The Crazy Professor and “Machine Gun Hill” Reply

By Chris Simmons

Major Gunsberg was one of my History professors when I was a cadet at the Virginia Military Institute (VMI). The Major taught an infamous but highly desired, year-long course called The History of Warfare. Having served two tours in Vietnam as an Infantryman, he brought an edgy, philosophical, yet confrontational style of teaching to the classroom. It was pure theater and it kept us challenged and engaged.

Every day, Major Gunsberg tormented us with the same scenario:  You are leading an Infantry unit. You’ve just been ordered to take a hilltop so well fortified it is now called “Machine Gun Hill.” It’s a daylight attack. No artillery or air support is available. The hill offers no cover or concealment, so friendly casualties will be high. It cannot be bypassed – it must be captured. Pausing long enough for the words to sink in, he would then ask:  “So, how do you capture “Machine Gun Hill?”

Every possible answer we provided was wrong. Finally, on the last day of class, he told us the secret. We had been looking at the problem too narrowly. The only way to lead our men on a charge up “Machine Gun Hill” was to give them a cause in which they could believe. When committed to a cause, Gunsberg assured us, people freely make amazing – and sometimes life ending – sacrifices.

I was reminded of Major Gunsberg years later while running interrogation operations in Iraq. Many of the lower-level terrorists we’d captured began telling us they were fighting neither for Al Qaeda (AQ) or Islam. They explained to us that they did not hate Americans or members of the coalition forces. They fought because AQ had inspired them to fight for a cause – a cause worth dying for. It was a brilliantly cost-efficient and effective marketing strategy.

AQ recruiters had begun canvassing villages where poorly or uneducated residents had long ago abandoned all hope of a better tomorrow. Focusing on the young men and women, AQ wasted no time reinforcing the hopelessness of their lives and their village. The locals had little or no formal education, no schools, no hospitals or clinics, and in all likelihood, would die an early death from diseases that are treatable or preventable in many places of the world. To the young, impressionable men and women of the village, AQ’s grasp of the obvious captured their attention because the recruiters trafficked in that dangerous emotion called hope.

Their offer was surprisingly simple. If enough of them joined AQ, they would become the saviors of their village. They would do what none of their ancestors could accomplish – provide a better life for their family and the village. If enough volunteered, AQ pledged to drill a well and build a school, or at least provide a visiting teacher on a regular schedule. Likewise, an AQ medic would provide medical care for the volunteers and their families. Once again, if enough volunteered, medical care would be provided to the entire village. In some cases, a clinic was built. Recruits were told if they died serving with Al Qaeda, their families would be taken care of for the rest of their lives. By volunteering, the young men and women became immortal in the eyes of their families and friends. The message resonated and brought in a lot of “foot soldiers” to the cause.

AQ ensured they kept hope alive by fulfilling their promises to the villagers. These recruits fought us not because they believed in AQ, but simply because it provided a better life for their family while making them village heroes.

A cause to believe in – an inspirational albeit sometimes deadly thing indeed!

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