Life on the FOB – Afghanistan Days 23/24 “Objet inconnu touche a ton coeur!”

Dee Dee, the nick name of a French sniper instructor, grins as he puffs on a his cigarette, says, “Object inconnu touche a ton coeur!” “Que? Qu’est-ce que cela signifie?” I ask in very broken and awful french. Dee Dee says, “Its a French saying, that  means that sometimes a mysterious object touches your heart. I was meaning the ANP who went to pray during the break. But here sometimes I could say ‘Objet iconnu touche a ton cul!’ That means a mysterious object touches your ass! And that is what will happen if they [the ANA students] don’t start using their cover!” And such has been the past two days with a British and French sniper team that is teaching the first batch of ANA and ANP to become sharpshooters. The team, one British infantry sniper a French infantry sniper and another French soldier for support, have been careful to deliniate that even though they are teaching the Afghans how to be better shooters, “We don’t teach them everything that we do. One, because they aren’t ready yet and, two, because it is a dangerous weapon and I don’t necessarily want them to have everything yet. Especially these guys who we don’t know and don’t know if they have been vetted.” The constant strain of distrust is even more apparent in the joke that the interpreter and the instructors make when, during a movement and concealment exercise, one of the ANP shooters answer his loudly ringing cell phone. SGT M. slaps himself on the forehead and Dee Dee says, “Allo! Is this Mullah Omar? Yes! Oh, we are here now! Just wanted you to know!” The interpreter jokingly says, “maybe he is just calling to let his Taliban friends to know his position. Hey Taliban!”

The past two days out on the “sharpshooter” course,  has confirmed what I have found to be a general pattern. There are two types of advisers: those that want to instruct and get down and dirty and those that want to only interact with the instructors, typically at the end of the training or later in the afternoon. The first grip, lets call them the “engages” worry as much about creating dependency between the instructors and the adviser  as the second group, lets call them the “commentators.” But the groups differ in that the “engagers” both prefer doing the training, they tend to worry and talk more about what will happen to the students upon deploying,   and they tend to think of training in “craw, run, walk” style. The “commentators” tend to treat advising as a weaning process where the main effort is to get the instructors to think and act on their own without coming to the advisers for help. Now, both groups will invoke similar concepts and practices, what differs  is the relative weighting each group giver. What is amazing to me is that across the multiple national militaries that I have observed, all fall within these two general types of instructors. That is, there is a general agreement in concepts, discourse, and practice. The French tend to call more into the “commentators” class while the Kiwis are most likely to fall into the “engagers” class.

On the sniper instruction team SGT M. is very much an engager while SGT G., the French adviser tends to speak more to the students through the interpreter. Because of the nature of “sharpshooter course, both have to be more involved than their normal advising duties, though that will change, SGT M. tells me, once a T3 course begins (Train The Trainers). I ask SGT M. how he communicates with his students. “Well I use the interpreters. I used to know some Dari,  but its mostly gone. But even if I had it, it wouldn’t do much good since half my students are Pashto speakers. I do the same thing with the interpreter and without. I use body language. If I want them to do something, I try to put my body into the position for them, and break it down so they can see what I want. Like today, I to show them how to build a position, I go and do it first. Or, like, if they aren’t breathing right, I grab my rifle or hold my arms up and take deep breathes  while showing when to depress the trigger. If the student is breathing all over the place then I try to show them a steady pattern, ‘inhale, exhale, shoot.’ If they are holding their breath too long then I will do the same and puff my cheeks and turn red and start shaking real hard. They don’t have to speak English to get what I’m saying. Although the ‘Terps’ are good, they try to condense what I say and it seems they leave about half out of what I say.

A UK instructor shows a sharpshooter how to crawl with his rifle.

Using Touch to Explain a Target without Shared Language

One of the complaints that the instructors have, and emphasized by SGT M., is that the ANA do not have “total institutions” for their training. That is, training takes up a slice of time and work, play, family, prayers are all separate. Thus the instructors do not have the students under their watch at all times, nor do they have the ability to discipline them or structure their time in an effective way to turn the ANA into good soldiers or the students into quality sharpshooters. A day after SGT M. told me he thought discipline was a major issues in training the ANA, he had a small insurection on his hands. The students had a setup drill where the recruits had to move approximately 20m to a shooting position by using the four movment techniques they had learned, yesterday, including crawling. The initial movement required crawling. The first sign of trouble was when the ANA students said they didn’t want to go first. They wanted the two border police to go first. SGT M., thinking that the two border police were in fact more experienced decided to allow this. After the border police had begun their movement and the ANA students had several minutes to watch, SGT M. told them it was their turn to beign movement to their positions. One of the ANA just stood up and walked to the position. Another turned to the interpreter and said something to the effect of, “No. This isn’t part of my job. I don’t need this training.” I could see Taff’s (SGT M.) face turn red and his brows furrow in anger but he maintained a calm voice and explain, via Zey, the interpreter, “You understand that if you don’t practice this, you will get shot trying to get in or out of your position?” The student replied, “I don’t need to do it.” He picked up his rifle and walked to the position. Taff asked the other student what he was doing, and the student replied, “I am not crawling.” He pointed to a group of 40 ANA students training on the .50 call machine gun at the HMG range and said, “They will all think I am being disicplined.” Taff, flustered, said, “I just was crawling in the dirt. I am not ashamed. This is the job of being a sharpshooter, you have to know and practice your fieldcraft.” He again asks, “You do understand that if you just walk up to your position, you will be killed in combat?” Taff turns to Zey to get the second students answer. Zey shrugs and says, “He’s stupid, he just says he’s not going to do it.” Taff says, “Screw it. They don’t want to train, then they don’t pass. They can shoot, but I am not passing them on the course. I can’t send them to a unit this way.”

While the two border police had taken their time crawling to a good position, often slithering over dirt piles and rocks to find a good spot with cover, like a small ditch, the two ANA simply dropped their rifles where they stood.  Because they didn’t check their position, the first ANA student who fired, shot right into a mound of dirt not 10 meters in front of him. Only after getting a plum of dust sprayed back towards him, did the ANA student finally begin listening to Taff and Dee Dee.

Yesterday, at the Brit Club, Taff had told me, “Its a numbers game. They just send us people and we are told to pass them. It doesn’t matter if they fail their qualificaitons. They still get sent off. A few months ago we had an officers course where in the last two weeks of the course, they sent us a bunch of new students. Well they had missed all the training. Didn’t matter. The ANA told us to certify them and they got sent of to lead platoons of 30 guys! Its really frustrating. All this run before you can walk. We are going to leave here in a few years and the ANA is not going to be able to stand on its own. Quality, not numbers. Accountability and discipline. You need these first.”

The war photographer Tim Hetherington wrote in  a tweet — @TimHetherington: “Understanding what motivates soldiers…will…help us determine what we can & cannot reasonably expect from them…” September 27, 2010.

Whereas the soldiers of the 101st Airborne that Hetherington observed and documented with Junger in Afghanistan were often unequipped to be street-level diplomats, the combat advisers are skilled diplomats, able to hold back anger, sarcasam, and enraged postures in order to benefit “the big picture” as they see it.” But when today, after having two students basically say “fuck off” to an instructor, who seems to be genuinely concerned about imparting skills meant to save their lives, and to have this happen day after day,  I am amazed that the instructors don’t just give up, that they don’t just become cynical and start falling back onto cliche’s and stereotypes about the Afghans. Even when today I watched  three ANA walk up a road, onto the live fire range, with rounds headed down range from .50 cals and M24, only to start walking up the hill towards the shooters, then to shout at the instructors for not stopping the firing. Three Afghans put themselves into immediate and immanent danger, much to my surprise. Instructors had to litterally throw themselves onto students to stop the firing on the various weapons systems.

When I saw the three ANA emerge from behind a draw, swinging water bottles, and chit chatting,  my pulse hit the ceiling, I was sure one if not all were going to be cut down by gunfire. By chance none were killed. The instructors, just shrug it off, “Insha’allah!” Even the interpreter mumbles, “They are lunatics!” The reality is that neither I nor the instructors nor the Afghan interpreter know why the ANA students would walk in front of .50 cal rounds but the tone it sets is grim as it highlights how much work has yet to be done to get the ANA to be a capable fighting force. If officer safety is the “god term” of police work and the centerpiece of judging training and police competency, that certainly is not the case here. And the consequence is that ANA’s seeming disregard for their own lives, what the combat advisers call “Insha’Allah” saps the energy and motivation from the advisers more than being ignored by students, more than having the garrison command refuse to resource the students with ammunition, oil for their guns, or the ever sought after stationary.  Nonetheless, the combat advisers show up everyday, with the very real risk of their own students turning on them with firearms, to try and teach the warfighting skills that will only be partially appropriated by the students. As SGT S. said a few days ago, “It doesn’t have to be our right. It just has to be right for Afghanistan. It’s not our country.”

7 Comments on “Life on the FOB – Afghanistan Days 23/24 “Objet inconnu touche a ton coeur!”

  1. Brian, the next time I teach Discipline & Punish I might assign these posts. I keep thinking about the passage where Foucault discusses the swarming of the disciplines, and then wondering if this is what the slow drip of the disciplines might look like.

    • I think that there is actually an interesting question here, somewhat like what Gorski asks, and that is, what are the material and social conditions for the appropriation of disciplinary techniques and their effectiveness? I tried writing about this from the point of view of army cadets but this is another vantage point altogether.

  2. That’s the kind of thing I had in mind, and its the question that keeps popping into my head when I read your blog. What are the limits of these efforts? How much of these disciplinary techniques also depend on schools, hospitals, prisons, and (perhaps especially) certain kinds of markets (like a labor market)?

    • The way Focault talks about disciplinary practices, they should be somewhat context dependent. That is, you shouldn’t need the church, schools, prisons, or hospitals to incubate disciplinary techniques and there is no reason why they couldn’t be entrenched in the military first. I imagine what I see with the difficulties of making “drill” happen is more akin the problems Weber discusses regarding rationalization of tradition oriented peasants. A lot of the guys the advisers work with really are rural self subsistence farmers who seem to be oriented primarily to an agricultural and religious sense of time. That is, prayers and the hot hours of the day take presidence over the totalizing time of disciplinary institutions. Part of the problem is that the advisers don’t have the authority to “discipline” ANA students. So if a student refuses to participate in the Program of Instruction (POI) the advisers recourse is to go to his higher ranking officer and have that officer speak to the ANA commander, with the hope, however slight, that the commander will take some kind of disciplinary measure. So again, discipline doesn’t happen in a vacuum, it requires that the organization and its parts are so configured that discipline has force and efficacy. The basic methods are in place here but not the social conditions for them to have force.

  3. I see what you are saying with Weber. I’ll add that the great thing about Foucault’s examples is that you see how disciplinary practices are “context dependent” (to use your words), and you also see that something special happens when those practices take root in myriad contexts. It’s like a pomo interaction effect.

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