Life on the FOB- Afghanistan Day 20 – “You can hear when they’re aiming at you”

Today was largely a dissapointing day. Not just because there wasn’t much for me to see and to do but I think everyone in advisers group has been bummed out. Sgt P. for example got off to a bad start when, during a ambush training, his students showed up with a M249 SAW machine gun but not one M16.  SGT P. asked why the students and more importantly why the instructors hadn’t brought their weapons. The reply, from the interpreter was, “They didn’t think they’d need them.” Flustered, Sgt. P shouted to the students, “For fucks sake! How’d you think we were going to do an ambush! Why’d they bring a fucking 249?”

The day started off on a bad footing. At 0730 we all showed up. But as soon as everyone rallied, a message came down saying that everyone had to go to the gym to help set up the new multi-gym. Since everyone was all kited up and had already loaded up the vehicles, this news was not met with smiles.  Moreover, several of the advisers got called into a meeting with one of the ANA Majors over what I suspect was a misunderstanding. Yesterday a group of ANA students rebeled against their instructor and the advisers when, after doing only one break contact drill [i.e. breaking contact with an ambush] the students, led by one in particular, refused to conduct any further training. The advisers became pissed of because they thought the students were being lazy. The students claimed that the advisers were somthing like slave drivers. However, I don’t find this to be an accurate statement since the advisers generally go along with the ANA instructors and let them release the students after, at most 4 hours of training. One of the students, who the advisers think is the son of a mullah or someone else important, complained to the infantry school staff and so several adivsers were called in for a consult. This the advisers were not happy about.

Other advisers were pissed off because they had to go to a conference. They had expected, as one of the Smudges put it, “for it to be real academic like. But nah. Instead every single one of the ANA instdructors, all these guys from the training centers around the country, all they do is get up and say  ‘we have no stationary.’ Come on now, is that all you have to say? Fucking ridicouls. Come all the way here and all you can say is ‘we have no stationary.’ That can’t be the only issue you have.”

Then, later in the morning, while out on the 100m range, there was the distinct report of “effective gunfire.” That is, from the Taliban village nearby a single shooter decided to shoot at us again. Though the shots were off by about 100m, there was the disinct sound of rounds passing by (unlike last time when all you could hear was the impact). One of the SGTs, after scrambling for his M24 grumbled, “You can hear when they are aiming at you!”

All in all, everyone was in a sour mood, and no one got any effective training done.  The advisers here really do care about the ANA students and instructors. When they aren’t advising they are constantly strategize how to teach better and increase the performance of the ANA students. They are also worried and exasperated. One of the advisers, at lunch groaned, “Fuck, in a week these guys go South [to Helmund], they just aren’t bloody ready. The instructors haven’t been there [i.e. fought before] and they aren’t making sure that these guys are ready to survive. Its tough down there. We are trying everything we can to help the students but if we don’t let the instructors take over and make them better then what happens to these lads when we leave. They’ll be fucked mate. These guys [the instructors] they get these positions because their family has pull and doesn’t want them to go to the South but that is bad for the students because they aren’t being taught by people with experience. People who understand what they will be going to.”

Taliban village.

On the dry fire range, SGT. S and Stu were out with their interpreter, Wahid the instructor,  and two squads of students.  In a somewhat comical fashion, the adivsers misconstrue a contact exercise that Wahid has the instructors doing. SGT. S. wonders aloud, “Today is an ambush day. Why are the doing contacts?” Stu replies, “Maybe they are confusing ambused and ambushing.” The two advisers go back and forth debating whether or not they need to changer the terminology they use. Fez, the interpreter gets defenseive too! “I was clear, today is small unit ambushes. I didn’t tell them to practice getting ambushed. ” Then SGT S. had to placate Fez, “Oh no Fez, we don’t think you made any mistake, we just aren’t sure if we’re being clear of they [the instructors] don’t understand the difference between ambushed and ambushing.  When Wahid has a pause, after putting the two squads through contact drills, SGT S. has him come over. Wahid explains that because they had extra time on the dry fire range that day that he was doing remedial training. He then laid out his plan to do small unit ambushes, after evaluating whether or not his student first understood the break contact drills. Pleased, SGT S. and Stu took  a back seat to the training and were largely satisfied with the days work. I thought this was a nice simple example of how people come to see a cultural difference, when, in fact, none is in play.

3 Comments on “Life on the FOB- Afghanistan Day 20 – “You can hear when they’re aiming at you”

  1. Quite eventful for an uneventful day!

    Wow, so many ways to interpret those events. In my experience, soldiers from Western and East Asian countries are generally more accustomed to being driven like slaves. They understand that endurance is a survival tool. Lazy armies are loser armies.

    Whenever I’ve trained with African or Middle Eastern soldiers, their focus is more on status and fear. To them, leadership is about condign, coercive, organizational, or legitimate power, while in the West we respond more favorably to reward, referent or expert power.

    To many peoples in the lesser developed world, warfare is an act of political stake-claiming, clan expansion, or violent retribution. The mechanics of learning to kill people in an orderly fashion is therefor merely a chore.

    Before Shaka organized the Zulus into a violent, referential, and organized fighting force, the tribes engaged in “war” that was merely a demonstration of potential combat power, and “battles” were often decided by agreement among the leaders – win-win, everyone preserving their resources.

    This was also fairly common in medieval Europe. Armies would show up, demonstrate combat power, settle, and retreat. This type of warfare develops anywhere that there is relatively scarce manpower and no clear technological advantage. Animals like bears and lions also rely on demonstrations because even a winner could suffer wounds that are fatal or disabling.

    Some “misunderstandings” are intentional. If they don’t want to work, they claim they didn’t understand the message. You shouldn’t get angry with them. A Western soldier can be humiliated by a charge of laziness. They can’t. You should expect them to rebel every once in a while either because they are lazy or because they are testing the limits of authority.

    Focus on the leader. He’s obviously in on the deal. Subtly tell him that soldiers unwilling to train is a bad reflection on his ability to motivate them. If they need a break, then he needs to communicate with the instructors and PLAN a break, not just act ad hoc.

    I used to tell cadets in the field, “A soldier ALWAYS has something to do. You’ve got security, maintenance, logistics, hygeine, and yes, even rest and recreation. But you don’t just allow your troops to flop and drop when you get off the bus or after an exercise. You have to have a PLAN for R&R and let them KNOW what it is, as a reward for when the necessary work is done.”

    These soldiers need to be taught that laziness is a one-way ticket to the grave. Victory goes to the side which wants it the most for the longest time.

    OK, so maybe they need a break from the field. Give them some time at play which involves strategy, planning, coordination, communication, and teamwork. This is why ROTC incorporates games into PT and Adventure training. Have one group of ANA plan a water balloon and water gun ambush on another group on a hot day. Tell the other group that they are going to water balloon and water gun ambush the other group, but set them up as the ambush victims so they can react. Do this on a really hot day.

    But don’t discount the idea that the reason they didn’t want to train was because they KNEW someone was going to be shooting at you that day. Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean someone isn’t out to get you.

    • Rob,

      I really appreciate you connecting my observations and experiences back to your own experiences with training foreign military. Your point about status and fear is well taken. It is not at all uncommon for the highers to hit, kick, and otherwise abuse their subordinates. I went out with a training unit that trains up personal security details. They pick students from active units and you can see what the experience of combat does to motivate people to take the training seriously.

  2. But what’s ironic about my statement is that the Western/Asian soldiers UNDERSTAND that the “abuse” is meant to make them stronger. Difficult training is meant to toughen you up, not break you down. Or it’s meant to test your limits. Or to separate the wheat from the chaff for a prestigious assignment or position.

    For African, Middle-Eastern, and former Eastern Bloc armies (generalizing, of course) the abuse is simply abuse to solidify the control of the leader. It may toughen them up as a peripheral goal. It may harden them toward becoming a more compliant and ruthless leader themselves one day.

    I spent 20 years training for a war I never had to go to. My students have more combat experience than I do. That made me question my ability to train soldiers. But then I asked a hypothetical: what if our nation enjoyed 50 years with no ground combat. We’d have an entire Army with ZERO combat experience. Assuming that the PROSPECTS for war remained constant and therefore soldier remained equipped and trained, would we be able to field an effective force?

    I think we could. In the Battle of 73 Easting, a tank commander said that the Iraqi armored vehicles he was shooting at looked EXACTLY like the simulated targets he was trained to shoot at.

    Training in battle drills is effective at creating combat ready soldiers relative to armed civilian rabble. Certainly experience is helpful, but not necessary. What experience mostly reveals is the character of a soldier under fire. You never know how someone will react until you actually have to do it.

    I can’t imagine how seeing my best friend blown to bits would affect me. I can’t say how killing an enemy soldier up close would affect me. I do know a lot about fear, though – from getting beaten up by MSG Captain.

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