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Citizen Soldiers — Part One: Early Enlistment; No Retirement

Congratulations! You’re in the army now. Well, maybe not exactly in the army and hopefully, you will never have to face combat situations month after month. But make no mistake — regardless of your age, mobility, fitness and so on, you might well find yourself in a “combat situation.” Instead of a an AK-47, you might not have any real military weapons at your disposal. You may only have your wits, your experience, and whatever is at hand.


We are all now a new kind of soldier in a new kind of war. This much seems obvious. And although we mostly won’t have to face combat or terrorist situations, we will have to be brave and loyal. But we will also have to be smart. It won’t be enough to follow orders. Rather than a clear chain of command issuing orders to a loyal army fighting another loyal army, you have already become one of 7 billion game pieces in a complex and giant “game” of war in which the sides are unclear; the objectives are unclear; the boundaries are unclear; and the weapons are anyone’s guess. At least one way to think about what to call the “sides” in this war: Life versus Death.

In a traditional war whether tribal warfare, Roman conquests, Medieval wars, WWI, WWII, Korea, Viet Nam, Iraq, and so on, death is always a possibility. Life and death are always at stake. But what I mean is that in the changing panoply of various sides and nations, there are two large themes in play. One of these is pushing toward those things that foster life: competition with rules, love, creativity, innovation, science, play, freedom, democracy, listening to all sides, cooperation — these are things that foster life. They do not just foster modern human life. Freedom, for instance, isn’t just another word for nothing left to do. Animals caught in a trap will chew their arm off to be free. Diversity isn’t some liberal invention of the 20th century. Diversity is central to the very existence of life. Life is about experimentation and seeing what actually works. Letting people play, paint, write, speak as they like — these are extensions of the great human experiment to find out more about our universe and share that information with everyone. These are the values of life, not because some political party tries to claim them, but because they are central to life itself.

Top-down central control of everything; restricting people’s religion, dress, dancing, games, speech — these are not characteristics of life. These are characteristics of anti-life. Above all, the forces of Death want to take away from you knowledge of how life really is. Whether it is making it illegal to paint pictures of birds with naked legs in Afghanistan under the Taliban or defunding public libraries and public education in the USA, the goal is the same: to make sure that your children and your children’s children grow up in enslaved ignorance to someone in power. The people who are pro-Death don’t say this of course. They will make up some crap about how this is in the service of Allah or God or that it’s to grow the economy and therefore to everyone’s benefit. Guess what? It is not in everyone’s interests. It is not in your interests. The very same techniques that have been honed over the centuries to push your buttons and induce  you to buy the brand new horseradish & sea slug ointment that will forever rid you of unsightly elbow wrinkles is also used to make you think you will not only thrive but survive under the new slave order. But you won’t. Not only won’t the horseradish and sea slug concoction not cure your elbow wrinkles. Guess what? It isn’t even a problem!  You skin is supposed to wrinkle at the elbows when you straighten your arm. Of course, once you buy the cream and apply it twice a day as instructed, and you find that nothing in your life has improved, it is embarrassing to admit you’ve been hoodwinked into spending $29.99 for a month’s supply. No-one likes to be tricked. But even less do people like to admit they’ve been tricked.


How did you end up in the army now? How did I end up in the army? As a kid, I dreamed of being a great warrior, space ranger, or fighter pilot. When did these dreams begin? When did my battles start?

I lived in Firestone Park with my mom, grand-parents and great-grandma till the middle of Kindergarten. The two story white house with green shutters, commanded a strategic view at the corner from which any potential enemy could be spotted.  I didn’t really play much with other kids during the first half of Kindergarten there in Firestone Park. When I was five, my dad returned from Portugal and Mom, Dad, and I moved to North Firestone Boulevard. In that neighborhood were enough kids my own age to play with. At school, there were no “battles” because teachers separated kids before it got that far. Even so, those would have been more fights than battles. Cowboys and Indians as well as Cops and Robbers served that role. We played and of course I wanted to “win.” It’s just more fun not to be the dead one. Since we didn’t use live ammo or even paintball ammo, who “won” was mostly a matter of negotiation really. When we first began these games, we tried saying “I got you” but I discovered quickly that others would simply say, “I got you first!.” without any regard to who actually got whom first. If one of us were the policeman, we might argue that the good guy should always win. Then, we might argue about that. And so on. Although these games offered some fun, they generally lacked the kind of clear-cut victories I sought.


Later, we learned to play checkers and then chess. You don’t exactly get your blood boiling as you might with Cops and Robbers, but at least checkers and chess offered a clear winner. Still later, we learned to play Risk, which I found an enormously fun game. The goal is quite simply to “take over” the world. In case you’ve never had the pleasure of playing Risk, it’s a fairly large game board overlaid onto a vastly simplified map of the world. (Of course, every war map is necessarily vastly simplified. It would make decisions about where to bomb, for example, even more complicated if you were distracted by the death and destruction to people, animals and property that you really have no beef with). No, the Risk “armies” consisted of tiny painted wooded cubes. I believe my original set contained “armies” of bright yellow, bright blue, bright red, black, pine green and pink. The map was divided into the Continents. The Australian Continent (which included Australia, New Zealand, and all of Indonesia) consisted of four “countries.” Europe had seven “countries,” Africa 6, South America 4 and so on. The version I own now has plastic armies which are not nearly so cool as the original wooden ones.

Risk was also cool because, although there was a definite element of luck, strategy played a huge part in whether I won or lost. I generally won. I think I liked winning mainly because of this: as I won more and more land and acquired more and more armies, this meant I had more and more choices in where I deployed my armies and where I attacked. Meanwhile, my “enemy” had fewer and fewer armies, territory and fewer choices about what they could do.

My strategy (hardly original) was to capture Australia and Siam. If you occupied “all” of Australia, you got an extra two armies every turn. Over time, this is a big advantage. If you owned all of Asia, on the other hand, you got seven extra armies every turn. The problem though, with trying to occupy all of Asia was that you could be attacked from many different other countries. On the other hand, to attack Australia you only had one choice. You had to attack from Siam. This meant you had to occupy Siam before you could attack Australia. Conversely, if I could hold on to Siam, I could “protect” my occupation in Australia. And, equally important, I would be preventing anyone else from owning all of Asia. Anyway, during the many years I played Risk, I seldom related it in any way to real war. Although it was played, as I said, on this crude multicolored map with little bits of wood. Is it possible the obsession with the “Domino Theory” and its application to southeast Asia was based partly on childhood experiences with “Risk”? I don’t think so. The timing is wrong. Risk came out in 1957 so people born in 1945 would only be 12 when it came out. I would only be old enough to die in Viet Name; but not make any policy decisions. Military generals with enough power to shape US policy would have had to take up playing Risk when they were at least in their thirties.


I played a game after all. The game’s objective was clearly stated in the rules. The objective was to take over the world. It never occurred to me that this might be something “bad.” I understood, even at 12, that the other players also wanted to take over the world for themselves. Someone winning didn’t result even in a hiccup in friendships. Angry words were never spoken. However, if someone thought someone else was cheating, then that was an entirely different matter. We had to try to resolve that before moving on. Generally, on the few occasions that that occurred, I think the person accused of cheating said it never happened and we all said something like, “OK, but don’t let it happen again.” This kind of indicates that we did not totally believe the story. Actually, it isn’t quite true that my friends never got angry during play. When we played with two sides, we didn’t get angry. Three or four sided Risk did result in some angry words. The reason was that when one person began to win (usually me), the remaining players would gang up. But these alliances were only temporary. Once another player became dominant, the alliances would shift to prevent the new dominant person from “winning.”  Then, the old allies might begin to fight verbally. Managing these fluid relationships was much more difficult than managing how to arrange the armies on the board. It involved another set of skills entirely. Moreover, to “win” at that game never struck me as being quite as honest as winning at two-person Risk or at checkers or chess. To win at 3-person or 4-person Risk, you needed to manipulate others into seeing your interests and their interests as being aligned knowing full well that at some point in the future, you would have to attack your ally in order to win the game. I could never really put my heart into this aspect of the game. As a result, I eventually much preferred 2-person play which was an overt and obvious all-out competition from the beginning to end.

My cousin Bob (3 years older and who also became a psychologist) liked multi-person Risk. He spent a lot of time trying to manipulate me into doing things I didn’t really want to do.  Perhaps we can delve another time into my credulousness when it came to my cousin. In my own defense, I would remind readers that when you are a little kid, you generally believe that someone three years older knows more than you about how the world works; he is someone to learn from, after all. In fact, not only does the older kid know more, they actually are most likely smarter. Their brains are not just filled with an additional three years of knowledge; their brains are more mature; the wiring is more complete. Anyway, on one particular occasion, we were having a toy soldier fight in a sandbox at his house. His dad, a psychiatrist who ran hospitals for the criminally insane, often moved from city to city and one of our typical summer vacations was to visit him in his new location. At this point, he ran a maximum security psychiatric hospital  for the “criminally insane” in Altoona, PA and lived in nearby Hollidaysburg. He owned a large house with a dog run for Bob’s Collie, Laddie (who was now, sadly, nearing the end of his life) and included a large, hand-made sandbox. This formed the backdrop for the pitched battles cousin Bob and I set up.


We employed the cool hollow lead soldiers that were hand-painted. Anyway, we had each set up our soldiers and we were about to go through our elaborate process to see who would “win” this battle, when my cousin brought up the idea that he wanted to use a firecracker. I objected that this was unfair and that it might actually blow up some of my soldiers besides giving him overwhelming odds of winning. He countered by saying that it isn’t just about winning. More importantly, it’s about having a good time. And wouldn’t it be cool to have an actual explosion in our battle? Now it occurs to me that I might have asked him to let me determine where to place the “dynamite” since it didn’t really matter to him who “won.” Alas, I didn’t think of it at the time and so I relented. He ran inside, got the firecracker and some matches, ran back out, carefully placed the firecracker to do the most damage to my troops (and probably therefore win the “game” that doesn’t really count so much as having a good time, let’s not forget). He lit the firecracker and there was a very short dramatic moment while we awaited the inevitable. We had stood a safe distance away so now, after the surprisingly loud CRACK-KOOM we walked back to the sandbox, Bob with a happy grin and me more in a resigned frame of mind. Well, I thought, at least it would be interesting to see the exact pattern of destruction suffered by my troops.

And that pattern was…impossible.  In fact, none of the considerable damage from the firecracker had been wreaked onto my troops. All of the fire-cracker damage slaughtered his troops. As this slowly dawned on the two of us, I burst out into laughter. My cousin, however, sprang into tears and ran inside. I found that extreme a reaction disturbing in someone so much older and wiser. Anyway, I surveyed the battle scene for awhile. I never did come up with a very good explanation of how this (and quite possibly Karmic) “smart fire-cracker” actually managed to hit only my cousin’s troops, especially since Bob had so carefully positioned it to harm mine, or so we both thought. Soon my thoughts turned back to my cousin. Why had he been so upset? It occurred to me that it really did matter to him who “won” our toy solider battle — enough to make him cry, at least when prompted by my laugh. But besides that, and more importantly, it taught me that he had misrepresented how he actually felt in order to manipulate me into doing something mainly in his interests while making it seem as though it was in my interest.

They say hunting is the only sport where one side doesn’t know they’re playing. That’s how I felt though. I had been playing a game of toy soldiers with my cousin. We had established norms and rules to decide who “won” a battle. Apparently though, my cousin was also playing another game— a game of psychological manipulation. This was a game that no-one told me we were playing. Of course, it you are three years older than another kid and the other kid doesn’t even know you are in a game of manipulation, it’s pretty easy to manipulate them.  But now, Bob had spilled the beans. For him, it wasn’t just about winning at toy soldiers or checkers or chess. It was also about winning a psychological game I hadn’t even known we were playing. I’d like to say that he never succeeded in manipulating me psychologically again. I don’t think that’s quite true, but at least there were far fewer incidents after that.


And that brings us back to the war that we are all in today. Here. Now. This minute. It is partly a war of soldiers and positions and weaponry. On that front, the USA is well positioned. However, it is also a war of diplomacy, communication, and finding common cause with reliable allies. It is also an economic war and a scientific war. Although finding and maintaining superior weapons are not by any means the only values to having a healthy economy and a large established scientific community, it is one value. If a country finds any type of superior weapon before anyone else can develop it, they have a huge advantage; quite possibly one that cannot be overcome in any other way.

What might such a weapon look like? It’s hard to say. It could be chemical, biological, nanotechnological. It could be superior robotics or AI. Or, it could be having a huge advantage in know-how about psychological manipulation, especially if the citizen soldiers don’t even know they are playing —- and being played.

If I were in charge of trying to “take over the world” today, even if I had a large arsenal of atomic, biological and chemical weapons, I would still have a giant problem. And that problem would be international cooperation in general and NATO in particular. And the “worst” part of NATO would be its strongest partner, the United States of America. If I use atomic weapons or biological or chemical weapons, yes, I can destroy many countries. But they will destroy me and my country. So, that won’t work. But what if, instead, I destroy a country from the inside out? What if I destroy the trust and cooperation of nations in general and of NATO and the USA in particular? If I can accomplish that, I can indeed, end up taking over the world.

Okay, that’s easy enough to say. But how on earth can you manipulate a country into destroying itself? If I thought this had not already been figured out by many other people a long time ago, I wouldn’t publish it here, but they have so I will. You first look for real problems in that country. Let’s take, as a random example, America. There were real problems even in 2016. A small selection in no particular order: gun violence, crime, opioid addiction, unemployment, crumbling infrastructure, soaring medical costs, giant and growing wealth inequality, soaring cost of higher education, insane levels of greed and corruption, a distracted public that wants to “get” everything in two minutes or less, polluted air and water. So, these are real problems that could be used as scaffolding for a full scale attack on our country. These are like the Medieval ladders that allowed the enemy to scale the castle walls. But ladders alone won’t do the trick. After all, these are all problems that can be ameliorated with intelligent direction and hard work provided people cooperate. First, they need to cooperate on a way to prioritize these issues and pay for them. Second, they need to cooperate in the execution on every one of the necessary plans. So, no, scaling ladders alone won’t do it.

The second weapon that must be brought to bear is the catapult. And, this catapult is not your grandmother’s catapult. It is an “intelligent” catapult. It doesn’t just uselessly careen boulders into a mud puddle in the courtyard. No, these flying rocks are guided to the fault lines in the castle walls. Where are the fault lines? What fault lines, you ask? Well, the “fault lines” are the lines drawn in the sand between people when they can be psychologically manipulated into pointing fingers. “It’s your fault!” “No, it’s your fault!!” Everywhere you can find people divided on an issue, you can aim a rock to catapult there. It doesn’t even matter how trivial the issue is! All that matters is that there are at least two sides (two is probably best) and that they fervently disagree. It can be much more entertaining to point fingers and yell at another group of people than to sit down and calmly pick a problem and then go solve it together. I swear that there are very very few people who would not experience much better feelings doing the second than the first. And, yet, the “finding fault” is addicting. It makes you high. It really does. And, like heroin it actually solves precisely the same number of real problems in the real world. Zero. Zip. Nada. Two groups of people can scream at each other for hours, days, months, years, decades. They can throw insults; they can point fingers; they can lob bombs. But not one thing has been accomplished that way that even begins to counterbalance the damage done in the process. And, meanwhile, there is the opportunity costs of not working together to create something useful, or beautiful, or just awesome!

America has always been something of a delicate balancing act. We celebrate freedom of speech, for example, and this results in some very extreme views. We embrace diversity which engenders huge creativity and resiliency. On the other hand, it also means it may take a little longer to understand each other. And so on. But what if someone sought to upset the balance? What if someone’s idea of how best to destroy America is to put their fingers ever so slightly on the plates of those scales? And what if the way that did that was to exaggerate and inflame the various “fault lines” in America and in so doing, greatly weakening the castle walls so that scaling them would be much easier?

That is why every Citizen Soldier in any country, needs to be wary of psychological manipulation and to try to avoid focusing on finding fault and differences and instead focus on finding a soluble problem and then going out and just solving the damned thing. Yes, it’s great to be brave and loyal. But you’ve also got to be smart. Think about it. Companies spend millions of dollars on commercials to get people to buy their products. Do you think they would do that if advertising were ineffective? Now imagine a country that wants to weaken the US. Do you think they would line up atomic weapons and tanks to shoot us but then fall short of using techniques of psychological manipulation that inflame your hatred and exaggerate differences? They sure as heck would not be sponsoring radio programs to air uplifting stories of cooperation across our differences!  No. It is a war. We are all soldiers. But we must be smart. Think this through.

(The story above and many cousins like it are compiled now in a book available on Amazon: Tales from an American Childhood: Recollection and Revelation. I recount early experiences and then related them to contemporary issues and challenges in society).

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