By: Scott Kesterson Issue: Transformation Section: Opinion
The Nuance of Our Worlds
In a small village in Afghanistan, a U.S. Army Special Forces unit was working to train a group of locally recruited Afghan men to become members of the newly formed Afghan Local Police. The idea was not foreign to the Afghans. Traditionally, Afghan villages have provided their own security by rallying the village’s fighting-age men in times of danger to protect them from outside threats. The fact that U.S. Army Special Forces were training locally recruited men to fight against insurgent dangers was also not unique. U.S. Special Forces has used locals as a means of fighting unconventional warfare since their inception in the early Vietnam War period. However, on this day the trainers were going to test a new technique to try and enhance their capabilities. Inside of a local building, the Afghan recruits were gathered as one of the Special Forces trainers put a small pocket-size projector on the table. The projector was the size of a digital camera and used the latest in DLP HD projection technology, making it possible to project an image of nearly 70 inches on the wall. The device had portable speakers, and the Afghans were shown a training video done in their local language, acted out by a local soldier from their region who spoke with a familiar narrative style. The effect was profound—providing a visual mechanism to convey the learning objectives with the necessary nuance of the local dialect to an audience that was entirely illiterate.
The demonstration was a culmination of nearly four years of my work in Afghanistan, starting in 2006 through the present day. Over that time I had filled the roles of filmmaker, visual storyteller, visual media trainer, writer, counterinsurgency adviser, and at times a de facto cultural adviser. I have worked in the southern regions of Helmund, Kandahar, Uruzgon and Zabul, in remote regions of the Hindu Kush, in the areas south of Herat and into Ferra, in the north and the Mujadeen and Taiban disputed areas of Kunduz and east to the Pakistan border. My guiding principle was the differences defined by Tribal traditions—nuances that could take a lifetime to master. At the core of these differences, however, is the common thread of storytelling. Rooted in the oral traditions of ancient culture, the stories and the way they are told serve as weaves in a tapestry that form the bonds between the members of the tribe. What I discovered was that within a culture defined by differences—was a common approach. It was a missing key, so to speak, to the greater mystery of an ancient and outwardly divided world.
For the Afghans who watched the image stream from a pocket-size projector, what they saw could almost be considered “magic.” For most that were there, they experienced a first encounter with moving images, leading many to move toward the wall where the projected image was being displayed to try to touch what they were seeing. These actions were a reminder of the power of film and visual imagery. Beyond this event, however, there was a deeper and more central motivation to the approach—to use visual media to bridge cultural difference and develop understanding by using the framework of local narratives to tell stories in ways that were familiar. In other words, how we tell stories shapes our world, and how stories are told to us effects how we perceive the world we live in. The use of film or visual media, therefore, offered a means of engagement that could move beyond the confines of language to foster a broader understanding that was relevant to local culture and values.
Film as a training and information tool is by no means an original idea. It was used to great effect by Sergei Eisenstein in the post-Bolshevik era, and even by Walt Disney as a propaganda tool for the U.S. government during World War II to increase support for the war effort. What has been largely overlooked, however, is how the nuance of a local narrative promotes reception of the visual message. This is arguably an essential detail to any successful advertising campaign; it is also a concept that is often overlooked when a visual story is developed outside of a native culture. The idea of “selling” something, be it ideas or merchandise, with a level of fidelity that embraces local customs and traditions is a concept that is too often viewed as inconsequential within the larger view of strategic interests and organizational objectives. What Afghanistan has taught is that local successes directly influence strategic outcomes—“local-local” takes on a new level of importance.
My background is diverse and perhaps unconventional when viewed from my career today. I grew up working in my father’s custom remodeling business. The experience was formative—watch, learn, apply and adapt. Nothing was predictable, and problems were solved by constantly pushing toward new limits of adaptability. Following my education at Oregon State University with a degree in history, I worked my way up through jobs in sales to a position of national director of marketing. I spent time in Europe, tried to master French, and along the way developed a keen appreciation for the subtle differences that allow us to interpret our world in completely different ways. As was said to me once, “An English speaker sees the word le pain and translates it as bread. A Frenchman sees the word le pain and thinks of a culinary experience that involves wine, cheese and political debate.” Seeking to return to a more tactile work experience, I returned to contracting in early 2000. A year later I was transformed by the events of 9/11. With a lifelong passion for photography, I followed my desire to be witness and part of the events of a two-war world, shut down my business in January 2006, secured an embed with the 41 Brigade Combat Team and embedded as a filmmaker in spring 2006 for a 15-month tour de force of Afghanistan.
In June 2006, I followed a small team of American advisers into the Zabul Province in east Afghanistan along with 30 poorly trained and equipped Afghan Army soldiers. After a week of fighting, ammo supplies were nearly exhausted, resupply was unknown, and three Taliban factions had surrounded the small and very remote firebase we were occupying. The two American advisers and myself shared a dinner together on what we thought was going to be our last night to make a stand—we called it our last supper—and we nicknamed the firebase “the Alamo.” With the sun falling and night setting in, the two American soldiers wrote notes home, I videotaped a message to my parents—all of us saying the same thing—we were doing what we believed in. With Taliban forces massing, and death now an accepted guest at the table, we were saved by the sudden arrival of resupply and reinforcements, scattering the Taliban soldiers to the hills. That week changed our lives forever.
In July 2006, I linked up with the Canadian Princess Patricia’s Light Infantry (PPCLI) from Edmonton, Canada, and their sweep from Kandahar to Helmund Province. I learned the delicacy of international agendas and war, falling in on some of the most intense fighting any of the soldiers had ever seen. The footage that I captured was the first combat footage taken of the Canadian forces since Korea, and quickly became part of the Canadian national debate on the war in Afghanistan and the county’s involvement. From Ottowa to Edmonton, the footage was both reviled and revered. A year later I would be awarded an Emmy for Best Photography, and the power of the visual narrative and its ability to move nations was now part of my personal experience.
January and February 2007 took me north of Kandahar to the Uruzgon province. I teamed up with American advisers and U.S. Army Special Forces. Living in a remote firebase outside of a small town called Oshay, we patrolled miles of the territory on foot, searching for an elusive enemy that found havens among the people, too often hiding in plain sight. It was during this period that the improvised explosive device (IED) took its place as a battle tool of the insurgency. The stories of the National Geographic photography team that had suffered a near total loss a few months earlier from an IED were still fresh. Midway through my two-month stay, I filmed a special forces soldier disarming a pair of anti-tank mines that had been rigged with a cellphone, a remote trigger and a pressure plate with the intention of destroying part of our convoy. As I filmed I asked him if he was concerned that the mines might explode. His answer was what one would expect in a place so far removed and defined by extremes: “A little, but I think my training is enough to get us through.”
The years have passed quickly from my initial experiences in Afghanistan. In 2006, I would never have imagined that I would spend close to four years in that country. As time has passed my reasons for returning have changed as well—it has added purpose and intent to my initial drive of passion and desire. It is a place where the rural, rugged and often savage are somehow tied to sense of freedom and the feeling of being alive. It is a mix of ancient, historical and primal.
Afghanistan more than anything is outwardly too complex and chaotic to make sense of it all, yet it has a strange element of equilibrium that has allowed it to outlast invaders and thousands of years of change. A land that is referred to as a wasteland by some somehow provokes a love affair with its tribal residents that it is worth fighting and dying for. These are the deeper narratives that have ultimately pulled me back, in an attempt to unlock something that seems to add form and reason to what otherwise is too easily passed off as disorder and disarray.
In spring 2011, my interpreter and I dressed in local fashion and drove our Toyota Forerunner north from Kabul to the city of Kunduz. We had been invited by an old Mujahedeen leader to be his guests at a traditional Shura to film the process. The opportunity was significant, allowing me to capture material that would later be used in the development of visual training programs to teach engagement strategies to various military units. We traveled through corrupt Afghan National Police check points, through areas controlled by local roaming bands of thieves and regions known to be Taliban areas of operation. We did so without an umbrella of military assets overseeing our way, but rather in the manner in which Afghans travel every day. We were made honored guests of the old Mujahedeen commander, with private rooms and personal bodyguards. We lived there for a week on the cliff above one of the Taliban strongholds known as Chadara. Near the end of the week, the Shura was held, and under the large tent the mix of local elders, old Mujahedeen and Taliban commanders assembled.
The rhetoric of war was left at the edge of the rugs along with their saddles and shoes, as they sat in a circle, barefoot, to pray and vent their frustrations. It was a glimpse into the burden of traditions and the narrow lines of separation we too often tend to obscure. The traditions of the Shura provided a sacred space for the airing of one’s “dirty laundry” without threat of retaliation while within the circle. The issues that were shared had a common thread—frustrations with a corrupt government that failed to respond to the demands of the people. Finding common ground seemed as easy as a beer, a cigar and the shaking of hands. But this was Afghanistan—where hope for resolution was seemingly distanced by immeasurable space and where the common target of frustration is the basis for the tribal agendas of want and demand. The past was inescapable, and the future anchored by an invisible chain of tradition. Order was found only within the daily chaos of ideological rants.
Afghanistan, like so many ancient cultures, finds its strength in what our Western approach sees as an anchor of traditions. It is a mixed blessing, as tradition provides ritual and a measure of order, yet also enables the burden of inflexibility and the need to keep past issues alive. These are pivotal insights, however. As we work to change a strategic direction, it can only be done with the incremental steps at the most basic of levels. Embracing difference and local uniqueness is the first step to blazing a path toward a future with change. Ancient ways die slowly—we must find the mechanisms to language the differences and highlight the common ground. Afghanistan is a narrative of a larger story of global interconnectivity and change. It is only one of the many emerging markets that are challenged by desire, but held back by traditions whose reason is too often lost to history. Yet change is upon them and is ultimately inevitable, a process that if nurtured can forge bonds and loyalty equal to the stories they themselves tell of old.
Scott Kesterson is a consultant in the areas of visual information, knowledge transfer and engagement strategies for the Department of Defense and the private sector. His film, Bards of War, chronicling his 2006/07 year in Afghanistan is currently in post-production and is scheduled for release on DVD in fall 2012. To contact Scott, visit www.spatialterra.com or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.