Perception is Reality
“Perception is Reality” was a phrase I heard my senior staff non-commissioned officers say regularly. You may never have heard the sentiment, but if you have ever had a boss walk in on something and immediately come to the worst conclusion they could about you with the few seconds they took to gather evidence on the matter, than you know the feeling. “Perception is Reality” was a military axiom that meant, basically, that if I perceive a thing a certain way, that is the way it is. It was, in general, a cop out to doing more thorough work once enough information was gained to come to some conclusion, whether it was the right one or not.
The original title for this section was “I Learned the Facts Don’t Match People’s Perception”. In my own studies, and in keeping with the idea of discovering what war was not, I had to apply this principle to discover the root causes of the conflict and filter out the media noise involved. That’s why it makes it important to understand that combat is nothing like the movies and the warrior experience is nothing like what is conveyed to watchers. One cannot understand it, and gain wisdom or tactical information about combat from media, because it isn’t designed to display how one should fight. It is designed based on carefully and time tested practices to elicit emotional responses in viewers. For example, there is little talk in movies of the mechanical precisioned choreography that goes into clearing a house, and the repetitive nature of doing so. That would be very boring. I’ve never heard the term “overlapping fields of fire” or mention of units like AMLICO, who specialize in bringing to the fight literally every lethal instrument of precision guided destruction the US military has in range. I’ve never seen the way that 90% of the time, the mission is about pushing the terrorists into a very particular part of the city, all bunched up, then leveling them with artillery or helicopter fire. More often than not, the operations are usually quite methodical, even surgical at times, with relatively little danger to our forces, compared to what most perceive that danger to be.
That is how it is supposed to work. It isn’t that dramatic in practice, most of the time. There isn’t all the emotion and flare for effect. Someone seeking to understand warfare and combat through these media resources will simply never be capable of separating the directors’, writers’, and actors’ desire to make you feel an emotion enough to understand warfare as a real world practice. Absent actual experience or objective research, viewers will be left with will be a very hollow understanding of it means to go to war, why wars are fought, or what it is like to be involved. If this is all a person has, the entertainment experience in media will leave them ill prepared to comment or weigh in on these subjects, should their opinion be requested, or even needed, as is the case with many lobbying firms representing parties with no true understanding of conflict or immediate stake in them. This is the perception of what war means. That means that their limited perception is the only reality they will ever know.
You might think well of yourself, because you believe none of this will ever matter to you since you have no control over what the military does, or that you never take part in conversations like that anyway. The fact is, your opinion of the war and warriors has far more effect on the lives of these individuals than you think. We’ve all heard someone spout off that people in the military are just a bunch of warmongers, or stupid people who couldn’t cut in the real world. This lovely comment came in a few weeks ago for me.
And, of course, there’s no shortage of idiot 18-25 year-old kids who will buy whatever line their government sells them, and happily be cannon fodder, because ‘merica.
More educated people might even go so far as to say that jingoist politicians are just sending off kids to get killed, or even debating military ethics and the use of force absent an understanding of military law, culture, tactics, and practice. I’ve even had a college professor make fun of the military for being stupid in a class filled with nineteen year old freshmen, and me as well.Individually people insulting the military or its practices can be dismissed as someone not actually knowing what they are talking about, but en masse, these widely held beliefs become policy. We are seeing this surrounding the debate on limiting the use of drones, while nations like China grow their drone force unchecked and Russia is rumored to be producing the largest stealth bomber in history.
A more important example, which many may relate to, of the negative effects of media on veterans can be seen in hiring practice of many civilian companies. Shows that showcase the token veteran with PTSD (Parenthood) or the hopelessly broken combat vet who will never survive the real world (The Hurt Locker, Brothers), or even well made movies which leave audiences seeing no veteran who is not grievously injured or without psychiatric disabilities from war (American Sniper) leave the average person with a damaged view (read: negative stereotype) of the average person who has served. Their net effect is to make others believe that if you go to war, you will be, at best, one of the few lucky survivors and your experiences will leave you nothing more than a damaged worthless mass of a human, incapable to ever love or function in society again.
This has been shown to affect how often veterans are hired in civilian positions after leaving the military. It has actually been measured that because of the negative bias created by these types of media, military veterans suffer unfair stereotyping and bias in hiring practices. This phenomena began making headlines when USA Today put out an article calling attention to it. Often, managers will look at a resume and say that, “He went to Iraq? He probably has PTSD. He might one day snap and shoot up the office.” The veteran is not hired because of an unfair stereotype no more accurate or just than not hiring an African American or Latino man because he was probably at one time part of a gang. Recent studies have shown that while only 5-20% of combat vets have justified PTSD (about the same as civilians who have experienced car accidents or personal tragedy) it is assumed by many people that most veterans have the ailment. It is called PTSD bias and is most damaging among middle managers who don’t understand the disease.
Researchers from the Center for New American Security, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank, interviewed executives of 69 leading corporations, including Bank of America, Target, Wal-Mart, Procter and Gamble, and Raytheon. All said hiring veterans can be good for business, but more than half acknowledged harboring a negative image of veterans because of how popular media — from news coverage to films — portray PTSD.
Recent war vets face hiring obstacle: PTSD bias
Hopefully, this example will show that there is a link between the incorrect assumptions formed by media and actual real world civilians perceptions which affect veterans lives. That said, it’s important to understand the real scope of war. For that reason, I’d like to offer a brief testimonial and some context to apply it to the big picture.
Marines and the United States military put a very high investment into their people and consider using them with great care and risk aversion. This is very good for the American warfighter, but safe is a relative word. I actually did know four people who died in Iraq. One was shot down flying a helicopter. One was killed by an accident on the job and two were killed by improvised explosive devices. The helicopter pilot was our old Executive Officer. He was shot down near Ramadi in his SuperCobra. The second was a Master Sergeant in my unit who worked in Explosive Ordnance Disposal. He found and disabled one bomb, but was unaware of the second one hidden just beyond it. The third was over the Military police who guarded our EOD team. He was just doing his job when an Iraqi ran over him with a van. I don’t even think that was actual combat, and may have just been wretched luck. All three of these were lost early in the deployment and hurt our morale pretty bad for the next few months. The fourth, which happened much later was a close friend who I grew up with since childhood. He wasn’t in my unit, but playing football with him for years makes you grow close. I was proud and happy to hear when he joined the Marines and in hearing of of his loss, I felt great pain. Losing him also hurt my hometown very badly.
Still, none of these men were shot. None of them ever even saw the enemy that took their lives. The closest may have been Major Bloomfield, the pilot. This is a more realistic view of war; not the showdown at the OK Corral type combat engagements. It is so rare that you see a duel between warriors that it is almost not even believable to me when I hear it. Of course, it does happen to many among the infantry, but the overall number of people who will be face-to-face with the person they must kill is unbelievably low. The truth is, most people who take part in action do so through methods that are relatively boring to those who have never trained on it. The more common method in which people were taken out by the US military involved spotters hidden at some vantage point, painting targets for precision guiding bombings, or air strikes from everything from Cobra attack helicopters to Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. House-to-house clearing took place, but mostly as part of individual campaigns and usually wouldn’t result in significant fighting on a day-to-day basis.
That said, the idea that you were “one of the lucky ones” is a really bad war trope and a stereotype of the war experience, in spite of the things I saw and the people we lost. I’ve done a lot of work in this area trying to communicate exactly how unlikely someone is to experience hostile action and death in the line of duty. Few would believe that only about a quarter of the United States military even deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan during the entire span of those conflicts. Fewer yet would believe that if you were to be deployed to one, you would suffer less than a .01% chance of being killed. As bad as my story was, of the four people I knew who died, that represents some tiny percentage of the few thousand people I knew when I was in. I’ve spoken at length about the actual metrics of warfare in What is the true risk of being killed in war? andWhat are some mind-blowing facts about the U.S military?
For that matter, the belief that millions of civilians are killed by war, at least when the Americans are involved, is also more myth and hyperbole than truth. At best, it is speculation that is widely taken as fact. Without addressing this one too specifically, during the time when the Americans were at war, and all the numerous failures that took place within it, the worst two years were only twice as bad for the Iraqi people than the average of Saddam Hussein’s thirty years in power. Consider this and the fact that in the entire span of the “quagmire” that was the Iraq war, roughly the same number of people have been killed in Syria in less than half the time.
Second, there is a belief that the vast majority of those killed were caused by American collateral damage. There are even sites dedicated to implying this. Searching through the actual data shows, however, that most of the civilians killed were not victims of American “collateral damage” at all, but by deliberate strikes by the various terrorist groups trying to sway them politically through fear and subjugation.
Lastly, did you know that, for a time, the war was as good as won? I didn’t hear anything from anyone. The news didn’t mention it. And no, I am not talking about in 2011 with the pull out. That moment just marked the beginning of the next round of bloodshed, I mean in 2007 when everything turned around and violence against civilians in the country returned to prewar levels.
The image above shows the actual death tolls from Iraq. Blue represents people killed attributed to Coalition sources. These are legitimate occurrences of collateral damage in the form of civilian losses. Red represents all the deaths of that war. Note that after the initial invasion that blue number, already the lowest number of civilian casualties in any invasion of this magnitude in history, drops to near zero. Terrorists however, began to use this as a tactic to win battles. This they utilized until 2007 when a new doctrine introduced a revolutionary counter insurgency strategy into the mix. It is disappointing that this long after the event, people still aren’t aware of the effects of the 2007 American Troop “Surge” and the stability it brought to that country. News media had a very important job they failed on delivering.
Basically, in studying the events myself and in educating others, I’ve found that standard media outlets can’t be trusted to deliver accurate portrayals of what is happening. They all fail for one reason or another. Some are designed to fail at this and make their money on the emotions they can pull to the surface, excitement and fear (movies and video games), empathy and action (news and personal outlets). No one really has the job of just understanding the conflict. That is our responsibility, but most of us have better things to do. Perhaps, it isn’t that they have better things to do, but for most, it is just too hard to think about these things. There is a lot of guilt involved in not fighting, but studying about those who did, or worse are fighting now has become so much of an obstacle, that they don’t know where to begin. Most avoid the guilt by ignoring the realities while others take it in passing by watching entertainment disguised as military interest pieces. People need to get over this aversion to study and start trying to understand the deep level mechanics of war as well as understanding the facts and metrics by which they are measured. For this, we have to start putting away the emotional responses to warfare and begin our research with some semblance of objectivity on the matter. Otherwise, our emotions will betray us and we will be so ignorant of the signs of war happening that we won’t see it the next time it comes around again.
As a side note, while I have the floor and am on the subject of civilian mortality, I’ve always found it odd that the standard trope is that the Americans make terrorists because we are killing the fathers of little Iraqi children who go on to become terrorists in retribution. The data would indicate, however, that there are many more civilians murdered by terrorists than could ever be attributed to the Americans. One would have to wonder why this logic doesn’t create a new army of counter-terrorists fighting to stabilize the region or at least be effective at murdering the terrorists. We could say that this type of revenge killing is going on, but in seeing the fanatical barbarity of groups like ISIL, we have to wonder why there isn’t more of a revenge based uprising, in sticking to the original logic of “America created the terrorists”. Eventually, this sort of thinking makes us realize that terrorists like ISIL don’t face this retribution because their victims are simply too terrified. They have been fully subjugated. If we continue on, we see the inverse of this philosophy, being the Americans, and one starts to wonder if the solution to this failed line of thinking was just for the Americans and Coalition to act with the same brutality of monsters like the Islamic State.
“But wait!” you say. “There is another way! We should take this evidence you have collected to show that America intervening at all was wrong. If they hadn’t intervened, none of this would have ever happened.” While I am sure that there are many who would believe that, there is another point which must be considered. As I said before, the worst of the Iraq War was only twice as bad as the average year under Saddam. That said, we have to ask who the original terrorists were. I’ll save you the research, they were primarily people who had lost power when the regime was in place and who now want it back. To be more clear, they were people who had significant control, power, and privilege under the Sunni lead, Baathist regime. To leave no uncertainty in my message, those who bombed civilian hospitals, schools, and shopping centers filled with their own people in 2005 were the same people who headed major departments of the government, military, and religious networks in 2002. If left alone, what would prevent them from conducting yet another Al-Anfal Campaign ( 150,000 civilians massacred from 1986 to 1989) or the draining of the marshlands and the complete destruction of the Marsh Arabs? Those who argue that we should never have intervened are arguing that the Iraqi would somehow be better off in the hands of people who willingly killed them just to make a point.
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