U.S. troops in Parwan province, Afghanistan [Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/isafmedia].

New degree promotes cultural awareness for Special Operations personnel

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If you are in a Special Operations unit about to be deployed anywhere from the Hindu Kush to Colombia, you're going to need more than a Zagat's guide to understand where you are going.

The Bachelor of Science in Strategic Studies and Defense Analysis, a new degree-completion program at Norwich University, aims to help Special Operations personnel gain a greater understanding of the complexities of the countries where they might serve. The online program, which held its first classes in the winter of 2009 and can be completed in about two years, offers instruction in sociology, anthropology, geography, cultural awareness, regional politics and international conflict.

“There has been an increasing awareness in the military in recent years about the importance of soldiers understanding what they call the ‘human terrain system,’’’ said Linda Lucas, chair of the Department of Continuing Studies and the strategic studies program director.

The human terrain system, according to Lucas, is the complex socio-cultural environment in which troops are deployed and which they need to understand in order to work effectively with local populations.

“If you’re going to do that you have to know something about their culture, their history and the geography of the land,” she said. “The purpose of the program is to give Special Operations Forces the kind of knowledge and skills they need to go into areas where they’re deployed and work effectively with populations there to address problems in infrastructure, business or other areas.”

The program grew out of conversations that began a few years ago between William Clements, dean of the School of Graduate and Continuing Studies (CGCS), and leadership at Fort Bragg, N.C., home of the Airborne and Special Operations Forces. The military was looking for something that would offer Special Ops troops a professional development opportunity in addition to giving them knowledge that has “immediate applicability,” said Lucas.

Those factors, in addition to Norwich’s reputation as a “real brick-and-mortar school with a lot of respect behind it,” attracted Jeremy, a master sergeant and a 23-year U.S. Army Special Forces veteran whose last name has been withheld for security reasons.

“Initially, what attracted me was that the program was specifically geared toward Special Forces personnel and the degree sounded interesting to me,” said Jeremy. “I think it’s applicable for staying in the military or for working in the defense industry.”

Norwich’s representative at Fort Bragg is retired Master Sgt. David Swint, a 21-year U.S. Army Special Forces veteran who acts as a combination of liaison, recruiter and booster for the strategic studies program.

“I think [the program] is a good concept and everything I’ve seen-as far as course work goes-the content has relevance in the world of special operations,” said Swint.

Understanding the social and cultural complexities of Iraq or Afghanistan, such as the significance of family and clan relationships, or cultural practices surrounding the treatment of women, is essential for special forces personnel, said James Miskel, a diplomacy professor who teaches a course on terrorism in the strategic studies program.

“They don’t want to offend people unnecessarily. They don’t want to appear to insult a segment of the population or appear to favor one clan or family group over another,” said Miskel. “If you don’t understand those relationships, there’s a high probability that some of the things you do will be taken as an insult or a grievance by another group.”

Actions such as inspecting homes or screening local citizens entering secured areas, such as Baghdad’s Green Zone, have to take those sensitivities into account, said Miskel.

“Things that we can take for granted, they don’t,” he said.

The strategic studies program is structured on the CGCS model: It is highly experiential in nature and students are encouraged to integrate their personal experiences into the curriculum, said Lucas. The program is organized into three parts or “blocks.”

The first block covers online learning and information literacy, politics and human culture, and introduces the science of military technology to students from an academic perspective. The second block prepares students to apply their knowledge to real-world scenarios through field studies. The field studies block requires the students to choose a specific geographic region and apply what they learn by building study plans based on that region’s economic, geographic and cultural systems.

The program ends with a capstone project supervised by a faculty member. This will culminate in a report that will contribute to the U.S. Army’s body of knowledge of regions throughout the world.

Jeremy found the rigor of his class in international terrorism a pleasant surprise.

“I had heard that online courses were easier, but this one course required a lot more time than I expected,” said Jeremy.

He knows it was worth the effort, however.

“I think anything involving strategic studies and analysis is helpful.”