The debate over whether or not Lady Gaga or Israeli settlements is a bigger driver of conflict and anti-Americanism in the Middle East has heated up in spectacularly hilarious fashion since Brett Stephens wrote his original op-ed in the Wall Street Journal, and I responded by posting videos of Haifa Wehbe, noting that sex and pop culture already mix in the Arabic-language public space almost as much as they do in ours. Stephens responded to some of the criticism that's been aimed his way here and makes the perfectly uncontroversial claim that America should stand up for its principles, its liberties, and its allies. Well... yeah. (The unasked and more controversial question is whether or not confronting Israel on settlements is good or bad for both U.S. and Israeli security.)
One point I made in my post, though, was that those whose understanding of the strands and evolution of Islamist thought is that of a learned amateur should be very careful holding forth on the subject and using the writings of people like Sayyid Qutb as evidence to support their claims. Someone with a more sophisticated grasp of the literature is likely to make your life miserable, which is one reason why I keep my mouth shut on the subject. Thomas Hegghammer briefly weighed in through the comments section of my post, and as I amended the post to make clear, I follow two rules concerning the study of Islamist ideologies:
Read what Thomas wrote on Foreign Policy in response to Stephens. It's not that Palestine is the only issue Islamists care about, but it is an issue they care about, and in a big way. And that has potential consequences for policy-makers as they try to reduce drivers of conflict and lower levels of anti-Americanism in the region. Pretending otherwise, or walling all issues concerning Israel and the Palestinians off from your analysis, is just silly.
I got the heads up on a battle brewing in southern Afghanistan a few months ago. Not a battle between Marines and insurgents, mind, but one over the appropriate tactics to fight the Taliban. Specifically, I heard the staff of Brig. Gen. Larry Nicholson's MEB was getting frustrated by being forced to essentially camp out on the population and, Marines being Marines, wanted to go chase the bad guys. Now this from today's Washington Post:
"I'm not a big fan of the population-centric approach. We can't sit still. We have to pursue and chase these guys," said Col. George Amland, deputy commander of the Marine expeditionary brigade in Helmand province. "I haven't seen any evidence it's working. The only thing that's working is chasing them."
I've heard Col. Amland is a thoughtful officer, but I wonder if he's thoughtful enough to recognize that a) his decades-long education as a Marine officer might have prejudiced him toward a preference for violent offensive operations and b) many counterinsurgents through the years have been in exactly the same spot where Col. Amland finds himself today -- and have pursued violent offensive operations, like battalion sweep-and-clears, that have brought no lasting security. But as the author of the Post article notes, "hunkering down to the slow work of improving governance" is a lot less sexy than killing bad guys. But you have to do both, and if given the option of choosing between the two, the operational and strategic culture of the U.S. Marine Corps will lead its officers to do the former at the expense of the latter.
I think we sometimes focus too much on trying to understand the culture of the enemy without first recognizing our own cultural quirks, norms and biases. The individual services within the U.S. military are especially effective at conditioning their officers to believe that the service's preferred theory of victory is the one most appropriate for a conflict. As a remedy for this, I wish Marines would be more conscious of their "Marineness" -- and all the assumptions, biases and norms (most of them good) that entails. (The same goes, of course, for Air Force officers, Army infantry officers, Naval aviators, Army armor officers, Army Special Forces officers, submariners, etc., etc., etc.)
In the end, though, I'm left with this image in my head of Col. Amland as Daniel-son wandering why the hell he's been waxing Mr. Miagi's car.
...when I first arrived to the city and noticed the massive golden domes, I knew nothing of their significance; I knew nothing of the story behind the shrines and the history behind them; and I was still ignorant of the general cultural milieu. I was not at all unique – we all were mesmerized by the mosques and the culture around us, but had no clue where to begin in order to understand what they meant in the context of our presence among the people apart from: 1. do not get near the mosques; and 2. do not fire on them if fired upon from its vicinity. But more importantly, the prevailing attitude at the time seemed to be that we didn’t really have to understand anything beyond the latter. That seemed to be a reasonable tenant; after all, why would it be necessary to know such things about any given area, people or buildings? How, if at all, is it pertinent to the mission?
The simple fact of the matter is warfighting prowess necessarily takes precedence over cultural awareness training. For a commander, there is only so much time in a day for training before deployment. Soldiers already have to devote countless hours to scheduled ranges, courses and suicidal awareness training to include many other combat readiness obligations. The high operational tempo only adds to such a stressful schedule. Moreover, even in cases where a commander can address cultural awareness, there is no centralized system to ensure a metric for success for long-term learning.More at Small Wars Journal (.pdf).
Though the most recent release of military doctrine states that, the “Army seeks to develop an ability to understand and work with a culture for its Soldiers and leaders,” and provides a rubric for proficiency in both “cross-cultural-competency” and “regional competence,” no methods are provided to the leader for how to reach such ends.
In order to provide a successful, long-lasting cultural awareness training curriculum, the Department of Defense should appropriate funding that supports a two-pronged approach. First, the U.S. military should compile cultural curriculum in micro-correspondence courses accessible through soldiers’ Army Knowledge Online account (correspondingly with the other services as well), which every soldier has access to for email, records, and daily forums. Similar to the correspondence courses already in existence, these micro-courses would focus on culturally pertinent information—regional, national, and provincial-- that a soldier would need to know about an area that they will be operating. The curriculum associated with the testing, would give a soldier a foundation to build on and improve in order to reach the prescribed level of competence.
Second, the Army should develop and issue a personal PDA device – iTough, a variant of the Apple Company’s iTouch, to every soldier in the ranks. This tool would be combat efficient, and be an essential component of a soldiers battledress. Soldiers could download traditional and cultural correspondence courses on the go, as well as language training and podcasts. There could even be capability to download and keep track of PT tests and other training proficiency through a secured system, as well as a section to take notes necessary for drafting situational reports. This enhances accountability, and makes it easier for NCOs to screen and keep track of a soldier’s overall performance, evaluate their potential for promotion, and make the counseling process more efficient. In turn, such supervision will extend an obligation to the soldier to use the device often, and add competitiveness amongst others in the unit.
Although he praised the U.S. Air Force's contributions to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the defense chief made it clear that more needs to be done. A case in point, he said, is the use of unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, as the pilotless drones are known. When he was director of the CIA in 1992, Gates recalled, "the Air Force would not co-fund with CIA a vehicle without a pilot," even though it was a "far less risky and far more versatile means of gathering data."
Saying that drones cost much less and can spend more time in the air than piloted planes, Gates called UAVs "ideal for many of today's tasks" and noted that the United States now has more than 5,000 of them, a 25-fold increase since 2001.
"But in my view, we can do and we should do more to meet the needs of men and women fighting in the current conflicts while their outcome may still be in doubt," Gates said. "My concern is that our services are still not moving aggressively in wartime to provide resources needed now on the battlefield. I've been wrestling for months to get more intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance assets into the theater. Because people were stuck in old ways of doing business, it's been like pulling teeth."
Abu Muqawama usually jumps at any opportunity to pile on the boys in blue suits, but today he's a little more mellow because he was reading through an article Terry Terriff wrote on U.S. Marine Corps culture an hour or so ago. Terriff writes that “overcoming a deeply rooted, persistent cultural characteristic is neither simple nor easy.”