Select Page

A Bulletproof Mind November 10, 2002 By PETER MAASS

Maj. Christopher Miller lay awake on a cot in a filthy room, no larger than a prison cell and cluttered with weapons and ammunition. He couldn’t sleep. It was a cold January night at the Special Forces base in Kandahar, and Miller was on the verge of commanding an assault against six Qaeda fighters barricaded inside a nearby Afghan hospital. So many things could go wrong, Miller realized, and it could be disastrous if any of them did. For the first time in his life, Miller would be engaging in C.Q.B. — a military abbreviation for ”close-quarters battle.” After years of training, he would finally become, as he told me recently, a ”manager of violence.” An eight-year veteran of the Special Forces, he had never killed before, had never given an order to kill, had not even seen a dead soldier. All that would change at dawn, because men would surely die in an attack he would initiate with a one-word command: execute.

”That was the first time when I really thought of the human dimension of it,” Miller recalled. ”At first, it’s an intellectual challenge. Then you go, ‘We’re really going to do this.’ All of a sudden it dawned on me, Those bastards are in there right now and they don’t have a clue what’s fixing to come their way. It was the oddest damn thing.”

I first met Miller last December in Kandahar. We had several conversations, but he was under strict orders not to discuss his job. Yet his job — that of a new kind of soldier — interested me. The Special Forces soldiers in Afghanistan looked different, with their thick beards, fleece jackets, wraparound sunglasses and high-tech weaponry. Did they think and feel differently than the traditional foot soldier? Earlier this fall, I caught up with Miller at Fort Campbell, Ky., where the Special Forces Fifth Group is based. Safely back from battle, Miller was allowed to discuss his brand of warfare — and how he was built to carry it out.

Miller’s dawn assault on the Qaeda fighters in Kandahar, I learned, was but one step away from hand-to-hand combat. It involved grenade exchanges from a distance of just a few feet, and it finished with Miller and his men standing amid their dead and bloodied foes. ”They fought to the last minute,” he recalled. ”For these guys, surrender was not an option.” He later added, ”It was amazing to see the carnage.”

The attack was the kind of urban warfare American soldiers will be engaged in should the United States have to shoot its way into Baghdad and other Iraqi cities. When the Cold War ended, many thought that C.Q.B. would become a thing of the past. Conflicts would be fewer, and any interventions undertaken would rely on overwhelming force and precision munitions, not house-to-house fighting. Yet since 9/11 we have begun a war that may draw our soldiers into many battles involving intimate killing. What will that mean for Miller and his men?

The last time this kind of fighting occurred on a grand scale, in Vietnam, 50,000 Americans died, and many survivors had injuries that were not just physical but emotional. The clunky phrase ”post-traumatic stress disorder” entered the national lexicon. Today, the military believes, the United States is fighting an intimate war in the right way, because soldiers have been prepared and equipped in a manner that increases the prospect of their victory and decreases the prospect of their injury — whether physical or psychological. Just as smart bombs are less likely to go astray, 21st-century warriors are more lethal than before, yet less likely to suffer P.T.S.D., according to military instructors and psychologists. Dave Grossman, a former Army Ranger and West Point professor of psychology, refers to this phenomenon as ”the bulletproof mind.”

Such confident assertions may seem surprising, considering what happened this summer at Fort Bragg, N.C. Four soldiers there murdered their wives; three of the soldiers had Special Forces training and had served in Afghanistan. The news media rushed to link the murders to post-combat stress, although there is little proof and investigations continue. Military officers, not surprisingly, doubt the idea that P.T.S.D. played a significant role, and they may have a point. Fatal spouse abuse, sadly, plagues the military even in peacetime. As they see it, the furor over this incident has obscured a broader truth. Today’s Special Forces soldiers, they claim, have been unusually well trained to succeed not only at war — but also after war.

Chris Miller, the son of an Iowa cop, joined the Army Reserve after high school in 1983. He attended George Washington University on an R.O.T.C. scholarship and became, after graduation, an infantry officer. But it wasn’t long before Miller became bored with his life in the Army.

”All you have to be is physically strong,” Miller, who is the size of a linebacker, told me, sitting in his ramshackle Fort Campbell office. ”Infantry’s brain-dead. It has nothing to do with mental agility. I wanted to try the Special Forces because I was driven by the challenge, man.”

The Special Forces are a highly trained elite within the Army, specializing in unconventional warfare, which is anything from operating behind enemy lines to fighting with guerrillas in the jungle. There are about 10,000 soldiers in the Special Forces, who are also known as Green Berets. They are the core of the military’s Special Operations community, which includes what are believed to be hundreds in Delta Force, a secretive unit that performs classified counterterrorism missions, as well as Navy Seals and Special Operations units in the Air Force.

Special Forces soldiers are trained principally in North Carolina, at the U.S. Army John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center and School at Fort Bragg. Known informally as the Schoolhouse, it’s the nerve center for an arduous two- to three-year training course. Skills taught to Special Forces soldiers include how to survive in jungles and deserts, how to leap from a plane in the jet stream and wait until the last second to open your parachute, how to stage ambushes behind enemy lines, how to escape a P.O.W. camp, how to speak foreign languages and how to kill with rifles, grenade launchers, shoulder-fired rockets and your bare hands.

When I stopped by the Schoolhouse in September, about 200 soldiers were starting their third day of training. In a dirt pit, they were hoisting logs over their heads, then shifting the logs from one shoulder to the other, then crawling through the dirt, then carrying one another on their shoulders, then doing push-ups and cartwheels, then hoisting the logs again — over and over, until some began weeping.

It was boot-camp misery multiplied by 10. Yet there was a twist, because physical misery was not the end point, as it might be in the infantry, but the starting point. I realized this as I talked beside the pit with Captain Smith, who assesses aspiring Special Forces soldiers (and insisted that I not use his first name). Smith wants to find out who can endure pain and sleep deprivation and situational uncertainty — and still make the right choices. ”We never inform them what they’re going to do, how long it’s going to go on,” he said. ”We set the conditions for ambiguity from the start. A lot of these guys are not comfortable not knowing what they’re going to do next. But a lot of times on our operations, there’s no way that you can know exactly what you’ll be doing. Strength must be combined with intelligence.”

Miller recalls his experience at the Schoolhouse vividly. ”It was the most outrageous thing,” he said, laughing loudly. ”You’re smoked, you’re physically and mentally drained, and then, boom, there’s a decision you have to make. Do I go left or right? And there’s only one right answer.”

Because Special Forces work requires nerves of steel, training never really ends. After graduating from the Schoolhouse, active soldiers on operational teams train regularly in urban environments. Every 18 months they must complete a course established at Fort Bragg called Advanced Urban Combat — that is, the storming of buildings. Of course, all Army units train for battle, but the Special Forces say they do it with far greater frequency and under conditions that are a good deal more realistic. They use live ammunition much more often. And instead of being shown once or twice how to, say, clear a room without firing guns, the Special Forces do it again and again and again, firing real bullets, until every move they might need to make in a Baghdad-type scenario becomes a reflex.

”It’s so instantaneous,” explained Master Sgt. Danny Leonard, who joined the Special Forces in 1989 and engaged in urban warfare in the Gulf War and in Afghanistan. ”You don’t even realize you did it.”

American soldiers have not always pulled the trigger with such reliability. During World War II, according to the military historian S.L.A. Marshall, as many as 80 percent of the American infantrymen he interviewed failed to fire their weapons in combat. Marshall attributed the low ”fire ratio” to a mixture of poor training and a natural reluctance to kill. Even though his methodology has come under attack — critics say his numbers are exaggerated — his premise is generally accepted, and his book, ”Men Against Fire,” is read throughout the military establishment. After it was published in 1947, the military revamped its training to make G.I.’s more comfortable firing at humans; soldiers shot at targets shaped like people rather than at bull’s-eyes, for example. Today, Special Forces units make their training as realistic as possible, using pop-up targets with human faces, and setting off smoke bombs and small explosions to simulate the battlefield experience.

Dave Grossman, who spoke to me about ”the bulletproof mind,” has written about the hidden logic behind military training. In his controversial book ”On Killing: The Psychological Cost of Learning to Kill in War and Society,” he writes: ”It is entirely possible that no one intentionally sat down to use operant conditioning or behavior modification techniques to train soldiers in this area. But from the standpoint of a psychologist who is also a historian and a career soldier, it has become increasingly obvious to me that this is exactly what has been achieved.” Grossman interprets the process of a target popping up, a soldier’s shooting the target and the soldier being praised or criticized for accuracy, as a classic conditioning model. ”What makes this training process work is the same thing that made Pavlov’s dogs salivate and B. F. Skinner’s rats push their bars,” he writes. ”What makes it work is the single most powerful and reliable behavior modification process yet discovered by the field of psychology, and now applied to the field of warfare: operant conditioning.”

Indeed, Special Forces officers openly discuss the use of ”stress inoculation” — in which they are exposed to heartbeat-racing drills that raise their threshold for staying calm. It doesn’t mean Special Forces soldiers are immune to stress or the mistakes that stress causes, but it takes a lot more to rattle one of them than an old-time draftee.

An important dose of stress inoculation occurs during a three-week training nightmare that comes at the end of the Schoolhouse course. It goes by the acronym SERE, which stands for survival, evasion, resistance and escape. SERE teaches Special Forces soldiers how to avoid and endure capture by the enemy. The exercise places them in a ”resistance-training laboratory” that is, essentially, a prisoner-of-war camp, with guard towers, barbed-wire fences, blindfolds, putrid food, irregular sleep intervals, abusive guards and brutal interrogations. Details about SERE, such as the types of punishment inflicted on the ”prisoners,” are classified; Special Forces officers told me that torture is not practiced, though they did not deny that physical pressure is applied. The unpleasantness apparently includes being buried in wood barrels. When I asked Miller about SERE, he shook his head and said, ”It is imprinted on my brain.”

Making a soldier stronger and better through stress inoculation and operant conditioning seems a bit Kubrickian — and unsettling. I wasn’t sure what to think when Col. Charles King, who commands the First Special Warfare Training Group at Fort Bragg, told me that he trains his soldiers in negotiation and combat — and that they can turn from one to the other in a split second. ”These guys have got to be able not only to work with you but to shoot you, if necessary,” he said. We laughed awkwardly, and he quickly added that Special Forces soldiers would never shoot a journalist. We laughed again, awkwardly, and I chose not to mention that a U.S. military commander had threatened to shoot a Washington Post journalist who was trying to visit a site in Afghanistan where an American airstrike appeared to have killed civilians.

Of course, the commander hadn’t actually fired his weapon. Special Forces soldiers may develop cold-blooded reflexes, but they are also trained to know when not to kill. Targets that pop up during shooting drills include women and children who are not supposed to be shot. Being able to remain steady in combat doesn’t just mean you will be a quick draw; it also means that you will do a better job of deciding when to hold your fire. As Grossman writes of the calibration of aggression: ”This is a delicate and dangerous process. Too much, and you end up with a My Lai. . . . Too little, and your soldiers will be defeated and killed by someone who is more aggressively disposed.” Colonel King put it like this: ”Our guys have got to be confident in their ability to use lethal force. But they’ve got to be principled enough to know when not to use it. We’re not training pirates.”

In Kandahar last January, the Special Forces tried to avoid a head-on clash with the Qaeda holdouts at Mirwais Hospital. A small group of Qaeda soldiers, wounded before the city fell to American-backed forces, were left behind when their fellow fighters headed for the hills. The men barricaded themselves inside a wing of the hospital and vowed a fight to the death if challenged. For more than a month, the Special Forces detachment, of which Miller was third in command, patiently waited for them to surrender.

Then one night in mid-January, one of the Qaeda fighters slipped out of the hospital, only to be surrounded by Afghan guards. He blew himself up with a grenade. Soon after, senior officers decided that any members of Al Qaeda who were in Kandahar should be in custody or dead. The Special Forces contingent was ordered to attack the six men who remained.

The Americans didn’t consider an airstrike on the building or using rocket-propelled grenades; those would have been loud and messy solutions, which the Special Forces, who refer to themselves as ”the quiet professionals,” disdain. Miller, who has a master’s degree in national security studies from the Naval War College, relishes devising fresh solutions.

During a meeting at their base in Kandahar, the Special Forces brain trust, which was led by Lt. Col. Dave Fox and included Miller and several other officers, didn’t consider a brute American assault on an Afghan hospital. Instead, the decision was made to train a squad of local Afghan soldiers to do the job, backed by the Special Forces. Miller would be the ”ground tactical commander” — that is, the manager of violence.

On the outskirts of Kandahar, at the former residence of Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Taliban leader, an ”A team” — a 12-man group that is the core fighting unit of the Special Forces — began training 25 Afghan soldiers in the finer points of storming a hostile building. A mock-up of the hospital wing was built, and the Afghans were taught to rush through the hole — the fatal funnel” — that would be blasted through a wall. They were taught to stay away from doors and windows, to clear rooms one by one before moving down a corridor and so on. Language was a problem, but translators were used and the Americans picked up essential Pashto words, such as ”shoot,” ”stop shooting” and ”grenade.”

Just before dawn on Jan. 28, everything was set. Capt. Matthew Peaks, leader of the A team that trained the Afghans, was ready. Using his code name, Python 33, he got on the radio to Miller, code-named Rambo 70, who was at a command post 150 feet away. Miller gave the order to execute the assault. The explosives blasted a hole in the wall, and a wave of Afghan soldiers rushed inside, tossing grenades down a corridor leading to the Qaeda room. The Afghans were promptly halted by an explosion, most likely of their own doing; in their eagerness to attack, they had run over their own grenades. The injured men were dragged out.

”We’ve got a bit of a problem,” Peaks radioed to Miller. ”We’ve got six guys down. The assault has stalled.”

One of Miller’s favorite words is ”knucklehead,” which he applies to most anyone he is talking about — the Taliban, his commanders, himself. When the assault stalled, Miller said he felt like the knucklehead of the moment.

A military axiom says a plan of attack rarely survives its first contact with the enemy, and it is particularly true for unconventional warfare. This is what the Special Forces are taught to expect, as I learned from Colonel King. ”You can sit people down and teach them that in situation A you do B, but what do you do when you get into a situation you never anticipated?” he said. That pretty much describes the predicament Miller was in. The first assault had failed. The Qaeda soldiers were riled up. Moreover, the grenade explosions had inadvertently started a fire inside the building. This was a problem because a building that was torched courtesy of the Special Forces would not look good on CNN.

Then something unexpected happened. Smoke prompted two Qaeda fighters to stand next to a window for fresh air. Miller had placed snipers at nearby vantage points, and one of them, just a few feet away from him, leaned over and said, ”Sir, I’ve got a guy who keeps poking his head up.”

Miller immediately told him to fire. He got on the radio and told the other sniper to shoot. One Qaeda soldier was dropped, then another. Miller gave the order for smoke grenades to be thrown inside the building, to encourage window visits by the others. But the remaining Qaeda men realized the cost of fresh air and stayed put.

They were given a final warning. ”We can end this right now!” a Special Forces soldier shouted to them in Arabic. ”We promise you won’t be mistreated.” Arabic curses were shouted back.

Miller ordered another Afghan assault. A squad of Afghans rushed inside the building but rushed out after a small explosion was heard. Peaks, who enjoys an absurd moment as much as Miller, told me, with a good laugh, what happened: ”These Afghan guys come running back to us with big wide eyes going, ‘They got grenades!’ We said, ‘Well, yes.’ ”

That’s when the decision was made for the Special Forces to go inside. This would be the real thing, C.Q.B., against an enemy eager to kill Americans. Three Special Forces fighters moved down the main corridor with three Afghans, closing in on the room where the Qaeda fighters were barricaded. The Special Forces tossed several grenades into the room, but the Qaeda men scooped them up and tossed them back. It was a lethal game of hot potato. The American team dove for cover. Staff Sgt. Joe Haralson was one of the grenade dodgers. I met him at Fort Campbell, and we talked under a gazebo as he calmly cleaned an M-4 assault rifle. He explained that before throwing the next grenade, he held onto it after releasing the pin, so that the enemy wouldn’t have time to toss it back.

”We started cookin’ them off,” Haralson said. ”Pop the pin, wait a second or two, then throw them in.”

I asked, ”The delay is how long on the grenade?”

”About three or four seconds.”

”Not much margin for error.”

”Yeah,” he replied.

Haralson’s training — or, as Grossman might describe it, his operant conditioning — helps explain why he had the presence of mind to instantly fling himself to the ground when his grenades were thrown back at him. Ordinary soldiers might freeze for a split second, and this could cost them their lives. Then Haralson, amid the violence, was able to calmly figure out, as though fine-tuning a tennis stroke, that he needed to hold a live grenade in his hand for a couple of seconds before throwing it, and then do just that.

The battle was won and months later I asked Haralson how he felt about the mission. ”Nobody is acting out of anger,” he said. ”He’s the bad guy, we’re the good guy. It’s just the way it is.”

As Sergeant Leonard told me, ”We understand the importance of what we’re doing, so if we’ve got to cap a guy, we’ll do it.” He continued: ”You’re in a zone. You’re trying to keep your people safe. So there’s a sense of elation: ‘I got him before he got me.’ I never felt sad for any of those guys. It doesn’t bother me a bit.”

It’s possible that these men were more disturbed by the killing than they let on; then again, if they were haunted by what they did, they probably would not have talked so openly about the violence they engaged in. And in general, the soldiers did not hide the after-effects of spending time in combat zones. Leonard told me that upon returning from the Gulf War, he woke up one night and noticed a red beam; thinking it was a laser, he rolled out of bed and reached for a weapon. The beam was his stereo’s power light.

The issue of post-combat stress was widely discussed after the three Special Operations soldiers returned from Afghanistan to Fort Bragg and killed their wives last summer. Those killings, and our military’s latest involvement in C.Q.B., have resurrected an old debate: is it possible to be an efficient killer one day and a good citizen the next?

”The theory that interspecies homicide is unnatural — go watch ‘Animal Planet’ for a while,” said Maj. Gary Hazlett, a psychologist at Fort Bragg. ”It’s common. We sent millions of people into combat situations in World War II and we didn’t have busloads of Charlie Mansons coming back. We had people who had gone out and done this grisly job, done it extremely well and then came back and now we’re calling them the greatest generation.” That may be true, but Vietnam veterans are a different story. It was a nastier conflict than World War II or Afghanistan: G.I.’s were killed in grisly ways by men, women and even children who did not wear uniforms, and at the same time, many Vietnamese who didn’t wear uniforms were killed. Psychologists believe that the likelihood of being haunted by killing is greatly increased when the carnage a soldier sees or engages in is hard to justify.

A recent article in Military Review, a magazine published every other month by the Army, warned that reflex-quick killing can be a psychological time bomb. ”Training soldiers to kill efficiently is good for them because it helps them survive on the battlefield,” wrote Maj. Peter Kilner, who teaches philosophy at West Point. ”However, training soldiers to kill without explaining to them why it is morally permissible to kill in combat is harmful. . . . When soldiers kill reflexively — when military training has effectively undermined their moral autonomy — they morally deliberate their actions only after the fact. If they are unable to justify what they have done, they often suffer guilt and psychological trauma.”

Miller says his sleepless night before the assault in Kandahar was his way of confronting the ethics of his actions. He zeroed in on two things — the targets were terrorists, and they had been given ample opportunity to surrender. Killing them, if it came to that, was justified. ”I needed to go through the moral calculus,” he told me. ”Once I did, I was steeled for combat. But I felt I owed it to myself to consider the implications of what was about to happen.”

Miller let out a knucklehead laugh as he said this; for him, it was a foolishly obvious point. Indeed, when the Kandahar assault was completed and he left his command post to survey the carnage he had managed, he said he did not feel horror or regret — just a grim awareness that there will be a lot more C.Q.B. for American soldiers in coming years. ”We’re going to have to hunt ’em down,” Miller said.

Miller remained in Afghanistan for almost four months and did everything he trained for: combat, patrols, surveillance, negotiations. For several crucial days, he was even in charge of security for the new leader of Afghanistan, Hamid Karzai. He completed his duties and returned home in March to his wife and three children.

That said, the experience has left its marks on Miller. North of Kandahar, before the Taliban fled, a Special Forces team was hit accidentally by a misguided smart bomb. Three men were killed, and two of them were good friends of his. ”If I could have those guys back, I would gladly give it all up,” Miller said as we sat in a planning room at his battalion headquarters, which is a surprisingly unimpressive place, with leaking pipes and mold growing on the ceiling tiles. The United States military is a $355-billion-a-year outfit, but few of those dollars are lavished on the aged cinder block buildings housing the Fifth Group. Miller continued: ”There’s probably a little guilt, like, Jesus, I wanted to see action so bad. . . . ”

Suddenly he stopped talking. He took several deep breaths, looking down at the floor. Then he hurriedly got up and headed for the bathroom. Through tears, he said, ”I promised I wasn’t going to do this.”

Several minutes elapsed. I poured myself some coffee as I waited for him to return. I was not terribly surprised by his lapse into sadness. I spent three days with him at Fort Campbell, grabbing meals with him and his Special Forces colleagues, going on a five-mile run with him in the Kentucky backwoods. I heard him laugh at himself and his commanders and the absurdity of the world around him. But I also heard him turn cold serious when the phone rang in his office and he answered with his usual greeting, ”Hello, this is not a secure line.” His temperament was adaptive, exquisitely calibrated to the moment. And here was a moment where Miller was allowing himself to be reflective.

In Special Forces training, flexibility is sought out and reinforced in recruits. Respond to the situation, they are taught; don’t be rigid, stay aware of your environment. In the model Special Forces soldier — and not all of them are, not by a long shot — those maxims apply to emotions too. Block them out in combat, but don’t ignore them afterward.

Miller emerged from the bathroom and said: ”I don’t feel guilty for wanting to do something. We wanted to go, hell, yeah. Everybody wanted to. The big lesson I took was, Be careful what you ask for, because it’s a horribly costly business. I don’t have any doubt about the value of the sacrifice. I’m not sitting here gnashing my teeth like Vietnam or something, going, ‘God, it’s such a waste, the flower of our youth.’ I mean, it was necessary. A friendly-fire accident — that happens. It’s the nature of war.” Miller had a logical argument, but emotions don’t always respond to logic.

Miller talked about other difficulties he had faced in Afghanistan. In January, Special Forces soldiers discovered a series of Taliban ammunition depots. The decision was made to blow up the dumps so that fugitive Taliban or Qaeda fighters could not sneak back and re-arm. Two ordnance experts and a medic were assigned to the job. They were all blown up doing it; either they mishandled the explosives or were killed by a booby trap.

”The most wonderful guys in the world,” Miller told me. ”We could have waited and handed it off to an engineer unit and said, ‘It’s your problem.’ We made the decision to do it ourselves right away. It was the wrong thing to do. We should have just left it. Two guys I knew really well. It shows the seriousness of the business, which I had never fully internalized. I would just laugh when my bosses would say, ‘This is a serious business.’ Well, guess what? Now I’m the moron going, ‘This is serious business.’ ”

The Special Forces are well trained, but that does not mean they will come back alive or sound, especially if they fight a war that should not be fought or embark on missions that are poorly planned. Their bodies are not bulletproof, nor are their minds. The discipline that is driven into them in training and at their bases can wear down if a war is long enough or murky enough or if they see too many of their comrades killed or injured. The ousting of the Taliban (though not what followed it) had the merit of being well executed and mercifully brief, yet still there was a price to pay.

I stayed in touch with Miller after my visit to Fort Campbell. We had developed a running joke, because he couldn’t talk to me about his next mission, which I knew was Iraq, and which he knew I knew was Iraq. The soldiers of the Fifth Group specialize in the Middle East, and they wear desert fatigues even at Fort Campbell, with their names printed above their breast pockets in Arabic. I would ask, when I called Miller, how things were going, and as September became October and Congress passed a resolution authorizing war, his responses went from ”not doing much” to ”it’s getting busier” to ”real busy.”

”If there’s going to be a fight, we want to be in it,” he said last month. ”But it’s more deliberate this time. Last time, it really was naivete.” He mentioned that the widows and children of his fallen friends still live in his close community; he is reminded of their sacrifice every day. ”The cost is huge and it requires serious deliberation. I’m privileged and truly want to be a part of it, but it’s not cheap. It’s not a big laugh.”

Peter Maass is the author of ”Love Thy Neighbor: A Story of War,” his memoir of the conflict in Bosnia. He is a contributing writer for the magazine. 10SPECIAL.html?ex37967029&ei=1&enb40f3dd2e6d3e11 .

Copyright 2002 The New York Times Company