Thursday, March 31, 2005

Iraq War: The Iraq Culture Smart Card

This is an interesting item from the Federation of American Scientists Web site:  The Iraq Culture Smart Card (*.pdf file) designed by the Marine Corps to provide information for personnel serving in Iraq.  An easier-to-read non-pdf version is available from Der Spiegel divided into sections (with German versions included).

It's informative in itself.  And it provides a dramatic reminder of how difficult it is to fight a counterinsurgency campaign when you have to use American troops to gather intelligence and handle police actions like searching houses and breaking down doors to arrest suspects.

A few examples from the card give a good glimpse at this.  Among the "Don't Do This" items are included the following:

Don't point with a finger; it is a sign of contempt.  Instead, point with your entire hand.

Don't make the "OK" or "thumbs up" sign; they are considered obscene.

Remember early in the war when the TV cameras showed crowds of Iraqis giving the thumbs-up to American troops?  Our Republican war fans cheerfully took this as a sign of how happy they were to have us there.

Don't ask for a single opinion on an issue, as Iraqis often first reply with the answer they think you want to hear, rather than an honest response.

This makes sense.  Even in democracies, people will often dissemble about their political opinions in particular with people they don't know well.  In a society that has been governed for a long time by a dictatorship with a heavy surveillance of the populartion, this is a survival instinct.

I wonder how many Western reporters follow this caution when they do their "ordinary Iraqi on the street" interviews?

4 comments:

armandt said...

Bruce,

Just as the troops are encouraged to meet locals on their cultural terms, the locals (anywhere, not just Iraq) learn some of our customs as well... to include hand signals and gestures.

If they wanted to show their discontent, I assure you they wouldn't have been smiling with their thumbs up, but grimacing with the traditional middle-finger salute.

You might consider giving Iraqi's more credit for understanding who they are communicating with - and using signs and signals familiar with their target audience.

~ Armand

bmiller224 said...

So, Armandt, it looks like illusions die hard.

I guess it's always possible that the Marine Corps intelligence division that did this information card, and others at the time who mentioned the same thing, were totally off base.

Or maybe it was more wishful thinking in FoxWorld.  It seems to be in abundant supply there.

But it does kind of miss the whole point of learning what's different in another culture if you just assume that, well, when they're dealing with Americans they must be adapting themselves to American culture. - Bruce

armandt said...

No Bruce,

The Marines had it right.  Showing the thumbs-up and the soles of ones feet (among many other gestures) are traditionally considered rude/derogatory in Iraq.  These cards are only reminders of the cultural immersion training and re-training that many of us give - and get.  They certainly aren't the extent of the training as you may like to wishfully thi... er, suppose.

Just as we are mindful of their customs & culture and try to meet them where they are at - they certainly respect our efforts and, in many cases, they attempt to do the very same thing for us.  Even the French, when we show effort to meet them on their turf, are much more accommodating than portrayed.

We neither assume nor expect others to assimilate to our culture, especially on their own turf.  Pretending otherwise from behind your keyboard is petty hackery at best.


bmiller224 said...

Armandt, did someone hijack your screen name?  I mean, on 4/1 you were poo-pooing the idea that the thumbs-up sign meant what the "Smart Card" said it did:

<< You might consider giving Iraqi's more credit for understanding who they are communicating with - and using signs and signals familiar with their target audience. >>

But then on 4/5, you were all huffy at the suggestion that the Marines' Smart Card was anything but accurate:

<< We neither assume nor expect others to assimilate to our culture, especially on their own turf. Pretending otherwise from behind your keyboard is petty hackery at best. >>

Just to be clear to both Armandts, the point of this post was that the Marines' informational card gives an informative glimpse at the everyday differences in Iraqi culture and the American one, apart from the language itself.  In conventional warfare, those wouldn't necessarily make a great difference.  But when American troops are expected to conduct what in many cases are police operations, they make a huge difference. - Bruce