Training and Simulation
Wanted: Soldiers With Cultural Savvy
By Sandra I. Erwin
One of the catchphrases in Army circles these days is “culture training.” It’s the idea that military forces need to understand the values and social characteristics of a region if they’re going to achieve any success there, whether it’s in countering insurgencies or chasing terrorists who hide among the local population.
The Army stepped up efforts to boost commanders’ knowledge of the Iraqi and Afghan cultures by dispatching teams of anthropologists who are attached to military units and are assigned to reach out to the population and report back on what they’ve learned.
But Army leaders have suggested that far more is needed. Army Chief of Staff Gen. George Casey said culture training should be mainstreamed throughout the service as part of officer development programs. “We’re inculcating this in all our schools and our deployment preparation,” he said. “It’s not just us understanding their culture but understanding how they perceive us,” he said at a recent conference in Washington, D.C.
But he admitted that nothing helps build cultural understanding like repeated deployments. After several tours of duty, Army officers are “more and more at home in these other cultures,” Casey said.
The Army also has studied whether it’s more important to learn the local language or the culture. It found that it gets a higher payoff from understanding how to deal with other cultures than just knowing the language, Casey said. Language barriers are easier to overcome than cultural ones, he noted. There are now electronic translators available to help soldiers communicate.
Marine Corps Gen. James Mattis, head of U.S. Joint Forces Command, agreed. Translator devices are great, but soldiers still need to know how to communicate in a foreign culture, Mattis said. “There’s a reason why we tell soldiers to take off their sunglasses when they approach people. A lot is communicated by the eyes.”
But Mattis is skeptical about the acceptance of culture training as part of standard military training and education. “It’s a tough problem because the system [personnel, promotions] does not reward cultural skills,” he said. “We’ll have to set up a reward system. I’ll defer to the chief of the services on how they can best do that.”
Meanwhile, the Army has decided its best option in the near term is to recruit immigrants who can speak foreign languages and can more easily communicate with Middle Eastern or South Asian populations.
“We are looking to gain more immersion in language and culture,” said Army Lt. Gen. Francis Kearney III, deputy commander of U.S. Special Operations Command. “We hope to do that by recruiting first-generation aliens. They have culture, in their family, in the ghetto they live in,” he said at a Center for Strategic and International Studies conference.