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Navigating the 'human terrain'

Author: Max Boot, Jeane J. Kirkpatrick Senior Fellow for National Security Studies
December 7, 2005
Los Angeles Times

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The U.S. armed forces have a problem. They have the technical capability to hit any target on the planet. But which targets should they hit? Unfortunately, our enemies in the war on terrorism don’t operate tanks or warships that we could blow up. They lurk in the shadows and emerge only briefly to set off bombs. Rooting them out requires getting inside their minds. But there’s no machine that can pull off such a feat, at least not yet.

We need smart people, not smart bombs—Americans who are familiar with foreign languages and cultures and proficient in such disciplines as intelligence collection and interrogation. Yet these are precisely the areas in which the U.S. government is the weakest.

The Iraq war has brutally exposed the cost of these shortcomings and led to a belated recognition by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld that his “transformation” agenda needs to incorporate the skills needed for peacekeeping, nation building and related tasks—what the Pentagon calls stability operations.

A directive issued last week by the Defense Department represents an important step forward by acknowledging that “stability operations are a core U.S. military mission” deserving of “priority comparable to combat missions.” To meet this challenge, the directive calls for development of “stability operations skills, such as foreign language capabilities [and] regional area expertise.”

But it’s one thing to issue edicts from the top; implementing them is much harder, and many parts of the armed forces are sure to resist such a redefinition of their duties. To see how one service is trying to reorient itself for “culture-centric” warfare, I recently visited Quantico, Va., home to the Marine Corps’ major training institutions for officers and noncommissioned officers. They are run by Lt. Gen. James N. Mattis, who as a combat commander in Iraq saw firsthand the need to enhance the cultural awareness of his own forces. Without waiting for a Pentagon directive, Mattis has already made this a priority since leaving Iraq last year.

He began by creating a Center for Advanced Operational Culture Learning. So new that it’s located in a rickety trailer parked next to some railroad tracks, the center is responsible for briefing Marine units about Afghan or Iraqi culture before they deploy. It also works to integrate cultural learning throughout the educational curriculum.

At the Basic School at Quantico, all incoming second lieutenants are instructed that, in the words of one PowerPoint slide, “Navigating Cultural and Human Terrain is just as important as navigating geographic terrain.”

Another slide says that “culture can be like a minefield” if Marines are ignorant of the languages and customs of the places where they operate. But if they understand “the human terrain,” they will have “opportunities to leverage and exploit operational success.” As an example, another slide warns students about the ramifications of entering an Iraqi home to search for weapons if there are no female Marines or male family members present. By not paying greater attention to such sensitivities, too many troops have made unnecessary enemies in Iraq.

Beyond such “Culture 101” classes, Mattis wants all career officers and NCOs to specialize in a particular region of the world. His aides have compiled a list of the areas where Marines are most likely to be sent. A certain number of Marines will be assigned to bone up on each region based on its probable importance. Thus, 25% of Marines will study Arabic, 10% Indonesian and 6% Farsi, while 2% will tackle Tagalog. (The numbers may change.) The Marine Corps is building language learning centers, including one I visited at the Expeditionary Warfare School, where captains study Arabic by playing a sophisticated computer game complete with animated characters.

No one is under the illusion that the average gunnery sergeant will become as proficient at Pashtu as at disassembling an M-16, but even a little knowledge can make life easier in the next hot spot. Yet there are countervailing pressures in the Marine Corps from those who want to eschew onerous occupation duties and focus on more familiar missions such as amphibious landings.

No one doubts the need for the U.S. military to maintain its dominance at conventional warfare. But, as Mattis told me, “we don’t want to be dominant and irrelevant.” To be relevant in the years ahead, the armed forces will have to embrace the kind of initiatives that the Marine Corps is pioneering.

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