Cultural Awareness and the Armed Forces

Article excerpt

As a leader among the nations of the free world, the United states has established a presence in virtually every nation on the face of the earth. In many lands, our diplomatic representation is complemented by a concomitant military presence, which has introduced members of the armed forces into foreign lands and exposed them to cultures and customs far different from our own. The military has long understood the importance of knowing as much as possible about its adversaries, but with recent and ongoing deployments to Iraq, Afghanistan, Saudi Arabia, and other Middle Eastern countries the need for detailed, comprehensive knowledge has become both an issue of national security and a national priority.

Although our Soldiers and their leaders are typically briefed on the cultural pitfalls of deployment to other lands, since the outset of the global war on terrorism (GWOT) our military doctrine and training have devoted far more time, effort, and assets to expanding Soldiers' cultural awareness skills than ever before in our Army's history. According to LTC William D. Wunderle, author of Through the Lens of Cultural Awareness: A Primer for U.S. Armed Forces Deploying to Arab and Middle Eastern Countries, cultural awareness can reduce battlefield friction and the fog of war. It can also improve the armed forces' ability to accomplish their mission by providing insight into the intent of the groups operating in the battle space, thereby allowing the military to get inside an adversary's decision cycle and outmaneuver him. In like manner, Wunderle asserts that an understanding of culture and society is also critical in post conflict stability, peacekeeping, and nation building, which in many instances require an extended commitment of forces and assets in foreign nations.

Being culturally aware means that we recognize that we - friend and foe alike - are all shaped by our cultural heritage. This influences how we interpret the world around us, how we perceive ourselves, and how we relate to others. More importantly, it enables us to better understand those unique factors of history, religion, geography, and the local economy that shape an indigenous population. And military commanders are increasingly becoming aware of the critical link between cultural intelligence and our success in the contemporary operational environment. The U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) is currently working on implementing extensive training on cultural awareness at all levels across military installations, and especially among those tasked with the training of Soldiers. On a basic level, the training is teaching military commanders and Soldiers how to not only more effectively complete their missions, but also offers ways to carry out missions within a cultural context that heightens judgment and interaction within foreign lands. Some of the things that Soldiers learn are how to better identify the leaders and centers of influence within Muslim society.

It is also important to grasp the concept of families, clans, and tribes, and the factors and loyalties that cause them to react in certain ways. We are also attempting to clarify for our Soldiers and leaders the differences between such religious factions as the Sunnis and Shiites, and which may pose a threat to operational success at any given time. Taking time to socialize typically perceived by us as nonessential - is a key element of social interaction with the Arab world. By getting to know the local population, we may earn respect and build the bonds that establish our - and their credibility and future approachability. Within the Arab culture, alliances and allegiances are very important. Arabs are typically loyal to their code of honor and dedicated to their tribe, clan, and family. Their primary concern is that which affects their immediate circle. To lessen hostility Solders are briefed to speak to locals and smile (In Arab culture, a straight face is viewed as being hostile and a smiling face is deemed as friendly). …