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Please Help Us Help You -- If Allah Is Willing

Marine Maj. Beau Higgins is an intelligence officer who has served tours in Somalia, Bosnia, Afghanistan and Iraq. He is on leave at home in New Orleans. This excerpt is from an article appearing in the current issue of the University of Virginia Alumni News.

Most Americans share an optimistic outlook and believe that, like us, everyone is planning for the future. In Iraq, it became obvious that we were naive about what common people had been going through in recent decades. This cultural divide led to many problems that still affect operations in Iraq.

Those differences can be very frustrating for the U.S. military. We went into Iraq believing that we really could fix the problems. I spoke with many Marines eager to help the Iraqis achieve a new future. But it appeared that the Iraqis didn’t seem to care as much about Iraq as we did.

We had problems getting Iraqis to show up on time for work. We would provide Iraqi leaders with upfront payments for projects, but the work would not get done. We had Iraqis complaining about myriad problems, but few seemed interested in fixing them.

I remember thinking how easy this all should be. We don’t really want to be here. You don’t want us here. If you stop shooting at us, we’ll be happy to leave shortly. The line from the movie “Jerry Maguire” -- “Help me help you” -- became a daily lament for many of us. I think we all believed that we could fix everything in Iraq in six months to a year.

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These issues are intimately tied to Iraqi cultural issues that the coalition often failed to understand.

Take timeliness, a sticking point for Americans. Most Iraqis have a sense of religious fatalism best summed up by the word inshallah, which means “God willing.” For example, when we asked about details involving a job, we typically heard, “Yes, I will have 40 men there tomorrow at 0800 to begin the work, inshallah.”

Unfortunately, we found out the hard way that God wasn’t always willing. This was difficult for Marines to understand. Our military culture is one of mission accomplishment.

The survival instincts of Iraqis typically gave them short-term focus. A bird in the hand today was more valuable than any promise for tomorrow. This was a direct reflection of life in Iraq before the invasion. You never knew what tomorrow would bring or when Saddam Hussein’s henchmen may be at the door. So you lived in the present.

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Based on U.S. promises that were made and broken during 1991’s Operation Desert Storm, particularly in the Shiite-dominated areas of southern Iraq, we can easily understand why many Iraqis were skeptical of our intentions. Our military planning did not take that history into consideration. Most of what we learned was on-the-job. A better cultural analysis would have made these pitfalls obvious.

Culture is now the topic du jour in many circles at the Defense Department. The military needs a doctrine on culture so that we have the same understanding and use the same terms. We need a top-to-bottom training program for personnel. We also need to incorporate culture into military planning.

Over the last decade, our military has tremendously improved its speed and precision on the battlefield. In today’s fight, the ability to apply knowledge is what makes the real difference.


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