UMM QASR, Iraq -- When cultures collide, the first casualty is often basic understanding. People who are separated by miles and manners aren’t kept apart by customs or courtesies; they’re usually stuck behind a frustrating barrage of wild hand gestures and pidgin English. In colonial Africa, early British troops would -- after not being understood by natives the first time around -- yell louder and with increased insistence. It was their misguided hope that the locals’ confusion was due to widespread, abject ignorance and hearing loss. Today, in Iraq, the stakes are too high for misunderstandings to occur. For coalition forces training their Iraqi counterparts, failure to bridge the cultural gap is not an option – but it is a challenge.
At the Iraqi Naval Base in Umm Qasr, a southern Iraqi city that is home to the nation’s only major commercial port, bridging that gap is an everyday challenge for a small group of Marines from the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit. Charged with training groups of newly minted Iraqi Marine forces in internal security and basic military techniques, the Marines work with each group for three days, covering skills such as weapons handling, checkpoint security, range estimation and military fundamentals.
“We’re focusing on their confidence and we’re trying to give them better tools to protect themselves,” explained the training detachment’s leader, First Lt. Doug Bahrns, executive officer of Alpha Company, Battalion Landing Team 1st Battalion, 8th Marine Regiment -- the ground combat element of the 24th MEU. “We only have a few days to train them, but we can really see that some of these guys are trying to learn and take charge of their own base and their own destiny.”
The Iraqi Marines’ destiny includes one of the most high-profile missions in Iraq – protecting the country’s vital oil terminals that are responsible for distributing 65 million barrels of oil and contributing more than $12 billion annually to Iraq’s gross national product. In addition, the Iraqi Marines reinforce security at the Umm Qasr port, which is trying to meet United Nations standards, an essential step toward expanding trade volume and improving Iraq’s economy.
During a recent morning training session, the high-profile task of the day was simply communicating. Though the U.S. and Iraqi Marines are able to speak through an interpreter, many of the messages are misunderstood and lack the urgency conveyed by the Marines themselves. Because of this, the instructors rely heavily on demonstrations and constant repetition. Sergeant Matt Smith, scout sniper platoon chief scout, said that the Iraqis “get into it” when they see the motivation of the Marines and said that he and the instructors try to reinforce the importance of what they are trying to teach.
“We’re hoping that after we leave, they apply these lessons,” added Smith, who, like many of the course instructors here, is a previous combat veteran who learned those lessons on Iraqi battlefields like Fallujah. “We tell them not to take [the training] lightly because it might save their lives.”
The Marines have tried to make the most of the three days they have with each group of Iraqis. So far, they have been pleased with the results, noticing a quick assimilation of techniques and improved confidence, noted Cpl. Chris Bonney, a course instructor.
“There’s a big difference in their performance, just from seeing them from the first day to the third day,” said Bonney. “On the third day we throw a bunch of scenarios at them that they haven’t seen, and they do exactly what they’re supposed to do.”
“We’re finding a way to get it done,” added Cpl. Brett Dayton, another instructor.
Though the Iraqis and the Americans are constantly struggling to understand each other, the messages seem to be getting through. An Iraqi Marine, Lt. Salah, said through an interpreter that he and his men have “learned from Marines the seriousness of their behavior” and appreciate the patience they have while trying to communicate their lessons. He feels that the Marines have “done a great job.”
“They’ve made progress, but it’s still a work in progress,” said Cpl. Dominic Esquibel, a course instructor. “The more units that come through here, the better chance they’ll have to stand up on their own two feet and take the country for themselves.”
The Marines agree that long-term success will depend on the rotation of more Iraqi Marine units through the training long after the 24th MEU returns home. Stabilizing local military forces so that they can defend themselves will not only help Iraq take bigger steps towards independence, but will return more coalition forces safely to their families – a goal both sides can embrace.
“The sooner we train them to protect themselves, the sooner we can leave,” added Bahrns.