(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.