A Cultural Conformist: Iraq War Veteran Speaks on War Culture

Photo by Flickr user EddieCoyote.

It wasn’t long after serving in the U.S. Army that Col. Joseph Davidson found himself overwhelmed by complete culture shock in Iraq.

The New Paltz alum discussed the understanding of customs, economic systems and living conditions of another country a soldier must have while monitoring it.

Davidson is a Cavalry officer who has served in a variety of command and staff positions in combat brigades throughout 49 of 50 states in America and overseas, including multiple combat deployments to Iraq for a total of 40 months.

When Davidson returned to Iraq in 2006, he remembered Army units spread across the nation helping different areas with money from emergency relief programs.

Soldiers proceeded to use some of the program money to build medical clinics in small countries. Generators were used to power these clinics and Davidson received an unexpected visit when one of the clinic generators failed.

“One day at the operating base, a tribal leader came and said how we needed to give them a new generator,” Davidson said. “It turned out that in their culture, if you give a gift, you are also the warrantor. There was no oil put in the generator for three months because they have been putting in fuel the entire time.”

Iraq was once a country with thriving academics and a strong middle class until the United States put sanctions on them in the early ‘90s. When Davidson came back after 2004, he noticed how the United States unintentionally destroyed Iraq.

The Colonel met with the Iraqi government in 2005 to deliver a budget proposal to rebuild the nation. Iraq reportedly had no background in government and their budget was “whatever Baghdad sent to them,” in the form of physical cash, according to cnbc.com.

The interpreter did not understand Davidson’s explanation of the budget and the meeting between Davidson and government officials had to be put on hold until the cultural boundaries were cleared.

“It was as if everything was force fed to them,” Davidson said. “The best thing about being a soldier is the ‘cross-section’ that existed. I met some kids and some of them had the greatest ideas and understood Iraq lifestyles because they grew up on farms.”

Other notable experiences Davidson shared included his fellow soldiers asking about fast food restaurants like McDonalds. The restaurants and familiar territories that exist in the United States were not in Iraq, which was a culture shock.

Regions in Iraq were also different from the United States since the Kurds and Arabs had more restricted approaches to how women are raised.

In the Kurdish culture, there are female doctors, lawyers and politicians that dress similarly to Americans. However, Arab women have to either be from the right family or need permission to be educated.

“It was important to respect their culture,” Davidson said. “You couldn’t talk to random students and women because it is culturally insensitive. Women could potentially tell their families just because a cultural boundary was crossed.”

After his presentation, Davidson briefly discussed how the control of Iraq could have been approached if America was not under-resourced on the ground.

The increasingly large amount of technology that exists now may have played a different role back in 2003 when there was not a lot of resources available to the soldiers.

With his experiences in Iraq, Davidson notes that it is important not to underestimate the diversity that exists outside of the United States.

“We could have been better,” Davidson said. “However, the army is a learning organization since you’re always learning and there are so many layers of complexity we don’t understand; we’re naive.”