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It Was in Another Lifetime

A Letter for Afghanistan

By Gregg Davis ’80


Gregg Davis has spent 16 years in the Naval Reserve and currently serves as a a senior analyst and cultural adviser in the Afghanistan-Pakistan Hands Program. He has been deployed to the Middle East three times—most recently to Helmand Province in Afghanistan.

It’s been a long time since I sat with some of you waiting to receive our diplomas in the Scott Amphitheater—a lifetime ago, you might say.

Parts of that day are clear as I look back: the ping-pong balls we handed to President Dorie Friend, the raucous trumpets when Peter Schickele ’57 received his honorary degree and sang his address. Other things fade, but never the lessons of thought, consideration, and value that I honed through so many experiences shared with so many of you. Shared too with some who are no longer with us—Judy, Fred, Drew, and too many others. You are sorely missed.

So here I am three decades later in a role I couldn’t have imagined during those days we shared so long ago. Somehow, being in Afghanistan in 2011 makes Swarthmore sense in a James Michener kind of way, although it’s perhaps far stranger for some of you to see that I am here in uniform. Yes, the military. I’ve spent 16 years in the Navy Reserve, a chief petty officer; I was at the Pentagon on September 11. Since then, I’ve been part of three mobilizations, with two years in Bahrain and—by the time this is published—a year in Afghanistan. Yes, a far cry from the person you may remember from that lifetime ago.

What am I doing here? In April 2010, I was accepted into the Afghanistan-Pakistan Hands Program—AfPak Hands for short, known also as Afghan Hands here in Afghanistan. The idea is to train a cadre of experts on this region who can then advise the Department of Defense and other branches of government. Before deploying here, we were given extensive language training in addition to cultural and counterinsurgency training. I work as a senior analyst and cultural adviser for the Stability Operations Information Center, part of Regional Command Southwest (RC-SW) at Camp Leatherneck.

At RC-SW, we are concerned with just two provinces—Helmand and Nimroz. Although Afghanistan has many spectacular mountains, here at Camp Leatherneck we have desert—and when the dust clears, occasional views of craggy hills reminiscent of the Mojave.

I divide my time between work on base and trips to Nimroz, where my Dari (such as it is) is much more useful. I find that the small amount of the language that I speak opens communication much more than my basic Dari conversational skills should logically accomplish. I’ve seen this before; it seems to be a common reaction to someone’s making an honest effort to understand something about another culture.

Of course, language is just a beginning—a fact lost on many in the AfPak Hands program, unfortunately. Many of our problems in this war come—as Mike Scheuer, former CIA Al Qaeda analyst, and author of Imperial Hubris and Through Our Enemies’ Eyes commented early on—from a failure to study and understand the fundamentals of Afghan culture. Many foreigners coming here believe that the statement “Afghanistan is a Muslim country” explains everything they need to know—which might be closer to the truth if they understood Islam in the first place.

However, to most Americans, all Islam and all Muslims are the same. They fail to understand that Islam has three major divisions—Sunni, Shia, and Sufi—and there’s a great deal of debate about what Sufism is. There are many subsects within those divisions. Indonesia, Turkey, Iraq, Tunisia, and Mali are all Muslim nations—and that means something different in each one.

The Afghans I have met (and this has held true for all the major ethnic groups—Tajiks, Pashtuns, Hazaras, and Baluch) interact differently from our norm. First, there is the value attached to “small talk,” which is really quite common outside our American culture. Beyond that is a subtle way of discussing, where disagreement is not voiced as such and correction is offered in analogy and story. Expressions of belief are neither direct nor straightforward, but at the same time, beliefs are firmly rooted and deeply held.

It’s all very confounding to our Western way of conversing, and especially our intellectual traditions. It’s almost as if our Western tradition is a boxing match where discussants are seeking to knock out the opposing argument. In stark contrast, the Afghan sees the disagreements as a dance—with differences to be harmonized so that the two (or more) can move where they want together. It’s very Sufi, an influence I see everywhere, and seems as natural as breathing for the Afghans.

Afghans also believe that they know far more about being Muslim than anyone else. Boston University anthropologist Thomas Barfield says in his history of Afghanistan:

FEW PEOPLES IN THE WORLD, particularly the Islamic world, have maintained such a strong and unproblematic sense of themselves, their culture, and their superiority as the Afghans. In abstract terms all foreigners, especially non-Muslims, are viewed as inferior to Afghans.

Although the great powers might have been militarily, technologically, and economically stronger, because they were nonbelievers, or infidels, their values and way of life were naturally suspect.


The desolate desert landscape that surrounds his base is seen from the loading ramp of a Marine V-22 Osprey. Davis is scheduled to end his current tour this month.

Afghanistan’s Muslim neighbors, however, fared only slightly better in (Sunni) Afghan eyes. The Uzbeks must have been asleep to allow the Russians to occupy Central Asia for over a century; Pakistan is a suspect land of recent Muslim converts from Hinduism (Pashtuns and Baluch excepted) that should never have become a nation; and Iran is a nest of Shiite heretics who speak Persian with a ludicrous accent.

Convinced they are natural-born Muslims, Afghans cede precedence to no one in matters of religion. They refused to take doctrinal advice from foreign Salafis, who claimed they had a superior vision of Islam, coming as they did from Islam’s Arabian heartland. Instead, even under the Taliban, Afghans continued to bedeck graves commemorating martyrs with poles and flags, made pilgrimages to the shrines of saints reputed to cure illnesses or help women conceive, and placed magical charms on their children and valuable domestic animals to ward off the evil eye.

Afghans responded to any criticism of these practices by arguing that since there are no purer or stronger believers in Islam than themselves, their customs must be consistent with Islam. Otherwise they would not practice them. Islamic Sufi orders (Naqshbandiya and Chisti particularly) are also well established in the country and give a mystic turn to what sometimes appears to be an austere faith.

I AM LEARNING MORE ABOUT THIS COUNTRY, its people, and myself every day that I am here. Being away from friends and family for a year at a time is difficult—more than I could possibly describe. But the friends one makes on deployments are deep—in many ways like some of the friendships forged so long ago along the banks of Crum Creek. As at Swarthmore, intensity, sleep deprivation, and being far from home combine for an experience that produces relationships that may not be a constant part of your life, but revive instantly on contact.

Humor is part of it for us as well, but the humor is dark and, in any other circumstance, I would call it sick. Here, especially for doctors treating trauma, the horrific becomes commonplace. One can either make bizarre jokes or go completely (and dangerously) insane. Think of it like M*A*S*H*, but without the whisky still or so much wild behavior.

We too joke about body parts—but not medical jokes. Instead our jokes are about subjects so grim I really can’t explain them without making us sound like ghouls. A (mild and inadequate) explanation comes from the way that suicide bombers end up, quite literally, all over the landscape—frequently only their heads are intact. People make comments like, “Let’s give failed suicide bombers a hand.” See what I mean? Reading about the grotesque things humans inflict on each other changes you. Counterintuitively, we use the grim humor to keep ourselves from becoming ghouls.

It really does seem that Robert Hunter said it best: “What a long strange trip it’s been.”

Since graduating, Gregg Davis has worked in bookstores, banks, and as a high school social studies teacher. In 1995, he joined the Naval Reserves as a way to give back to the country he loves and that has given him so much. “Once I was in the intelligence program, I realized I had found my niche,” Davis says.

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