CENTCOM’s Facebook Page – in Arabic

القيادة المركزية الامريكية

I’m way fascinated by CENTCOM’s Facebook (Arabic) page. As far as I can tell, they mostly just post interesting pictures of military stuff to engage with a mostly Arabic speaking audience. For Arabic students, it’s great, easy practice.

What a strange job to have though, huh? Manager of CENTCOM’s Facebook page in Arabic.

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Infidel Patch

infidel patch

Week ending January 5, 2014

The top search of the week was actually ‘carryingthegun‘ which makes me happy. But as there really isn’t anything to write about that, I’m bumping down to the second most frequent search. Incidentally, the next 4 out of 5 searches were ‘infidel’ related.

When I search for ‘infidel patch’ my blog post ‘Enough with the ‘infidel’ stuff.’ Seriously, stop.’ is the number two hit. I can only imagine that most people searching for infidel gear are people who support the wear of it. I further imagine my post(s) on the subject are likely very agitating.

I followed up the first post a year later with ‘Infidel Redux‘ where I took a deeper look at where ‘infidel’ gear might sit in terms of keeping good order and discipline.

What bothers me right now as I finish this post is the market that has been created by this. The picture that leads the post is a screenshot of the image search for ‘infidel patch.’ Companies have cashed in on this thing. I wrote about the former Marine who now makes ‘infidel’ knives that are forged in pig’s blood. I’ve seen ‘infidel’ shirts sold at the PX. It’s all pretty disgusting.

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Infidel Redux

Hipster

Without question, my short post last year on why it’s a bad idea for troops to embrace the term ‘infidel’ has been my most popular. It has garnered the most comments and is usually the post that attracts the most viewers per day. Judging by the comments, people get very emotional about this topic and have strong, mostly unshakeable and extreme opinions. Those who are ardent advocates of the brand cannot be convinced otherwise and in many cases, take to insulting me, my writing ability, or my credentials to make or punctuate their argument.

The point I was trying to make in that post was to say that while troops are entitled to their right to free speech, it is unprofessional to embrace the term infidel for the reasons I outlined. In reaction to my opinion, in the comments section, I have been accused of being a sympathizer of the enemy, an “incredible dumbass,” a poor writer, an empathizer, one who has a “hidden agenda,” dishonorable, a fobbit, an “embarrassment to our military and country,” someone “who needs a kick to the balls with a spiked combat boot,” and most recently, a traitor.

There is something deeper underlying that kind of defensive behavior that has led me to re-examine this phenomenon.

When I wrote the post, I knew it might attract some opposing views. I had no idea, though, that it would be so pervasive, persistent, and filled with hate.

Now, over a year later, I’d like to revisit the topic to see what has changed – if anything.

There is nothing outright “wrong” in displaying an infidel bumper sticker or getting it tattooed on the body. The word ‘infidel’ or its Arabic counterpart, kafir (كافر), is not in and of itself, extremist. This is not to say that those who brandish the term are or are not extremist. Some might just like the pretty Arabic script and others might just enjoy how ‘cool’ the word sounds. But I think some use the fact that the word is not considered a ‘hate word’ in the same way as a racial or ethnic slur to barely hide an extremist viewpoint.

Now, seeing the response and having thought harder on the subject, and having dug a little further into the regulations which cover extremist behavior, I think there may be a case for a closer examination as to whether this is appropriate behavior for service members.

The relevant portions of DoD Directive 1325.06Handling Dissident and Protest Activities Among Members of the Armed Forces:

8. PROHIBITED ACTIVITIES

a. Military personnel must not actively advocate supremacist, extremist, or criminal gang
doctrine, ideology, or causes, including those that advance, encourage, or advocate illegal
discrimination based on race, creed, color, sex, religion, ethnicity, or national origin or those that advance, encourage, or advocate the use of force, violence, or criminal activity or otherwise advance efforts to deprive individuals of their civil rights.

9. PREVENTIVE ACTIVITIES

a. Commanders should remain alert for signs of future prohibited activities. They should
intervene early, primarily through counseling, when observing such signs even though the signs may not rise to active advocacy or active participation or may not threaten good order and discipline, but only suggest such potential. The goal of early intervention is to minimize the risk of future prohibited activities.
b. Examples of such signs, which, in the absence of the active advocacy or active
participation addressed in paragraphs 8.a and 8.b are not prohibited, could include mere
membership in criminal gangs and other organizations covered under paragraph 8.b. Signs could also include possession of literature associated with such gangs or organizations, or with related ideology, doctrine, or causes. While mere membership or possession of literature normally is not prohibited, it may merit further investigation and possibly counseling to emphasize the importance of adherence to the Department’s values and to ensure that the Service member understands what activities are prohibited.

According to the directive, a service member does not have to be using direct hate speech or be an active member of an extremist group in order to warrant a command action, but merely be ‘in the orbit’ of such speech or behavior. I’d argue, given the vitriolic comments to my infidel post and the ease in which you can find extremist views just beneath the surface of a Google search for ‘major league infidel,’ that displaying these things just might warrant command action.

While free speech for service members is protected, hate speech or extremist views are not.

To quote Army Pamphlet 600-15Extremist Activities, “Our soldiers do not live in a vacuum.” Individual soldiers have a responsibility to understand the things that they do and the potential consequences, on and off duty.

I do not think that everyone that slaps an infidel bumper sticker on their car is an extremist or holds extremist views. But I know some of them do. It’s evidenced right here on this blog, by those who said as much in the comments. While soldiers have a responsibility to know what they’re getting themselves into when they start marketing an idea on their body or property, commanders have a responsibility to remind their soldiers that we are a military with values, and that extremist behavior is not compatible with those values. Additionally, given DoD Directive 1325.06, commanders have the authority to lean in if they suspect a soldier of being in the orbit of extremist activity. The way that the term ‘infidel’ is slung around, there is a good argument that brandishing it puts a person in that orbit.

Lastly, the thing that really bothers me about this theme is how it looks like it will endure longer than the actual wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s a brand, an image. They sell ‘infidel’ shirts at the PX. What value is their as self-identifying as an ‘infidel’ if you go fight in some other war? It’s troubling to me, because a soldier should not be self-identifying as anything but a soldier (or marine, airman, what have you).

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Enough with the ‘infidel’ stuff. Seriously, stop.

I keep a list of things I plan on writing about and they sit and wait for me to get to them. One of them that has been sitting there for awhile is a blog post about the way some troops enthusiastically embrace the title ‘infidel.’ Well, I missed the ship on this one and there was actually a great article on this topic over at Military.com. It’s worth the read and I’d be happy if you stopped here and just read that article, but there are a few things I would like to add.

First, this is a topic that I naturally gravitate to because it sits at the intersection of my two lives: the infantryman and the Middle East Studies student. Without question, Middle East Studies and studying abroad has made me more aware of things in that orbit. And having been an 11B for five years, I feel confident that I understand how the infantryman’s culture works.

Second, I see this stuff everywhere. Bumper stickers on post, t-shirts in the gym, posts on Facebook. Without question, there are a number of people in the military who enthusiastically embrace the term ‘infidel.’ And there are a host of companies out there ready to cash in on the trend.

I get it. The word infidel sounds cool, and there is something neat about repurposing a supposedly negative title and owning it. When I speak with people on the subject, enthusiasts of the term usually speak in generalities (“That’s what we are to them, infidels. So it’s not like we’re saying anything outrageous.”) The problem is that when people say “them” they are usually referring to jihadists (a loaded term itself). But enthusiasts are using a term that is generally religious but not necessarily tied to Islamic terrorists. Yes, there is an Arabic word كافر and it means a number of things to different people, with varying degrees of intensity. That is, just like there is no such thing as one Islam (just as there is no universal Christianity), there is no one way in which the idea behind the term ‘infidel’ is understood or used.

My problem with this phenomenon is twofold: 1) whether people mean it or not, the word casts a conflict in religious terms, which is what we don’t want, and 2) the brand is worn to be antagonistic, not simply factual.

More importantly, what are people trying to communicate by wearing a t-shirt that says كافر or a bumper sticker, like the photo above, that says ‘Major League Infidel?’ The word كافر (kafir) can mean a number of things: irreligious, unbeliever, infidel, atheist, ungrateful (Hans Wehr Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic, 1976). Since I haven’t seen any shirts with the word ‘atheist’ or ‘unbeliever’ paired with كافر, I would assume most of the time people are aligning themselves with the word infidel: “a person who does not believe in religion or who adhere’s to a religion other than one’s own.” (Oxford Dictionary). So by using the term, the person is declaring themselves an atheist or some religion other than Islam, since that is where this is directed.

The word is completely wrapped in religion and doesn’t belong in our discourse on war, officially or unofficially, seriously or playfully.

Just like the Vibram Five Finger shoes “controversy,”, this is a topic that attracts strong emotions. Look at the hundreds of comments and some of the vitriol over at the article on Military.com. It’s bad. Why is this the topic that people want to get excited about or hold strong feelings on? I don’t know the answer to that, but it must get to something at the core of people to pull such bitter feelings.

I’m doubtful that this will be going away anytime soon. I’m hopeful though that people will keep writing about it and exploring the topic. I know I will.

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“Cultural Cluelessness”

I read this article in Wired today about “Cultural Cluelessness.” The gist of it is that the recent Quran controversy indicates a deeper problem within the US military regarding sensitivity and understanding towards “other” cultures.

After my first deployment to Iraq, I thought the Army would stand to benefit from something more than cursory training on the contours of cultural awareness or sensitivity, or what I like to call the “Wikipedia class on Islam.” We talk about the “strategic corporal” as a central player on the battlefield, but as a senior officer recently pointed out to me, the strategic corporal concept only seems to work in the negative – when there is something detrimental done. There are no stories of the strategic corporal that did something that changed the war in the positive – or at least I haven’t heard that story. How then, do you arm the strategic corporal with the knowledge to make sure he or she doesn’t make that mistake?

After ten years of war, there have been a number of cultural blunders made, which were tactically insignificant but strategically important – generally in the negative. This was something I thought about a lot while attending college.

Part of the Truman Scholarship application requires a ‘policy proposal.’ The candidate is required to identify a problem in the world, recommend a proposal to remedy the problem, and discuss the major challenges to implementing the policy. I wrote my proposal on instituting a Peace Corps-like cultural immersion program for members of the military most likely to come into contact with “other” cultures.

I wrote this proposal in the ‘aspirational tense.’ That is, I’m not sure that something like this could ever really be implemented and scaled up to a level that would make it efficient or worthwhile to pursue. While immersion in another culture would certainly provide soldiers with a better understanding of that culture, I also believe that simply doing the right thing and showing respect to other people (and other cultures) would be just as good. Still, I’ll copy and paste the proposal below to put it out there as a thinking point. Also, I’m aware that there are major holes in the entire proposal. The application required the proposal to fit a prescribed word length, which meant getting down the idea without nailing everything down.

I’d be more than happy to talk about the proposal in the comments.

__

To: Defense Secretary Robert Gates

Subject: Cultural and Linguistic training for the military

Problem:

Relations between the United States and the people of the Middle East are dangerously strained.  Despite massive military efforts, we have failed to adequately befriend the Middle Eastern people.  According to the Brooking Institution’s Saban Center, 83% of the Middle Eastern public holds an “unfavorable view” of the US, with 80% of these participants indicating that their attitudes towards the US are based on US policy, not American values (1).  Pew Global Attitude surveys in the Middle East show that opinions toward “American people” are significantly more favorable than opinions toward just “America” (2).  These statistics confirm that our efforts are misguided.  The impending shift in emphasis from “hard” power to “smart” power represents a major change in US foreign policy (3).  Still, our military presence in the Middle East will remain substantial for the foreseeable future.  The changing nature of warfare requires a military that is not just culturally sensitive, but views cultural understanding as essential to mission success (4).  The Officer Corps is receiving enhanced cultural training, but the NCO Corps — the backbone of our military — is not.  Our “strategic sergeants” need the cultural training that will empower them to make the tactical decisions that have strategic implications.

__

Proposal:

The US already has the institutions necessary to prepare our military for close encounters with people from other cultures.  The Peace Corps prepares its volunteers for cultural integration through immersion using a combination of home-stay programs, in-class instruction, and language familiarization courses.  These programs are comprehensive and effective.  This model should be applied to the NCO Corps of the US military.  The huge cultural gap that exists between the US and the Muslim world requires intensive cultural exposure beyond familiarization and sensitivity training.  Ideally, every service member would have the opportunity to receive the type of in-depth cultural training required to achieve understanding. Realistically, having 1 or 2 soldiers per platoon (approx. 35 soldiers) receive this training would represent a major step forward.  A typical cultural training program lasts about 8 weeks — about the same time as US Army Ranger School.  Integrating this training into the NCO education system ensures that our small unit leaders on the ground will have the cultural knowledge required to make the hard decisions being asked of them now.  To test this, I propose we form a pilot program immediately with a unit scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan in the near-term.

Major Obstacles:

Implementing enhanced cultural training may see resistance from leaders in the Department of Defense who view cultural training as a distraction from the core mission of the military — winning wars.  On a practical level, military leaders may argue that sending off junior leaders to receive cultural training removes them from their traditional jobs, which may undermine unit readiness.  Additionally, the amount of time required to achieve adequate cultural training may seem extensive to some leaders. Despite these concerns, the US military stands to benefit from implementing this policy.

References:

  1. Telhami, Shibley.  “2008 Annual Arab Public Opinion Poll.”  Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings.  14 Apr. 2008.  <http://www.brookings.edu/events/2008/0414_middle_east.aspx>
  2. “Global Unease with Major World Powers.” The Pew Global Attitudes Project. 27 Jun. 2007.  <http://pewglobal.org/reports/pdf/256.pdf>
  3. Clinton, Hilary.  “Statement of Senator Hilary Rodham Clinton Nominee for Secretary of State.”  Senate Foreign Relations Committee.  13 Jan. 2009.  <http://foreign.senate.gov/testimony/2009/ClintonTestimony090113a.pdf>
  4. “FM 3.24 Counterinsurgency.”  Department of the Army.  Dec. 2006. <http://www.usgcoin.org/library/doctrine/COIN-FM3-24.pdf>

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Turning 21 on deployment

Birthdays are good for reflection. Where am I coming from, where am I, and where am I going.

The last significant birthday I had was 21. People love to tell other people about the time they turned 21.

I turned 21 on Failaka Island, (جزيرة فيلكا) a small island off the coast of Kuwait. I was training there before the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Instead of going out and drinking beer legally for the first time, some buddies gave me their Skittles from their MREs during lunch. Good friends, good friends.

Fast forward three or four months. I was sitting outside of our bay in our company firebase in Baghdad. My PL took a seat next to me and said with a grizzled voice for a young PL “SPC Gomez, you turned 21 in Kuwait, right?”

Me: “Yes, sir.”
PL: “Let me tell you what’s cool about turning 21.”
Me: “Ok.”
PL: “You know when you go to Texas Roadhouse with your boys and there’s a 30 minute wait because it’s payday, and you have to go sit in the waiting room with all those other joes, eating peanuts?”
Me: “Uh, yeah.”
PL: “Well now you just go to the bar and have a drink. The time goes by much faster.”

And you know what, he was right.

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al-Qadisiya

I’m writing my dissertation on the Iraqi military experience during the Iran-Iraq War and the invasion of Kuwait. In Iraq, the war is called qadisiyat saddam (قادسية صدام), or Saddam’s Qadisiya.

The Battle of Qadisiya was a 7th century battle between the Arab-Muslim army and the Persian-Sassanid army.

The Battle of Qadisiya became the theme du jour in Iraq. It was referenced in speeches, stamps, money, monuments, and most notably, film.

Saddam Hussein commissioned a film to be made commemorating the battle in 1981. It is purportedly the most expensive Arab movie ever made.

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Introduction

I’ve toyed around with blogs in the past. I had a blog while I was studying at the American University in Cairo. It was shortlived, though, since it was soley based on me being in Egypt. I enjoyed the process, and enjoyed writing.

Since then, I’ve started a few blogs for a day or so, and then quickly deleted them. Always too worried about taking on the added responsibility and feeling compelled to produce, while putting myself out there for criticism.

I thought about doing an anonymous blog, but why? I don’t intend on writing anything nasty towards anyone, and wouldn’t that be the purpose of an anonymous blog? To be able to say what you want without worrying about being revealed? Then, though, I would worry about being revealed.

So here I go again. This will be my personal blog. The title comes from a line that caught my attention from executed ex-President of Iraq, Saddam Hussein. You can read about it on the About page. The blog is centrally about soldiering, writ large. Sometimes, I’ll write about things only remotely connected to soldiering, but there will be a connection there, somewhere.

From time to time, I’ll also write about some of my other interests, like Arabic, the Middle East, or the arts.

I don’t anticipate posting daily. Maybe weekly. Maybe longer. I’d like to write longer pieces. With good research and an appropriate number of hyperlinks. A lot of people blog about other blogs, or post news links. I don’t want to do that.

I have a good feeling about this one.

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