Monday, September 14, 2009

In the media

You know it's been an interesting tour when during an hour-long layover in Alaska someone just happens to buy a Time magazine and thereby stumble across pictures of members of our team and one of our interpreters. Of course, our guys that had the pictures taken knew that eventually they might show up in the magazine, but none of the rest of us knew they'd be in there since we didn't pay attention to the fact that a reporter was with them. It might have been a nice surprise if not for the fact that two of our guys pictured were bearded and well out of uniform. Unlike the Special Forces, we're not permitted to dress and groom ourselves how we'd like.

Of course, where we could get away with it, many of us did just what we liked regarding our uniforms and beards. Generally we had sense enough to not let pictures get taken of us in such a state. In fact, for the first half of our time we didn't let reporters embed with us at all, and pretty much just kept them away from us, primarily so something like this wouldn't happen. At some point that changed though, and members of our team thereafter appeared or were mentioned in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Time (twice), El Mundo, and some others. It wasn't until this last one though that some of us were published completely out of uniform. Not sure what if any repercussions our team will feel, but at any rate, I think the main pic of the story makes a helluva recruiting tool for the Marine Corps...

As for the why...why we'd be out of uniform and unshaven at times...well, there's more to it than simply being nasty and undisciplined. For one thing, the Afghan elders and people respect a man with a beard. In fact when we and our ANA would go to a village the ANA commander would always ask to talk to the "spin gheri" which translates as "white beard". Now I'm not sure if the literal translation in Pashtu for "village elder" is "white beard" but that's how my Afghan commanders got their point across, pretty much indicating that in the Pashtu language and culture a beard is synonymous with seniority and authority. We certainly never once spoke to a man of any stature whatsoever that had no beard. The elders I habitually dealt with were dismayed (nearly as much as I) when I shaved a two-month beard I had going. I'm not sure being clean-shaven was any real detriment at the end of the day, but adopting a local custom is not always a bad thing, despite what our pre-deployment training told us about "not going native". I say go native sometimes where it serves you. And frankly, growing a beard makes the Marines feel like their getting one over on the rulewriters on high and is good for morale. You just have to be sure that you've got a group that is professional enough to realize that breaking one rule doesn't mean they are not still Marines, with all the other attendant rules and regulations to follow.

As for the uniforms, most of that had to do with blending in with the ANA. Most likely even from 500 meters away an insurgent is going to recognize an American by the gear he's carrying and how he carries himself, but there's no use making it any easier for them to target the ETTs specifically by wearing a uniform that looks different.

5 comments:

Gus Snarp said...

Those guys do look as cool and tough as any Marine ever looked. I'm also reminded of all the Vietnam War movies in which the troops always seemed to have largely abandoned uniform and appearance standards in the field. I think it may be a natural response to needing to work with a very different culture. Maybe a special allowance for beards should be made for units working so closely with the Afghans. Also, I can't believe there is actually a warning about going native. Sometimes the similarities between our current struggles and T.E. Lawrence's account in the Seven Pillars of Wisdom are really striking.

Anonymous said...

I should think blending in with the "natives" would be a good thing. Wish I had seen the photo. Will have to check out the news stands. Welcome home!

Matt said...

That is one bad-ass shot!

David M said...

The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 09/16/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

copp3rred said...

When in Rome is occasionally apt. We tell people how to sit, how to behave in groups, how to converse and how to act with women; it seems logical to suggest we could have a few exceptions, especially since it serves our interests.

Just as you swap gear and grow some facial hair, you also make yourself less of a target; why be the Redcoats marching on the main road when you can use camouflage? Isn't a Marine always a Marine?

Having just arrived in theater, I get more than a few odd looks for sporting a beard and close cropped hair. As one of those rare birds, the govt civilian in a sea of uniformed service members, it's doubly odd I guess.