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ALU Lecture Series Supports Cultural Awareness Skills Training

Dr. Rene Moelker, a sociologist with the Royal Netherlands Defence Academy and chairman of the European Research Group on Armed Forces and Society, lectured at the Army Logistics University (ALU) campus at Fort Lee, Virginia, on 5 April 2010 in the first of what is planned to be an ongoing series of lectures on cultural awareness.

Moelker spoke to students and guests about Dutch culture, Dutch military culture, and the ongoing Dutch mission in Afghanistan, where Dutch soldiers are doing their best to win the hearts, minds, and trust of the Afghan people. “It is difficult, and to really win the hearts and minds is probably impossible,” Moelker said of the Dutch mission in Afghanistan. “They do a very good job, and they are very successful in reconstructing society. . . They are quite successful at doing so, but [their effort] lacks the commitment to stay for maybe 30 years.”

Moelker said the Dutch military also needs to find out from the local Afghan population what their needs are. Small business, irrigation, and health services programs brought in by the Dutch military and businesses are improving conditions, but Moelker says that many times the Dutch rely on their own ideas and are not “asking the local population what they really need.”

The problems the Dutch face in Afghanistan are similar to the problems faced by other coalition partners in the region, and this is why speakers like Moelker are beneficial in helping U.S. sustainers understand the military cultural experience. Though tactics may differ, the goal is the same—to win the hearts and minds of the people of Afghanistan. By hearing of others’ experiences in the region, U.S. forces can learn new ways of dealing with problems they are already facing in Afghanistan and other nations where they are deployed.

Donna Winslow, ALU’s cultural anthropologist, explains that Moelker and future speakers provide a new approach to cultural awareness training by exposing students to different cultures and the experiences of other militaries. “One of the things that many American Soldiers don’t realize is just how small foreign forces are,” said Winslow. “The entire Canadian Forces, including the Army, Air Force, Navy, and Reserves, will be no more than 100,000, and that is after expansion!”

Winslow says armed forces are also affected by the size and geography of their countries, but they do still have many similarities. “Militaries across the world, whether you are in Singapore or America, share many things in common, which is why they get along,” said Winslow. “However, their geography or their national character, or their national circumstances, if you will, affects many things. If you are working in a multinational environment, you need to be perceptive enough and alert enough to not just do it your way, because if you do that, you are going to build a lot of animosity and barriers.”

Many theaters now have coalition-run operations that require Soldiers to work with the armed services of several different countries and with nongovernmental organizations. The goal at ALU is to teach students the critical thinking skills needed to recognize the differences that may affect their relationships in multinational assignments.

“Cultural awareness is about immediately knowing that if you are not sitting down with someone that is like you, who is not a sustainment specialist or military, that there’s going to be a different perspective immediately,” said Winslow. “Both of you have to be alert to the fact that that’s maybe going to have an impact on the way that you’re communicating.”

Winslow calls the method of teaching Soldiers how to recognize cultural differences, without actually training about one specific culture, “cultural skills awareness training,” or CAST. The idea is to teach students a set of critical thinking skills that can be applied to any environment. “The goal is to train the perception—I call it the cultural muscle—to be alert to your environment, to be alert to the people in it,” says Winslow, who calls culture a subtle form of communication. “To be culturally alert is to be mentally agile.” Winslow believes that the training does not have to be a separate class but can instead be incorporated in current classes.

“All we need to do is to look at places where people are doing problem solving and critical thinking and use culture as a critical vehicle to promote those thinking processes,” says Winslow. “And in places where people are very concerned about the time they need to train the skills, for example in the warrant officers training, it doesn’t necessarily need to detract from building a warrant officer culture because you can ask the students to talk about the regimental system in their branch of specialty—which is also a unique culture within the larger sustainment culture—like a clan within a tribe.”

Individuals interested in upcoming cultural events, speakers, and skills training can contact Donna Winslow at (804) 765–0745. Upcoming events will also be posted on the ALU website.

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