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A New Game: Spot the Navy SEAL!

(To read all of our “Lone Survivor” posts, please click here.)

In Lone Survivor, Marcus Luttrell (and technically Patrick Robinson) describe the Navy SEAL’s strategy for blending in with the locals in Afghanistan, “Each of us had grown a beard in order to look more like Afghan fighters."

Marcus Luttrell isn’t alone. Many special operators, intelligence spooks and soldiers (American, British and Canadian) deployed to Afghanistan think they can pull off this subtle camouflage technique. By simply growing a beard and wearing a scarf, a clean cut American instantly transforms into an Afghan, indistinguishable in a crowd.

Don’t believe me? To prove the point, we’ve created a game. In the following photos, see if you can pick out the special operators (both Special Forces and SEALs) hidden among the local Afghans:




Okay, you are probably tossing your hands up in the air right now, cursing my name, “Michael, how on earth am I supposed to pick out the special operators in those photos? They all look such like Afghans!”

I know, it’s tough. I mean, a six foot five white guy with gigantic arms and chest, desert patterned BDUs, an American M4 with a high tech scope, brand new American boots, Oakley glasses and body armor who grows a beard and wraps a scarf around his neck looks exactly like an Afghan. Invisible!

In defense of Marcus Luttrell, he didn’t invent this nonsensical form of “blending in”. Most of our special operators, the elite of the elite, believe that growing a beard helps you blend in with the population. It turns out that wearing the local clothes (not cool), learning the local language (really hard), using a foreign weapon (controversial, possibly illegal) or not weight lifting for a few months (heresy!) are the best ways to help an American blend in.

That and recruiting people of ethnic backgrounds. (Take a look at our special operations community to see how well that effort is going.)

So what if special operators grew beards? Even if it didn’t help the war effort, it’s not like it hurt it either. Well, maybe not. I worked with a contractor in Iraq who knew his intelligence shit. He did real good intel. (A bunch of us were watchin The Wire at the time. So The Wire people called each other “real police” as a compliment. He was real intel.)

He spoke Arabic. He had previously been a human intelligence collector with deployments to Afghanistan and Iraq. I asked him jokingly one day if he had grown out his beard to “blend in”. He laughed. He said that he’d asked his contacts (read: local Afghans) what they thought about beards. It turns out in Afghanistan, they don’t expect Americans to wear beards. They also don’t expect most white people to wear beards. In Afghanistan, they believed white people who grew beards were “Jewish”. So to “blend in”, American special operators made themselves look more Jewish to local Afghans.

I don’t know if this is 100% true, or even a widespread belief across Afghanistan, but it really makes you think about growing a beard in Afghanistan, doesn’t it? Do Muslims love Jewish people and Israel? Well, if the special operators of the world don’t know the answer to that...then we are in trouble.

If we lose in Afghanistan--and I now believe we will--the military should look at itself for the reasons why. That includes the “special” people too. Unfortunately, I don’t think the special operators will blame themselves. But I do. I mean, these guys ran around Islamic countries for years looking like this, and honestly believed a beard and a scarf helped them “blend in” when any American (and every Afghan) knew exactly who they were.

So why did they do it? The answer or non-answer to that question is why we lost in Afghanistan.

eigthteen comments

Can you talk about “Kafir” tattoos and the bacon-on-a-pedestal? Or can I talk about “Kafir” tattoos and the bacon-on-a-pedestal?

I understand the point trying to be made, but it comes across too bitter, similar to a disgruntled Selection candidate that wasn’t selected.

Growing a beard isn’t about blending in, it’s about establishing rapport. Yes, there are Special Operators that try to hard to look cool and come across as major tools, but like with anything else, sincerity plays a big role.

I’m a Special Operator and I can’t grow a beard. Did this affect my ability to establish rapport? Overall, no. Some Afghans, Iraqi’s see the beard as a symbol of manhood and maturity. When fellow operators with beards left the Team House to interact with HQ, they would have to shave. When the Afghans saw their smooth faces it left them bewildered, similar to if your girlfriend were to shave her head. The Afghans just couldn’t understand why we would do that, to ignore looking like a man.

Oh did you see this post on the Kafir tattoos? http://carryingthegun.wordpress.com/2012..

Don killed it and we totally agree. (Only semi-related, but kind of exactly the point.)

65 don’t grow beards because they say they’re stupid (generally because they can’t grow a good one)

The rest grow them to find common ground with Afghans. For those guys, it works. Seriously.

Wear their clothes, eat with them every opportunity you can, grow a beard, have a conversation without an interpreter and sure, you don’t blend in, but you’ll be much more accepted than the baby faced captain in multicam. I saw it happen all the time (as in, daily).

And I think the Jewish comment is silly. I doubt most ‘local’ Afghans know what a Jew looks like.

They do know what Nuristani’s look like, though.

@ Aaron – We weren’t going for bitter, more humorous.

My previous try didn’t work very well…so here is a repost.

65 don’t grow beards because they say they’re stupid (generally because they can’t grow a good one)

The rest grow them to find common ground with Afghans. For those guys, it works. Seriously.

Wear their clothes, eat with them every opportunity you can, grow a beard, have a conversation without an interpreter and sure, you don’t blend in, but you’ll be much more accepted than the baby faced captain in multicam. I saw it happen all the time (as in, daily).

And I think the Jewish comment is silly. I doubt most ‘local’ Afghans know what a Jew looks like.

They do know what Nuristani’s look like, though.

As an operator just back, we didn’t grow beards because we thought we were high speed ninjas indistinguishable to the naked Afghan eye. Rolling out in giant armored vehicles pretty much guaranteed everyone in the district knew we were about, bearded or bald.

We wore them because they were an opportunity for us to demonstrate similarities between us personally and to make us less foreign. We weren’t fluent, but we tried to learn phrases, and everyone knew the basics. We never grew to like goat and rice, but we ate when them when we could. We hosted Afghan New Years and Eid celebrations, and we did our best to follow local customs for the events. We maintained our own security roster at night, but tried to sleep with them on patrol. And for what it’s worth, we never had an attempt at a green-on-blue.

Do I think the beards saved our lives? No. But I do think them emblematic of us making ourselves less alien to our partner forces and thus relatable. We didn’t have a big base with guard towers and checkpoints to cover us when an armed local didn’t like us. One of our best defenses against getting shot in the night was by making ourselves as minimally problematic as possible.

I get the satire angle, and I’ll be the first to admit when the SOF emperor isn’t wearing any clothing. But before we scream “Naked!!!”, let’s assume that after 10 years of being in country, SOF operators aren’t complete idiots. That there might be more current thinking on why we still wear beards than a book written about an event almost 8 years old.

Just a note, put we’re probably going to run a follow up post to this rebutting some of the points made in the comments section next month. Fair to say, I think we have a much more serious take that disagrees pretty heavily with the comments so far.

On the topic of ‛the look,’ I especially enjoyed the WP piece the quote below is taken from because I have been to that pizza place and can totally see a guy “inconspicuously” seated there who doesn’t realize that a rigger’s belt is not plainclothes.

I realize that wearing a beard might aid one-on-one relationship building, but haven’t all of the night raids lead to bearded Americans being viewed with some suspicion by the Afghan population at large?

– Discretion is not always strictly observed. In interviews last month, residents of Ouagadougou said American service members and contractors stand out, even in plainclothes, and are appreciated for the steady business they bring to bars and a pizzeria in the city center. –


I have to say that the initial pictures and couple paragraphs are funny. I even chuckled. After the chuckle, I started to read bitterness.

Apologize now for the obligatory need to show a base of knowledge that follows. I am currently on my fourth combat deployment to Afghanistan and have had a handful of other non-combat tours to other countries spanning the globe.

Having supported the infantry and seen the bitterness of the holy beards, I understand the misunderstanding and bitterness. The hate and envy that me and my brethren received for something that would make most women in the states run was astounding. I also noticed your background as an intelligence analyst. Another group that puts the beard in such a high standing. I apologize to all infantry and intel that don’t get the opportunity to grow the illusive facial hair that seems to be put on such a high pedestal. Sorry.

With that said, I understand for a reporter or an individual who hasn’t been around grown men in Afghanistan to not understand the cultural significance of a facial hair. But I fail to see how one that has experience in this fractured country can be serious when it comes to this topic.

Beards are to build immediate rapport with individuals. In their culture, the ability to grow a full beard is paramount to be considered a man. I have never met an elder in any remote village that was clean shaven. Although I have seen men accused by the Taliban of being pro-coalition forces have their beard cutoff to look more like us. If you have dealt with any militia/security force/government leaders and seen their chai boys. None of these boys have facial hair. Once you become a chai boy, you more than likely won’t amount to much in your life. So in a culture in which you aren’t a real man until you have a beard and are looked down upon if you have a baby face, why would you want to be clean shaven?

When discussing first impressions, as Americans we have a wide variety of subjective criteria we value i.e., looks, cleanliness, clothes, and other visible items that may show a higher class of echelon of money or person. This obviously varies in the States but in Afghanistan, especially Pashtun culture, the beard is the first thing that is observed and judged; that display of maturity and possible wisdom. Case in point, an Afghan man comes to the United States and wants to sell goods door to door. If he kept his long scraggly beard that is for the most part unkempt, except the neatly trimmed area above the lips, he would be at a disadvantage to an Afghan that shaved his beard and became more western. Unless we are in Amish country or maybe parts of Oregon. That first impression is crucial.

I have observed an hatred on the topic of facial hair issue every time the subject is broached with military decision makers, especially flag officers who we can agree are usually detached from reality. I have seen various military forced to shave and get mocked by Afghans. We ask 20-25 year old kids to do some jobs where they must be respected by locals. The respect that is lost or gained from such a small thing is immense but taken away by a quick decision and large amounts of ignorance.

But ignorance is on both sides of the fence. Marcus Luttrell and many others do not fully understand why a beard is necessary in Afghanistan. For the most part, blending in is futile. In many cases, I have also seen those previously envious soldiers, be it infantry or any other job, gain the ability to grow one and grow one for the wrong reasons. I do understand your point with the pictures. Seeing a guy that looks like a catfish, a major league relief pitcher because of a goatee, or trims it in a stylish fashion that looks like he should be patrolling for women in Kabul, Bagram, or Qandahar instead of patrolling within the Arghandab, Korengal, or Tangi valleys is hilarious and unfortunate at the same time. Furthermore, having a beard in Iraq, where mustaches are prevalent, is not as necessary as say, living in a small village in Sangin, Helmund.

Also, I don’t know if most “real intel” people are competent at understanding different facets of their job or even various cultures, but your real intel friend was either messing with you or a moron. The only Afghans that I can think of that would even know what a strictly religious Jew remotely looks like would mainly live in Kabul and only because of their access to television. I would venture to say 99 percent of Afghans wouldn’t have a clue. I chuckle when I picture an Afghan blogging that Afghans shouldn’t shave when working in the United States, and then quoting a “real salesman” that when an Afghan shaves they will think you look like a Ramakrishna. How many Americans do you think know what a Ramakrishna looks like.

I get the joke. Now in all seriousness, if you had been living in a village that you were helping to build, sleeping in that same village with locals that you were helping to train, all while asking these villagers to fight off thugs and insurgent militia that they once were scared, would you want a beard so you could gain automatic respect? I understand the answer might be no if instead you lived on a COP or FOB surrounded by HESCOs with no local nationals except maybe some ANA or ANP living adjacent, which a small amount shave to conform to your values and possibly gain your respect.

I see that it is a debatable issue but not one where a blanket statement needs to be made like many unaware individuals make. Funny how most of the people who are privy to the communities that allow beards don’t make those statements and don’t fully understand it.

@Chris- I don’t doubt anyone’s reputation who comes on the blog if they say there were SF. I do hate people counting deployments (on my fourth deployment) when deployment lengths very so much. For instance, who has deployed more, the infantryman with 3 or the spec ops with 5? Well, if they were 5 6 month deployments, I would argue it was the infantryman. The Marine Corps does shortened deployments as well. So yeah, counting deployments is one of the strangest/biased metrics the media has developed.

Now let me get one thing out of the way…and we have a longer rebuttal post coming. I firmly believe every US Soldier in Afghanistan should grow a beard. But what separates me from Special operators—and intel people who I called out as well—is that we shouldn’t stop there. We should also wear local clothes. For all the arguments about wearing beads, neither of the special forces soldiers has actually made the argument for why they refused to wear local clothes or Afghan Army uniforms. Explain why beards were cool but local clothes weren’t, then I will understand your argument. Explain why so few special forces speak pashtun even after repeated deployments. Explain why SF doesn’t use AK-47s instead of M-4s.

Let me address the bitterness comment: I’m sorry if this post comes out as bitter…we’re just trying to point out an incongruity. We’re not anti-beard/pro-grooming standards proponents. We wrote a whole post on how shining shoes is a waste of time.


On that incongruity, I just can’t get past it. Take a look at the second photo. Did that guy grow a beard because it helps him to look more normal to the people he’s working with? Maybe. Then why is he wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses? It takes away every benefit the beard achieved.

If beards work for SF, won’t they work for the whole army?

Or do people just like growing beards?

In my time in Afgh I noticed a difference in the beards of the SOF guys and the locals. SOF beards tended to be scruffy. Locals were well kept. I always wondered about that.

Having been in a very conventional unit, but with the luxury of being a couple of hundred klicks from BG (Bn ) HQ, we found that we developed a pretty good rapport with the local ANA, ANP and civilians simply by eating with them, planning with them, operating with them etc – all without facial hair. Even without beards we managed success, even if it was very local, very tactical, and probably only temporary. In fact, my biggest challenge when dealing with locals wasn’t my clean shaven features. It was being soaked in sweat from wearing forty pounds of armour and weapons. I had to pack “meeting clothes” so I could be clean when meeting with village/tribal/district/ANSF leaders all decked out in their spotless shalwar kamiz.

But back to beards – my take is that they’re an affectation. I’ve never heard the Jewish angle, and I’m skeptical about it. But I found that locals were more interested in how we acted than anything else.

The second last paragraph in your post is the most important. We have done very badly in Afghanistan and “special” components of the military have contributed as much to that “badly” as any of the other components. We should recognize that. If we don’t, we are in danger continuing our love affair with image at expense of effectiveness. That love affair isn’t showing signs of cooling, the night raids continue. We can get away with stuff like that in a proxy war against the Pak Army/ISI. We won’t get away with it against the PLA.

That second photo from the top is an interesting one. The guy seems in love with himself and I suspect everybody who worked with him recognized the clown component of his personality (See my guns? Huh? See ‘em, see ‘em?). But I wonder if most people in the US, especially politicians, see the silliness. That is the kind of Hollywood image that sells. That type of exaggerated affectation may actually help in the budget battles.

As far as beards go, F. is right, it is how you act that counts with the people you work with. Those people are pretty smart too and they understand things like uniform regs. They also understand when you try just a little harder to be polite too, like F. with his “meeting clothes”. It should be left to the men on the spot to decide while realizing that some might use beards as part of their makeup.

The Army of the Cumberland, The Army of the Tennessee, The Army of Northern Virginia etc all did pretty good and they were quite a hairy bunch so beards are really neither here nor there. And I am sure that citing historical precedent will have no effect at all on the matter.

@ Carl – Quoting “ But I wonder if most people in the US, especially politicians, see the silliness.” That picture, to me, is the most telling.

Regarding my post above. I have worked with local people overseas but never in Iraq or Afghanistan. My sentence construction might be construed as if I had. I don’t want to be unclear.

Ridiculous… There is a lot more to discuss than beards when discussing the war. I am growing tired of jealous people that didn’t make the cut or have the intestinal fortitude to join special operations. I’m just as disgusted at the great multitude of men that try to perpetrate that they are operators, usually by growing out their hair or modifying the uniform. Let me break this down for you folks that don’t know… If you are not a soldier with an 18 series MOS or a SEAL working on a team then you are NOT an operator, your NOT special forces, I don’t care what group you support or are attached. These punks are the guys that you see with the majority of the beards and oakleys. Real operators will wear whatever they need to accomplish the mission and some of them wear beards because they want to wear one. Grooming standards are not high on the list of priorities. Quit giving the community a black eye and start worrying about legitimate issues like the direction our country is heading and a defense budget that will completely sideline special operations in the future.

Its not a big deal. In America people with small dicks drive either big trucks or really fast cars to make up for low self esteem. In the middle east(which is a really stupid name for the area if one knows anything of the history of the cradle of civilization)growing a big beard is a way to make up for low confidence. A bad ass usually is lacking some were in the emotion department. The SF grow them to get in with the bad MF in the jail cell for protection. Dont get me wrong. SF is tough. But based off of what I have read it doesnt matter how tough you are if your all alone in a place were every one wants to kill you.