Photo by Edward F. Palm)

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Forest, Virginia, United States
A long time ago, my sophomore English teacher, Father William Campbell, saw something in my writing and predicted that I would someday become a newspaper columnist. He suggested the perfect title for my column--"Leaves of the Palm." Now that I have a little extra time on my hands I've decided to put Father Campbell's prediction to the test. I'm going to start using this blog site not just to reprint opinion pieces I've published elsewhere but to try to get more of my ideas and opinions out there. Feedback is welcome. To find out more about me, please check out my Web site: www.EdwardFPalm.com (Click on any of the photos below for an enlarged view.)

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Everything Old Is New Again!

{Korean-American Woman Marine visiting an orphanage, Yechon, Korea, 1984)

I was intrigued to read in today's Seattle Times that the Marines are forming and training "Female-Engagement Teams."  These will be teams of four or five enlisted women Marines (WMs) whose mission it will be to try to win the hearts and minds of Afghan women living in traditional villages, which bar women from speaking with men outside their families.  As part of their cultural sensitivity training, these WMs are being told to allow their pony tails to stick out from behind their helmets, so that the villagers will be able to tell that they are women; to wear head scarves under their helmets, or to don them upon removing their helmets; and to make small talk (through an interpreter, of course) and to play with the children before asking direct questions.  According to the article, the main question they are to ask is what the village most needs.
       Talk about "deja vu all over again," this was the very same question that we in Combined Action were supposed to ask in an effort to ingratiate ourselves with the people in traditional Vietnamese villages.  As I recall, when we asked this question at Papa Three, the answer was "nothing."  The village chief couldn't think of anything the village needed that we could provide.
       I wish the dedicated women Marines volunteering for this endeavor well.  I really do.  But I do have to wonder about two possible impediments.
      First, is the traditional Afghan culture as xenophobic as the village culture of Vietnam in the 1960s?   If so, Afghan women are not likely to open up to young American women, especially women who have embraced roles essentially alien and perhaps unimaginable to Afghan women.
      Second, I wonder if Afghan villages have a well-entrenched enemy infrastructure largely invisible to us, such as we faced in Vietnam?  Even if they don't, these Female-Engagement Teams, and the grunts accompanying them, are only passing through.  They're not settling in to say.  ("Clearing and Holding" is the phrase for it.)  Hence, the village women may be afraid to open up to these WMs, knowing that the Taliban could soon return to punish even the appearance of collaboration.
      The article also mentions that these WMs will be armed with M-4 rifles, a shortened version of the standard M-16s carried by the men.  The subtext seems to be that the smaller M-4, in this case, is gender appropriate.  Should they also be pink?
      Sorry,  I couldn't resist that one.  But, on a serious note, I see a mixed message that may undercut the mission here.  On the one hand, these women are supposed to be putting a kinder, gentler face on our presence.  On the other hand, they are dressed and armed like warriors.  Can these two roles really be reconciled?  It occurs to me that this was essentially our liability in CAP.  We were supposed to be both warriors and ambassadors in green.  But in our case, at least, the disconnect was not accentuated by gender.
      I worry that our cultural overtures in Afghanistan are grounded in the same naive presupposition that led to our defeat in Vietnam--namely, that, deep down inside, people everywhere are just like us.  It's just not true.  You'd think we would have learned that by now.  --EFP  

1 comment:

Larry Scroggs said...

Ed I have to agree with you about the clash of Western and Muslim cultures. In my military career I visited many areas of the world but none was more alien to my Westernized cultural norms than Saudi Arabia and Iraq during Desert Storm. Who would believe in the 20th Century that some people would voluntarily choose to live hundreds of miles out in the desert in tents. Not because of economic reasons but because their religion and customs required it. The contrast between new $100,000 Mercedes pulled over alongside modern four lane highways while the occupants disembarked to kneel and pray in the blowing sand at prayer time was shocking to my Western sensibilities. Everything from their bowel habits, to their food, to the way they treated women was very foreign to me. In Afghanistan's tribal areas these differences are much greater than they are in more Westernized Iraq. For our military leaders to believe that having Women Marines let down their hair and wear a scarf will bridge a cultural gap of centuries is incredibly naive.