World Savvy: The ugly American

The novel The Ugly American by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer first appeared in 1958 and was later made into a movie in 1963 starring Marlon (The Godfather) Brando. The book takes place in a fictional Southeast Asian country and deals with the yucky behavior of Americans, particularly government employees. Quoting U Maung Swe, a character who appears in the book:  “No one who has ever visited America and come to know the country could fail to trust and respect her people. For some reason, however, the Americans I meet in my country are not the same as the ones I knew in the United States. A mysterious change seems to come over Americans when they go to a foreign land. They isolate themselves socially. They live pretentiously. They’re loud and ostentatious.”

Former US President John F. Kennedy was so enamored with the book’s message that he and five other opinion leaders bought a large advertisement in The New York Times saying that they had sent copies to every US senator because its message was so important. This ugly American has reared its head once again in Afghanistan, where the United States is still engaged in a war that has lasted more than a decade. While the private sector has spent millions on localization of their products and services, and on training the Americans they send overseas, this conviction has not necessarily spread to the military. In all fairness, the soldiers who are sent over are there to kill the bad guys, but even their generals say that the war can’t be won militarily. But the military has to reinvent the wheel every time it goes into another conflict.

As far back as 1985, I remember watching a training video tailored for US companies on how to attune yourself to local customers. One film showed how an American could offend a Muslim businessman four ways in less than a minute. The American showed the soles of his shoes, turned down a cup of tea, asked about the man’s family and handed out his business card with his left hand.

The US military is spending a lot of money on translation, but it has seemingly made little impact involving cross-cultural issues. In 2012 alone, over 50 coalition troops were killed by their Afghan counterparts, and military officials say the majority of these stem from personal disputes.

Tensions are so high between the Americans and Afghan soldiers that American soldiers are not dying at the hands of insurgents, but the Afghan military — the so-called green on blue attacks. The Washington Post reported on September 28, 2012 that “In Afghanistan, the U.S. military has tried training sessions, embedded cultural advisers, recommended reading lists and even a video game designed to school the troops in local custom.”

When my wife Margo was going to graduate school, she examined many of the educational materials that went out with drug products and found they were written at a ninth-grade level. But much of the military’s PowerPoints, training and documentation seems to be written in a form of English that college graduates would have a hard time understanding. For example, consider “The Afghanistan Threat,” a PDF drafted by US Army Training Support that includes phrases such as “in this paradigm, one must consider that indigenous Afghan groups that once composed the Northern Alliance are vying for domestic authority and pose a threat to U.S. Forces through both collateral damage and their penchant to switch sides.” John Freivalds translation: from one day to the next, you don’t know who your enemy is.

And remember that many of the soldiers, sailors and marines sent to Afghanistan are mere high school graduates from rural America. They embark on a confused mission to Afghanistan where, like during the Vietnam War, they can’t always distinguish between friend or foe. They may even be training local forces or eating with them, and still not know whether they should trust the situation or not.

In response to the elevated death tolls spurred by personal animosity,?joint operations were temporarily scaled back so soldiers on both sides could be rescreened in the interest of providing them with a better working relationship.

Javid Ahmad, a native of Kabul and a program coordinator for Asia at the German Marshall Fund, writing in the opinion section of The Washington Post noted that “While U.S. service members are supposed to undergo cursory training on Afghan culture and customs, the military appears to concentrate on soldiers who are to have regular contact with locals. Too many U.S. soldiers receive just a half-day’s cultural awareness seminar or a PowerPoint presentation before being deployed.

“The cultural advisers embedded with foreign military and civilian teams — who are to provide advice and simplify communication in local languages — are also insufficient. Most are U.S.-educated civilian professionals employed by the military or defense contractors, and they are often disconnected from daily Afghan life. Many have been recruited from the Afghan diaspora, and they are extravagantly paid — usually $180,000 to $220,000 per year. Afghan soldiers distrust many of these Western advisers, whom they see as out to make money and/or as spies for U.S. troops.”

And the situation has been worsening. 2012’s casualites from Afghanistan are up significantly from 2011. And in 2011, an unclassified study of mutual perceptions of more than 600 Afghan security personnel and US soldiers noted that many Afghans found US soldiers to be “extremely arrogant, bullying, unwilling to listen to their advice, and were often seen as lacking concern for the safety of civilian[s] and [Afghan soldiers] during combat.”

I think that the US Department of Defense has partially given up trying to get American soldiers, mercenaries and contractors to adapt to the Afghan environment, so they have tried a new tactic to “teach” the Afghans to better understand the Americans.

“Cultural Understanding — A Guide to Understanding Coalition Cultures” is a pamphlet written in Dari, the primary language of Afghanistan, and is an effort to smooth the tensions between Afghan soldiers and Americans. The pamphlet is intended to strengthen the Afghan understanding of their NATO counterparts, according to an English translation provided to The Washington Post. Among the gems to be found in the pamphlet are:

When someone feels comfortable in your presence, they may even put their feet on their desk while speaking with you. They are by no means trying to offend you. They simply don’t know, or have forgotten, the Afghan custom. In Afghanistan, showing the sole of your shoes is disrespectful.

Please do not get offended if you see a NATO member blowing his or her nose in front of you.

When coalition members get excited, they may show their excitement by patting each other on the back or the behind. They may even do this to Afghans to show they are proud of them.

Do not get offended if coalition troops inquire about your female relatives.

Part of this situation could be alleviated by linguists, according to Ahmad. “U.S. and NATO troops need to work more closely with civilian professionals and linguists to adopt a more culturally tolerable communication style. Greater respect for local culture and improved treatment of Afghan forces would categorically minimize the odds of Afghan forces becoming willing to kill their U.S. and NATO partners.”