Battles between minds: experiences in elite military operations
Review by pupil Iona Harrison, Head Girl and President of Perception Society
Photographs courtesy of pupil Heinrich Cheung
On 27 September, Dr Balasubramanian, Deputy Housemaster in Gownboys and Chairman of Perception Society invited a very special guest to speak to our pupils. We were very lucky to host yet another incredibly insightful speaker, Alasdair Truett MBE. Ex-military officer turned businessman, Mr. Truett brought his wisdom and stress relieving advice to the many Carthusians attending the event.
The evening started with one of the Presidents of the society, Alix McNeil, giving an eloquent and informative introduction. Following this, Alasdair began with a number of crucial life lessons, such as to focus on fewer aspects of your life that you are passionate about and therefore do this to a higher standard. This was linked to his personal experience, where he left university after merely six months to join the army – particularly The Parachute Regiment.
Lt Col Alasdair Truett MBE (centre) with Dr Balasubramanian (Right, Chairman of Perception) and Luca Viventi (Co-President)
The physical and psychological stress applicants are put through in the selection process is significant: gruelling assault courses, hand to hand conflict, and arduous weighted marches over three weeks are designed to find those with not just the physical attributes for battle, but more so to find those with the right psychological resilience. And it is this resilience that is crucial to being successful in both the regiment’s tests and in the wider world.
Alexandra McNeil introducing the speaker
He then was part of the British intervention in Kosovo; a conflict about the friction between peoples of different faiths - Christianity and Islam - cultures, national authority and identity; and then later in Iraq. Alasdair painted an example of the fragility of civilization and society as we know it, how easily it can break down, and how relationships, even between neighbours are reduced to competition, conflict and violence. During his time Alasdair, he learnt a lot about human instinct under extreme stress and danger. On one particular day, his unit played an important role preparing to prevent conflict escalating with Russian troops; something the media of the day presented as a possible trigger to wider war between nations. This crisis was fortunately avoided thanks to deft handling by some senior British officer who understood not only the geographical aims of the Russian group, but also the personal and emotional aims. And it was in this period that they first experienced shots being fired.
His anecdotal stories were both eye-opening and chilling to listen to, with his insights covering experiences on the ground in very close proximity combat and of the effect of decisions being made at higher levels of command. Surprisingly, Alasdair affirmed that the primary source of stress at this time was actually on the human side of war, with soldiers sometimes needing to wrestle with, and separate, their professional role from their wider views about politics, and those held by and voiced to them by families and friends. It was their preparation and planning on large and small scales, that mitigated potentially huge losses of life.
Further experiences, in Afghanistan from 2009 opened his eyes to the personal side of war. Their job was to bridge the gap between the Afghan government and small isolated groups, with many of their successes coming from learning from the psychological effects of stress on the human condition, for British and Afghan soldiers alike and, crucially for the people of Afghanistan around them. Carthusians watched videos of gunfire and conflict in awe, and listened intently to the emotional additions Alasdair imparted.
The conclusion of the talk focused on counter terrorism operations after 2001. Alasdair explained how combatting these threats, in some contrast to previous experiences which had involved living amongst peoples and adversaries, was conducted more remotely. Much of the search for protagonists and planning involved a great deal of legal and regulatory frameworks, time and space mathematics, and a wide array of non-military experts, and was completed from distant headquarters safely remote from the problem. Different to those stresses he had experienced in previous situations, these were largely intellectual, with just short sharp time-limited physical stresses during periods of temporary, direct engagement.
This lecture was hugely informative, eye-opening and helped pupils understand and appreciate the realities of conflict. Perception Society would like to sincerely thank Alasdair Truett, and the Founder & Chairman of the society Dr Balasubramanian, whose tireless efforts have once again come to fruition in the form of yet another incredible lecture.