Sensitivity and Bullets

AP/Army Times: Marines trade ‘culturally sensitive’ training for bullets

On a rooftop overlooking Fallujah̢۪s industrial wasteland, Lance Cpl. Tom Browne pokes his machine gun muzzle out of a hole in a barrier wall, singing to himself to pass the time.

In the street below, the corpse of an insurgent suspect lies baking in the sun. Browne, from Boston, says he has killed several rebels, probably Iraqis, so far.

“I don’t even think about those people as people,†he says.

It wasn̢۪t supposed to be this way.

The band of Marines in this insurgent stronghold received two big orders this year. They were told to return to Iraq to stabilize the Sunni areas west of Baghdad, Iraq̢۪s toughest patch of territory. The normally clean-shaven Marines also were told to grow mustaches in an attempt to win over Iraqis who see facial hair as a sign of maturity.

“We did it basically to show the Iraqi people that we respect their culture,†said Lance Cpl. Cristopher Boulwave, 22, from Desoto, Texas.

But after the brutal killing of four American contractors in Fallujah on March 31, they tossed aside such pretenses. First to go were the mustaches.

“When you go to fight, it’s time to shoot — not to make friends with people,†said Sgt. Cameron Lefter, 34, from Seattle.

In the fight for Fallujah — which has killed more than 600 Iraqis, according to city doctors and about a dozen Marines — the Marines now seem to be following the second half of their famous motto: “No better friend, no worse enemy.â€

The Marines say it’s easier to cope with the daily work of killing inside Fallujah — where a seemingly unending supply of rebels continues to fight — if they don’t think about the suspected rebels they are targeting as people who, under different circumstances, they might have been trying to help.

“If someone came and did this to our neighborhood, I’d be pissed, too,†said Capt. Don Maraska of Moscow, Idaho, a 37-year-old who guides airstrikes on enemy targets in the town. “I’ve never had people look at me the way these people look at me. I don’t know what came before, but at this point, what else can we possibly do but fight?â€

The Marines were hoping to lull Fallujah and Anbar province into a state of well-being by passing out $540 million in rebuilding funds, and showing off a more educated attitude about Arab sensitivities than they believed their U.S. Army predecessors displayed.

Before returning to Iraq, the Marines took a crash course in cultural training that included a video teleconference with an Arabic studies professor and the distribution of a culture handbook with tips warning against showing the soles of their feet or eating with their left hands.

About three dozen Marines from one unit took a three-week intensive language course in Arabic. And, of course, they grew mustaches.

“We grew them for the Iraqi people. We shaved them off for us,†said Lt. Col. Brennan Byrne, who originally ordered his men to sport the facial hair.

These days, the Marines are speaking a more familiar language.

“We didn’t initiate this,†said 1st Marine Regiment Commander Col. John Toolen. “I came in here with more money than bullets. Now I’m running out of bullets, but the money is still in my pocket.â€

The Marines are frustrated with the negotiations to halt the firing in Fallujah. Many say they want to finish the battle, take control of the rebel city by brute force — whatever it takes — rather than wait for Iraqi negotiators to thrash out a deal to stop the fighting.


On the one hand, this isn’t surprising. Police officers who spend too much time in a rough inner city beat shift into this same mode. There’s probably no other way for decent human beings–as virtually all American cops and soldiers are–to survive in a pressure cooker where anyone they see is a possible assailant. In a “kill or be killed” situation, kill is a no-brainer. And it’s a lot easier to bring yourself to pull the trigger if you view the target as subhuman. This is why, for example, the leadership has constantly characterized Sadr’s forces as “thugs” and other such derisive terms; they’re not to be accorded the honor associated with real soliers.

Still, this shows the incredible difficulty of trying to use ordinary soldiers for stabilization operations–let alone conducting stabilization operations and a counter-terror/counter-insurgency mission simultaneously. The terrorists and insurgents have the advantage of constantly being able to break down the trust built by our forces with the locals. Our forces will defeat those of the enemy; it’s just a matter of time. But they’ll have to do that before they have much chance of succeeding at the broader mission of establishing civil society.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Awesome find . . hell of a tale.

  2. Scott Harris says:

    I have long thought that our modern day attitude toward “colateral damage” is self-defeating. War is imposing your will on your enemy by force. Too many of our enemies have been allowed to adopt the guise of “neutral observer” when they are not really neutral at all. The harsh fact is that war NEEDS to be brutal and ghastly in order to accomplish its purpose.

    The biggest tragedy of war is that successful war requires peace-loving and benevolent Americans to be temporarily transformed into brutes. This leaves a scar on the soul of the warrior. But ultimately, it is unavoidable.

    I remember going through boot camp doing drills chanting “Kill, Kill, Kill.” The main function of a soldier is to kill the enemy. And when the soldier is engaged in killing the enemy, he is accomplishing his primary mission.

    It is too bad that our society cannot seem to face and accept this reality. Too many are shocked, shocked I say at something like the entry you cited. But those who are shocked at such a thing are not true students of history.

    Only the strong survive. The trick is to be both strong and Good. But strong is necessary. Good is merely desirable. The phrase “Law and Order” should be revised to “Order and Law.” Without Order, the law is worthless. And many times, in fact throughout most of history, order must be established by force of arms before the law can be allowed to flourish.