Friday, May 06, 2005

Marine Corps Cultural Training is Worse than Useless

The Marine Corps has decided to provide cultural training to all Marines to develop a baseline of knowledge about cultures and nations in which the Marine Corps will be called to fight. In a vacuum, cultural training sounds like a good idea. Who could be against it? Learn about the foreigners, and through understanding, link up with the good guys and defeat the bad guys. Col Bearor, the Chief of Staff of the Marine Corps Training and Education Command, makes the case to the UPI "If we go in early we preclude having al-Qaida get their foot in the door, by helping the (indigenous people) understand what they need, and not stepping on their toes."

I will get to the vacuity of this argument that cultural understanding will forestall conflict in a moment. I would first like to focus on the cost of this. The Marines want to train a cadre of 40,000 Marines with these cultural skills. The training vision includes college level anthropology course and language training: "I would liken it to the first four to six courses a cultural anthropologist would get (in undergraduate studies)," Bearor said. "They'll get that initial plug of training sitting in a school seat. Follow-on courses will be done through distance learning." These students would also receive 160 hours of language training. The vision is a full semester of college for 4500 Marines a year to improve cultural awareness. Do the math; assuming 8 semesters equals a college education, we are going to pay for 560 BS's in Anthropology with a concentration in Foreign Language per year without any real justification that by doing so, we will make the Marine Corps a more formidable fighting organization.

How will the Marines know what languages and cultures we should train to? Here is where this idea goes from infuriating to hilarious. The Marine Corps Intelligence Activity will look 10 years into the future and assign a percentage to the likihood the US will be involved in conflicts in various places. I have made the point earlier that these "way aheads" are pointless and beyond worthless. Yet here we go, trying to justify this huge waste of resources and vast bureaucracy that is Marine Corps strategic intelligence and by extension, Defense Intelligence. Do a thought experiment. In 1995, what would the prediction have been about Marine Corps conflicts in the next 10 years? Where would we have focused our training dollars? My guess? Some place on the littoral, and someplace we had just been. Somalia, Eritrea, Haiti, some one bold may have dusted off the reports which talked of the looming expansionistic threat of Japan, maybe the West Bank or Gaza. Would we have spent money on Pashtu, Farsi, Urdu or anything else they speak in Afghanistan? Would we have taught about the threat of nihilistic Islamacists? The answer is of course, no. So why do we think that the pie -in-the-sky'ers at MCIA would NOW come up with anything relevant? Anyone can draw a straight line from now into the distant future and say "That is where we will be." However, if there is one thing I know (and I admittedly don't know much) it is this: the future is never a straight line from the now. To assume otherwise is folly.
Here is an analogous situation, for while, the National Football League would endeavor to highlight what they considered their best teams on Monday Night Football. As we know, the schedule was set the year before, so the poobahs in the NFL and at ABC would put their big brains to a little bit of predictive analysis. The predicted "best" teams would get three games on Monday night, the next tier would get 2 games, the third tier would get 1 game and the worst teams would be left out of the rarified Monday night air. The tastefully named Gregg Easterbrook analyzed the value of these predictions and concluded that for three years running, if you wanted to know who was going to be in the Super Bowl, pick from the group of teams that was not going to be televised on Monday night. In other words, pick AGAINST the predictions. Now, if people with a financial stake in picking macro-results for sports teams correctly using reams of relevent and accurate statistical data would inevitably get their predictions wrong, why should we have any faith in the geopolitical predictions of intelligence officers made with data that is little better than guesses? The answer? We should not.

How much will this new emphasis on cultural learning cost the taxpayer? Let's conservatively estimate $2400 a semester per student, or $19000 for each BS. Now multiply that times 560. We are looking at $10 million a year! How much force protection can we buy for this $10 million? What other training will suffer because of the time wasted on this? How many Marines will die because some vital lifesaving training was slighted to assauge the vanity of the General who dreamed this up. THAT is the real cost of this GOBI (General Officer Bright Idea)

However, if we are convinced that cultural sensitivity training is the way to go in the Marine Corps to increase our effectiveness, then I have a proposal. Every place I have ever been with a Marine unit, every time I have trained with other nation’s armed services, I have noticed a phenomenon. In every case, there is a Marine, or a Navy Corpsman or a group of Marines who develop an almost immediate rapport with the locals. Whether because of innate cultural sensitivity, or because they already speak the language or the just want to go native, every unit I have ever been in has an organic “cadre” who is just good at the cross-cultural stuff. Instead of training every NCO to be “mini-FAO’s (Foreign Area Officers) we should instead challenge our small unit leaders to recognize their natural FAO’s imbedded in their units. These Marines should be offered the specialized, additional anthropological and language training that is likely to “take” and to actually be of some value to the unit and the Marine Corps. However, I think that even anthropologists would question the wisdom of spending the limited resources turning every Marine NCO into anthropology major. These anthropologist might even see the potential for studying why leaders feel compelled to force everyone they lead to study obscure subjects in which the leader is interested. But I digress. There is value in studying culture, but such an opportunity should be offered in a fashion much more targeted than in the bloated, expensive, scattershot way that is contemplated by the Marine bureaucracy.

I find it interesting that Col Bearor rightly observes that “we [the Marine Corps] forgot some of the lessons hard learned over history...” then prescribes the wrong cure. Instead of going back to what worked in World War II and Korea, he decides that cultural awareness is what Marines need more of. I would submit that what we have actually forgotten is the fact that the victor in combat by definition has the dominant culture to which the vanquished must adapt. The Marines on Okinawa did not endeavor to use minimum force to keep the Japanese at bay while they restored electric power, instead, we incinerated those losers in their fighting holes. We obliterated their cities, we forced their emperor to renounce his theology and we forced Japan to accept parliamentary democracy. We strutted around like we owned the place, because we did, and as a consequence, the Japanese people accepted our culture.

Instead of cultural training, I would submit that the Marine Corps should pursue another concept. One of the current buzzwords at the Pentagon is “_______ dominance.” The Air Force pursues “air dominance.” The Army looks for “battlespace dominance.” The Navy has something called “The Center for Information Dominance.” Therefore, to stay with the theme, I propose that the Marine Corps should strive for “Cultural dominance!” The thing is, American already has cultural dominance in the world. Marines, just by pushing their Oakley sunglasses on top of their heads, with their Colt M16s slung across their back while typing emails on Windows based computers connected to the internet about the bootlegged copy of Triple X State of the Union they just watched, are advancing that culture. The rest of the hungers for the culture we take for granted, and would gladly throw off whatever backwards cultural trappings with which they are saddled to operate in our culture as easily as these young Marines do. Think I am wrong? The dominant restaurants in Japan are MacDonalds and MOS Burger, a McDonalds knock off, down to the appearance of the restaurants, and the shape of the logo. There are more Starbucks Shops in Taipei than in Chicago. Korean pop music sounds, except for the language, indistinguishable from anything produced in the States. Kids from Shanghai to the Sunni Triangle are dressing and gesticulating like Allen Iverson. And virtually everyone with any gumption anywhere in the world longs to come to America.

Col Bearor’s boss, LtGen Mattis had a saying for the Iraqis, “No better friend, no worse enemy” than the US Marines. We do ourselves a disservice if we think that we would be better off learning about the enemy cultures and doing what we can to adapt to them so as not to offend them. That is not being a friend, that is patronizing. On the contrary, we are safer as a Corps, a country and the world when we use maximum violence to destroy those who think their ideology makes them superior and justifies their killing and enslaving us then living proudly as Americans where ever we are, comfortably enjoying the fruits of the culture to which others aspire, and worshipping our God where we want, without shame.

Wednesday, May 04, 2005


Long time readers of this blog know of my fondness for Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers movies. On Sunday night, I watched a great one, Swing Time. The story is that Fred, a dancer, was going to get married to a girl in his hometown, but her father objected because Fred did not have a job. So he claimed to have a job in NY and headed there. Though a series of misadventures, he meets and teams up with Ginger and eventually asks her to marry him. There were a lot of dance numbers. The best is when Fred pretends to be a novice dancer who is "taught" to dance by Ginger so she will not get fired from her job as a dance instructor. That one really is magic.

Two notes on this showing on TCM. At one point, a character asks Fred what his chest size is for a coat. Fred says: "36 inches." 36 inches? They sell that size coat in the boy's section. He must have been 5'5"!

Second, Peter Bogdonavich, notorious bloviating director of mediocre movies, opined that although every FA/GR dance number in every movie is honey, only Swing Time is a watchable movie. Huh? Has he not seen Night and Day? That is a wonderful movie, full of joy and humor. Swing Time was fun, but Fred's number in blackface was a little out of the 2005 cultural norms. Bog should shut his ample pie hole.

Monday, May 02, 2005

Sunday's Gospel Lesson

In Bible study, we are inching through the book of John, and we have reached chapter 9:1-38. This is the story where Jesus restores the sight of the man born blind who is then brought into the temple and questioned about Jesus. During the questioning, the blind man utters the words which became part of the hymn, Amazing Grace “Was blind but now, I see!”

There are two lessons in this story relevant to this time in my life. The first is in verse 3, in response to the question about why it is that the beggar had been blind his whole life:

Jesus answered, Neither hath this man sinned, nor his parents: but that the works of God should be made manifest in him.

While we are suffering, we tend to think that we are being punished, or that God has abandoned us. We cannot see the bigger picture because we are staring at our own navel in despair. But Jesus is making it clear here that suffering has a purpose and that purpose is to show that by ending the suffering, God’s is working in the world. Does it mean that things will be great after suffering? Does Jesus mean that we will get our reward on earth for suffering on earth? The answer is no. The blind beggar was given his sight, only to be cast out of the Temple. That man had been born blind, and suffered his whole life for a 10 minute meeting with Jesus. Jesus makes it clear that the only reward we can be sure of is the one we will receive in heaven. We can also be sure that suffering has a purpose, a purpose which we may not understand until we are with God in Heaven and it is made clear to us. We have faith that suffering is for a reason.

The second lesson is that belief in Jesus does not require language study, or historical deconstruction, or grounding in hermeneutics, or even any knowledge of the Old Testament. All you need to know is that Jesus walked the earth, did miracles that no man could do, and asked us to believe in Him and have everlasting life. The formally blind man believed, the thief on the cross believed, I believe. I pray that you believe too.


I sent this comment to the writers of the new book Freakonomics by Levitt and Dubner.

Gentlemen, I bought and read your book. I have a couple of comments.

1. Regarding sumo, how insightful is your thesis that vested wrestlers throw matches to their 7-7 opponents in a quid pro quo? When I lived in Japan from 96-2001, I noticed that those conducting the tournaments tried to match 7-7 wrestlers on the final Sunday of matches, specifially to avoid the type of collusion you mentioned. Further, as I recall, "smart money" gamblers ALWAYS bet on the 7-7 wrestler if he did happen to be matched agaist one who already had his kachikoshi. Such a bet is the closest you can come to a "lead pipe cinch" without actually being privvy to the comspiracy. Japenese gamblers may not have the benefit of regression analysis, but they have a lifetime of empirical knowledge which results in the same conclusion.

2. Why be reticient about advocating abortion and voluntary sterilization as a crime fighting tools or as a tools for ameliorating many of sociey's ills? I wonder because it seems that later in your book in the parenting section and in the naming section, you bolster the idea that social pathologies are genetically inherited. I think that the half of the American population that generally supports abortion would be gratified to know there is another reason to support its legalization, and it would undercut the idea that many on the pro-life side hold that abortion is an absolute evil. Properly presented, I think you and polititians who embrace your ideas would find a large, receptive audience for them.

Just as Japanese gamblers lacked regression analysis but made the same conclusion you did about 7-7 wrestlers, I think that the American people have noticed that criminal pathologies come out of one socio-economic group, but have been conditioned NOT to give voice to those thoughts. Ironically, your book shows how this conditioning was done in the case of the Klu Klux Klan yet how we still harbor and act on our prejudices if we thing we can get away with them, as you noted in your discussion of the Weakest Link. If academics and writers like yourself are willing to point out statistically that society would be better off with a smaller population of the pathology-producing groups, it will provide society will the cover to talk comfortably about solutions that will actually work to reduce crime and illiteracy such as lifetime incarceration for career criminals, economic incentives for voluntary sterilization and free birth control and abortion.

If you are looking for a unifying theme for this book, I would suggest that you look no further than genetics is desiny.

Thank you for a thoughtful and interesting book.