Before Eric C and I started blogging, we didn’t realize how often we would be misread. I’m not talking about disagreements on points of debate; we expected those. No, I’m amazed how often people extrapolate wild positions based on one or two lines. In our N.Y. Times guest post “Where Did God Go in Afghanistan?”, some readers assumed I wanted the U.S. Army to force its soldiers to follow Christianity. (I definitely don’t.) The greatest example ever came from our (hopefully ironically-titled) post, “Join the Taliban...the Americans Will Kill You Anyways” when one reader assumed we were recruiting for the Taliban. (We weren’t.)
It happened again in “A New On V Game: Spot the Navy SEAL!”. I had a bit of fun at Marcus Luttrell’s expense for thinking growing a beard--in Army parlance “relaxed grooming standards”--would help him blend in with the locals. (In his exact words, “look like an Afghan fighter”.) The primary point of the post was to show how patently false this argument is.
What I didn’t mean to argue was that soldiers shouldn’t let their hair fall down to their backs. As many commenters pointed out, beards help build rapport with local populations that, like in Afghanistan, that respect facial hair. Since I’ve never been much for uniformity in dress code in the first place, I’m not opposed to relaxing grooming standards; I just don’t think operators should grow beards under the mistaken belief they help them “blend in”.
If you want to build rapport go ahead. But do it right. While growing a beard may help build rapport, it’s one of the least effective ways to do it. A beard on someone who doesn’t speak the language is worth less than someone with a clean-shaven face who speaks Pashtun, Dari, Arabic or Farsi. (Also, the rapport reason is definitely abused by the special operations community. Most special operations units have relaxed grooming standards even if they don’t partner with local units or work with the local population.)
Here are a few even more effective ways to build rapport:
1. Learn the language. I deployed with a Special Forces battalion to Iraq. They used more interpreters than a regular Army battalion. The SF teams also spoke virtually no Arabic. Despite the widespread myth that Special Forces soldiers are fluent in multiple languages, most Special Forces Groups have not maintained even base proficiency in their assigned languages. (This applies even more for Special Forces Groups not aligned with the CENTCOM AOR.)
2. Live with your embedded troops. Even before the spate of “Blue on Green” attacks, most deployed military units lived in separate compounds. When I was deployed, this meant that U.S. troops shared a base with Afghan troops, but we lived in separate, walled off areas. How can you really build rapport if you don’t sleep and live together? You can’t. A beard won’t bridge the gap.
3. Invite Afghans to lift weights with you. Most Special Forces troops pride themselves on their huge muscles. If you don’t believe me, well, google “Special Forces workout”. (Or worse, “Navy SEAL workout”.) Yet I never saw Afghan or Iraqi soldier in a U.S. gym. If you want to build rapport, train and live together. (I also advocated in the last post that U.S. forces should work on slimming down. Sure you might have a beard, but giant muscles say to Afghans, “Remember, we’re different.”)
4. Use local weapons. Wear local clothes and Afghan military uniforms. Again, train as you fight. So why don’t our Special Forces use AK-47s, RPGs and the other weapons used by the Afghanistan National Army? Or wear the exact same uniform? It's about rapport, right?
5. Don’t wear your fancy Oakley sunglasses. If you want to build rapport, why not look the locals in the eyes without your glasses? Not making eye contact is disrespectful. And it lessens the perceived financial gap between our soldiers and Afghans. (This goes for your backwards baseball cap too.)
6. Recruit older Americans to meet with older Afghans. One of the completely offensive ways Americans interact with village elders is by having 20 to 30 year-olds fresh out of college leading meetings/shuras/jirgas. This is a personal bit of hypocrisy, because I led these meetings as a 20-year-old fresh out of UCLA. Of course, this means completely overhauling the U.S. military recruitment system--as Rosa Brooks recommended here--but it might have helped the U.S. win our last two wars.
7. Recruit more ethnic soldiers. Specifically, Pakistani, Iranian and Indian immigrants. This would cause a security clearance nightmare, but that probably says more about our security system process (developed during the Cold War) than reality.
8. Most importantly, don’t do anything that antagonizes the locals. I mean, will a beard help our troops one iota if the Afghans can see your “infidel” patch at the same time? Also, don’t talk about how uncivilized Afghans are. Don’t call all the locals terrorists. Hell, follow all the guidance in this post too.
Interestingly, when our last post went up, numerous special forces soldiers endorsed growing a beard, but not one advocated the entire military adopting relaxed grooming standards. If anything, most special operators who chimed in claimed I was jealous. I’m not jealous; I want our military to adopt effective fighting methods to win its wars. If growing a beard is so effective, every soldier in Afghanistan--not just Special Forces troops--should grow one.
Since every American unit in Afghanistan partners with Afghan units, every unit should reap the benefits of relaxed grooming standards, not just the special forces. And they should all follow this guidance before they start growing those beads.