Due to the recent trip to the provinces, we had to pass through the space/time portal known as Bagram, which has been dubbed by some of those who operate outside the wire but have frequent brushes with it, “Pogadishu.” As many others have noted, it is a world separated from the war by a million miles of cultural and tactical vacuum. A rocket attack on the base in the recent past brought home to the denizens of this burgeoning city of tens of thousands that there is a war on… but on a daily basis you couldn’t tell it from Disney Drive.
You can’t tell from the actions of those running the place, either.
Whether in business or in warfare, processes are developed. Processes are what are performed by bureaucracies. Bureaucracies are created to serve people, but they exist to serve processes. Once a process is developed, it becomes the goal, the purpose. The people and their needs, which the processes were developed to service most efficiently, become the pain in the system. The very need that spawned the beast becomes the fleas infesting its fur, driving the beast mad. Add some paranoia to it, and you have a beast that is not only ungainly and unproductive, but actually counterproductive and dangerous.
Pogadishu is the petri dish of fobbitry. At all times of the day you can find its denizens unconcernedly strolling the main road, Disney Drive, often in PT gear of whatever service sentenced them to their tour there. There are two PX’s, movie theaters, the famous clamshell where they have Karaoke Night and Country and Western Night, two Green Beans Coffee establishments, Burger King, Dairy Queen, shops, an expensive and inefficient private internet service with charges scaling from less than $50 to over $100 depending on the bandwidth purchased, and 24-hour shuttle buses. That’s just for starters. Sergeants Major and bored officers lurk like trap door spiders to pounce on the unwary who sport any semblance of field wear or who do not wear their reflective belt. For most, the workday is similar to that performed back home, if under more crude circumstances. Only 7% of them will ever leave the wire. Many arrive at Bagram, leave only to go on leave, and finish their tours without ever having left the wire save by air. There is no end to the fobbitry inherent to the streets of Pogadishu.
On a recent trip, one of our junior NCO’s was confronted by a Lieutenant Colonel who stopped in mid-jog to assail him for having turned the cuffs of his ACU jacket inward, a common alteration that allows more air to circulate around the arms, increasing the ability of the body to cool itself. However, this alteration, while I don’t believe it is specifically forbidden by the AR’s, is sometimes expressly forbidden by certain units, due to the fact that some Sergeant Major doesn’t feel that it’s a “good look” to be sporting. Also, should the street suddenly burst into flames, the Soldier so attired could suffer burns to parts of the arms that may have been retrieved less well-done than other parts of his corpse had the cuffs been tightly sealed against his wrists.
In any case, the LTC stopped in mid-stride to assail the young NCO, berating him for his wear of the uniform as well as his mustache. This young soldier, who leaves the wire every day, may wear his mustache slightly outside the bounds of AR’s, but it is tolerated operationally based on the commander’s evaluation of the cost/benefit analysis. The LTC demanded that the NCO remove his mustache, apparently on the spot. The Soldier was unable to comply and so the LTC demanded that the NCO present himself to some Sergeant Major at 1400. Having been sent on a mission by a full Colonel that included drawing certain equipment and returning forthwith on a convoy that left Pogadishu at 1300, the NCO regretfully left the wire without sating the bloodlust of the LTC.
The NCO duly informed the Colonel, upon his return, of the confrontation.
“Screw him,” the Colonel replied, “If he wants to call me, I’ll tell him the same thing to his face.”
Our Colonel is not a Pirate of Pogadishu. What matters to him is getting the job done, not looking like some hackneyed recruiting poster while you do it. That’s not to say that there is no discipline, but it’s not about sweating the small stuff that has no bearing on the mission. It’s about sweating everything that does.
Instead of stopping to chew out junior NCO’s over field modifications to uniforms and moustaches that are not in direct contravention of mission accomplishment, it might be a better idea to identify when four or five teams of people are trying to accomplish a similar goal within a single organization inside his battlespace and putting one person in charge of them all so that they actually work together to get it done. Then, after that’s accomplished, if the LTC still has time on his hands, perhaps chewing out random NCO’s over what is NCO business might be more productive behavior.
The LTC at one point screamed at the NCO that other Soldiers were going to die because they would burn up, howling in pain because they had seen this NCO and would emulate his jacket cuff style. This, ladies and gentlemen is a Pirate of Pogadishu.
Our trip would be a dozen times more challenging because of the Pirates of Pogadishu. Like many teams in this country, we are dependent upon our interpreters to accomplish our mission. They are members of our team. We travelled with two terps, both combat veterans with more than three years of service, to Pogadishu. Upon arrival we were greeted with, “Oh… them. You shouldn’t have brought them.”
“No?” we queried.
“Oh, no. No, no, no. You can’t bring terps in here like that.” Three heads shook in unison.
“But we need them to do our job,” we pled. A quick conference followed. Eye patches were donned. The Underpirates talked quickly amongst themselves, the uncovered eyes darting to and fro nervously.
“You must go and see the wizard,” came the decision from what appeared to be the Chief Underpirate for Domestic Placement.
“The Wizard?” we asked. “Who and where is this wizard?”
“The Wizard is the Chief Overpirate of Fobbit Tranquility, and may be found in the Directorate of Overpiracy, just down the way.”
“Uh……huh. Okay. And if they do not heed our cries?” we explored.
“Then your local nationals shall be banished to the vagaries of the outside world, that which is forbidden to be seen, from which you quite obviously plucked them at random just prior to your entry to Pogadishu.”
“And if the great Wizardly Overpirate deems them to be less than fatally harmful to our alien life processes?”
“Oh, well in that case, they can stay with you. But they cannot eat,” they stated in unison, which had a creepy echo effect.
“They can’t eat.” More a statement than a question at this point, all disbelief having been suspended over the course of the prior several minutes.
“No. They cannot eat. See their ID cards? They have no priveledges. They cannot eat. Not in Pogadishu, anyway.” Again with the stereo effect.
Well, we were off to see the wizard. After a brief ceremoney involving a hair from each of their heads, two ID cards, chicken bones, two separate drums and another set that were joined together, and a strange but very sweet-smelling metallic powder that burst into flame delightfully when the wizard cast it into a small fire, it was determined that if the Captain ever has children they will belong to the wizard and our terps could stay. Everyone was happpy save for our deeply insulted interpreters.
“It is like being in a prison, Sir,” they told me.
That’s not the best part.
The best part is that after having risked their lives, finding an IED, driving through an reported ambush which did not materialize and doing a fabulous job of interpreting, our two interpreters were removed from the manifest for the return flight (which turned out to be on the exact same Canadian C-130 we had flown up on,) escorted to the gates of Pogadishu and forced to ride back to Kabul in a taxi while still wearing American uniforms, thereby endangering their lives.
Without their luggage, which had already been palletized.
Our two team members were humiliated; which is one of the worst emotions in the world for an Afghan. “It is not your fault, Sir,” one of our terps told us. “It is our fault for working with you and putting ourselves in the position where someone can do this to us.”
The Pirates of Pogadishu had had their revenge.