In Class, Marines Learn Cultural Cost Of Conflict An anthropologist defies her field to teach Marines the consequences of their actions.
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In Class, Marines Learn Cultural Cost Of Conflict

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In Class, Marines Learn Cultural Cost Of Conflict

In Class, Marines Learn Cultural Cost Of Conflict

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MARY LOUISE KELLY, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Mary Louise Kelly.

We're down in Quantico, Virginia, at the Marine Corps University, and we're going to take you inside this lecture hall. There are about 200 students here. They're in their camouflage uniforms - they are not in your typical college student jean and T-shirts. Most of them are Marines. Many of them have already been to war in Iraq and Afghanistan. And this class we're bringing you to is part of the expeditionary warfare school. That's a yearlong program for officers.

Dr. PAULA HOLMES-EBER (Anthropologist): Morning.

CLASS: Morning.

KELLY: Paula Holmes-Eber is the anthropologist who's teaching the class. She teaches other classes on operational culture here at Marine Corps University. Let's listen in.

Dr. HOLMES-EBER: We had, I think, this conversation the last time I was here, which is, you know, should we change another culture? The reality is the second you land on the ground with 100,000 troops eating and using the materials of the area, you've changed the economy, you've changed the environment. It's not should we; it's what are we doing, and is that what we want to be doing?

KELLY: The point of this class is to teach America's war fighters to be sensitive to other cultures, get them to think through how every move they make on the battlefield has a consequence - not just for enemy forces but for ordinary people.

Dr. HOLMES-EBER: If I knock out a bridge and people can't get over the river to bring their goods to market, what you've done? You've changed the environment by knocking the bridge out. OK. That changes the economy 'cause the farmers can't bring their fruit to market. Well, guess what? The market - the fruit all spoils. OK. All the farmers suddenly no longer have the income they had. If people in that farming village were all one tribe, inadvertently, you just made a tribe poor.

KELLY: Holmes-Eber hopes that what she's teaching here won't just end up scrawled in a spiral notebook but actually informing decisions that military commanders make on the ground. So, she runs the class through a war game, a practice scenario about an imaginary U.S. military intervention in the North African nation of Tunisia. The challenges would be very different from Iraq and Afghanistan.

Tunisia depends on beach tourism, and Holmes-Eber pushes her students: Don't think you could just go in, fight a war, and then pack up and leave.

Dr. HOLMES-EBER: OK? Because people are going to not want to come and stay in those fancy hotels on the beaches, and Tunisia's income is going to go down. One of your challenges is going to be, how do you preserve the economy and not destroy it with your operations? Is there a way to not hamper the tourist economy in a major way? OK. Well, we'll see you - oh, sorry, good.

KELLY: Holmes-Eber is just wrapping up class when a student interrupts with a question about the war game. They've been asked not to disturb tourism in Northern Tunisia, but he doesn't see how that's possible given the mission they've been assigned.

Unidentified Man: Doing an amphibious offload way up in the north, and then driving all the way through this city's centers and whatnot on those highways down to the south; to me that didn't make any sense whatsoever. I mean, what...

Dr. HOLMES-EBER: I agree.

Unidentified Man: ...that's kind of what we have to operate with here 'cause that's the plan that we're given. But, I mean, you would see that as a pretty dumb idea, right?

Dr. HOLMES-EBER: Absolutely. I have to tell you, your mission statement, with that strategy already in place, causes you such headaches 'cause you're driving all the way down the coast and destroying every vacations resort along the way. How do you mop that up, I dont know, but I think you've got a really big challenge.

Unidentified Man: Thank you, Doctor, I appreciate it.

(Soundbite of applause)

KELLY: So we've wrapped up the class with the students in the big lecture hall, and we've brought Dr. Paula Holmes-Eber back to her offices here at Marine Corps University Library. We sat in the classroom. You've got more than 200 in there. These are mostly officers, mostly Marine Corps, although the other services are there as well and some international students. All people with, correct me if I'm wrong, but considerably more experience in the war zone than you have.

Dr. HOLMES-EBER: Absolutely.

KELLY: How does that - that must be really intimidating.

Dr. HOLMES-EBER: Oh yeah. Well, it is intimidating and it isn't. I mean, yeah, I'm definitely out on a limb. I've got an audience that's looking at this blonde-haired, 5-foot, 4-inch female going: What does she know about anything? So, it is a challenge to gain credibility, to have them accept and respect what I do. The first year, I'll tell you, the hardest part was learning how to speak and understand Marine-speak.

KELLY: You had to learn the acronyms.

Dr. HOLMES-EBER: Yeah, well, it is a foreign culture. I mean, they have a foreign language, they have their own ceremonies, they have their own rituals, they have everything. Just a perfect foreign culture. So, I'm actually an anthropologist in two ways. I'm teaching about culture, trying to teach the principles of culture to Marines, but I'm also an anthropologist studying the Marine Corps, understanding them so that I can translate what I know. The more that I'm able to speak in a way that makes sense to them, use examples, that helps.

KELLY: And when your students go to Afghanistan, as many of them will, I understand, what are you hoping they'll do differently? I mean, part of it, it sounds as simple as thinking through you blow up this bridge, that has a consequence.

Dr. HOLMES-EBER: Right. Well, it can be as simple as that. It can be long term. What I hope is that instead of a long term - let's look at it truthfully. Afghanistan, nobody who's gone in there - the British, the Russians - it's bloody, it's horrible, it's protracted, and we never leave feeling particularly happy. I'd like to see that that could be changed. That by understanding and working with the local people and being able to cooperate successfully, I mean, I begin to become connected with them. I don't want them dying. I want them to come back and, you know, I want them to come back having done what we're asking them to do effectively and successfully.

And I think not understanding the culture is a huge detriment for them because they're always going to be working at a disadvantage.

KELLY: Is there any sort of conflict inherent in this? By which I mean, I'm sure most military officers would say it's great to respect cultural sensitivities; that's all well and good. But we're at war.

Dr. HOLMES-EBER: Right.

KELLY: The job of the U.S. military at war is to defeat the enemy, and you have to hurt the enemy to do that. How do you reconcile that with some of the concepts you're trying to teach?

Dr. HOLMES-EBER: I don't see them as at all contradictory. The goal is mission effectiveness. In other words, do what we've been asking them to do and come home. Well, if they fail because they don't understand the culture, then they didn't do what we asked them to do.

So, it's not about being touchy-feely and sweet and don't we like the natives -and I really hope that we don't kill as many people this way - but it's about that we fail if we don't understand culture. And so there's no contradiction. In fact, it's necessary.

KELLY: I want to ask you about your role here as an anthropologist working within and for the Marine Corps, because I understand there's many in your profession who see this as a traitorous act, who think it's wrong for an anthropologist to be teaching at Marine Corps University. Why?

Dr. HOLMES-EBER: Well, yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. HOLMES-EBER: OK.

KELLY: We'll let you squirm for a minute, and then you can answer.

Dr. HOLMES-EBER: Yeah, that's fine.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. HOLMES-EBER: It's awkward. Actually, it's one of the things that's made the Marines more sympathetic to me, 'cause they realize that I've had to run against my own field, my own profession, and go against the current and stand up, and say and do something that really isn't popular.

KELLY: But why isn't it? What's the issue?

Dr. HOLMES-EBER: The issue is - and it stems back from World War II and Vietnam War. Actually, anthropologists worked very closely with the military prior to that time. During Vietnam, there was some support that was very questionable. Anthropology was used as intelligence, used to destroy certain villages and harm populations. And anthropologists said, wait a minute, you know, that's not the intent of our information, to actually go out and harm the population.

And they set a do-no-harm standard. But the problem is that, you know what, first of all, there isn't black and white. It's not - in my opinion, not helping out the military, not working with them, is not without ethical implications. If we stay out of a situation, things are going to happen that wouldn't happen if we'd be there. So, I think you have a moral responsibility to - you know, doctors don't sit here and say, well, there's a guy dying on the street but he's not my patient; off I go.

I find that it's a lot grayer. It's not I don't cooperate with the military, therefore I'm innocent. You do. I think that we're all implicated. It's just a question of where that line is. I've had to make my own line for myself. I dont know what is morally wrong about teaching Marines about Islamabad, Arab culture, about understanding tribal structures. I can't think of anything that I could go to bed at night and say, oh, I've really done something wrong.

KELLY: Dr. Holmes-Eber, thank you.

Dr. HOLMES-EBER: Thank you.

(Soundbite of music)

KELLY: Paula Holmes-Eber, talking about teaching culture at the Marine Corps University in Quantico, Virginia. That story was produced by Thomas Pierce and Carolyn Baylor.

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