Symposium: Clan on the FOB, part one

Unlike most of our symposium members, I do not approach the RULE OF THE CLAN from a legal perspective, not primarily anyway. My perspective is from the battlespace. The issues of clan solidarity, group honor, and collective shame that Mark elucidates, specifically in chapter seven, were not legal theory but stubborn and irreducible facts-on-the-ground for my students and me at a Forward Operating Base near the AF-Pak border in Afghanistan. I approach Mark’s arguments primarily from a socio-cultural perspective, for cultural incompatibility between US Forces and Afghan Forces, who are supposed to be allied in their efforts to provide security to Afghans, often has lethal consequences. Green-on-Blue killings (Afghan troops killing US troops) dramatically spiked during my deployment to Afghanistan, a “metric truth” I discovered first-hand when an Afghan Soldier stopped me on my way to my tent, for no apparent reason, by aiming his short-barrel AK at my head—an epiphany at gunpoint that instantly revealed the predicament in which my students found themselves working alongside an Afghan Army made up of dangerously loyalty-conflicted individuals. That at-the-end-of-a-barrel moment also revealed the tricky nature of my pedagogical duty as Professor Fobbit.

That duty was preventing Green-on-Blue conflict. My students are being asked to fight an especially treacherous kind of war in Afghanistan, in which they must vigilantly watch their backs for fear of being shot through their own hearts by the native minds they’re supposed to have won over, the ANA and ASF. For example, on our base, the ANA manned the ops alongside US Soldiers, my students. Whenever we came under attack, however, the ANA would typically NOT shoot back, for fear of killing one of their own kinsmen. Many abandoned their posts, leaving US soldiers (my students) to worry that they’d soon be getting shot at from behind. In addition to uniformed Afghans, many non-uniformed, armed Afghans roamed the FOB. As one student remarked, “I don’t know how many pyjama-ed, sandal-wearing, OBL-bearded locals I see a day walking around base armed with AKs but not wearing ID badges. Who the hell are these guys? NOBODY knows!”

In this environment, reliable, detailed socio-cultural data about Afghans was of MORTAL import to my students, armed US Soldiers and Sailors whose daily choices often had lethal consequences, for themselves and for Afghans. My students’ ability to make blink-fast, razor-smart on-the-Fob and on-patrol choices was directly linked to their understanding Afghans as complicated human beings who belong to complex, clan-based, honor-obsessed cultures that appear, at first glance, utterly incomprehensibly bizarre to most US Troops. We called the kind of intellectual skill we were developing in our plywood classroom “cultural cunning.” Mark’s insights are uncommonly useful to developing that kind of cunning.

Although I taught any material that was intelligently useful to helping my students learn how to sidestep unnecessary conflict with their Afghan counterparts (I wish I’d had Mark’s book then), Homer was our main textbook. The primal data the ancient bard offers in ILIAD about the tough psychic realities of combat helped my students deepen their understanding of and commitment to the Warrior’s Code (See Shannon French’s THE CODE OF THE WARRIOR, 2005) and gave them a much-needed narrative template upon which to organize their own increasingly burdensome and discombobulated experience of counter fighting a brutal, no-end-in-sight insurgency. I didn’t have to teach them that Homeric myth can be used as a method to face the spiritual and psychological damage of war fighting. They taught me that lesson, because they were already living inside the warrior myth.   Echoing Roberto Calasso, my students demonstrated that that Greek myths are not “there waiting for us to revive them; they are there waiting to revive us, to wake us up to collective psychic realities.” They provide a place to begin healing from the collective “moral damage” of war. Homer was, as we approached him on a battlefield in Afghanistan, a powerful prophylactic against moral injury and psychological trauma.

Mark is dead right in RULE when he states that “each Marine is bound other Marines by unbreakable bonds of loyalty.” The same is equally true of the Soldiers and Sailors I taught in Afghanistan. Our study of Homer’s ILIAD gave them abiding insights into their own collective understanding of the powerful feelings of honor that bind them into effective military units. I know of no relationships thicker or more intense than those between Soldiers in combat. The US military is extraordinarily effective at training its Warfighters into fictive kinship groups, bands of brothers, indeed. (See BECOMING SOLDIERS: ARMY BASIC TRAINING AND THE NEGOTIATION OF IDENTITY by John Bornmann) And Homer’s primal insights into battlefield relationships spoke directly to what mattered most among my students: The ethical and social performance of his or her own forces. Their understanding of honor, like Homer’s, was intensely social, keenly collective. Bouncing our experience off of what Homer depicts of the bonds between Ajax and Nestor or Hector and Paris or Achilles and Patroclous, we explored the implications of what Mark has called the “community surveillance” of clan configurations, especially its benefits to US Warfighters in the battlespace, “security, identity, robust interpersonal relationships”—solidarity. Deployed life in US uniform in Afghanistan is, in the best-possible sense, Clan life. I’ll return to his point in a follow up post with the recent evolutionary, socio-biological discoveries about group loyalty and genetic altruism of Robin Dunbar, Franz De Waal, Paul Zak, and E.O. Wilson. (I also hope to contrast my work in Afghanistan with my work in Africa.)

While Homer provided my students self-protective insight and narrative form for their own experience of war, the Mediterranean bard also provided my students key insights into a clan-based, honor-possessed Afghan society. As my friend and colleague, Dr. Jonathan Shay (ACHILLES IN VIETNAM: COMBAT TRAUMA AND THE UNDOING OF CHARACTER), points out, “The world of Homer was dominated by aspirations to, struggles over, and rages related to honor. The Soldiers currently fighting in Afghanistan are fighting against, and also in alliance with Afghans, who inhabit a culture that is much closer to that of the Homeric epics than to that of today’s USA. This can only help our Soldiers make better decisions on the ground.” Homer forms much of his epic out of what Mark has identified as a key aspect of identity-formation in clan members, “ancestral consciousness…lineage knowledge provides clan members with a sense of their place in the world, not only in contemporary time but across many generations in the past and, implicitly, in the future.” A great many passages in the ILIAD depict characters boasting of their lineage. The point of these I-was-begat-by riffs is to establish the status and presence – a sense of place – of the character, i.e. Ajax, Nestor. Here, we made the links to Afghan identity structures and to Afghan ancestral SELF-consciousness.

As Mark has noted, a clan coerces cooperation and loyalty out of its members. Myth is a highly manipulative tool invented by the clan for creating solidarity, of course. Homer’s ILIAD, for example, was used to teach a young Greek warrior the stubborn and irreducible social and psychic facts of war. The teaching and reciting of the ILIAD by Greeks was also used to form loyalty to the group and to promote the key virtues that were considered absolutely crucial to the formation of Greek warrior units: The classical virtues of courage, honesty, moderation, self-sacrifice—justice. (These are also the core LEADERSHIP values of all branches of the US military.) Homer was, for centuries, THE textbook for Greeks.

Moreover, the ILIAD provides an unsurpassed lesson in the psychology and physiology of honor: How honor structures individual identity, how it binds the individual to the group, how it motivates him to action, especially into combat. The ILIAD reveals the physiology of honor, demonstrating better than any work I know of how honor motivates the feuding behavior of an entire society. Homer reveals the specific cultural devices that instilled and induced the feeling of honor and shame among Ancient Greeks. That was, in fact, the main didactic point of Homer’s epic. In that sense, the ILIAD is highly manipulative, inducing feelings that were key to becoming a true Greek warrior and encouraging the appropriate, active responses to those feeling states.

As I explained to both my ISAF (and to my AFRICOM) students, honor is neurologically compulsive among members of honor-based societies. (See Richard Nisbett and Dov Cohen’s study on the physiology of honor in Southern men.)

It’s vitally important to know that affronts to members of honor-based societies call forth automatic, gut reactions from an individuals whose identity is structured by the honor-shame dynamic. An insult to a Tribal Afghan might very well compel him, at the neurological level, to empty his AK into you and your unit. His reaction is NOT deliberative. It is compulsive. He cannot NOT react to the cocktail of neuropeptides released into his blood stream by an affront or insult. Among some Afghans, even the profanity used so very casually by ISAF personnel in the vicinity of a tribal elder (or, worse, an Afghan woman) might be enough to give an insult that provokes an honor reaction.

In order to work effectively with Afghans, you need to know precisely what offends and affronts the individual’s culturally-bound, innate sense of honor. You need to know the cultural mechanisms by which honor and shame are induced in individuals by their tribe. Mark’s book gives us some tough gristle on which to chew through these issues.

For example, Homer’s ILIAD is a grand dramatization of the cataclysm into which honor-provoked feuding typically propels clan-based societies. In this regard, Mark’s book not only confirms many of my own observations of Afghan clan-driven, honor-obsessed behaviour but also echoes the primal lessons about pre-modern, honor-driven small societies that Homer’s been teaching us for over 1,500 years. In our battlefield classroom, we applied Homer’s insights to Afghan society and used them to discover the specific cultural mechanisms by which a given Afghan tribe created loyalty and solidarity. I wish I’d had Mark’s book available to me then. His book has given me “soft eyes” on Homer.  (I’ll try to refrain from waxing Homeric in future Posts.)

I had an ideal position as a “socio-cultural” professor on that particular FOB because I lived in a tent that was exclusively designated for Afghans. Even better, I was the only NON-Afghan living in that tent. They didn’t want me there, but I stayed on to learn their worldview, to learn from them directly how they viewed each other, me, ISAF—how they viewed my students. At any given time, there were around fifty Afghans packed into that tent: Nuristani, Pashai, Pashtun, even Shia Hazaras. After they figured out they could trust me (or pretended to), they invited me into long chai conversations in which they endeavoured to make me understand the immensity of the cultural chasm between them and my students.

I learned their backgrounds, levels of education, musical tastes, attitudes toward Islam, toward women, toward the ANA, toward Russians, toward Pakistan, toward America, toward each other. I learned how to make Chai. I learned their complicated, oft contradictory and ambivalent views of our Troops so that I could better equip my students to cope with Afghan hostility and ambivalence—to cope with potentially lethal cultural incompatibility. I lived with them in that tent, alone as an American. My self defence was entirely on me. I eventually learned how to sleep soundly. (Male-on-male rape was disturbingly common on that FOB.)

I took their insights (and complaints) directly into my classrooms. My squibs last year in FOREIGN POLICY will give you a pungent sense of our classroom work at that FOB.  In my next post, I’ll share more of what I learned from Afghans about Afghan “clannism.”

You may also like...

1 Response

  1. Cathleen Kuduk says:

    Amazing, Amazing, Amazing. Your wealth of knowledge and insight is magnificent and well earned. Your sharing is humble. How I would love to have dinner with you and Mark.