The Historian as Soldier: Shadows and Fog (1)
Chris Bray, a member of HNN blog, Cliopatria, is a graduate student in history at UCLA, now on duty in Kuwait with the US Army. This blog entry is one in a series recording his reflections on his experiences. Click here to read the introduction to this series. At the bottom of this post:"Notes and Caveats."
In the first weeks of the American occupation of Iraq, two reporters from the Washington Post joined a U.S. Army patrol as it walked through a neighborhood in Baghdad. The first reporter, Thomas Ricks, stayed with the infantry squad throughout the two-hour patrol. The soldiers told Ricks that the morning patrol was going well; they" considered themselves a welcome presence in a friendly land," and guessed that the neighborhood was"ninety-five percent friendly." One soldier declared that"everybody likes us."
The second reporter, Anthony Shadid, trailed the patrol."I followed fifty meters behind," he later wrote."There were a few waves from the residents. Most just stared." As Shadid (who speaks Arabic) talked to people in the neighborhood, some expressed cautious support, hoping the the soldiers"would provide a measure of security after weeks of looting." But the more common reaction came from the"many" in the neighborhood who"expressed ambivalence or outright anger as the troops walked by." Supportive statements tended to be less than warm:"An American dog is better than Saddam and his gangs." Hostile statements tended to be stronger: The presence of American troops was termed"despicable" by Iraqis who declared themselves"one thousand percent" against the occupation."They're walking over my heart," one man told Shadid.
The American infantrymen -- certain their patrol was going well, and seeking to further demonstrate their good will -- left the streets and entered a school, leaving behind a"group of young men standing outside" to go and interact with the students and female teachers inside.
The men on the sidwalk clustered around in front of the school, announcing their suspicion that the soldiers"were having sex with the women inside, a statement as ludicrous as it was suggestive. To these men, the American presence was utterly vile and their intentions base; they would compete with each other in devising the darkest scenarios." The patrol eventually walked out of the school, past the group of men standing on the sidewalk who stood speculating feverishly about what they were really up to, and walked cheerfully on their way."They love us," a second soldier concluded.
A hundred years ago, offering congressional testimony about the experience of American soldiers in the Philippines, Lt. Col. Arthur Wagner described the U.S. Army as a"blind giant," directing extraordinary force in no particular direction."The troops were more than able to annihilate, to completely smash anything that could be brought against them in the shape of a military force on the part of the insurgents; but it was almost impossible to get any information in regard to these people," he concluded.
The beat goes on. As I've written here before, I spent five months last year nominally training for deployment, as an infantryman, in support of the war in Iraq. In all those five months, we never saw a single moment of instruction in Arabic; no one ever bothered to try to teach us even a small handful of useful common phrases. A single short class on" cultural awareness" delivered the information that the thumbs-up gesture is considered obscene, and Iraqis don't like to see American men groping on their women. I was not the only soldier in that class who regarded it as useless.
Absent meaningful training, American soldiers in Iraq are walking through dangerous places where they don't know the language, don't know the history, and have no clue about the cultural norms, religious beliefs, or social rites of people they are supposed to regard as beneficiaries of their generosity and service. They are partners in democracy with an undifferentiated mass of foreigners, fighting for their lives in the dark.
In Kuwait, on the forward operating base where I work, third country nationals occupy most of the service jobs. Most are from India and the Philippines; nearly every soldier here calls them"Haji," and codes them as Arab and Muslim. Waiting in line to drop off my dirty laundry, I watched another soldier nearby as he got into an argument with the man behind the counter."Fuck you, Akhmed," the soldier finally shouted. The man behind the counter reeled back in shock."I'm from India," he shot back.
Now: If you look at someone from India and see"Akhmed," an Arab Muslim, how well are you going to differentiate hostile Sunni extremists and moderately friendly Shiite accommodationists? If you're a soldier in Iraq, how well are you going to perceive differences that can mean life or death to you? The inability to see difference, to look carefully and notice sharply, leaves soldiers walking hostile neighborhoods and thinking everything is great. Or, more likely now in these later months, that everyone is hostile and should be regarded with suspicion. The implications for what are now called SASO -- security and stability operations -- are manifest. American soldiers in Iraq are tasked with winning the hearts and minds of people they can barely see or hear.
The gap created by our training works both ways. Reading a newspaper account of an American raid on an Iraqi home, I noticed that the soldiers involved were all depicted as having shouted orders in English: Don't move! Hands up! Sitting around with a group of other soldiers during our training, I read from the story and mentioned the use of English commands; no one else regarded the point as germane."If a bunch of guys with guns kicked down my door," one said,"I'd probably figure out what they meant." But what if you're trying to convince the people inside that house that you're on their side, trying to bring stability to their country? If American soldiers take for granted that their principal means of communication is to shout and gesture with a gun, what is the likely trajectory of the insurgency?
And then there's this: What if one of the Iraqis shouting in Arabic to soldiers who only speak English is saying,"There's a bomb in the alley"? (And no, there are not enough translators to attach one to every squad-sized element, every checkpoint, every raid. And what if your interpreter gets hurt? What if he's in the other room?) Our ignorance, our failures of training, are deadly to us, and deadly to Iraqis. I'm repeating myself, but the evidence suggests pretty strongly that American soldiers are fighting for their lives in the dark.
The military trade press has been reporting for several weeks now that the U.S. Army's new training and doctrine commander wants to expand language training, teaching at least some Arabic to soldiers who are not formally assigned as linguists. This is a great idea, except for one thing: It's 2006. I have an image in my head of a bunch of American generals wandering the halls of the Pentagon and saying to one another,"Hey, wait a minute, here's an idea: What if we taught our soldiers some Arabic?" Good call, guys. And just in time.
In his terrific book on the war, Night Draws Near, Shadid repeatedly notes two dynamics at work: In the first dynamic, American soldiers respond to an isolated or small-scale attack by launching a sizable raid, kicking doors and aggressively searching homes for weapons and insurgents; then the people who live in that neighborhood gather, outraged, and march against (or even simply attack) symbols of American authority, including both American soldiers and Iraqi police who are cooperating with the U.S. military. Hamfisted responses to minor violence produce major violence in response. (Then American soldiers respond to the major violence...) Knowledge serves the cause of precision, and the absence of knowledge precludes precision; the imprecise direction of force frightens and angers more and more people, who become more and more likely to turn their support to the insurgency.
The second dynamic is the persistent American inability to identify the enemy, closely echoing Arthur Wagner's complaints about army operations in the Philippines a hundred years before. In 2003 (this will be familiar), army officers told Shadid that the insurgency was the"last desperate reaction" of"a few people" who they couldn't actually identify. (And for the record, one of the bloodiest days of the occupation took place this month, nearly three years later.) A lieutenant colonel, tasked with training Iraqi police to fight insurgents, tells Shadid that he has no clue who those insurgents are: Maybe religious radicals, who are maybe Iraqis or maybe foreign fighters, or maybe former regime elements, or maybe someone else."Can I tell you who's behind it, who's leading it, who's funding it?" the officer asks, and then answers his own question:"I don't know."
When lieutenant colonels can't identify the enemy in the simplest manner, privates and sergeants are not going to be in a position to sustain a significant set of long-term, strategic victories. They can win firefights, and do -- but then the only option is to wait patiently for the next firefight, or to kick doors virtually at random. American soldiers keep capturing caches of explosives, and keep losing their lives to the large pool of explosives that they have yet to find. This cycle is not slowing. (More about that in a few days.)
The final questions for today are these: When soldiers are unequipped to differentiate -- in a place where some of the people they see are trying to kill them -- then how do they come to regard the population of the country they occupy? How do they treat people? And how do these dynamics work in conjunction with a project of delivering freedom, or liberating and assisting?
The answers to these questions will become clearer over time, but it is possible to suggest a few examples that point in the direction of a more immediate understanding. In a remarkably ugly book, former National Guard infantryman John Crawford describes himself and soldiers around him willfully insulting and degrading the Iraqis they encounter in the street. Assuming that Crawford didn't pull a James Frey -- and I don't know that he didn't -- then at least some American soldiers in Iraq are managing their frustration, 8,000 miles from home in a deadly place they don't understand, with violence and anger. Most are clearly not; some surely are. For another example, a former officer in the 82nd Airborne Division has alleged that he saw American soldiers routinely beat Iraqi detainees, in a process they cheerfully called "Fuck a PUC" -- a military acronym for a"person under control" -- to take out their daily frustrations. Army cooks were allegedly lining up for a chance to beat Iraqi detainees with fists and objects. I don't know how credible these allegations are, and they have not been the subject of a completed investigation. But in conjunction with the photos from Abu Ghraib (the worst of which we have never seen), it is not hard to believe there is at least some truth to these allegations.
In any event, ignorance, suspicion, undifferentiated hostility, and a chasm in communication and understanding between American soldiers and Iraqi citizens point in a very clear direction. Absent a radical and immediate change in the environment of the occupation, it's hard to see anything coming but a worsening cycle of mutual suspicion and anger. Stability and security require a foundation of knowledge and carefulness, and both are seriously absent.
Tomorrow, or tomorrowish, as time permits: The operational habits and institutional culture of the U.S. Army.
Notes and Caveats:
1.) Please be very clear that I am not arguing that American soldiers are generally brutal or hateful to Iraqis. I believe that very much the opposite is true: Most soldiers try very hard to show good will and to do the job they are tasked with doing. But decency requires knowledge to become effective and meaningful, as in the case of the male soldiers on a patrol in Baghdad who had no idea that entering a school full of Iraqi women would disturb the Iraqi men they left behind on the sidewalk. The real problem is that soldiers who act with kindness, then find themselves facing hostility that they don't understand, come to find Iraqis pointlessly hostile or ungrateful: What's wrong with these people? Don't they understand we're trying to help them? These are the kinds of feelings that lead to deteriorating relationships, and therefore to greater violence. The point is not that soldiers are bad people; the point is that most are badly trained and prepared for the specific tasks they are expected to perform in Iraq.
My respect, loyalty, and affection rest with my fellow soldiers. This doesn't mean I regard everything any soldier does uncritically. Criticism, gentle or not so gentle, is not meant as an attack. Soldiers aren't delicate; criticism is part of the job.
Also, any criticism I direct at the military or political leaders I serve as a subordinate is intended as respectful criticism. I am a soldier; I respect and obey my chain of command.
2.) My opinions here are my own, and do not reflect the views of the Department of Defense, the U.S. Army, or the PFC who sleeps in the bunk above mine. This is the obligatory disclaimer, yes.
3.) My chain of command knows that I blog, and they know where. I assume that they monitor what I post. I believe that everything I have written here lies well within the parameters of the UCMJ and OpSec rules. If you disagree, let me know. But it is not the case that I am out here behind the army's back, doing my own thing in secret.
4.) I'll respond to comments as time permits. I have no plan to respond to any of the following:
a.) You are a traitor.
b.) You want to appease the terrorists.
c.) You are like Michael Moore, you left-wing moron.
d.) You are helping / on the side of the Islamofascists.
5.) I wrote this quickly, and while distracted, stopping at several points to do other things. I recognize that it's not well organized. I'm in the army; I don't have the luxury of lingering in the study over every precious word. You're reading a hurried first draft. Be kind.
6.) My thanks to Professor Brian McAllister Linn, who generously answered my emailed questions about the"blind giant" quote.
Patrick M. Ebbitt - 9/24/2006
Thanks Mr. Bray for the informative article and your dedicated service.
The more information I gather and read the more this war appears to parallel the experiences of the Russians in Afghanistan.
Please take care and be safe. Look forward with great anticipation to your future blogs.
Chris Bray - 1/16/2006
Thanks for the kind thoughts.
Chris Bray - 1/16/2006
I was thinking of maybe 100 words and phrases that would convey very basic instructions and intent:
Put your hands up.
Go over there.
I don't understand.
Does anyone here speak English?
There is a bomb in/near/at (location).
There are insurgents in (location).
Better to have the vocabulary of a two year-old than to be forever screaming "I said get your fucking hands up!" at people who don't speak English, which is what's happening. I'm really talking about a tourist's phrasebook updated for soldiers. I've gotten around pretty well on my own in France with a phrasebook -- even I did did make people wince.
But beside the point of undertanding, I think there's also a tremendous importance to the ordinary goodwill that is conveyed by making even a minimal gesture to speak their language in their country. It shows that you're making at least some effort to meet them on their terms.
Oscar Chamberlain - 1/15/2006
I made my point poorly, and your 2-year old rejoinder plus example is well taken.
All I was trying to say is that, if Chris's experience is typical, the military is making almost no attempt to help soldiers understand the people they will be policing and defending (much less those they are fighting). While a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing, on the whole, I think more knowledge is better than less.
My suggestion described an absolutely minimal attempt to avoid at least some misunderstandings. I am still in mild shock that the military is not even doing that.
Andrew D. Todd - 1/15/2006
Well, the problem is that a hundred sentences is the vocabulary of a two-year-old, if that. Your basic tourist is operationally at the level of a two-year-old, in the sense that his communications are overwhelmingly self-centered: "I want a room, I want something to eat, etc. Me,me,me,me,me!" Washoe, the signing chimp, could operate at approximately that level. I've got a book in front of me, James Britton's Language and Learning (1970), which deals with language acquisition, working mostly from the recorded utterances of the author's daughters from the ages of twelve months to seventeen years, as they went through the successive Piaget stages. If you make some conventional substitutions in his samples (rifle instead of teddy bear, etc.), a typical counterinsurgency raid can be made to fit into the conversation of the four-year-old and the two-year-old. It might be better to remain silent than to give the locals the idea that you are a heavily armed cretin. Neighborhood politics are conducted at a vastly higher level.
Consider the following passage, earthy rather than highbrow:
"Mayor Nasta said... "This is a mistake. I should not have been imprisoned. It was all a mistake.'
'Is that so?' the [American] Top Sergeant said in a slow Brooklynese Italian. 'You are a mistake? We have several mistakes here. All mistakes here must clean the latrine. You are our newest mistake, so you will have the privilege of cleaning the latrine this week.'"
John Hersey, A Bell for Adano, 1944, ch. 19, (p. 139, pbk. ed. 1965-1970).
This sort of thing is totally beyond the ken of a two-year-old. The premise is that the Sergeant is a bilingual Italian-American, capable of heavy sarcasm.
Oscar Chamberlain - 1/15/2006
Your point is well taken if by usable results we mean a degree of fluency. However, it would do some good to provide what might be called a "military tourist crash course."
American Tourists--at least decent ones--often listen to language tapes that combine a basic, "how do I check into the hotel" phrases with some lessons on local culture. (Don't wear shorts in church; limit the suggestinve clothing, etc.).
The result is not fluency, it's not even all that much communication, but it is an improved interaction over knowing nothing.
Of course, most tourists don't have to remember the proper phrase for a given situation when people may be trying to kill them. That's a lot harder. Still, I think an improved interaction
is possible if soldiers got some dedicated combination of cultural training with 100 useful sentences and phrases.
At least they would be less likely to offend or make new enemies inadvertently.
Andrew D. Todd - 1/15/2006
Here is an interesting discussion of the language issue.
What it comes down to is that you have to start teaching all major third-world languages in the first grade on a compulsory basis, and go on doing so for twenty years, before you get usable results. Naturally, there would be more people wanting their children to take Chinese than other languages, so classes in Amharic, Berber, and Pushtu would be filled by use of the compulsory power. Most of the places where the Marines are likely to be sent in are places where the State Department doesn't want you to go, and doesn't want you to trade with. If there is a distinctive local language, there is likely to be no good reason for learning it, save for military purposes.
Chris Bray - 1/15/2006
A former Marine Corps captain named Nathaniel Fick wrote a book, "One Bullet Away," about his experience in Iraq. And he describes a moment, as he pushed toward Baghdad in the opening days of the war, in which an Army convoy drove up to his platoon and parked so their lieutenant could get out and ask directions. He walked up to Fick -- this is from memory, since I don't have the book with me anymore -- with a map in his hand, and said something like, "Hey, you guys have any idea where we are?" Cheerfully, like he was asking directions on a road trip through Connecticut.
And Fick said something like, "Get the fuck away from me. You guys are gonna get hosed, and I don't wanna be around when it happens."
This was either shortly after or shortly before Jessica Lynch's convoy got torn up because they were wandering lost on the battlefield.
So, yeah. That image sticks pretty hard: Hey, guys, you have any idea where we are?
It's not the whole truth -- there are many, many excellent soldiers -- but it's still pretty true.
Michael R. Davidson - 1/14/2006
While I am not a Marine, my brother-in-law is a Marine reserve officer who spent most of 2004 in Iraq, and his descriptions are aligned more or less with Richard Miller's comments. Whether it is merely inter-service rivalry or not, he also had some things to say about the Army units which are not suitable for family programming. . .
Best wishes on your service.
Richard F. Miller - 1/14/2006
Thank you, Mr. Bray, for your answers--as with much of your post, it makes sense. I would appreciate any links you might wish to provide about the Army, etc.
Get well, best, etc.
Chris Bray - 1/14/2006
I'm headed for bed, but will add a bit more on this question tomorrow, if you have any interest. Also, I'll have a long post Monday on the army's operational style and institutional habits. Ans a few more posts on other related topics in the days to follow.
Right now I'm waiting for the NyQuil to kick in. I'm in my third week with the same cold, and I'm so, so very over it.
Chris Bray - 1/14/2006
Many thanks. Glad you found us.
Chris Bray - 1/14/2006
The Marine Corps is a different country, and one I've never visited. I can't claim to have any firsthand insight into the way it works.
A few things are obvious, though: The Marine Corps is much, much smaller than the Army, and so can sustain a much more particular culture -- as well as some much higher recruiting standards. But the Marine Corps is also much less important than the Army in the long-term success of any significant land operation, because it is...much, much smaller than the Army. The Marine Corps is a tremendously important institution, and one that I admire a great deal, but they can't carry the ball for a mediocre army. Only the Army is big enough to do the Army job: Sustained land operations.
One other thing, in random order: The Marine Corps has a far more developed history (and therefore institutional tradition and memory) in small wars. They're naval infantry, staged in the fleet, always forward-deployed; they do small engagements as a function of their organization. The Army just spent forty years parked in front of the Fulda Gap, waiting to fight tanks. They don't do small engagements as a function of their organization.
Any marines out there who want to jump in on this?
John J Sullivan - 1/14/2006
I stumbled on your blog in freakish fashion--a google news search for Frey--and it appears that this is my great discovery of the day--week--month or more!
Your writing is inspiring and informing, and I'm hooked already, although I find so many other truly worthwhile things on the HNN website I may have to change my surfing habits dramatically.
I wish to thank you for your work. I am sure I will be better informed on what takes place in Iraq than I have been.
Richard F. Miller - 1/14/2006
I have embedded twice with U.S. forces in the Gulf; the last was with the 3/8 Marines in Fallujah; the next will be this March, also with the Marines (I've requested the 3/8 who are scheduled to rotate in-country in the very near future.) All of the foregoing being said, I agree with some of what you have written, especially the failure to prepare troops for specific service in very specific places--as you point out, the lack of familiarity with language, culture and (I would add) religion tops the list--just as they do with media (myself included) who "report."
Nevertheless, I have also had countervailing experiences, e.g., soldiers treating PUCs with civility, soldiers intervening to prevent other soldiers from abusing PUCs, etc. I don't wish to stoke the traditional friction between Army and Marines, but I would ask you to comment (when able) on the following observations:
1. In-country behavior--from treatement of detainees to fire control--is a function of platoon level discipline, typically led by senior NCOs. If they're on the ball, the men under them are on the ball. This doesn't compensate for the failure to speak a language, but it goes an awful long way to prevent obvious high and low level abusive behavior.
2. Much to my surprise, many of those senior level NCOs had strong personal contacts with their counterparts in the ISF and local constabularies. In fact, the relationships at these infantry levels seemed personally stronger than those claimed by senior CAG officers working with alleged "community leaders."
3. In general (you will forgive me here, please) I found small unit discipline among the Marines far better than the Army. Doesn't the presence of reserves, especially Army reserves, contribute to some of the problems (although not the preparation issues that you raise) experienced in dealing with Iraqis?
To be blunt, while the best of the Army is as good as the best of the Marines--on average, I found Marine Corps units far superior in discipline.
Finally, let me thank you for your service, as well as your valuable insights. Above, all, stay safe!
R.J. O'Hara - 1/14/2006
"And we are here as on a darkling plain, / Swept with confused alarms of stuggle and flight, / Where ignorant armies clash by night."
Jonathan Dresner - 1/13/2006
Like Oscar, I'm still thinking.
I was teaching about the Ottoman Empire yesterday, and the reading included a piece by a late 16c Venetian observer who commented (among other things) "They are all slaves by nature." We talked about how this is a trope which comes up constantly in early modern (and later) European commentary on the rest of the world... hasn't gone away, either.
Oscar Chamberlain - 1/13/2006
I'm still absorbing your report. Rough or not, you're telling an essential story, and I look forward to more.