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What US wants in its troops: cultural savvy

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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.

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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."