Several years ago, I had the honor of being invited to spend a few days as a civilian guest in what for the army officers involved was a two-year program at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. I found myself as the sole civilian in one of several dozen seminar groups, each composed of eighteen senior colonels (on the cusp of promotion to general), one instructor, and a civilian. Me, in this case. Two or three times a day, we attended high-powered lectures, then retired to our seminar groups to discuss them.
I went expecting to learn about the military, which I did. I learned that these officers were incredibly bright, intellectually diverse, and very open-minded. I encountered the army shout of “hooah,” which I heard in enough different contexts that I’m still not sure what it means. I heard some really, really good lectures. I joined my group for a tour of Gettysburg battlefield that focused not on the minutiae of who fought whom where, but on how the opposing commanders sought to implement the strategic needs of their presidents. I found a monument dedicated to someone who was probably a distant ancestor. But most of all, I came out convinced that if the eighteen colonels I came to know were at all indicative of the rest, the best of America’s best are very, very good.
But I was also expected to earn my keep. That meant that in each discussion session, I was to provide insight outside the military “box.” That was why I was there, and the seminar instructor made sure I upheld my end of the bargain.
It was more than a bit intimidating, in no small part because I was extremely impressed by the collective intelligence of the others in my group. I had been invited because I was a science fiction writer, and the colonel who sponsored me was an Analog reader. But while Analog is known for encouraging big thinkers, who was I to say anything new and intelligent to a group such as that?
I later realized, however, that part of the army leaders’ collective intelligence was to realize that outsiders could indeed challenge the group’s thinking. In each discussion, simply because I hadn’t spent decades in the military, I indeed saw a few things differently, giving me a way to contribute. What I said might or might not have been correct. It may or may not have been brilliant. It was simply different. Out of the military box . . . even when nothing about it felt special from my own perspective.1
One lecture I particularly remember was from a State Department official who talked about culture clashes.2
We often discuss these in the context of sensitivity training—and there is definitely a need to understand and respect other cultures’ customs. But that type of training only goes so far, because the real clashes are subconscious.
You could look at it as peeling layers from an onion. The surface level is behavior—the type of thing that sensitivity training is designed to focus on. Some countries drive on the right side of the road, some on the left. In some cultures, showing up on time for dinner is expected; in others it’s rude because it makes you look overeager, greedy for free food. Closer to home, I have a transgender friend. Don’t call her a transvestite. Don’t call Star Trek fans trekkies rather than trekkers.
These things are easy. Slightly more difficult are things like Americans’ easy use of first names in conversations with people we just met. Years ago, my seat partner on a transatlantic flight was a consultant whose job was to help American business travelers not make cultural gaffes, and this was one of her examples. Americans, she said, might go to dinner with their counterparts the night before an important negotiation and call everyone by their first names. It’s what we do in America, and it doesn’t mean much. But in other countries, the familiarity of the first name implies you’ve promoted your dinner companions to your inner circle of good friends. They are immensely flattered . . . and then feel betrayed when the next day you try to drive a hard line in negotiations.
Depending on the extent of the culture gap, the list of such traps is lengthy, but at least if you know the rules, avoiding them is straightforward. The next layer of the onion involves cultural norms—ways in which we reflexively expect others to react. In some cultures, for example, hospitality is a sacred virtue. In the 2013 Afghanistan war movie Lone Survivor, Mark Wahlberg’s character, real-life Navy SEAL Marcus Luttrell, survives because he comes under the care of a villager whose traditional code of honor places enormous importance on protecting strangers who have come under your care—even at the risk of your own life.
A more ancient version of this can be found in the Bible story of Sodom, in which the residents of Sodom attempted to gang-rape two angels of God who were sent to check them out. To generations of westerners, Sodom’s crime was homosexuality. (In fact, the dictionary recognizes this story as the origin of the term “sodomy.”) But to Middle Easterners, says Dick Rohrbaugh, a retired professor of religious studies from Lewis and Clark College, Portland, Oregon, the crime was an overwhelming breach of the ancient duty of hospitality—one that had nothing to do with homosexuality.
But that’s only the second level. The core is deeper yet. It’s not about behavior and not about norms. It’s about values.
The lecturer I heard at the War College used icebergs, not onions, as the metaphor. The things we can see—behaviors, and to a lesser extent norms—are the 10% of the iceberg that extends above the surface. The other 90% is out of sight, invisible. So, even as the surface chunks of two icebergs seem to be keeping a respectful distance from each other, their subsurface portions can be crashing into each other, creating conflict that nobody on the surface either sees or understands.
It’s one of the best metaphors for cultural conflict I’ve ever encountered . . . and one of the best explanations for how such conflict can escalate to dangerous levels without anyone ever truly understanding how it happened.
It may also be one of the reasons the modern West and the Middle East rarely understand each other. The Middle East, say Rohrbaugh and others, is very much an honor/shame society. What you do either brings honor to your family, or shame, and it’s the family honor that matters, first and foremost. We in the West, particularly in America, think differently. One of our core values is individualism: breaking free of constraints and doing our own thing, whatever our families might prefer. We prize self-fulfillment, with an important accent on “self.”
This difference is so strong that I can make a case that the second Iraq War occurred partly because of it.3 Iraqi president Saddam Hussein had cultivated the impression he had an advanced nuclear weapons program, when in fact he did not. His goal was to look strong and powerful: the most important leader in the Middle East. Then the West fell for his bluster and started delivering ultimatums. Unwilling to bear the shame of letting international inspectors prove he had no such program, he chose to roll the dice in a war he had little chance of winning. This is, of course, oversimplified. But the point remains: icebergs colliding below the surface may have played a role in producing a war that changed the world in ways we are still grappling with.
That said, my goal isn’t to argue geopolitics, especially about the Middle East. Historians of the future will reach far better conclusions than any we can reach here. This editorial was inspired by two other things, entirely different.
One is Hurricane Maria and the devastation it inflicted on Puerto Rico. Early on, I asked military friends why military help had been so slow coming in. I got a number of interesting replies, starting with the observation that this was an enormous logistical problem: something that most likely nobody in the disaster-relief arena had ever war-gamed. We had an entire island without power, largely without communications. Bridges were out, and landslides, downed trees, and massive washouts had wreaked havoc with the roads. To the extent I can synthesize the comments I received, the military’s traditional thinking about such a problem involved building a bridgehead and systematically expanding it—a major problem because of damage to the road that rings the island, near the coast.
But that’s an invasion tactic. Puerto Rico isn’t hostile territory: It’s part of the United States. Having supply routes cut by hostile forces isn’t a risk. I’d just seen the movie Dunkirk. Why couldn’t a whole flotilla of small boats carry supplies outward from the island’s two main ports, San Juan and Ponce, to the villages dotting its coast? None of the interior is more than about 17 miles from the coast, and a lot is much closer—close enough to be accessible to local residents on mountain bikes, as the roads were slowly repaired.
A few years ago, in the climate-change community, it was popular to speak not in terms of a single solution to the problem, but of addressing it as a collection of “slices”—as in pieces of the overall pie. You take a big slice here, a moderate one there, and a bunch of tiny ones elsewhere, until ultimately, the entire pie is accounted for. Would this have worked in Puerto Rico? I don’t know. Was some of it actually done? Again, I don’t know. By the time this publishes, there will be a lot more information on Puerto Rico than is available as I type. All I’m sure of is that my seminar group at Carlisle would have taken such an idea under advisement and looked for ways to make it work, rather than reflexively shoot it down.
Another impetus for this editorial was a different opportunity I once had: a chance to attend a public affairs luncheon at which the speaker was North Korea’s ambassador to the United Nations. That was under Kim Jong-il, who was not quite as hard to deal with as his son, the current leader, Kim Jong-un. But the luncheon wasn’t about political bombast, which both Kims have had aplenty. The ambassador was a diplomat: calm, well-spoken, explaining what the world looked like to his country.
I walked out both enlightened and depressed. There was no way America could give him what he wanted, which was reunification with the South, with the North in control. Worse, his country feared that the U.S. and the South would jointly launch an attack designed to annihilate them. However peaceful we may see ourselves, his country saw us as aggressors, bent on destruction. Our countries were in a standoff, likely to extend for decades. But at least, for forty-five brief minutes, I understood what the standoff looked like from his side.
Are we and North Korea icebergs colliding beneath the surface? Maybe, but if so, it’s not as much about values as about totally different ways of perceiving each other. Not that I am in any way defending North Korea. I think it’s a brutal dictatorship whose leader puts his own political survival far ahead of his people’s well being. But I also think that a great deal of the conflict is fueled by mutual distrust and confusion.
What we (and by “we,” I mean all of us humans) need isn’t just sensitivity training, however useful that might be. What we need is empathy. We need both to think outside of our own boxes, and to recognize that those who think differently from us aren’t necessarily evil. They could be wrong, or they could be right, but most are probably acting from recognizable human impulses, if we are willing to look far enough below the surface to understand their source.
At the end of my visit to Carlisle, the colonel who sponsored me bought me a polo shirt with the war college insignia. I wear it often as a reminder of what I learned. We are icebergs that clash beneath the surface, and figuring out what lies beneath that is causing the clash is crucial to peace, whether it’s political, military, or personal. Isaac Asimov once famously wrote in these pages that “violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.” Failing to even attempt to understand each other, I would argue, is the next-to-the-last refuge. Empathy costs little. Refusing even to give it a go can cost everything.
1 Analog’s tradition of wide-ranging editorials may also have helped. This is a magazine that likes to challenge out-of-the-box thinkers to think even further out of their own boxes.
2 The discussion to follow is inspired by that lecture, but other than this editorial’s title has no direct bearing to it. Furthermore, this lecture was given early in the Obama Administration, and may not represent the current administration’s thinking. I.e., if you disagree, blame me, not the State Department.
3 Note: this argument is mine, not that of the State Department lecturer, Rohrbaugh, or anyone else cited in this article.