« Why deploy the 173rd … | Home | Brandon Friedman's Th… »

Running in Vicenza and Why We're Losing in Iraq

On the outskirts of Vicenza Italy, there is a beautiful hill overlooking the town called Mount Berico. At the top, there is a church, and of course a coffee shop. Most importantly, there is a breath taking view. Though it wasn't the best coffee, it was the best atmosphere in town.

Eric C and I used to relax by making the forty five minute journey to the top of the hill. Whenever we had visitors, we took them there, joining the throngs of Italian tourists who visited this important church andpilgrimage site.

There is also a set of stairs--nearly several dozen going up 700 meters--leading up to Mount Berico. These stairs are part of their religious tradition; the truly pious walk up in devotion, sometimes on their knees.

Unfortunately, a set of steep stairs is an inviting location to run.

Vicenza, Italy is also home to the 173rd Airborne Brigade Combat Team, and two of its six battalions. In the morning, the paratroopers of the 173rd would look for the tallest, farthest places to run, and Berico was the nearest hill.

Inevitably, the town and the Soldiers came into conflict.

The local government eventually banned running downtown. Soldiers would run and call cadence, which had to end, because it woke up locals. Even after the cadences stopped, local Italian officials prohibited running downtown because soldiers conducted PT in the middle of the historical square (Soldiers were vomiting on the sidewalks or, again, waking up the locals.).

After banning downtown, the steps leading up to Monte Berico were banned. Again, the same reason: soldiers were vomiting on the steps. Italians described American Soldiers as a nuisance to civilians walking the steps. There were several other routes upBerico, so only the steps were banned.

Last summer, the entire hill was banned because of the continued disturbance and the alleged destruction of park land around downtown Vicenza . According to the local Italian papers, the response of the American soldier’s has been less than stellar. This caused bad press for American soldiers.

How does this relate to counter-insurgency? To the US Army, running at a pilgrimage site every morning for PT exercises was harmless. To the locals, it was anything but. The key is US Soldiers failed to realize how offensive their behavior was.

If US Soldiers can't get along with western Europeans in downtown Vicenza, Italy, how can we expect to do so in diverse cultures like Iraq and Afghanistan? The American Soldier (Officer, NCO and Enlisted) has great difficulty breaking from his own cultural viewpoints. As an Army we must face facts: many Soldiers lack empathy.

Not to toot my own horn, but when I first saw the behavior of soldiers on Mount Berico, and doing PT in general, I guessed that Italians would not be pleased with it. Sure enough, communicating this was difficult.

The only way to convince Soldiers not to run up those steps--to understand the error of their ways--was by a simple analogy. I asked, if French soldiers conducted PT runs around the graves of Normandy, and vomited on the sidewalks, how would you react? Probably beat the crap out of those Soldiers. An easy analogy, but almost the very definition of lacking empathy.

(I would provide some of the links to the original stories, but they are in Italian and most of our readership speaks English.)

eight comments

This post is the spiritual cousin to my comment on Monday, and an Andy Rooney quote I just read. Even if they are your allies, other countries hate having foreign troops in their country.

I was on Mt. Berico, and it does have a nice scenic overlook of Vicenza with the Dolomites behind it right across from the church. There are many reasons why people in Vicenza have taken an issue with the Army being there, why the No Dal Molin movement exploded in Vicenza, and this right here is a convenient flashpoint.

What has really ticked off direct neighbors to the US Army here in Germany is the direct expropriation of farmer´s land in order to make room for the expansion of a base, or when they decide to build on historic land and find ancient artifacts as they´re developing the property (and build anyway). I don´t think most people want to tolerate having foreigners stationed in their hometown, but what will always make it worse is being bad neighbors.

Hey, I wrote about Nick Sowers’ architecture work a bit ago on Registan. His MArch thesis is on how the military uses its space…it’s all pretty fascinating (to me at least). Here’s what he had to say about USAF in Italy, but its worth clicking through his stuff: http://www.archinect.com/schoolblog/entr..

@ AJK – I do think archetecture is interesting, and those were some great links. Looking at Nick’s pics reminded me of Italy…

I really like the focus on empathy and being good neighbors.
However it’s not only about “rude Yanks” and victimized locals who are just seeking to protect their heritage.

True, it’s very important to respect others and Michel makes a very going point here, but we should also ask ourselves: Is this all there is to the story; are there really only two sides to it?
What about the third party who gets the news out and sees to it, that both sides are upset with each other?!

Interesting read. Noted foreign affairs guru Robert Swope mentions your blog on his D3 weekly roundup. Here is the link:


Keep up the good writing.

@ cain- I noticed we got some traffic from D3 and I started reading it. We don’t agree 100%, but he makes logical arguments which is what I look for in blogging, journalism, etc.

@AJK- I agree with Eric C, they are some pretty good links.

@ Sophia- In this case, yeah the other side of the story is that the No Dal Molin movement (the movement that is trying unsuccessfully to evict US forces, I don’t know much about their goals, but they do not like US forces in Italy for a variety of reasosn) agitates much of the anger against US forces. That said, much of what happens in Italy would cause agitation without that movement.

Nobody likes being bothered when they are trying to sleep. Several years ago, still living in Boston, I was awakened by – what do you call it? Cadence? – a bunch of guys/gals running down my street. Does MIT have ROTC or something? I’ve never forgotten it because it was so bizarre, seemed so out of place, and made me really grumpy. I worked in a hospital and didn’t tend to get much sleep so it really rankled….