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Chairman Touts Importance of Cultural Engagement

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

NEWPORT, R.I., Jan. 8, 2010 – Knowing about and engaging with people of other cultures, other beliefs and other ethnicities may be as important to American security as battle plans, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said here today.

Navy Adm. Mike Mullen spoke at the Naval War College to an audience that included 110 students from other countries.

“I have been driven for a long time by the belief that the world we’re living in requires us to understand problems from somebody else’s perspective,” Mullen said. “And I see that to be the case more and more in everything that I’m doing.”

The strategy in Afghanistan and Pakistan, for example, is predicated on American servicemembers understanding and respecting the cultures of the countries. It is so important, he noted, that it is at the heart of an initiative he has to develop a core group of servicemembers who concentrate on the region even when they are not assigned there.

“I’m very focused right now on getting a cadre of some 700, 800, 900 individuals that are going to be focused on and do tours in Afghanistan and Pakistan,” the chairman said. “And when they come back for a year or two, they’re still working those issues.” This cadre will know the “complex human terrain” of the region and understand the dynamics of the people and their leaders, the admiral said. Part of their value is that they will not have to spend time getting up to speed when they arrive for an assignment in the country.

The idea breaks service promotion-track paradigms, the chairman acknowledged. “But we’ve got to promote those kinds of people,” he added. “This is my top priority right now.”

The United States does not have the luxury of time in Afghanistan, Mullen said. “I am losing people almost every day in a fight,” he told the audience. “There should be nothing that’s more important, quite frankly.”

And the same is true in other areas of the world, the chairman said. Military leaders need to know the military leaders of other nations.

“I can go to the Pacific, I can go to Africa, I can go into our own hemisphere -- where we haven’t spent enough time, in my view -- focusing on making sure those relationships are strong,” he said. “That’s culture. That’s language.”

This type of knowledge, he admitted, has not been rewarded in the past. “We need to change that, in terms of what we value, because of the importance of those relationships,” he said.

Mullen offered some advice to the foreign military officers at the war college.

“I hope you get out and see America,” he said. “I hope you get to go out and meet our citizens, and not just our military. That’s really who we are. And take every opportunity to teach us about you and your countries and your histories and traditions.”

It is very difficult to establish relationships in the middle of a crisis, Mullen said. Though leaders must work to avoid crises, it’s important to have an established relationship if they occur -- a relationship in which “we’ve got an e-mail address, got a telephone number and know the person,” he said.

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Biographies:
Navy Adm. Mike Mullen

Related Sites:
Naval War College

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