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24th MEU learns to bridge the cultural divide

18 Apr 2008 | Cpl. Randall A. Clinton 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit

Gone are the simplistic battlefields of previous Marine generations where as the classic “Rifleman’s Creed” boldly states, “what counts in this war is not the rounds we fire, the noise of our burst, nor the smoke we make. We know that it is the hits that count.”

Penned more than a half century ago, Marines on the ground in Afghanistan know that the accuracy of their rifles will only get them so far; that only by working with the people of Afghanistan will everlasting improvements be made.  However, to work together first requires an understanding of the culture.

“The difficult thing for most people in this area is being able to see in shades of grey – things aren’t black and white. So, it isn’t all about knowing what’s in the book and doing your drills properly, you still need to keep that in mind you need to be safe and secure, however to talk to folks and to understand the cultural nuances of a place and how to move through the society can take a bit of time to master. Some people have a knack for it some people don’t, some people can learn the skill,” said Canadian Capt. Michael Bennett, desk officer, CJ9 Civic Office, Regional Command South.

The Marines of the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit, NATO- International Security Assistance Force know the importance of this skill set, and sought out the assistance of local villagers to fine-tune their techniques..

Bennett prefers to explain the benefits of civil relations with locals in worst case scenario terms, and after spending years teaching and training the specifics of Afghan culture he has a clear idea of why it’s important to do the right thing.

“Not having this type of skill or ability in your organization is like not having engine oil in your vehicle,” he said. “Eventually you create enough friction that things begin to seize up, things don’t work for you. So having the skill allows you to better look after the relations with the local population.”

While he freely admits that most of his teaching is common sense, Marines also need to be mindful of local customs.

“The combat zone doesn’t have anything to do with it,” explains 2nd Lt. Chad Bonecutter, Fire Support Team leader, Bravo Company, Battalion Landing Team 1st Battalion, 6th Marine Regiment, 24th MEU, ISAF. “Something we may take as standard and very polite they look at as rude in their culture. So it’s more a culture understanding (task).”

Bonecutter points to the way men are expected to greet, “If they try to hold you hand longer than you want, which makes western cultures a little uncomfortable, but it is very accepted over here. So pulling you hand away pretty quick can be rude.”

In this area, tribes live by an honor code, known as the Pashtunwali, and adapting to another culture while communicating through a linguist can be a challenging experience.

“Shame is really big over here. It’s just a matter of showing respect, (For instance) talking to someone who may speak English but is not the elder, not the one in charge. Don’t hold your conversation with him, use your linguist. That’s why they’ve been disseminated down to the platoon level,” he said.

“The big thing they taught is you are going to talk to the elder, you are not going to talk to the linguist. Make sure you don’t do that, because that is perceived to be rude as well.”

Maj. Bryan Anderson, deputy operations officer, CJ9, ISAF headquarters, emphasized an even more drastic approach to civil affairs.

“Hospitality is even more important here in Afghanistan (than Iraq). It all goes back to the Pashtunwali code,” he said. “The code says “if you offer hospitality then you must offer the last piece of bread that you have to the person you bring into your house. You must even risk your life for that person. It is an honor therefore to be asked into a house, to be a guest in Afghanistan. We have to return the favor; we are guests in this country. So it is important to go above and behind and return the hospitality given to us. Anytime we invite someone onto a base with us, near our vehicles we have to be the ultimate guests offering them anything we can, water maybe the candy bar out of the MRE, anything we have we should offer up to them, because they will certainly do the same.”

It’s the golden rule to the extreme: “Doing it in the context of a combat zone is difficult, but civil affairs is basic common sense if we remember what we would like to see in Jacksonville, (N.C.) or OceanSide, (Calif.) on the weekends when we are home with our family. That’s what the families here in Afghanistan want,” he explained.

Over and over the Marines practiced speaking through their linguist, breaking down complicated issues like medical care, sanitation and security into simpler, more-suited for translation sentences. Each time the locals worked with the Marines to bridge their communication divide.

“It was a friendly area, so they welcomed us. They would tell us what was right and what was wrong,” said Bonecutter.

The right: Marines stuck to the code of the Pashtunwali and were respectful of the village leadership. The wrong: using words that don’t translate correctly, he explained.

Interacting with the local Afghans gave some of the Marines a chance to personalize their presence in country and practice answering questions from local leaders.

“I just put an Afghan face on what we are doing,” explained Lance Cpl. Shannon Shipley, artillery scout observer, Bravo Co, BLT 1/6, 24th MEU, ISAF.

Instead of allowing questions to be phrased in term of what the Marines are doing, he began turning the question back to the villagers asking them in turn if they had brought their grievances up to their local government officials. His method helped reinforce the idea of self-sufficiency within the village, province and country, Bennett pointed out.

While he struggled at first communicating through his linguist, the six hours spent in the village gave him the confidence to deal with an elder correctly. “I got a lot more comfortable talking with them,” he said.

Shipley’s new-found ability should help these Marines avoid Bennett’s worst case scenario.

“The benefit is that they will see that “hey, the Marines really aren’t bad guys,” said Anderson. “If we earn just a little bit of credibility that might make the mission tomorrow easier.”