The Downside of “Cultural Sensitivity”

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Army photo by Val Hyde

U.S. troops attending a "cultural awareness" class in at Wisconsin's Fort McCoy before heading downrange

When will we say enough is enough? As I watch the atrocities mount in Syria, and our President apologize to the citizens of Afghanistan for an honest error, it highlighted not only the differences in culture between Middle Eastern countries and the United States but also the absolute fallacy that everyone’s culture should be respected.

Sometimes wrong is wrong and those guilty need to be punished. The main question is: Is it the U.S.’s role to point out these inconsistencies and do something about it? I say yes.

Currently deployed U.S. military members go through significant cultural awareness training prior to departing home station. The message delivered by the trainers is that because they’re being deployed to a foreign country they need to be culturally sensitive to the way things work there. There is also an unintentional message of U.S. cultural inferiority that comes through in the training – at least that was my take on it when I went through it.

Additionally, U.S. Intelligence personnel have placed an increased importance on the value of cultural intelligence in order to best predict where and from whom the next most logical threat will emerge. To aid in this emerging form of Intelligence exploitation, teams of social scientists are deployed with U.S. military personnel and do magnificent work helping those in uniform to understand the social environment of their battle space. My experience with these teams was very positive and I found them to be most helpful in dealing with indigenous personnel.

But here’s the rub. Our Middle Eastern partners reciprocate none of these actions. In fact, when dealing with U.S. they have mastered the notion that because the military folks have gone through such extensive cultural sensitivity training, they can pretty much behave as they wish with no concern for insulting western ideals.

With the spate of recent murders committed against U.S. military personnel by our Afghan partners it has become alarmingly apparent that it’s high time for some reciprocity from our “partners.” Having spent billions of dollars with relatively little to show for it, perhaps it is time to simply leave.

As the U.S. hangs its hat on the notion that freedom and liberty reign supreme and oppression and discrimination are the worst forms of human treatment, it’s high time we demand cultural changes consistent with our own — or we’ll simply stop helping.

I fully understand the critics who argue Afghanistan and Iraq never asked for our “help,” but the reality is that due to our military might, there was never a real initial fight. The real fight came as we tried to help them into the 21st Century. U.S. military personnel regularly see barbaric acts of female abuse, racial and religious persecution, as well as illegal financial dealings. But they turn their heads in the interest of cultural respect. Sometimes it’s not cultural — it’s just plain wrong. As Americans, we should be allowed to say so, and, more importantly, do something about it.