“Cultural Cluelessness”

I read this article in Wired today about “Cultural Cluelessness.” The gist of it is that the recent Quran controversy indicates a deeper problem within the US military regarding sensitivity and understanding towards “other” cultures.

After my first deployment to Iraq, I thought the Army would stand to benefit from something more than cursory training on the contours of cultural awareness or sensitivity, or what I like to call the “Wikipedia class on Islam.” We talk about the “strategic corporal” as a central player on the battlefield, but as a senior officer recently pointed out to me, the strategic corporal concept only seems to work in the negative – when there is something detrimental done. There are no stories of the strategic corporal that did something that changed the war in the positive – or at least I haven’t heard that story. How then, do you arm the strategic corporal with the knowledge to make sure he or she doesn’t make that mistake?

After ten years of war, there have been a number of cultural blunders made, which were tactically insignificant but strategically important – generally in the negative. This was something I thought about a lot while attending college.

Part of the Truman Scholarship application requires a ‘policy proposal.’ The candidate is required to identify a problem in the world, recommend a proposal to remedy the problem, and discuss the major challenges to implementing the policy. I wrote my proposal on instituting a Peace Corps-like cultural immersion program for members of the military most likely to come into contact with “other” cultures.

I wrote this proposal in the ‘aspirational tense.’ That is, I’m not sure that something like this could ever really be implemented and scaled up to a level that would make it efficient or worthwhile to pursue. While immersion in another culture would certainly provide soldiers with a better understanding of that culture, I also believe that simply doing the right thing and showing respect to other people (and other cultures) would be just as good. Still, I’ll copy and paste the proposal below to put it out there as a thinking point. Also, I’m aware that there are major holes in the entire proposal. The application required the proposal to fit a prescribed word length, which meant getting down the idea without nailing everything down.

I’d be more than happy to talk about the proposal in the comments.


To: Defense Secretary Robert Gates

Subject: Cultural and Linguistic training for the military


Relations between the United States and the people of the Middle East are dangerously strained.  Despite massive military efforts, we have failed to adequately befriend the Middle Eastern people.  According to the Brooking Institution’s Saban Center, 83% of the Middle Eastern public holds an “unfavorable view” of the US, with 80% of these participants indicating that their attitudes towards the US are based on US policy, not American values (1).  Pew Global Attitude surveys in the Middle East show that opinions toward “American people” are significantly more favorable than opinions toward just “America” (2).  These statistics confirm that our efforts are misguided.  The impending shift in emphasis from “hard” power to “smart” power represents a major change in US foreign policy (3).  Still, our military presence in the Middle East will remain substantial for the foreseeable future.  The changing nature of warfare requires a military that is not just culturally sensitive, but views cultural understanding as essential to mission success (4).  The Officer Corps is receiving enhanced cultural training, but the NCO Corps — the backbone of our military — is not.  Our “strategic sergeants” need the cultural training that will empower them to make the tactical decisions that have strategic implications.



The US already has the institutions necessary to prepare our military for close encounters with people from other cultures.  The Peace Corps prepares its volunteers for cultural integration through immersion using a combination of home-stay programs, in-class instruction, and language familiarization courses.  These programs are comprehensive and effective.  This model should be applied to the NCO Corps of the US military.  The huge cultural gap that exists between the US and the Muslim world requires intensive cultural exposure beyond familiarization and sensitivity training.  Ideally, every service member would have the opportunity to receive the type of in-depth cultural training required to achieve understanding. Realistically, having 1 or 2 soldiers per platoon (approx. 35 soldiers) receive this training would represent a major step forward.  A typical cultural training program lasts about 8 weeks — about the same time as US Army Ranger School.  Integrating this training into the NCO education system ensures that our small unit leaders on the ground will have the cultural knowledge required to make the hard decisions being asked of them now.  To test this, I propose we form a pilot program immediately with a unit scheduled to deploy to Afghanistan in the near-term.

Major Obstacles:

Implementing enhanced cultural training may see resistance from leaders in the Department of Defense who view cultural training as a distraction from the core mission of the military — winning wars.  On a practical level, military leaders may argue that sending off junior leaders to receive cultural training removes them from their traditional jobs, which may undermine unit readiness.  Additionally, the amount of time required to achieve adequate cultural training may seem extensive to some leaders. Despite these concerns, the US military stands to benefit from implementing this policy.


  1. Telhami, Shibley.  “2008 Annual Arab Public Opinion Poll.”  Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings.  14 Apr. 2008.  <http://www.brookings.edu/events/2008/0414_middle_east.aspx>
  2. “Global Unease with Major World Powers.” The Pew Global Attitudes Project. 27 Jun. 2007.  <http://pewglobal.org/reports/pdf/256.pdf>
  3. Clinton, Hilary.  “Statement of Senator Hilary Rodham Clinton Nominee for Secretary of State.”  Senate Foreign Relations Committee.  13 Jan. 2009.  <http://foreign.senate.gov/testimony/2009/ClintonTestimony090113a.pdf>
  4. “FM 3.24 Counterinsurgency.”  Department of the Army.  Dec. 2006. <http://www.usgcoin.org/library/doctrine/COIN-FM3-24.pdf>

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