A few days ago a friend I met playing Call of Duty: Black Ops online suggested I check out a video showing two U.S. Army Apache helicopters attacking a group of Taliban fighters in Afghanistan who, the video’s label tells us, were maneuvering to attack a U.S. Special Forces patrol.
The video, included below, doesn’t break any new ground for anyone who has seen this type of footage before, but all the same this particular entry in the canon of combat videography evoked a strong reaction from me.
There is an appropriate warning before getting to watch it, but the truth is the violence is detached, with an almost video-game like quality to it. The glowing white figures that represent the bad guys are recognizable as men — armed men, with rocket launchers and assault rifles — as are the unfortunate donkeys grazing around them, but there are no faces to look at or into, no blood to see.
At one point during the attack, one of the glowing white figures is prone on the ground, rolling back and forth and evidently injured. Meanwhile, above him, the crews of the helicopters calmly discuss repairs to a broken gun while one of the Apaches carefully maneuvers into position for another round of cannon fire. “Oh yeah, got him,” says the airborne American after white blooms of explosions finish off the man below.
It is that calm, dispassionate voice, discussing weapons status and relaying the information of the man’s violent death with the detachment of a casual comment on the weather, that cold-blooded voice that sent me back in time.
* * * *
Focused, precise, efficient.
For a member of the plankowner crew of USS Arleigh Burke (DDG 51), those three words amounted to very high praise. The captain wanted every member of his crew to aspire to those qualities in every facet of their job, but especially while standing watch.
Remaining calm with laser-light focus on the task at hand was to be the standard, and our training absolutely emphasized it. The mantra was “train as you will fight” but even during routine daily operations any hint of excitability or wandering attention would earn a sharp rebuke.
So deeply ingrained in our thinking was this focus that it continued long after the ship’s first captain and executive officer had moved on to new assignments. During a training exercise I watched a chief petty officer abruptly call for a newly reported junior petty officer to be relieved from one of the consoles in the Combat Information Center. The chief pulled the petty officer aside and I heard him say: “That’s not how we do it here. Calm down and focus or you won’t be standing watch in my Combat.”
There was a reason why the ship’s first captain wanted it that way. He’d seen up close what can happen when a military team involved in the most stressful situation imaginable, combat, lost focus.
Before reporting to the pre-commissioning unit for Arleigh Burke (DDG 51), the captain was assigned in the Pentagon, and before that he had been the executive officer of USS Vincennes (CG 49), leaving the ship before her deployment to the Persian Gulf.
On July 3, 1988, while involved in a running battle with armed Iranian gunboats, Vincennes shot down an unarmed Iranian passenger jet, Flight 655, killing all 290 aboard. Because of his intimate knowledge of the crew and ship, Burke’s first captain was assigned to assist the Navy team investigating the incident.
That experience on the investigating team deeply influenced how our captain wanted Burke to operate, train and fight, and he personally led a training session on the incident for all officers and chief petty officers.
Watchstanders on Vincennes — for lack of a better term — “lost the bubble” operationally while engaged with the gunboats, and ignored or misread key information about the potential threat posed by the jet taking off from an Iranian airfield used for both military and civilian flights.
Although I can’t find it anymore, at one point I saw video shot onboard Vincennes during the incident, and the nervous excitement and tension were clearly visible on the faces of the crew, and their voices. They were involved in something wild and hairy; shooting the big guns at the gnat-like but armed speedboats swarming around them and then suddenly worried about an incoming air threat that could be one of the advanced U.S. fighter jets left over from when the Shah was our ally.
Please note, I am not passing judgment on the crew of Vincennes. There is no way to know how anyone will react during the stress of combat, and the amount and speed of information a commander receives has steadily increased as technology has advanced. Modern decision-makers are often deluged by information, even with computer programs designed to filter and prioritize.
Burke’s first captain insisted the best way to avoid “losing the bubble” was training. Train the way you will fight, operate the way you train, and when the balloon goes up the vast majority of people will follow the routine and respond accordingly: Be calm; don’t rush actions; follow prepared checklists; speak precisely over radio circuits; omit no information.
I had supreme confidence in that captain and often told others in a war I would want to serve on his crew. That is not to say I ever hoped to be at war — far from it. But if asked to fight and possibly die for my country, I would want to serve under someone whose ability and decisions I trusted.
It would not be correct to say I felt that way about every officer I served under.
* * * *
I’m not using the term cold-blooded the way some people may expect, as a negative or replacement for “ruthless” or even “cruel.” Instead, think of cold-blooded as either “emotionless,” “business-like” or “dispassionate;” detached from the event while still being part of it.
Cold-blooded is, I believe, the best way to survive and operate in highly intense situations such as combat. It is not without drawbacks, however. A knife can only get be honed so sharp before the edge thins, becomes brittle and ultimately fails.
A final thought: Some may look at the Apache attack video and question the need for killing the man on the ground; others will realize from their position in the sky the Apache crews had no idea if the man was faking injury, or if truly hurt, how badly.
I can’t and won’t judge the need or propriety for the final round of cannon fire, or for any of the other actions portrayed, for that matter — I don’t have enough information about the tactical situation or rules of engagement in force at the time.
But I certainly recognized the tone in the voices on the video.