|At Bagram Airfield, Lt. Col. George Smawley ’88 (right) and British Maj. Charles H.F. Dobson, from the Worcestershire and Sherwood Foresters Regiment, work together on matters including rules of engagement and use of force, detention operations and the gradual assumption of operations in Afghanistan by NATO forces.
“[A visitor] would find it difficult to comprehend how a nation could subsist in such disorder; and … yet, he would scarce fail to admire their martial and lofty spirit, their hospitality, and their bold and simple manners ...”—Mountstuart Elphinstone, 1815
Afghanistan is an ancient place with multicultural, multiethnic populations of some 24 million people. It is a land built from the ashes of war, tribalism, colonialism and
the recent global war on terror. Americans came to Afghanistan in search of al-Qaeda following the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001. But we did not come alone.
More than 22 European and non-NATO countries have forces in Afghanistan, including 8,000-some Canadian, Dutch, British, Australian, New Zealand, Korean, German and Romanian soldiers and airmen. NATO and allied personnel are integrated at every level. Since my arrival in January, I have been working side by side with our international allies.
The level of multinational and coalition integration here is an interesting test ground for cultural tolerance, understanding, patience and trust. My observation—in 1986, when I studied abroad in Vienna, and now—is that those with the advantage of cross-cultural studies or immersion in another culture adapt to this environment far faster. In an age when America is regionally engaged outside the Western world in diplomacy, information, economics and the war on terror, the enduring value of the overseas experience can-not be overstated.
My experiences with individuals from overseas started with my Prussian mother and her family. She encouraged my sisters and me to embrace the German idea of Weltanschauung, or world view, as a framework for perceiving and interacting with the world at a personal level. It reminds us of the relevancy of others and imbues a certain respect and understanding for social structures and traditions that are often radically different from, and occasionally diametrically opposed to, Western liberal thinking.
While much has rightfully been made of foreign-language study, I believe the truly lasting benefit of abroad education isn’t the idea that you come away with the perishable skill of bilingualism, which more or less qualifies you to make small talk with waiters in foreign restaurants. Rather, overseas study fosters a near-holistic appreciation and development of people and attributes outside our own experience—Weltanschauung.
Imagine a living and working environment with international partners and organizational leaders who see and do things differently; whose governments and electorates are regular reminders of the implications of public opinion; and where your host is an emergent Islamic democracy with 16th-century resources and 21st-century ambitions. The resilience and perspective that I gained through interacting with people from outside North America helps me with daily living in foreign surroundings that take me outside my comfort zone.
Dickinson cultivates multiculturalism and a sense of internationalism, unlike most other liberal-arts colleges. My junior-year semester in Vienna and law-school semesters in Tel Aviv and London provided me a collective window on the world that endures. As I work and travel with NATO and Afghan military personnel, I am continually reminded of the education I received through Dickinson College in places that seem so less foreign now than they were then.
The patience, the willingness to listen and appreciate history, and the tolerance for cultures and religions antithetical to my own, are all an integrated part of a lasting world view that remains more relevant than ever.
Since January, Lt. Col. George R. Smawley ’88 has been the deputy legal advisor to the Commander, Combined Joint Task Force-76, headquartered at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan. He is a graduate of the Beasley School of Law, Temple University, and The U.S. Army Judge Advocate Generals School. A double major in English and policy-management studies, Smawley was a member of the Blue Mountain ROTC Battalion. He has been on active duty since 1992.