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!

Life on the FOB – Afghanistan Days 14 and 15

Life on a FOB is, in many ways, like life in a cloister, jail, or military basic training in that it is totalizing. While the discipline may not be as strict, the fact of being attached to a FOB is inescapable. As one of the USMC LTs put it during our daily work out at the gym, “All there is the gym, chow, and movie night. I mean, no real reason to rush it [out of the gym]. I mean what are you going to say, ‘Got to go boys, my girlfriend’s going to pick up in a few for date night?’ The closest thing you will get to date night here is a packed couch full of Brits on movie night!” Days start early, at around 0600 hours, the advisers meet up by 0700, head out to the “cottage” at 0730, pack it in for lunch by 1100 (since the ANA students basically walk off at this time no matter the efforts of the advisers), back out at 1300-1400 for another hour or two of training or at least mentoring of the ANA instructors, to the gym for “the hour of pain” (which is misnamed since it is really 1.5 to 2 hours of pain), then to chow, and by 2000 hours circle back to the Brit club for “a brew” (of tea) and the “tele” or a movie, then its off to bed no later than 2230. Pretty much the same routine day-in and day-out, the only difference is that “the office” consists of  the foothills of the Hindu-Kush mountains, there is the occasional ‘sniper’, your “raw material” is illiterate Afghan farmers who are trying to make a better life for themselves, and occasionally one of your students may violently turn on you because you shamed them or because they are infiltrators.

Movie nights also involve a bit of gambling – the role of two dice to see who has the lowest number and consequently who will have to make “brew” for everyone in the Brit Club.  The loser, i.e. the brew-maker, is likely to spend 20 mins taking orders for tea and coffee and then serving. Those who role snake eyes have to  lick a 9volt battery.

Last night was a movie night (Tom Berenger in “Sniper”) and a gamble for “brew,” which topped off a day in the ANA officers course. The ANA officers infantry course  is far more autonomous than the NCO or enlisted course and for all intents and purposes runs smother and with less intervention from the advisers. The two advisers were an USMC LT, LT P. and a British Captain, CPT M. Both are bright, talkative, and have lots of opinions about what does and does not work in the way of advising the ANA. Due to several disastourous schedualing errors on the part of the camp command as well as of the instructors, not much was accomplished except for a few practicing occupying a FOB and doing FOB patrols.  LT P. said noted, pointing to a group of ANA who were being instructed inside the FOB, “At least they [the instructors] are multi-tasking. Its taken months for them to get to the point where they will see how to efficiently use time. So here you have one platoon getting a lesson, another is doing a FOB patrol, and another is getting prepaired for a dry fire drill tomorrow.”

ANA platoon studies patrolling in a mock FOB. Advisers say that getting classes taught "in the field" is an achievement.

CPT  M. and to a lesser extent LT P. don’t see cultural problems as that large of an obstacle to their training. Rather they organizational problems, lack of resources and  the history of the somewhat paternalistic relationship between Coalition Forces and the ANA as the major impediment to their success. Regarding paternalism, CPT C. says, “In the officers course the biggest problem we have is getting the Kandeck [Company] commander to come up with solutions to the problems they [the company] encounters. But why should he? He [the Kandeck commander] is used to the CF always providing the materials, resources, and training when there was a problem. Now, all of a sudden, the branch school is built and they [the ANA instructors and staff] are expected to come up and do it themselves.  So they aren’t used to having to plan ahead. I am not saying they can’t, but I am saying that they aren’t used to doing it because we [the coalition forces] have always just stepped in. So the problem is that we get all these other issues becfause they [the instructors and Kandeck commanders] don’t take a condor moment to take the long view.” On the other hand CPT M. is also quick to point out that the CF isn’t the only person to blame for the many issues found with the ANA. Rather he says, “Its the bureaucracy of the system. They have this Soviet legacy. Everything needs seven signatures for no good reason. So what happens is that the instructors don’t think ahead about getting ammo until the morning of [the live fire training]. Then they go to get the key to the ammo Conex, and of course, it requires signatures. But the people who need to give those signature may or may not be there that day or they may want other signatures.” The advisers, the instructors, and the students are often left, like K. from Kaffka’s The Castle, standing at the doors of the bureaucracy waiting for their knocks to be answered.

CPT M. also notes that those adviser who have been on long deployments begin to withdraw. “Their energy dwindles overtime. Guys stop putting in the extra mile because their are tired and near the end of their tour. It’s not about whether or not they are good at dealing with other culture. The grind eventually gets to you and you are to tired to keep doing the extra work it takes to get things done as well as you would like.”

CPT M. and LT P. agree that the major obstacles to working with ANA has nothing to do with cultural differences. CPT M. says, “Its about resources and planning. The ANA don’t have the resources do simple things like maintain weapons or even having radios. And the way we set up the school here, without involving ANA in the process and then just throwing them in and expecting them to do well, well that’s crazy.” LT P says, “I’d expect the same issues with the Corps in the same situation. If someone else were always making decision for Corps instructors and then one day said, ‘Ah, its all up to you to take the initiative now’ they wouldn’t do any better than ANA because they would have been just as dependent on the Coalition.” LT P. does follow up saying that, “the cultural issues everyone talks about are exagerated. The ANA are sometime just lazy and they use the word ‘culture’ to sometime just justify taking an extra hour off or to go home early even when we, the interpreters, and they, know its totally untrue. But what can you say? Nothing. They invoked the culture card! It would come off disrespectful and they could justify being pissed at you for insulting them.”

Back up at the mock FOB where the officers are practicing their patrols, CPT M. smiles, after getting into a dispute with the ANA instructors over a night time FOB based patrol, where the instructor used the Program of Instruction developed by the advisers to get out of doing another late night patrol. CPT M. says, “sometimes they [the instructors] use our own plans, POI, and rules against us! He then tells me a story of how on a range day, the instructors had failed to secure ammunition on the day before the range day. When the instructors and advisers showed up the range master said they needed the proper signatures to have the ammunition released. So we go and get the signatures and come back and he says, ‘well it’st not here on the POI that you have the range.’ So I look at the POI and its an old one. ‘You have the wrong POI,’ I said and he says, ‘well this is what i have.’ So we end up having to get the garrison commander to have the range masters come up to his office and tell him to his face that he has the wrong POI. O’course, by then the days is half over!”

The next day I am out with the Recce (recon) group. While yesterday there was a lot of down time to discuss friction between advisers and the ANA, and further, there were numerous schedualing conflicts to prompt discussion, today was a more typical day of simply training.

Whatever the different accounts of how advisers and ANA instructors/students work together, the amazing fact is that they do work together, day after day, with few real break downs in training, except for the usual scheduling issues.  For example, on the M249, when one of ANA crews was having problems, SGT K. was able to make the appropriate corrections with no interpreter help. The issue was that the shooter was shooting to low from the target. The crew member who lays beside the shooter, and is supposed to direct the shooter, wasn’t giving any direction. To correct the problem, SGT K. tapped the crewman on the back, pointed to the shooter, and cupped his hands over his mouth like he was going to shout. Then SGT K. put his hands out in front of himself, like he was firing a rifle and dramatically reoriented both of his hands and arms up at an angle, to indicate that the shooter needed to raise his aim. It is through hundreds of such small interventions and interactions that the advisers and the ANA manage the business of training.

SGT S. the replacement for SGT K. demonstrated this all to well. Later in the day, when doing ambushes, SGT S. took the first oppurtunity he had to go engage the ANA students in training. He asks SGT K. “Hey do you mind if I take this one? Might as well just jump straight in!” He walks up to a group of ANA students and with a big smile, claps his hands together and says “Alright! Lets get started… okay!” SGT P. shouts out for the interpreter and as soon as the interpreter shows up next to him, he slaps him on the shoulder, smiles, pulls the interpreter in closer, as if to use him as an extension of his own voice, and says, “lets start shall we? Okay” he says as he pulls out a magazine  and starts pulling out cartridges. He grabs one and holds it out in front of him, and with his other hand points at an ANA soldier, then sets it down on the ground. He grabs another cartridge and points at the next ANA soldier in line and does the same thing. This time he says, with the interpreter translating, “Imagine each of these bullets is one of you. I am going to show you how to set up an ambush…” He then proceeds to start with a circular formation. What is fascinating is that SGT S. uses large exaggerated movements, lots of pointing, and almost in lock step, the interpreter moves with the adviser. Even though neither has worked with each other before, it is clear that the two “click.” The ANA nod their heads and nearly in unison say,  درست (durust or “Ok”) when SGT S and the translator pause. At a bare minimum it appears that Adviser and students share similar notions of turn taking in conversation and that between the gestures, movements, diectical moves such as pointing, and the help of the translator, that everyone has come to a shared definition of the situation.

Adviser and translator are moving in lock step while explaining an ambush

Durust!(!درست )

After SGT S. was done explaining, or rather, in animated fashion, demonstrating,  the ambush scenario, the ANA instructor and the squad leader take over and execute the ambush as a dry fire drill. Even though the ambush does not go exactly the way that SGT S. laid it out in the dirt (e.g. the machine guns are placed next to each other rather than spread somewhat apart to create a larger arc of interlocking fires), the adviser is quite pleased. “Even though he [the instructor] didn’t do it the way I would, you could just tell by the way he moved people that he was doing it the Afghan way. I would rather he take what I give him and modify it to his SOP than to do it completely wrong. I guess I am saying its not the way I would do it but it is not wrong either. It is right for Afghanistan.” I asked SGT S. how he knew that it went well even though it was not the way he had demonstrated it. “It was the confidence, really. He was real snappy, you know, everything came in a well ordered manner, people were moving in coordinated manner, fires were coordinated.  The instructor looked confident.”

ANA instructor and squad leader direct ANA students in a ambush drill.

How the adviser, SGT S. “knew” that the ANA instructor “understood” the ambush drill, despite the variance from the demonstrated manner, is an interesting problem. Indeed, how SGT S. “knew” that the ANA students “understood” his demonstration at all, is an interesting problem to explore. Certainly in the conventional understanding of cognition, we would assume that somehow SGT S. had deteceted, formulated, and represented the mind of all the other agents in the ‘scene’ after which he woudl formulate a Course of Action (COA). After all, this is what most COIN training emphasizes. In what De Jaegher describes as the “sandwhich” view of cognition, social cognition is squeezed in between, and is separate from,  perceiving on the one hand, and action on the other hand. Social understanding, would then be considered to happen “in the head” of monadic individuals. This view, which is pervasive in DOD COIN doctrine, is inane.  The motive for being critical of this view should be apparent in the training scenes I have already described and even in the account I have given of the adviser’s “accounts” of the uses and abuses of ‘culture’ in routine interactions. What is this motive? It is simply that the agents — SGT K., SGT S., the interpreters, the students, CPT M, LT P — are all connecting with one another in concrete and observable ways. They are immersed in their situations and are continually connecting to their interactive partners. They are physically present to one another in a shared material world. They often physically connect through touch, gesture, seeing, hearing, pointing, pantomime, etc. These processes are not marginal to social cognition.

Nor am I alone in my critical view of how COIN is taught. Those who have a practical mastery of being “good strangers” will articulate something similar, that success in COIN is not about some kind of total information awarness, new methods of statistical analysis, or social data mining. Rather, what nearly all of the outstanding advisers here will point out in their own pre-theoretical manner, is that it is a style of comporting oneself with others in engaged situations that is the heart of understanding and connecting with others. Thus, on the drive back today, from the 100m range, SGT  K. speaks over the schizophrenic radio station we are listening to. First plays Ode to Joy, then a song from the Jackson Five, then a classical piece, and then Rockin Robbin. Over the radio, SGT K. talks to SGT S. about his stay. “It’s been good, alright. You know, its all about building relatinoships with the ANA, with everyone. The American’s at the COIN school, they don’t get that. We Kiwis, when we go on patrol, sure we have a mission statement, ops order, and all that, but when we go out on patrol we don’t just drive out and drive back. You know, get out, walk around, a little “hey bro!,” that’s all. But the some of the COIN instructors here, they don’t get why we do so well. They always ask, ‘what do you do. Why does everyone like you New Zelanders? We do patrols too.’ I always say, ‘yes, but, you don’t dismount on your patrols. You don’t take time to walk and talk. Slow down, and take it easy bro!’ You know, its a style thing. Sure we both patrol but how we patrol is different. Like, you know, what do they call it? Oh, yeah, ‘atmospherics.’ So they run around trying to interview people and gather these ‘atmospherics’ but You don’t need to do that. You get that just by taking it low key and hanging out. Some of these marines, you know, they are so stiff. And they  are always like ‘they blow us up whenever we go out.’ I say, ‘they don;t blow us up because they know who we are.’ That’s why I don’t mind being here. You know, I make friends with the interpreters, learn a little Dari, hang out with the ANA, the Brits, the French. It don’t matter. You can’t just go say, ‘oh, hearts and minds.’ You got to get out and relate to people. That’s what makes us Kiwis good at this. We like everybody. Its an island thing I guess!”

That we all grasp the practical wisdom – phronesis– of SGT K’s “hey bro!”

How we get along even when we don’t understand one-another

The emphasis on social cognition or cultural knowledge as a kind of cognition creates all kinds of epistemlogical obstcles to understanding the empirical world. As I have often argued, if it were the case that intersubjectivity or shared understandings were primarily about sharing the same propositional belief states about the world, we would have an enormous amount of difficulty understanding everything from how children learn word meanings (e.g. Smith and Yu 2008, to how it is that the combat advisers I observe make-do on a day to day basis with a group of ANA students whom they know next to nothing about.

I have argued, since my work on military training, that people come to understand one another, i.e. to achieve mutual intelligibility, not simply through high order cognition that makes sense of a flux of social experience, but that it is in the involvement and participation in social activities and interaction that sense of the world is found to exist immediately and transparently to participants. This view, I had taken from Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, J.J. Gibson, Bourdieu, and Garfinkel. In this view, people do create a sense of their worlds, but they don’t do it in a kind of Kantian or platonic state of isolation from the world. Rather a meaningful world is created through interactions themselves. Through interaction with people, things, and relationships, they become visible and sensible to a person (e.g. Goodwin’s work on how meaningful and complete sentences are completed only as a joint production or interaction between conversational participants).

Adam Kendon put it nicely in the introduction to “Conducting Interaction” (1990), when he argued that being involved with people is itself a sensory-motor skill, like driving a car. In this respect perception of social life is direct in the sense that the world already appears as meaningful and we help create that meaning, through involved participation in the world. That is, there is no time out to suck up sense-datum from the world, create mental model of the world in “our heads”, for hypothesis and courses of action, and then act back on the world and blindly hoping that we get right the corresponding map of the world in our head with the way the world really is.

Hanne De Jaegher, a European philosopher, makes the point about how our sense of the world is constituted by social interaction,

“I propose that perception in the social realm acquires the richness and feels as direct as it does because of the mediated immediacy of social understanding through the interaction process. We are so proficient at social interaction that the process gains a transparency that makes perception in the social realm feel direct. By ‘transparent’ I do not mean to indicate that the interaction is like a window through which I see an other – that would lend the whole too much of a snapshot air. On the contrary, the interaction process is transparent while being also a process. Transparency can perhaps be better illustrated by the way a blind person’s cane can be transparent: this instrument is only ‘transparent’ as long as it is being used. It is not a means of perception and the blind person does not see anything ‘through’ it when he simply holds it in his hand. It is only when he uses it, actively and skilfully explores his surroundings with it, that the kerb or a crack in the pavement become ‘visible’ ‘through’ it. And even this does not do justice to the intricacies of the social interaction process of course, because as a social agent involved in a social interaction, I am at once prodder and prodded, and so is my interaction partner. Each of us is capable both of perceiving the other and of changing through the interaction process. This proficiency builds on years of extensive experience throughout development, starting at the earliest stage with infant-caregiver interactions, and continuing throughout life in our daily encounters with others” (Consciousness and Cognition 18, 2009, pg 540).

Of course it is not always the case that another’s intentions are transparent. Sometimes others are a real puzzle and a real source of confusion and conflict. The question is how such puzzles are practically resolved. State another way, why and how do the routine grounds of social interaction sometimes breakdown to the point that we are left at a loss as to what is going on and what to do? Of course as the ethnomethodologists and conversation analysts point out, breakdowns are routine, but members of encounters tend to be highly skilled at saying doing things that “repair” (Garfinkel 1967; Sacks 1972) breakdowns fairly rapidly. For example when we feel a hiccup occur in a conversational exchange we do not engage in a complex set of hypothesizing about the intention of our alter. Rather we know how and when to deftly ask “what do you mean” or to prompt continued conversation through head nods or uttering “uh huhs” in the hopes that indeterminate meaning will be resolved with further context or information. Loss and recovery of mutual understanding and coordination is ‘an ongoing and contingent accomplishment’ that never ends. In fact, the interesting stuff of social life, the subject of gossip, rumors, and advice columns typically centers on the mundane moments in which breakdowns occur and leave persons feeling awkward or exposed.

In observing the combat advisers, here in Afghanistan, I have been surprised to note the following: 1.) members of this unique community do not have a mastery of the language of the community in which they operate daily; 2.) lack of linguistic mastery does not prohibit or even inhibit a substantial amount of social interaction, though it may be said that such interaction can only go so deep; 3.) the combat advisers, on the whole but not in every case, are very good at “repair”. They are perceptive enough to note when coordination has broke down and capable of working with others (including interpreters and non-English speakers) to ask repair questions, point, gesture, pantomime, etc. until clarity is reached or conflict ameliorated; 4.) “good strangers” don’t occur within a vacuum. Based on my interviews adviser are much more likely to be engaged with the ANA if they are surrounded by a group of more mature individuals that can guide them through the engagement processes.  The groups without skilled incumbents to assist in transitioning a new unit in or a group that has no mature engagers of their own, may not automatically develop an endogenous community of skilled engagers.

Adviser, Instructor, Officer, and Interpreter struggle to resolve scheduale issues

So what is it that the advisers are doing? Is that they possess a special cognitive capacity or processes? Certainly a popular answer, in cognitive science (c.f. Abbe 2009 for an overview of the literature), is that individuals who are “open” and can “tolerate ambiguity” are able to succeed in intercultural exchanges.  Often these ‘traits’ are considered part of the ope rationalization of  an “engage” attitude. But what ends up happening in such analysis s is that interactions become mere epiphenomenon of cognitive events and the fact that cognitive events require and feed off of interactions that are more than the sum of the behavior of methodically individual acts disappears. The fact of engagement itself, that it has a order and form, ceases to become important and in fact is considered only as a dependent variable. Yet but by taking interactions between advisers, instructors, interpreters, officers, and students is that how individuals individually and collectively interact shapes the cognitive outcomes for participants, i.e. making available more or less information, guiding the sharing of attention, de-escalation conflicts by face-saving maneuvers, etc. In other words, social cognition, shared attention, joint coordination, requires that people do work that is visible and accessible to participants to an occasion.

This is to suggest that mutual intelligibility is not about execution of theories of mind (T.O.M) but achieved through embodied activity. Linda Smith and Michael Gasser succinctly describe the embodied approach to cognition, “The central idea behind the embodiment hypothesis is that intelligence emerges in the interaction of an agent with an environment and as a result of sensorimotor activity. This view stands in opposition to more traditional notions of internal representation and computation and
in general has had little to say about symbols, symbolic reasoning, and language.” In large measure we can make sense of the world because it is already full of regularities there to be discovered (rather than infered, e.g. Gibson 1979, Clark 2007). In human life, as Garfinkel, Sacks, and others observed, people do the work of ordering and making available stable regularities that are at once structured by human activity and structuring of human activity. In other words, we don’t need complex theories about cognitive capacities for guessing others intentions in intercultural situations, we simply need to look at the detailed work that people jointly do and collectively encounter in order to understand how mutual intelligibility is continually maintained. Moreover, what is important about engagement is that it is a type of exploratory activity and as Smith and Gasser point  out it is through exploratory activity that intelligence (including social intelligence) becomes open ended and inventive.

De Jaeger closes saying, “With regard to direct perception, breakdowns are the place where social perception can be ‘enriched’ the most – and ‘on the fly’: in breakdown the other is opaque to me, but its recovery can lead to a better, richer understanding of the other, and to a change in the ongoing course of interacting and participating in sense-making.” I think this is a remarkably perceptive understanding of the routine grounds of social life. I think the question for myself is what kinds of training enhance “recovery” and “repair” practices can be taught to police officers and service members so that the “opaqueness” of the other does not lead to violence between participants to an encounter.

Life on the FOB – Day 10 in Afghanistan

It is the equivelant of an Afghan Sunday here at the FOB. The ANA are gone, and the various military units here did their  “in-service” trainings yesterday, on Thursday. Today, the US Army fellows walk around in grey Army PT shirts and black PT shorts, with an M4 slung across shoulders. The M4s look awkward and naked without a kit to go with them. The Brits are to be found, for the most part, lounging at the Brit Club in shorts, t-shirts, and sandles and other civilian attire, but with a gun belt and mag pouches dangling around their waists. The main activity at the club today is the watching of EU football, rugby, and a couple of guys playing video games.

I meet up with the French, an American SF officer, and SGT K., from New Zealand, and we go and spend the morning shooting. I burned through about 400 rounds of  9mm and about 120 rounds of 5.56.  Good training and good shooting. Lots of movement drills, turn and fire drills, stoppage drills, and weapons transition drills. The group was very professional and needed very little cat herding so we all shot pretty continuously, occasionally trying out each others varying weapons.

Gun cleaning in the French Club tent

Gun cleaning in the French Club


After having coffee and cleaning weapons with the French at Le Cabernet (aka, the French Club)  I stopped by the British Club (aka The Brit Club). One of the sergeants tracked me down and we spoke briefly about his experiences in southern Afghanistan as a platoon sergeant. SGT P. said something that immediately caught my attention:

“I would tell my privates that every contact is a key leader engagement. It doesn’t matter if you are an elder or a child, a Taliban or a farmer. You have to treat every contact as if it were a key leader engagement, because they are. You sit down on the dirt with old farmers and it’s a shura. If you only train the privates that meeting with the mullah is a key leader engagement, they never learn how to interact with everyone else they meet. And we aren’t meeting mullahs on patrol. Just farmers and lots of bored kids.”

Life on the FOB – Afghanistan Day 9: Viva La France

Yesterday was spent doing ambush training with Taff and Smudge, two IBS sergeants. Not much action as the ANA were only able to get through one ambush scenario before they and the IBS gave up. As much as the cultural differences between the ANA and the UK soldiers impede training, the conflicts between ANA officers and instructors cause as many problems. Hierarchies seem much more unsettled among the ANA than among the IBS members. A couple of days ago, on the 100m range, a Major usurped Mahid, a SGT and instructor. Mahid spent the remainder of the day sulking and being generally pissy and obstructionist as a result. The Major certainly did not help improve the quality of the training since he was not even qualified to train in the first place. Rather SGT K. had to spend his time chasing after the Major to correct his many mistakes, mistakes that would not have been made if Wahid had been left to conduct the training.

Yesterday the issue changed and became one over schedaules. The ANA instructor for ambushes, Najuibullah, has been operating off of a 3 month old training scheduale that the British combat adivsers had tried to get rid of several times. Smudge, through one of the interpreters, confront Najuibullah and said, “Why are you still using this? We told you it is wrong. The training is out of order. There is a natural sequence to training and we have given you a scheduel that makes the training work better?” Najuibullah, started shouting “Ney, ney, ney!” [No, no, no!] and through the translator I learned he was arguing, “But if I use your scheduale and my superiors show up, I will get yelled at for not following this scheduale [pointing at his out of date scheduale]. So I can’t use the new one.” An officer who was supervising the instructor pulled Najuibullah aside and, the interpreter explained, tells him, “But this way is better and that is what matters.” One of the advisers tells the interpreter “crawl, walk, run.”

Nonetheless, Najuibullah sulks off.  Smudge says,  “I hope he doesn’t have any live rounds [referring to two combat advisers killed the day prior by a ANP student], cause I embarrassed him yesterday [over finding him smoking hashish during training].”

I rotated out to the French today. Not surprisingly, the challenge of trying to make sense of the Brits/Americans and ANA is challenging as it is. But throw in the fact that I don’t speak French or Dari, and today took much more effort to wade through.

The French soldiers I worked with today were all infantry, and have served everywhere from Sierra Leon, French Guinea, Ivory Coast,  Bosnia to Kosovo. Like the Brits, most of the men I spoke to had spent at least 10 years in the service. However, Laurent, the officer I spent most of today with, had spent 20+ years in the French military. Laurent served as my primary translator. He was a good spirited fellow, in his forties, and very funny (even when I couldn’t understand his jokes). When Laurent talked to someone, whether an ANA instructor or a fellow French soldier, he had the habit of grabbing onto their arm to make a point or to drive home the punch line to a joke.

Colonialism came up repeatedly today, though I never initiated the discussion of it. Laurent or one of the SGTs would bring up France’s colonial legacy not so much as a point of pride  but as an important historical experience that shaped a French soldier’s ability to move and be successful in  counter-insurgency. Laurent believed that because of France’s colonial legacy, and the variety of countries France had historical placed soldiers, that not much training was needed to prepare a French soldier for a counter-insurgency (COIN) like environment. Like a Johnny Cash lyric, Laurent told me, “I’ve been everywhere man! Africa, Bosnia, this is no different! You have to build rapport.” I asked Laurent what about the Afghan soldiers he works with differentiates them the most from the various African soldiers he had worked with. He searches for the right words in English and finally grabs a cigarrette out of his armor carriers pocket, lights the cigarette, and then raises his index finger to signal to hold on another minute. He reaches back into his carrier pockets, searches, and finally pulls out a small French-English dictionary.  Finally, he grabs his cigarette, and jabs with his finger (cigarrette sandwiched between his other fingers of the same hand) and with ash flying everywhere victoriously says, “Pride! They are a Pride people!”

I ask Laurent what he means by this and he says, “In Ivory Coast, when we teach, the instructors are happy to listen. But here, if I say something to an instructor, if I say it to his facce, direct, and in front of the students, it hurts his pride and he [the instructor] is lost for months! He will not listen to you again.”

Laurent, CPT Muktar, and a translator evaluate the ANA NCO’s battle drills. CPT Muktar had asked Laurent, “good or not so good?” Laurent refused to answer, asking CPT Muktar, instead, what he thought. Reluctantly, CPT Muktar makes a thumbs up with one hand and a thumbs down with the other, “so, so.”

The French advisers find a lot at fault with the ANA instructors and the students. The primary issues is that the students and teh instructors show up late or go AWOL with, to the French advisers, alarming frequency. A common sentiment was put this way by an adviser, “The instructors would rather appear stupid in front of their students than ask us for help.” I asked the adviser for an example: “You see, yesterday we do the M249. I ask the night before, ‘do you know how to use the M249.’ And the instructor, he says, ‘I do.’ And of course, yesterday, he [the instructor] does not know what to do with it! If the day before, he just ask me some questions. He probably be okay. But the students, now they don’t know the M249.” I ask the adviser if he had stepped in to correct the instructor. “Oh no. We are advisers not trainers.”

The fine line between advising and training is not so fine to the French advisers. Rather, it seems a bright line.  To a much larger extent “culture” plays a role in justifying non-participation. The French advisers will not interfere with the training at all, no matter how disastrous the training is going because they don’t want to risk hurting the pride of the instructors. Another instructor says, “They don’t want my experience, they just want my materials. I give them M16s and they don’t say thank you they say, ‘why don’t you give me an AK-47?” Or ‘why don’t you give me your gun?'” Laurent explains to me, a phenomena that the Brits also spoke about, “Insha’ Allah.” Laurent says, “They don’t aim their rifles, they just point and say, ‘Insha’Alla, if my enemy is supposed to die, then the bullet will hit him.’ The Afghans, you know, they aren’t like us: planning, everything is urgent. No. They just live for the day. They don’t project into the future.” One of the advisers, stands in an upright lotus position, arms out, thumbs touching the index and middle fingers, and says “ooommmmm. You have to be zen. Everything is slow.”

A French soldier demonstrates the zen comportment needed to work with ANA

Laurent, continues, “We have to try not to think in the European system but the Afghan system. The have their own mentalite and tactics. They are not ours. But we have to try and understand what they do.” It is not obvious how far the adviser have gotten with this project, inspite of their talk. Most of their comments about the ANA typically regard having no idea why, for example three squads will face each other (like a three sided box) while assualting an objective. But the advisers assume that there is a reasonable explanation from the ANA’s point of view, but they claim they just haven’t figured it out yet. And so the advisers swing back and forth between outward displays of trying to understand the ANA and lots of shrugs, and “merde!” and other backstage displays of disbelief and frustration with the progress of training.

Several of the French advisers used Dari words throughout their communications through the interpreters. Laurent says, “Its not so important to actually know Dari but to be able to use it to build good relationships. You show that you are trying and people appreciate it. Now, because we build rapport, we can just give some advice and they [the instructors] don’t just get mad. They sometimes listen.” Laruent also describes his strategy as “diploimatic.” “We have to be diplomatic. You don’t just give them orders. Do this now do this. But you have to give it as suggestions: ‘Maybe you do  this.  Maybe you try this? Whatever you like.’ But you make it so they have to decide.”

Laurent also says religion plays a role in the difficulties they have when training. “Children, the only way they know how to learn is how they learned to read the Qur’an. They just read and memorize. That is how you see the ANA being taught by the instructors. They just have them read about something and then expect them to go do it.  In the classes, the instructors just read directly from the lesson plan. But they don’t show them [ANA students] how to do it. You try to tell them they need to do demonstrations and to do drills but they just won’t do it because that is not how they learned the Qur’an.” Arguably,  the same critique could be made of the Western traditions emphasis on “rational thought.” The assumption being, that people are rational beings, like computers, and if give the proper ‘code’ they will execute properly. Consequently, far too much training excludes situated learning in favor of rote memorization of facts.

Another adviser says that Islam also impacts fighting style and thus training. Speaking of ambush training, an adviser says, “In their culture they believe that you have to see the enemy’s face, to see the eyes. So even though we teach them to engage from 300m with accurate fire with their rifles, they would rather wait until the enemy is next to them.  The students, a few months ago had an incident with a grenade because of this. They don’t train to fight from far away so when they throw grenades they throw them close by. All the time in training they throw the grenade and are still standing in the kill area, no matter how many times you tell them. Two died because of this. But we still can’t get the instructors to change the training. For them, without being able to see your enemy you aren’t showing courage.”

In the office at the adviser “cottage” the advisers show me mock radios they made approximately 5 months prior. The adviser says, “They have few materials, but they won’t do anything about it, even when they need to train.” He points out that the NCOs have to learn how to opearte radios but there are no radios to train on.  “They won’t adapt. So we built them a radio out of card board and parts so they could see how to use the radio and practice. But when we tell them they need to do the same they won’t.”

The adviser laugh when they retrieve the ANA instructors attempt to show how to use the radio. “This is what they made after three months!” a adviser said with a surprised look on his face.

I am surprised by the account that the advisers give of what they perceive to be their success in advising. An instructor says, “We French, we are a Latin people and so we have an easier time with the Afghans than the Americans!”

Life on the FOB – Afghanistan Day 7 (end of week roundup)

I have spent the majority of the past week with the combat advisers of the Infantry Branch School. For the purposes of my trip, to study intercultural interactions in a military setting, the IBS has been a perfect laboratory. Not only do the advisers interact, daily, with the various peoples that make up the ANA (Pashtos, Tajiks, Uzbeks, etc.) but the IBS is made up of Brits, New Zealanders, an American, the French, and the Germans. The Brits are composed, themselves of English, Welsh, and Scottish.  In other words, heterogeneity is the name of the game, and trying to both work together, and to teach across social divides is simply the status quo. No doubt, to the advisers, the training could go smoother and more rapidly, but perhaps they do not realize how much of an achievment it already is that their workday world manages to move along at all. Even one of the ANA captains, CPT. Y (he did not want his name or picture taken) said, via an interpreter, that “the Pashto, the Tajiks, everyone makes it work.” Getting at what “makes it work” is what I hope to understand better upon leaving Afghanistan.

A British adviser observing ANA instructors at work

One SGT, from New Zealand, that I have been watching, is the quintessential “good stranger.” SGT K. is friends with everyone: the ANA, the interpreters, the Brits, the Americans, the French, even the Russian contractors. Traveling around with SGT K. means observing or participating in exchanges of: “hey bro!”, “Whats up mate!,” not to mention ‘thumbs ups,’ shouting out windows with a big smile and a wave, and the use of broken Dari to let ANA troops, marching on the side of the road, know that he sees them and is saying hello. Above all, SGT K. is engaged with everyone regardless of the national or cultural origins.  Even when gestures that he uses are not “culturally” correct, such as the ‘thumbs up’ he still gets at a smile back from the ANA. One of the interpreters tells me that SGT K. stands out because, even though his language skills are poor, “he tries” and “treats everyone like a man.”

I think that there is the assumption that the difficulty that comes from intercultural occasions like the Brits mentoring the ANA is that there are two relatively stable cultural systems that clash during situated encounters.  Such a view is dramatically oversimplified, for even with the Brits it is quite apparent that the very notion of what they ought to be doing, day to day, is quite unsettled, their notions of what counts as being a competent adviser is frequently contested and is certainly conditional on the lines of activity they are embedded in at the time.

This was quite explicit during the morning drive from the FOB up to the 25m range. Sgt. S. tells Sgt. K. about the difficulties he was having with the ANA instructors and students the day before. “They tell us that we should just advise. But where is that line between advising, mentoring, and training? I think you have to step in and step out. I mean, if I just advise, and the instructors aren’t training the students, then what go is it to the students?” Sgt. K. responds, “Its about survivability. If we are just advisers and we don’t step in, we aren’t doing them [the students] any good when they go down south [to Helmund or Kandahar] and they can’t fucking clear a stoppage. Our obligation isn’t to the instructors its to the students. Advising is just one way to get there: Advise, mentor, and train. All three are important, I think. The problem is that you advise, advise, advise, and the instructors, they just ignore you. Sometimes they listen, or you have to push it up the chain [of command, both British and ANA] and by then, its two weeks, and you don’t have the students anymore. You sometimes have to mentor. You got to pull ’em aside [the instructors] and show ’em or you have to jus’ do it yourself and train the students. Ya have to do it bro!”

In observing SGTs K. and S. you can see the difference in how they interact with the ANA. SGT K. is constantly “bull shitting” with the ANA (students, instructors, NCOs, and officers). Only when he is observing the instructors in action is he relatively still and silent. But typically, as soon as the instructor is done teaching a group he is right back into action. SGT S. is just as eager to be a good adviser but it is clear that he is not yet as comfortable with the ANA. His movements and engagements are more stilted, more forced, and typically more abrupt. He also is more standoffish, typically hanging out in the background while SGT. K. is in the foreground running about. On the other hand there are good security reasons for this. It is not uncommon for ANA to turn their weapons on their advisers. Not to long ago 5 US advisers will shot by an ANA instructor. While the media has portrayed such shootings as being about Taliban embedding themselves in the ANA, the advisers tell a different story. Another one of the advisers, CPL G. told me, “Nah, its rarely about infiltrators. usually what happens is that one of the advisers berates ’em [the instructor or student] real harsh. And ya’ know, when ya do that ya have to know that if you shame them they will comeback five times harder. And that c’n mean they’re going to have to kill ya.”

The first problem of the day is that the ANA SGT Major has absolutely no idea where the 25m range. It isn’t clear to me if this is a matter of him not knowing where the range is or not knowing that it is a “25m” range. It seemed like this simply was not how the ANA NCOs referred to the ranges. Upon getting the ANA platoon to be trained on site, SGT K. used sticks, stones, and drawing in the dirt to try and explain to the ANA instructor how to arrange the troops so that he could observe everyone.

Adviser explains how to arrange students for best instruction

The instructor promptly ignored SGT K. and instead had everyone line up in a straight line and he stood behind them. After several dry fire drills where the instructor missed students make critical errors, SGT K. calmly waved over the instructor and the interpreter and asked if the instructor would mind if he tried leading a group through the dry fire drills. He qualified the request by saying, “If you like it, you can try it too,” so that it did not sound like he was ‘ordering’ the instructor. SGT K. expalined, “It just doesn’t work to tell them what to do. You have to put it out as a suggestion and hope they take it. They [Afghans] are very stubborn people and you can’t make them do anything. They have to want to.” SGT K. lays out the students on an an angle and stands in front of them, with a clear view of their weapon system and their bodies. He explains to the interpreter how to give commands of execution  and proceeds with the drill. When it is time for the next group, the ANA instructor continues with SGT K.’s methods.

When it comes time to do live fire, SGT K. says, “This is the first time they will shoot at paper targets. Usually they [ANA] are just sent up to a hillside range and told to fire their weapons. You see all kinds of things, like shooting from the hip.” SGT K. sets up 25m zeroing targets. The first group up tries to zero their weapons from the kneeling position. Not suprisingly, the students are all over the paper targets. With the next group, SGT K. convinces the ANA instructor that having the students laying prone will improve their shooting and make him [the instructor] look better. Sure enough the students do dramatically better.

Something I did not expect about the students is that they love having their picture taken and they love fliping through our cameras and their own. So when the students do well and “qualify” (it is informal) by shooting 20+ out of 30, SGT K. has each student stand by their target and takes a photo of them. To one stern looking ANA student he says with a big smile and slap on the students shoulder, “Hey man! Loosen up! Smile! You’re not an American Marine!” to which I cracked up.

When the adviser and I go and shoot, the issue of American’s being “wound up” comes up over and over again, with the advisers assuming an exaggerated tactical pose while doing shoot and move drills or simply standing on the line getting ready to shoot. They even comment that the US Army’s practices for clearing weapons demonstrates a to much seriousness and a lack of confidence in soldiers. SGT S. says, “We have 16 year old soldiers. If they can qualify on their weapons and we trust them to carry ’em and fight then we aren’t going to clear and check their weapons 3 or four times. We trust ’em to raise their hand and let us know when their weapons are cleared.” This kicks off an interesting discussion about the relative cultures of risk in the US, UK, and NZ.

Life on the FOB – Day 6 in Afghanistan

The Afghan weekend is over. Saturday is Monday here.  I woke up early and linked up with the Brit combat advisers. The Brits were, once again, fantastic, allowing me to embed with them, answering my questions, and indulging in my taking field notes. Moreover, they are excellent mentors and trainers. They have a lot of their own expectations about the “normal” routines of training to set aside, especially their sense of “rhythm” for how skill development should progress. They struggle everyday with a sense of how competent they know the ANA can be and the realities of social life here, in Afghanistan, which means it takes a lot more time and patience to get performance that “looks right.”

I headed out with the Brits from the FOB to their “schoolhouse” on the ANA compound. The “schoolhouse,” sometimes jokingly refereed to by the Brits as “the cottage”  is a pink colored and pretty bare bones two story building. It has a few offices with some chairs, desks, a smattering of office supplies, and that is about it. Outside are half a dozen ANA trainees squatting around the building plus an equal number of dogs, either sunning or hoping to grab a piece of fallen naan from one of the ANA.

Most of the morning is spent waiting for the ANA instructors to move their students to the training areas. The Brits work on their training schedules, periodically interrupting their discussions to complain that the ANA instructors fail to teach the correct courses. One of the several ‘Stu’s’  (I think there are three in the group!) says, “What happens is that they instructors are only good at on subject. But they get assigned to teach several subjects. So instead of teaching the skill they need to be teaching, like today, ops orders, they will teach what they know, maps and compass. So some of the students never get the class they need. Or the instructor isn’t in the class he’s supposed to be teaching because he has gone to a class that needs to be taught maps and compass. Just wait. We will go check in on the classes to check on their progress and you will see that they will be teaching whatever the ‘ell they want.”

I go with SGT S. and a Stu, to check in on the classes. We walk into one of the classrooms and the Brits go through their greetings with the ANA instructor (salaam and sabha b’khar). Then the conflicts begin. The Brits look at the white board that the ANA instructor is using. They see that it has angles and grids written on it appropriate for map and compass. SGT S. leans over and whispers to me, “Told ya mate, map and compass, not an op-order in the room!” The two Brits have a somewhat tense discussion with the ANA instructor about needing to follow the schedule. “This group was supposed to have had op-orders since week 1! They haven’t had any because the instructors don’t like teaching it and they are in week 4 already!”

Flustered, the Brits go back to “the cottage” and have a quick cigarette break. The Brits have a scheduale for the 6 weeks training each cohort gets and are visibly frustrated that, for their first cohort, they are consistently finding that the classes composing the cohort are getting training out of order, getting repeats of training unnecessarily, or not getting the needed training at all.  SGT S. tries to be positive about it saying, “They’re getting better but its slow and for every inch of gain you’re fighting a yard backwards. Its not what we’d expect or like but it is progress” though looking at his face it is not obvious he believes his own words.

The classes fall far behind schedule and suddenly the advisers are in a position in which they only have one hour to conduct four hours of training. Another adviser, from the marksmanship course grumbles, “Between them taking two hours to teach 20 minutes of material, them not giving us the damn keys to the weapons depot, and their damn two hour lunch, we have one hour to train!” The adviser leave “the cottage” and round up the classes, shove cell phones into the hands of the interpreters and ANA instructors and tell them to get the weapons out of the lockers and “I don’t care what you have to do to make it happen, just make it happen!” Finally, weapons appear and the ANA students begin training on the M249.

Things do not go smoothly. The students aren’t paying attention to the instructor. The instructor seems not to be paying attention to the students. When it comes to the drills, the instructor seems to let the students load, make ready, fire, do failures, and reloads in completely inconsistent ways. I am obviously not the only one that is suprised by this. The Brits are visibly upset that the instructor seems to be going through the motions (giving instructions) but in no way actually interacting with the students or giving any feedback or correction for the obvious and often dangerous mistakes that the ANA students were making.

Finally, one of the advisers, in exasperation, throws his hands up in a “stop” motion and begins teaching the class, in English, and using only the few Dari words that he knows (stop and fire).  The mood of the students changes dramatically. Instead of looking disinterested and bored, they are literally sitting on the edge of their seats, leaning forward, and even verbally engaging the instructor and the Brit adviser, even though he has no idea what they are saying!

But soon a bind emerges. The Brits use ‘preparatory commands’ and ‘commands of execution’ (just like American’s use for drill and for training) but there seems to be no direct translation of execution commands such as “LOAD!” or “STOPPAGE” or “RELOAD.” Instead the ANA instructor literally explains how to load the M249 at the command of “LOAD.” This might not seem very important but it ground training to a halt. As the Brits explained, the execution commands are meant to trigger a muscle memory. But because the instructors had no equivalent, and had to use descriptive sentences to get student to load the weapon, there was no opportunity for the students to actually memorize and rehearse from memory the act of loading the weapon. The information was always being provided to them.  This became even more apparent when, in further exasperation, the advisers finally called in a translator. (It should be noted that they advisers spent about 15 minutes trying to do the training before calling in one of the translators. That is, they do a lot of their work without needing or having available a translator).

Even when the translator came in, that did not solve the problem. When the advisers explained to the translator what execution commands were, and he finally started giving them, the students, literally, had no idea what to do. At the command “LOAD” without the command including the description of the task itself, the students fumbled with the magazines and slide mechanism and generally could not complete the required movements in the proper order. Another problem was that there seemed to be multiple possible correct ways to utter the command “FIRE” and “STOP” and the instructor was not consistently using the same words for the self-same meaning command.

All this is just to say that at a basic level of training, the way “commands” are used as a training practice in the UK and US is quite different than the way I observed commands being uttered and used among the Afghans. Neither is inherintly right or wrong, but the US and UK systems rely on using commands as stimuli to elicit a motor response and that simply was not how the Afghans practically seemed to deploy commands where the command is not only a single utterance (RELOAD) but contains instructions on the action to be executed. The cognitive impact of these different forms and content of “commands” has practical import since the UK/US version seems to have a functional relationship to memorization of movements and later elicitation whereas the Dari commands emphasize properly listening to and then executing instructions. Fortunately I video tapped much of this segment of the encounter between advisers, instructor, translator and students and I will hopefully  be able to mull more over the comparative differences in the pragmatic use of commands.

After about an hour and a half, it was lunch time and the ANA began heading to their chow hall for lunch and training was effectively over for the day.

Life on the FOB: Day 3 in Afghanistan

After a couple of days of taking care of some administrative work at the FOB I have finally gotten to my own work. I have been embedded with a British unit of combat advisers who work with the ANA. These guys have been great. I have been watching them work with ANA instructors who are trying to teach new ANA how to be infantry. To a newcomer, like me, watching the ANA is both shocking and sometimes nearly tragically hilarious. ANA officers and NCOs go around throwing rocks at their students when they make mistakes while shooting heavy guns on the live fire ranges. Others will kick the students for missing their targets or not sitting correctly at the .50 cals. The advisers don’t intervene at all, saying that to do so would mean the instructors loosing face in front of the students. Such a move would create angst among the instructors and make it harder for the advisers to do their job. Interestingly, the advisers invoke “culture” to dismiss intervening. To claim a act is “Afghan culture” is not simply to describe it (after all I had recruit training officers who threw rocks and brass at myself and students at the academy, purportedly to see how we would shoot under stress). Rather, by saying a behavior is “cultural” the advisers classify it as something that they ought not deal with. This suggests that labeling something as “other” or “cultural” may also be part of strategic moves to limit their own responsibility for training outcomes, which, as they will admit themselves, are extremely poor.


The Brits are a hilarious bunch. They have a Scotsman that they claim they can’t understand but I have not had much difficulty with. Most of the guys are pretty salty, many with 10+ prior deployments to Afghanistan or Iraq.


Life on the FOB is sparse but certainly improved from what some of my friends have experienced in the past. Our forward cell has small, cell like units, for sleeping that have been made out of Conex containers. They have small air conditioners and one or two electrical outlets. The FOB also has its own “Golds” gym, in the way of some antiquated treadmills, a couple of ellipticals, an incline and decline bench and a full rack of weights. Its enough to get the job done.


Food isn’t too bad. Tends to be heavy on the fried foods and is served up by, I think, Russians. The salad bar consists of a chopped up head of iceberg lettuce and for accompaniment you can sprinkle some shredded cheese on it. Most of the army guys at the FOB complain that deployment is supposed to get you in shape but that with the DFAC at our FOB the only thing you are likely to do is get fat and slow.


Afghanistan – day 1

Left DC today to travel to Afghanistan to conduct some ethnographic research. All the normal hitches: an overbooked flight, problems with my phone, and the inability to get a boarding pass for my flight into afghanistan.

While waiting for my flight I grabbed a sandwich. A female army command sgt major was nice enough to let me sit at her table. Turned out that she is also on her way to Afghanistan and also works at camp julien, writing counter insurgency doctrine. The sgt major told me that the new coin class’s format just started and so I may be one foe first cohorts to go through the new training. Best advice she gave me was how to negotiate with Safi Airlines to get my boarding pass!

I am writing from Dubai, where I have seven hours before my flight. More to follow…