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The Terrifying Things You Learn In Military Intelligence
Cezary Jan Strusiewicz
April 19, 2017
Intelligence specialists translate and analyze communications between America's enemies, then let us know which one of them desperately needs a Hellfire missile up the ass. We're talking about a profession in which you literally decide who lives and who dies. That's pressure. We wanted to learn more about the folks who deal with that kind of responsibility on a daily basis, while we freak out at the psychic weight of caring for a houseplant. So we spoke to Gwen, Greg, and Eddie. This is what they told us:
The Things You Learn Will Scar You For Life
As an intelligence specialist, one of Gwen's jobs was to analyze videos made by terror groups. Obviously, we're not talking about epic Slip 'n Slide fails here -- these are the most soul-scarring videos imaginable. Gwen elaborates:
"One video was a cartel beheading a rival, but they used a dull, small knife to do it and made sure to make the guy stay alive through most all of it, then this girl cartel member skinned his hacked-off head. Another was of the captured [Jordanian] pilot who ISIS caged and poured gas on, then, yup, lit him on fire. The guy was praying the entire time, all the way until his jaw melted off his face."
In lieu of photos, try to picture the exact opposite of this.
Gwen told us that after a while, you become desensitized. And once you lose enough of your soul, that's when the government lets you analyze videos of U.S. soldiers committing war crimes.
"There's another video in which Hummers drive down the road and there are kids standing by the side, and they throw candy off to the kids as they pass, or in the road ahead. They do that because if the kids refuse to go pick up the candy from a certain spot, it means there's an IED there. Or if there is one and [the kids] don't know, they run over and set it off -- which minimizes the likelihood that the Hummer and soldiers will sustain any injury, but they are also innocent kids. We don't do that anymore, though." Can't have child blood staining your Humvee, after all.
Gwen continues: "There's another practice we stopped using, they are called cluster bombs. It's a bombardment of a ton of can-sized bombs. Unfortunately, the unexploded ones look almost exactly like the cans of food that the UN delivers, so when kids run up to grab one, it goes off. But we are told this is all acceptable collateral damage."
The families may tend to see it differently.
It's one thing when you have to watch terrorists murder someone. But when the supposed good guys are murdering kids? That can really mess with your head.
Many Active Intelligence Specialists Suffer From PTSD
Gwen would also plot coordinates for airstrikes overseas, which meant she had to go through a collateral damage estimate course. "It's basically a class that teaches you how many innocent people you can bomb to death in order to kill the person you're after."
The exact contents of the course are classified, but given recent data analyses, it seems that the U.S. military is OK with killing up to 28 civilians to take out one terror suspect.
Which has a lower success rate than stabbing random people in the hope that one of them did SOMETHING to deserve it.
"It was rough for me because I had to make the decision on what we were going to bomb and green light a sortie [deployment of one military unit], then I'd go home watch the news and see innocent people being pulled from wreckage from bomb drops [and] wonder, 'Did I play a part in that? Am I why that specific thing happened to that specific person?' ... You don't know if you accidentally killed a little kid's mom -- or worse, the little kid."
That's ... we didn't think it was possible, but that's much worse than watching torture videos for work.
Which we've had to do a few times, and can confirm is pretty fucking awful.
"I have crazy bad depression and anxiety thanks to all this," Gwen says. "I hate using the phrase PTSD, because I refuse to believe I compare to people who have actually been in hell fighting for their lives, but a lot of intel people who have done real life collection do suffer from PTSD."
A quick note here: Gwen almost certainly already knows this, but maybe you're struggling with something similar. If so, you should know that that's not how PTSD works. Nobody "earns" it, and strangely, every single person with PTSD that we've spoken to, from active-duty soldiers to survivors of horrific attacks, feels the same way -- as if they don't "deserve" to have this disorder. And they're right. They don't deserve it. Neither do you.
Besides, Gwen knows she wasn't alone: "My psych once said 'I treat almost every [intelligence specialist] on this base, but none will ever admit it.' I'm admitting it for them. It will seriously fuck with you."
Great, now everyone knows that helping kill innocent people makes you depressed!
Even Terrorists Have Homes And Personal Lives
On some level, we're all aware that terrorists are human beings with families and loved ones. We try not to think about that, because we have that luxury. Intelligence specialists try not to think about that, because they can't. "As a young Marine, you're pretty enthusiastic about blowing people up," Greg says. "Then you spend months, years eavesdropping on people who are supposed to be your enemy. I was once listening to a guy I'd have danced to see dead, when his young kid got on the phone and chattered excitedly the way children do. I realized then that my enthusiasm for killing the adult was inextricably tied to my acquiescence to killing that kid. That's pained me ever since."
From that day on, Greg started seeing America's enemies not as monsters but as living, breathing people. "Then," he explains, "the day comes when friendly forces take action on the target and they send you, as a trophy, pictures of a mound of taco meat that used to be a human being. Congratulations, you helped do that."
... aaaannnnndddd back to the rabbits while we catch our breath again.
None of this ever interfered with Greg's job, though. He continued to put objective values on human lives like some demented version of The Price Is Right, right up until he got out of the military. That's when he realized just how wrong the price was.
"The full weight of what we were doing didn't really hit me until after I got out of the military and went to college on the GI bill. One day I was reading the Book of Romans in the New Testament, which was originally a letter written by the apostle Paul. There's a passage: 'Do not repay anyone evil for evil.' When I read that, something clicked in my brain, and I went 'Oh, shit.' That's exactly what we do."
The Paranoia Starts To Invade Your Daily Life
They say that when all you have is a hammer, every problem starts to look like a nail. That's why carpenters make such poor babysitters. It's also why people who keep listening on terrorist/spy chatter tend to become slightly paranoid in their spare time. Gwen explains: "I was in the car with my then-boyfriend, and a car was following us really closely and making the same turns that we were, which is when my intel training kicked in and I started telling him to make dumb and redundant turns to see if they did as well -- which they did, and so I told him to drive to the brightest place (it was night) he could, and the car eventually went away. Do I know why they were following, or technically if they even were?"
Nope! Guess there's no option but to live in uncertain terror.
Clandestine agent, or someone trying to read your bumper stickers? Enjoy your sleepless nights guessing.
Greg does the same. "Me and a few guys once went out to an Asian restaurant, and the waitress, who spoke thickly accented English, offered us all a military discount if we showed her our military IDs. Not an unusual thing. Then she vanished into the back with our IDs for a few minutes. Instantly we're all thinking, 'Ah, shit. Did we just give the Chinese our identities?' And who knows? The waitress might have just been checking with her boss to see if the IDs were real. Or she could have been a spy for the Chinese. I was also once told by a counterintelligence officer not to accept any drinks at a bar from attractive women because I'm not good-looking enough for anyone but a spy to hit on me. Hate to say it, but he's probably right."
Ouch. That's a harsh way to realize that truth, buddy.
"Let's go somewhere more private, like a submarine with first-strike capability. Where would one of those be, anyway?"
Some Of America's Enemies Are Just ... Wildly Incompetent
We're not scared of North Korea because they have a chance of defeating us. They don't. We're scared of them because they might be too crazy for that to matter to them. The fear is that if NK ever goes down, they might take a lot of people with them.
Eddie, who used to work as a cryptolinguist -- translating foreign communications for the Air Force -- disagrees: "We have NOTHING to fear from them. Sure, [if there's a war] they'll overrun a bunch of territory right off the bat and get a lot of people killed out of sheer manpower. But I can't imagine that once a response is underway, they'll be able to maintain for more than a weekend ... All during the '90s, they used to infiltrate countries like South Korea and get caught all the time because they didn't know how they dressed. We're talking about special forces all wet from entering South Korea through the sea, wearing ridiculous outfits like a Mickey Mouse shirt. They would stick out like a sore thumb."
Basically this, but espionage.
However, there is one area in which North Korea really is Best Korea: They are truly excellent at killing North Koreans. Eddie elaborates: "In 1998, North Korea tried to infiltrate the South by putting their special forces on a minisub. This information is available to the public -- you can Google it -- but what you won't find is what happened next. See, subs are operated by regular Navy, not super crazy-ass North Korean special forces. Special forces are CRAZY. So this sub and the crew got caught in a fishing net, and the fisherman called the coast guard ... When they cut it open, everyone inside was dead. Apparently, when they were caught, the regular Navy guys wanted to surrender, but special forces wanted to commit suicide, so there was this huge brawl in the tiny submarine with grenades and axes."
Because a minisub still has enough room for a fully stocked ax armory.
Well. That is completely fucking terrifying. We guess "like grenading your comrades in a submarine" is the gritty reboot of "like shooting fish in a barrel."
Intelligence Specialists Have One Very Specific Weakness ...
Because real-life terrorists aren't cartoon villains, not every conversation is blind exposition about their next bomb plot. They lead ordinary lives, calling friends and family to tell them about their day. They'll talk about what to have for dinner and crack jokes. But intelligence gatherers believe it's important to listen carefully to even those conversations, because they may accidentally include vital information, like the location of a terror camp or their leader's deadly shrimp allergy.
Can't beat finding a weapon that doesn't blow up any local kids in the bargain.
Here's the thing about that: "As a linguist for the military," Greg explains, "you're really good with things like counter-terrorism, counter-narcotics, arms proliferation, etc. But when it comes to colloquialism-riddled friendly conversations, you can quickly get lost. I could tell when, say, an Afghan drug dealer was just shooting the shit with someone, or when some Pakistani gunrunner is sweet-talking his wife. I just couldn't tell you exactly what they were saying. We're keyed into particular phrases and topics. I could watch a Pashto news feed about a suicide bombing and tell you everything that's going on. I could not tell you what was happening in a Pashto kids' show."
Beyond general stuff like "Big Bird isn't supposed to sound like that."
This isn't Greg's personal problem. The military has a long history of mismanaging language specialists.
"I was a good linguist," Greg insists. "I nailed my DLPTs [the annual test given to check linguist skills]. We're just not trained to translate the banal aspects of human conversation."
So the experts get the straight information, but are lost in the subtleties. Casual conversation, idioms, and jokes rely too much on complete cultural immersion for us to understand. We sincerely hope no terrorists are reading this right now, because it looks like you can throw off U.S. intelligence by making all of your terror plots inherently hilarious.
"Sir, chatter indicates a sleeper agent. We think they might have a man in Nantucket."
Greg is a former Marine Corps cryptologic linguist. Cezary Jan Strusiewicz is a Cracked columnist, interviewer, and editor. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter.
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