A Sense of Time and Place


Several months ago I waited with my children at the school bus stop. It was a cool, sunny morning and a neighbor and her child walked towards us. She had a Middle Eastern accent and an olive complexion. Having learned some Arabic in Iraq I greeted her with “Sabah al khair” (“Good morning”) and she replied with “Sabah al noor.” Curious, I asked where she came from, expecting the answer to be an Arab country in the Middle East. She replied “Iran”, where the dominant language is Farsi, and I asked if she spoke Arabic as well as Farsi and English. She answered “no, but Farsi has adopted many Arabic words and phrases since they invaded us.” What strange words to American ears, “since they invaded us.” Her explanation was shockingly personal and immediate, as though it had happened to her, even though the invasion of which she spoke was in 636 AD, climaxing in the famous Battle of al-Qadisiyyah. I couldn’t imagine saying of the British “since they invaded us”, as though it happened to me personally, but the history rolled off her tongue as if it was a current event. I asked if that was the invasion that she was referring to and she said “yes”. The centuries that had passed had no bearing on her feelings about it.

In January 2003 I was stationed in Heidelberg, Germany and encountered a truck driver delivering a package to the community center at Patrick Henry Village. His name was von Manteuffel and during our conversation I asked if he was related to the famous German general from World War II, Hasso von Manteuffel. The truck driver sprang to attention, clicked his heels together and replied “Feld Marshal General von Manteuffel war mein grossvater (General Field Marshall von Manteuffel was my grandfather).” This ordinary man beamed with pride because of the exploits of his grandfather, as though he shared in them by virtue of their common blood. I later described this encounter to the US Army Europe (USAREUR) historian who explained it by saying “Americans have little sense of history and place; certainly nothing like we find in Europe. Heimat (home) is more than a place to Europeans; for them it is filled with meaning in a way that is hard for many of us to understand.”

Abraham Lincoln famously said “I don’t know who my grandfather was; I am much more concerned to know what his grandson will be.” Like most Americans, Lincoln was always looking forward and rarely looking back. It is difficult to imagine my neighbor at the bus stop or the truck driver in Heidelberg saying what Lincoln did because the distant past was as real to them as events yesterday. Their sense of time and place, and its effects on the present, were palpable. My neighbor and the truck driver would have been puzzled by Lincoln, but both would have perfectly understood Colonel Robert E. Lee’s refusal to fight for the Union against his native Virginia.

American policy makers have struggled for years with this mindset. More than one leader complained about the Serb determination to keep Kosovo; never understanding that it related, at least in part, to their crushing defeat under Prince Lazar against the Ottomans under Murad I in 1389. Some thought that this explanation was a ruse intended to cover up their real reason for waiting to keep the territory, such as money or power. It may have been, but only in part.

We encountered the same problem in Iraq. The Sunnis and the Shia have been bitter foes for millennia, since Imam Hussein was killed by the forces of Yazid at the Battle of Karbala (680 AD). Though there are current reasons for their animosity, ancient ones still matter. Events of which most Americans have never heard influence peoples’ thoughts and actions today. Many Turks remember and still rejoice in the Fall of Constantinople (1453) and Osama Bin Laden was motivated to terror, at least in part, in response to the Spanish Reconquista (1492).

Each individual attaches a different level of importance to their home and each perceives time a little differently. Some Americans have a powerful sense of the importance of their place and some Germans have little concept of Heimat. I have met people in the American South who, like my Persian friend, bristle at the Union forces who “invaded them” 150 years ago. On the other hand, many Americans hold no grudge against the Japanese, even though their atrocities happened much later. Culture, not necessarily nation, seems to be the key factor here. How each person views time and place seems to fall along a continuum; some value both highly, others not at all, and most people fall in between.

Is one attitude morally better than the other? No. However, depending on the situation, one attitude may be more useful than the other. Looking the future and not getting weighed down in the past has served America well. However, any American who wishes to stop a war or sell a car overseas must acknowledge that people in other cultures view the world with different eyes. While the basics, including physiological needs, security needs, esteem, love and belonging are consistent across the cultures, the specifics vary.

What should American Military Members, and Others Dealing with People from Other Cultures, Do?
1. Accept that not everyone sees the world as we do. In some cases others may be amenable to change, but in many cases not. In some cases we may need to change.
2. Study the history, language and culture of those we work with, and fight against.
3. Ask them why they do what they do.
4. Believe their answer, but take it with a dose of healthy skepticism.

Vincenzo Perugia stole the Mona Lisa from the Louvre Museum in Paris in August of 1911. When arrested in 1913 after trying to sell the painting to the curator of the Uffizi Gallery in Florence, Perugia was asked why he had stolen it. He replied that he had done it to reclaim an Italian national treasure that Napoleon had stolen. Though Napoleon did take hundreds of works of art during his Italian campaign (1796-7), the Mona Lisa was not one of them. King Francois had purchased the Mona Lisa from Da Vinci’s assistant Salai, who had inherited the piece after his master’s death. Though Italians hailed Perugia for his patriotism, the fact remains that he had tried to sell the painting. Even if he had a nationalistic motive, it wasn’t his only one.

American leaders at all levels must be aware of the different cultures they encounter and work to accomplish the goals of our nation without unduly offending our hosts. Though we may find these attitudes frustrating, on political and financial levels we must accept these differences of opinion and deal with them when accomplishing the mission. This is as fundamental to foreign policy as it is to commercial success. The United States will need a leaders with this knowledge and these skills to lead our nation in an increasingly complex and diverse world in the future.

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