On Honors and Cultural Differences

So here we are at the African Land Forces Summit, a huge gathering of senior Army leaders from the United States and most African nations. This annual event is organized by the Southern European Task Force—Africa, a two-star U.S. Army command, but the host nation varies from year to year. Since the overarching theme is always cooperation and partnership, the summit is considered to be “co-hosted” by the U.S. and the host nation, which this year happens to be Zambia.

We’re to play the opening ceremony, which includes music for the arrival of the official party, honors to the senior general officer, and both national anthems.

It’s pretty typical to play a march as the official party enters the room, so that’s easy enough. When playing multiple national anthems, who goes first? Usually the guest and then the host nation. There’s a little question as to what is correct here since this event is “co-hosted,” but we’re physically in Zambia, so it’s a pretty easy decision to play the U.S. anthem first, Zambian anthem second. So far, so good.

Now, honors to the senior general officer. This year, the Zambian general wears three stars versus the U.S. general’s two. U.S. custom is to play honors for only the most senior offical. Since the Zambian general is technically senior, is it appropriate to play Ruffles and Flourishes and the General’s March for a foreign officer? I’m pretty sure I know the answer to that one, but I look it up in Army Regulation 600-25 just to be safe. Sure enough, foreign officers are entitled to the U.S. equivalent of honors, so we are a GO for that (although we’ll talk this over with the generals when they arrive for the walk-through, just to ensure everyone’s comfortable).

All is well…until we learn that the Zambian Minister of Defense will be a member of the official party. Do we play honors for him? According to AR 600-25, yes: four Ruffles and Flourishes and, where I would normally play Stars and Stripes Forever for our Secretary of Defense, for the foreign equivalent we play Sousa’s Hands Across the Sea. (I didn’t know that; I learned something today!) Are we prepared for this possibility? Is Hands Across the Sea in the book? No. That’s gonna be a problem.

Well, maybe not. Did I mention the Zambian Military Orchestra is also playing at this ceremony? All this time, we’ve been in agreement that the U.S. band would play honors, but now that the Defense Minister is involved, I’m not sure. I ask my Zambian counterpart, “Do you play honors or some kind of official music for your Minister of Defense?” He answers with another question: “Is he the guest of honor?” Well, he’s the senior official at this event, so my regulation says we play honors for him. We’re going to have to find this music fast, but I’m confident we can and will be ready no matter what we decide.

…Except Zambian protocol says if the Minister of Defense is merely a member of the official party and not the guest of honor, he does not receive honors. If he is the guest of honor, then it’s Zambian protocol to play some fanfare for him that trumps the music of the official party, as far as I can comprehend. That might change the order of the entire opening sequence.

At this point, I should mention how grateful I am that English is Zambia’s official language. All this time, I’ve been able to understand (most) everything my counterpart has explained, even though his speaking volume (like all the Zambians I’ve noticed in my few days here) is barely above a whisper, and he has an accent that is sometimes hard to understand.

So now our primary contact, my Zambian bandmaster counterpart, and I discuss what we should do, and a few minutes later I brief the colonel in charge of the ceremony. I simply say, “We recommend the U.S. band plays honors to the Zambian general, though it may seem a little odd to us as the Defense Minister is not considered the guest of honor.” He answers, “okay.”

Soon after, the generals arrive for their walk-through of the opening ceremony. The organizer briefs him on the plan for rendering honors, which he approves (whew!). Now we go through the motions to ensure everyone is comfortable with the ceremony’s moving parts: when they move, when they salute, etc. This leads us to recognize another problem: the ceremony is indoors. It’s a huge room with a tall ceiling, but indoors nevertheless.

What’s the big deal? It’s customary for American troops not to wear headgear or salute indoors. Is it the same for the Zambians? It’s also regulation to salute for national anthems of friendly nations, but even most American troops don’t know that. Is everyone saluting on the first note of music or will they salute and let that be the cue for the music to begin? How will it look if the Zambians salute and the Americans don’t, or vice versa? What if someone forgets to salute for an anthem they don’t know? If an American soldier is in uniform and hears music requiring a salute (Reveille, To the Color, the national anthem, etc.), he will stop immediately and do so. But would he do the same for music he doesn’t recognize? Assume for a moment a Zambian soldier knows what music American service members salute. Is it even their custom to render the same honors?

These may seem like trivial details, but there’s going to be lots of media coverage of this event, and the cameras are going to capture every mistake, every hesitation, every sliver of doubt any one of the members of the official party makes. If any one of them makes a mistake, no, it’s not the end of the world, but it’ll be enough of a distraction for someone watching to take notice. If they get everything right, no one will notice.

I offer this little story for a couple of reasons. First, it’s an example of military problem solving working as it should; we fix things at the lowest level then make recommendations to the boss so she can worry about bigger things.

But the second reason is to demonstrate how difficult and time-intensive it is to solve problems when there are competing traditions or cultures. It took around an hour to get through all the issues listed above, and that was under pretty favorable circumstances; we at least had a common language and, with a dash of patience, the ability to understand and work out pretty detailed and nuanced concepts. Without that, the potential for an embarrassing flub by a senior official in front of an international audience would’ve increased exponentially.

Some may say cultural understanding isn’t the Army’s business, readiness and combat power is. In order to be effective, however, the Army requires a shared understanding of the modern battlefield, and understanding how our friends and adversaries think and behave matters. This has nothing to do with lethality, but is absolutely necessary to ensure we have what the Army calls a “common operating picture.” In other words (sorry, here comes another Army cliché) we all have to be on the same sheet of music. And it starts with the little things, like ensuring we all salute together.

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