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.
In Iraq, the commander of US forces, Army Gen. George Casey, has created a Counterinsurgency Academy for all arriving officers. Meanwhile, Central Command, the military command that oversees Iraq and Afghanistan, started a three-week course in which Jordanian forces teach US soldiers about Arabic culture.
The purpose is not to be a nicer military. Rather, it is to help troops grasp how cultural factors can affect tactical decisions.
"They have us think about cultural factors as if they were battlefield factors," says Tompkins. "The placement of mortars and machine guns is still important, but cultural issues are just as important – and they can win or lose us a city."
Of course, no amount of training about Iraqi culture can halt deliberate criminal action, as is alleged in the most recent case against a US serviceman in Iraq. Federal authorities on Monday charged Steven Green, a recently discharged Army private, with murdering four members of an Iraqi family in Mahmudiya. He is also charged with raping one of the alleged victims before shooting her. At least three other soldiers, all still on active duty, are under investigation in connection with the March incident, military officials said last week. Media reports have stated that investigators believe the crime might have been premeditated. It is perhaps the most inflammatory of five incidents that have come to light in recent weeks and prompted investigations or charges of murder against US servicemen.
For his part, CAOCL's Dr. Salmoni acknowledges that basic training and strong leadership are the best bulwarks against crimes in wartime. But cultural training can help build a better-prepared marine – one who sees Iraqis as more than just an inscrutable enemy, he says.
Before marines deploy abroad, CAOCL gives them information and training specific to where they are going. Here in Quantico's officer schools, it supports and promotes the sorts of cultural exercises that Tompkins participated in.
That day, captains were teaching a class to lieutenants, and on one side of the classroom stood a map. But this map was not marked with arrows showing how best to attack a convoy or engage an enemy. It showed three square blocks of an Iraqi city. On it, the captains had highlighted a school, a Red Crescent relief center, a market, and a mosque. The students' task: explain how they would conduct a foot patrol through the city.
At every stop, the captains gave them a new hypothetical problem to solve. At the school, the patrol took fire from the building's rooftop, injuring one. At the Red Crescent, there was a large crowd with people firing guns into the air. At the mosque, insurgents attacked and then sought shelter inside.
The idea to knock on the mosque door didn't come from Tompkins – or from any of the other lieutenants, for that matter. It came from the captains. In every exercise, "they mentioned something that we never thought of," says Tompkins. What surprised him "was how much the teachers encouraged critical thinking," he says. "At what point is killing [the enemy] less important than the cultural problems it will create?"
The military began to learn these lessons in earnest a decade ago in Bosnia, Kosovo, and Haiti, where battle lines blurred, bringing troops into close contact with civilians. Iraq and Afghanistan, however, have been the tipping point for change.
Now, the push for cultural learning comes from the highest levels of the military hierarchy. The commanding officer of the Army's Training and Doctrine Command has made it a top priority.
"It's the nonlethal aspects of our business that I think we're gaining a much greater appreciation for," said Gen. William Scott Wallace in a briefing last year. "It's appreciating the fact that the urban terrain includes people who grew up in a particular culture that we don't necessarily understand."
It is a vital lesson, say experts. But some wonder whether the military has taken too long to act. Says David Segal, director of the Center for Research on Military Organization in College Park, Md.: "Three years into this war, they're figuring out how to fight it."