A Punch in the Nose

Wednesday, December 5th, 2012

In Afghan villages, noises that are soft to us are loud for farmers, Michael Yon says, and smells that we will not notice — such as laundry soap — are a punch in the nose for villagers.

Some of our guys call Afghans “stinkies,” and Afghans say similar things about us.

Their smell is feral. Ours is a corporate fireworks of soaps, skin products, insect repellants, weapon lubricants, and the foods that we eat. Our smell is strong. Hunters wash their clothes several times without soap, and sun-dry them to avoid odors. Some of our Special Forces did this during the Vietnam war, but today nobody seems to pay attention to the powerful odor trails that we leave.

In Afghanistan, military laundry is done corporately on the bases.  The troops hand in their laundry bags to workers from the Philippines, from Nepal or from Africa, and they wash it and dry it, including dryer sheets.  These workers all smell different.  In Thailand, the Thai say that many foreigners stink, and they can actually smell us.  (The Thai usually only tell you this if you are a good friend, and if the subject comes up.)

After you have been away from soldiers, and “normal” smells (for us), the collective odor of soldiers is striking.  It is important to keep in mind that you will often not be tracking just one quarry, but many, and the same applies for the enemy.  The smallest elements that we use will consist of two soldiers, but normally it will be at least a dozen.  So if you can track one soldier, imagine how easy it can be to track ten or twenty men. Their collective smell can be significant, and in some environments it will linger.  I can often smell an Arab, for example. Many of them use sandalwood, which is easy to smell.

Soldiers who dip snuff tobacco leave scent trails and spit trails, while smokers are an olfactory signal flare.  Smokers might as well walk and toss stink bombs.  Only one soldier needs to be detected to compromise a unit.  (Speaking of which, our confounded press machine no longer allows embedded writers to wear camouflage when out with combat units. During my last embed, I ignored this rule.  Who thinks up stuff like this?  Nobody with combat experience would come up with that nonsense.)

Deep inside, we are all hunters and trackers.  It is no exaggeration that a unit can be smelled from hundreds of meters away, even when you can see or hear no other trace.  People who live in the bush say that they can smell others from miles away, depending on variables such as weather and terrain.  Your nose will work better on a dark night.  I am not a psychologist, so will not venture to speculate why.  From the standpoint of physics, scents settle on a cool night.

One time in India, I was walking in the jungle searching for cannibals and I smelled elephants.  I thought that they were close, but I was near a stream, so it is possible that their scent was flowing down the stream.  Smells can flow like water, and so cool parts of the jungle can be good places to pick up scent trails.

Dog handlers learn these things, so they are great resources. Handlers do not like to work their dogs on hot days when smells float upwards, and the puppy gets tired and goes to sleep.  I was on a mission during a hot day in Afghanistan and a dog walked right by a bomb.  An EOD specialist spotted it after the dog missed it.  This happens a lot.  If there is a choice between ten trained dogs or one EOD specialist, I would take the EOD sergeant.  Dogs are fantastic at times, but only a nut would choose a dog over a trained EOD expert for spotting bombs.

(Note: One way to lose a dog team is to physically wear out the handler and the dog.  Go fast and far and they get worn out and stop. Or ambush the team and shoot the handler. Do not waste ammo on the dog. Without the handler, the dog is useless.  After one British handler was killed in Afghanistan for example, his dog died, apparently of a broken heart.  It is not you against the dog, but you against the handler.  The dog is his sensor pod.)

When I have been away from women for extended periods, the first whiff of a female crackles the senses.  It hits like a wave.  It is more than a smell.  You smell a stinky man, but you sense a woman.  Her presence ripples through the skin. You look around, and there she is.

Not to digress, but this creates issues downrange where men can go months without seeing a woman, and a lot of these men are in their twenties and they see females forms when looking at trees.  There is no doubt that if I have not seen a woman in a couple of months, I can sense her presence in a jungle.  But on a day-to-day basis, where you might encounter hundreds of women, this sense is dulled.

In some areas of the world, villagers can smell snakes, or detect their presence by the cries of birds.   One of my Collie dogs in Florida was a snake detector.  She had a special bark for “Snake! Snake! Snake!”  My grandfather grew up as a swamp boy in southern Georgia.  He could smell rattlers, and he was a terrible driver.

Floridians often know when a cat or a serpent is slipping by, from the sound made by a squawking Blue Jay.  When my Collie heard the Blue Jay’s warning, she would run to see.  When there was a snake, she would bark for me to come.  So the Blue Jay (who may have been tipped by some other creature) would scream a warning, then my dog would run to confirm, and she only barked for me when there really was a snake.  All of this happened in ten seconds.  Bio-web.

Some birds, such as Honeyguides, make a living by guiding people to honey.  The bio-webs are thick with interwoven triggers. This is all part of tracking.

Who has the sensor advantage in Afghanistan?  Circumstance is key, but on the whole, for mature wars such as Afghanistan, the sensor advantage belongs to local villagers and their bio-web, which includes clusters of villages.

We use watches to tell time.  They use calendars.  They have watched us for more than ten years.  We send young soldiers to Afghanistan who have hardly traveled beyond their home county just a year before.  Some of our young soldiers might have six months of training. The enemy has a dozen years of war experience.


  1. Slovenian Guest says:

    The Korean War battlefield [was] quite often permeated by the overwhelming smell of garlic, [which was] eaten by Chinese troops in enormous quantities during the winter time as a prophylactic antidote for the common cold.

    And that pervasive smell of garlic [was] detected by American troops at [a] distance. Even before visible contact [was] made the American infantry man [was] aware of and alert to the presence of Chinese troops.

    From militaryanalysis, the de facto sister site to Isegoria!

  2. Grasspunk says:

    When I was in the reserves in Australia (80s) we were taught that in Vietnam the VC could smell the Americans’ toothpaste. No idea if it was true, but it was what they taught us.

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