Haji is a word every Marine, deployed or in the continental United States, from private to general, has heard: haji armor, haji girl, haji villages. It is a filler word. It is a tongue in cheek expression. It is also a term that, derogatory and counterproductive to the war effort, leaders of all ranks should discourage. Now, the use of one word may seem easily remedied. Just tell people to stop using it and move on. The problem lies in those who recognize the negative connotations of the word haji and still tolerate it, or those who think it funny, a natural product of war, or simply a topic too uncomfortable to discuss openly. Consider the reaction if 40 years ago an article titled “Stop Using ‘Gook’ in Front of Your Marines” appeared in this publication. Nevertheless, while slurs and stereotypes are probably as old as war itself, as leaders we are neither required to nor should we tolerate their presence—particularly in the types of counterinsurgency struggles we find ourselves today. Just as fear, panic, and disorder, though ubiquitous in battle, are mitigated and overcome in order to “win,” so too must we deal firmly with rampant manifestations of cultural intolerance in order to likewise win.
Roots of the Problem
Several natural factors lend themselves to the development of stereotypes and slurs. First, stereotypes help us process sensory overload in shockingly different cultures. A tourist may observe that “the French are all rude” rather than attempt to understand the complexities or regional differences within French society. Second, we often find it useful to define ourselves in relation to others by saying what we are “not.” Indeed, when we engage in inter-Service rivalries and claim that another Armed Forces branch is lazy, we are implying that we are, by comparison, not lazy at all. Furthermore, once stereotypes or slurs become ingrained in a group’s psychology, they provide a means for new or insecure members to prove their worth. New-joins use the word haji to fit in with more experienced Marines. Officers or staff noncommissioned officers use or tolerate the word to avoid appearing “soft.” The mentality assumes a life of its own, and relatively few have the moral courage to challenge it. Finally, as David A. Grossman has examined extensively in On Killing (Back Bay Books, Little Brown Company, 2009), it is often easier to handle violence if we resist human empathy with the object of that violence. The depersonalization of stereotypes and the denigration of slurs are in part a reaction that helps some deal with the psychological shock of war.
Why Leaders Should Care
The simplest reason for the elimination of negative stereotypes and racist terminology is obvious: they are racist and therefore wrong. It is difficult to imagine a command whose members are allowed to use racial slurs to refer to Black, Hispanic, or Jewish Marines, or any other minority. Why then would we allow Marines to use slurs to refer to the populations of countries we have been ordered to assist?
“But wait,” some might say. “Most people who use these phrases aren’t really racists. It’s just because we’re at war. They don’t really want to ‘nuke that whole region of the world.’” This is likely true, but if so, why say or allow it at all? More importantly, this subtle quasi-racism is, for lack of a better phrase, gateway talk. Many first sergeants still have a sign on their boards that begins with, “Watch your thoughts, they become words . . . .” successively becoming actions, habit, character, and destiny. When leaders allow words that implicitly lower the status or value of local populations, it is no longer such a far leap to condoning unwarranted violent action toward those populations, especially with the addition of an external shock, such as the death of a comrade by a roadside bomb.
This point in turn raises the most significant objection to racist talk and behavior amongst the ranks. It is directly counterproductive to the mission. Almost every accepted counterinsurgency publication, including the latest field manual, asserts that the center of gravity is the population. The number of enemies we kill or capture, and the sacrifices we take to do so, make no difference if we fail to win the support of the populace. And if we use denigrating generalizations to lump the enemy in with the larger population, we cannot possibly understand or win over this center of gravity.
A Leader’s Role
The issue in question concerns the reconciliation of competing priorities—natural impulses with the mission at hand, traditional with irregular warfare, “no worse enemy” with “no better friend.” The answer, unsurprisingly, is through effective leadership. Though the task is difficult, leaders should not be fooled into thinking they must transform social or cultural norms, marrying On Killing with equal opportunity statements. Rather, their first task is to set the example through their own actions and words; second, to have the moral courage to go against an ingrained negative cultural mindset; and third, to actively present the issue of culture in a very practical and operational context.
To begin with, we need to demonstrate that the issue is about decency and effective results, not political correctness. Is it difficult to substitute the words “Iraqi, citizen, insurgent,”—or even an expletive—in lieu of a negative generalization? Certainly it is more tactically useful to know if we are interacting with a Sunni or Shi’a Baghdad resident, a Pashtun or Hazara Afghan, rather than simply a haji. On a more substantial level, as leaders, we need to teach Marines how cultural skills have real and positive effects for the mission, as well as real and devastating effects on the enemy. One tool to help leaders with this task is Operational Culture for the Warfighter, published by the Center for Advanced Operational Culture Learning and Marine Corps University, and explained by the authors in last year’s May issue of the Gazette (“Operational Culture for Marines,” by Paula Holmes-Eber and Barak A. Salomi). This valuable resource moves cultural training beyond simplistic briefs and instead gives leaders a means to “develop a capacity among Marines at all levels to think systematically about culture.”
A tendency toward stereotypes and racial slurs is indeed as old as war. But at the same time, many Marine leaders have been fighting this tendency steadily, as seen in our recent success in working with the local population in Al Anbar. Further, my father, a lance corporal in Vietnam, used to tell me of a major who angrily refused to allow the word “gook” to be used against the population. The effect was enough for my dad and his fellow Marines to remember it decades later. Clearly, a tradition of moral courage and cultural mental clarity—in support of mission accomplishment—exists within our leadership. Let us therefore leave the slurs to amateurs and those uninterested in victory, while we embrace our mission as leaders and true professionals.