The Green Berets as an Armed Peace Corps?

When I was finishing my first year of graduate study in anthropology, President Kennedy announced the formation of the Peace Corps. Without hesitation, I applied for its first mission to Nigeria. After my application made it to the “Final Selection Board,” I was passed over. I blamed our departmental chairman, a stuffed shirt who’d had a career at the State Department and thoroughly disliked me and my quasi-beatnik demeanor. In those optimistic days of the new Kennedy Administration, I saw the Peace Corps as a model government agency offering idealistic Americans an exciting opportunity to do serious work in other cultures. To a budding anthropologist, it seemed like a great way for people interested in Third World cultures to engage in progressive cross-cultural exchange. I understood and appreciated the fact that Peace Corps training would be tough and involve learning the languages and cultures where volunteers would be stationed. Watching the early Peace Corps develop and meeting a few returning volunteers, it seemed to be fulfilling my expectations.

Nearly fifty years later, when I read Michael Hastings’ Rolling Stone article about the controversial counterinsurgency [COIN] strategy of Generals Petraeus and McChrystal in Afghanistan, that “essentially rebrands the military expanding its authority (and its funding) to encompass the diplomatic and political sides of warfare: Think the Green Berets as an armed Peace Corps,”– [Rolling Stone, p. 93], I was struck by the wild illogic of this strategy. Most charitably, it seemed like a desperate Afghani Hail Mary falling somewhere between deluded wish fulfillment and out-and-out deception. I’d already expressed my perspective six months earlier in a Huffington Post blog appealing to President Obama not to “surge” into Afghanistan, saying, in part::

“If taxpayer money is going to be spent on “nation building,” should the American military be the ones doing it? Are people who joined the military and trained as warriors the type of people anthropologists–like your mother–would choose to do complex cross-cultural communication with tribal peoples? If nation building in far off lands is required for our national security, why not vastly expand the Peace Corps, drawing from the kinds of idealistic young people who supported your campaign, many of whom would be inspired to sign up to work for change on a crucial new kind of peace mission?.”

Alas, Obama was apparently snowed by the military [supported by Hillary Clinton, it seems. ] How the smart son of an admirable nuts and bolts anthropologist could be taken in by the “Green Berets as armed Peace Corps” idea was hard to comprehend.

To this longtime observer of American culture, the issue was as simple as an intelligent job interview. People who sign up and are trained for the military are not the same kind of people, with the same interests, sensitivities, and sensibilities as those who choose to be Peace Corps volunteers. On top of that, military volunteers go through an extreme ritual regime of sadomasochistic training designed to bond them to their “brothers” and turn them into gangs of lethal killers. The bottom anthropological line is that the “Green Berets as an armed Peace Corps” is a fantasy–a concoction that could only have passed muster through the mad rationalizations of the Bush/Rove propaganda machine. That it has been freshly wrapped in Obamarhetoric and transplanted to Afghanistan is a depressing sign that the military’s domination of American culture, as starkly exposed by Hastings in Rolling Stone, has not been affected by the 2008 change in personnel and party controlling the White House and Congress.

Talk about pulling the wool over the public’s eyes! The idea of Green Berets [or other soldiers] as an “armed Peace Corps” could be the most cynical manipulation of government policy since WMDs. Think Mayor Bloomberg gathering a bus load of New York City cops and ordering them to take over from the doctors at the Bellevue Hospital ER. On an animal level, we are talking about the difference between rattlesnakes and German Shepherds– killers and friendly, all-purpose helpers. Since humans are more flexible than snakes, in the best of all possible worlds, perhaps one of ten Green Berets could be trained into the Peace Corps mentality, but even then, soldiers, who have chosen a warrior career path and gone through the extreme sadomasochism of basic training are highly unlikely candidates to morph into Peace Corps character, even after hearing lectures about Russia’s failure in Afghanistan after killing one million people. Cops rarely become doctors and doctors rarely become cops.

You have to hand it to Petraeus. The armed Peace Corps notion is a far more catchy military delusion than the various failed Vietnam strategies of the past. Ultimately, however, no matter how the Pentagon brands it, no matter how the generals twist the purposes of men with guns, helmets and bullet proof vests, they are promoting the same kind of macho imperial madness, and their “new strategies” are doomed to end up as futile PR façades designed to rationalize and propagate further military involvement in a losing cause. One has to ask: How many Hail Mary’s does the Pentagon get to throw?

Hastings’ shattering Rolling Stone expose of General McChrystal’s cocky arrogance and disdain for rational civilian authority uncovered the outrageous, out-of-control character of Pentagon power at a time when its “surge” into Afghanistan looked like a deepening quagmire with all manner of warning bells ringing. [Weeks afterwards, administration officials continued falling over one another trying to explain and rationalize the revelations. The Republican Party’s chairman, Michael Steele, let slip he was opposed to the Afghan campaign, to the horror of his warmongering Republican base.] Even the military thinking was not quite monolithic. For a succinct criticism of the COIN program, Hastings quoted retired West Point colonel Douglas MacGregor, who said, “The idea that we’re going to spend $1 trillion to reshape the culture of the Islamic world is utter nonsense.” [Rolling Stone]

Despite, or perhaps because of the protestations of the embedded media establishment aimed at Hastings, his stunning behind the scenes revelations should not be glossed over or underestimated. Rather, they should be scrutinized with a fine tooth comb. The substance and tenor of Hastings’ account of his extended experience with McChrystal [due to being grounded by the Iceland volcano] exposed a level of military arrogance and control over American political policy, lives, and fortune that the Pentagon had always carefully hidden. The fact that Defense Secretary Gates felt compelled to hold a news conference announcing a “new Pentagon policy” to muzzle press relations was an almost comic gesture of the Pentagon searching for a fig leaf after its commanding Afghanistan general casually exposed its naked arrogance to a gutsy magazine named after a famous Bob Dylan song. Similarly, the attack on Hastings by the badly scooped military press lapdogs–Lara Logan comes to mind– for having the nerve to tell it like it is was a further sign of the embarrassment of the military industrial media complex. Hastings caught the military’s top General and staff in a kind of attitudinal flagrante delicto. The mainstream media, having been accustomed to acting as willing accomplices for the military’s macho, foolhardy, destructive, unwanted, unnecessary and imperialistic wars, was caught, like the Pope, having surreptitiously supported and hidden gross violations of their institutional mission. And like the Pope, they were attacking the messenger, for the message was unassailable.

Of the many important facets of the Rolling Stone article, perhaps the most significant was the stark evidence of the profound contradictions underlying the counterinsurgency strategy. Hastings’ account of the rebelliousness of soldiers at the JFM combat outpost in Afghanistan, despite McChrystal’s extensive personal efforts to draw them into the COIN strategy, clearly revealed the obvious: that America’s professional soldiers, trained for warfare, are not likely candidates to qualify as an “armed Peace Corps” even when its most persuasive general is personally pleading with them to come on board.

“One soldier shows me the list of new regulations the platoon was given ‘Patrol only areas that you are reasonably certain that you will not have to defend yourselves with lethal force’ the laminated card reads. For a soldier who has traveled halfway around the world to fight, that’s like telling a cop he should only patrol in areas where he knows he won’t have to make arrests ’Does that make any fucking sense? ’ asks Pfc. Jared Pautsch. ‘We should just drop the fucking bomb on this place. You sit and ask yourself, what are we doing here?’ “

When McChrystal tries to explain counterinsurgency theory to the troops “it’s not winning any hearts and minds among the soldiers.”

“‘This is the philosophical part that works with think tanks,’ McCrystal tries to joke. ‘But it that doesn’t get the same reception from infantry companies.’…The soldiers “want to be able to fight like they did in Iraq and like they had in Afghanistan before McChrystal. ‘We aren’t putting fear into the Taliban’” one soldier says.

….As the discussion ends McChrystal seems to sense that he hasn’t succeeded in easing the men’s anger. He makes one last ditch effort to reach them acknowledging the death of Corporal Ingram. ‘There is no way I can make that easier, he tells them, no way I can pretend it won’t hurt. No way I can tell you not feel that… I will tell you are doing a great job. Don’t let the frustration gets to you.’ The session ends with no clapping and no real resolution. McChrystal may have sold President Obama on counterinsurgency but many of his own men aren’t buying it.” Rolling Stone p.120

* * *

The armed Peace Corps idea is not just a fantasy or red herring propaganda. It has been promoted and institutionalized by a new generation of pseudo-intellectual militarists who are trying to synthesize a military/anthropological strategy for restructuring failed imperial adventures in other cultures beyond Vietnam, like Iraq and Afghanistan. To accomplish this, the army instituted a program in Iraq in 2007 labeled “The Human Terrain System.” This program was an actual formal effort to use anthropology to bridge the gap between the Green Berets and the Peace Corps. Not surprisingly, it was roundly criticized by the American Anthropological Association and not surprisingly, it has had the support of General Petraeus.

For those who know the history of anthropology, its basic principle for understanding another culture is learning its language. For those doing fieldwork in another culture, learning the language is comparable to learning anatomy for a medical student. Aside from the Peace Corps, this importance of language never registered in America’s relations with other cultures and nations. Throughout America’s history of failed imperial adventures, this English-speaking nation consistently failed to get this point, a fact which U.S. bungling and missed opportunities in the Arab, Pashto and Dari speaking communities of Iraq and Afghanistan has made increasingly clear. Incredibly, at a time when the U.S. is under vicious attack led by Arabic speaking terrorists, there has been and continues to be a serious lack of Arab speakers working against the terrorism. [In December of 2006, more than five years after 9/11, the FBI had only six fluent Arabic speaking agents out of 12,000 (Lisa Myers, 12/4/ 06 NBC News Investigative Reports)]

In the current policy debates surrounding military’s Human Terrain Program,

“Its backers contend that civilian specialists — particularly anthropologists — with in-depth field experience are best suited to ‘map’ Afghanistan’s complex tribal structures and fault lines. In turn, they can identify the key power brokers and projects needed to build public support, marginalizing the Taliban and advancing the Pentagon’s counterinsurgency strategy.” Time magazine 07/1/10

However, because of the ethical/scientific conflicts of using anthropology for warfare, among other reasons, [like roadside bombs] the Pentagon hasn’t been able to recruit enough qualified anthropologists prepared to fully understand the cultural complexities of Afghanistan. “Today recruits [for “Human Terrain”] are more and more likely to have a degree in political science, history or psychology. Some only have a bachelor’s degree. ” Time Magazine 7/1/10 As a result of this shortage of qualified experts, the Human Terrain Program, it appears, has devolved into using unspecialized people with somewhat more education than the enlisted soldiers. The Army pays them very well, over $200,000 a year, [far more than most anthropologists make doing “real” anthropology] but given their lack of real qualifications, it is highly unlikely that the advice they give will be much more valid than, say, directions given for emergency medical care by a person with a degree in social work.

The latest quasi-anthropological media propaganda regarding the Human Terrain/Peace Corps direction of the Petraeus Afghan military campaign showed up in a front-page Sunday New York Times story (7/18/10). The story related how the military has connected with best-selling author and humanitarian school builder, Greg Mortenson, and Mortenson’s unlikely evolution into an unpaid consultant for the military’s efforts to gain greater cultural understanding of local Afghan village culture. There are several points about the military’s affair with Mortensen that are clearly relevant to this critique of the COIN strategy.

First, the Times notes that Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea was initially ignored by the mainstream press when it came out 2006 and only gathered interest when it was published in paperback in 2007 gaining the interest of women’s groups because it showed how one determined person was able to help females get an education inside the extreme oppression of patriarchal Muslim culture.

Second, as appropriate as Three Cups of Tea might have been for high-level American military planners in Iraq and Afghanistan, the book only came to the attention of American brass when it was read by their wives who passed it on as a must-read. Third, and most important, while Mortenson ultimately inspired COIN brass desperate to influence the local village culture by instilling a Peace Corps-like sensitivity in their troops, it is a serious mistake to view him as a prototype character for the “Peace Corps with guns” fantasy. Just the opposite is true. Greg Mortenson’s early cultural experience was profoundly different from the cultural background of most American soldiers. His unique life history prefigured his extraordinary cross-cultural facility for connecting with village tribes people and building schools for girls. Mortenson grew up in Tanzania at the foot of Mount Kilimanjaro. His father, Dempsey

“threw every molecule of himself into the great achievement of his life, raising money for and founding Tanzania’s first teaching hospital, the Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Center. His mother Jerene labored with the same single-mindedness to establish the Moshi International School, which catered to a cosmopolitan melting pot of expatriates’ children. Greg attended the school, swimming happily in a sea of cultures and languages. The divisions between different nationalities meant so little to him that he was upset when they fought with each other.” Three Cups of Tea, p.36

Anthropologically, the blueprint of Mortenson’s life history is clearly one with pathways that led to building schools in tribal mountain villages. It vividly demonstrates the importance of cultural background when assessing the potential for nation building Peace Corps type work. The sensitivities of Mortenson’s childhood in Tanzania meshed with his gratitude towards the Korphe villagers who nursed for him back to health after he got lost descending from K2, the world’s most difficult mountain peak. His worldview profoundly contrasts with the proclivities of America’s elite West Point, Annapolis, and Yale bred military warmongers [McCain, McChrystal. and Bush] and the jock tribal warriors who follow their orders into futile imperial wars.

Mortenson’s story also has strong counterculture influences. After training as a military medic in Germany in the 70s, he lived in his car in Berkeley doing night shift nursing in local hospitals while immersing himself in the lore and practice of serious mountain climbing. After his traumatic experience with K2 and his recovery in the Korphe village, he picked himself up by his bootstraps and pulled together his resources to fulfill his promise to build a school for girls in the village that saved him. He accomplished this unlikely feat by integrating his unique abilities and background: his proficiency with languages, his experience as a mountaineer, his thrift in living out of his car, his training as an Army medic, his patience as loving, helpful brother to his handicapped sister, his work experience as a nurse, and his multicultural sensitivity. Eventually, through self-reliance, courage, hard work, dogged persistence, and increasing knowledge and sensitivity to the Pakistani Himalaya cultural world, Mortenson built a bridge, then his school, and then one hundred fifty more, emerging as an extraordinary one-man Peace Corps battalion. His success showed that you don’t have to be specifically trained as an anthropologist to have cross-cultural sensitivity if you’ve been raised in a cross-cultural setting and spent enough time with another culture to learn its language, understand its boundaries, and respect its values.

Mortenson’s life experience contrasts totally with the cultural background of the average American soldier subject to the COIN fantasy of Green Berets as an armed Peace Corps. Anthropologically, American males who join the military share a variety of overlapping subcultures held together by a common national character type. The signature of this character type is extreme, if not obsessive, competitiveness. Besides the business of capitalist economics, traditionally, American male national character ritually vents its competitive emotions through the omnipresent rites and rituals of a little-known but widely followed contemporary primitive religion known as “the world of sports.” America’s political and military leaders must be either sports obsessed fan-addicts or pretend to be if they’re not. Standout representatives of this national character type are people like George Patton, George Steinbrenner, and George W. Bush, men whose competitively obsessed personalities became living caricatures. Such figures are so fixated with winning that they scratch their way to the top by hook or by crook,[like stealing elections.] Not insignificantly, in the backgrounds of people like Bush, McCain and McChrystal, the pathways to power have been cleared of all obstacles by their elite pedigrees.

Greg Mortenson’s extremely productive life experience grew from a wholly different mold of culture and personality, one that was in tune with the self-actualizing “do your own thing” character type of the 60s. In profound contrast with Mortenson’s bottom up grass-roots origins and organizing, the counterinsurgency cultural mission of the military in Afghanistan continues/follows the failed top down megalomaniacal warmongering patriarchal delusions of Lyndon Baines Johnson and Richard M. Nixon and their generals in Vietnam with the admiral’s son, John McCain, still bellowing as a full-fledged unreconstructed cheerleader for continued imperial militarism. After Bush successfully stole the election of 2000, these delusions were restarted, fully updated and reconstructed to profit obscenely through the reign of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.

That America’s contemporary politicians, at the end of the first decade of the Twenty First century, are still susceptible to the same kind of military legerdemain, only branded slightly differently, is a sign of the exceptional propaganda power of the Pentagon, the perpetual masochistic lap dog quality of the media, the continuing cultural confusion of American society, [ with its male competitive warfare prone national character fed by its primitive sports religion], and the inability or unwillingness of bought off politicians to think and act for themselves and the interests of their constituents.

Despite their new leaders’ Peace Corps pretenses, America’s competitively fixated foot soldiers are obsessed with winning and showing superiority through physical strength or technological power, an obsession that, all strategic peace oriented rationalizations to the contrary, is highly developed and shared with their leaders. The notion that the unique cultural template of a Greg Mortenson can somehow be transferred to or mined for Americans who have grown up with an entirely different cultural backgrounds is a monumental mistake; a self-serving, uninformed, and ultimately enormously wasteful and enormously destructive delusion. Like an enormously powerful, highly uneconomical car running out of gas and getting stuck in the mountains after driving a short distance, the American military’s efforts to rationalize their continued operations in Afghanistan by claiming to have become Green Beret/ peace corps hybrids is total nonsense and an insult to the intelligence of the American people.

One can appreciate the interest that the military’s counterinsurgency planners have in trying to mine Mortenson’s highly successful cross-cultural work, especially when their wives were pushing it upon them. But generals and high placed politicians–like our president – are fooling themselves and the nation if they believe that the experience and success of a person like Mortensen can in any way be replicated by people who choose to be warriors in the Army or Green Berets. At bottom, trying to salvage the Afghan war by squeezing the West Point hybrid fantasy of Green Berets as an armed Peace Corps somehow into Mortenson’s amazing down to earth individual accomplishment, is just crazy, or to be more charitable, ridiculous. It is as far-fetched, as believing McCain, Bush, McChrystal and Petraus could successfully substitute for Springsteen and the E Street Band, if they just had few music lessons and changed their costumes.

If these leaders seriously want to use anthropology to make a better world, and this is a positive step forward, not unexpected from an administration led by the son of an anthropologist, they need to heed the relationship between culture and personality that Ruth Benedict, Margaret Mead, John Honigman, Eric Fromm, Anthony Wallace and others developed. By understanding how culture determines character structure, they would better understand what kinds of people are necessary for performing complicated tasks like nation building in far-off places with totally different histories, social structures, geography, economies and religions. With such awareness, they might succeed in influencing traditional cultures to accept certain democratic principles like the emancipation of women and the need to educate all children. This deeper understanding would also provide more self-cultural awareness which might work to nullify ethnocentric attempts to fulfill their own obsessions with winning.

Returning to Obama’s mother, and my Peace Corps suggestions of six months ago, there is something that the President could do to adapt the Human Terrain program in a way which his mother might have approved. He could personally recruit and employ a small army of anthropologists to create a broadly expanded Peace Corps force made up of idealistic Americans trained in the languages and cultures of the region. This Peace Corps surge could be designed by new and former Peace Corps people with a leading role provided by Greg Mortenson.

In their broad outlines Greg Mortenson and President Obama have comparable life histories. If Obama could steel himself against the phony arguments of generals and other military minded advisers, get out of the cultural and political boundaries of his White House roles, and call upon his own unusual background as Mortenson did, he could build bridges and schools like no other leader of our country ever has. If he hasn’t already done so, he needs to read Three Cups of Tea, then hire Greg Mortenson as a full-time adviser to sit in on every meeting and consult on every decision.

SAMUEL LEFF is a Margaret Mead-trained anthropologist whose specialty has been American culture for more than four decades. He has taught anthropology at Adelphi, Hunter and Hofstra Universities. An activist participant observer of the ’60s, he was a close confidant of Abbie Hoffman’s. He has led local preservation movements, uncovered corruption at the New York City Health Department, and most recently was the consultant for Brett Morgen’s film, Chicago 10. He is currently fine tuning his work about American culture: Old Boys Growing up Primitive in Modern America and collecting a series of essays that apply his unique anthropological perspective to underlying culture and personality issues of modern life.