In Jeb Boone’s Vice News article, The CIA’s Bro Culture Is Doing Yemen No Favors Jeb provides a sort of humorous critique of the US Intelligence & Defense Community’s “bro culture”. To begin with, I actually thought the article was pretty-damned entertaining and I laughed a good bit and subsequently shared it with a few associates in this small community that I have been a member of for nearly 15 years. I also particularly found it a fun read as it is about Yemen, where I recently spent several month living on an academic sabbatical (unrelated to my work) when I had left Afghanistan after nearly two years working and fled to Yemen to improve my Arabic.
I carried a knife with me everywhere I went in Yemen. When I got haircuts (which was often 2-3 times a month), I always kept one hand on my knife. Getting haircuts in unstable countries is one of the moments where you find yourself particularly vulnerable. Leaving out the notion that if the barber is using a straight razor (which is enough to keep you on your toes) you are in a small room with easy access to the street, sitting, with a sheet over you, often with your eyes closed but for sure not facing the street entrance. This is the worst kind of tactical situation you can find yourself in.
One American friend of mine in Yemen when getting his first haircut in Yemen asked me to come with him because he was so nervous. I was not able to, however I did stop in and check on him to reassure him. I also informed him that it is not in the barber’s best interest to conduct or accept an act of violence to a foreigner in their shop. He felt better. I think.
Back to the point. The critique is that people of my business, are basically cliché as shit in their method of dress and that it does more harm than good when trying to protect yourself. I pondered this extensively when I showed up to Yemen. Having worked in Afghanistan my entire wardrobe consisted of that described by Jeb. To be more specific it is Merrill shoes. 5.11 pants (this has changed over the years to include a few other brands), a beard, button up shirts from 5.11 or Exofficio or Columbia or any of the myriad assortment of brands available. In addition, the Oakley glasses.
Let me school you in this topic a little further. When operating in environments that may be prone to violence, heat and harsh weather you must select your wardrobe carefully. The pants, shoes and shirt brands do not matter. You want stuff that is moisture-wicking, dry-weave, wrinkle-free, many pockets, a lot of venting, UV blocking, insect repellant covered and very durable (often times also flame resistant). Footwear is similar: comfortable, protective, durable, moisture-wicking yet water repellant and great traction. Eyewear (or EyePro [eye protection as we call it]) is about staying on your head in times of rapid three-dimensional movement, comfortable to wear for 12-18 hours at a time, full-cover (unlike traditional RayBan like glasses that let dust and sun in from the sides) and most importantly: Ballistic. You want EyePro that will protect you from flying debris, particularly shrapnel. This leaves about a dozen key brands that make ballistic glasses with Military Specifications. For the record, only SEALS and douches wear Oakleys. I prefer Revision and WilleyX Roamer II.
So, this is why we wear this stuff. Whether to wear it in Yemen where you are not in an open conflict zone is left open to interpretation. My civilian friends in Yemen laughed about my apparel all the time and so did I. I like jokes. I was not sure if sporting my usual outfit was the wiser decision over investing in a Thobe, Shawl, Jambiya and sandals. I looked at the decision as purely tactical and functional. First I looked at the threat: Kidnapping. Most of the foreigners who were kidnapped – from what I read and analyzed myself (and keep in mind Luke Somers was taken about a month after I arrived) – were surveyed for a while and specifically targeted. Based off this analysis, if you are kidnapped as a foreigner in Yemen it is not because you were walking down the street and “looked American”. It is because you were watched and identified as a target for some time.
So if sticking out does not facilitate the threat towards you then you should make your decision based off what apparel is best to have to resist the attack, i.e. tactical functionality. Compare how well you can run and fight in a thobe or even the highly comfortable man-skirt versus tactical pants. I own all three personally, but when I was walking the streets of Sana’a I preferred to have mobility over appearing as if I was “respecting the culture” by wearing clothes that were not ever in my culture. The love of wearing local garb when living abroad is commendable, but not when it becomes done so in a non-pragmatic way in order to exhibit some kind of “I am more Yemeni than you” it is highly pretentious.
As for the beards, we just think we look cool with them – in Yemen, Afghanistan or DC.