You're Not from around Here, Are You?

By Skelton, Ike; Cooper, Jim | Joint Force Quarterly, December 2004 | Go to article overview

You're Not from around Here, Are You?


Skelton, Ike, Cooper, Jim, Joint Force Quarterly


Know thy enemy. That adage has been repeated since armies first clashed on the field of battle. Understanding enemy intentions, tactics, and vulnerabilities is an essential part of warfare. But it is also necessary to know your friends. Making enemies is easy, but it is harder to make friends. The wrong approach to allied or occupied countries can quickly create enemies.

The United States has not been an occupying power since immediately after World War II. In Korea and Vietnam, where the goal was fighting and leaving, sensitivity to local culture was important, although it was not a long-term concern. In Iraq, however, a cultural divide brought to the fore issues that three generations of soldiers have considered only peripherally.

Operating in a foreign land can be a minefield. Few members of the Armed Forces will be familiar with cultural traditions of the countries in which they operate. Yet violation of local norms and beliefs can turn a welcoming population into a hostile mob.

Iraqis arrested by U.S. troops have had their heads forced to the ground, a position forbidden by Islam except during prayers. This action offends detainees as well as bystanders. In Bosnia, American soldiers angered Serbs by greeting them with the two-fingered peace sign, a gesture commonly used by their Croat enemies. And the circled-finger "A-OK" signal was a gross insult to Somalis. The military has enough to worry about without alienating the local population.

Afghanistan and Iraq

Though it may be premature to draw definitive lessons from Afghanistan or Iraq, it is clear that the Armed Forces lack sophisticated knowledge of foreign countries. That does not dishonor their performance; cultural awareness is not a mission-essential task--but it should be.

Winning a conflict means more than subduing an enemy. While the U.S. military ran into trouble in the past, it was not because it lacked combat skills, personal courage, or the necessary resources. As operations in Afghanistan and Iraq have demonstrated, the process of restructuring the political order, economy, and social well-being of an entire country is as critical as defeating organized resistance. But it is cultural awareness that helps determine whether a host population supports long-term American military presence--and may determine the outcome of the mission.

It is uncertain whether the majority of the Iraqi people will support the multinational efforts, which many see as responsible for the unrest. Rebuilding Iraq may hinge on drawing appropriate inferences from ethnic and religious aspects of its culture--including tribal dynamics-and then properly responding to them. Commanders in Iraq have stressed the importance of being aware of these elements of the security landscape.

The House Armed Services Committee held a hearing in late 2003 to examine the lessons of Iraqi Freedom at which Major General Robert Scales, Jr., USA (Ret.), highlighted the requirement for cultural awareness among both civilian and military personnel. His testimony emphasized that had American planners better understood Iraqi culture, efforts to win the peace would have been more sound. Senior officials and commanders might have reached a different conclusion on the willingness of Iraqis to welcome the U.S. military for an extended period of reconstruction.

Events during Uphold Democracy further emphasized cultural differences:

The Army in general had little appreciation of Haitian history and culture. Few planners knew anything about Haiti other than its basic geography. In a combat operation, where overwhelming firepower achieves objectives, sensitivity for the local population's culture and traditions clearly is not a top priority. In a peace operation such as Uphold Democracy, however, knowledge of how a people think and act, and how they might react to military intervention, arguably becomes paramount. The U. …

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