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Ultimate Weapon: Knowing a War Zone’s Culture

• November 04, 2011 • 5:47 PM

The U.S. military is paying more attention to the culture of the places where it fights, putting a new weapon in its arsenal, according to both soldiers and academics.

When U.S. soldiers first went into Afghanistan and Iraq a decade ago, the military gave little thought to how an understanding of regional language, values, and norms could ease the interaction between troops and the locals they encountered.

“There was this early period there when we invaded Iraq, in particular, where we just thought that this was a military endeavor,” said Rochelle Davis, an assistant professor of anthropology at Georgetown University and a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center. “If you go back and look at how we talked about it and the things we did, culture just wasn’t even considered.”

The military’s attitude has changed considerably since then, as culture and language training have shifted from the purview of a few specialists to a central tool in any service member’s arsenal. Maj. Gen. David Hogg, head of the Adviser Forces in Afghanistan, has even suggested the military more broadly think of “culture as a weapon system.”

A new report from the Government Accountability Office suggests that the Army and Marines still need to do a better job of tracking and assessing exactly who receives cultural training, assigning them where their training will be most useful, and following up so their newly acquired language skills don’t go stale. Nonetheless, the military is doing a much better job today, Davis says, than it did 10 years ago in applying insights from anthropology (without, that is, the problematic pursuit of bringing anthropologists on board in battle zones).

The military’s evolving approach to culture may be one of the legacies of the post-Sept. 11 era. After the early days in Iraq and Afghanistan, the Army and Marine Corps established cultural training centers in 2005, the Air Force in 2006, and the Navy in 2007. Some of the signposts since then: The GAO report found that the military had spent about $12 million sending 800 soldiers through 16 weeks of Afghan language training between 2010 and the summer of 2011. Hundreds of thousands of other troops who’ve cycled through those war zones have been given “smart cards” detailing topics like the five pillars of Islam, local religious celebrations, and cultural customs.

“When General Hogg says we need to think of culture as a weapon system, that’s in some ways appealing to people who say, ‘Culture is touchy-feely; we want to be able to accomplish the mission with guns and might,’” Davis said. “He’s trying to say, ‘No, we need to think of culture as another weapon system just as guns and other things are – it can be part of us winning these wars.’”

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Davis, whose area of expertise focuses on the Arab world, has conducted interviews with soldiers who’ve returned from Iraq about their cultural training and interaction with locals.

“When I ask a lot about their interactions with Iraqis, they basically talk about ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys,’ they don’t really talk so much about ‘Iraqis,’” she said. “They don’t say ‘al-Qaeda,’ or ‘Saddam Hussein’s cronies.’ They say ‘good guys’ and ‘bad guys,’ because the bad guys have shifted over time.”

And the same thing has happened in Afghanistan. Davis suspects that the confusion soldiers feel in this shifting landscape underscores the importance to the military of cultural knowledge. When enemies aren’t readily identifiable, cultural clues can help in navigating local communities.

Still, the military hasn’t exactly produced the material that a team of regionally expert Ph.D.s might come up with. Davis says the Iraq smart cards offer some useful information (as well as striking parallels to the advice the military gave soldiers posted to Iraq during World War II). But other information, she says, has been factually inaccurate or potentially harmful.

One panel on the Iraq smart card, for example, explains the long-running conflict between the country’s sectarian groups.

“It’s all about who hates who, who is oppressed by who, who fights who,” Davis said. “When you’ve read that, the takeaway is that these people will never get along, they’ll always hate each other.”

And this is probably a counterproductive bias for soldiers who’ve been asked to help build a unified Iraqi democracy. The newer smart cards for Afghanistan don’t repeat this mistake, Davis said, and she points to that example as one of the ways in which the military has grown more sophisticated not just in its understanding of cultural differences, but of the concept of culture itself.

“To codify it in these kinds of ways — Afghans are this way, Iraqis are this way, Kurds are this way — and to say ‘this is how you should behave,’ as if it’s a military system,” Davis said, “completely divorces culture form the dynamism that is culture.”

Military researchers, however, have begun to suggest that soldiers need to learn “cross-cultural competence” skills that can be applied in any setting, rather than specific cultural trivia about individual communities that can fit on a flip card and grow outdated with time. This, too, represents an evolution in thinking from an institution that not long ago thought little about this topic.

Davis accepts that there will be some missteps along the way. She often presents images of the Iraqi smart cards to audiences deeply familiar with the local culture. One panel, explaining the significance of different-colored headdresses, doesn’t quite get things right. “I can make people laugh,” Davis said, “just by showing them that card.”

But, she adds, “I would rather they at least try. Nobody’s going to do anything perfect the first time.”

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Emily Badger
Emily Badger is a freelance writer living in the Washington, D.C. area who has contributed to The New York Times, International Herald Tribune and The Christian Science Monitor. She previously covered college sports for the Orlando Sentinel and lived and reported in France.

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