21 October 2010

Sometimes being a contractor makes me feel dirty, but all that money will buy a lot of baths

In an effort to remind us that we’re all united for one mission, or something to that effect, Corporate recently hosted a company-wide ‘town hall’ with our CEO. His speech was (appropriately enough, considering we’re coming up on All Hallows’) very much Frankenstein-esque. There was some State of the Company stuff (where we are, where we’re going), passive-aggressive finger-wagging (we just lost a big contract, but it was a loss for all of us! Don’t go blaming certain departments, even if they did drop the ball), and the rah-rah enthusiasm of a good pep rally (we just won a big contract! Okay, so we’re splitting a new contract with three other contractors. Semantics. We’re number one!). Most of all, though, he stressed how critical those in the field are to Corporate, given that we’re how they make all the lovely revenue that keeps him fully kitted out in Hermes.

Credit where credit is due, the CEO knows how to work a room. He is warm, making pithy jokes and teasing those in the audience. Of course, watching half-way across the world and 8.5 hours ahead, over a spotty Skype connection that went out at least every five minutes, some of the personal touch was lost. I was therefore forced to focus on substance alone. Time and again, the CEO managed to undercut his own ‘the field is our first priority’ message. Even having spent most of my working life as a lowly intern, rarely have I felt like such a second-class citizen as during the discussion of Corporate’s annual picnic and fundraiser. Though it was acknowledged that we couldn’t attend, being, as we are, in Afghanistan, we were encouraged to make our presence felt by sending donations. Thanks for thinking of us, guys.

Much of the field-ignorance I expected, like being incapable of naming a single of our 16 hub FOBs outside of Bagram. It was a great bonding moment in the office when the CEO said “those out in Bagram or...” and we all shouted PHOENIX at the monitor. He, however, reached for “Blackhorse”. This was a particularly unfortunate choice, as we just pulled all of our linguists from Blackhorse for ill-treatment and literally have no employees there.

Beyond that, there was some blatant pandering I did not expect. In response to a question from the field, the CEO suggested we will soon be eligible for leave after 90 days boot on the ground, whereas before we had to wait for 180. The squeals of delight drowned out his next few sentences. I was less impressed, my QA mind turning over the implications of this seemingly impromptu promise. Did he check this against other policies already in use? Is Corporate in fact prepared to implement, or was that an empty promise to satisfy the natives for a few months? Will we actually be afforded extra vacation days and travel re-imbursement? It turns out the answers were as follows: no, ish (somehow I was tasked with writing this policy – still not sure how that happened), no, no, no. Swell – a poorly thought-out policy with little positive impact in my life. This speech was really going beautifully.

For me, however, the highlight of the town hall came as a bit of a throw-away line during the business-development portion of the chat. In the midst of enlightening us to the places we, as a company, would go, the sights we would see, and the heights to which we would soar, he noted that the referendum for the independence of South Sudan is imminent. While Corporate hoped for a peaceful passage, it would be ready to act, he added, the anticipatory glee in his voice belying his sanguine words. Wait, I said to myself. Did he really just say that MEP is prepping for civil war in Sudan? I thought I would be sick.

On the subject of inducing nausea, some reports out of a more proximate southern conflict really got to me today, as well. A local linguist came into Kabul this week on vacation, and stopped by the office to beg for re-assignment. Apparently, his unit forced him back out on patrol after having injured his arm in two separate IED attacks. When he asked for medical leave, his Marine supervisor held a gun to his head, telling his there were consequences for abandoning the unit. Ultimately, he was only allowed to leave after he had lost all mobility and feeling in his arm. It now appears that he may never fully recover. Further, he left one of his comrades recovering from emergency appendectomy on a cot in the transient tent.

I appreciate that the linguists are not always the easiest individuals to work with. Some of them are even dangerously incompetent, speaking English so poorly as to put units in danger (the gentleman today was decidedly not in this category). I also understand how many in the military have come to hate Afghans. Being asked to distinguish between the Afghans who support you, want to use you, are indifferent to you, and want to kill you is frequently an unfair burden and frequently a bridge too far. I feel for the troops – I really do. They see the worst of this society. Not just the insurgents, but the destitute in the form of beggars and the corrupt in the form of cops. And they despise them.

Tragically, this ire toward all things Afghan strips the mission of its meaning. More than that, it offers a license to dehumanize each and every citizen of Afghanistan, no matter their relation to the Coalition. One would hope that familiarity should breed not only contempt, but compassion, especially for the linguists. These aren’t just people, but are people who work with the troops. Sleep with them, eat with them. They serve as comrades in arms (close to, at any rate, as linguists are really not supposed to carry firearms). There is no excuse whatsoever for such torturous treatment of a fellow human being. Many linguists hate this country just as much as their units. If they had nothing else in common, they have that.