Preposterous Universe

Tuesday, June 29, 2004
First impressions

Jarhead by Anthony Swofford is an account of Swofford's experiences as a young Marine in the first Gulf War. It's a riveting book, well worth reading, especially for the description of the training and culture of the Marines. There is not much combat in the book, largely because the combat phase of the war was so short. But there is some interesting insight about the relations between the U.S. forces and the local population. This story takes place in Saudi Arabia, after a small group of Marines have encountered a tribe of Bedouins who were complaining that someone had been using their camels for target practice.
We drive back to the Triangle on the superhighway and I sit in the back of the Hummer with Dettmann and Crocket and tell them what occurred with the Bedouins. They think the story is funny, and they both laugh and make jokes about "camel jockeys." I'm not happy to be in the Triangle, and I'm even less happy about going to war as a hired man for another government, but I find their heartlessness particularly disturbing. I want to defend the Bedouins against this assault from these ignoramuses.

The Bedouins are not our enemy, and the Bedouins will not try to kill us whenever the Coalition decides to act. I've just experienced a human moment with the Bedouin, free of profanity and anger and hate. Because they are ignorant and young and have been well trained by the Corps, Dettmann and Crocket are afraid of the humanity of the Bedouin, unable to see through their desert garb into the human.

Before I have a chance to tell Dettmann and Crocket the reasons they are wrong, before I have an opportunity to explain the difference between the Bedouin and the Iraqis, a Mercedes sedan approaches from the rear, traveling at high speed. We occasionally see large Mercedes sedans on the superhighway, a Saudi male driving with a female or a few females in the backseat, each wearing a hijab, the traditional Muslim head covering. These brief, high-speed glances are our only exposure to the citizens of the country we're protecting (the Bedouins are less citizens of the country than denizens of the land). We're sure the Saudis prefer this arrangement. We are the ghost protectors. As the car closes in, Crocket stands in the back of the Humvee, holds the crossbar with one hand, and puts his other hand to his mouth, flicking his tongue between the two fingers. The driver of the Mercedes turns his head slowly, a little late to see Crocket, but one covered woman sits alone in the backseat of the car, and I watch her eyes follow Crocket's rude gesture. I don't know if she's registering shock or confusion or disgust, but I know I will always remember her eyes, locked on the crude young American.

The Mercedes blows past and Crocket and Dettmann yell profanities and excitedly slap each other on the back. Dettmann calls Crocket a "ballsy motherfucker," and Crocket says, "That bitch will never forget me. She wanted me."
It's not hard to see why sending our armed forces into a foreign country tends not to be an effective way to capture hearts and minds. The Marines are nineteen-year-old kids, far from home and trained in the difficult and specialized arts of winning wars. They are not a skilled cadre of career diplomats. And that's the way it should be; empathy for the Other is not a skill that helps soldiers win battles, and might even help you get killed. Being a fighter is different than being a negotiator or statesman. If we are going to make a habit of nation-building in countries that aren't fully convinced of our benevolence, we're going to have to figure out better ways to manage the transition from battle to rebuilding.

Ideas on culture, science, politics.
Sean Carroll

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