Candor, Culture, and the Military Experience

by David French

Many thanks to Professor Hanson for his typically excellent post on “Candor and Culture.” One of the striking things about the debate triggered by Governor Romney’s remarks was that most of those speaking about the issue actually had very little experience with Arab Middle Eastern culture (and, no, university panel discussions and fly-in/fly-out meetings don’t count). There are, however, hundreds of thousands of Americans with hard-won, on-the-ground experience in the very heart of the Middle East, and they are largely silent.

First, it’s hard to overstate the level of cynicism toward Iraqi or Afghan culture on the part of the majority of American soldiers who’ve spent considerable time “outside the wire.” With their own eyes they’ve seen levels of brutality, ignorance, abuse (particularly toward women), and even pedophilia beyond anything even remotely comparable to their American experiences. Anti-Semitism is loud and vicious, making some Jewish soldiers reluctant to reveal or discuss their religious identities. Simply put, for Americans schooled in the mindless cultural relativism of our high schools and colleges, the profound negative differences between our culture and contemporary Arab Middle Eastern culture are shocking.

At the same time, the military has good reasons for not wanting to splash Iraqi or Afghan cultural problems all over the front pages. After all, our soldiers fight side-by-side with local soldiers and police officers, and there’s no need to unnecessarily offend and undermine those relationships. In a shame- and honor-based culture strong criticism can result in vengeance, not reform, and the long and patient process of building an even slightly better society requires that we not burn our bridges and work with the culture they have as much as we can (we’re not going to change in a decade norms constructed over the course of thousands of years).  Moreover, I can remember being profoundly impressed with the courage and fortitude of many individual Iraqis and to this day want to honor them and their sacrifices.  

The networks of true cultural education are thus largely informal, with officers and NCOs passing down hard-won local knowledge and then coming home to watch — often detached and sometimes amused — as politicians and pundits debate from a background of sheer ignorance.   And as the divide between our warriors and our elite pundits, educators, and politicians grows, so does the elites’ ignorance.

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