Monday, March 26, 2007

Listening With Your Eyes: A Commentary

By Lt. Col. John Valledor
Commander, 2nd Bn., 14th Inf. Reg't.

Dawn fades on another bright, warm and dusty day in Iraq’s Euphrates River Valley. A solitary 10th Mountain Division infantry rifle squad nears the end of a nightlong security mission on Battle Position F-205-U. This traffic control point, manned by nine battle-hardened Soldiers, seasoned by three successive combat tours in Iraq, sits on a narrow, elevated levee road that parallels the Euphrates River.
Coalition Forces know the road by its military designation, Route Pinto. Bravo Company, the squad’s parent unit, uses this checkpoint in its counterinsurgency fight to screen tribal farmers hauling produce from the canal-laced vegetable fields that define the Village of Sadr Al-Yusufiyah to Baghdad’s street markets. Informant networks reveal to the company commander that Sunni extremists operating in his assigned operational environment seek the anonymity of the populace to hide and for the illicit trafficking of suicidal foreign fighters and their bomb-making materials.
The squad leader finalizes pre-combat checks prior to mounting their three up-armored Humvee gun trucks for what has seemingly become a short, routine patrol back to their forward operating base—Patrol Base Warrior Keep.
The four-kilometer trip normally takes around 10 minutes to complete, but this deceptively short patrol is seldom routine.
This past year Route Pinto has been the site of persistent and deadly insurgent improvised explosive device attacks. On Christmas Day, this squad’s platoon lost a highly respected team leader to a hidden IED, buried deep in the crater of a previous attack.
As the squad leader readies his patrol for movement, he notices that the normal traffic jam of produce-laden vehicles is conspicuously absent. Normally this checkpoint is teeming with impatient farmers backed-up 20 vehicles deep behind a serpentine set of concrete Jersey barriers trying to race to Baghdad’s markets by first light. This day, the squad sees no traffic.
The squad leader radios the start of his patrol to his company at PB Warrior Keep and begins his short journey down this now familiar winding stretch of well-worn and grooved asphalt.
The thick smell of burning straw fills the air as the patrol passes crater after crater that pock the road from previous IED attacks. Eyes peeled on the perilous course before him, the squad leader cautiously scans the periphery of each crater as well as the shoulders of the road for recent signs of electrical command wires used by insurgents to detonate freshly buried IEDs.
Equally daunting is the difficult task of finding “pressure switch” IED initiators well camouflaged by insurgents. These thin, homemade, Christmas-tree-wire initiators resemble veins emanating from the sides of the road that the victims set off by simply running over and crushing the connections, completing the deadly circuit.
As the patrol passes a familiar S-curve lined with numerous market shops, the squad leader once again takes note that today they are all curiously closed. Moreover, the now recognizable sight of teenage boys spending their entire day sitting next to stacks of makeshift benzene containers, Iraq’s version of roadside gas stations, are also gone.
The patrol snakes past the last curve on their final stretch into their destined patrol base.
The Humvee’s turret gunner, peering over the barrel of an M-2 .50 caliber machine gun, glances over to the north side of the road where local Iraqi women are normally seen tending to the fields. He notices only one single woman scurrying with a child in tow.
She quickly darts behind the door of a nearby home as the patrol drives by.
The gunner makes a quick mental note and alerts his truck commander using the gun truck’s intra-vehicular intercom; “something doesn’t look right.”
As the patrol nears a final set of IED craters that straddle both sides of the road, unconsciously, something in the squad leader’s mind, again, tells him that this does not seem right.
Suddenly and without warning, the Humvee catapults aloft, engulfed in a brilliant flash of searing heat, instantly frosting its thick ballistic glass windows.
The dense coating of dust that was previously covering the inside surfaces of the vehicle is simultaneously lifted into the air and the deafening sound from the enveloping blast is immediately followed by dense, black, and choking ammonia-scented smoke.
Injured, and in a slow motion, dreamlike state, the squad leader succumbs to the agonizing pain and slips into unconsciousness.
The six-ton, hardened steel Humvee completes its astonishing barrel roll and crashes to earth from its split-second moment of flight.
Moments later, a fellow Soldier riding in the patrol’s last gun truck grasps his radio’s hand mike and reports; “Barbarian Tango this is Barbarian one-six, IED strike, nine-line report follows, over”.
The story above illustrates the power of unconscious hyperawareness resident in all of us. In this real world case, the patrol members were bombarded with tell tale visual cues from their environment alerting them to impending danger, but they failed to trust their unconscious instincts and act accordingly.
In Iraq, survival demands that the foot Soldier master this innate ability, often involving instantaneous, life or death decisions. Our Soldiers serve as living, breathing sensors continuously processing verbal, non-verbal and visual cues from their environment. They unconsciously process information relayed to them from their surroundings. Acting on that information is a matter of confidence borne out of experience.
One of the biggest challenges to our Soldiers in Iraq’s counter-insurgency is separating the insurgent from its host—the populace.
The first step in defeating the insurgents is gaining the trust and confidence of the very population both opposing forces are vying to win over. This is done by getting out and meeting people. Engaging people regardless of culture and language on a personal face-to-face level is essential in winning them over.
In Iraq’s ungoverned tribal areas, infantrymen best accomplish human interaction by conducting good old-fashioned foot patrols.
An enabling tool available to the foot Soldier is the embedded interpreter otherwise known as “terp”, abbreviated to simplify radio reporting. Although limited in number and availability, terps facilitate Soldier’s direct communication with the people.
The degree to which we measure success in communication through a terp depends on several factors including their command of the English language, the recognition of a wide array of slang terms, their native knowledge of Iraqi versus Middle Eastern cultural norms, as well as their ethnic or sectarian bias.
The importance of the terp and their deciphering skills was recently demonstrated at a company-level tactical questioning event.
A rifle platoon returned to their forward patrol base after concluding a targeted raid with a dozen detainees suspected of participating in attacks in the area. The company commander began the process of tactically questioning the gathered detainees with his assigned terp. Several Soldiers providing security at the detainee collection point noticed that, although the entire set of detainees looked similar in manner of dress and appearance, something about this group was out of the ordinary
Within the group were several local Iraqis that were undoubtedly only guilty of being near the site of the raid. Intermixed was a second group of actual Sunni extremists. The challenge for the commander was distinguishing the two separate groups.
The commander along with his terp immediately began the tedious question and answer process that would eventually lead to the elimination and separation of innocent Iraqis from the Sunni extremists.
The terp was immediately able to identify some within the group as foreign fighters based on language dialects; to the US Soldiers overseeing the process, oblivious to Arabic dialects, they completely missed the nuance and importance of this action.
Simultaneously, all participants began receiving non-verbal visual cues from the faces of the remaining detainees. Although all maintained a common story line in response to the tactical questioning, something about their eyes and body language inexplicably revealed a sense of fear from a minority within the group. Subtle body language cues seemed to expose fear in some, not towards the US questioners, but rather at a nearby subset of fellow detainees.
These cues caught the attention of the Soldiers providing security. They trusted their instincts and passed their perceived hunch along to the solitary terp busily questioning the detainees.
In time, the commander and terp were able to differentiate the innocent from the guilty. By focusing their questioning on the individuals unconsciously recognized as foreign by the majority, they were able to crack their short-lived cover stories and connect them to previous insurgent attacks.
In this case, our Soldiers were able to cut through the fog of culture and language and hone in on seemingly innocent local nationals that were in fact hardened terrorists based on recognizing and acting on non-verbal visual cues. They deduced by listening with their eyes.
Terps serve a vital function of translating language and cultural subtleties for the patrols. They understand the nuances, gestures and local mannerisms that they see and hear. American Soldiers will never fully comprehend these cultural nuances but they continue to gain more and more insights with each successive deployment and as they gain experience.
In some cases, patrols must rely on other means to engage the populace without the aid of a terp. It is in these terp-free patrols where unconscious hyperawareness moves up in the order of importance.
Challenges in Iraq are many. Much of the public discourse lately has centered on the negative effects of repetitive combat tours by our Soldiers. However, most have ignored the hidden benefit to the nation that battle-hardened Soldiers bring to the American arsenal. Combat experience is good.
Our Soldiers are gaining the upper hand in Iraq’s ungoverned tribal lands due, in part, to their ability to harness an instinctive, often unconscious, and seasoned ability to read their operational environment. Life-saving snap decisions, founded on the recognition of visual cues can transcend the cross-cultural challenges inherent in winning the counter-insurgency fight in Iraq.
In some cases, terps serve as a vital bridge in enabling Soldiers to connect with the populace they are trying to influence. In the absence of this critical enabler, Soldiers must rely on trusting their instincts in the face of environmental change.
Our sustained experience in Iraq has honed the discriminating, instinctive skill in the American Soldier.

1 comment:

William said...

Reading this is a cause for wonder if the soldiers in the field are continually being stressed the importance of reading the actions of the general population, but more importantly acting on the significants of those actions. Is there a mechanism for members of the population to communicate warnings to the soldiers in the field, if they were so inclined? Of course these methods of warning of a planned attack, or hidden ied, would need to offer the person with the information some degree of anonimity, for their personal safety, as well as some form of reward; not necessarily monetary.