Olmsted was determined to make a difference in Iraq. "The sooner the Iraqi government doesn't need U.S. support to provide security for its people, the sooner we will probably be asked to leave."
The Army did a lot of work to prepare us for this mission. We spent better than two months at Fort Riley training, and that training was remarkably extensive, although the broad brush necessary to train people going all over Iraq did mean that we weren't particularly precisely prepared for exactly what it was we would end up doing here. But that's inevitable; the only way they could have done that would have been to detract from the unit on the scene by having them put together a training program for us, and that's simply not practical. So given the constraints of reality, the Riley program was pretty good.
However, one area that we didn't spend enough time on, and I think we could not have spent enough time on, was culture. Almost every day when we deal with the Iraqis, we end up with misunderstandings and confusion because we just don't understand how they think, and vice versa, although to a lesser degree. (Iraqis see a lot of Americans, and the Iraqi Army has figured out how to understand us pretty well.) And from these confusions we tend to see a lot of anger, particularly on our side. Why, we wonder, do the Iraqis do the things they do? Can't they see the problems they get when they do things that way? It's hard, sometimes, not to think that the Iraqis are somehow stupid or ignorant. But that's a trap. It should come as no surprise to anyone to learn that Iraqis possess the same range of intelligence, wisdom, bravery, and every other human trait that Americans do. The 'problem,' at least for us as advisors, is that their culture is different than ours and so they express these traits differently than we do.
Over time, we've started to learn a bit about these differences, and our working relationship has improved to that degree. But it is an incredibly difficult process, because it involves trying to step outside the cultural norms that we have internalized over decades of life so that we can see them and how they differ from those of the Iraqis. By the end of our year here, we will probably have begun to have some real understanding of how Iraqis think.
I'm reluctant to point out this next part, but it's true. Having spent a year learning a little Arabic and a little more Iraqi culture, we will all head back to other more traditional military assignments, and the Iraqis will get a brand new crop of advisors, all of whom will be starting from ground zero once more. I wouldn't recommend leaving us here beyond our year; at six months we're already getting a bit stir-crazy. But I think the Army might be wise to consider developing a crop of people who are good at this job and rotating them through it more often, rather than simply training a new crop every eleven months or so. I don't know how long we're going to be in Iraq and Afghanistan, but I do know that cultural literacy is too difficult a skill to throw away lightly.
How about more training for everyone in the Army about cultural differences? I know how limited time for training is but if this is that important maybe the Army should take note and do more of the cultural training throughout the service person's time in the Army.
It would seem to me that if we can change the mindset of a large group of people it could help not only overseas but inside the US as well. Becoming culturally aware should be a good thing for everyone.Posted by wes on December 18, 2007 10:57 AM
I would agree with Wes that cultural education would be good for all of us. That's a big reason Americans are considered so arrogant. We are raised to believe that our culture is superior to any other and forget that we came from other cultures. It's so good that you are explaining all of this to us. I only wish that more people were reading your blog. You are doing an exceptional job in educating us on your tasks. Thank you and love to you. Aunt AlliePosted by Aunt Allie on December 19, 2007 06:13 AM
Hey, you go from Denver to Boston you find enough cultural differences to be pretty confused by the locals for 3 or 4 days. It would have been nice to see specific examples.Posted by RB on January 5, 2008 03:07 PM
What a tragedy -- Andrew Olmsted being killed. His family has to live without him forever.
He talked about trying to understand the culture of the people of Iraq -- but how about understanding that the U.S. military invaded and destroyed their country killing thousands including their president.
I'm 70 something and all my life we have been invading countries on the other side of the world -- killing their people and destroying their country.
I know that some of our military want to believe that somehow we are doing some good , but lets suppose that massive armies and bombs from some other country was invading and destroying our country. Would we take some comfort in under- standing their culture?
Hopefully, we will be able to change our government so that if the President and/or congress want to start a war they have to have direct permission from every single person in this country. Our constitution forbids engaging in foreign wars.
BBWicksPosted by Beverly Wicks on January 6, 2008 12:51 PM