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Holy wars: Anthropologist explains some of the difficult aspects of modern conflict

by Nick Stubbs
Thunderbolt staff writer

Over the centuries, religions have been the cause of war and the cause of peace and as U.S. forces engage an enemy that has declared a holy war, it is little wonder Dr. Pauletta Otis finds so many in the military, from E-1s to generals, asking the same questions about the role of faith in the current struggle.

It's a delicate subject, says Dr. Otis, who spoke in an open forum at the Base Theater Tuesday. Visiting MacDill for the Phoenix Rally, where she conducted briefings, the senior fellow at the independent research group Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life speaks frequently to military audiences about religion and conflict, with a focus on the Middle East and the religions of radical terrorist groups identified as U.S. enemies.

One common factor marks all her presentations, she said after speaking: A lack of questions. It's not because she is so thorough or that the crowds are disinterested; it is the nature of the topic and the sensitivity of the issue of religion and how different beliefs intersect on the battlefield. No one stands up and asks out loud if Islam is an evil religion or if Christian morals are superior. But without fail, the questions arrive in her e-mail in-box within hours.

"It's something most people are reluctant to talk about in an open forum," said Dr. Otis. "It's understandable."

Dr. Otis said the military has no group or department dedicated to the issue of religion as it factors into conflict and analysis of the enemy. And despite the seeming importance of religion in the current conflict with radical religious factions, which frequently trumpet the righteousness of their violence, she thinks perhaps it is best that the U.S. military leave matters of religion to the chaplains.

"Traditionally that has been their area," she said, adding that chaplains have the "heart and soul" the topic demands. With recent changes to protocol, she believes it is enough that chaplains now serve an advisory role to commanders, answering questions and providing guidance on the myriad of sensitive issues of fighting a war in which religion often plays a role.

In a sense, what Dr. Otis brings to her briefings and presentations is the message the average military chaplain might provide, including the duality of religion as a stabilizing and peaceful force that sometimes becomes the force behind violence and war. While each person and culture may practice different religions, it isn't worthwhile to debate the superiority or "rightness" of one over the other.

But Dr. Otis is equipped to go beyond. With a degree in social anthropology and years of studying diverse cultures and variations of the same religions, she provides the insight today's military members need to understand the complexities of dealing with sects of religious groups that are players on the modern field of conflict.

More often than not, she not only provides the answers to questions but the questions themselves - the questions few know enough to even ask.

A practical example of the importance of understanding religion and religious traditions is being aware of the significance of the possibility of striking a mosque, right down to which side of the mosque to strike, Dr. Otis said. Water wells by tradition always reside on the same side of a mosque. Destroying a well that supplies clean water to the entire community could be seen by peaceful residents as an attempt by opposing forces to deny them the water they need to survive. Sensitivity and understanding the significance of symbols and tradition is paramount for today's military members, who must live, work and essentially become part of a community following a successful military campaign, such as in Iraq and Afghanistan. Doing the wrong thing and even saying the wrong thing could be seen as an attack on ones faith.

Fortunately, American troops learn quickly, said Dr. Otis. She has spoken to many Soldiers and Airmen and analyzed interaction between them and members of occupied communities. She said the crop of young warriors are "smart" and adapt quickly. What they may lack specific knowledge of local history, cultures, traditions and taboos, they make up for in good sense and instincts about how to win friends and influence would-be enemies.

"Very sharp and very street smart; I am continually impressed with the quality of these young men and women," said Dr. Otis describing 18 to 23-year-old Soldiers, Marines, Airmen and Sailors she's encountered. "They have a sense about how to go about what is a difficult job."

Dr. Otis said despite the occasional lapses of good sense, which often receive the majority of press play when they happen, the number of good things troops on the ground are doing and the way they are representing the U.S. is stellar.

"They are not kicking down doors, they are knocking and introducing themselves," she said, adding that they are keen to recognize the needs of the people in the communities around them, filling needs for water, food or whatever may be required. Perhaps most important, they put a positive face on the concept of freedom and democracy, which she believes is starting to take root in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The road remains long, however, and she cautions that what we see today is just the start of what will be a long-term engagement. But while it requires patience, time soon may begin to work its magic. While it may not be the common perception due to the focus on the negative, within the many communities where U.S. forces are working, understanding and relationships are improving.

War is always difficult and filled with instances of excess and mistakes, but Dr. Otis said when the dust of war settles, U.S. troops historically are recognized as liberators who did their best to conduct themselves honorably in difficult times.

She points to the willingness of former enemies to welcome Americans. Vietnam is a recent example, she said, where the people and government are warm and friendly to Americans. She notes it is human nature in most cultures to withhold forgiveness following a war when the opposing force is judged to have been particularly brutal or to have stepped over the lines of decency in battle.

"I think it is the greatest testimonial and a great indicator of how we conduct ourselves in war," said Dr. Otis, adding that more than U.S. foreign policies, it is the troops on the ground who are remembered by our former enemies. Their deeds either stand out as good or at least carried out in good faith or they don't, and on that count the U.S. has fared well, she said.

Of course the object is to avoid wars all together and Dr. Otis believes increased understanding, respect and communication is the key. Despite the turmoil of current conflicts, large groups of people who had no real understanding of who Americans are and what they stand for are beginning to learn. It is likewise for troops on foreign soil.

"A human face is being put on things," said Dr. Otis, and may be the recipe for a safer world in the future.

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