I’d like to continue the FID tips series by writing about how your status as an American factors into how you engage with host-nation partners. Being a cheeseburger-eating, barrel-chested, freedom-fighting American has both pros and cons as you try to build a relationship with indigenous forces.
One of the major drawbacks is that you probably will not speak the language or understand the culture of the place you are working, and about the time you start to get the hang of things, you will be redeployed back home and a brand new team will have to pick up where you left off. It usually takes them months to catch up to where you were before. I think the members of the 7th Special Forces Group may be an exception. With many Latin Americans in the ranks, you have Green Berets who grew up speaking Spanish and living around immigrant communities. When these guys hit the ground in South or Central America, their rapport is a whole lot stronger than someone like me (white kid from the suburbs) trying to talk to Iraqis.
Why is this hard for someone like me? Well, first off, I suck at learning foreign languages. It’s one of my flaws, what can I say? Furthermore, in the Q-Course, we learned modern standard Arabic, but in Iraq they of course speak with an Iraqi dialect. That’s okay, because you can catch up as you spend time in-country and learn some of the differences between the two. But, oh no, guess what? You’re going to a part of Iraq where they speak Turkmani, a language that basically has nothing to do with Arabic.
But as you fumble your way through foreign cultures, there are a few very strong upsides to being an American.
First, you exist outside local conflicts and grievances. The locals may or may not appreciate having American soldiers in their backyards, but they still like you more than they like the opposing religious faction. They also like you more than the guy who shot his great uncle’s goat back in 1969, resulting in a decades-long blood feud. By comparison, Americans are not so bad. You can use this to your advantage if you are smart about it.
Say you are the mayor of a Sunni-majority town. For you to travel to Shia-dominated areas is a no-go. If you travel to Kurdish-held areas, you will be immediately arrested. But as an American, you can sit down and drink chai with Sunnis, Shias, and Kurds, not to mention a whole slew of other factions and groups. Your ability to communicate and travel stretches farther than many of the locals, even powerful ones, because your cultural status exists completely outside of the society you are working in.
Secondly, they know you are an American dude. Stop messing around. In the schoolhouse, they teach you all about Arab customs. Throw that shit right out the window. Nobody really eats with only their left hand. Walk right through the door, shake hands, be polite, and be an American, because that is okay and they expect that from you. You should take some time to get to know the troops you are working with and find out what is and isn’t socially acceptable, but you will find that soldiers are pretty much the same all over the world.
My first day with an Iraqi SWAT team, one member told me that he doesn’t believe in Allah and could care less about Islam. When it came time to vote in Iraqi elections, the entire SWAT team was given the day off. They were supposed to go vote, but I think they went home to have sex with their wives and then maybe vote if they had time. Meanwhile, one of my SWAT-team friends stayed at the base and came walking out in his pajamas. I asked if he was going to go vote. He said, “Hell no, those politicians are all corrupt. Why bother?”
In Syria, I bunked with a 24-year-old fighter one night. We got to talking about our experiences in war, showing each other pictures of guns and knives we liked on our cell phones. Then, he smiled, reached into his backpack, and showed me a business card for a Turkish escort service. I had a feeling that this kid was legit. My point is, many of our assumptions about foreign cultures are often incorrect, and people will trust you more if you are open and straightforward with them as opposed to observing mythological local customs all the time.
The people you are going to work with know that you are an American and they probably have some vague impressions about American culture from watching television. This alone creates a bridge between you and them, although it is rather shaky—maybe more like a zip line than a bridge. But, it creates a small basis for you to relate to one another and talk about a few things you may have in common, like movies you’ve both watched.
I’ll leave you with one of the more ridiculous examples of this. When I was first introduced to the Iraqi SWAT team, I told them my name was Jack. One of the SWAT team members said, “Jackenrose!”
I said, “No, my name is Jack.”
He nodded, “Nam, Jackenrose!”
This went on for a few minutes until finally I asked him what the hell he was talking about. He said, “Jack and Rose!”
“Who the fuck is that?”