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Empathy in Time of War – Red Team, Red Team!

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Empathy in time of war means two words – Red Team. 

In time of war or threat of war, the power of empathy consists in putting yourself in the shoes of the enemy, thinking like the enemy, and thereby anticipating and thwarting the enemy’s moves. 

“Red Team” also happens to be the title of an eye opening, engaging book by Micah  Zenko, Red Team: How to Succeed by Thinking Like the Enemy (New York: Basic Books, 2015: 298 pp.). Though it has been around for seven years, it is very timely – and, in many ways, a page turner. Time to catch up on our reading. 

“Red Team” is a drill first developed by the US military to fight simulated war game battles in the Persian Gulf or western Europe during the Cold War. In the simulation, Blue Team is the US – “the good guys.”. Red Team is the other side. Zenko tells how the head of the Red Team really was named “Paul Van Riper.” He was.

Zenko narrates Van Riper’s assertiveness in questioning assumptions and how he brought forth the power of the Red Team in conducting asymmetrical battle, refusing to fight on the enemy’s terms, and acting unpredictably. Van Riper also spoke truth to power in calling out the improprieties of going outside the chain of command to “order” the Red Team not to shoot down the Blue Team aircraft. When the simulation was replayed with more equitable rules in place, the results were eye opening. Red Team was winning – decisively. The “authorities” decided to stop the simulation because the Red Team’s successes were getting to be embarrassing to the “good guys.”  

Zenko provides engaging background on Red Team training and thinking at the University of Foreign Military and Cultural Studies (UFMCS). Instructors and participants are taught how to distinguish the traps of social conformity and the “mind guards” and “blockers” who enforce it. The idea is to find and shed a spotlight on one’s blind spots beforeencountering the enemy. Zenko writes:

Students are taught the basics of cultural empathy and semiotics (i.e., the philosophical study of signs and symbols), without which a red teamer cannot identify and understand the values and interest experienced by those within a targeted institution [in the simulation] [. . . .] The four pillars that UFMCS curricula are based upon are critical thinking, groupthink mitigation, cultural empathy and self-awareness (pp. 38. 39).

Each of these pillars maps to a dimension of empathy or a breakdown in empathy (my view, not Zenko’s). Critical thinking counters the breakdown in empathy described as emotional contagion. Groupthink is the above cited conformity that blocks empathic understanding of what is possible for the other group (“side”). Self-awareness is not specific to empathy and is always relevant to understanding others, enabling an empathic response based on the context, not preconceptions. Cultural empathy is precisely taking a walk in the other’s shoes with the cultural appreciation of differences.

Such top-down cognitive empathy is not limited to the military, but is highly relevant to business, sports, and any situation in which information asymmetries exist in a context of zero sum game competition. Business is an obvious application. Most executives think of themselves as intrinsically better than their rivals. Such commitment to being right is all-too-human and, in certain ways, may even contribute to success – for a while. Thus, we generally find it extremely difficult to understand or empathize with rivals (p. 168). Zenko writes some things that are not flattering to executives;

Virtually all of the research that has been conducted on business decision-making finds that executives are distinctly uncreative, deeply myopic, and overconfident both in themselves personally, and also in their company’s ability to beat its competitors (p 235).

While it is easier said than done, the recommendation to perform red teaming promotes the leader as a fearless skeptic with finesse and a willingness to hear bad news and act on it. As a leader, if you don’t mind problems but really hate surprises, then red teaming is the way forward. Another way of saying that is to have your surprises simulated in a Red Team exercise rather than on the battle field, in the market place, or while trying to land the airplane.

Let us take a step back because, with a title such “Empathy in Time of War,” the reader may expect calls “to bind up the […] wounds, to care for him who shall have borne the battle and for his widow and his orphan ~ to do all which may achieve and cherish a just and lasting peace.” And, to be sure, one can do worse than quote Lincoln’s second inaugural address delivered in 1865 at the end of the American Civil War. Still, this was delivered at the end of the war. The 600,000 were already deceased, and it would soon be 600,001 when Lincoln himself was assassinated. 

Empathy has many dimensions, four to be exact, in both times of war and peace. Different dimensions of empathy come to the foreground in different situations. This discussion looks at all dimensions of empathy, but the one most relevant is that of putting oneself in the other’s shoes. This is the folk definition of empathy – perspective taking – with the other’s motives and context, insofar as one has access to them. Take a walk in the other’s shoes – in this case, the shoes of one who is out to do you no good – the enemy. (An enemy is defined as an individual or institution that is committed to behaving in such a way as to do, enact, or cause physical, emotional, moral, developmental, or spiritual harm to another person or group.) 

Speaking personally, I cannot believe that anyone would try to force a choice between empathy and compassion. The world needs more of each. Why would that celebrity psycholinguist from Yale try to force a choice? (And if you do not know his name, you will not read it here.) Still, if as a thought experiment, one had to choose, go with empathy.

Let us consider a use case. The NY Times reports that Russia has a list of prominent Ukrainian intellectuals, journalists, business persons, politicians, and government officials to be killed or detained as Russian forces sweep across the country.[1] The Red Team empath who takes a walk in the opponent’s shoes knows what he is dealing with – mafia style totalitarianism. What do you do when assassination is central to your opponent’s business model? Don’t expect any mercy. Man the barricades!  The compassionate person may still use the rational part of cognitive ability (and perspective shifting) to arrive at the same conclusion, but the compassionate Red Team decision maker doesn’t really know what to say, at least not from the perspective of compassion. The Russians love their children too (to quote Sting)? It is only a small segment of the Russian regime that proposes to kill everyone in sight? Even psychopaths have a soft spot for children and pets (except that they do not)? This is not a zero-sum game? Actually it is a zero sum contest if the Russian team is attempting to “de capitate” the Ukrainian government. 

It is quite possible that compassion, rational or otherwise, is just not a good fit for certain types of conflicts unless one can rework the situation so it is not a zero-sum game. Once the first stone flies or the first bomb goes off, both compassion and empathy are a lot less useful. Yet never underestimate the power and pertinence of empathy. That is the point of the Red Team initiative – empathy helps one survive in a hostile environment into which one is thrown due to circumstance and live to fight another day. 

It really does seem that Putin and his generals did not Red Team the invasion of the Ukraine, now in its third day (2/25/22)  thing very well, which, of course, does not mean that the Russian forces cannot still flatten Kyiv with artillery barrages. 

Let us consider another use case. Russia threatens to invade the Ukraine – this is prior to Russia’s actual invasion. The Ukrainian team conducts a war game playing both sides. Since the Ukrainians are outnumbered, out gunned, have limited air power, and limited air defense, they are not expected to win. This is of course the reverse of the war games conducted by the US Military where the “blue team” is the USA, and the other side is generally outgunned, which of course why it was so surprising when Paul Van Riper and his red team scored a knock out. In the war game, the Ukrainian Blue Team allows the Russians to enter the country, since they cannot stop them. Then the Ukrainians blow up the bridges behind the Russian Red Team. The explosives need to have been set in advance (which seems not to have occurred in real life). 

The Russians resupply struggles and some of their units run out of gasoline. These are set upon by small units equipped with antitank weapons that were hiding out in decommissioned ICBM siloes. Note that Ukraine was briefly the world’s third largest nuclear power before surrendering their nuclear weapons in 1996 in exchange for security assurances from Russia and The West. (Big mistake. But that is another story.) However, the Ukrainians still have hardened infrastructure, including bunkers, and siloes, albeit empty of missiles. They use this infrastructure to allow the Russians to drive buy, then pop up from the rear and inflict damage. The Ukrainians are defending their homeland, their families, and their lives. Red teaming takes such factors into consideration. Of course, the Russians have elite special forces, but the Russians are also relying on conscripted twenty somethings who have been told that they are going for training but are actually being sent off to war. You can’t make this stuff up. Under this scenario, the Russians expected to accept the Ukrainians surrender in three days. The Russians have enough fuel and resupply for nine days. If the Ukrainians can hold out for ten days, they win.

Update: This just in (12:30 PM CDT 2-27-2022). Unconfirmed reports state that some teenage Russian conscripts (soldiers) are surrendering in tears. Ukrainian authorities are allowing them to borrow cell phones to call their mothers, who are reportedly already lobbying Putin to stop the madness. The power of mothers should not be underestimated! Stand by for update. Meanwhile,,,

Empathic interpretation is a redescription of cognitive, top-down empathy. Engaging the empathic process as cognitive empathy is especially usefully and powerful in the Red Team situation of thinking like the enemy. But do not stop there. Even if one does not have enemies, if one gets stuck and does not have a good feel affectively as to what is going on with the other person, say one’s best friend, then mobilizing an intellectual operation to shift perspective cognitively can free up one’s possibilities for relating and interacting. If I find another person distant or emotionally remote or “on the spectrum,” one may usefully consider what one knows about what the other person had to survive or the challenges the person is facing or what one knows about the person’s role or aspirations or history. All this become grist for the mill of “jump starting” empathic relatedness where relatedness is missing. 

Earlier in the discussion, empathy was described as having four dimensions and the third dimension (3) of empathic interpretation, taking a walk in the other person’s shoes was called out. The other three dimensions include (1) empathic receptivity – be open the feelings and thoughts of the other as a vicarious experience that distinguishes self and other (2) empathic understanding – engage the other as a possibility in his shared humanity (4) empathic responsiveness – acknowledge the other in a form of language or gesture that recognizes the other’s struggle, contribution, or issue. One can easily appreciate how the “bottom up” aspects of affective empathy become less relevant or useful in the context of war. Less relevant, but not completely irrelevant, since, as Lincoln pointed out in the opening quote, even long wars eventually have an outcome and the healing properties of empathy (and compassion) return to the critical path. 

This is highly relevant to psychotherapy, psychiatry, empathy consulting, and life coaching. Only here “the enemy” is not the client, but the person’s disorder, diagnosis, or blind spot. It is truly a “love the sinner but hate the sin” moment (to mix in a spiritual metaphor with the clinical one). Here one must work to form an alliance with the client against an aspect of himself that keeps him attached to his own suffering. Though the suffering is real, it can be sticky and becomes an uncomfortable comfort zone.

It is not appropriate to diagnose public figures based on their crazy statements and behavior, nor do I propose to do that here. Yet there is a concerning parallelism between delusional behavior and the political fabrications (i.e., lies) and fake news of demagogues, fanatics, and fellow travelers of the Big Lie. Politicians as a class have never been known for their rigorous integrity in honoring their word, yet the success that some demagogues have in persuading the people to follow them – often off a cliff – must give one pause. 

Such influence often comes from the would-be charismatic “leader” believing his own lies and fakery. It does lend a force to the fanatic’s message and comes to resemble, without however being the same as, the delusional person’s self-delusion. Though there is too much suffering to bear between where the world is at right now (2/25/22) and some end point = x, the most likely outcome is Putin is finished. Putin is done – a shell of a human being, ravaged by the neurological consequences of power and Covid. We do not know how suicidal he is – think of Hitler in his bunker. Not a comforting thought. The question is whether Putin decides to take the rest of the world with him in a nuclear holocaust, and whether saner minds in the Kremlin can stop him. Red Team that!


[1] https://www.nytimes.com/2022/02/20/world/europe/us-russia-ukraine-kill-list.html


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