Lt. Thomas Tompkins had a decision to make. His unit had come under fire from a band of insurgents, who had just fled for cover in a mosque.
Strictly speaking, the rules of engagement allowed Lieutenant Tompkins to storm the front door and spread through the mosque in search of the enemy. But there was another option, it turned out: Knock on the door and talk to the imam.
Tompkins's test came not in the furnace of Baghdad or Baquba, but in a quiet classroom exercise on the lush countryside campus of Marine Corps Base Quantico. The lesson is one example of the US military's efforts to instill in troops the notion that – in a war where support from the local populace is as important as raids and airstrikes – cultural awareness can be an effective weapon.
In addition to their core training on the rules of engagement, US troops of every stripe are learning how to lunch with sheihks and conduct raids without offending the man of the house. Though recent allegations of murder, rape, and massacre by US soldiers and marines in Iraq may point out the limits of this type of training, they may just as easily underscore the importance of reinforcing it for all troops who will come into contact with the local citizenry.
"One of the things we educate most repetitively ... is being comfortable in an uncomfortable environment," says Barak Salmoni, deputy director of the Center for Advanced Operational Cultural Learning (CAOCL) at the Quantico base.
Though the armed forces have sought to take culture into consideration since the beginning of the Iraq war, CAOCL represents how that accumulated knowledge on the ground is being distilled into discrete lessons and institutionalized.
As the Marines' "center of excellence" for culture and language, the year-old center is charged with spreading cultural understanding – of lands wherever marines are deployed – into all levels of its forces education, training, and operations. Likewise, the Army has opened a similar "center of excellence" for cultural training at Fort Huachuca in Arizona.