U.S. Military seeks skills, technology to avoid costly cultural misunderstandings

Contributor:  John M. Doyle
Posted:  09/25/2012  12:00:00 AM EDT
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By John M. Doyle

How U.S. And coalition forces interact with local villagers can affect intelligence gathering and both tactical and strategic mission outcomes. (U.S. Navy photo by Lt. Benjamin Addison)


The sudden uproar throughout the Muslim world sparked by a poorly made video villifying the Prophet Muhammad took many casual observers in the West by surprise. They couldn't understand why a piece of amateurish filmmaking could lead to such a violent reaction in so many countries from North Africa to Southeast Asia.

And many Muslims couldn't understand why the U.S. Government – if it was sincere in its claims that it condemned the video and had no part in its creation – did not block its distribution on the Internet and arrest its creator.

The still simmering crisis is another example of how little many Americans understand foreign cultures, religions and ethnic groups while spotlighting the poor understanding people living in countries ruled for decades by oppressive regimes have of the right to free expression in a Western democracy.

It's the kind of misunderstanding – like last February's burning of Korans by U.S. troops in Afghanistan – that can flare up into deadly riots and undo years of community outreach and cultural sensitivity efforts. While U.S. military and civilian leaders apologized for that blunder at Bagram Air Field, it sparked a wave of demonstrations that left about 30 Afghans dead and led to the killings of six U.S. servicemembers. 

The U.S. military has been trying to improve cultural sensitivity with classes, training programs, video simulations and rules of conduct to help its troops operate in a foreign environment. In an era of asymmetric warfare – where the enemy may be a small guerrilla band or a criminal network – an armed force can no longer ignore where they are fighting and the society occupying that space.

The process of studying not only your enemy and his tactics but the people around him who could give him shelter or turn him in to the authorities is a big part of the discipline known as human geography. It is cultural awareness – how to avoid social gaffes or breaking taboos – raised to a critical level for intelligence gathering and tactical decision making.

Marines are trained in what to expect in Afghanistan in the exercise Mojave Viper at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center at Twentynine Palms, Calif. There's a desert town with 400 to 500 role-playing occupants – some of them friendly, some of them not. The Army gives troops about to deploy – as well as civilians from the State and Agriculture departments, the U.S. Alliance for International Development and other agencies – similar training at Camp Atterbury, a National Guard installation in southern Indiana. But both of those training regimes are brief and cover much more than cultural awareness.

While he was senior commander in Iraq in 2008, Gen. Aymond Odierno, the Army's chief of staff, offered the following counter insurgency guidance to his officers: “To fully utilize all approaches, we must understand the local culture and history. Learn about the tribes, formal and informal leaders, government and religious structures, and local security forces. We must understand how the society functions so we can enable Iraqis to build a stable, self-reliant nation.”

The Army created a special organization, known as the Human Terrain System Project, to provide commanders of large deployed units with sociocultural teams (made up of anthropologists and other cultural experts) “in order to improve the understanding of the local population and apply this understanding to the military decision making process.”

Female engagement team (FET) soldiers and Marines work at establishing good communications with  Afghan women and children to encourage them to speak out on issues that could benefit their village and provide valuable insights for mission commanders. (U.S. Army photo by Spc. Crystal Davis)


The Marine Corps has launched Female Engagement Teams, armed female Marines who accompany  patrols in Afghan villages and try to speak to and connect with Afghan women – something no male soldier could do because of local cultural taboos. The Army has also adapted the program, which has  proven successful in gleaning intelligence by leveraging the underestimated influence Afghan women have in their home and village.

But human geography isn't confined to cultural sensitivity and human intelligence gathering. Technology – from unmanned aircraft that spot anomalies in normal village behavior to digital simulators that train convoy truck drivers how to behave in potentially volatile situations like striking a pedestrian in a hostile neighborhood – helps map out the human terrain and develop actionable intelligence as well as avoiding damaging misunderstandings.

The role of technology and person-to-person communication will be among the issues discussed at the Human Geography conference sponsored by the Institute for Defense and Government Advancement (IDGA) in Washington Nov. 12-14. For more information, click here.



1. Mojave Viper


2.Similar training at Camp Atterbury


3.Human Terrain System Project


4.Female Engagement Teams


John M. Doyle Contributor:   John M. Doyle

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