- The Washington Times - Friday, October 17, 2008

Cultural awareness in the military is not an oxymoron. It also certainly is not irrelevant in the current climate of talk about the nature of America’s foreign entanglements. Generals such as David H. Petraeus admit that, while “military action is absolutely necessary,” other resources are required to gain the advantage and “capitalize on gains in the security arena.”

Such resources involve a kind of knowledge and level of sensitivity not normally associated with grunts in the field.

Cultural-awareness training is especially important in areas where troops “are not necessarily fighting but doing stabilization up close with the local population,” says Lt. Col. Tommy Scott of the Marines’ Center for Advanced Operational Cultural Learning at Quantico, Va. “Our task is to make sure Marines are trained before being deployed on regional language and cultural knowledge of the area - not to create a foreign-affairs office.”

The effort — ongoing by most service branches for a number of years — has been upgraded of late in cooperation with such elite organizations as the Archaeological Institute of America and through the use of such commonplace tools as playing cards.

C. Brian Rose, a professor of archeology at the University of Pennsylvania and president of the Archaeological Institute of America, was moved to help after the sacking of the National Museum of Iraq in Baghdad.

“No one knew what to do,” he says. “We [archaeologists] weren’t well-coordinated. There was no history of coordinating among countries this way — especially in response to the sacking of Bamian [in Afghanistan].” Mr. Rose instigated meetings between scholars, resulting in a proposal — accepted by the then-head of the U.S. Central Command, Gen. John P. Abizaid — to lecture at a number of military bases.

“I would talk about archaeological theories of Eden [from the book of Genesis],” he says. “If you use the Old Testament, you hook them quite quickly. There are no biblical references to Afghanistan, but they know Alexander the Great, and I would emphasize that we are following in his steps. The geography of the country then remains what it is now. One of our chief bases in Iraq is directly over the ruins of Babylon, and the one in Bagram over an ancient site where artifacts from the Silk Road have been excavated over the years.”

He gives full credit for the program to Marine Corps Reserve Col. Matthew Bogdanos, author of the popular 2005 book “Thieves of Baghdad,” about the effort to recover the stolen treasures from the Baghdad Museum.

” ‘We have to make the soldiers our surrogates,’ ” Mr. Rose says, quoting Col. Bogdanos, now an assistant district attorney in Manhattan.

The cover on a pack of “Heritage Resource Preservation” cards handy for slipping into a uniform side pocket reads “Respect Iraqi and Afghan Heritage … Support the Mission Show Respect.”

“Future generations will be thankful for the monuments and sites spared today,” it says under the symbol of a nine of clubs and a picture of the Bent Minaret of Mosul’s Great Mosque in Iraq. “How would we feel if someone destroyed her torch?” reads the line under a photograph of the Statue of Liberty on a jack of hearts.

This so-called “cultural heritage awareness product” was issued in June 2007 by the Department of Defense’s Legacy Resource Management Program under the supervision of archaeologist Laurie Rush, Cultural Resources Program Manager at Fort Drum, N.Y.

“Many often think that cultural sensitivity is a weakness and is secondary to actual operations - this is incorrect,” wrote Maj. Mark Leslie, a deputy chief of training and organization at Fort Benning, Ga., in a lengthy paper in a June 2007 publication put out by the nonprofit U.S. Armor Association. Conceding that the “Army has come a long way” in this regard, he notes that “cultural sensitivity is not something that can be learned and then tucked away in a rucksack for use later. … It must be used in everything you do on the battlefield.”

Still, social science does seem to be taking root. A May article in the Marine Corps Gazette by anthropologists Paula Holmes-Eber and Barak A. Salmoni, titled “Operational Culture for Marines,” notes that Marines at all levels “have begun to include cultural facets in their military operations.” That translates into urging officers to speak some basic Arabic — or Pashto or Dari — and make friends with Afghan tribal leaders by sitting down with them over a cup of tea in their rural homes.

Some 68,000 decks of cards were made available last fall to all the services for anyone being deployed, with more than 10,000 distributed to date. “We chose cards because they are portable, and there is a long tradition in the military of conveying information this way,” Ms. Rush says. “My feeling is if you want to get something in the hands of soldiers who already are carrying a lot, then it has to be worth it to them to stick it in their pack.”

Thanks to the worldwide spread of U.S. popular culture, U.S. troops abroad may find that our reputation precedes us — in rather distorted ways. “Iraqis learn about America from television, if you start to think about it,” Ms. Rush says. “Imagine if people whose only exposure to us is ‘Beverly Hills 90210’ or ‘Baywatch,’ not to mention the cop shows. Either we [Americans on TV] are killing each other in assorted ways or spending millions and living in mansions.”

The effort to show sensitivity to a country’s culture goes back to World War II, she asserts, but is now getting “renewed emphasis and recognition” as “part of our strategy and practice after archeology dropped off the radar screen in the intervening years.”

Showing respect is central to this view. “It’s important to remind troops never to paint logos onto historic places,” she says. “Military units like to put symbols of themselves wherever they are. One of the lessons now would be to remember to choose wisely. The symbol identifies you, so you will be known.”

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