Morale: A Century of Cultural Awareness


August 1, 2007: Ever since the Spanish American War, the U.S. has been providing its troops, headed overseas, with helpful advice on how to behave with the unarmed foreigners they might encounter. By World War II, this had progressed from lectures to printed handouts. By Vietnam, there were small cards you could stick in your shirt pocket. These might also contain useful phrases, in the local language, for off the battlefield use. A separate crib sheet provided foreign language phrases for use on hostile troops.

But it was non-hostile foreigners the troops had the most contact with. Today, troops headed for Iraq and Afghanistan not only get lectures (often by Iraqis and Afghans) and "Culture Smart Cards," but also software simulations. These last items allow the troops, most of whom grew up with video games, the opportunity to see how well they could cope with strange people they could not just kill with a wide variety of exotic weapons. Many troops get into this new learning experience, but a large minority are put off by all these exotic and confusing foreigners, and just stand aside, weapons ready, just in case.

It's hard to calculate how effective these cultural awareness efforts have been. The cases where there is obviously little cultural awareness, are more likely to make it to the news. But internal surveys indicate that the cultural awareness programs, now over a century old, do have a positive effect. Which is why there are more and more of them.

A typical Culture Smart Card can be found here.


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