- The United States is at war with ideals as much as or more than foreign armies
- Troops' curricula to include demographics, religion, languages, political landscapes
- Thumbs-up in Egypt, showing soles of feet in Iraq are examples of offensive gestures
- Commander: Increasing countries' capabilities could prevent future U.S. deployments
Chemical weapons engulf soldiers carrying 60-pound rucksacks, their mud-filled boots trenching through a river dividing simulated enemy lines.
Troops run in the desert to acclimate to harsh conditions with winter temperatures as low as 8 degrees, summer as high as 120.
The training becomes increasingly realistic in the weeks before deployment, mirroring the topography they may endure, but not necessarily the human terrain -- the cultures they'll be dealing with. And in a foreign land, something as seemingly innocuous as a thumbs-up sign or shaking a woman's hand can land a soldier in trouble.
While physical conditioning and live-fire exercises certainly help prepare troops for deployment, they're culturally blind if they don't understand the people among whom they'll be fighting. In the 21st century, when the U.S. is at war with ideals as much as -- if not more than -- foreign armies, this blind side can be as dangerous as your M249 jamming.
"This makes warfare a lot more complex. So we have to be much more expeditionary. We have to be more intelligence-minded, more people-minded. We have to understand the populations that we're operating in and among," said Nick Dowling, a former National Security Council director who runs the culture-training company, IDS International.
The past decade has taught the U.S. Army many lessons. According to Gen. Ray Odierno, Army chief of staff, the biggest takeaway from Iraq and Afghanistan is the importance of "understanding the prevailing culture and values."
To address tomorrow's conflicts, Odierno revealed an initiative in March 2012 to regionally align brigades with the six unified command zones. The plan aims to create brigades better equipped to operate in specific regions by establishing language and cultural proficiency programs in their assigned territory.
Currently, anthropology, language and 10,000 years of heritage are squeezed into troops' curricula a few weeks before deployment, what Dowling calls "cultural training on steroids." Between pre-deployment paperwork and drills, they are handed a small pamphlet outlining some history and cultural no-nos to avoid.
Former soldier Joseph Hurst recalled there was sparse cultural training before his 2003 deployment to Iraq.
"They gave us an English/Arabic translation book, told us things not to say and do like give the OK sign, which is seen as an obscene gesture, and that was about it," he said.
As the Army concludes its mission in Afghanistan, top military leaders are not only looking back but also forward to what the 21st century holds as new threats arise.
The enemy du jour is manifested in ethnicities spanning more than one country, yet adhering to the same ideals, making borders often meaningless. Take al Qaeda in Iraq and Al-Shabaab in Somalia: The Islamist groups may be on different continents, but they subscribe to similar ideals, inciting state-to-state rivalries.
Col. Jeff Broadwater said efforts to craft a more culturally savvy Army is an effort to foster more symbiotic relationships across various regions.
Broadwater is a commander with the 2nd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, aka "Dagger Brigade," which is the first force to be regionally aligned. Dagger Brigade will provide U.S. Africa Command with defense guidance and security enhancement beginning March 2013.
"By increasing their security and capabilities, it will prevent potential future threats to their countries as well as the U.S.," he said, adding that such proactive measures could actually make U.S. deployments unnecessary in the future.
The Africa-aligned armored brigade of 4,000 troops based out of Fort Riley, Kansas, will still maintain core combat skills, such as gunnery, live-fire training and medical training so it can respond to any mission globally, but the brigade will have a more tedious training regimen than the one-size-fits-all approach applied to current general forces.
Africa hosts a multitude of customs. More than 2,000 languages (and by some counts, as many as 3,000) are spoken on the continent. Most Africans adhere to some brand of Christianity or Islam, but there are also animist beliefs as well as ethnic and folk mythologies. You can also find a smattering of Hindus and Jews.
To "put a sharper point on the pencil," as Broadwater explains it, experts and advisers will school soldiers in demographics, religious breakdowns, dominant languages, political landscapes and general cultural understanding.
Their training can include lessons as disparate as proper social interactions and the kinds of weapons systems that a country's basic security force might be equipped with, said Lt. Col. Joel Buenaflor, who helps plan the regionally aligned forces.
For example, Islam in many countries forbids men from touching a woman who isn't a relative, and this includes shaking her hand, a common American greeting. Former soldier Hurst also said showing the soles of your feet is disrespectful in Iraq. In Egypt, the thumbs-up sign is considered offensive.
The training will be tailored to the needs and requests of nations hosting U.S. troops, with the aim of "transferring knowledge to our counterparts to bring them to a proficiency level where they can help us in the future," said Col. Matthew McKenna, commander of the 162nd Infantry Brigade, which will help train Dagger Brigade to become more culturally adept during its time in Africa.
The 162nd currently functions as a combat adviser for foreign security forces, responsible for training all Army personnel deploying for the missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Already, several African nations have requested 90 small-scale missions to familiarize their soldiers with weapons and basic rifle marksmanship. They've also requested combined military exercises and that the U.S. Army help them enhance live-fire capabilities, medical training and logistics, so Dagger Brigade will focus on those requests, McKenna said.
"We also have 27 larger collective exercises which are developed to build the capacity of the regional peacekeeping brigades within Africa," he said.
But even before deploying, Dagger Brigade is already encountering obstacles. With the Pentagon's 2013 fiscal budget slicing 80,000 troops over the next five years, the Army is wrestling with the question: Who's going to pay for this?
"I think in the long term, though, the Army sees this as a more efficient way to train the staff," Dowling said.
Odierno seems to agree, as he made the regional alignment a top pillar in his Army 2020 objectives aimed at making leaders more adaptive and equipment more modern.
The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan demonstrated how cognizance of cultures, ethnicities and religions was essential to understanding the source of conflict, Broadwater said.
Dowling added that the training alone can help a soldier better understand the lay of any land. Even if troops received cultural training specifically for African nations, it would be better to use that unit in the Middle East than troops who weren't culturally aligned at all, he said.
"Anthropologically, socially, economically, they'll have to reset what the answers are, but the right questions will already be in their mind," he said.