Life on the FOB – Exiting the “Red Mist” – Afghanistan Day 17

“Cheeky, gabbie, bastards,”  C.SGT R. said and not knowing if I misheard the color sergeant because of his Scottish accent or unsure whether or not he was just making something up to mess with me, I said,  “What the fuck are are you talking about?” “Cheeky, gabbie, bastards, that’s what they are!” C.SGT R. reiterated, “That’s how we pick the ‘chatup man.'” “The what?” I turn to one of the Smudges (a nickname in England for the last name Smith) looking for some kind of assurance as to what C.SGT R. is saying. “Yeah, the ‘ch-a-t-up man’,” Smudge articulates to me. “Gotch’ya. So what is the chatup-man? I have never heard this before.” C.SGT R., says, “Oh, you know that is that point man in a unit. He’s the chatty guy that is tactically there, perceptive, you know. He’s the smooth guy that likes to run his mouth a lot. We make him point on our patrols in the South [of Afghanistan]. You know, when you go into the village, the chatup man runs point. That’s how we always run units.” C.SGT R. says this like its the most natural thing on the earth, like the sun rising in the East and setting in the West, as if for time immemorial, the “Chatup Man” has simply been a feature of soldiering.

The pay off of doing “observant participation” fieldwork  is that by immersing yourself as deeply as possible in the problematic under investigation, you move from the front stage of peoples’ public displays to the backstage, where impression management is less guarded, and where venacular terms that only have meaning for other members of the group under study are used. And so it took nearly 16 days of spending nearly 10 hours a day with combat advisers — participating in everything form work, the gym, dinning at the DFAC, tea, to pranks — to find out about the “chatup man.” This in spite of the fact that nearly everyday I had been asking about how and why some people were better at intercultural interactions than others. Back to the “chatup man.”

After learning about the “chatup man” I finally cornered C.SGT R. at the Brit Club. While other soldiers came in and out of the tent, making tea, and watching music videos on the television, C.SGT R. tells me about the chatup man. “He’s usually our most senior guy that we got, with the most confidence, and is really switched on as a soldier. Alright? The way we used to work it was, back in Northern Ireland, he would be the VCP [vehicle chekpoint]  man and he would be the guy we would have stop the vehicles. We evolved it from that to Afghanistan and made  him the pointman, one of the lead scouts that we’d send out to make contact with someone. More than anyone, it would be this guy. More than anything he [the chatup man] would be a senior private soldier and he would be, you know, educated; not educated, but you know, had street smarts and experience, street savvy, you know. And the section commander (like a U.S. platoon SGT) picks the chatup man. So, as the senior sergeant I would look at my guys and see that this one is really good at talking to people and if anything were to happen to the section commander or squad leader he would take over the reigns.  Basically he can hold a conversation and when people come around they are the ones that are ‘hey you, what’s happening!’ and can hold a conversation and are comfortable doing so. They are also switched on awesome soldiers. But unlike the other guys who don’t know what questions to ask [at a checkpoint] they have no problem.”

The Chatup Man is part of the social and spatical organization of the squad

Importantly, and contrary to the way that most people describe the “socially intelligent,” the feats of the “chatup man” are not individual but collective in nature. C.SGT R., describes how a unit deploys the “chatup man.” “For example, at a checkpoint, the commander puts his hand out to stop the vehicle, but he dosen’t make the approach. The chatup man comes in from the side and approaches the driver.  These days its now done with an interpreter but you can still practice it just as well with your own people and achieve the same goals. Good manners is everything. Be polite and not be too aggressive or too angry when you’re speaking to people. Its basic really, whether its in England, the States, or here [Afghanistan]. He’s not mister angry! But he can turn up the tempo if he needs to.”

“I’ve even had guys that after a contact [a fire fight], you know, he’s been shot at and he goes into a village and is like ‘oh hey, where you been, what are you up to, oh right okay’ and uses that… basically shooting the shit, with the locals and all that, rather than charging in, guns up, shout’n ‘where’s the fucking Talioban!” C.SGT R. says that self-control is key to being British infantry, not only for the chatup man but for everyone in the unit. That means, he says, “avoiding the Red Mist.” Red mist, he says, is the rage or anger that comes from being frustrated in social encounters. His example is the frustration of being called names, insulted, having objects thrown at him while holding a line during a riot or public disorder in Northern Ireland. What C.SGT R. thinks distinguishes the chatup man from the average soldier with self control is “seeing the big picture. And that is just from experience. There is no course to become a chatup man. Its just up to the leaders to see him.” While the chatup man is usually someone just promoted to Lance Corporal, C.SGT R. also says that the chatup man can be a soldier fresh out of training so long as he demonstrates the appropriate traits.”

Red mist, the color sergeant goes onto explain, is the loss of emotional control and he equates it with anger, rage, impatience, loss of self-control, getting tunnel vision, and the inability to see long term consequences of actions here-and-now. Red mist, however, is not simply meant as a descriptor of an assemblage of emotional and perceptual experiecnes. It is a term generally used by the color sergeant and other combat advisers to refer to the social consequences of loss of control. For example, the color sergeant describes a situation in Northern Ireland. “There, ya know, we were securing the lines during public distrubrances [riots]. And we’d be all kited out and there with our shields. And one of the guys, he couldn’t shake one of the guys out in the mob. He’d just stare at the guy while he was getting abused by him, ya know, cursed at, insulted, told his a fag, throwing shit at him, and so on. Well this private soldier, he let the red mist take control and he broke the line. Ya never break the line. That puts everyone in jeopardy.”  In this case red mist is a moral issue because it violates the integrity of the soldier’s group. But in other cases red mist is consequential because it offends the outgroup, potentially even creating enemies. ” We had this happen in Iraq. The guys, they forget that a lot of Iraqis and even Afghans are educated, maybe in the UK or, here, in Pakistan. They speak English, so you can’t be popp’n off. We had some people in Iraq who were being rude and insulting with Iraqi’s in earshot. And that caused us some real problems.” In the South [of Afghanistan] though red mist can be something as simple as a Dear John letter. I had that happen to a private soldiers and you can tell. So I pulled him back and tasked him for another job because when we go into a village I couldn’t have him caught in the red mist and, you know, maybe shout’n at a kid or lossing his temper for no reason. We put a lot of time with the villagers and the farmers and it would be stupid of us not to pay attention to our guys like that.”
“In North Ireland is where we learned about this, and of having the chatup man. You do a VCP (vehicle control point) and you have some hot head storm up the car and sayd ‘get out of the car! Take off that jacket!’ You know, rude and like how you wouldn’t want them to talk to you or your mother. Now you think that driver is going to tell you if there is a VBIED (vehicle born improvised explosive device) about to blow you up. Fuck no!”

I ask C.SGT R. if the chatup man is sucessful because of his cultural awarness. He says, “I mean that helps but a lot of what I am talking about would have applied equally well in Northern Ireland or Iraq. Its not about the culture its kind of common sense. Don’t treat people different than you want to be treated. That’s pretty good. Maybe not solve everything but, you do that, and the people will treat you the same. All this “hearts and minds” shit. Its really just common sense.” The color sergeant continues with an anecdote about his time in Iraq as a chatup man. “We were out and about doing a VCP and all of a sudden a mob formed behjind us. I was contacting a driver at the VCP and I saw what was happening. So I was just professional and courtious. I told him, through my interpreter,  ‘hey there is some trouble behind us, why don’t you take route so-and-so to get to your destination.’ So the driver thanks me and says, ‘That man in the black hood is the ring leader.’ Well with that information I went into the crowd and found the leader. He was just pissed off that there was trouble with the electricity and he hadn’t found anyone in the coalition to complain to about his problems. So I listened to him and told him I would try to fix the problem and planned to meet again so I could tell him about my progress. Worse thing is to promise something and disapear. But that was it. Crowd went away, no one hurt. You just got to keep calm, be aware, and chat with people normal like and you got a chatup man!

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