Small Wars Journal

Modern War and Cultural Change

Thu, 08/08/2019 - 1:56am

Modern War and Cultural Change

Julian Koeck

“War is the father of all things”, Heraclitus wrote. In fact, most of human history is about war; war shaped societies; war made people rich; war made people poor; war destroyed cultures; war shaped cultures; war brought religions; war entertained; war was waged for nothing; war was waged for everything. It is only fitting that humankinds first true historian was a general. Thucydides of Athens was one of the ten “Strategoi”, the elected military leaders of the democratic Athens. When the Athenians lost an important battle in 422 BC, Thucydides was blamed for the loss and sent to exile. To serve for the Athenian democracy was in a certain sense not unlike serving under modern dictators: one “wrong” result could lead to banishment or even death. Thucydides, therefore, watched the great conflict between Athens and Sparta from the sidelines. Between 431 and 404 BC, both poleis fought a multidimensional war in which all Greek states and many of the neighboring nations got sucked in. Sparta won in the end, but lost the following peace. The Greek poleis had lost so much blood, treasure, and will that they were no longer able to fight off the monarchies around them (like they did against the Persians in 490 and 480 BC).

For Thucydides there were three reasons for war: fear, interest, honor. Undoubtedly, this was a most insightful concept that holds truth till today. However, in the 20th century another thought about war developed in the West as an answer to the destructive World Wars.

Unlike 1918, the USA did not isolate herself from international politics after 1945. She actively engaged in the construction of a new world community with the explicit aim to “maintain international peace and security”.[i] This ideology of peace resulted in a new framework for just wars. In theory, wars were only waged for the reason of ending (all) wars. Of course, geopolitical interests often trumped ideology but for all wars, reasons were presented that fit into the narrative. When there was no war between nations to stop, then, at least, a war of despots against their own people (e. g. Ghaddafi) or civil wars (e. g. Yugoslavia). It’s not important for us if these reasons were products of hypocritical rhetoric or true conviction: in the Western public discourse wars are nowadays only thinkable to stop or prevent wars. No politician today could, officially, wage a war because of interest or honor. From a historical point of view, this is a rather astounding fact. In most times war was seen as an integral part of the condicio humana and an irremediable recurring state of things.

Obviously, the ideal of a world without war is closely tied to other Western believes about desirable states of being, like democracy, human rights, rule of law, stable nation-state, freedom of religion, individualistic societies, and free markets. While these cultural traits and political aspirations are commonly viewed as intrinsically valuable, they have additional merit in preventing wars. Stable societies with similar cultures are less likely to wage war against each other.

Consequently, modern Western wars tend to be operations with the (sometimes hidden or unconscious) aim of cultural change. Unfortunately, Westerners tend to think that their own culture is the compulsory conclusion, if only malignant actors like the Taliban or Saddam Hussein are dispensed of. When the Allied troops defeated the Baath-regime in 2003, they took themselves to be “liberators”, not conquerors, and, therefore, initially tried to avoid all behavior that could have been seen as imperialistic, like taking over the local and regional government. This made sense in the context of the Western contemporary rather naive understanding of cultures, but it was not purposeful for the anticipated political and cultural change of Iraq. Time and time again, Westerners seem to have to learn the hard way that their culture is not the default. All contemporary American wars are paradigmatic examples for this. They are not about going in, hunting a few terrorists down and closing up shop, but about freeing culturally distant people from cultural traits that seem inhumane from a Western point of view.

To change cultures (for better or worse), cultural knowledge is essential. Furthermore, such cultural knowledge will arguably become more and more important even when no cultural change is aspired. A number of developments make this probable. The increasing number of humans – especially the population increase in Africa and the Middle East – in combination with increasing risks (environmental, health, wealth) leads to severe problems, which will likely increase in the future. This will lead to instable states, segmented populations, and, likely, political and religious radicalization. Even worse for the operational environment is the intensifying urbanization of humanity. 2017, more than 50 % of humanity lived in cities;[ii] nothing indicates that this trend will stop soon. Therefore, the military has to be prepared for prolonged operations in cities and megacities.[iii] Both factors – instable states and urban environments – demand an increasing amount of socio-cultural knowledge. In megacities, the military likely has to fight against a number of hidden opponents, while keeping the infrastructure of the cities complex systems intact. Therefore, a clear understanding of the human terrain and the necessary knowledge to keep order in a rapidly changing and highly complex environment are vital. Arguably, this can’t be learned on the spot. In their insightful article “Left of Bang”, Michael Flynn, James Sisco, and David Ellis not only stress the importance of “Sociocultural Analysis (SCA)”, they, furthermore, make the point that SCA needs to be implemented in traditional intelligence and has to be made useful “left of bang”, i. e. before the conflict becomes hot.[iv] Also, they emphasize the importance of cultural knowledge in a world with increasingly important non-state-actors.

Additionally, the old-new Great Game is mainly played in the Grey Zone. Unconventional Warfare, Influence Operations, Wars-by-proxy etc. make cultural knowledge crucial. One of the great strengths of America has always been her soft power, based on the attractiveness of her culture and the cultural approximation of smaller foreign cultures to hers. From an historic perspective, one could argue that the enduring of the American hegemony will be decided by the success or failure of further cultural integration of her allies.

In summary, cultural knowledge and cultural change are – on various levels – of significant importance for modern Western warfare. What does this mean for strategy?

In context of the contemporary ideology of just wars, the task of the strategist is the appropriate combination of means to reach military dominance, stable administration, and implementing cultural change (to prevent further conflict / war). Ideally, these Herculean tasks are achievable by a sound knowledge of one’s own culture (in which the political goals are formulated), a thorough understanding of her – in reference to the goddess of strategy Athene we declare the strategist an sich to be female – own military / diplomatic culture (and how they can be used as strategic assets), and, finally, a profound understanding of the foreign culture.

In a sense, the strategist acts as an inter-cultural translator – or transformer –, who knows how to transfer ideas from one culture into another. A direct implementation may work in cases of very similar cultures, but in most cases, the intended change must be made in a way that suits the overarching foreign culture, which is more than just a randomly exchangeable sum of cultural artefacts. For instance, the annihilation of Preussen post-1945 by re-creating German states that once were absorbed by Preussen made a lot of sense to the federalist Germans. They were able to transfer their particularistic pride and loyalty to a new subject, without losing this important feature of their culture.

Of course, tinkering with cultures is never a rational, revisable undertaking. On the contrary, it’s a sinuous art that will often fail even its masters. 1917, when the Germans sent Lenin in a plumbed train into Russia to increase social unrest there – hoping that this would weaken the Russian military significantly –, they would never have thought that this man would – by changing the very foundations of Russian culture – create an empire that by far excelled the old Russia and that would become the German downfall a quarter of a century later. Many more examples of the highly complex quality of cultural change can easily be found in the history of European-American imperialism.

Nevertheless, the modern understanding of justified wars makes the quest of cultural change elementary, as was said above. Idealized, war can thus be understood as an inter-cultural process with the intent of changing aspects of a culture according to the interest of another culture:


The schematic shows the importance of strategy, for which warfare is only a part of a greater set of means. However, it has to be stressed that the military can’t focus exclusively on warfare, but has to play its part in all other categories, too. The intended cultural change will very likely be only achievable by combining the efforts of all participating agencies according to the chosen strategy.

From a cultural point of view, the strategist has to deal with the Cultural Trilemma, shown below:


A successful strategy has to find a compromise between the different cultural needs and demands. Presumably, this very often won’t work in an ideal fashion. For example, it may be possible to befriend tribal leaders in Afghanistan by happily taking part in activities like bacha bazi, but this won’t be justifiable for the own Military and general culture. On the other hand, teaching the tribal leaders that their traditions are highly offendable to oneself and shall be punishable may be just the right thing to do in the eyes of one’s soldiers and the media at home, but won’t help in attaining influence over the tribal leaders.

Of course, such aporia aren’t mere problems (for which there are distinct solutions), but conditions that will force the strategist time and again to find a good enough compromise for the many cumbersome implications of the Cultural Trilemma. The difference between problem and condition is important, but often overlooked. It’s a typical Western cultural trait to believe that there is an ideal state of being that can be reached by eliminating all hindrances to it. In this context, the hindrances are understood as always solvable. However, these hindrances often have no clear and distinct solution, but are conditions that have to be endured (like dying and paying taxes).

While the schwerpunkt of the strategist’s work lies in the domain of the other culture, she constantly has to contemplate the texture of her own culture and ongoing trends. Arguably, modern social media and instant communication without gatekeepers (and censors) lead to an increasing amount of social risk for all ongoing political endeavors and especially war. The empires of the past had the luxury of a rather neat distinction between the center and the periphery. Today, there’s only center left, and cultural change becomes more and more a two-way-street. Western actions in Africa and Asia, for instance, can almost instantly result in an influx of immigration, strengthening the already on-going change from Christian-Atheist nations to Christian-Atheist-Muslim ones.

Cultural change through the military and other agencies can be done. However, it takes a lot of time and effort – the most important aspect very well might be education. The recent American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are dreadful examples. To prevent such costly endeavors in the future, three ideal typical options seem possible:

1. Cultural change is understood as the main strategic goal – the schwerpunkt of effort has, therefore, to lie on the opponent’s society. For this, the political will for very long and costly operations has to be secured.

2. War is, again, seen as a political process in the line of Clausewitz’ thoughts. Wars, then, will be waged to fulfil limited political interests, without the ideological need for cultural change in other nations.

3. Cultural knowledge is used to avert risk on an inter-state and sub-state level, while war remains the last resort for preventing such risk. Military operations get tailored to the cultural specifics of the human terrain. Therefore, cultural knowledge needs to be integral part of campaign planning and execution.

End Notes

[i] United Nations Charter I, 1 (


[iii] Luckily, there’re already discussions about how to deal with this development, e. g.

[iv] Michael T. Flynn / James Sisco / David C. Ellies, “Left of Bang: The Value of Sociocultural Analysis in Today’s Environment,” PRISM, no. 4 (2012), 13–21.

About the Author(s)

Julian Koeck is a historian interested in how ideas change or change not societies.



Sat, 09/25/2021 - 8:11am

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