When I finished briefing our terrorist attack plan, the base commander sat and stared at me for a long moment. This was a senior Navy captain, accustomed to always knowing the big picture and being several steps ahead of any problem; in other words, to being in command. He was unused to this feeling of helplessness — especially because I had just laid out how my team would — notionally — murder several dozen military children, including the governor’s kid, on his installation that same day.
The staff were as silent as their leader. Furtive glances scanned back and forth, from the captain to me, the briefer with the bad news. Finally, slowly, he lowered his head and cupped his face in his hand. I was pleased. This was our highest honor to date.
Other commanders, on other security assessments, had expressed appropriate concern at vulnerabilities we turned up. They would give assurances to our little team that gaps in their processes or facilities would be mitigated. Some would even keep that promise, after we left. None before now, though, had been impacted so profoundly as to hang his head in his own conference room. We knew this one would be followed through, and that those under his command would be safer for it. Especially the innocent children.
I’ve served on various Red Teams over the years. The purpose of red-teaming, whether in cyber security, process analysis, or physical penetration, is to emulate threats in order to discover “friendly” weaknesses a hostile actor might exploit. Better to have one’s flaws identified by a simulated enemy than the real thing. Military units and corporations alike bring in outside help because, put simply, we often can’t see ourselves as accurately as others can.
This human tendency to gaze into rose-colored mirrors, in lieu of direct self-examination under white light, is a key factor underlying much of the conflict in the world today. It’s just not comfortable to accept my own flaws. Yours, on the other hand, can be a source of pleasant distraction for me! Why else, for heaven’s sake, would we continue to raise the ratings on daytime smackdown “talk” shows?
When we fail to heed the ancient admonition to “know thyself,” we are less able to understand how our daily conduct comes across to others. Many a pompous ass has lived out his life in cheerful oblivion, unaware of the otherwise common knowledge that he would never be taken seriously or be entrusted with opportunities others would enjoy. Such willful wishful thinking can have substantial, negative consequences. This is true also for the perpetual grouch and the desperate people-pleaser.
More immediate costs of being obnoxious, mean, or servile include the hostility and disrespect of others. Such reactions can bring out even more undesirable behaviors from the person who has no idea he’s bringing it upon himself in the first place. A cycle of action and reaction continues, and blame becomes a part of the system. In America we point and tsk at the senseless, destructive, escalating feud of the Hatfields and McCoys; then, in various ways, many of us step into our daily life and participate in similar dramas around the home or office.
A lack of self-awareness is only half the problem of conflict. Knowing the enemy, in military terms, allows planning to effectively meet and exceed his strength in tactics, tanks or training. In the case of the local parent-teacher association or in office politics, however, improved understanding lets us measure not only how back-biting and unreasonable another person may be, but also how much he is not.
Henry Ford is quoted as having said, “Whether you think that you can, or that you can’t, you are usually right.” The same is true for assumptions about others. Bigots will find evidence of the negative characteristics they expect to see. Fearful members on either side of a faith or hemispheric divide can discover abundant proof that the other side is “out to get us.”
But the reverse is also true. Those who with an open mind seek out evidence of selflessness, or dignity, or warmth will find it. And the more we can see goodness in others under that plain white light, the more likely it is those qualities will flourish. Top leaders in the military today emphasize that cultural knowledge of populations within which we wage armed struggles is essential in order to stop “creating more than we kill,” to paraphrase former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.
There is an unintended side benefit to living in the enemy’s mind, uncomfortable as that work may be: We learn to see through his eyes across the whole of his life, and not just in relation to protecting friendly assets. We learn what he cares about.
My forthcoming book, “Powerful Peace: A Navy SEAL’s Lessons on Peace From a Lifetime at War” is one product of such an adapted mindset. As you can read at PowerfulPeace.net, my career has taken me to more than 30 nations, over a span of more than a quarter century.
I’ve worked in global security for so long, in fact, that some of the enemies of my professional youth have become allies in this era — or at least superficially non-enemies. Think of the Soviet Union, and the many years I spent immersed in Russian culture and language. I’ve even enjoyed the privilege of working alongside former enemies, like the commander of Russian Special Forces. He came by my house in Hawaii for hot dogs and beer (which is one of many anecdotes you can explore in the lessons in “Powerful Peace”).
While serving as a Soviet specialist, I lived for a year in Turkey. Relations between the U.S. and my host nation had hardly ever been better and I traveled freely, adding that language to my repertoire. Today, however, in part due to disagreements over American actions in Iraq and Afghanistan, Turkey has among the lowest favorable-to-U.S. poll numbers in the world.
In future decades, that pendulum will swing again.
During all my time abroad I’ve been blessed to encounter good people on every continent, and in every country. For a couple of years, writing from the heart about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, I had a column in Fredericksburg’s Front Porch magazine: The word-play title of that feature was “For Goodness’ Sake.”
If I could look into your eyes, what would I see? Is the world a dark and menacing place? Or do the infinite variations of human appearance and experience fill you with a sense of promise and an eagerness to see what comes next? Is it possible to take a step back, regardless of which camp you inhabit, and examine your views? If so, you are almost certain to find some small way to refine your own perception, and thus your ability, to create a better world for all of us.
• DuBois (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a security adviser, speaker, and author of “Powerful Peace: A Navy SEAL’s Lessons on Peace From a Lifetime at War.” He wrote this for The Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, Va.