Cultures collide at German-run camp near Mazar-e Sharif
By Joanne Kimberlin
© June 1, 2010
CAMP MARMAL, AFGHANISTAN
Americans are not used to taking orders from another country. That can be a problem in Afghanistan, where 23 nations have divvied up the battlespace, and American troops can find themselves subordinate to a foreign command.
Germans call the shots at Camp Marmal, a base of about 5,000 soldiers outside the city of Mazar-e Sharif, in the northern part of the country. For the roughly 1,000 Americans stationed here, it's one of the few bases in Afghanistan where they are the minority. Instead of English, the sounds of German, Swedish, Norwegian, Turkish, Hungarian, Polish and so on fill the camp.
Not a big deal, except when it comes to the rules - both big and small.
Technically, only America is at "war" in Afghanistan. The rest of the coalition is providing "security assistance" - which means they aren't quite as aggressive about mixing it up with the bad guys.
As one U.S. soldier put it: "Americans want to just go clean their clocks. But the rest of the coalition has to call back home before they can go to the bathroom."
Politics is part of it. For many coalition partners, support is spotty back home, and casualties are enough to tip the scale. Resources are another issue. Countries with small armies and meager budgets simply can't sustain much risk.
Which leaves Americans at Marmal chaffing at the reins, and mumbling about what some call "war by committee."
Individually - soldier to soldier - relations seem friendly enough. Co-workers have earned each other's respect. Knots of soldiers pass each other with nods and the universal greeting of "Hallo."
Language puts a cramp in the socializing. Most tend to stick to their own compounds and dine with their own countrymen.
Cultural habits form other obstacles. Americans barge into an office and get right to the point; Europeans consider it rude to skip the pleasantries. Americans wince at the sight of dozens of soldiers sunbathing in tiny swim trunks; Europeans think it's healthy, and fully indulge.
Fact is, Camp Marmal is a tiny Europe, and the Americans just have to adjust. They've learned not to wear their street shoes into the gym - a big no-no with Europeans. They've gotten used to the German fare at the chow hall. They've accepted the fact that euros are the only way to pay.
It hasn't all been one way. Less than a year ago, when there were hardly any Americans at Marmal, the beer flowed freely. European soldiers could pretty much buy all they wanted.
But as the troop surge slowly added more U.S. uniforms to Marmal, some new rules had to be adopted. American military in a war zone are forbidden to drink alcohol. In a nod to that, the taps were restricted.
The Europeans now chafe at being rationed to two small beers a day.[emphasis added]