Event SummaryAn auditorium packed to the brim with parents and students alike turned out for this Parents Weekend Faculty Forum lecture in Salomon Hall. “Culture Matters: Lessons from the U.S. Military’s Experience in Iraq” endeavored to answer a question that audience members judged to be eminently relevant and germane in this time of war: How is culture being taught and conveyed to America’s armed forces? Tackling this weighty subject was a “Watson-based triumvirate,” as Keith Brown termed it, introducing the Watson Institute faculty members on the panel.
Brown illustrated how he came to be interested in the subject by recalling a snapshot from the Balkan wars of the mid-1990s in which then General Wesley Clark traded hats with Ratko Mladi?. Mladi? was the Bosnian Serb general responsible for carrying out the Srebrenica massacre that left 8,000 Bosniak Muslims dead in 1995. In Brown’s view, this embarrassing slip-up ushered in an era of heightened awareness of the U.S. military’s public image in foreign environments.
Brown then moved onto an analysis of the tools used to impart a cultural education to U.S. armed forces in post-9/11 Afghanistan and Iraq. “Guidance and Cultural Do’s and Don’ts” served as the bedrock of the military’s effort to impress upon U.S. forces sensitivity to their new surroundings. Much of what informed this handbook was a 1983 text by Raphael Patai entitled The Arab Mind. Though widely-read, Patai’s work contains outmoded generalizations along the lines of “Arabs only understand force” and “humiliation works.” Brown noted that some experts have drawn links between the military’s reliance on this work and the Abu Ghraib scandals of a year ago. Brown went on to stress the central pitfall of cultural sensitivity training, as conveyed by soldiers stationed in Fallujah: that they feel “hamstrung” and that the “push-back” that sensitivity demands might seriously compromise the efficacy of a modern fighting force.
Next at the podium was Catherine Lutz, who described her role in a Watson Institute project on this same topic as two-fold: researching the impact of U.S. military bases on host communities, both abroad and stateside; and interviewing U.S. Marines receiving cultural sensitivity training as well as the architects of these training programs. Lutz also noted that her research has brought her into contact with experts from Washington think-tanks and from the Naval War College in Newport.
Picking up where Brown left off, Lutz discussed the “smart cards” issued to every soldier fighting in Iraq which, in fleshing out the profiles of various ethnic groups in Iraq, puts a face on the enemy. Particularly striking is the conflict between this attempt at humanizing the enemy, and the process of training soldiers to become killing machines that is at the heart of the soldiering experience.
As the next step in her analysis, Lutz stressed the central importance of U.S. military culture to the project at hand. The twenty-first century U.S. armed forces, Lutz argued, are divided between what she called “anti-imperialists” and believers in “America as the new empire.” A second dimension of military culture is the near-universal disengagement of American soldiers from their host cultures. Lutz illustrated this phenomenon by describing the daily routines of marines stationed in Korea, who tend overwhelmingly to remain inside the confines of their bases checking e-mail and playing video games rather than attempting to negotiate the alien cultures around them.
Catherine Kelleher, a former high-ranking official in the Pentagon who served under President Clinton and the first President Bush, contributed several insights at the lecture’s end, describing the differing methods of knowledge production and transmission between the State Department and the military as her driving research interest.
The lecture ended with clips from a pair of interviews conducted by the Watson Institute’s James Der Derian in Afghanistan featuring U.S. troops confronted with manifestations of Middle Eastern “otherness.” Lutz closed the lecture by arguing that the footage demonstrates a low level of cultural literacy on and a tendency toward strictly “strategic” thinking on the part of the soldiers.
A question-and-answer portion followed. A steady stream of parents lined up to ask questions ranging from whether the Brown researchers view themselves as “foot soldiers” to whether there might be links between the conditioning soldiers undergo as part of their training and a higher incidence of domestic abuse within military families.
Submitted by Watson Institute Student Rapporteur Jeffrey Lugowe ’07.