April 06, 2008

Race and COIN

The Bateman guest-posts on Abu Muqawama today, offering this personal reflection on race and counter-insurgency...


It occurred to me that some of the challenges we have faced in our execution of these, our most current wars, derives ultimately from a domestic problem we have. Racism. At the core it is the fear of the academic "other." Some latent degree of bias exists, less so within our military culture than within the culture of the nation-state from which we derive, but it is there. We must stamp it out.

I have, in my day, done my best on this count. It may surprise you, but in his younger days The Bateman was not the shy and subtle fellow you know now...storytime.

My way, and our military culture, permit directness. It is our advantage, even as it is occasionally our downfall. The very weekend after I took command on a Friday of my cavalry company, there was an assault in the barracks. 4 on 1, blacks assaulting a white, Saturday night. It later came out that it was (probably) over some weed/money, but the immediate issue as seen by the troops was race. All four of my black soldiers were in confinement, the white soldier was in the hospital having his face and ribs reconstructed. Monday morning, my first full day of command, I stepped forward in front of my assembled company at 06:30, just prior to Physical Training. My company was about 25% African-American, perhaps 5% Hispanic, and a few other ethnic backgrounds as well. They did not know me yet. My "assumption of command" speech on the preceding Friday, in keeping with my belief that words matter less than deeds, had been all of 28 seconds long.

I stood there and spoke for 1 minute on what had happened, to the best of my knowledge, Saturday night. I informed them that four soldiers were in confinement, and that if the investigation (out of my hands) substantiated the general narrative we knew at that point, that I would prosecute those four soldiers with every ounce of my ability and intellect. I updated them on the status of the soldier in the hospital. And then I said this (reconstructed as best I can). I am told that my voice can boom and my emotion on that morning was palpable. The commander before me had been, how to say this, a more polite sort of fellow who rarely addressed the company. It should be noted that officers rarely, if ever, swear in front of enlisted men. Even in private.:

"Now you need to know something about me. You need to know that I do not give a rat's fucking ass about what the color of your skin might be. I could care fucking less. I do not care if your mother was from Timbuktu or your father was from Ireland. I do not care if your ancestors were kings or slaves. I do not care if your father was a racist or your mother was a saint. I don't care if you pray to Jesus or God or Budda or your ancestors. I FUCKING do not care where you come from. You are here, this is now, and we are goddamned SOLDIERS of the United States Seventh Fucking Cavalry, and it is our mission, ALL of ours, to fight and if need be to die, to protect this obscene collection of the most disjointed neer-do-wells the planet has ever seen. We have been doing this for one hundred and thirty bloodsoaked and miserable thankless fucking years. US. Nobody else. Nobody from back home in goddamned fucking Iowa, or South Central, or the Bronx. Just us. And us alone. And if we do NOT stand as one. We will all fucking die. DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME?!"

(There was, at that point, as I recall, a loud rejoinder in the affirmative.)

"So these are the conditions under which I will command you. I will treat all of you, every miserable son-of-a-bitch or goddamned-fucking saint one of you, as an equal. If you screw up in your job, I will tell you, and we'll move on. If you fuck up, and things go bad, I will hammer you, and we'll move on. But if you are a racist, or even think you might be slightly inclined on that azimuth, and you act upon it, I will cut off your fucking balls and hang them from my guidon. Is that fucking clear?"

(As I recall, the response was even louder and more enthusiastic.)

"There is one color in my eyes. One color only. I see green. I see each and every one of you as green, and if you do not already, you better start seeing yourselves, and each other, in that way, because the first motherfucker among you who acts as though there is not just one color in this company, in this battalion, in this army, will be answering to me, and may God have mercy on your miserable soul if that is the case, because I fucking won't. Because I will NOT let us fail. I will NOT let us die. I will NOT let us come apart because of some fucking accident of goddamned pigmentation. WE are the SEVENTH FUCKING CAVALRY, and we don't play that shit. Is THAT understood."

(My memory is that this provoked an even more significant positive response.)


Not very subtle, but that's what I said, and along with other things, it seems to have worked. In 25 months, there was not a single issue of race. (This was 1994-1996.) But like I said, the audience was different than that our politicians have been addressing of late.

The recent introduction of race into the current political streams suggested this thought to me, and was buttressed by my own observations. Alienation of the enemy, and dehumanization of him, has been a constant in warfare for a very long time. But in COIN, where the "enemy" and the people to be protected and nourished are usually of the same race/religion, that alienation becomes counterproductive. It leads to the use of diminutives (exchange "Haji", as used by US troops for "nigger" or "cracker" or "Mick" or "Spic" and you see the point) which are a clear indicator that you see the addressee as something less. Might this be an avenue we in uniform need to trod in order to improve our performance in COIN? I mean *expressly* address, not just with platitudes and powerpoint. The eradication, in no uncertain terms, of the bias towards alienation of the cultures in which we are operating might increase our effectiveness. We can do it. I certainly did, in my small area. So I know that it's possible. But aside from being a worthy social goal, is it actually a militarily critical objective for our effectiveness. In short, does racism make us lose wars?

I think it might. Your thoughts?