Wednesday, November 10, 2004

Culture or Killed 

This paper on the Russian experience during the battles of Grozny in Chechnya has interesting PR advice. Although the paper is old, it is chilling when one considers the task of American soldiers in Iraq. Lesson number one is something every PR practitioner knows but maybe not every soldier.

You need to culturally orient your forces so that you don't end up being your own worst enemy simply out of cultural ignorance. Many times Russian soldiers made serious cultural errors in dealing with the Chechen civilians. Once insulted or mistreated, they became active fighters or supported the active fighters. Russians admit they underestimated the affect of religion and culture on the conflict.

Doesn't this read like what happened and continues to happen in Iraq where Sunnis and Shiites battle for supremacy? There were news stories today that Sunni mullahs might call for a national boycott of elections as a result of the invasion of Fallujah. This would weaken the new Iraqi government from the outset.

In fairness to the US military, there was understanding of the cultural divisions in Iraq before they entered the country. That didn't make the invasion and subsequent guerilla warfare any easier. There are situations in which cultural divisions are too deep. We saw that in Bosnia. We see it in Iraq.

Long-time hatreds don't go away in a year or even 10 years. Communicators must learn to step gingerly about them and avoid setting off one group or another.


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