The Duck of Minerva

The Blogs of War

13 October 2010

Later this week, I will be participating in a roundtable discussion with my esteemed colleagues Juan Cole, Manan Ahmed, Joshua Foust and Madiha Tahir on “The Blogs of War: The Analytical Terrain of the Af-Pak Blogosphere” at the annual conference on South Asia at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

For my contribution to this discussion, I have been scouring blogs from US/ISAF soldiers in Afghanistan. (I ignored the glossier blogs which are mainly exercises in official public relations and propaganda). Since I am up to my eyeballs reading blogs posts, I thought I would share a few observations…

Who is blogging?  Some soldier-bloggers are (as the derisive military jargon put it) Fobbits (i.e. forward operating base dwellers), Poges, or REMF (rear echelon mother fuckers) who rarely go outside of the wire and engage in direct combat.
 These are the types who have near panic attacks when stuck in Kabul traffic or who issue daily updates on the number of incoming mortar rounds from the previous night.  However, there are soldier/bloggers who do have lots of experience off of the base.  They seem to be using their blogs to process some of what they are learning and/or to discuss the finer points of current counter-insurgency strategy.  Since at least 2007, milbloggers are not free to comment on several topics and there is a measure of self- and quasi-official censorship so that soldier/bloggers do not run afoul of OPSEC guidelines.

Who is their audience? Most often those who are blogging say they are doing so to communicate a sense of their experience to friends and family.  Of course, if this were their only purpose, they could just as easily send their thoughts to a group e-mail.  So it is likely that most soldier/bloggers hope to communicate to a wider pro-military audience with occasional posts intended for the general public which is trying to make sense of the war.  Blogging may also help to provide some discipline and feedback on their own thoughts and interpretations of current events, as well as an outlet for frustration about how the war is being covered and analyzed by the mainstream media.

Common Themes:

1. Paternalism: Most US/ISAF soldier/bloggers are generally well intentioned toward the people of Afghanistan.  They believe that US/ISAF forces are there to counter the insurgency, help secure democracy, and build a professional military and police force; in other words, they accept their governments’ mission statement and generally remain optimistic and open minded.  (If soldiers do not accept the official rationale, it is unlikely that they would blog publicly about it).  However, it is pretty much impossible not to detect a hint of paternalism in many posts about Afghans with whom US/ISAF forces work closely.  Sometimes the level of paternalism is so blatant that the soldiers mock themselves:

“We got checked in and then had dinner, then our interpreters wanted to go downtown to Kabul and return on Tuesday. The Canadian Lt Colonel and I were like worried parents asking them all the questions about if their cell phone was charged, if they had our phone numbers, money, and a place to stay. It felt like letting your teenager out for the first time to drive, except people are actively looking for interpreters to kill, so we were extra worried,” (Afghanistan Tour 2010, 10/10/10). 

The pictures of life off the base are usually exercises in trying to comprehend the depth of poverty in Afghanistan.  Paternalism is reinforced by their training.  All USFOR-A (US Forces in Afghanistan) officers are required to read Greg Mortensen’s Three Cups of Tea, a book in which the admittedly noble protagonist has difficulty relating to any Pakistani except to the extent that social relations revolve around an acknowledgment of and competition for his charity.  Official military propaganda also emphasizes paternal and charitable relations with Afghan children as part of a general “hearts and minds” strategy.

Not surprisingly, the Afghans whom the soldiers get to know the best are usually their interpreters.  There is often genuine affection and respect for the service that “terps” provide.  But as the quote above illustrates, even these relationships are not without an element of paternalism.

In general, meaningful interactions with Afghans who are not directly or indirectly on the US payroll is quite limited. Those soldier/bloggers who have spent more time in rural areas (particularly member of what were formerly called Embedded Training Teams) outside their base express a measure of frustration at the ritualized and shallow manner with which they interact with the rural population.  One blogger was comically candid about the Marines’ Angry Panda syndrome (eats, shoots, and leaves).  He writes:

“Sometimes it’s shocking how little we really know about the people we’re fighting,” (Embedded in Afghanistan, 11/22/09).

Of course, not all interactions are shallow, predictable, and cursory.  In a separate post the same author wrote,

“Some of the conversations are not funny at all though. The average Afghan has seen a lot of tragedy in his or her life. They usually don’t feel compelled to share stories that are personal in nature, but I do recall one time when it happened… No matter how poor, down and out an Afghan is, they’ll always have some small provisions for guests. It was a pretty gloomy, rainy day and the old fella seemed kind of down, though it’s never easy to really read people when you can’t understand a word they are saying. Eventually, his nephews, young men in their 20’s, came out and proceeded to show us pictures of their father, who apparently had been the head man in the village, but had been killed by the insurgents just a few months before. At that point, the older gentlemen teared up and had to leave the room. The story was that the Taliban killed him because he had been a powerful figure in the local area, and wasn’t showing enough support to them. It’s those moments where you really realize how alone those people are. They may have had each other, living in a huge house built of stones fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle, but once we left the area that day they were really on their own. Our base may have been less than a mile away, but we didn’t really know what went on in that village at night. “Protecting the people” in Afghanistan is a tough thing to do,” (Embedded in Afghanistan, 12/01/09).

Another soldier wrote a post about Ramadan in Afghanistan, where he reflected on a conversation with Afghans by realizing that for many Afghans not eating during the day is not related to Ramadan, “It’s just a normal day…”  (Of course, for every thoughtful and culturally aware post, there are also rather disgusting tidbits on other blogs that wallow in stereotypes, racism, misogyny, and gutter level humor.)

2. Modernization: Many US/ISAF soldiers generally express high levels of optimism that Afghanistan is on a gradual path toward becoming a “modern” state and society (as if modernity were the telos of history).  Very few seem to be aware of the history of the modern Afghan state from the 1890 to 1979, i.e. prior to the Soviet invasion.  The people of Afghanistan have had repeated encounters with the Western model of modernity from King Amanullah to Prince Daoud.  A basic Afghan history course might help soldiers better understand why certain well intentioned “reforms” failed or generated resistance — either this is not provided or not utilized by soldier/bloggers writing on Afghanistan.

Of course, there are few who revel in images and accounts of Afghanistan’s backwardness.  One of my favorite slogans on this front is from the blog titled Afghan Quest, (formerly titled “Bill and Bob’s Excellent Afghan Adventure”) whose banner reads “…this is the quest for our future in a country ten minutes out of the stone age.”  Despite the idiotic banner, however, many of the blog posts on Afghan Quest are actually quite thoughtful and carefully argued.  

3. Mistrust: Soldiers’ posts often reveal a high degree of distrust of Afghans as colleagues and as workers.  For example, a soldier managing logistics on his second deployment in Afghanistan writes:

“A lot of times, when we try to work as a team with the ANA, they start to disappear one by one until you’re the only one left working…they’re very good at subtly disappearing,” (Afghanistan Tour 2010, 9/1/10). 

Some of this distrust is a product of the rampant corruption which appears ubiquitous, even in the most benign exercises, for example, distributing charity to poor children.  In one case an ANA medical officer allegedly had toys which were meant for distribution to children in his village diverted to his own home.  Unfortunately, there is little attempt to categorize and analyze why there is so much corruption or how to actually manage it. Corruption is primarily viewed by soldier/bloggers that I’ve read as an individual/societal moral failing.

Contrary to the general perception among soldier/bloggers, some NGO experiments with combating local level corruption have had measured success in parts of Afghanistan.  It may be useful to understand the social and political context in which such experiments can succeed as a way of analyzing why so many other endeavors succumb to various forms of corruption.  A better understanding of social networks and allegiances (from qawm to ethno-linguistic group to political party, etc.) in Afghan society might be a useful first step to designing better procedures and exercises.

It is also worth noting that while soldiers are often outraged by the corruption they encounter among Afghans, few engage in any reflection about their own ethically questionable acts, for example combining humanitarian assistance and charity work with military counter-insurgency strategy in a manner that ultimately places the lives of NGO workers in danger.

4. Chocolate Bunny War: There is something odd about this occupation when viewed from the perspective of those stationed at major bases in Afghanistan. It never quite ceases to amaze me that soldiers stationed in a war in South Asia boast of going to Tim Horton’s for an iced cappuccino or a bucket of chicken at KFC. Obviously, these features are designed to boost troop morale, but they also seem to make the Occupation surreal. While war tourists (i.e. journalists) seek out and focus on combat operations, many soldiers experience the war primarily from within the relatively secure confines of their base.  It is well known that war is boring, however the idea that war can be comfortable and even fattening is still a bit peculiar.

Overall, the experience of war in Afghanistan as conveyed by many soldier/bloggers reveals that while there is a cadre of highly intelligent, well intentioned, and open minded soldiers committed to the mission, they are often struggling to gain basic cultural literacy.  The relatively comfortable life behind the wire and limited language proficiency inhibits opportunities for serious and meaningful engagement with non-elite Afghans.  Even those who do regularly engage with the rural population have limited opportunities to actually learn much that is substantive about the people they are nominally protecting and the enemies they are fighting.