After a group of American Green Berets were tragically ambushed in Niger, Africa last October, I watched as countless news outlets ran stories about America’s seemingly new “secret wars” in Africa. The idea that an American military presence on the continent was somehow a new or secret thing just didn’t quite jive with me, however, seeing as I distinctly recall deploying to Africa back in 2010 – where I was among a small group of active duty advisers that accompanied a large force of Marine reservists tasked with helping to train Mozambique’s national military, known as the FADM, to serve in their new capacity as regional peacekeepers.
As a member of a small advanced party tasked with clearing a bivouac for the large scale landing party to come, we were acutely aware of the presence of Islamic Extremism in the region, particularly the efforts of international terror groups like Al Qaeda to establish spheres of influence in poverty stricken portions of the continent. From a Global War on Terror perspective, one might call Operation Shared Accord a form of preventative maintenance; where U.S. troops provide services, training, and supplies to local governments in an effort to improve relations and help reduce the influential effect terrorist-borne funding may have on the region’s leadership and populace.
“There is nothing more important than what we’re doing for national defense and national security than this,” said now General Burke W. Whitman at the time of our deployment. “It is a priority for the Department of State, and a major priority of the current secretary of state, the president and their predecessors.”
General Whitman (who was a colonel when I worked for him) slept and worked in a tent only about fifteen feet away from my own during that deployment. A successful businessman that always passed out piles of Whitman’s chocolates around the holidays, Whitman has an undeniable presence – one that he was happy to lend to a number of humanitarian outreach efforts we executed while in Mozambique.
One of those outreach efforts involved helping to rebuild a school in one of Mozambique’s impoverished villages. Marines rotated responsibilities, devoting their time to training the FADM, conducting necessary security ops, and assisting in efforts like rebuilding that school – offering many of us a chance to see the country from some distinctly different perspectives. In the span of a single day, I watched locals conduct a religious ritual that included sacrificing a goat, met with Leslie Rowe, U.S. Ambassador to Mozambique, and stood a post with a FADM officer that regaled me with stories about his upbringing in the savanna. Such a surreal juxtaposition of wealth and poverty, of belief and mindset, even of what I would consider to be good and bad can’t be found anywhere else on the globe but Africa… At least, as far as I’ve experienced.
When work at the school was completed, the students, teachers, and Marines all got together for an impromptu celebration, which included members of the Marine Corps Band that I believe were in attendance for a ceremony that included the Ambassador the following day. The band began to play, the children began to sing, and I pulled my phone from my pocket to record the video below.
Throughout my entire Marine Corps career and all the twenty-some odd nations I’ve visited, that brief moment in time, with locals and Marines dancing, singing and celebrating together, remains perhaps the most rewarding experience of my entire professional life.
The Marine Corps is about winning wars, without question, but sometimes people forget that the easiest way to win a fight, is to prevent it from happening in the first place. That’s what I believe we were working to do there on that hot, dry afternoon in the Moamba District. We were connecting with the next generation of leaders, of warriors in Mozambique… and I pray that in their time, they remember this awkward Irish Marine from Boston and know they have a friend in the United States.
I hope those kids found their ways to the right causes and the right fights. I hope that, thanks in some small part to our effort, the gap between America and Mozambique closed a bit in their minds.
Because if you ask me, that’s what Marines do. They fight to make the world better, even when they aren’t fighting at all.
Watch my footage of that celebration below:
Images courtesy of the author