, the riveting new documentary film from Tim Hetherington and Sebastian Junger, follows a platoon of U.S. soldiers deployed in the dangerous Korengal Valley of Afghanistan
. As a cadet at West Point
majoring in human geography, I was fascinated to watch the ways the soldiers confronted and adapted to the challenges posed by the local culture of the remote Afghan community surrounding their outpost.
West Point’s human geography program delves into the relationships between facets of society and geography that may also have potentially significant security implications. In the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, U.S. troops fight insurgents in difficult environments – from heavily urbanized cities to extremely remote valleys – while interacting with civilian populations with radically different languages and cultures.
Restrepo: Culture in Action and Under Fire
At the remote outpost Restrepo, named in memory of a medic killed in action, the platoon receives daily fire from insurgents as they seek to improve security enough to allow the construction of a road through the valley.
At a weekly shura, the company commander explains the benefits of the road to the village elders, yet they are either unconvinced or uninterested. This frustrating meeting reveals a cultural disconnect: the Americans see the road as the way to win Afghan “hearts and minds” by facilitating progress and bringing more revenue to the community, but the Afghans are suspicious of the Americans’ motives and promises, and not convinced of the benefits.
Another culture clash arises when a cow is caught in the outpost’s concertina wire. The soldiers kill the seriously injured cow, but this proves to be a continual source of tension in negotiations between the soldiers and the locals. Killing the cow was illegal, say the Afghan elders, who seek financial compensation that the Army is not willing to provide. Perhaps better understanding of regional culture could have prevented this relatively minor incident from souring relations.
On the other hand, by attending the traditional shura gatherings with village elders, the U.S. soldiers are showing their respect for Afghan culture while facilitating negotiations and, potentially, the sharing of useful intelligence.
Although not shown in the film, the U.S. military also demonstrates its understanding of Afghan culture through the growing use of female soldiers to reach out to Afghan women. As many women in Afghanistan are not allowed to be seen by unrelated men, female soldiers are tasked with searching houses and Afghan women, as well as assessing their need for aid and gathering intelligence from them.
West Point: Culture in Theory and Practice
Dealing with the problems faced by today’s soldiers, like those in Restrepo, requires understanding the current conflict landscape and its security implications. Understanding the influence of religion, language, development, and people on the world’s geography is vital to mapping the combat terrain.
Human geography instruction at West Point provides cadets with more perceptive views of other countries and the complex problems they face. Military geography analyzes urban and natural environments, as well as related interactions, such as the impact of population dynamics and nature resources on military operations. Land-use planning and management addresses conflicts over land use and environmental strategies. Other opportunities, such as study-abroad programs and interactions with foreign cadets, increase our exposure to other cultures and geographies.
Through my study of human geography, I have gained a much greater understanding of the people and countries where I travel and work today – and where I will go in the future as a commissioned officer in the U.S. Army.
Marie Hokenson is a cadet at the United States Military Academy at West Point and an intern with the Woodrow Wilson Center’s Environmental Change and Security Program.
Photo Credit: “Mutual support,” courtesy of flickr user The U.S. Army.