Despite the utter failure of our reconstruction efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, one thing is certain: our future wars will continue to feature civilian-military mixed efforts. This is the sadistic high school football coach’s version of “we’re gonna do this over and over until you losers get it right.”
Getting along is not easy; military personnel will always vastly out number civilians and so most of the adapting needs to happen on our side of the equation, not theirs. The military has its own culture, which you do not share.
Retired Marine Col. Gary Anderson has an article in Small Wars Journal aimed at helping civilians who work with the US military to understand it. His piece is very good, and worth reading, but does not go far enough. Some additional ideas, in no particular order:
1) Earn respect by being very good at whatever it is you are doing there. Don’t expect second chances to move from the dumb ass to the useful category. Don’t be a know it all either, especially if your knowledge is mostly book learning.
2) 0900 means be there no later than 0845. Don’t operate on civilian time. If you’re late for a movement, you’ll be left behind.
3) If you are entitled to privileges beyond what the military gets, share if you are allowed (sat phone, laptop, movies, books) or keep quiet about it (booze).
4) Follow the rules even if you can get away with not following the rules to earn respect. Shave, keep your hair cut, don’t dress like a slob.
5) Start off formal, work back toward casual. Expect to be invited to call senior officers by their first names. Expect to decline to do so unless in private.
6) Anything to do with real military stuff, such as defensive plans or drills, shut up, pay attention and follow along. Don’t end up dead weight that has to be carried along.
7) Speaking of which, always be able to and always do carry your own gear. Even if you are short, weak and slight, hump what is yours and do not let a soldier carry it for you (they will try). If you can’t carry it, leave it behind. Check how much room you’ll have for stuff on various forms of transport, like MRAPs and different model helos.
8 ) Expect to be tested. Expect things to be thrown your way to see what you’ll do– meet deadlines, help out, or skip things and get away with being lazy. Soldiers have to figure out who they can trust and who they can’t.
9) Socialize. If you are one of many civilians, try hard not to split off into a civilian group at meals.
10) Adopt a sports team if you don’t follow one. There is not a more neutral topic in the military than sports. It’ll be a while before you can argue politics or news, but sports is always a decent topic and opinions are encouraged. You don’t have to be a walking encyclopedia, just be able to join in. Surprise people by being “normal.”
11) Listen carefully to how soldiers complain. Complaining is a right of being in uniform, but you must be careful not to exceed the boundaries, or to make it seem like you are not being cared for.
12) Do not criticize another soldier, even if the troops are doing it. They’re insiders, you’re not. Do feel free to poke fun at yourself to show that you are not an asshole like the last civilian. Just because soldiers of different races can make racial jokes with one another, don’t think you can.
13) If told to wear body armor, or a helmet, or gloves or whatever, just do it. Don’t try to get away with not. There may or may not be a good reason, but that is not your concern.
14) If you don’t understand an acronym, ask. Otherwise people will expect that you understood and expect you to do whatever is expected. Nobody will translate everything for you and as long as they do you are an outsider.
15) Don’t play soldier. Don’t wear military gear you don’t need, don’t over use slang or profanity, don’t pretend to know things you don’t know, or know from books. Be polite and respectful but don’t overdo the Sirs and Ma’ams. Be who you are, though maybe a slightly more laid back and in-shape version of who you are.
16) If you agree to do something, absolutely do it. This is not an environment to say “Let’s get together sometime” without meaning it.
17) Share hardships. Expect to always be offered the best food, the best sleeping arrangements, the ride instead of walking. Decline sometimes, say yes when it seems better than pissing someone off by declining (hard to judge– that’s why you get the big bucks).
18) Special for State Department heroes: don’t ask officers to fetch coffee for you, don’t wear bow ties, don’t speak in passive-aggressive slights, don’t complain when your shoes get dusty, don’t wear white pants to the field, don’t show up without a Powerpoint, don’t ask soldiers to take notes for you, don’t talk about your next assignment to Paris, overall just don’t be a dick and make it harder on the rest of us.
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