Small Wars Journal

Preliminary Examination of Prisoner of War #1138

Tue, 02/27/2018 - 8:02am

Preliminary Examination of Prisoner of War #1138

Michael Trumbo

The following is presented as part of the TRADOC G2's "Soldier 2050" Call for Ideas. This material will form a compendium of thoughts and ideas that will support the exploration of future bio-convergence implications on the Army of 2050 at the Mad Scientist Conference 8-9 March 2018 at SRI International. The conference can be livestreamed at


I have been asked to provide a preliminary report for the esteemed council of the GID concerning the recently captured enemy combatant, designated POW #1138. As the council may well know, live capture of a functioning prisoner has become a rarity due to the diminishing numbers of local human adversaries and due to countermeasures which render the captive essentially catatonic. Therefore, #1138 presents a rare opportunity for insight into and potential reverse engineering of current warfighter technology employed by the enemy.

Though the members of the GID are likely familiar with the history of technological capabilities geared toward improvement of individual warfighters, we all may benefit from a collective refresher to contextualize the interviews that will take place with the captive. It has long been recognized that many brain states characterized as mental illness convey some advantage within particular contexts to the afflicted party. For instance, anxiety is associated with increased vigilance to threats, schizophrenia and creativity are both associated with the same genetic polymorphism, and depression attenuates some of the positivity biases we typically employ – removal of these rose-colored glasses allows for better detection of red flags and a more accurate assessment of the world. Even certain aspects of psychopathy – for instance, focus under pressure – are beneficial under particular circumstances. It is normal, of course, for an individual to experience some level of anxiety or sadness in the course of daily living. The defining characteristics of mental illness are the intensity and chronicity of such experience. An anxious brain in an unfamiliar locale may lead to risk-averse behavior conducive to survival, but if one experiences high levels of anxiety continuously then threats are seen everywhere, leading to debilitating stress and paranoia.

In this respect, diseases of the body and mind share some common ground. A fever may kill off harmful microbes and spur production of white blood cells, but a fever that is too intense or lasts too long may begin to damage otherwise healthy cells. One abnormal allele of the hemoglobin beta gene results in a mixture of both normal and sickle-shaped red blood cells, affording some protection against malaria without introducing the restriction of blood supply to tissues present in those carrying two abnormal alleles, the result of which is sickle-cell disease. A deviation from a neurotypical state or violation of a bodily status quo is often not in and of itself a good or bad thing. The key to benefit is achieving the correct intensity in the proper context.

A few decades ago, these principles were incorporated into the so-called “thinking caps” the enemy provided to frontline soldiers. These caps were fitted helmets with electrodes positioned against the scalp which deliver current that would travel through the brain. The brain being an electrochemical organ is affected by this passage current, and parameters could be adjusted in such a fashion as to induce brain states associated with mental illnesses without crossing dangerous threshold levels. This balancing act is critical. If a platoon were combing an area for IEDs or the potential for an ambush seemed high, anxiety levels may be dialed up for heightened threat detection while following the principle of the inverted U-shaped dose-effect curve such that anxiety is limited to intensities conducive, rather than detrimental to, performance. Without enough anxiety soldiers may proceed recklessly; too much and they won’t proceed at all. Similar applications were found outside of anxiety modulation. If a bomb needed to be diffused, parameters could be adjusted to mimic the brain state of a psychopath – maintain activity in the planning and decision-making prefrontal cortex while reducing activity in the limbic system responsible for emotional processing – allowing for increased focus that is not clouded by fear. This weaponization of mental illness enabled that which was historically a double-edged sword to instead be honed and blunted as dictated by the context.

There were, of course, missteps along way. In the early stages, stimulation parameters were dictated by a controller who monitored the status of a platoon by tracking real-time biophysiological data of soldiers in conjunction with the sitrep to determine the appropriate brain state for the mission. This was prone to human error (e.g., dampening the adrenaline spike of soldiers engaged in a firefight increased reaction times and correspondingly casualties; a calm soldier is not always ideal), as well as limitations of the technology (e.g., the skull smears electrical current, leading to non-specific stimulation in some cases and the introduction of additional anatomical variability between soldiers). Over time, more sophisticated real-time algorithms were developed based on research on individual differences and brain states as predictors of performance in combat scenarios. Additionally, scalp electrodes were replaced with microelectrodes that were implanted in brain tissue to improve specificity of stimulation. This permitted dynamic induction of brain states conducive to warfighter survival in myriad situations, as well as the possibility of destruction of language production and comprehension regions of the brain in the event of a capture. We suspect the adversary has the capability of reversing these lesions following recovery of personnel, but it is possible such restriction of function is permanent.

Tomorrow morning, I will begin interrogation of the captive and report updates based on information #1138 is willing and able to divulge.


The American captive was found to be both docile and communicative, which has saved a great deal of time and effort, though he did object to being strapped into our deception detection equipment. Overall, the prisoner presented as honest, evidenced by a lack of activity in brain regions typically active when willful deception occurs. Neural scans revealed the existence of nanotech perhaps responsible for inhibition of deceptive response symptoms. Blood samples and the rest of the typical analytes have been collected, both under resting and stressful conditions, and sent from our forward base to our central lab for processing.

Verbal interaction with #1138 has revealed additional information which may be of interest. It seems his platoon was one of the first in which nanotechnology has replaced insertion of microelectrodes. The nanobots may be injected and programmed to migrate to particular brain regions, avoiding the need for the expensive, time consuming, and risky surgery necessitated by implanted electrodes. One way they have utilized this technology is reduction of PTSD risk via modulation of limbic activity. Diminishment of emotional salience associated with memories may occur in real-time at the encoding stage, or during memory consolidation during sleep; the latter seems to interfere less with the online functioning of the soldier. According to #1138, initial efforts geared toward avoidance of PTSD involved complete elimination of emotion during encoding of potentially traumatic events, but this failed in an unexpected fashion – dramatically increased suicide rates. Based on his own early experiences, #1138 reports that “not feeling bad about the death of someone I had trained with and fought with for years just made me feel bad about not feeling bad … I should feel something when someone around me dies right?

I’ve seen and done terrible things, and I don’t care. Am I still human?” Perhaps cognitive dissonance is a factor. Theories of emotion often incorporate a cognitive element, such that people label and interpret their physiological state by searching their immediate environment for emotionally relevant cues – emotion is thus the combination of physiological state and context. In the context of a firefight, it seems soldiers are aware that, if they consider themselves a caring human, they should feel something when their comrades die. Unable to reconcile the self-image of a compassionate human being with the lack of an emotional response, they chose to end their own lives. Perhaps when even witnessing the suicides of their fellows failed to elicit an emotional response a feedback loop was created, leading to increasing suicides? “They allow us to feel sad now,” the captive added, “but not until after the fight is over, and not so much so that we can't bear it. Also, they said it can help us remember our mistakes.”


The arrival of analysis reports from the samples obtained from #1138 has created tremendous excitement at our facility. Analyses highlight an increase in inhibitory neurotransmitters introduced via nanotech at limbic brain structures concurrent with memory consolidation of traumatic events (in this case, the traumatic events were introduced during monitored interrogation), effectively stripping the hyperemotional states from the event, leaving a combatant indifferent to the consequence of an engagement. This occurs in regions tied to anxiety and emotion, such as the amygdala; the key seems to be the instantaneous inhibition via nanotech signaling at the relevant site.

Our own research has shown promise with manipulation of GABA, an inhibitory neurotransmitter that can depress stress-related emotions, allowing for the presence of “bad” feelings concerning traumatic events, such as the death of a fellow warfighter, at an appropriate level, while retaining the memory. We have been unable to effectively use this chemical to block emotional salience with temporal precision, due to delays in signaling methods and physiological limitations regarding the timing of chemical release in response to the signals we broadcast. The implementation of nanobots to administer GABA at the site would provide an upgrade.

In addition, the development of nanotechnology would allow us to effectively govern reconsolidation of traumatic moments as they solidify into semi-permanent memories. As the brain begins to relive past experiences, the limbic system incorporates the proper emotional feedback, tethering the memory to its emotional component. As memories reconsolidate, nanotech sites may be able to introduce alternative chemicals to boost positive reactivity to the trauma, creating not just the capacity to overcome the trauma as experienced, but a desire to seek out such events in the future. A combatant infused with channeled, focused blood-lust during the heat of battle, a lust guided by military intelligence, presents a formidable weapon to wield – the Viking berserkers of old brought back to life.

In our own line of research, testing of the GoLGI apparatus (Genesis of Live Guided Initiative) as a directive for live military units has been ongoing but thus far ineffective. Pairing satellite positioning guidance with physiological data from warfighters appeared promising in guiding unit movements or placing high-functioning, non-overworked units in potentially volatile areas, as they would be primed to react well to adverse conditions. The system essentially monitors fatigue. If we are able to successfully reengineer the nanotech devices we have capture, GoLGI may function not only for monitoring nanotech release of chemical inhibitors, but in a more impactful way, by storing and analyzing traumatic event and biofeedback data related to such scenarios, creating a wider learning platform from which to determine the levels or types of emotions to promote or inhibit upon reconsolidation efforts by the brain. Rather than the individual, isolated responses described by #1138, GoLGI could broadcast the brain state (emotions, visual input, etc.) of one warfighter into the rest of the nearby soldiers, allowing for creation of a hivemind.

The interviews conducted with #1138 have revealed a deepening cycle of indifference. Neural scans reveal that his nano-response loop has ceased to function. By his account, the nanotech was supplied roughly 3 months ago – we will need to examine how to prolong the effective life of these nanobots given that production and programming are both likely to be expensive. I believe we have learned all that we can from POW #1138 and given that we can no longer study the response of his implanted nanotech in real-time due to its decay I have terminated personal interviews with the subject. He will continue to be monitored as a POW.


POW #1138 has been found unresponsive in his cell, due to a traumatic self-inflicted head injury it is assumed he sustained by repeated collision with the wall next to his bed. Close inspection of the scene exposed an inscription on his bed: “I am the captain of my fate.” An autopsy is scheduled for this afternoon. The brain (what is left of it) has been preserved for further analysis.

About the Author(s)

Michael Trumbo is a Senior Member of Technical Staff in the Cognitive Science and Systems department at Sandia National Laboratories. His primary research interest is improvement of human performance, with an emphasis on operational environments. He received a Ph.D in cognitive psychology with a concentration in cognitive neuroscience from the University of New Mexico in 2016. His work at Sandia has employed a variety of methods, including brain stimulation, eye tracking, and EEG, and has centered on assessment of cognitive state and improvement of human learning and memory.