Are U.S. troops learning from cultural blunders in Iraq?

September 21, 2008

U.S. soldiers patrol a road in Mosul“Sir, I’m going to have to ask you to leave that bottle of water in the vehicle,” Captain Adam Canon told me as I got out of the Humvee. We were about to meet some Iraqi army officers in the northern city of Mosul, one of Iraq’s insurgent hotspots. “It’s because it’s Ramadan. The men we’re about to meet haven’t had anything to drink in this heat the whole day and there’s still three hours to go.”

I was embarrassed not to have thought of it myself, but I was also encouraged: U.S. troops have often been accused of failing to understand Iraq’s cultural landscape.

Canon then managed a short chat with the Iraqi soldiers we met in their native Kurdish (later, in Arabic, he exchanged pleasantries with an Arab policeman). He engaged in small-talk with every Iraqi we came across on our tour, despite a packed schedule, before getting down to business (it’s rude not too). He embraced them on leaving. It was all common courtesy, but it bucked a common perception of U.S. troops as culturally insensitive.

A crew member of a U.S. Black Hawk helicopter in the Green ZoneIn his book about Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone compound in the year after the 2003 invasion, “Imperial Life in the Emerald City”, former Washington Post Baghdad bureau chief Rajiv Chandrasekaran writes: “At the cafeteria at the Republican Palace … a buffet featured … a bottomless barrel of pork: sausage for breakfast, hot dogs for lunch, pork chops for dinner. Hundreds of Iraqi secretaries … were Muslims and were offended by the presence of pork. But the American contractors kept serving it.”

Iraqis have other complaints. They say U.S. troops often shouted or hurled abuse at tribal leaders when patrolling neighbourhoods: a grave insult to a dignitary. In raids, they have kicked down doors to houses and hauled everyone out, including women — a big taboo. “They would frisk women, enter the bedroom, rumble through the wardrobe where the women keeps bedclothes. This enrages the Iraqi man,” said Basim al-Azzawi, a Sunni Arab tribal leader in northeast Baghdad.

Some Iraqis say they noticed a change after General David Petreaus took over as U.S. commander in February 2007. (Petraeus handed over command last week to General Ray Odierno.)  A counterinsurgency expert, Petraeus had won plaudits for working closely with local leaders in Mosul in 2003. Instead of barking orders at local dignitaries, U.S. troops have been taking a more measured approach, the tribal sheikhs say.

Recently, when U.S. troops wanted to take a woman in for questioning in his district, Azzawi says, they asked a tribal leader to approach a male in the house first. While this is hardly proof of a big cultural shift, it’s hard to imagine such care being taken in the heady days of 2003.

And U.S. military officials point out they haven’t been the only parties to make cultural blunders. “People say we’re culturally stupid and we are. But not as culturally stupid as al Qaeda,” said Major John Oliver in Mosul.

Sunni Islamist al Qaeda tried to supplant the centuries-old Sunni Arab tribal structure in parts of Iraq and enforced a puritanical brand of Islam alien to Iraqis. They also bombed barber shops and cut smokers’ fingers off. The result: Sunni Arabs sheikhs joined forces with the U.S. military to deal a major blow to the militant group.

But not all American soldiers have taken the message to heart. In May, a U.S. sniper enraged Iraqis when he used a Koran for target practice at a firing range near Baghdad. President George W. Bush had to apologise.


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It’s encouraging to hear that American forces are trying to become more culturally sensitive. If we ever want to finish the job, the Iraqi people need to view us as friends and not just another tyranny.

Posted by Dan | Report as abusive

Learning the local culture is common sense and should be second-nature by now for these military & intelligence people. The solution to the problem of all this conflict is to remove U.S. troops. Let the locals fight it out for dominance. Our troops shouldn’t be there in the first place and only serve to alienate a people whose country is being occupied by foreigners. We wouldn’t like it, if any type of occupation took place here in the U.S. Clearly, this occupation was a grab for oil and eliminating an enemy of Israel. The money wasted on this attack & occupation could have been spent on developing or offering tax credits for alternative fuels, geothermal exchange, wind power, hydrogen fuel, natural gas, etc. I’m sure the Iraqi people are fine, but we have little in common with these people from a cultural standpoint. Americans should bow down to no one, including our own ruling elite.

Posted by Craig – Upstate New York | Report as abusive

The American soldier in this piece is a credit to his armed forces and a small welcome mercy to the Iraqis in their plight. Pity his duty and that of his brother soldiers forced them into this conflict by Bush’s administration . If only America’s politicians were more like her soldiers.

Posted by Bill | Report as abusive

If The US Air Force/CIA want to score points with Grand Ayatollah Al-Sistani? then they’ll fix his web site for him. (free of charge)
This is a politikal gimme.
don’t wait fellas.
Al-Sistani has huge politikal influence in Najaf and in Iraqi Shia Islam in general. Step in and help a fella out. It’s obvious to me, this where you fellas can score US points for our cause in Iraq and among his peaceful religous followers of the his brand of Shia Islam (and the Hidden Mahdi).

Do you get where I’m going with this?
good luck

Posted by Steve Real | Report as abusive