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Hearts, Minds and Gatorade Bottles Filled With Urine

(To read the rest of "Over-Reacting to COIN (Again): On Cultural Empathy and 'Gratitude Theory'", please click here.)
When I first saw the pile, it jarred me. Pile is the wrong word. Not just a pile, nor a mound, but a mountain of water and Gatorade bottles lying in the bottom of a draw just beneath the Korengal Outpost.

As a still jittery, newly deployed lieutenant, I spent my first few weeks in the ‘Stan furiously staring at the sides of roads. Hidden from view leaving the base, I didn’t notice the pile until we headed back to the KOP after several hours sitting in an over-watch position. When we turned a corner to wind our way up hill, I noticed the pile.

I pointed it out to my driver, “What’s that?” (Gratuitous curse words have been excised for readability.)

“Oh, those are trash bottles.” He pointed at the guard tower a couple hundred feet up the mountain. Bottles covered the hillside, detritus from hundreds of hours of guard duty. They rolled down the hill and collected in the draw.

Infantry Officer Basic Course doesn’t teach you about pee bottles. Neither does ROTC, nor Ranger School. When soldiers go on patrols that last days or sit in a guard shack for hours, they have to take a piss. On a patrol, you just pee on the side of the road. In Ranger school, I took a knee and pissed more times than I can count. In a guard shack, you peed in a used water bottle. At the KOP, you tossed that water bottle down the hill.

As a mounted platoon, our gunners couldn’t just take a knee, so they pissed in water bottles too. No one wants to sit in a turret with one or more bottles filled with urine; most gunners in Afghanistan just threw them on the side of the road.

As did my men. Since we had a killer cook/First Sergeant combo, we used to drink ice cold Gatorades. That’s what my men used to throw out of their vehicles, which is too bad for the local civilians: a Gatorade bottle filled with urine looks awfully like a yellow Gatorade.

I didn’t catch onto this for months. When I finally saw the gunner of our lead truck do this, I freaked out. I made a rule: we don’t throw bottles out of our trucks. This was one of those things you learn as you go as a new platoon leader.

At the time, I felt that covering Afghanistan with our piss-filled bottles wouldn’t endear us to the locals. It wouldn’t lose us the war on its own, but it definitely didn’t help us win it either. Last spring and winter, I wrote several thousand words on emotion, rationality, business school, cultural empathy and “gratitude theory”. I have so far ignored a very relevant question to our counter-insurgency operations since 9/11:

Do we have a very good brand in Afghanistan?


Did we have a good brand in Iraq?

Do we enable, enrich or empower the population? How does the U.S. Army (a lexical stand in for all our troops in Afghanistan) compare to our market competitors--the Taliban, Hezb il-Gulbuddin and the Haqqani Network? What about our sub-companies like the Afghan government? The Afghan National Army? Or any other parts of the Afghan National Security Forces?

I don’t think the Taliban (our market competitors) fills bottles with urine and throws them around the countryside. In fact, the Taliban probably avoids tons of insults the U.S. Army doesn’t. They don’t burn Korans. They speak the same language. In other words, the Taliban has a better brand reputation than the U.S. Army, even though we have more money and will send Afghan women to school. NATO and US forces make simple, easily avoidable mistakes that hurt our brand’s reputation.

Wednesday, I’ll share my ideas to improve the U.S. Army’s brand in Afghanistan.

six comments

How do suicide bombs in markets impact the Taliban’s brand? Or night-time visits to uncooperative farmers? I doubt Afghans are super excited to see Talibs come to town either, even if they may often seem a better deal than the local strongman.

I hope I do not seem an apologist for US cultural bumbling (our struggles with language and cultural norms are one of our biggest challenges), but I do feel like in these sorts of discussions we tend to efface how offensive insurgents often are to the populace, partially due to the presence of international fighters.

Good. Good. Good. While I understand Duck’s point, I’ve always felt that these seemingly minor issues carry much more weight than acts of more immediate impact, like violence. Look at the results of SSG Bales rampage versus the response of Quran burning or the Innocence of Muslims. Pissed filled Gatorade bottles are insulting, and it pisses people off.

We are no better. We focus on the little things, the minutia. Remember how fired up people got when Vibram Five Fingers were banned? Or how emotional people can get about reflective belts?

The biggest sticking point I hear from other infantrymen regarding women in the infantry is how they will handle the slit trench. The slit trench! Are we that unimaginative that the slit trench should be the thing that stops progress or policy changes (for good or ill)?

My point is, we get worked up more over things that are insignificant or insulting versus things of real consequence. Anger about marines urinating on dead bodies. It’s the urine that makes people mad, not the dead bodies.

Maybe we should just ban pissing.

Just want to make sure I get this: is your point that we shouldn’t be littering on foreign countries because that’s bad (I agree) or that we shouldn’t be throwing piss bottles out of our trucks and FOBs/COPs because people might pick them up and try to drink them thinking they’re Gatorade (I disagree)?

I understand that you’re trying to make a broader point about our brand in Afghanistan and its effect on our success there, but I think the piss bottles are a distracting example. My gut reaction to your post here is “I have never come across a half-full Gatorade bottle in the middle of the woods, popped the top, and taken a big gulp.” I feel like citing this as your initial example of our brand collapse in Afghanistan, while dramatic, is just insulting to Afghans. You’re implying (unintentionally, I am sure) that the average Afghan will stumble on this piss bottle, try to drink from it, and then become angry when it turns out to be full of piss.

My main point is that we shouldn’t be throwing the piss bottles all over the country. (The idea that kids who don’t know better could drink from them is implied. My men—like most throughout Afghanistan and Iraq—did give children stuffed animals and candy. Sometimes we gave them gatorade too (though I don’t want to get into the discussion about that issue and whether or not you should).

However, my main point is like Don said, little things like this add up. This doesn’t mean the Taliban is much better, but if they are slightly better that is something of an edge.

Correct me if I’m wrong Michael C, but in the Korengal Valley at the time of operations, Taliban suicide bombers were rare compared to guerrilla units focused on attacking or bypassing the outpost. So while the people of Korengal are aware of the suicide bombings happening in Kabul in much the same way an inner city kid in LA hears about a shooting in rural Colorado. And while I don’t doubt that suicide bombings would affect the Insurgency brand, in the area of operations Michael was referring to, hundreds of bottles of urine are perhaps as visible to an occupied population that has limited access to the rest of the country as someone throwing bottles of piss in your or my backyard. I echo Don’s sentiments that the little things can become larger issues. Great post MC.