Kenneth Lunkins works with veterans earning their college degrees at Cleveland State University. During the Vietnam War, he was stationed with a U.S. Army reconnaissance unit. And like most of his fellow Vietnam vets, he says he was unprepared to relate to the people he was there to fight for.
A grave mistake
“Being of Western origin, we had no concept of their religion and politics, being such a democracy. One of the things that shook us in our boots, we were not taught anything of their politics and religions in school, which is a grave mistake. If so, you would understand how these people feel and think, which could open your eyes because when you go to a foreign country you have to understand how these people live and exist.”
Lunkins says many Vietnamese knew more about what was happening in the United States than he and his fellow U.S. soldiers did. Meanwhile, he worked on his own to learn to speak Vietnamese and better understand the culture.
Mark Moyar is a senior fellow with the Foreign Policy Research Institute, who has written about the Vietnam War. He says because of the draft, Vietnam-era soldiers were younger and less mature than today’s forces. He says the U.S. military was aware of the lack of cultural understanding, and as much as possible, deployed American forces in remote areas to fight the Vietcong. South Vietnamese forces were used in the villages where the Vietcong did most of their recruiting. But Moyar says this strategy didn’t always work out.
Invading vs. occupation
“We did have some contact and occasionally some major problems. And I don’t think it was rectified in Vietnam to the extent we’ve seen in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Iraq and Afghanistan, at their beginning, there was a lack of real understanding of the culture and language. And over time, a lot's been invested in trying to improve that.”
Moyar says at the start of the Iraq war, U.S. soldiers weren’t taught about that country’s culture because the original plan was to invade, take down the government and leave, not to become an occupying force. But as the conflict dragged on, he says the need for additional training became apparent.
Investing in cultural understanding
“People were saying the Marines coming back from Iraq didn’t understand the Iraq culture and they didn’t have the language capabilities to deal with that. And there was a lot of effort within a year -- and certainly by 2004 -- to try to change that and a lot more emphasis on teaching people language and culture before they went over.”
Sara Kelsey was an Army sergeant deployed to Iraq in 2008 with a bio-hazard detection unit. Before she left, she knew about the Iraqi people.
The small stuff matters in big ways
“You spent a week of hardcore training learning the different cultures, the different basic terminology, things like that -- to be able to interact with the local culture. Simple things like gestures, things that can be offensive to them but not necessarily to us. So I think we’ve come a long way in realizing how important that is.”
Kelsey says her stint in Iraq was much different from what her father experienced in the 1960s.
Shifting wars, shifting needs
“My father was a Vietnam veteran. When I came back, we kind of talked about our different experiences. ... We took the time to get culturally aware of the country which I don’t think we did as much in Vietnam compared to Iraq. It was basically like he knew all the soldier side of how to be a soldier. But everything was 'in-the-moment' learning it versus we were given our classes before we got there. So, it seemed to make a big difference and make the transition easier both going there and coming back.”
While cultural training is certainly a lesson from Vietnam being used today, there are some additional challenges facing U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan. Military expert Mark Moyar says with the wide range of cultural differences in that part of the world, and the sudden shifts in deployment that occur, it can sometimes be hard to pinpoint which cultural norms to teach.