Wednesday, March 29, 2006

This is a Clash of Cultures

Last Friday (March 28), Le Monde reported part of the proceedings of a conference in France that analyzed the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review from the perspective of how U.S. declared strategy might affect French strategic planning.

One paper drew particular notice. Written by Colonel Gilles Rouby, a French infantry officer, the paper examined the role and behavior of U.S. soldiers in Iraq. Rouby essentially laid the blame for the failure of the U.S.-led coalition to subdue (or even preclude the beginnings of) any possible post-combat near-civil-war mayhem to the inability of U.S. soldiers to recognize when and under what conditions to switch from bullets to bread to begin the process of winning hearts and minds.

Drawing on a recent article in “Military Review” by British Brigadier Nigel Aylwin-Foster that was critical of U.S. tactics in Iraq, Rouby zeros in on one tenet of what is known as the “Powell doctrine” (for General Colin Powell who, during his tenure as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, promulgated a series of conditions for initiating and fighting wars). That rule states that the use of overwhelming force is the proper course when confronting an avowed enemy. Rouby contends that this training is hard to turn on and off at will, inevitably costing many lost opportunities to begin building trust among a population after “combat” ends.

Rouby traces the propensity of the U.S. military to be heavy-handed to the emphasis on the “warrior ethos” that is constantly stressed from the moment a volunteer enters boot camp. In so framing the issue and then contrasting the U.S. soldier’s creed with the French soldier’s equivalent, Rouby moves the discussion from the operational and even the training arena back into the cultural – and not just the military’s culture but the national culture.

The U.S. Army’s creed says, in part: “I am an American soldier. I am a warrior and a member of a team. I serve the people o the United States…..I am…proficient in my warrior tasks…I stand ready to deploy, engage, and destroy the enemies of the United States of America in close combat. I am the guardian…of the American way of life”

The completely different tone of the French Army’s creed could hardly be greater:
“Master of my power, I respect the enemy and watch out to spare civilians. I obey orders, with respect for the laws, the customs of war, and international conventions.... I am open to the world and to society and respect diversity.”

In 1993, as part of the Center or Defense Information’s “America’s Defense Monitor” television series on PBS, I wrote a program – “The Military and Society” – that examined the mutual interpenetration of U.S. cultural in general and military culture. I think much of what was said 13 years ago remains valid as the following excerpts reveal.

“From our earliest fiction, war has been celebrated as central to our national development.”

“Our nation was born, sustained and expanded in warfare. In 200 years, we’ve had at least 12 major wars; on the average, a war every 16 years. [This suggests]… that war is not an aberration in American history. [Rather] …it is something essential in American history; that is, a kind of defining element. To study American history, in many ways, is a study of warfare. “

Between 1945-1992 – essentially the entire Cold War period – Hollywood “made over 280 films about World War II, 60 films about Korea, 50 films about Vietnam -- almost 450 films about war just since the end of World War II.”

To convince the U.S. public that nuclear weapons made the Cold War a fight to the finish, “political leaders needed powerful images that would move Americans. The myth of the frontier and the West held these images. The way the myth works is to restrict the actors’ sense of available options. ‘A man’s got to do what a man’s got to do.’ That’s what the myth says to you. It says that there’s only two choices, kill or be killed. If you approach a situation of conflict in those terms, you’ve already eliminated the possibility of negotiations you’ve eliminated the possibility of compromise.”

“The mass media mediate. They construct visions of reality. We are much more likely to believe a media message when we have nothing else to compare it to, when we have no other source of information on that subject, and when the message is repeated. The result of this largely one-sided presentation of war for the post-World War II generation was that Westerns and war films became part of their self-image.”

“We tend to regard certain kinds of responses as valid or heroic responses. And the movie image of the hero picking up the six-gun or the machine gun and just blazing away and shooting everything that moves has so often been presented to us as a valid tactic for dealing with a movie situation that it’s not surprising that something like that would influence the behavior of soldiers in combat.”

That all tracked psychologically as long as the fundamental “core competency” of the military was to fight and win. But now the Army has declared that it “will do windows” – that is, engage in nation building – and do so on the basis that winning the struggle for hearts and minds after major combat “ends” is a core competency equal in importance to warfighting

Sounds like the Pentagon – or at least the ground force – is heading into a long-term psychological storm that will have repercussions on the general society for decades. In the more immediate future, the dilemma is how to modify attitudes and actions so that U.S. forces can be withdrawn from Iraq with minimum loss of life all around.

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