Saturday, February 20, 2010

When your mom told you it didn't matter what others think about you, she was wrong.

I have had this thought on several occasions in reaction to the plethora of bad news streaming our way regarding both current US offensives. However, The Defense of Jisr Al-Doreaa has really driven this opinion home. Why is it that our soldiers are not getting any kind of cultural training prior to deployment? In this I am not implying that we have to send sensitive multi-lingual soldiers into combat as this would require not only a strategic change in military training but also a change at the very core of the American education system—and that is a battle which will far outlast any military engagement in which this country could find itself. We should, however, give our soldiers the basic knowledge needed to avoid cultural faux pas which will inevitably acquire them more enemies.

I propose the incorporation of cultural sensitivity and language training into any pre-deployment program, especially given the COIN doctrine. If a soldier will interact with the locals of their “host country” (which means all infantry given COIN), the lesson that the left hand is considered impure should be as standard as weapons instruction. There has been some element of this in past US military endeavors, most recently for those who served in Bosnia. For whatever reason, this “customs and language” aspect of pre-deployment training is absent from the repertoire of most serving in Iraq and Afghanistan. I have come across documentation displaying some remnant of this idea implemented in certain divisions by a select leadership, but nothing system wide.

If the situations described through dreams in The Defense of Jisr Al-Doreaa are any kind of accurate representation of the real issues experienced by troops combating insurgency, a very basic understanding of the local language and customs can go a long way in averting complications like those experienced by Second Lieutenant Phil Connors’ Red Platoon. The difficulties faced in each dream were caused (and in later dreams) or at least complicated by the general lack of understanding (of the people and the language) by 2nd LT Connors and his men.

Some might hesitate as to the additional time customs and language training would add to a soldier’s pre-deployment checklist. Two weeks of part-time classroom training would be sufficient. Fluency or the ability to communicate making a translator obsolete is not the objective. Rather the goal is the ability to pick up on key words and extend greetings without offending the sensibility of those locals with whom one might interact on the ground. On more than one occasion, as a student traveling to a developing country, I received just a week of intensive customs and phrase training (granted I was not traveling to such a hostile situation). The few niceties I had learned allowed me to gain the respect of those with whom I interacted as they were often impressed that I was interested enough in their culture to stumble through my poorly annunciated phrases.

True insurgents will not lay down their weapons because one day at the market a US soldier asks him how he and his family are doing. However after that insurgent leaves, the man in the market stall may just let that soldier know to whom exactly he was talking. Learning the basics of a host culture is a way we, as an occupying force, can earn the trust and respect of the most valuable assets in counterinsurgency: the people.

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