On the Regarding War blog, soldiers, veterans, and journalists will share their stories from Afghanistan, Iraq and other war zones. It will feature personal stories and opinions from those who have first-hand knowledge of past and current conflicts. Those at home directly affected by a family member serving in the military will also contribute. The blog is meant to be a place where ideas are exchanged and experiences are related in an effort to gain a better understanding of the realities and effects of war. Share your thoughts, raise a question, and join the conversation by leaving comments on the posts.
Despite differing national interests, several traits remain consistent among all young soldiers throughout the world. At the end of the day we're all just a bunch of hormonal twenty-year-olds running around the globe, tasked with doing our respective nation's dirty work. Beyond our calling as soldiers, we are all human, and we cope with our dangerous lifestyles in similar manners. Soldiers around the world will overindulge in beer and liquor. They will each have terabytes of pornography tucked away for lonely nights in war zones. And whenever a soldier enters a new country, after learning the traditional greetings, the first foreign phases they memorize are usually curse words and insults. Ah, it's great to surround myself with perpetual youth
I suppose it's no surprise then that the first Pashtu words that my men learned in Afghanistan were "kuni" and "bachibas," both derogatory Pashtu words for "gay." At first, it sounds incredibly unprofessional and almost heartbreaking to know that the men charged with winning these hearts and minds are playing around foolishly with such inappropriate words in a Muslim country. But Afghan boys are no different than American boys. Comical references to homosexuality have almost become a source of bonding for my men and their ANA counterparts. In the dull moments in between taskings, soldiers will just randomly point to each other and yell "Bachibas! Kuni!" and continue with a series of inappropriate hip thrusts as the ANA all laugh hysterically.
Recently, however, homosexuality in the ANA ranks became quite a topic of discussion for the soldiers of Attack Company. It started when an Afghan sergeant started gawking repeatedly at one of the "prettier" soldiers in first platoon. His advances soon turned physical and creepy, provoking a near confrontation. A few weeks later, two male ANA soldiers were caught making out at the platoon house several kilometers southwest of our COP. And I was recently solicited by a clearly gay ANA soldier when I visited the ANA eastern outpost. It was actually one of the most bizarre things I had ever experienced. The soldier knew I spoke Urdu. Word has apparently gotten around the ANA battalion of my Indian decent, so he automatically started flirting with me in a foreign tongue. He desperately tried to appear feminine and attractive in his BDU blouse and flip-flops, though failing miserably. Unfortunately for him, sporadic facial hair and body odor aren't really my thing, nor are men for that matter.
I'm secure in my heterosexuality, so I wasn't as offended by the ANA soldier's proposition as I am sure other American soldiers would have. But it forced me to consider a lot of factors regarding homosexuality in the Armed Forces, including how much of a hindrance it may have in the development of the ANA and how the ANA and U.S. Army differ in dealing with this issue.
First, I thought of how homosexuality is viewed in both the United States and Afghanistan. In the U.S., most people hold the opinion that homosexuality is one of two things: a genetic trait or a deliberate lifestyle choice a person makes. But in Afghanistan, there seems to be a third opinion: homosexuality is a temporary fix for coping with strict Islamic social standards. Most Muslim cultures are extremely sexually repressive, but that does not stop the hormones of teenage males from flaring. In fact, I believe it incites them. I knew dozens of women in Cairo who were repeatedly groped and grabbed on the streets of Midan Tahrir, even when wearing a Hijab. I saw the same in Tunisia and the three Gulf countries I've visited. But in a place like Zhari where an ANA soldier can't really go anywhere — not even a street corner — to consistently interact with women, his sexual urges perhaps manifest themselves as homosexual advances.
Secondly, I considered the ramifications that homosexuality could have on the ANA. Gay Afghan soldiers must deal with rampant sexual harassment and sexual assault — worse, I believe than what gay soldiers in the United State Army face. Whether you believe homosexuals in military is good or bad is irrelevant here. My point is they're there, and lots are able to serve without exposing their sexual orientation because our professional culture enforces a a standard of discipline that makes certain words and actions absolutely inappropriate — not just homosexual, but heterosexual advances as well. In our profession, American soldiers spend weeks and months of our careers learning about the lines of appropriate behavior, the nuances between sexual assault and sexual harassment. In comparison, I wonder if most ANA soldiers knew the difference between the two.
In the American military, we not only had the ability to investigate and prosecute those engaging in improper conduct, but we also retain the professional ethos and standard of integrity that keep most improper behaviors from arising in the first place. By no means I am implying our system is perfect. Sexual harassment and assault cases do occur in our ranks, but the trend could be far worse than it is. The ANA at the tactical level still lacks the professional discipline that we enjoy. Of course, we have spent more than 200 years developing such norms of behavior.
Lastly, I wondered where we'd start if we ever needed to solve a problem regarding homosexual assault and harassment in the Afghan Army. Could the ANA call any homosexual conduct (consensual or not) unbecoming of an officer or soldier and, thus, grounds for legal action? How would they enforce such rules in a corrupt system? How would they ensure due process in crimes where a crime scene is so easily tainted by war? It's an imposing challenge in any developing military to establish a professional environment where social norms of conduct have not been established.
Whether in the United States, Germany, Korea, or at the Airfield in Kandahar, soldiers constantly get bombarded with public-service announcements of Generals and Sergeant-Majors talking about sexual harassment in the work place. Take care of your fellow soldiers, sailors, and airmen. This behavior is unacceptable. Sexual harassment is a crime and you can be prosecuted. Hooah.
I find it ironic that the same military leaders who keep appearing in these commercials are often those who are charged with building the ANA into a professional organization, and yet they do not seem aware of the widespread sexual harassment problems the institution faces. Of course, it's natural for us to concern ourselves more with training the Afghan soldiers and fighting corruption in the officer ranks. These seem like more important issues that need to be tackled first. But we must remember that soldiers around the world are alike, and the unhealthy exploitation of vulnerable bodies in remote and confined spaces is bound to occur. No matter how much training we give the ANA, no matter how much corruption we root out, if ANA soldiers feel vulnerable or insecure around their leadership, all of our investment in this military will go to waste.
I definitely see sexual assault and harassment becoming a problem for the ANA down the road, far after we've left this country. We can train and inspire individual soldiers for the rest of our time in Afghanistan, but unless we commit to developing a professional culture in this organization, I fear that our blood and treasure will yield little benefit for our national security. I am fascinated to see if and when this issue arises in any form of public discourse on our ability to build an army ready to secure Afghanistan.
1st Lieutenant in the U.S. Army, served as a platoon leader in Kandahar, Afghanistan