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One-star: Counterinsurgency skills learned in Iraq, Afghanistan relevant in Pacific

Cultural training still key to engagement

Jun. 17, 2013 - 03:53PM   |  
Cobra Gold 12
A Thai volunteer works with Lance Cpl. Nathan Grove, with Marine Wing Support Squadron 172, during exercise Cobra Gold 2012. Officials say cultural skills Marines learned over the past decade will apply to missions in the Asia-Pacific region. (Sgt. Matthew Troyer / Marine Corps)
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The cultural know-how Marines developed as part of the counterinsurgency strategy used in Iraq and Afghanistan will be applicable to new missions in the Asia-Pacific region, according to a general who oversees operations there.

The U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine requires troops to be “nation builders as well as warriors.” Penned by retired Marine Gen. James Mattis and retired Army Gen. David Petraeus, the manual emphasizes recognition of cultural sensitivities and places a premium on building trust among indigenous populations.

For Marines, such skills will “transfer immediately” to the Pacific, Brig. Gen. Richard Simcock, deputy commander of Marine Corps Forces Pacific, said during a June 11 media engagement at the Pentagon. Counterinsurgency — COIN, for short — is cultural in nature, he said, and the most complex form of combat.

“Asking young Marines to kill at one time and not at the other, and being able to talk to someone immediately after coming out of a firefight — [those are] very complex skills,” Simcock said.

As the Marine Corps shifts focus to the Asia-Pacific region, he said he’s often asked how troops will apply their cultural training to a part of the world so dynamically different from the places they’ve spent much of the past decade. But the basics transcend specific countries, he said.

“Marines are trained and experienced in dealing with different cultures, so it doesn’t really matter if they’re speaking another language,” he said. Thus, the Corps won’t have to start from scratch when learning about how to engage with local populations in places where they haven’t spent much time before, he said. The same principles apply.

Cultural training, understanding

In October, the Corps launched a program that ties Marines’ cultural learning to their career advancement. Now, every newly promoted sergeant is assigned a region, its culture and a language associated with it. The idea is that Marines will study that area of the world throughout their careers, with new professional military education requirements at every rank, so every unit will have regional knowledge regardless of where the Marines are deployed.

The goal is not necessarily to make Marines fluent in foreign languages or to create regional-area experts, said George Dallas, a retired colonel who serves as director of the Center for Advanced Operational Culture Learning in Quantico, Va., where the program was developed. Rather, the curriculum is intended to teach basic cultural skills that can be applied to any region. Nearly a quarter of participating Marines are assigned to the U.S. Pacific Command area of operation, officials said.

Ryan Crocker, who served as U.S. Ambassador to Iraq and Afghanistan during the wars, said cultural specialization is vital. Understanding an individual country’s customs, history and sensitivities goes a long way.

“Just to be able to exchange polite greetings with people who would never expect an American to speak a word of their language shows a certain respect and a certain effort made to understand them — not just expect them to understand us,” Crocker said.

Maj. Thomas Ross, who works with Dallas at the Center for Advanced Operational Culture Learning and was instrumental in developing the new cultural training program, said Marines’ experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan reinforced the need to integrate cultural considerations into operations and planning. He calls it the most significant takeaway for engagements in other parts of the world.

Crocker echoes that sentiment. The current international climate will require troops to walk that line between war fighting and diplomacy, he said.

A Marine’s job, Ross said, can come down to dealing with people. And cultural understanding can be the key to successfully carrying out a mission.

“If we don’t train and educate our Marines how and why culture is important,” he said, “all the lessons learned will be shelved and likely lost.”

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