Greg’s War Story: Taking notes, getting detained (sort of)
Anthropologist Greg Cabrera spent 17 months in Afghanistan as an embedded academic with the military, supporting social science research and analysis as part of the Human Terrain System. In this story, his best practices bring some unwanted attention.
In the summer of 2010, when I first arrived to Kandahar Air Field, Afghanistan, I was unsure about how I would fit into a military culture. Just being from California created a cognitive barrier for most my military colleagues. Simply put, there were a lot of “don’t ask, don’t tell” jokes.
In any case, the first couple of weeks involved me playing catch up and learning everything I could about the assigned area and region. I took copious notes all the time to help jog my memory and capture information that would come in handy later on. My hope was to refer back to these notes and re-create the picture people were creating themselves based on scanty information.
In a war environment, you hear stories all the time and you never know what is real or not. The jargon further complicates the situation and makes it difficult for one to navigate people, places, and things, all of which tend to be obscured in military code.
One evening, I was hanging around the base waiting to link up with my liaison, Mike. He was facilitating an introduction to a detachment commander who I would work for over the next 12 months. Depending on how the meeting went, the commander would decide to bring me on board as a social scientist to work with him and his unit. I had tried to meet the commander earlier, but it was unclear where he was. His men told me he was busy in the port-a-john, but I think those guys were testing my wits. Long story short (and bathroom humor aside), we coordinated a meeting that night.
While I was hanging around the base waiting to link up with the commander, I noticed a large gathering of soldiers and civilians in an open area. In my curiosity, I wondered if there was something I needed to be in the know about. There was approximately 50 or so people gathering around a projector to watch a PowerPoint presentation projected on the side of a wall. I assumed the crowd was too large to accommodate on this small base where work areas were tight. Doing this outside made no sense because fighter jets flew and were so loud it could cause permanent hearing damage. I thought to myself, “Well, since they are doing this presentation out in the open, the information can’t be that sensitive. Surely taking a few notes or jottings couldn’t hurt?”
This presentation took place right before I would be heading out into the field. As it started and I began writing things down, I started to feel more than a bit uneasy about what I was hearing. The gentleman started off by explaining this fighting season was the bloodiest since 2007 A chart detailed the number of significant events (SIGACTS) and quantitative information about those killed in action, enemies killed in action, those wounded in action, improvised explosive devices found, indirect fire attacks, etcetera. Cough, ahem. I stopped myself at this point for a couple reasons:
First, I did not want to walk around with this in my notebook in case I lost it and the enemy had eyes on this information. Second, I was sure this could come back a bite me somehow. I immediately became nervous because of what I already had written down. I started thinking to myself as well: I don’t really need to be here.
As I started moving back, my actions caught the attention of a very attentive Sergeant Major. Sergeant Majors feed off opportunities to explode and make examples of others to reinforce the nature of their authority and rank. A strange civilian was the perfect feeding opportunity. Indeed, when I caught a glance at others in this crowd, no one else was taking notes or writing down information. “I’m dead,” I thought to myself.
Before I knew it, this dude’s eyes were piercing through me and he pointed at me to stop moving as he came over to me. He yanked me out of the crowd, and starting barking questions at me, hands on his hips and head leaning forward: “What are you doing?! What were you writing?! Who do you work for?!” Frozen, I muttered something to the effect of “Uh, I, I’m just an analyst.”
He took away my notebook and identification card and told me to follow him. The fact I did not have a security badge did not help my case and only contributed to the uneasy feeling sitting in the pit of my stomach.
He sat me down in the operations center near the legal officer. He pointed at me and explained to others that he had caught me taking notes. He assigned a soldier to guard me while he figured out how to handle the situation. As I sat on the couch with another soldier staring coldly at me, I gazed around the operations center. There was a white board with a funny quote about strippers, an empty office with a blow-up doll in it (oddly enough!), and some metallic signs on the walls demonstrating football fan territory.
These guys were pretty laid back, but I had broken the social contract and had no idea what the repercussions would be. At this point, I wished I had just stayed in my sleeping quarters. A phone call to my liaison Mike was my get-out-of-jail-free card. The Sergeant Major explained the situation to him and the JAG (legal) officer.
The JAG officer called me into his office and explained to me the nature of note-taking in a sensitive environment. Even though the presentation was out in the open, my act of taking notes classified my entire notebook. He handed the notebook back to me and I was on my way. I never saw the guy who detained me again. I wanted to simply get out, lick my wounds, and meet the commander who was waiting for me. The commander, who was not terribly impressed with my antics, laughed about my story. He decided to bring me on board on the spot despite my initial casting as a troublemaker. I like to think this gave me an edge or maybe he saw value in having me around to take notes (ironically) and provide insight into the strange cultural environment he was about to encounter.
I shook off the embarrassment, but it was a story that got a few laughs in my organization: “Human terrain guy detained for taking notes.” For me, it set the tone for the abrasiveness of military culture and reinforced my status as an outsider. I learned to be cautious about what I would capture in field notes and the sensitivity of collecting information in a war environment.