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Guest Post: U.S. Marines, the Forever Tribe by Stan Coerr

Friday, January 30th, 2015

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

We at ZP would like to thank Colonel Stan Coerr for his permission to reprint this essay, written on the eve of  his retirement last July, after a quarter century of of military service in the Marine Corps Reserve and on active duty.

Stan Coerr is the author of Rubicon: the Poetry of War and is a retired Colonel in the Marine Corps Reserve and works in the federal civil service.   He holds degrees from Duke, Harvard and the Naval War College, has been a fellow at MIT and Stanford, and was recently accepted to begin work on a doctorate at Oxford.  He is finishing a book on his time in Iraq, and his next book will be on the life and work of Dr. Bernard Fall.

The U.S. Marines, America’s Forever Tribe

by Stan Coerr

Today is my last day in the uniform of the United States Marines.

I write this not as a farewell. Rather, this is a reflection on this tribe of which I am a part, and which is inside me forever.

What I remember of twenty- five years inside this brotherhood are vignettes: stories that indicate who we are and why we devote our lives to an organization such as this.

Some happened to me; others I read or saw. All describe who we are as Marines.

——————

What everyone looking in from the outside must realize is that Marines are instant brothers, no matter the situation, no matter whether they have met before that moment.

The Marines are a tribe.

We have our own language, culture, mores and idiomatic shorthand communication.

We have our own distinctive clothing. We cut our hair in a distinctive way.

We paint our bodies with unique tribal markings.

We undergo rites of passage to turn boys into men, the men we need to further the greater good of us all.

We hand down legends of those who went before, who fell in battle, who did great and heroic things.

We sing songs to celebrate them; we memorize what they did.

——————-
We listen to the wisdom of the tribal elders, and we turn to them for decisions and guidance.

Ken Schwenke and Mike Dossett are 180 degrees out from one another in style, but those of us fortunate enough to be Marine Options at NROTC Duke, a team forty strong in the mid to late 1980s, to this day benefit from the nurturing and guidance and demanding perfection of those two men.

Bob Dobson was an exceptional battalion commander, a very deep thinker and a man who knew how to train Marines.

I was fortunate to work beneath the finest general officers the Marine Corps can produce. I worked for George Trautman when he was both a Lieutenant Colonel and a Lieutenant General, and his relentless, driving intellect and fearsome demand for detail, analysis and good decisions sharpened me in ways I am still discovering.

I was lucky enough to serve beneath Generals Mattis, Conway and Dunford, in both peace and war, and from when they were Colonels to their positions as four-star generals.

The nation is fortunate that men such as these have set us on the course we follow today.

————————
The Marine Corps is people, and it is stories.

——————-

I am marching a platoon down the streets of New Orleans during the Mardi Gras parades in 1989, as leader of the drill team.

I was to the side of the team as they marched, so I was right next to the screaming crowds. Tens of thousands of people lined the streets, screaming and shrieking and cheering.

Marine options in college wear navy uniforms but Marine Corps eagle, globe and anchor insignia.

As we marched through the throngs, one man in the crowd, right next to me, saw my EGA and said simply, in a conversational voice and just to me:

“Get it, Marines.”

Never saw him, never spoke to him.

A brother.

——————–

I check in to Bob Dobson’s rifle battalion in Twentynine Palms, California in 1994.

Then-Colonel Jim Mattis, the Seventh Marines regimental commander, called for me to come see him. I was not only just a brand-new Captain, but I was an aviator in an infantry regiment: I was not a key player.

Colonel Mattis took his phone off the hook, closed his office door and spent over an hour, just with me, telling me his warfighting philosophy, vision, goals and expectations. He told me how he saw us fighting – and where – and how he was getting us ready to do just that.

America knows him as the caricature: Mad Dog Mattis. Those of us who served with him know that he is a gifted, caring, warfighting general, and the finest of tribal elders.

——————
I am watching a film clip from Vietnam.

Jack Laurence of CBS News, a very talented TV reporter and author of the magnificent memoir The Cat From Hue, was out in the jungle with a Marine rifle company.

Somehow a Marine from another unit was separated from his brothers, and this company had found him.

Laurence rolls tape, and approaches the company commander. This man is wearing filthy utilities. He is exhausted and thirty pounds underweight, with a cigarette hanging from the corner of his mouth. A man with things to do and the weight of hundreds of lives on his shoulders. A hard, intense man.

Laurence talks about the lost Marine, and asks: “Will you take care of this man?”

The Captain stares at Laurence as if he is insane, and says, as if it should be obvious: “He’s a Marine.”

Laurence: “What?”

Captain: “He’s a Marine. I’ll take care of him.”

—————–

I am with Paddy Gough in a Cobra over 29 Palms in December 1992.

We are at one hundred feet, flying back from a mission. It is bitter cold on the desert floor, below freezing, and a dark, ugly cloud layer sits low on the sand.

A line of exhausted Marines below us is marching back to their camp after a week of training. They string out like ants, hundreds of them in the cold. They are bent under their equipment: heavy weapons, mortar tubes, ammunition, packs, helmets, flak jackets.

We fly in silence, watching them, until Paddy comes up on the intercom with me, and says quietly:

“This country does not know how lucky we are to have such men.”

—————–

I am a seven-year-old boy, and my father is putting me to sleep.

I am sleeping in a Marine Corps-issue jungle hammock, which of course to a boy is the coolest thing ever.

I need something to read, so he disappears into the study and returns.

He hands me a book I read cover to cover and which I am holding right now: the 1962 Guidebook for Marines.

—————-

I am giving a speech in El Cajon, California in July 2003.

I was one of the first people back from the invasion of Iraq, and I was therefore much in demand from local groups who wanted to hear about this campaign in Mesopotamia.

I was outdoors at a Fourth of July street festival, speaking to a crowd of several hundred people and telling them how magnificent our fighting force was, and what I had seen.

I told these people that their Marines were in the fight in the desert, winning, doing it right for the people back home, representing the best of who we are as a nation.

Standing far to the back of the crowd was a motorcycle gang. Huge, hairy guys, dozens of them, in beards and bandannas and wraparound sunglasses and leather and boots, leaning on their Harleys.

As I came off the stage, they came to me as a group. The first of them grabbed me and I now saw the EGA sewn onto his vest, right next to his Vietnam campaign patch.

He embraced me, tight, and said:

“Right on, brother. Right on.”

——————————–

Karl Marlantes was in the best position imaginable in 1967.

He was on a Rhodes Scholarship, comfortable in Oxford, immune from the Vietnam War and the vagaries of the draft. He was immersed in the world’s premier academic institution on a full ride, the goal of every serious college student.

But Marlantes had been to Marine Corps Officer Candidates School in 1964. He had been inducted into the tribe. And his brothers were at war. He says:

“I couldn’t go to a party without thinking of my Marine friends, terrified in the jungle while I was hanging onto my girlfriend’s warm body with one arm and holding a pint of bitter in the other. The one choice my conscience would not allow was to sit it out in college.

I pulled all my scholarship money from the bank…and Second Lieutenant Karl Marlantes USMCR reported for active duty. “

—————————–

Or from Phillip Caputo in 1961:

“I wanted to find in a commonplace world a chance to live heroically.

Having known nothing but security, comfort and peace, I hungered for danger, challenges and violence.

The Marine Corps was more than a branch of the armed services. It was a society unto itself, demanding total commitment to its doctrines and values. We were novitiates, and the rigorous training , administered by the high priests called drill instructors, was to be our ordeal of initiation.

At the end of the course, the DIs honored our survival by informing us that we had earned the right to be called Marines.”

—————-

I earned that right, as did many of you. As did millions before us, and the millions to follow.

I feel no sadness about taking off the uniform for the last time. The Marine Corps does not care about me….nor should it. The organization will always be there, and it will always hone and harden the finest our country has to offer.

I was only one of many…but at the same time, I was one of the few.

The Marine Corps serves the nation, and those of us who are called serve the Marine Corps.

We serve the unit.

We serve the tribe.

Most of all, we serve our brothers.

Semper Fidelis.

New Book: American Spartan by Ann Scott Tyson

Tuesday, March 11th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. “zen“]

American Spartan: The Promise, the Mission, and the Betrayal of Special Forces Major Jim Gant by Ann Scott Tyson 

Was just sent a review copy of American Spartan courtesy of Callie at  Oettinger & Associates which tells the story of Major Jim Gant, the special forces officer and AfPak hand who pushed hard for a controversial strategy in Afghanistan based on arming and training loyalist paramilitaries out of Afghan tribesmen ( or whatever localist network would suffice when tribal identity was weak or absent). I am looking forward to reading this book for a number of reasons.

Long time readers may recall Gant coming to wider attention with his paper, One Tribe at a Time with an assist from noted author Steven Pressfield, where he called for a campaign strategy against the Taliban from “the bottom up” using “the tribes” because the current top down strategy of killing insurgents while building a strong, centralized, state would never work – the war would just drag on indefinitely until the US grew tired and quit Afghanistan ( as is happening….now). Gant, who forged a tight relationship with Afghan tribal leader  Noor Azfal ,won some fans with his paper in very high places, including SECDEF Robert Gates and Generals Stanley McChrystal and David Petraeus who gave him some cover to implement his ideas but he also faced formidable resistance and criticism. Academic experts were particularly incensed by Gant’s broad-brush use of “tribes” to cover a wide array of local networks and Afghan identities and that “tribes” were a term modern anthropology held in deep disdain ( RAND’s David Ronfeldt pointed out that while these networks are not historical tribes they are certainly “tribal” in terms of behavior patterns) while the government of Mohammed Karzai and its American boosters were bitterly hostile to any strategy that might arm locals outside Kabul’s direct control.

  It was also a risky strategy. Loyalist paramilitaries are often very effective in a military sense – as happened in Colombia when the government tolerated and encouraged private militias to make war on FARC and the ELN and badly mauled the Communist insurgents – but they are inherently unreliable politically. Paramilitaries can also  “go off the reservation” – this also happened in Colombia – and commit atrocities or become criminal enterprises or engage in warlordism and have to be reined in by the government. All of these were particular risks in the context of Afghanistan where warlordism and drug trafficking had been particularly acute problems even under Taliban rule. On the other hand, warlordism and drug trafficking has hardly been unknown in the ANA regular units and national police and is hardly the province only of irregulars.

Another reason I am interested in this book is the subtitle’s accusation of “betrayal” which I infer comes out of the long institutional cultural and chain of command clashes of bureaucratic politics between Big Army and Special Forces and Special Operations Forces communities. The long history in the big picture is that many general purpose force commanders do not know how to use these troops to best strategic effect and sometimes resent the autonomy with which they operate ( a resentment returned and repaid  at times with a lack of consultation and ignoring of local priorities in operational planning).

The author, Ann Scott Tyson is a long-time and experienced war reporter who embedded extensively with US troops in Afghanistan and Iraq. She is also married to her subject which should make for some interesting analysis when I review the book.

Christian cannibal: first the horror, then the meditation

Friday, January 17th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron — you may not want to watch the video – read the text first, okay? ]
.

Here’s what the BBC-wallah said:

The Christians were victims; now they’re on top. It’s a dangerous time to be Muslim. A charred and dismembered body is dragged through the streets. Christians have just killed a Muslim passerby. Ouandja “Mad Dog” Magloire was at the head of the mob. He was in a blind fury that day. Muslims killed his pregnant wife, his sister in law, her baby, he tells me. They broke down the door and cut the baby in half. I promised I’d get my revenge. Revenge was an act of cannibalism. First, he stabbed j\his victim. You are Muslim, Muslim, Muslim, he said. I poured petrol over him, I burned him, I ate his leg, right down to the white bone. The victim was just passing through on a bus. Most Christians are horrified, but resigned. No-one tried to help him, say these eyewitnesses. Everyone is so angry with these Muslims. No way anyone was going to intervene.

This happened at two o’clock in the afternoon, when the streets were crowded with people, just like you see today. Everyone we’ve spoken to is still at a loss to know what to make of it. Was it the act of a madman, was it somebody who’d been pushed by sectarian hatred, was it explained perhaps, by traditional beliefs in magic and sorcery. These fighters are Christians but they also believe in magic. their amulets contain soil from their ancestors’ graves. Some carry the flesh of enemies they’ve killed. These charms are a delicate subject, not often discussed with outsiders. We are bullet-proof, says the commander. Mad Dog Magloire went further. perhaps his crime resulted from his own demons, but to some Christians he’s a hero. That doesn’t bode well for this country’s future.

If you want to watch him say it, it’s powerful. Here you go:

Okay, now for the meditation: I want to rescue something out of all this horror.

**

The very first thing I want to note is this:

We are bullet-proof, says the commander.

I’ve run across this before, it’s a common motif. Remember the Lakota Ghost Dance shirts? Johnny and Luther Htoo, the cigar-smoking twins who led God’s Army in Myanmar…? Televangelist Wilde Almeda of the Jesus Miracle Crusade in the Philippines?

This is just to say that in my view, religion with spiritual bullet-proofing is different from religion without it, no matter what name you tag the religion with.

**

Next up:

Most Christians are horrified, but resigned. … perhaps his crime resulted from his own demons, but to some Christians he’s a hero.

It could be tribal. It could be magical, maybe. It could be religious, specifically Christian. It could be Mad Dog Magloire‘s “own demons”. It could be, and surely was, that he saw his pregnant wife slaughtered before his own eyes.

But he projected his thirst for vengeance not on the man — a Muslim — who had butchered them, but on a guy in a passing bus who looked like he was Muslim.

**

Some weeks back, Commander Abu Sakkar of the Farouq Brigades in Syria ate what he took to be the heart of one of his enemies. It turned out to be his enemy’s lung.

  • If you think Mad Dog Magloire doesn’t represent Christianity, maybe Abu Sakkar doesn’t represent Islam.

  • If you think Abu Sakkar is representative of Islam, maybe Magloire is representative of Christianity.
  • I think it is fair to say that any religions with in excess of a billion adherents will find the odd cannibal among them in time of war.

    **

    But then consider this, in peacetime:

    In Ireland this week, a man confessed he’d murdered his landlord over a chess game, and eaten his heart. Forensics showed it was a lung that was missing

    **

    We are, after all, human.

    Concerning four flags and two tees

    Wednesday, October 16th, 2013

    [ by Charles Cameron — a brief meditation on word and image ]
    .

    Flags have been in the news quite a bit recently. There were the Marine Corps and Confederate flags carried by the protester outside the White House in the upper panel below:

    and the flag some protesting Native American (Lakota?) grandmothers took from the white supremacists who hoped to establish a community of the like-minded in the tiny town of Leith, North Dakota — in what one account called an improv “game” of “capture the flag”.

    So that’s two protests, right there. But the title of this post suggests it will concern “four flags and two tees” — and thus far I have mentioned three flags. The fourth is the flag worn as a tee-shirt decoration by one of the Grandmothers, and as shown below (upper panel) it is in fact the flag of the American Indian Movement:

    while by way of contrast, the tee worn by the confederate-and-marine-flags chap is a logo rather than a flag — it’s a Southern Thread Men’s Special Deluxe Art Tee to be exact. As the ad says:

    Alone or under a snap front shirt or a button down, you can show your southern roots or the vintage inspired western look.

    **

    My mind is a side-winder, as you know, so all this thinking about flags and logos got me thinking too about the Logos (or Word of God) and his standard.

    When the Emperor Constantine, for better or worse, co-opted Christianity or converted to it or both, his battle cry in hoc signo vinces (or in this sign you will conquer in late Barbarian, in case that’s your maternal tongue) raised the chi-rho as the sign, ensign, or battle flag — the logo if you will — of the newly baptised Roman Empire. The chi-rho — ☧ — combining the first two letters of the Greek word Christos, and meaning the Anointed One.

    **

    Flags and mottos are consequential things. Which comes first: the image, or the word?

    Ronfeldt’s In-Depth Review of America 3.0

    Monday, September 23rd, 2013

     

     David Ronfeldt, RAND strategist and theorist has done a deep two-part  review of America 3.0 over at his Visions from Two Theories blog. Ronfeldt has been spending the last few years developing his TIMN analytic framework (Tribes, Institutions [hierarchical], Markets and Networks) which you can get a taste from here  and here or a full reading with this RAND paper.

    David regards the familial structure thesis put forward by James Bennett and Michael Lotus in America 3.0 as “captivating”  and “compelling” for  “illuminating the importance of the nuclear family for America’s evolution in ways that, in my view, help validate and reinforce TIMN”. Both reviews are detailed and should be read in their entirety, but I will have some excerpts below:

    America 3.0 illuminates significance of nuclear families — in line with TIMN (Part 1 of 2) 

    ….Bennett and Lotus show at length (Chapter 2, pp. 29-45) that the nuclear family explains a lot about our distinctive culture and society:

    “It has caused Americans to have a uniquely strong concept of each person as an individual self, with an identity that is not bound by family or tribal or social ties. … Our distinctive type [of] American nuclear family has made us what we are.” (p. 29)And “what we are” as a result is individualistic, liberty-loving, nonegalitarian (without being inegalitarian), competitive, enterprising, mobile, and voluntaristic. In addition, Americans tend to have middle-class values, an instrumental view of government, and a preference for suburban lifestyles. 

    As the authors carefully note, these are generally positive traits, but they have both bright and dark sides, noticeable for example in the ways they make America a “high-risk, high-return culture” (p. 38) — much to the bane of some individuals. The traits also interact in interesting ways, such that Americans tend to be loners as individuals and families, but also joiners “who form an incomprehensibly dense network of voluntary associations” — much to the benefit of civil society (p. 39). 

    In sum, the American-style nuclear family is the major cause of “American exceptionalism” — the basis of our freedom and prosperity, our “amazing powers of assimilation” (p. 53), and our unique institutions:

    “It was the deepest basis for the development of freedom and prosperity in England, and then in America. Further, the underlying Anglo-American family type was the foundation for all of the institutions, laws, and cultural practices that gave rise to our freedom and prosperity over the centuries.” (p. 52)The authors go on to show this for America 1.0 and 2.0 in detail. They also reiterate that Americans have long taken the nuclear family for granted. Yet, very different marriage and family practices are the norm in most societies around the world. And the difference is profoundly significant for the kinds of cultural, social, economic, and political evolution that ensue. Indeed, the pull of the nuclear model in the American context is so strong that it has a liberating effect on immigrants who come from societies that are organized around extended families and clans (p. 55) — an important point, since America is a land of immigrants from all over, not just from Anglo-Saxon nuclear-family cultures.

    ….As for foreign policy, the authors commend “an emerging phenomenon we call “Network Commonwealth,” which is an alignment of nations … who share common ties that may include language, culture and common legal systems.” (p. 260) Above all, they’d like to see the “Anglosphere” take shape. And as the world coalesces into various “global networks of affinity” engaged in shifting coalitions (p. 265), America 3.0 would cease emphasizing democracy-promotion abroad, and “reorient its national strategy to a primary emphasis on maintaining the freedom of the global commons of air, sea, and space.” (p. 263) [UPDATE: For more about the Network Commonwealth and Anglosphere concepts, see Bennett’s 2007 paper here.]

    Read the whole thing here.

    America 3.0 illuminates significance of nuclear families — in line with TIMN (Part 2 of 2)  

    ….Overlaps with TIMN themes and propositions

    Part 1 discussed America 3.0’s key overlap with TIMN: the prevalence and significance of the nuclear family in the American case. This leads to questions about family matters elsewhere. Furthermore, it should be pointed out that there is more to TIMN’s tribal form than the nature of the family. I also spotted several additional thematic overlaps between America 3.0 and TIMN, and I want to highlight those as well. Thus, in outline form, this post addresses:

    • Seeking a fuller understanding of family matters beyond the American case.
    • Gaining a fuller understanding of the tribal/T form.
    • Anticipating the rise of the network/+N form.
    • Recognizing that every form has bright and dark sides.
    • Recognizing the importance of separation among the forms/realms.
    • Recognizing that balance among them is important too.
    • Cautioning against the exportability of the American model.

    After these points, the post ends by summarily noting that America 3.0 is more triformist than quadriformist in conception — but a worthy kind of triformist plus, well worth reading.

    My discussion emphasizes the T and +N forms. Bennett and Lotus also have lots to say about +I and +M matters — government and business — and I’ll squeeze in a few remarks along the way. But this post mostly skips +I and +M matters. For I’m more interested in how America 3.0 focuses on T (quite sharply) and +N (too diffusely). 

    By the way, America 3.0 contains lots of interesting observations that I do not discuss — e.g., that treating land as a commodity was a feature of nuclear-family society (p. 105), and so was creating trusts (p. 112). Readers are advised to harvest the book’s contents for themselves.

    ….Caution about the exportability of the American model: TIMN sharpens — at least it is supposed to sharpen — our understanding that how societies work depends on how they use four cardinal forms of organization. This simplification leaves room for great complexity, for it is open to great variation in how those forms may be applied in particular societies. Analysts, strategists, and policymakers should be careful about assuming that what works in one society can be made to work in another. 

    ….In retrospect it seems I pulled my punch there. I left out what might/should have come next: TIMN-based counsel to be wary about assuming that the American model, especially its liberal democracy, can be exported into dramatically different cultures. I recall thinking that at the time; but I was also trying to shape a study of just the tribal form, without getting into more sweeping matters. So I must have pulled that punch, and I can’t find anywhere else I used it. Even so, my view of TIMN is that it does indeed caution against presuming that the American model is exportable, or that foreign societies can be forced into becoming liberal democracies of their own design.

    Meanwhile, America 3.0 clearly insists that Americans should be wary of trying to export the American model of democracy. Since so much about the American model depends on the nature of the nuclear family, policies that work well in the United States may not work well in other societies with different cultures — and vice-versa. Accordingly, the authors warn,

    “American politicians are likely to be wrong when they tell us that we can successfully export democracy, or make other countries look and act more like the United States.” (p. 24)

    “A foreign-policy based primarily on “democracy-promotion” and “nation-building” is one that will fail more times than not, … .” (p. 254)TIMN is not a framework about foreign policy. But as a framework about social evolution, it may have foreign-policy implications that overlap with those of America 3.0. In my nascent view (notably herehere, and here), the two winningest systems of the last half-century or so are liberal democracy and patrimonial corporatism. The former is prominent among the more-advanced societies, the latter among the less-developed (e.g., see here). As Bennett and Lotus point out, liberal democracy is most suitable where nuclear families hold sway. And as I’ve pointed out, patrimonial corporatism is more attractive in societies where clannish tribalism holds sway. 

    Read the rest here.

    This discussion about America 3.0 and TIMN seems particularly appropriate in light of the need to process, digest and distill the lessons of more than a decade of COIN and counter-terrorism warfare in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and – increasingly- Africa. One of the more difficult aspects of COIN operations has been for American military and diplomatic to decipher the layered relationships and interplay of family honor, tribe, political institution, emerging market and networks in a nation shattered by dictatorship and war like Iraq or to import modern institutions and  a democratic political system in Afghanistan where they had never existed.

    Many of these aspects were opaque and were understood only through hard-won experience (frequently lost with new unit rotation) or still remain elusive to Americans even after ten years of fighting among alien cultures which were also permeated by the sectarian nuances and conflicts of Islam. A religion to which relatively few Americans adhere or know sufficiently about, yet is a critical psychological driver for many of our adversaries as well as our allies.

    Arguably, the eye-opening response of people to America 3.0 indicates we do not even understand ourselves, much less others


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