Why They Are Shooting

The advent of my conflict razor and creative synthesis

Lush Desolation— Southern Helmand, 2011

Before that day in 2011 — even though I had been in the profession of arms for a decade and a trained aviator who had also deployed to combat once already — I still didn’t viscerally understand conflict in the inescapable way that requires your entire being to process. I was one of “those people” that Max Brooks referred to in his speech at the Naval War College as the reason why he chose to use terrifying and mythical zombies as an allegory for pandemic disease. “Those people” believe that if you mind your own business, you’ll be fine. But as any purveyor of World War Z, or “The Walking Dead” would attest to, zombies come and find you no matter how upstanding and inoffensive your life is. My citizenship in this population ceased when I first heard the nearby snap of malicious lead. I was surprised by my emotional response — that of profound perplexity and annoyance to the point of anger. I could not understand why someone I didn’t know wanted to hurt me so bad.

That single realization shattered an entire lifetime of naivety and provided an excellent philosophical razor for orienting on conflict. In the broadest sense, it provided for me a clarity of judgment between conflicts of divergent self-interest, versus conflicts of irretrievable malice. The former is diplomatic and resolvable. The latter, often found in the conflict of arms, is in the realm of ideas and convictions and resides in those immutable depths of humanity for which there may be vaccination, but possibly no immediate cure.

I was surprised ... I could not understand why someone I didn’t know wanted to hurt me so bad.

My eventual reflection and assessment was not vindictive or cynical — rather, it filled a crucial functionality gap in my “orientation engine” that helped me to overcome a penchant for giving too much benefit of the doubt, and to ground my assessments of conflict in a manner that more closely reflected reality. I found myself able to reconcile my personal experiences, cultural upbringing, and natural disposition in a manner that could finally synthesize what I was seeing and experiencing in conflict.

But on that day and in that moment, although we absorbed what was happening, made decisions, and carried out those decisions — we did not know what we were doing. We weren’t ready. We knew the tactics and the drills and the heritage and the traditions, wore all the gear, had all the fire support and the gadgets and even superior numbers, but we flailed and slung lead and dropped bombs with our mental faculties in a cloud that was not the fog of war, but the haze of ignorance borne of a life amongst the ranks of Max Brooks’ zombie victims. What we lacked was a broad, primal, and rapid creative synthesis honed over years of brutal and disciplined education (note, not training).

Creative synthesis is the ability to assemble dynamic and disparate data sets into a picture that informs a decision. Creative synthesis both drives and anchors the process that at the end, saves or takes lives. Creative synthesis is the responsibility of both the institution and the individual. In aggregate, it is the blood on our hands, the blood of our enemy, the safety of our loved ones, the survival of our nation and way of life.

And that creative synthesis is why I write.

Major Sisyphus is an active-duty Marine officer and aviator. He has participated in numerous operations and campaigns around the globe to include two combat deployments in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan. The opinions expressed are his alone, and do not reflect those of the Marine Corps, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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