(To read all of our “Lone Survivor” posts, please click here.)
In Lone Survivor, Marcus Luttrell (and technically Patrick Robinson) describe the Navy SEAL’s strategy for blending in with the locals in Afghanistan, “Each of us had grown a beard in order to look more like Afghan fighters."
Marcus Luttrell isn’t alone. Many special operators, intelligence spooks and soldiers (American, British and Canadian) deployed to Afghanistan think they can pull off this subtle camouflage technique. By simply growing a beard and wearing a scarf, a clean cut American instantly transforms into an Afghan, indistinguishable in a crowd.
Don’t believe me? To prove the point, we’ve created a game. In the following photos, see if you can pick out the special operators (both Special Forces and SEALs) hidden among the local Afghans:
Okay, you are probably tossing your hands up in the air right now, cursing my name, “Michael, how on earth am I supposed to pick out the special operators in those photos? They all look such like Afghans!”
I know, it’s tough. I mean, a six foot five white guy with gigantic arms and chest, desert patterned BDUs, an American M4 with a high tech scope, brand new American boots, Oakley glasses and body armor who grows a beard and wraps a scarf around his neck looks exactly like an Afghan. Invisible!
In defense of Marcus Luttrell, he didn’t invent this nonsensical form of “blending in”. Most of our special operators, the elite of the elite, believe that growing a beard helps you blend in with the population. It turns out that wearing the local clothes (not cool), learning the local language (really hard), using a foreign weapon (controversial, possibly illegal) or not weight lifting for a few months (heresy!) are the best ways to help an American blend in.
That and recruiting people of ethnic backgrounds. (Take a look at our special operations community to see how well that effort is going.)
So what if special operators grew beards? Even if it didn’t help the war effort, it’s not like it hurt it either. Well, maybe not. I worked with a contractor in Iraq who knew his intelligence shit. He did real good intel. (A bunch of us were watchin The Wire at the time. So The Wire people called each other “real police” as a compliment. He was real intel.)
He spoke Arabic. He had previously been a human intelligence collector with deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq. I asked him jokingly one day if he had grown out his beard to “blend in”. He laughed. He said that he’d asked his contacts (read: local Afghans) what they thought about beards. It turns out in Afghanistan, they don’t expect Americans to wear beards. They also don’t expect most white people to wear beards. In Afghanistan, they believed white people who grew beards were “Jewish”. So to “blend in”, American special operators made themselves look more Jewish to local Afghans.
I don’t know if this is 100% true, or even a widespread belief across Afghanistan, but it really makes you think about growing a beard in Afghanistan, doesn’t it? Do Muslims love Jewish people and Israel? Well, if the special operators of the world don’t know the answer to that...then we are in trouble.
If we lose in Afghanistan--and I now believe we will--the military should look at itself for the reasons why. That includes the “special” people too. Unfortunately, I don’t think the special operators will blame themselves. But I do. I mean, these guys ran around Islamic countries for years looking like this, and honestly believed a beard and a scarf helped them “blend in” when any American (and every Afghan) knew exactly who they were.
So why did they do it? The answer or non-answer to that question is why we lost in Afghanistan.