We’re not as different as we would like to believe. I read that the other day but I can’t quite remember where. But for some reason, this is what comes to mind when I think of my experiences beginning in Febuary of 2008. We knew our unit was on the road to war in Afghanistan, so about 100 senior leaders of our Brigade were sent to Monterrey California for what basically equated to a cultural seminar.
Now, a cultural seminar put on by the military? Isn’t that like the blind leading the blind? Not at all I’m happy to respond. Lord knows I’ve spent many hours of my life in what everyone considered to be pretty useless Army training. However, this was by far the most enlightening military or collegiate experience of my life. First of all it was at the Naval Post Graduate Institute and the seminar was named Leadership Development and Education for a Sustained Peace (LDESP). Notice it wasn’t War and How to be Aggressive and Kick Ass. (WHAKA) So it didn’t seem to be based on indoctrinating us but rather giving us the tools to solve problems in Afghanistan. How can we win the hearts and minds of the people if we don’t know what is in their hearts and minds? We essentially received 5 days of intense training attempting to enlighten us as to who Afghans are and just what is going on (and has gone on) in their country.
After the seminar I was so excited, I can’t remember the last time I was so challenged. Afghans are deeply religious (Muslim). Afghans are proud. Afghans treat women differently (bad mostly). Afghanistan is one of the poorest countries in the world. Afghanistan is mountainous (not a desert). Afghans are accustomed to war. Apparently Afghanistan was one of the more forward thinking Muslim countries of South West Asia (not the middle east) in the 1970s.
Then the Russians came.
When I went out in Kabul everyone I talked to seemed to have a “when the Russians were here” story revolving around destruction and mayhem. I told one man they lived in a very beautiful village, I hadn’t seen such green grass and beautiful fields in a long time. At the base of a gorgeous mountain no less. “Well when the Russians were here they laid land mines everywhere and now we can’t farm out there” was his reply. Each one was similar and everywhere we ran into people with only one leg, arm, or eye.
So what I walked away with was trying to quantify or understand or put some sort of perspective to all of the information I had received in Monterrey. How can they operate with a very loose sense of time yet think you’re dishonorable for not showing up on time? How can they be deeply religious but condone the killing of innocents? How can they live with war and devastation and not want to throw everybody out Taliban and Coalition Forces alike?
Of course it dawned on me, the conclusion I keep coming back to continually in my life but tough for me to figure out none the less. Oh yeah, they’re all individual people with individual motivations, backgrounds, and goals. It sounds simple, don’t try to lump them all into one but it’s all that happens. Yes we as Americans are all individuals but them…well they’re just not Americans. We see them as so different that their differences make them all one black and white category.
I would be tickled to hear an American’s characterization of an American; and anyone from another countries description of the same. I would bet none of us would fit into it. Someone from a small town or a big town? Midwest, east coast, the south, west coast? All of those other states in the middle that no one pays any attention to unless they’re driving through them thinking lord when will this flatness end!? Because one of those qualifiers would undoubtedly make a huge difference. They would to us because we view ourselves as so very individual yet we don’t give anyone else the same courtesy.
What I came to understand after actually being in Afghanistan, was that we can’t just say “well Afghans are religious so we need to appeal to their Muslim side.” Sure Islam is by far the major religion of the region, and the fanatics are only interested in making Afghanistan a true religious state, but they are diverse just like we are. We have religious fanatics as well, and they carry out violent acts in the name of God too. “Well Afghans are used to war so we need to bring them peace”. In many parts that is very true. Yet in Kabul for example I think they’re much more concerned about the corruption than the security issue.
Something we don’t think about as Americans – likely because the terrifying reality of the average Afghan is so vastly different from our own – is that Afghans aren’t scared of anything! I say that somewhat lightly but they don’t seem to be. My first time out on the town I saw everyone in the street. Kids, moms, business men, babies. It’s not at all unusual to see three very young children pushing each other down the middle of a very busy street in a wheel barrel without any adult at all. After visiting a school I asked my interpreter if he thought perhaps we scared the children because we were in 60 pounds of body armor sporting two weapons a piece. Trying not to laugh at me he smirked and said he did not think they were afraid. On the way back I noticed the Afghan National Army driving down the road with a large mounted automatic weapon in the back of the truck and thought “oh right, they’re used to this”. While clearly security is one of the primary concerns (I don’t mean to downplay it), many other things are at work and it’s not the same for everyone.
Now my conclusion seems obvious. Yes we get it, all Afghans aren’t alike. I continually hear people making broad statements about Afghans as if they know them or could wrap them all up into a neat little package. Well basically they’re so different than us, it seems to some that they’re all the same. But in fact, we all don’t truly understand each other as Americans. I do not share the same values in any way with a lot of people I associate with on a daily basis. We don’t arrive at conclusions the same way, we don’t share the same values. So how the hell could Afghans? Some of them steal, some of us steal. It’s easy to just point to them as all being wrong when one person does something wrong and say they’re all like that when we don’t apply the same standards to ourselves. I met an Afghan who continually invaded my personal space, but i don’t apply that to all Afghans because it’s not true. I also had my car broken into in Minnesota but I don’t think that all Americans steal.
Realistically lumping Iraqis and Afghans into the same group because we’re at war with both countries would be like saying in the U.S. “we have New Yorkers and then everyone else”. I don’t think anyone would like that characterization except New Yorkers (since we all know the world revolves around New York). We know the Texans would be in an uproar since Texas is apparently the greatest place on earth!
The differences between Afghans should be as obvious to us as the differences between Americans. Some Afghans dress very traditionally with turbans and beards and burqas and some dress just like we do. I met a school head master with a short haircut, well trimmed mustache wearing jeans and loafers and a Columbia jacket the same day I meet a head master in very traditional Afghan attire.
So what is the tie that binds us? Lots of things do. Humanity does. If I had to narrow it down though I would say that we are truly all just trying to get by. Afghans aren’t thinking about the average American because they’re just trying to feed their families. Americans aren’t thinking much about the typical Afghan because they’re worried about how they’re going to pay the bills. No one is right or wrong and certainly no one in this scenario is terrible. We’re all just trying to focus on the fire that needs to be put out and hoping to get ahead one day. I think that has to be universal throughout the world.