Small Wars Journal

People and Culture: Who Cares?

Thu, 10/18/2012 - 5:30am

In a recent op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times, Max Boot asked, “is there any organization outside of Hollywood more prey to intellectual fads than the Department of Defense?”  It is a good question that illuminates the paradox of the military being both a conservative organization, slow and resistant to change, yet an organization prone to instantly throwing significant energy and resources at the latest shiny object.      

The realm of culture and all things human “terrain,” human “domain,” and human “environment” is certainly one of those areas where the military has spent significant time being both resistant to change and quick to assign value without evidence.  The interest in culture and the human element is certainly warranted given the operational demands of stability-weighted operations such as the Iraq and Afghanistan counterinsurgencies, the crisis responses of Haiti and Libya, and the emphasis on military engagement and security cooperation activities.  The continued demand for these types of operations provides evidence that the money, time, and personnel resources so far devoted to the cultural and human elements of conflict were good and profitable investments. 

Still, all good investment managers make periodic checks on the performance and risk in their portfolios.  They combine an understanding of their investment goals with an understanding of the current and near-term financial environment to determine how their portfolio is performing and if changes are necessary.  Even when investments are doing very well, prudent investors consolidate gains by removing certain amounts of profit and diversifying risk.  Doing so allows them to pursue both the financial safety of conservatism while chasing the right opportunities, at the right time, and in the right amount, to produce profit and success.  With the joint force at an inflection point, it is time to look at our investments in the cultural and human elements of conflict to determine if rebalancing is needed.

To balance a portfolio, some caution is necessary as the investor attempts – not always with success – to look at the portfolio objectively.  The investor must understand their predilections, acknowledge a certain amount of ignorance, and seek to mitigate these.  For our purposes, we must confront the tendency to assume that we know better than those that have come before, the prejudice towards technological and process solutions, and the error of projecting the present, in its entirely, into the future.    

First, we must acknowledge that the members of the military who served in Shanghai and Siberia, who spent decades serving as administrators and the constabulary in the Philippines and in Haiti, and who wrote the Small Wars Manual probably understood the importance of culture and the human element.  These service members navigated the complex problems of their day without defaulting to better processes or technology as the answer to overcoming human fallibility and failures in human systems.  Leaders such as Marine Major General Smedley Butler, who from the Philippines to Nicaragua to Haiti, spent most of his career successfully conducting what we would call stability operations, never once referred to friendly, neutral, or threat networks.  However, his success in operating and navigating human terrain in multiple deployments demonstrated that he understood the concept completely.    

We also must acknowledge that since conflict itself is a matter of opposing human wills, culture and the human element have always been a part of military action.  Genghis Khan did not kill everyone he came across – razing certain cities and killing their populations was a calculated method to “achieve dominance in the human terrain” by destroying the will to resist.  Alexander the Great and Boudicca both understood how to “dominate the information environment” – whether co-opting people groups to govern them or leading a rebellion that almost succeeded in driving Rome from the British Isles.  Perhaps we do not agree with the methodologies of the past or are quick to assume that people who used swords have nothing to say to those who use computer viruses.  But swords and different moral standards does not make fools of those that used the first and practiced the second.  No more than our academic study of culture and assigning formal names to behaviors and activities make us geniuses.    

This introspection is important because as we look to see if our portfolio of investment in culture and the human element needs rebalancing we have to confront the prevailing thought that humans and cultural issues are more important and more complicated, than ever before.  This fallacious assumption enables the belief that if we can just speak the language more fluently, recognize cultural cues more quickly, regionalize and specialize our forces, and conduct information operations in a locally friendly way, victory will be assured.      

Undergirding this mindset is the reality that the military is in the midst of completing over a decade of stability-weighted conflict.  In doing so, it has produced not only a generation of officers and NCOs for whom counterinsurgency is the only type of operation they’ve ever know, but an entire industry of counterinsurgency experts, cultural experts, language experts, human terrain mappers, etc..  As a result, it would appear that any endeavor that can be labeled “human domain,” “culture,” or something similar possesses pride of place among all other considerations, and there is a danger of trumpeting the current paradigm as the enduring paradigm. 

The solution to any given problem rarely lies in the extremes - which is why successful investors never place all of their money in one particular financial vehicle, regardless of how successful it is.  One extreme is that since culture and humans are an enduring element of conflict we need not better our understanding of either.  The other extreme is that indicated above, that enough cultural sensitivity equals to success.     

The answer lies in the middle and is twofold.  First, people and culture do matter.  Second, how much they matter is a function of the mission and the operational environment.  Put another way, people and culture always matter, they just do not always matter that much. 

This suggests a scale of human and cultural relevancy.  Recently the joint services participated in crisis response operations to the Japanese tsunami disaster.  Since, fundamentally, disaster relief is about people, one could certainly acknowledge the importance of people – it was the entire point of the operation.  However, how much did culture matter?  How critical was the human terrain to mission success?  Was it more critical at some points than at others?  Put another way, what amount of working human and cultural knowledge of Japan and the Japanese people did the service members of the joint force require to respond effectively to the crisis? 

Fundamentally, they needed to be able to pull people out of the water and out of the ruins of their homes and cities.  They needed to provide clothing, food, and shelter.  It is doubtful if the Japanese people receiving this first responder aid cared about how well – or even if – the members of the military force knew or could speak Japanese.  Still less did it matter whether the Soldiers, Sailors, Marines, and Airmen knew anything about the Shinto religion, understood the finer aspects of ancestor worship, or made rice the staple of the meals served.  And undoubtedly, the rescued Japanese would be pleased to know that they did not need to wait in the water or on the remains of their homes until culturally trained, regionally appropriate military forces were dispatched to their assistance.  Forward deployed, general-purpose forces arrived immediately and provided effective aid – certainly “today’s force for today.”         

In contrast to this, we might view the Marine Corps’ 19-year occupation of Haiti (1915-1934).  In what today we would call “developmental assistance” or “nation building,” the Marine Corps served as provincial administrators and the constabulary.  In this instance, understanding cultural nuances and the human terrain was critical to those serving as occupiers and administrators of Haiti.  Forces executing this mission did become experts on the human terrain and cultural landscape in which they operated.            

These two historical scenarios demonstrate that the mission and operational environment have a profound impact on how much people and culture matter to successful mission accomplishment and how much time and effort the commander and staff must devote to their considerations.  The more immediate and specific the task, the less people and culture resources are required – occupy the airport, seize the port, rescue that group of people.  Conversely, the more enduring and broad the task, the more people and culture resources are required – support governance, enable a safe and secure environment, develop a police force.  Between the two extremes is the recognition that transitions matter and will occur.  Pulling a Japanese tsunami survivor out of the water required little language or cultural experience – working with the Japanese government to support rebuilding two weeks later required much more.  Seizing Aachen in 1944 required little language or cultural experience – setting up a military government of occupation in the days following the city’s capture required much more.    

As investors we need to “right-size” our portfolio, accept some risk for growth, but avoid the extremes.  While the United States has conducted large-scale, long-term development assistance missions, for the military these kinds of missions are outliers.  The members of the military spend far more time evacuating embassies, making shows of force, or intervening in conflict than they do governing other countries or rebuilding them.  And while general-purpose forces conduct multinational exercises with Kuwaiti forces, NCO training sessions with South Korean Marines, and civic action in the Philippines, the interaction resulting from these operations affect only a small proportion of the force engaged – a proportion most effectively and efficiently served by cultural and language experts and enablers.      

What this means is that the joint force must maintain the capacity to understand language, culture, and the human element without allowing them to become sacred cows.  For most operations, local translators are acceptable and feasible.  The general-purpose force just does not need vast ranks of language experts.  For most operations, the cultural awareness needed to be a stranger and a guest in someone’s home will suffice.  The military does not need entire units to devote themselves to specific cultural or regional expertise, if for no other reason than those forces will most likely be called to serve elsewhere in response to crisis’s that the world dictates, vice those we would prefer.  If extra culture and language capacity for a given mission is needed, it can be built and brought in.             

It is true that some services, notably the Army, are regionalizing units – with the goal of making them specialists on various parts of the world.  This makes some sense in light of the Army’s size, mission, purpose, and its role in supporting the plans and operations of the combatant commanders.  However, a smaller Army is unlikely to have the depth to allow it to send regionalized brigade after regionalized brigade to a specific crisis before it finds itself tapping into the rest of the operating force – an operating force prepared and trained at great expense and effort to be regionally specialized elsewhere.  How much less so for the naval services, the forward-deployed crisis responders?  This means that the historical paradigm of general-purpose ground, air, and logistics forces able to task-organize to meet the demands of the moment remains the right paradigm.  This means that a general understanding of culture and the human element of conflict – with the capacity to build more if required - remains the paradigm the services should resource. 

It is not a matter of if human terrain and culture matter; they are an integral part of the operational environment and the cause of conflict in the first place.  It is a matter of how much and when do they matter?  How much do considerations of them affect our thought on how we conduct missions?  In an austere fiscal environment, how much culture and language capacity do we need to possess? 

The example of our martial predecessors, who successfully conducted “small wars” without the benefit of dissertations on anthropology and sociology or flocks of subject matter experts, is that having an awareness of culture and human terrain is critical, but successfully tailoring that awareness to the actual situation results in mission accomplishment. 

About the Author(s)


Mr. Scott Kinner is a twenty-year veteran of the Marine Corps, having served in billets from fire team leader to regimental operations officer in environments from Desert Storm to Iraq.  He currently serves as the doctrine developer and writer for the Marine Corps Tactics and Operations Group, the Marine Corps’ proponent for matters related to the Ground Combat Element of the Marine Air Ground Task Force. 

Disclaimer:  The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s alone and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Marine Corps Tactics and Operations Group, the Marine Corps, or the United States Government.


Scott Kinner

Sat, 10/27/2012 - 2:49pm

In reply to by Bill M.

Thanks Bill...the subject was discussed recently at the semi-annual meeting of the Marine Corps's ground combat leadership...

Outstanding article and a breath of fresh air that cautions against our excessive focus on the so called human domain. We do need regional area specialists, and hopefully our foreign area officer programs can produce many of them, if need be we can surge with an AFG/PAK like hands programs, and of course our civil affairs personnel should be expert in working with the locals and advising commanders on civil factors relevant to the mission at hand. To assume the entire force must divert time from crtical combat training to study anthropology is little more than political correctness creeping into the ranks. Your examples of where that knowledge is critical and where it is irrelevant were excellent. I hope senior leadership in the military debates this article at length.


Sat, 10/27/2012 - 6:22pm

In reply to by Bill C.

Bill C hit it on the head with this:

Stated another way: Per the author: "People and culture are important -- but how important is relative to the mission and to the operational environment."

1. The mission needs to determine the level of importance. If you are hunting terrorists, in an area known to dislike you, who cares? If you are conducting FID with an ally, it becomes much more important.

2. It must be remembered that the culture of the people is their culture and we cannot let our policies, rules, etc get in the way as this may be offensive, so if they drink tea at 1600hrs, you drink tea at 1600hrs, if they shave their heads and wear elephant hair bracelets, then you shut up and do it. They offer you a beer, you shut up and drink it. The hosts rules are the ones the count. Granted, not many muslims are going to offer you a beer, but thats not the point. You can't half step in this area, to do so invites offense, misunderstanding and failure.

Bill C.

Sat, 10/20/2012 - 5:03am

In reply to by Bill C.

Stated another way: Per the author: "People and culture are important -- but how important is relative to the mission and to the operational environment."

1. The mission: To cause various population groups to adopt more-market friendly attitudes, values and beliefs. And to cause these population groups to adopt more-market friendly ways of life and ways of governance.

2. The operational environment: Areas in which less-market friendly attitudes, values and beliefs and less-market friendly ways of life and ways of governance prevail.

Thus, with the above-described mission -- and with the above-described operational environment -- how important are people and culture? Maybe very much so.

If one's task is to act as part of a team that is embarked upon a mission to overcome and eliminate obstacles which stand in the way of the expanding global economy.

This demanding that the soldier work with other professionals in a combined/joint effort designed at causing outlier states, societies and/population groups to

(1) Abandon THEIR less-market-oriented attitudes, values and beliefs and THEIR less-market-focused ways of life and ways of governance.

And causing them to

(2) Adopt, in the place of these hindering matters, OUR more-market-friendly attitudes, values and beliefs and OUR more-market-focused way of life and way of government.

Then, within the scope of this task/mission and its requirements, how much must the soldier know re: the cultures (and often the histories) of these outlier states, societies and/or population groups?

Maybe quite a lot. This, given the fact that, as outlined above, it will be critical aspects of the cultures (and the histories) of these differing states, societies and/or population groups that our soldiers -- and their team-mates -- will be up against/must overcome.


Fri, 10/19/2012 - 4:50pm

On target through and through. I would add, however, that those officers that are employed in leading the harder, longer, missions that require regular interaction and influence of the locals, be better educated. By that I do not mean trained. They need to be educated in languages, religions, history, politics, and economics throughout their adult lives aged 18 and on. Engineers are all well and good, but we have too many of them between the services, especially in the Army, the service most consumed by those missions. PME, in the formal service school sense, must always focus on military sciences. But PME cannot be the education baseline for an effective officer corps.

As it stands, our ROTC cadets receive no guidance in their degrees, our OSC candidates roll in with University of Phoenix degrees, and our USMA cadets excel at math, sport, and test-taking (hyperbole is intentional). If we want officers to be have the critical thinking skills to assess their operating environments then you can't start with a 27-yr old Captain. It's a crap shoot by that point. The fascination with things "human" and "anthropological" and the musing on the "newness of it all" is the result. The resistance to things complex and non-linear may be waning, but critical thinking and true education (vice training) isn't really picking up.

dos pesos