Monday, 23 January 2012

The Marine Corps travel guide

The Marine Corps has not been doing well in the last couple of weeks, most notably due to the video of Marines urinating on the bodies of some deceased Afghan men. The impact of this has been largely predictable as @Starbuck_WOI (aka Crispin Burke) notes "This is why you don't pee on the enemy":
An Afghan soldier who shot dead four French troops has said he did it because of a recent video showing U.S. Marines urinating on the dead bodies of Taliban insurgents, security sources told AFP.

"During the initial interrogations by French soldiers, he told them he did it because of the video in which American soldiers were urinating on bodies," an Afghan army officer said.
The issue has been discussed well on Kings of War, and it's worth noting a few key paragraphs:
The thing is, though, these scenes are really only partly outrageous if you accept the definition above. To be sure, they are violent. And they go beyond standards of what is right and decent not to mention standards of discipline in the Marine Corps. But they’re really not unusual. It’s only unusual that such things now propagate outside of the theatre of conflict so widely and rapidly. Dreadful things have always happened in war.
Cameras are ubiquitous in daily life and on the battlefield. A while ago I wrote in an article ‘The More You Know the Less You Understand‘ that ‘networked soldiery which can film anything and store and share the images on a microchip changes the rules of the game.’ I’m now not quite as sure of that statement–I’m not sure, as I was implying then, that it really is a strategic game changer. Now, I think perhaps that while the style of play is different it’s still the same old game.
I’m not really trying to defend what these Marines were up to. Only to suggest that the dense media ecology in which war is now fought has an Alice in Wonderland like dimension which obscures as much as it illuminates while boosting war’s inherent chanciness, non-linearity and tendency to unintended consequences. As Ben O’Loughlin and Andrew Hoskins put it in War and Media:

…instant recording, archiving and distribution of images and stories add a chaotic element to any action. Nobody knows who will see an event, where and when they will see it or how they will interpret it. Nobody knows how the reactions of people locally or around the world will feed back into the event, setting off a chain of other events, anywhere, in which anybody may get caught up.

I too am not going to claim what these men did was right, it isn't, simply put. The reasons they did what they did will no doubt come out in time when these men rightly are judged by the rules of the Marine Corps.

The point of this post is not to rehash what has already been rehashed in enormous detail, but instead to direct people to a document which I was pointed to (I'm sorry to say I forget by whom), the Marine Corps orientation document for those deploying into Afghanistan. It's important for what it represents, a deeply thoughtful and sensitive culture within the Marine Corps, designed expressly to ensure that incidents such as the one above do not occur.

It opens with a telling paragraph:
This guidebook was designed specifically to provide basic cultural information for Marines deploying to Afghanistan. In such a short guide, it is sometimes necessary to simplify complex concepts, or to make generalizations about behavior, or to reduce complicated historical events to a few sentences. This guide is intended only as an introduction to the subject for Marines deploying to Afghanistan. It provides a basic understanding of a rich culture, a dynamic and living history, and a complicated insurgency. At the end of this guide, therefore, the Marine will find suggestions for further reading to dig deeper into the history, culture, and language of Afghanistan.
The reading list at the end is well worth checking as an aside, comprehensive if a little short, it's added a few entries to my own Amazon wishlist. As someone commented on a Facebook discussion I had about the document:
Wow... This is definitely a spot-on guide. It took me a couple months of living in Kabul just to get the basic details that are covered in the first few dozen pages. Knowing how the different ethnic groups inter-relate before heading out could have saved me a couple headaches.
The most interesting part is without doubt the section on ethnic groups, which details geography, demography, customs, culture and other details down to types of headress and clothing. There are also some slightly amusing asides including:
Homosexual activity is taboo in Afghanistan, and officially can result in a death sentence, but it is far more common than most sources and most Afghans will admit.
Afghan men often take younger men as lovers. Many US soldiers have heard an Afghan say "women are for babies, but men are for love,"
The combination of loose, baggy, comfortable trousers and long knee-length shirt is called the Shalwar Kameez and is worn by virtually all Afghan males. The sleeveless vest is also customary. The pen in the vest pocket of the man in the foreground (Pacha Khan Zadran) is a symbol of literacy.
Its easy to laugh at things like this, and they are of course culturally relative, but for a document like this it is superbly detailed.

More important are passages like this:
...blood feuds arising from real or perceived dishonor can and often do last for generations. When American soldiers or Marines search a man's home, he is obligated to take revenge for this dishonor against an American (all Americans are seen as belonging to the same clan.) This revenge may be taken by planting an IED, for example, or by sniping at and killing an American. There is no statute of limitations in Pashtunwali, and no sense that "time heals all wounds." One famous Pashtun proverb holds that "I took my revenge after 100 years, and I only regret that I acted in haste."
This passage is an open entreaty to Marines to resist the desire to harm an Afghan in body or in property, not the sort of thing the general public might expect to be in a military manual, yet here it is, clear as day.

I'm not going to go into any more detail on the document, apart from to say it is one of the most revealing looks at how a modern military can prepare its soldiers for a hostile environment in a positive and proactive way.

Kudos to the writers of the document, and the men who stick by it day after day.

1 comment:

  1. I just sat and read through the whole damn thing. Probably the most approachable work of anthropology I've ever encountered.