Art of War: Oculus and Military Interventions

April 18, 2014
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This is the first entry in the new WOTR series, Art of War. To submit to Art of War, email with “SUBMISSION” in the subject line.


Ever since we were cavemen around campfires, humans have been using storytelling to explore the deep, underlying meanings of our existence.  While science, logic and reason can tell us the facts about our world, stories give us the methodologically unbound space to help us interpret the facts, what they mean for us, and how to become who we want to be.  It is for this reason that the insights we take away from a piece of great art or fiction can resonate in ways that profoundly move us.  We learn from our heroes in stories, their triumphs, and their mistakes, in important ways.  This is true for every sphere of human activity, including – if not especially – the realm of realm of strategy and statecraft.

Thus, the purpose of this column is to do exactly that: explore great works – contemporary and classic – and derive insights on statecraft for your consideration and discussion.

It is with this in mind that I’d like to call your attention to the new horror film – “Oculus”.  The main character, Kaylie, believes that a mirror is the cause of a horrific incident in her childhood involving multiple murders.  After years of research on the mirror – and years of attempts to recover it – she finally secures it for a night.  She does so in order to prove that the mirror was responsible for the terrible events that destroyed her family.

Kaylie has a plan. She’s been crafting it for years: catch the mirror doing its thing on video and exonerate her family.  And she designs an elaborate experiment in order to do so.  Multiple cameras record the mirror and, crucially, her own actions as she exposes herself to its paranormal radioactivity.  She ensures she has enough food to eat, water to drink, and backup lighting in case the power goes out.   Not willing to underestimate the mirror, Kaylie goes one further.  She builds in backup systems in case the mirror starts playing with her perceptions of reality, as she believes it did with her parents.  As she proceeds, Kaylie trusts that her research and precautions will protect her.

Yet soon after the experiment begins, she finds she is completely out of her depth.  She quickly discovers herself in a twisted psychological maze, which ultimately proves her own undoing.  Unreality becomes reality, and vice versa.  Kaylie becomes controlled by the very thing she sought to control.  In the process, she destroys everything – and everyone – she loves.

Her precautions were amateur.  Her plans were easily obviated, her actions easily manipulated.  Hubris led her to believe she could actually grapple with – and destroy – the forces represented by the mirror.   She couldn’t.

What does a psychological horror movie about an evil mirror have to do with national security policy and grand strategy?  If we take “Oculus” as metaphor, we can creatively contemplate U.S. actions in the wake of September 11, 2001.  The particular themes that resonate for me include:

  • The importance of defining clear and actionable strategic objectives;
  • How important it is to learn from the mistakes of others;
  • The need to guide actions with meaningful intelligence rather than sloppy analytic assumptions;
  • How easy it was for the US to lose touch with reality when conducting interventions;
  • And above all, the dangers of hubris.

Reflecting on Post-9/11 U.S. Strategic Choices

The events of September 11th, 2001 shook the national security establishment to its core.  Post-mortems on the run-up to the attack notwithstanding, the hard truth is that no one could have predicted the event or its implications, not really.  The United States was caught blind-sided.  Ideas and paradigms that had shaped the thinking of our nation’s key leaders were thrown out the window.  The calculations of the President became binary.  Black, white, good, bad.  “You are with us, or you are against us.”   “Terrorism” became rhetorically synonymous with evil.

Those who dismissed the rhetoric at the time were unwise to do so.  When it comes to statecraft, words matter a lot.  Speeches inform guidance; guidance becomes programs and priorities.  And as any kid who’s played the “telephone” game before knows, there’s a reason that simplicity is one of the key principles of warfare.  Messages and guidance have to be clear and straightforward if they are to be effectively translated into action by soldiers, sailors and airmen scattered around the globe.   For better or worse, the nation was suddenly involved in wars that were hopelessly complicated, utilizing the most basic of emotional rationales articulated by President Bush:  root out evil by going to war against terrorism.

In hindsight (which, of course, is always 20/20), there were a number of problems with this approach.    But one of the key intellectual conundrums:  terrorism is a tactic that employs violence towards a political or cultural end, not a person, group or nation with its own agency.  By oversimplifying the problem and confusing the terms, the United States not only confused a psychological mindset with an actor possessing its own agency.  The U.S. also created military objectives that were simply impossible to achieve.  A military fights and wins wars against adversaries, not tactics.  We might as well have declared war against an evil mirror, much as Kaylie attempted to do.  Formulating well considered, well-crafted guidance is absolutely essential if we want to prevent ourselves from tilting at windmills.

Regardless, between 2002-2005, the United States found itself leading major nation-building efforts in both Iraq and Afghanistan.  We congratulated ourselves for the good work we’d done:  freed the oppressed peoples of Iraq and Afghanistan, held elections, dug wells, built schools.  We read the history books and determined for ourselves that we were not like any prior occupying force like the Soviets or the Brits.  We convinced ourselves that we were somehow different.

It’s precisely the kind of self-delusion Kaylie must have employed when she arrogantly assumed she could take on the mirror without incurring any damage.  She failed to heed the dark history of the mirror and all the terrible things it caused to its previous owners.  And she failed to meaningfully appreciate the lesson from her own tragic experience:  exposure to – and involvement with – the mirror can have fatal consequences. Kaylie’s experience reminds us that we should have heeded the hard-won lessons of our predecessors, and ourselves.  Namely, those who became embroiled in messy wars in the Middle East and Central Asia before us.

As time wore on, it became clear that the United States had kicked over a hornet’s nest in a region deemed critical to its national interests.  By 2006, sentiments changed, local grievances grew.  The United States went from being a “beloved” liberator (a somewhat dubious assertion at the outset) to an active participant in massive counterinsurgencies in two nations.  The U.S. was in over its head, and struggling to apprehend the dynamics of the conflict.  And people were dying.  Thousands of US soldiers along with tens of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans lost their lives.  We believed that we comprehended the conflict, that we could be a force for good.  But our intelligence turned out to be mirror imaging; we acted on assumptions rooted in our own thought processes rather than those of the local populations we were there to protect and support.

Because we didn’t understand what we were doing, it became easier and easier to lose touch with what we were attempting to achieve (poorly formulated though our objectives were).  Tasked with winning “hearts and minds” of ordinary peoples, soldiers on the battlefield desperately tried to understand and address the dynamics driving the insurgency.  But local tribal dynamics are complex and often lethal; US soldiers unwittingly became pawns in local disputes and, in turn, further alienated local populations.  And with respect to Afghanistan, Pakistani agents actively worked to manipulate U.S. perceptions and actions on the ground.  The result: what was really going on was nearly impossible to discern.  We began to see what we wanted to – and what our adversaries wanted to show us – rather than reality.  Which led to even more missteps.  This brings us back to Kaylie.  As she confronted an object about which she had very little true comprehension, she found herself losing her grip on what was real versus illusion – and making tragic mistakes as a consequence.

Because ultimately Kaylie was fighting her reflection; ultimately she was fighting herself.   While the ghosts of the other mirror’s victims featured in her nightmare, the demons she ultimately confronted were her own.   Does the same hold true for the U.S. experience in Iraq and Afghanistan?  When recalling incidents like Abu Ghraib, or the Maiwand District murders, one wonders: were the real demons we confronted our own?  Did we end up fighting ourselves?

Implications for Today’s Strategic Choices

Hubris drove Kaylie to try to control the uncontrollable, to try and decisively deal with a threat that defied her understanding.  She was outmatched and outwitted and paid the price.  That said, failing to act would have simply meant making the mirror someone else’s problem.  So the question that Oculus ultimately raises:  in retrospect, should Kaylie have spared herself the grief and pain and foregone her experiment with the mirror?  Or should she have attempted to control the mirror anyway, knowing the price she would ultimately have to pay?  In other words, was it worth it?

This is, ultimately, the question that the United States is asking itself as it draws down from Afghanistan and reflects on its Iraq experience.  When taking on foreign policy and national security challenges that are breathtaking in scope, is persistent vigilance the requirement and small victories the norm?  And if so, what is the price we are ultimately willing to pay?  Important questions indeed.  Especially given the scope and scale of the present – and future – challenges in Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Europe, and pockets of the Americas.

Thus, metaphorically speaking, the United States is having a Kaylie moment:  staring at the mirror, deciding what to do about it.   The thing is, these issues can never be solved, just as the mirror cannot be “solved.”  It can be managed, it can be fought against, but never decisively dealt with.  Not really.  It’s an ultimately frustrating, “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation.  But failing to act will likely have consequences as well.  What price are we willing to pay for small victories in an uncertain environment?

There aren’t any good answers, of course.  Only ambiguity.  But then again, easy solutions in the world of policy and national security are also exceedingly rare.  “Oculus,” for me at least, is a good way to creatively think through some important strategic dynamics.  And if we are to begin learning from our experiences and discerning what they mean for our future, creative thinking is absolutely required.

Now, over to you.  What are your thoughts?

By the way, next up: Joseph Conrad’s “Heart of Darkness.”


“Oculus” was released in theaters on April 11th, 2014.


Kathleen J. McInnis is a PhD candidate at the Department of War Studies, King’s College London and a Research Consultant at Chatham House.  She served as a Pentagon strategist from 2006-2009.  She is the editor of the new WOTR series, Art of War. The views expressed are her own.


Photo credit: The U.S. Army