Advances in Predeployment Culture Training: The U.S. Marine Corps Approach

By Salmoni, Barak A. | Military Review, November/December 2006 | Go to article overview

Advances in Predeployment Culture Training: The U.S. Marine Corps Approach


Salmoni, Barak A., Military Review


This article is dedicated to the memory of Captain Brian S. Letendre, USMC, and Lance Corporal Cory R. Guerin, USMC.

THE HISTORY AND SELF-IDENTITY of the United States Marine Corps are based on operations in foreign environments, in close proximity to peoples from foreign cultures and with indigenous security personnel. Still, the systematic study of foreign cultures in an operationally focused fashion is a relatively new phenomenon for Marines.

Since late 2003, Marine units deploying to Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) have undergone orientation training on the culture of places to which they will deploy. A three-stage evolution has taken place in the conception and execution of such training.

At first, the moniker was "cultural sensitivity training." The goal of the training was to learn how to avoid offending indigenous people by focusing on decorum, taboos, "do's and don'ts," pleasantries, and the etiquette of faceto-face non-military interactions. Some referred to this as "culturization." The training also included an introduction to the history of the operational areas. Marines returning from deployments later commented that social aspects of such training only partially reflected realities in what were diverse, changing areas of operations, while the coverage of history was too academic, with insufficient links to contemporary dynamics.

"Culture awareness classes," a term used into 2004, placed more emphasis on the contemporary history, political legacies, and visible religion of the OIF and OEF theaters. The training began to address evolving social dynamics, and it was based on the first-hand observations of deployed troops and the personnel teaching the classes. The training also paid more attention to culturally important tactics, techniques, and procedures, such as the use of translators. In this sense, culture trainers moved beyond a priori assumptions of what might be important to deploying troops, to a method of curriculum development that integrated Soldiers' and Marines' recent experiences and articulated needs.

Into 2005, "tactical culture training" or "operational culture learning" replaced culture awareness classes. The focus shifted from not offending people (a negative incentive) to grasping local human dynamics in order to accomplish the mission (a positive incentive). Thus, culture knowledgeknowledge applied toward achieving mission goals-became an element of combat power and a force multiplier. Increasingly realistic culture dynamics were injected into field exercises, in particular the stability and support operations exercises coordinated by Marine Corps Training and Education Command (TECOM).

The responsibility for finding qualified instructors and appropriate learning materials evolved in a similar fashion. In the 2003-2004 phases, battalion, regimental, and division commanders preparing for second deployments into theater recognized the need for culture and language education and attempted to identify the knowledge necessary and those who could teach it. Their conscientious but improvised efforts in a new field of predeployment military learning yielded uneven results across the deploying Marine Expeditionary Force (MEF).

In late 2004, TECOM took over the responsibility for all aspects of predeployment training in the Corps. It too turned to culture training, coordinating and eventually encompassing efforts already in progress while continuing to consult with operating forces.

Along with removing the burden of developing and coordinating culture training from the operating forces, TECOM, via ongoing consultation with OIF and OEF veterans, initiated changes to help determine who was a subject matter expert for warfighter culture training. Instead of generalist historians, religion specialists, and journalists, younger personnel who combined recent operational experience with academic study, site visits, and debriefing of returning units conducted the training. …

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