Having flown into Uganda for the week, my wife Emily and I were enjoying a quiet, mellow conversation at a local expatriate hangout with some of the women working for an international aid agency. These long-term volunteers, all Americans, had come into the capital from their dispersed assignments around the country and were taking time to relax and spend time together.

Suddenly a large and rowdy group of American men, well-built with closely cropped hair and civilian clothes, descended upon our table. They produced two trays of tequila shots and loudly insisted that we all drink with them.

When several of us demurred, they tried to pressure us and acted as if we had personally snubbed them. They peppered us with personal questions and squeezed themselves in between each of us, dividing our group.

Initially, they evaded telling us directly what they were doing in Kampala: “umm… contracts, yeah contracting”, “he’s a plumber.” However, after we pressed them, they eventually explained that they were U.S. Marines doing a variety of civil construction projects: adding handicap ramps to public buildings, constructing clinics and other similar things.

Their presence in Uganda is part of the strategy of the US military’s new Africa Command (AFRICOM), which was set up by former President Bush to boost America’s presence in and understanding of the African continent. The possibility of instability spreading from places such as Somalia and Sudan has made the U.S. military interested in building its African profile.

A major thrust of AFRICOM’s approach is outreach through civil affairs projects, trying to present a friendly face, win local good will and learn how to interact with civilian aid agencies. The rationale behind this makes some sense, but our encounter in the Kampala bar shows that this strategy also has many potential problems.

The Marines who commandeered our table seemed to have a shocking ignorance of how to interact with civilians and aid workers, even though we were Americans and thus shared some cultural background.
Though their job is supposed to protect Americans, by barging in, moving as a pack and egging us to drink, their presence did not make us feel safe. It made us feel threatened. Every young American woman has had the lecture on date rape drugs. Insisting she drink tequila produced from nowhere does not inspire confidence. Bombarding us with questions disturbed the peace of our quiet low-key conversation.

Eventually, most of the group gave up on us, except for one officer and his “muscle” who stayed behind and engaged us in a more intelligent, open conversation. He was sharp, clearly well-trained and gifted.

But even he displayed a surprising lack of knowledge about even basic political issues in Uganda. For instance, he didn’t know where the Karamoja region was – though this is a scene of ongoing low-level armed conflict and the primary transit point for illicit weapons moving from Sudan into Uganda and much of the rest of East Africa.

I don’t want this article to sound unduly harsh on the military. They are a long way from home, and their training for these sorts of missions is inadequate. They are plucked from a small town in the Midwest and dropped in the middle of East Africa with little cultural preparation. But I feel this is a cause for improving things, not for excuses.

By acting like a herd of rabid bulls in a china shop, the Marines missed a major opportunity to make a positive impression and also learn a thing or two about the local context. The people around the table represented a wealth of information about Uganda and East Africa as a whole, which could have been very useful to their mission.

Humanitarian workers like ourselves are already skeptical of the military’s involvement in aid projects – but instead of being sensitive to this dynamic and presenting their best face, they just confirmed everyone’s fears.

Indeed, many commentators have raised concerns about the military’s civil outreach and aid projects in Africa and elsewhere. The military often wastes considerable amounts of money on constructing buildings that would have been done much more cheaply by a local company. They often lack cultural sensitivity when interacting with local people. And, they often betray a serious lack of the political and economic savvy needed to determine which projects are most needed and where.

One of the biggest criticisms is that these projects dangerously blur the lines between civilian humanitarians and soldiers. For instance, I was disappointed that these particular soldiers were not wearing uniforms. If people figure out that U.S. military are moving around in civilian clothes it puts the rest of us foreigners in danger of being mistakenly attacked. Moreover, their poor behavior reflects badly on the rest of us.

I came away from the encounter with an acute feeling that the superiors of those Marines needed to pay more attention to briefing and training them on how to conduct themselves around civilians.

The whole scene would have been different if one or two of them had sidled over unobtrusively, asked to join us and offered to buy us a drink (rather than foisted one upon us). If they had been open about who they were, asked sensitive questions and shown a genuine interest in learning about the country, our impressions would have been completely different.

AFRICOM’s soldiers must remember that every small action they take in public, even in bar, reflects back on the U.S. government and people. When they are in a foreign country, they must conduct themselves with discipline and restraint at all times and respect civilians, whether foreign or local.