the field, although their standards have gone way up concerning niceness at home as well. It used to be that infantry, including in America, just needed to fight. They didn’t need no fancy “social skills” or whatever. So they tended to be coarse and unpolite and stuff. Now a days, you almost can’t tell an NCO enlisted from an officer in the infantry, when they are civilians. Almost, though. To me, there seems a slight difference in the mannerisms of Uncle Jimbo, Michael Yon, and Blackfive both on the air and in print. That is, after you remove the personality differences.

    Take a look at these pictures, without reading, and see which of them looks like officers to you. Too bad there’s no body language, as that is important, but still.

    Here’s the navy ranks

    What impairs our fighting strength in my view is that people treat the military as precious china porcelain. The way they treated precious women back in the day, as something to be displayed on parades and in public; protected and isolated in private. Not exactly the way you would treat someone that is there to protect your back from assassins.

    Americans have always hated tyranny, slavery, whatever. Most of the time this was ideological or simply communal, rather than hate due through personal experience of tyranny or slavery. It was enough however.

    But soldiers can be as motivated by love as they can be by hate. This is not a zero sum equation after all. Many things can motivate a military unit to do many things.

    Even in the Air Force, the most panty-waisted of Services, we’re clear on the idea that we exist to blow things up.

    Hey, the Zoomies must have their luxuries! ; )

    If troops begin to live without a sense of honor, they also stop following commands. Being respectful is an enormous component of being disciplined.

    An army without discipline is just a mob. If you can’t trust soldiers to act within the boundaries of law and society when nobody is looking, then how do you trust them to make the right decisions in a war?

    The kleptocrat thugs that fight in disordered units may terrorize a civilian populace, but they often don’t make the personal sacrifices or strong bonds necessary to be truly effective against people who fight back.

    And that’s why I believe, Book, that the American military is superior to all other competitors. “For he to-day that sheds his blood with me Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile This day shall gentle his condition”

    These days it is actually more the opposite. The military takes city boys and folks who haven’t done any violence, and turns them into trained soldiers or even warriors as well. Back in the day, they had to teach restraint because those dumb French aristocrats on horses would charge off and do their own thing for “honor”, ruining a completely good strategy. Now a days we have to teach aggression and such, to bring out the inner fighting demon so to speak since civilization has gotten to the point in America that people are conditioned not to kill, not to fight, to obey laws, etc. Getting Americans to obey orders isn’t the problem, it is teaching them the aggression that will allow them to take the fight to the enemy without panicking that is the challenge.

    You got to watch out for those facades, Book. Since those that are able to turn aggression on and off at will are the ones you got to look out for. Nice one day, fighting demon from the 9 hells avatar the next day.

    America often seems like that as well. A dual personality.

  6. Professional, I think, is the operative word. Our fighting forces are extremely well trained compared to the rest of the world and to history’s armies. In much of today’s warfighting there is little thought of the target adn much concentration on doing the job correctly. Sometimes a bigger fear than death is the fear of screwing up, and always the biggest fear for most is fear of letting our buddies down.

    Even in close quarters fighting there is the same concentration on doing things right and functioning as part of a team. Yes, there are occasions when teeth are bared and an anger … anger not really hatred… the anger fuels the fight.

    “Are our guys and gals too nice to be truly effective?” Absolutely not. The “niceness” reflects our cultures values and reminds us all of ways we are different from those we fight. That same “niceness” is the reason that libelous statements from folks like John Kerry, and “Scott Thomas” hurt so deeply and are not easily forgotten. It is the reason that sensational reporting of bad actors and criminal acts, which paint all service members with the same brush are so hurtful and damaging.

    The issue of TNR, with their Baghdad Diarist feature, being so willing and able to believe the worst from our forces is a sad but revealing fact… The left does not respect nor trust our forces, adn yet they happily drone on about their tremendous and patriotic support for the troops. It’s utter BS.

  7. “Professional” is the operative word.

    A highly decorated First Sergeant I experienced once said words to the effect that the fight will be white-hot, but the guys who win it won’t be: they’ll be thinking.

    Just a sidelight on him. His first tour in Vietnam was in December, 1963 – very early. He was escorting a planeload of ammunition, and the VC evidently knew they were coming, and made a maximum effort to shoot the plane down. They succeeded. The guy driving the plane got the choppers in the air, then fought it down to a rough crash-landing, where it broke into three pieces. When the sections stopped sliding they were immediately in a fight. Sarge got everybody grouped in relatively secure positions, got them returning fire, and counted heads. Two guys missing. He spotted them in the open, and ran out and got one. He was hit twice doing so. Spotted the other, got him, and got hit again himself. The helicopters were almost immediately overhead, got everybody, and blew up the plane. The medic in the chopper patched up Sarge’s clipped ear (that’s pretty close, getting part of your ear shot off), and two other wounds. Then he said “where else are you hit?” Sarge said, “I’m not, that’s it.” Medic said: “well, you’re sitting in an expanding pool of blood, SOMETHING’S going on SOMEWHERE!” At which point Sarge passed out. He woke up once on the plane to Japan, then woke up again next day at Fort Sill in Oklahoma. Purple Heart, Bronze Star, Silver Star – the Heart for getting hit, the Bronze for organizing the group defense, the Silver for dragging the guys in. (All in, note, about twenty minutes.) That was what Sarge calls his “forty minute tour” in Vietnam.

    I tell the story because it wraps everything up neatly. The professionalism of getting everyone in position to survive the crash not just intact, but able to fight. Then getting them out of the plane quick (filled with ordnance, it might have blown them all away if hit right), organized, and fighting. That immediate concern addressed, counting heads, and realizing two were missing. Finding them, realizing they were wounded and couldn’t join unaided, and providing aid. That took a little controlled anger, and full adrenaline – but it was still a reasoned action.

    In the heat of it, as is often said, you fight for each other. This is why there is such emphasis on the team, and such emphasis on your buddies: the guys around you. You fight for them, as they fight for you. You may hate, but that’s a momentary and useless emotion, you use it as a motivation. It isn’t dominant, because it gets in the way of the assessing you need to be doing. You may get pissed off, but you use that too; you don’t go with it.

    Our kids are not too nice. The regulars are pros. They have a job to do, and their concern is to do it right, and to the best of their ability.

    The attitude back home is confusing to them, but they’re bright enough to know the real story isn’t being told here, and when on the ground they don’t spend a lot of time on it. And it isn’t the first time. The Vietnam war was won on the ground after Tet, but we still went ahead and snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.

    This is the real danger. The VC and NVA recognized that they couldn’t defeat the military, so they stopped fighting the military. They directed their efforts against Walter Cronkite – him they knew they could beat. And in Iraq they aren’t fighting the military either: they’re fighting for headlines. They’re fighting to beat the NY Times, Reid, Pelosi, Schumer, Kennedy, Murtha, and the rest of congress. And that’s a roomful of creampuffs. Al Quaeda KNOWS they can lick them.

  8. Book, I have to take issue with your premise. Our troops have not lost a battle since the Kasserine Pass in early WWII. So, they are not too nice to be effective.

    Most people who do difficult things can compartmentalize pretty effectively. They respond to the environment at home in one way; to the environment when they put on their war face entirely differently.

    No question that most–although certainly not all–of our troops come from a much gentler environment than do many others around the world. I think two things carry them through the brutal demands of war: outstanding training; and loyalty to their comrades. As has been recorded here, the factors that keep them from losing control in this brutal environment are instilled professionalism and unit discipline.

  9. “Hate is an emotion”. Emotions cloud clear thinking and reflexes. The warrior ideal is to be able to strip one’s mind of emotion while in the fight. Once the fighting is done, there is then once again a time and place for emotion to flourish. I suspect that JJ and YM know exactly what it is that I am trying to say.

  10. I’ve actually felt cold rage, where I’m extremely angry but my mind is focused extremely tightly on an objective. I feel clear headed but underneath is the rushing river. It is different when I repress anger, because then it has no outlet.

    Cold rage is one of my ideals, which differs from most martial arts that say keep your mind clear of distractions, emotions, anger, hate, etc. I actually heard a great example of why from some black belt guy that got attacked in the streets at night, got angry, and basically caved in the ribs of his attacker with one blow. The black belt regreted that incident because it was a loss of control to him. He could have killed that guy and never realized it because his anger made him want to hurt the enemy. I tend to think it was cause if you don’t train with anger and use it, it can come sneaking up on you when your life is threatened.

    However, anger and rage does give you the killing edge, if you can control it. It increases your strength, quickness, stamina, endurance, pain threshold tolerance, as well as various other benefits. The only detriment is that it reduces your thinking ability, and if you get rid of that, there is no detriment at all.

    As an example of efficiency, hate is inefficient because when people get angry they start thinking about what they can do to hurt the object of their anger. This is ineffcient due to the fact that sure, it may be satisfying to take an enemy, chop off his legs, hang his body over a bridge, and let a helicopter or a boat take off his head but that is inefficient. I mean seriously, that is a lot of time allotted for such an execution technique, time you could spend doing other things, like killing more enemies or saving you buddies so they can kill more enemies. The anger and rage forces you to choose the attack that causes the most damage, while your mind chooses the attack that is the most efficient for your goals. Those two tend to collide.

  11. There are also stories of “transformation” styles, meaning Grim linked to some guy that talked about the “Machine” so to speak.

    Too bad I can’t find the link, but to summarize the author was talking about a state in which he felt disembodied. Meaning that he felt someone else was in control of his body and he was just off to the side watching him do all these violent and efficient things. All emotion and mercy disappears, to be replaced by the Machine. Efficient, brutal, and not all that human.

    A lot of people tend to have different reactions, and it is hard to say what role their emotions play. Even the author of Killology wrote about several different reactions to fear in combat. And that was just one emotion and type of reaction to fear.

  12. I would turn the question a bit and look through the lens of self defense. I am a normal(?), nice enough guy to be around. Now put me in a situation where innocent life was at risk and I could kill in a heartbeat. I would not feel any hatred beforehand and most certainly not afterwards.
    Maybe, at least for me, it has more to do as job needing to be done.
    I did serve 4 years in the Army infantry. Perhaps that has jaundiced my view a bit.

  13. “Nice” and “professional” do not have to mean the same thing, just as “fierce warrior” and “barbarian” do not mean the same thing. There IS a danger of our military becoming too nice. I offer you a look back at Mr. Arthur Batchelor, of the British Royal Naval Marines, after the release of his hostage group by Iran:


    “Arthur said his brave colleague, nicknamed Topsy, risked beatings from their cynical guards for whispering reassurances to him as he sat scared stiff and blindfolded on a boat after they were snatched at sea.”

    “And he revealed that the hardest part of his nightmare in Tehran was when he was separated from mum-of-one Faye – who he said was like a big sister to him…”

    “…speaking of the moment they were reunited, he told how he wept and begged the 26-year-old for a hug.”

    ” “I can’t describe how that felt…just every emotion rolled into one. I ran up to her, threw my arms round her and cried like a baby.”

    ” “When I’d calmed down, she asked, ‘Do you need another hug, a mother hug?’ and I said, ‘damn right’.”

    “… the modest sailor said: “I’m not quite king of the jungle. There are lots more braver people. We had a giggle about it.”


    Professionalism, bravery, valor, honor, courage… these are the qualities that a military must train into its soldiers. “Nice” is not one of them, unless you substitute “civilized” for “nice”. Mr. Arthur Batchelor is very nice, but I don’t want him ever responsible for defending my freedoms. I don’t ever want to hear another comment similar to his by any soldier of any force that protects me.

    A fantastic soldier can in fact be very nice, but when under pressure and under the gun, it is the qualities of professionalism, bravery, valor, honor and courage that count, not niceness.

  14. Another point I haven’t seen mentioned is that military people are nice to Bookworm because Bookworm is nice and respectful to them. How can someone in the military that is worth his paycheck not be nice to Bookworm?

  15. Her paycheck too.

  16. The British military historian, Max Hastings, in his book Armageddon on the end of World War II in Europe, and in its predecessor, Overlord on the Normandy invasion, speaks to this theme a little bit.

    Boiled down, he says that the American and Canadian militaries, and to a lesser extent the British military — are all products of democratic societies, and as such, tend to be more influenced by civilian values than, say the German Army, a product of the Prussian military/junker tradition. There is a tradeoff in having an army that’s the product of a free society — there is a certain difference in military efficiency. I may be oversimplifying a bit (I”m writing this on my lunch break, away from books and papers at home) — but Hastings thinks that the Germans were, in general, more militarily efficient.

    We could have had military institutions like that, but we would not want to live in a society that could produce an institution like that. There’s this scene I remember from Armageddon from the end of the war. A German unit has surrendered to a Canadian unit at the end, and the generals are making conversation. The German is from a military family, a regular army soldier from before the war, like the rest of his family. The Canadian general, pre-war, ran an ice cream factory.

    Anyway, different imputs and attitudes lead to different results. A harsher society might produce a better military, but we wouldn’t necessarily want it.

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