Intercultural awareness crucial for military in Iraq

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A survey released today suggests that intercultural skills would have helped troops in Iraq. In stark contrast to the ‘Rumsfeldian’ “shock and awe” approach promoted in the run-up to the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the results demonstrate an appreciation by the layman that the “hearts and minds” approach will ultimately see success in the country. The shift also reflects the increasing priority for the modern day military to understand and communicate effectively with locals when in foreign countries rather than simply exercising force.


For the last few months, the cross-cultural communications consultancy Kwintessential have been holding an online survey asking the question: “Do you believe that intercultural training could have benefited troops in Iraq?” Of the responses to date, 83% answered positively. The idea behind the survey was to examine whether 1) people appreciate or believe that the “hearts and minds” approach is now also crucial to winning conflicts in the modern age and 2) if intercultural training or skills are being taken seriously as a requisite for personnel working in foreign environments.

Voices and actions from within the U.S. military increasingly highlight the need to equip troops with intercultural skills. Major programmes concerning Arab culture, Islamic etiquette, gender issues and language have been designed and initiated. “Cultural understanding is a weapon,” Edward Slavis, a Marine captain, announced when instructing approximately 150 troops from the 1st Radio Battalion and 1st Reconnaissance Battalion preparing to depart for Iraq in February 2007. “You need to prepare for the war of ideas and beliefs through cultural learning and understanding.”


The British military establishment also seems keen to provide their men on the ground with similar skills. “Getting it right makes a massive difference. They [meaning the Iraqis] are very forgiving of language errors, but cultural mistakes are unforgivable. We make soldiers question why the Arabs behave in such a way and question their own perceptions,” commented Unit Education Officer, Captain Pete Henning.


As well as cultural awareness training, troops are also being given language training. In December 2006, Army Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli told Baghdad-based journalists that a poll conducted amongst 1st Cavalry Division soldiers following their 2004 deployment to Iraq highlighted how important they believed language skills to be. On top of actual language learning the military has also invested heavily in all sorts of translation gadgets to help troops speak to locals.

What are Intercultural Skills?

Having intercultural skills means one possesses the ability to successfully communicate with people from other cultures. Such a person captures and understands, in interaction with people from foreign cultures, their specific concepts in perception, thinking, feeling and acting. They appreciate how to mould their behaviour and communication style; they appreciate different approaches to life whether it is punctuality or the processing of information. In essence, they are able to work effectively out of their cultural comfort zone.

Intercultural skills are of importance to anyone working internationally, whether it is government, business or military personnel. Demand for intercultural communication skills are increasing as globalization continues and organizations start to realize that there are barriers and limitations to what people can do when entering a foreign territory. Intercultural communication training, skills and knowledge essentially help people understand one another better to avoid confusion and misunderstandings.

As with anyone working internationally, intercultural skills are crucial for military personnel. They have to not only work with people at diplomatic and military levels but more importantly with people on the street. It is creating a sense of trust at this level that ultimately leads to better performance on the ground. This believes, Kwintessential’s Middle-East expert Neil Payne, is where the U.S. military has thus far failed. “The American way and the Arab way can be very different.” he explains. “Many of the troops going into Iraq probably did not appreciate the local culture in any sense or form. Having a basic appreciation of Islam, its laws, its etiquette and how genders interact is crucial. For example troops were entering people’s houses and sometimes mosques with shoes on – which is a serious no-no. In terms of communication, I doubt many understood the need to protect people’s face and honour through discreet and indirect forms of communication. It would be fair to say that many an Iraqi has been rubbed up the wrong way through being shouted at and shamed in public.” Other issues mentioned by Payne include a lack of understanding in respect to how local hierarchies operate, tribal allegiances and the importance of relationship building. “Through cultural awareness you build bridges a lot faster whereas without it you sometimes get nowhere near laying the first brick.”

About the survey:

The survey was conducted on the Kwintessential website from September to November 2007. The results accurately reflect the opinions of a significant number of the thousands of visitors visiting the site daily. Steps were taken to ensure multiple votes were impossible to make by the same individual.

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