Thursday, March 15, 2007

Learning to Yell

Sometimes I wish I had greater familiarity and skills with the Internet. I was driving out on a quick errand yesterday, for example, and caught just a snippet of a report on our local public radio station that I would love to have heard in full. It was part of an interview with an American trainer charged with educating police in Afghanistan to do a more effective job. I heard about sixty seconds of the piece before I had to leave the car, but I would have loved to have been able to track it down later on the computer to hear the whole thing. I tried. Alas, no luck.

The part that caught my attention was where the trainer was expressing a certain frustration in his work because his Afghan trainees possessed what he saw as a kind of cultural trait of modesty and natural--or learned--"politeness" that ran against the grain of what he was trying to achieve. "These people don't know how to yell at another person," he was complaining. (My memory of his words may be somewhat less than precise.) "You have to teach them how to yell." When you're ordering someone to surrender a lethal weapon that they're threatening you with, I guess it's not hard to see what the man means. If you can't show your assailant, in your voice, that you mean business, well... you could very quickly end up dead.

The interviewer allowed us to eavesdrop on a yelling education session, and you could see what the instructor meant. Well, rather, you could hear it. The model yell--from the American--was impeccable: a full-throated, angry, assertive, emasculating bellow. And you could hear the sincere effort on the part of the student to emulate the effect. And yet... well, the poor man just couldn't reproduce his teacher's excellently-simulated rage. You could hear the apology for being rude even as he did his best to bark out the order. His voice said, Excuse me, I wouldn't want to trouble you, but...

I couldn't help but chuckle at the contrast, but it was also at a deeper level quite disturbing. Obviously, in a life-or-death situation where you're confronted by a desperate or ruthless assailant, you've got to get results--and the American instructor's voice made it clear that there was no choice in the matter. His voice commanded compliance, unambiguous and brooking no hesitation or denial. The bully voice--and with it, certainly--the bully attitude of the American was undoubtedly what was needed for success in a combative situation. And yet the cultural comparison it invited left me with a sneaking preference and affection for his reluctant student, whose disinclination to impose his will on someone else left him open to attack--but was far more appealing, far more human in my estimation.

Okay, to repeat a lesson that I cited early on in these pages: the Buddha never said you have to be a doormat, and there comes a point where it's simply foolish to fall victim to aggression from those who wish you ill. Still, it does seem to me that we, as a country, have crossed that moral line between the righteous protector/defender and the bully. It's sad enough that in the most powerful quarters of our government, aggression seems to have become an accepted modus operandi, a reaction of choice. It's even sadder that we feel obliged to teach others--even if against their better nature--to be bullies like ourselves.

I'm not a pacifist. I lived through World War II. And while the argument that violence leads only to more violence has a dreadful and undeniable logic to it, I still believe that there are times when it is necessary. I have the sick feeling that it might be necessary in Afghanistan, where a ruthless band of fanatics is still ready to kill and maim in order to achieve its goals. But the results of violent intervention are all too evident in Iraq, where our rash and foolhardy aggression has succeeded only in re-igniting a bloody history of internecine strife that is centuries old and obviously beyond our competence and control. The lesson, it seems to me, where violence is concerned, is the wisdom that is arrived at only through thoroughly self-questioning foresight and restraint.


carly said...

It's always hard for me to tackle a problem or issue from the middle, if not impossible.

I mean, what the hell is a pushy, son of a bitch American doing in the middle east teaching anything, in the first place?! What galling stupidity. A very small glimpse of imperialism.

Anonymous said...

I don't agree with the idea of American imperialism in general, but whose to say that's what's happening here? I'm been in martial arts for almost seven years now, and I can tell you that generally speaking, people want to know what to do if confronted with a threatening situation. I have seen people come and go from the class (which is based on practical police defense tactics instead of more traditional martial arts), learning what they feel to be important before moving on. These people are willing to pay someone to help teach them the effective way to deal with physical conflict, and I don't see why that couldn't be applied on a larger scale. We Americans teaching Afghans how to defend themselves or be an effective police unit is not necessarily unwanted in their eyes.

Another I've noticed relates to what you mentioned about the article, Peter. In my training we focus a good deal on putting our cores/centers/chi or whatever you prefer to call it into our actions, via throwing our hips into strikes to make them more powerful, yelling to focus our energy into a strike, or any of a wide range of techniques. Most people take awhile to warm up to the behavior of being able to turn aggression on and off at the drop of a hat, while others can do it right form the get-go. Still others (like the case way be with Afghanistan) are naturally meek and just can't seem to grasp the concept of the benefits of aggression in a life-or-death situation like the ones faced by police forces around the world.

It may be that American training simply won't work in Afghanistan because of the cultural differences that are causing this problem, but I think that any person serving on a police force anywhere has to place their own safety and the safety of others above the convenience and hospitality received by the aggressor in a situation. The Taliban is a perfect example of the aggression present in at least some of the people of the region, and when the police force can learn to channel those tendencies in a controlled, productive direction, then they will be ready to work as an effective unit.

Peter, I looked for that interview online, but I couldn't find it. These links provide a little (albeit older) information about the training situation going on over there:

Hope that helps.

- Eli

PeterAtLarge said...

Thanks, Eli, for the thoughtful response. I don't actually disagree with you in any way. I do believe that we have the right--the obligation, really--to defend ourselves against aggression; and that in paying men and women to do it for us, it would be absurd to expect any less than whatever it takes to achieve that end. It did strike me as a sad irony, however... Cheers, PaL

lori said...

While not completely on topic, quite interesting...

While Afghans may suffer from meekness in nature and have a hard time acclimating to the new order of aggression, Iraqi police units are in full swing. Case in point, I have a good friend whose husband is a Swedish Police Officer who was sent to Iraq to train the Iraqi Police force..and what you won't hear in the news is that HALF the police force is Al Qaeda! Evidentially THAT is why we're not able to leave yet and is the big cover-up that NO one is talking about (yes there are many, but this one isn't in the news everyday).

He recently got back from Iraq and was appalled by the chaos that was supposed to be the new force to take over there and how the Americans fouled up the process and took any and all comers, as it were. Unfortunately, it's a bit too late to do anything about it, the mistake was made and the damage is once again, we have armed our enemy!

This is one of the reasons that they wanted more forces in Iraq, as they can not tell who is enemy anymore because they all wear the same uniform.

Go Bush! What's he batting now 01-1000???