Cultural Understanding in the U.S. Military

The United States military has greatly increased its cultural understanding within its theaters of war since 2003.  That was the conclusion of Georgetown University Professor Rochelle Davis, at a lecture last week titled “Culture as a Tool of War: US Military Approaches to Occupation in Iraq” at the Middle East Institute in Washington D.C.

Professor Davis asserted that the military’s greater focus on counterinsurgency is the result of Field Manual 324, the highly influential Army/Marines guide whose implementation proved highly successful in the Iraq Surge of 2007.  Professor Davis said that this cultural focus represents dramatic progress in the way it uses culture as a weapons system.   Despite progress, however, she called for the need for more subtle understandings of different ethnic groups in a theater of operation.  She also questioned whether using culture as a weapon was compatible with a “hearts and minds” strategy, in which a military seeks to win over a target population by providing security and civil services.

Professor Davis insisted we re-evaluate how we study, define, and use cultural characteristics for military purposes. She asserted that it is overly simplistic to describe ethnic groups by who they like and dislike, and that we as Americans would never describes ourselves as such.  However, in the theater of operations, cultural understanding is only useful to the extent that it is an asset for victory.  While an in-depth, graduate-level understanding of the nuances of Iraqi politics and culture for every serviceman and woman would no doubt be an asset to the military, such capabilities are neither cost-effective nor necessary to achieve mission objectives.  Davis’ contention did not spend significant time addressing this potential concern.

Professor Davis also questioned whether using cultural understanding as a “weapons system” conflicted with a hearts and minds strategy.  The military tends to think about programs in terms of enhancing specific capabilities and assets of battlefield commanders.  Use of the “weapons system” terminology is a way for commanders who support cultural training to drive home the battlefield effectiveness of such training to their colleagues in the military.  They value effectiveness.   Davis’ presentation ultimately promoted cultural understanding for the sake of greater awareness, and neglected to tie the concept to meeting military objectives. Most would agree the military is best served by cultural understanding which helps troops complete the mission.  Despite this oversight, the otherwise insightful comments Professor Davis made indicate that finding the balance between understanding and efficacy is likely to be the subject of ongoing discussion.