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Cultural Awareness for an Expeditionary Military

Air Force Chief of Staff General John P. Jumper

Remarks to the National Language Conference, Adelphi, Md., June 23, 2004

Good morning and thank you very much, David (David S. C. Chu, Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness), for that kind introduction. It is a pleasure to be here. The ceremonies that you mentioned, and I see many uniformed officers here, I'm sure many of them have taken place in the same ceremony. It's curious that the guest is required to utter these phrases in Turkish and the Turkish formation responds with one simple shout of “Saðol” about four times, so their part is very, very simple and the guest part is very difficult.

Even better than that, though, David, you know in the world of Airmen we all sort of have a common understanding and we all try very hard to, in international circles, to sort of out-range one another. In Bahrain they're particularly adept at this. You go to the officer's club at the fighter wing in Bahrain and they will host this wonderful lunch where you sit around in your flight suits, but they formally parade in the slaughtered sheep, lay it before the guest of honor, take the head off and place it in front of the guest of honor -- of course they're all chuckling in the background because they know that this is sort of anti-culture to us. You sit there and you eat this lunch with this cooked animal's head in front of you, complete with eyeballs, tongue, and the whole nine yards, and I apologize for doing this this early in the morning.

In the end the guest is instructed on how to take apart the head of the animal and distribute the delicacies therein, and this is a great honor, of course all done with great tittering in the background. You're instructed how to break off the jaw and pry open the eye socket and let the eyeballs fall out, pull out the tongue, extract the brains, put them all on a plate, and send them around.

Well my habit was when I was the 9th Air Force Commander and in charge of, I was the component commander for Air Forces in the area, my habit was to always take with me two wing commanders whose forces were deployed into the area. I'd sit one to my right and one to my left. I would complete the ceremony, pass the plate to the right, and say none of this had better ever get around to me again as it went around the table.

But the stories are still told today among them, they were then wing commanders, now they're general officers, of eating the eyeball of the goat.

It is a pleasure to be here and just to be able to talk to you very briefly this morning about how we in the military need to view this world that we live in. Certainly there's a technical aspect of it that has to do with languages, but the part that's more compelling to those of us in uniform and I think to Dr. Chu who leads this crusade, is to expand our cultural sensitivity towards the places where we go in this world that are extremely different than we are. And certainly there's a cultural aspect of this, there's a lingual aspect, there's even a political aspect to it, and it's different than the world that I as a senior officer dating back to the days of Vietnam, it's different than the world I grew up in.

I can remember as a 2nd lieutenant in Vietnam. We were there, we were confined to a large group of Americans. We were not encouraged nor compelled to become familiar with the language or the people. We were part of an operation and we were personally invested in it to the extent that we were part of military units doing a mission, but not to the extent we truly understood the people and their plight at the time.

On into the days of the Cold War, we were all stationed in Europe, especially the Army officers, and the audience I'm sure have had several tours in Germany, all of them, and it was different there, too. We all learned what I called menu quality German and menu quality Italian and French, but we had a cultural baseline. The religions were the same. We fundamentally had the same foundations of civilization. We understood one another, even if the language was different. And of course, the problem with especially a person like me is that everybody wanted to learn to speak English so you'd utter your simple phrases, and immediately they could speak English much better than you could speak their language and you broke into English.

I say particularly challenging for me certainly because I was an electrical engineering major at the Virginia Military Institute and I was born in Paris, Texas. I'm the furthest thing from a culturally sensitive officer you've ever seen.

I got introduced to it, as I was the Senior Military Assistant to Secretary Cheney. And as Desert Storm kicked off, I got a brand new job down in the Joint Staff, in the J5, which has to do with international affairs. Now how I got that job -- I'm a fighter pilot from Paris, Texas, electrical engineer. I have no idea how I got that job, but there I was.

My wife jokes that when I got that job she bought me a handkerchief with the world imprinted on it and all the capitals of each of the countries, and she tells that the first six months I had that job they thought I had pneumonia because I had that handkerchief.

And that's sort of the way it was. But we were introduced from that time to a different way of looking at the world. As we went through the decade of the '90s and we transitioned from Desert Storm into Northern and Southern Watch where we had, especially our Airmen, we had 7,000 Airmen over there deployed all the time for a 10-year period doing no-fly zone operations.

And I noted then, that we had to be very careful to explain to our Airmen why they were there. They thought they were there to defend Saudi Arabia. And of course, and it never has sounded very pleasant to say it out loud, we were there for our own self-interest. And if you were able to turn around and look through the eyes of your hosts, you'd see the American presence much differently than the Americans who were there saw their own presence.

It took an education process to make sure that the Airmen we sent over there understood exactly why it was we were there. To understand their point of view, to understand the Muslim religion, and to understand that we had very little in common with the country that we were staying in.

The Saudis welcomed us as guests; they were very polite to us. But in fact, Westerners on the soil of Saudi Arabia are something that is not a part of their culture, and we did not do a very good job of understanding that, at least initially.

As time went on -- and by the way during this time I saw the value of a people who had taken the time to learn the culture, to learn the language. At the time there was a young officer named Dave Frazee. He's a colonel today in our Air Force. At the time, he was a captain. He had worked the system to go get himself proficient in the Arab language. He didn't want to go into the intelligence business; he wanted to be a foreign area expert, as the Army calls them, a FAO or Foreign Area Officer. He wanted to have that kind of skill, but the Air Force didn't really have any way to accommodate that. So he worked his way around, and when I was the 9th Air Force Commander, the Air Component Commander over there, he was my political advisor.

This kid was a true student of the game. He could use his skills to get into any office throughout the Gulf, using what I called at the time tribal skills. He'd walk into the front office, he'd get to know the secretary, the officers that were in charge of the front office. He'd trade pictures of family, bring them a squadron patch, a squadron scarf, a few patches. They were hanging all over the walls from the Minister of Defense on down in the country, and when we'd get ready for a trip I'd say well, I'm going to go see the Minister of Defense -- And I got to see everybody. Not because of me. It's because he could get me through the door, because he cared, because he understood. He took the time to communicate. He had pen pals. He was also a great guy to take to the Souk (market) with you, by the way.

I'll never forget one time we'd go into one of the Souks , and he stopped, he wanted to buy one of these fake Rolexes that you can get over there. So he stopped at the fake Rolex store, and begins negotiation with the Arab merchant. Pretty soon they're waving their hands and they're talking back and forth and he's walking off calling the guy a beef, and then oh, come back, and the sort of standard interchange you get. I go off and do my business. I can't stand to watch this.

I come back 10 minutes later and they're still going at it, and I walk off again and come back another 20 minutes later. Finally they're shaking hands and they've struck a deal. I said, “My God, he must have gotten an 80 percent discount on this watch.”

I said, “How much was the sticker price?” He said, “$37.” I said, “What did you get it for?” …”$35.” I said, “My God, I would have paid the two dollars 20 minutes ago.” He said, “No, it's the sport of it. That's the important thing.”

The other thing that we have learned in the decade of the '90s that is profound is the degree of hatred that exists in the world today. I got introduced to this when I was a commander of the U.S. Air Forces in Europe during the war in Kosovo. Many of you know, before the war in Kosovo even started we had 250,000 refugees that we were dealing with. And these giant tent cities. It didn't get publicized very much, the giant tent cities -- 10,000, 20,000 tents set up. And in there the Muslim refugees would replicate village life.

You'd walk into these compounds, and every time you'd walk in with a small group with the uniform of our nation on, of the United States on, they'd start this little chant in the background, “NATO, NATO, NATO.” They were so happy and so proud of the fact that they had been, their lives had been saved by the NATO intervention against Slobodan Milosevic.

But you'd walk around there and you'd see village life and here would be the tents that would be the schools, and here would be the children. The children dressed like our children. They would be jumping rope and singing songs just like our children. You'd ask the interpreter, “What's the song about?” The song was about their duty to come back when they grow up and kill Serbs.

You go into the classroom and you look at the little textbooks, their Dick and Jane type books with pictures and illustrations. What are the poems that are in there? The poems are about their duty to their family to come back and kill the other guy. Six, seven, eight, nine, 10 years old.

There is no upbringing any of us ever had, no exposure we ever had in the United States of America where your mama taught you that the degree of success of your life would be gauged by how many of the other guy you killed, but that's what we faced. That's what we face today in the form of terrorist zealots who just want us all dead. They want us all dead. Why? Because we tolerate one another, because we vote, because we have an opinion, we can express it, we can be different.

And the cause that we fight on the streets of Baghdad today and the specter of terrorism around the world is not because the other guy has a better idea of how to govern people or inspire human endeavor, it's because they want America to fail. That's their goal. It's not to make better, it's to destroy.

When we talk about understanding cultures, this is what I mean. We need to understand what motivates this degree of hatred in this world that we live in today.

Now in the military you will find that transformation is well underway. In the Air Force we started shortly after Desert Storm to try and reconstruct ourselves in an expeditionary format, a rotational force that could deal with whatever the world was coping with at the time. We worked on that for a couple of years. We've tried it now several times. Under Secretary Rumsfeld, the encouraging of transformation has helped us accelerate that to the point that we now have 270,000 of our Airmen, of our force of about 359,000 are on deployment orders and ready to deploy at any time. Very different from the Cold War world that we live in.

The preparation, the formal preparation we make for these people to deploy is the part that I'm interested in as we talk about cultural sensitivity and understanding of the places that they are going.

Seventy percent of our Air Force today is combat experienced. Seventy percent. They have been deployed. They've been exposed to this world that I talk about. Now is the time to make the big steps we need to make in language and in cultural sensitivity.

We had 55,000, at our height almost 60,000 Airmen deployed. Today we still have 27,000 deployed over there. We tend to be at bases in the rear. We fight from bases. We tend to be at bases in the rear where we are in contact with the local population in ways that we can build this understanding better than our system has prepared us to do it so far.

And it's not just about Southwest Asia and the Middle East, it's also about the rest of Asia.

If you look at the emerging power of China, continued strife between India and Pakistan. We saw in 1997 what one little ripple in the Thai Baht did to the Asian economy. It nearly brought it down. The forces of instability worked on the global economy. The force of stability in that area is the United States of America. Along with our allies, especially Japan. Again, to understand the forces at work and the nature of the ancient hatreds that also exists and continues among the peoples of Asia. Again, necessary for us to understand these things.

We are fortunate, ladies and gentlemen, we are fortunate to be blessed by the people we have in uniform today. I stand up here as an Airman, but I stand up here mainly as a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and as a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff I get to travel the world and I get to see our Soldiers, Sailors, Airman and Marines in action around the world, and you would be proud of the quality of youngster that we have wearing the uniform of this nation.

They want to learn, they will do what we ask them to do. They are talented. They are smart.

I tell the story of going to Lackland Air Force Base, and when you get good and fed-up with what's going on in Washington, D.C., if you're an Airman you go to Lackland AFB in Texas and every Friday morning a 1,000 new Airmen come into our Air Force, graduate from basic training into our Air Force. Every service chief can tell you the same story.

You go down there and they put on this parade, these newly minted 18-year-olds with brand new uniforms on. They put on this parade. There are 1,000 of them, probably 4,000 parents and relatives in the audience, a big, big crowd --every Friday morning.

What's fun to do is to stand off in the bleachers and watch them come off the parade field. As they come off the parade field they get together with their parents that they hadn't seen for several weeks. If you look closely every time you see the same scene. Some newly minted Airman in his or her new uniform standing in front of his or her mother or father saying, "Mom, it's me. It's me." The mom's saying, "That ain't the kid I brought here."

I had one dad tell me, "Listen, the kid I brought here looked like he fell down the steps with his tackle box in his hand with the pierced ear and the lip and eye and nose."

This kid's standing up straight saying ma'am and sir.

And you go and you shake hands with these youngsters, and you say, “Are you proud of yourself?” “Oh, yes sir.” The answers you get are remarkable. “Yes, sir. This is the first time I've ever made my parents proud of me. This is the first time I've ever been proud of myself.” And one eloquent 18 year old in the line that I use all the time, "Sir, this is the first time that I've ever felt part of something bigger than myself."

When you can give these kids that gift it has a profound impact on their life. I tell my World War II audiences all the time, I said you are the greatest generation. You all saved the world, there's no doubt about it. I just got through visiting Normandy and very emotional ceremonies and remembrances and memorial services at Normandy Beach. But I tell them, today's youngster, even though they were brought up by "Beavis and Butthead" and "The Simpsons" and taught to enjoy halftime shows at the Super Bowl and that sort of stuff, even through all of that when properly led and motivated and with a sense of mission, they're no less dedicated, patriotic, intelligent than any generation that ever served. And you believe that. I see it every day.

So when we ask them to come forward with their language skills, with their interest, with their natural curiosity, they are there for us. They are there for us to teach and to send forth, and they will do our bidding. I tell my Airmen when I stand before them, “Every one of you is an ambassador.” People look to this nation because they respect us. Especially when you're in the military, all the militaries out there in the world want to be like our Air Force or our Army or our Navy or our Marine Corps. They want to learn from us. They want the discipline, and they want the respect that we do have.

Now you go through the formal lessons learned that we take away from any conflict that we've fought, and we do extensive self-examinations, all the services do, and then we do them jointly. What you will see in all of these lessons are the need for the sort of thing I talk about today, especially with the Asian languages that we tend to be very short of, and of course the cultural sensitivities that I talked about before. It's that old joke that you hear in Europe all the time. What do you call somebody that speaks three languages? Trilingual. Two languages? Bilingual. One language? American. That still applies today.

I think we're doing better. In the public schools, I'm not sure that I see much shift in the ability to teach the languages of the world beyond the Romance languages and Spanish, of course. At VMI where I went to school, Virginia Military Institute, there is a formal Arabic language study program that is very, very good. At the Air Force Academy we're sending people off right out of Arabic language studies and other area language studies into the areas to practice their languages and internships before they come on active duty. Even at the University of Virginia where my daughter goes to school, I commissioned two young lieutenants just a few weeks ago that were off to North Africa to practice their language skills in an immersion program.

So it's not just the formal language training that the services offer. There are also immersion programs that allow you to go into a country and get a quick dose of introduction to the culture and to the language. There are other things we can do short of formal programs to get our people introduced to cultures and languages so that it runs throughout the fiber of your force. You have people that have gone and done this, not necessarily in a formal program, but line officers who fly airplanes or drive tanks or shoot artillery or ship captains and ship crew members that are allowed to go off and immerse themselves and be introduced to other parts of the world in ways we have not done before.

So I'm happy to see that, as well as within our professional military education. Within the Air Force, I tell the story that I went off and got a master's degree at night school because it was required for me to display that degree of manhood to get promoted to lieutenant colonel. I got a master's degree from Golden Gate University. I've never been to Golden Gate University. I went to night school there, and the Air Force doesn't really care that I have an MBA from Golden Gate University, and I spent a whole lot of time at night school just proving that I had the gumption to work that hard to prove that I could get promoted to lieutenant colonel. We're going to stop doing that. We're going to have master's degrees, associated professional military education and master's degrees that we want our officers to have with the skills that we want them to have including the types of skills that we've talked about here today.

We've also formalized these training programs in conjunction with the Air Force Institute of Technology, the Naval Postgraduate School where we've gotten together and sort of melded curricula, and that also is working very well.

None of this is going to happen overnight. It's going to take a generation to continue to persist. As Dr. Chu and others in this room know who wear the uniform, the ruts of habit run deep in the uniformed military, the Department of Defense, and it takes quite a bit of concentrated effort to change course.

We started engineering a program right there in the Pentagon. I have a Political Advisor. A wonderful woman from the State Department who has come and taken on interns to start to create the sort of political advisors we're putting into the field for our major commanders and our numbered Air Force commanders that are in the field. It's working very, very well.

But the system doesn't like it. You have to make the system accept these things, and we're working hard to do that. Of course when you're in the uniform you have forceful ways to make these things happen too, and that is part of our tool kit that is not readily available to others.

We will continue to persist with this. We will make it happen. It will happen sooner rather than later, and we will have ourselves a cadre of people out there who are skilled in languages of the world, who understand the world that we live in, who have a natural curiosity about it and understand the other person's point of view. That's where we're going in this effort that we all are engaged in. And we thank Dr. Chu for his support. He has been a marvelous supporter of this, witness getting this wonderful group together to help us think our way through these problems.

So thank you all for what you do for us. God bless you for your interest in this. It is an important part of what we are doing in our military today, make no mistake about it. We must succeed.

God bless you all and thank you very much.