Best Defense

Of Alexander, gods and bathrooms: Why the Afghans can’t ‘get their shit together’

By Doyle Quiggle Best Defense department of classical studies A few minutes before the beginning of a Greek mythology class at FOB Fenty, Jalalabad, for which I’d prepared to lecture on Alexander the Great’s swift invasion but treacherous occupation of Afghanistan, my best student stomped into the classroom, slammed his M4 down on the table, ...


By Doyle Quiggle

Best Defense department of classical studies

A few minutes before the beginning of a Greek mythology class at FOB Fenty, Jalalabad, for which I’d prepared to lecture on Alexander the Great’s swift invasion but treacherous occupation of Afghanistan, my best student stomped into the classroom, slammed his M4 down on the table, and announced, "I can’t take their shit anymore!"

After his classmates and I had calmed him down, he explained that the walls, stall door, and floor of the toilet he’d just used were smeared with feces. They were always smeared with feces, he complained. He was furious about being forced daily to use facilities that were, as he put it, "Inhumanely, barbarically unhygienic and filthy." He and his unit shared their toilet with the ANA, as they had been ordered to do by their commanding officers-"hearts and minds." And it was the custom of the ANA to wipe themselves with their hands, smear their excrement on the walls of the toilette, and rinse their hands in the sink, which left the sinks reeking, a reek made especially acrid and pungent by the Afghans’ high intake of goat meat and goat milk. While brushing his teeth, my student often had to struggle to keep down his gorge.

The outraged student, who, despite TSIRT, knew dangerously little about the cultural habits of any of the many Afghan tribes, had begun to take the ANA’s toilette habits personally. I wanted to get my student to explore the source of his outrage. But I did not want to relativize or dismiss his outrage because I have learned that outrage always points toward a perception of injustice. It, therefore, also implies a healthy and intact sense of justice, which is something I encourage in students. So, I suggested to him that he was being faced (in the toilet customs of the ANA) with what Alexander’s Macedonian Greeks would have called "borborygmus," a word that Plato and Aristophanes and Homer used to describe the filthy, excremental sewage of the underworld of Hades. For was he not in a kind of underworld (Hades or hell) on deployment in an Afghanistan he barely understood? Borborygmus not only means "shit." It also connotes "shit fearing." Borborophoba was known as the Goddess of the realm of death. She had the power to keep shit from flowing, but she also possessed the power to make it flow in the face of mortal fear and threat of death. Every combat soldier has been struck by her bowel- and bladder-releasing powers at least once in his life.

We then recalled what we’d read of David Grossman in On Killing, "the physiology of the fight: the body’s role in combat and the skill to kill," where he explains in the modern language of physiology what the Greeks described in the metaphorical language of myth:

"Homeostasis is the balance struck between SNS and PNS during normal routine behavior, and can be thrown completely out of synchronicity when confrontation occurs, with PNS systems largely shutting down. One result of this can be the body ‘blowing the ballast’, that is the dumping of unnecessary bodily substances which are of no benefit in combat – urine and feces, a rather unseemly but wholly natural bodily response to confrontation. This loosening of muscles which would be potentially drawing energy without contributing to the immediate task of survival is associated with the recession of PNS systems as the SNS is in the ascendancy."

Now, the smeared feces that my student had been dealing with daily in his ANA-USA shared toilet was not the result of a loss of homeostasis due to threat, but it did point to the realm of Borborophoba, and it pointed most directly to the underlying cultural void between soldiers like my student and the Afghan Army. As every anthropologist or mythographer knows, shit is the great leveler. It marks a psychic and cultural border. How a culture treats excrement, waste (all of that which it discards) speaks volumes about that culture. And when we are confronted with another culture’s treatment of excrement, we are often pushed to the threshold and outer border of our own most deeply held, highly cherished values.

On the day of my student’s enraged expression of borborophoba, I asked him and his classmates to link his I-can’t-take-their-shit-anymore outrage to that of Alexander and his men when they arrived in Bactra where they discovered dogs roaming the otherwise highly civilized city, dogs feeding upon human bodies. According to the religious practices of the Bactrians, they threw not only their dead to the dogs but also their sick, lame, and invalid elderly-anyone considered social excrement or waste. Alexander and his men observed that the normal, healthy citizens of Bactria went about their daily business even as dogs devoured human bodies in the streets. An upstanding Bactrian merchant might walk past a pack of dogs feasting on a corpse as nonchalantly as a Greek merchant would walk past a fish stand.

Although Alexander and his men had been exceptionally tolerant of the strange cultural and religious practices of the many tribes they’d conquered since defeating Darius at the Battle of Granicus, the use of devouring dogs was one cultural bridge too far for the Macedonian Greeks. They simply could not imagine disposing of the dead in any form other than a tomb or a funeral pyre. Their invention of a Goddess like Borborophoba itself speaks to how ornately and vividly they’d imagined the world after life. Alexander and his men could not imagine anything more barbaric than encouraging dogs to devour the dead. Contrariwise, the Bactrians could not imagine anyone being barbaric enough not to do so with their dead.

The devouring dogs brought Alexander to a classic cultural impasse. And here Alexander drew a strict line. He would no longer tolerate what he viewed as a barbaric practice. He’d arrived at an I-can’t-take-their-shit-anymore point of outrage, and he banned the use of devouring dogs from Bactria. At this historic moment, Alexander’s real epic struggle began, the struggle to civilize Afghanistan. And by civilize we mean simply that he enacted policies that sought to force Afghanistan’s tribes out of the bronze age and into the iron age.

We spent the rest of the class drawing analogies from Alexander’s occupation of Bactra to the current ISAF mission in Afghanistan. That discussion involved our detailing as many incompatible differences between the primary cultural habits of US soldiers and those of the ANA, as well as the cultural habits of Afghans that US soldiers had observed on off-base patrols. We discussed everything from the treatment of excrement to the treatment of women. Many of my female soldier-students could not see any difference between the two as far as Afghan men were concerned. In order for our anthropological discussion to make any difference whatsoever to my students, we had to "keep it real," as they would say. To bite into the marrow, our discussion had to begin with harsh differences, like the handling of shit in latrines, that had evoked an acute emotional response from the soldiers. Only thereafter could we move on to the academic observations made of Afghanis by such notable authors as Thomas Barfield or Maratine van Bijlert or Antonio Giustozzi.

In other words, the professor treated his own students as if they were an alien culture, working from within their value system and emotional matrix, oscillating between their perceptions of an alien culture (Afghans) and that culture’s perceptions of them. I’d assiduously gathered the latter perceptions from many chai-tea conservations with my tent mates, who were Afghan interpreters, Pashtun, Nuristanis, and Pashais.

My pedagogical aim for my students was to encourage cultural intelligence toward Afghans without encouraging any kind of soft-minded, limp-wristed relativism of values (cultural relativity) in which their own commitment to classical military core values such as loyalty, courage, selfless service, integrity, moderation, and justice might be diluted or weakened. On the contrary, my goal was to help them strengthen their commitment to those core values by showing them that they can withstand the outside challenge of culture to which they are wholly alien; they can, so to speak, "take their shit."

Doyle Quiggle taught oratory, rhetoric, and the classics to U.S. soldiers, sailors, airmen, and marines in two different war zones, at Camp Lemonnier (Djibouti, Africa) and at Forward Operating Base Fenty (Jalalabad, Afghanistan). The honor of contributing to the education of war fighters on the battlefield was granted to Quiggle by the U.S. Army through a contract with the University of Maryland, University College. Quiggle received his PhD from Washington University.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at Twitter: @tomricks1

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