Cultural Respect Key to Victory
As I headed to Iraq, I told my family not to worry. Our mission here, like our mission in Afghanistan last year, does not put us in constant danger. While important, it does not provide us with the traditional opportunity for heroics. Nevertheless, the continuous scrutiny and high visibility of the war effort makes my family more concerned this year than last. Even my sister writes more often. While everyone furiously argues whether this conflict will be won or lost, the more important problem is how to learn from our past failures to ensure future victory.
Victory in the information age is more dependent upon the actions or restraint of the individual as much greater responsibility and visibility is given to individual service members. One photo from Abu Ghraib prison exemplifies this principle. Another first in this conflict, some service members have set up personal web logs to comment daily on the progress of the war. If one of them says, “I don’t have body armor,” this might be interpreted as, “no soldiers have body armor.” In this way, an individual service member is self-selected to serve as an ambassador of the entire Armed Forces or even all Americans. Terrorists have made this the foundation of their fight, knowing that the despicable acts or miscues of a few can wash away the thousand kind and brave deeds of others. Thus, victory has been privatized — not from the public sphere to the private sphere, but from “dependent upon the unit,” to “dependent upon the individual.” Because of instantaneous information flow, victory in a strategic sense is now privatized.
One of my jobs as a United States Marine is to ensure that all the Marines in my unit receive the proper training on cultural issues and rules of engagement before we deploy overseas. This process generally involves an entire day’s worth of lectures, where each segment ends with the same question in everyone’s mind: will this ever end? In the shuffle of checking every box, we proceed lecture after lecture until we are mentally exhausted and incapable of retaining any training received. This piecemeal, check-in-the-box approach is a contributor to our continued presence in a country where we are still misunderstood. While we face a radical enemy on a new battlefield, no radical, fundamental change has occurred in the way that the Department of Defense transforms civilians into warriors.
Basic training for all service members must include cultural training in a regional context and strategic communication training. The essence of cultural training would be respecting other cultures while strategic communication would center on educating service members that the line separating public diplomacy and military operations is now blurred. At Parris Island, every recruit learns that a Marine, “never lies, cheats, or steals,” because this phrase is shouted at you until you are shouting it back in your sleep. In the same way the Marine Corps instills Honor, Courage, and Commitment in every Marine, the services can also instill respect for other cultures (“A service member never defaces, mocks, or undermines another culture”) as well as support for strategic communication (“A service member supports the mission through aggressive communication with his chain-of-command and through vigilant restraint on all other fronts.”). The privatization of victory should be formidable in service members’ development and should be inextricably linked to serving ones country. Integrating these skills into basic training gives them the priority they deserve in the development of our warriors, as apposed to an afterthought.
One reservation stands out. The privatization of victory is not the sole determinant of victory or defeat in any conflict. However, it would be hard to argue that had this principle been in place before our conflict in Iraq, certain events could have been avoided. These preventable events taken as a whole have shrunk the timeline within which the American people will trade daily losses for an overall victory. The American people are eventually going to ask, “Why are we over there?” in every future conflict. The privatization of victory will give the Armed Forces more control on that timeline.
A media savvy, culturally attuned service member must be the rule, not the exception. Current Marine Corps Commandant General Michael W. Hagee has commented on the importance of the individual Marine within the broader context of war. “We can talk about aircraft. We can talk about howitzers. We can talk about tanks, but the individual Marine is the most important part of the Marine Corps.” The war on terrorism will eventually be won by service members; in pursuit of that goal, we are most vulnerable to setbacks by the acts of a single service member. The Armed Forces must embrace, develop, and implement the privatization of victory to win this and future conflicts in the information age
This article originally appeared in the Atlanta-Journal Constitution, September 2006: http://www.rdhjr.com/docs/victory.pdf