Life on the FOB – Afghanistan Day 18 -“Better to let ’em do it tolerably than perfectly”
Morning – Contact Drills
Standing on the ruins of a Soviet FOB from the 1980s, Simon, a Kiwi adviser, shakes his head at the conclusion of a group of ANA students conducting a contact drill. “Well, as T.E. Lawrence said, better to let’em do it tolerably than perfectly. That guy was a ahead of his time.” Simon was referring less to the ANA students than to the ANA instructors that he mentors. As he and Stu, a British adviser, continually point out, the ANA students can only perform as well as their instructors teach and the instructors only instruct as well as they engage with the advisers. “But,” said Stu, “I had a breakthrough today. Wahid [an ANA instructor], realized he was fucking up and he actually came to me and asked for advice. So things are getting better… a bit, anyway.”
What is so difficult about the war, the advisers tell me, is getting the ANA to take charge of their own security and building of their own military. As LT. P and CPT M. had pointed out several days prior, its not all the ANA’s fault. The coalition’s patrimonial stance toward the ANA left them in such a degree of dependency that they never developed shared expectations about resource management, logistics, or even, as many of the advisers suggest, planning ahead for the future. That said, even the Afghan interpreters periodically erupt in complaints. Today, Abdulah, one of the interpreters, complains, while we stand beside our beat up Land Cruiser, “They are lazy! The instructors, they don’t want to work. Look, he’s [the instructor] is just standing there! He’s left the attacking group sitting for 20 minutes. They move so slow so they only have to do one or two exercises before going home.”
Stu complains, “When they teach [the instructors] they just stand in front of the students for 30 minutes explaining contact. You can see it, the students are falling asleep, there not paying attention. Remember when Kutz and the Captain did the movement drill on the 100m range? Well you could see how they responded to a demonstratoin. They really perked up, eyes all wide, and they start talking. Problem is the instructors, here, don’t use any kind of visual aid. So if I didn’t use the rocks today. If I didn’t show Wahid the rocks he wouldn’t use them… . If you saw Wahid, he wasn’t even paying attention to me when I was explaining how to use the rocks as visual aids. He had his head down and was being mopey, as usual, and so he got the drill with the rocks wrong along with the actual drill.”
While I was watching Wahid using rocks to train in how to break contact during an ambush, Simon comes over to me and ask, “What do you see that’s wrong here?” I told Simo, “I don’t know much about ambushes so I can’t say.” “Just look at how he’s teaching. What’s wrong?” Simon asks. I finally see what he means, “Oh, he has everyone in a horse shoe formation but he is teaching with his back to the largest group!” “Exactly” Simon says, “and that is the problem. Even though he is using the rocks he isn’t at all concerned with whether or not anyone can hear or see him! The ANA just aren’t used to aids or to drilling and this is what happens.”
Of course, on of the cognitively interesting aspects of this incident is that it highlights that there is nothing evident or natural about various modes of communication and interaction. So to the degree that using “visual aids” or props is a culturally varying competency (i.e. in one society it may be a more necessary means of indexing and constituting referents than another), it is not sufficient just to tell someone who hasn’t learned to take-for-granted visual aids that they ought to use them. For example, in the Anglo-Saxon tradition, to use visual aids requires that the aids be used not just to keep track of their referents but that the aids be visibly available to others. On the few occasions where I have seen the ANA instructors attempt to use visual aids (either drawing on paper, drawing in the dirt, or using rocks/bullets in arrangements), in almost all cases the instructors have stood in front of the visual aid, thereby obstructing the students view of the aid meant to guide them, or they have simply failed to use the props as a vehicle of participation with an audience. That there are differences in how societies use props to involve participants in an interaction is not commonly taken as an important cultural difference. This does not mean that there is some variant underlying “code” that makes the use of props to index in certain ways more or less important it is simply that using props is a practice that requires it be available if it is to be learned and reproduced as a communicative strategy.
Afternoon- Fit to Fight