Culture Club

The Marine Corps aims to add cultural knowledge to its arsenal.

Picture yourself on a U.S. military patrol somewhere in Iraq. It's midday and your unit is near the town center, dispensing medical and dental care to Iraqis-not an unusual mission in a conflict where winning the population's hearts and minds is a central component of winning the war. Suddenly someone nearby begins firing shots in rapid succession. Are you under attack? What do you do? If you're a Marine, you've likely been trained to run through a mental checklist in an attempt to put the gunfire in a context that goes beyond its point of origin. You'll note the day of the week, time of day, any significant calendar events-all of which can have particular meaning within the complex cultural mélange that is Iraq. Sure, you may be under attack, but maybe a local family is celebrating a wedding. If it's Friday, then you'll know the wedding probably isn't at a mosque. It's also possible that somebody's team just won the World Cup. Whatever the reason behind the gunfire, your response could have enormous consequences for your fellow troops, for Iraqis and for the mission.

Nearly four years into the war in Iraq, U.S. forces have a deep appreciation for the importance of understanding foreign cultures. All the services, to varying degrees, have initiated culture and language programs to arm more troops with critical knowledge about the people and places they will encounter. But the Marine Corps is attempting to teach something more ambitious than cultural sensitivity or cultural awareness. Through professional leadership schools and pre-deployment tactical training, the service is systematically trying to teach Marines at all levels how to understand local human dynamics in order to accomplish the mission more effectively, not just avoid mistakes. In other words, they want Marines to embrace cultural understanding as a tactical tool that can help them on the battlefield or during post-conflict stability operations.

"Three plus years ago the moniker was 'cultural sensitivity,'" says Barak A. Salmoni, deputy director of the Center for Advanced Operational Culture Learning, part of the Marine Corps Training and Education Command at the Marine base in Quantico, Va. "But being sensitive is not the same thing as being aware, and being aware is not the same thing as being capable-being able to apply your knowledge so as to have an effect on the people with whom or against whom you're operating."

Early sensitivity training focused on behavioral do's and don'ts to avoid offending Muslims and included a lot of regional and religious history. "At some point, Marines started asking, 'Well, now that I know all this stuff, so what?' " Salmoni says. It's his job to guide the training and to develop the curricula that answer the "so what" question. Salmoni, who holds a doctorate in Middle Eastern history from Harvard University, has traveled far from the ivory tower to occupy a windowless office in the white trailer that serves as headquarters for CAOCL (pronounced KAY-ockle), something he says he considers an enormous privilege.

Instead of teaching Marines about superficial behavioral codes and the history, beliefs and theology of Islam, CAOCL aims to teach more about how Islam is practiced today in Iraq (and Afghanistan, for troops deploying there) and what that means in operational terms. For example, Marines learn where to walk when a Muslim is praying and how to effectively employ Iraqi security forces to do certain things in a mosque. Marines learn how to place corpses for retrieval by Iraqis and when to give them over to which people for burial. They learn what things to take pictures of when taking fire from a mosque, so insurgents or terrorists cannot later make false accusations. They learn to use translators effectively, even if they lack language skills themselves. They learn how to discuss religion intelligently among different groups, so it no longer becomes taboo. They learn how this skill can be used to establish rapport and build relationships, a key aspect of successful counterinsurgency operations.

"It's turning the purpose [of training] to something not more aggressive, but more applied, with more value added. You don't learn the 99 names of God this way, but you do learn how to talk about Islam in a way that allows someone to talk to you about it," Salmoni says.

Through CAOCL, the Marine Corps has increasingly incorporated what it calls "operational cultural learning" not just into pre-deployment training, but throughout its professional education system for officers and noncommissioned officers. Marine second lieutenants, who will be captains four years from now, will be the first cadre of Marine officers to have encountered cultural education at every level, Salmoni says.

"The whole idea here is for none of this to be just-in-time training, or just good information, but to permeate the skills base" of the Corps, Salmoni says.

While CAOCL has been focused largely on Iraq since its inception in May 2005, the center is working to fulfill its broader mission to provide Marines with operationally relevant regional knowledge and capability wherever they are deployed. Henri Boré, a retired French Marine who served throughout Africa, including Senegal, Chad and Central African Republic, recently became the Africa program manager at CAOCL. "What the Marines want is to be able to interact effectively with local people," says Boré.

"We start with the same data" academics use, but apply it to Marine Corps goals, he says. For example, if Marines are training local military forces in a country where illiteracy is 60 percent, they will need to find alternative training methods to the traditional classroom approach. Likewise, it would be counterproductive to single out exceptional individual troops for special recognition or reward-a common American cultural practice-in a tribal society that values the collective over the individual, as many African societies do.

"We bring together academic understanding and field experience," Boré says. To that end, CAOCL works hard to find instructors with some military experience-either academics who have spent time in the field with military forces and understand military culture as well as the culture they're teaching, or former troops who have exceptional understanding of the regions in which they served.

Over time, Salmoni hopes the Marine Corps will be able to adopt an approach the Army has used, which is to train the trainers. By training senior NCOs who have had significant field experience working with indigenous people, the Marine Corps will be able to ensure that units have their own in-house expertise to draw on whenever it's needed.

There's a Marine expression that says you've got to be able to shoot, move and communicate. "Part of this is the moving and communicating," says Salmoni. "But guess what? You've got to shoot, too. Marines are always made to do too much with too few people in too short a time, so we don't want to shortchange their skills . . . But more and more, Marines are starting to see [operational cultural learning] as a component of their bread-and-butter skills."

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