By this point in my life, I have spent a significant amount of my life in Africa and the Middle East in support of the Global War on Terror (GWOT). I have done so in a variety of capacities that encompass a lot more roles than the “Call of Duty” image that Joe Taxpayer has of United States Army Special Forces.
While “Direct Action” is certainly a mission of Special Forces, it’s really just one of five primary missions that often take a lot more of our focus than just “putting warheads on foreheads.” In particular, Foreign Internal Defense and Unconventional Warfare require very diplomatic and relationship-centric approaches to be successful. These tactical requirements often result in genuine and truly caring relationships.
On these more diplomatic deployments, I have forged some truly meaningful and lifelong friendships. In fact, we call each other “brothers.” We get together any time we have a chance, and when we talk on the phone my wife rolls her eyes, knowing that it might be a while before I hang up.
That brothers in combat develop such strong bonds is hardly shocking. But what may surprise you is that many of these friends aren’t from my detachment or even Americans.
Many of my brothers hail from Afghanistan and Iraq. They are Moroccan, Gabonese, and Zimbabwean. These brothers put their lives and their families’ lives on the line to support the idea of self-determination and freedom from oppression for their children. United in our idealism, we stood shoulder to shoulder and sought to build a better future for them as individuals and for their respective countries. Their struggle is the perfect manifestation of the Special Forces motto “De Opresso Liber.”
To liberate the oppressed.
Our relationships invariably began in a very utilitarian manner, but have certainly grown into something more. Our initial meetings were centered around a desire to accomplish our respective goals; goals which were often but not always parallel. Our interests may have initially aligned on the surface, but it didn’t stop them from asking me hard questions.
If I was Special Forces, what did I bring that was so “Special”? As a new guy in their lifelong reality, what could I do to help them? Was I trustworthy?
They knew that I couldn’t complete my mission without their help, and in many ways, they vetted me far more rigorously than I could afford to vet them. Like stiff-legged dogs, we circled and postured and sniffed at each other until satisfied that the other posed no imminent threat and could at the very least “hang around” and see what developed.
What hopefully happens next in the process is the magical part that doctrine has a hard time capturing. A connection is forged and a real relationship begins to build. Or, a rift forms that grows wider by the day. There is no middle ground.
Success looks like Col. Edwin Barnum Hillendale in The Ugly American, the novel by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick, a fictional character inspired by real-life counterinsurgency expert Edward Lansdale, carrying a harmonica into the rural hinterland of conflicts, convincing the locals to resist oppression with his guileless personality. It’s worth noting that most of us possess the ability to connect and care for our immediate circle, we just have to pack away our preconceived bullshit and approach potential partners with a clean slate.
Failure? In an extreme example, it looks a lot like the Panjwai Massacre. In a more muted way, that should hit close to home for a lot of people who have deployed during these conflicts, it is that feeling of frustration that the entire population you wanted to help is out to sabotage your efforts and ruin their own chances for a peaceful existence.
It’s important not to become disillusioned after countless rotations into war-torn areas of the globe and take that frustration out on a partner nation’s population. I know I am stretched too thin and need to take a second to reset when I am overwhelmed by “F this, F That, and F them” feelings.
Just like any other relationship, ours isn’t a straight path. We stumble, we get busy and prioritize other things, we feel resentment. But I assure you that we are only going to see success in our efforts to stabilize conflict-riddled regions by building real and enduring relationships at a grass-roots level.
So, how have I been blessed with so many long lasting friendships with my counterparts?
I follow three loose rules for building rapport. Guys will tell you that there is some “game theory” to this shit and they’re the same guys that tell you they have discovered the rules for getting any woman to sleep with them.
Essentially, they’re full of shit.
1. Be respectful of others’ cultures.
You don’t have to assimilate but you need to have a curious nature and ask about what is acceptable and what is not. You will always be surprised what the books get wrong and what they don’t even bother to cover. You will also be amazed at how receptive other cultures are to YOUR moral sensibilities as well.
2. Never promise more than you can give.
This essentially boils down to “Don’t lie.” Even if you don’t mean to deceive, not keeping promises makes you appear disingenuous. If the situation is bad, if you can’t guarantee protection to your host nation partner, if you KNOW that you will be forced to abandon them mid-effort, be clear and be up front.
3. Be genuine, be yourself.
People can sense manipulative words and actions. Commit.
By following these loose guidelines I have met and befriended some of the best people on the face of this planet. You don’t have to play quid pro quo games or talk about your families. There isn’t any requirement to avoid hot-button topics or mask your opinions on divergent social issues. You just have to acknowledge that you are talking to another worthy human and go from there.
When I hear Americans denounce other places and dismiss entire populations piecemeal, I tell them about my brother Massoud, an Afghani who fought like a lion against the Taliban for his entire life and now lives in Nevada with his wife and children. I talk about my brother Qaidar, without whose assistance I would surely have starved in Mosul, who is now setting up a new life for his family in San Diego. And, I can never forget to talk about Ahmed and Aras, my Kurdish brothers who I talk with on the phone monthly, who worked with the U.S. through good and bad times.
When I am even remotely close to these friends, they take time to see me and spend real quality time together. It’s important to recognize that these bonds were forged against all odds and social convention, and yet, there we are at dinner in Copenhagen, Denmark or a three-hour lunch in La Jolla, CA catching up and planning our next big ventures together, as family.
My first brotherhood will always be the Special Forces Regiment. I have a huge amount of gratitude to that organization for introducing me to another brotherhood. My brotherhood with these men of honor, courage, and distinction wasn’t something we planned or even looked for. Forged out of a necessity, we have found true friendship and a sense of family in learning about each other across what seemed like an impossible cultural gap and discovering we weren’t that different after all. DOL