The Culture Episode

A screengrab from one of the military’s many cultural training programs.

“I’m so sick of this squishy culture shit.”

From MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE: REBUILDING CULTURAL CAPABILITIES – AGAIN

I enjoyed this episode from the War Room podcast on the rise and decline (and rise and decline) of military cultural education programs.

The guests discuss their book The Rise and Decline of U.S. Military Culture Programs, 2004-20 (available as a free PDF download) from Marine Corps University Press.

The importance of culture ebbs and flows in the US military, right alongside our foreign military operations, not surprisingly. We go into a place, we lack a nuanced understanding of it, and senior military leaders bang their fists on the table demanding we produce a cadre of our own “Lawrences of Arabia.”

From there, the services begin finding ways to train the force on culture – a squishy topic, to be sure.

I can’t lie – my own academic interests were spurred by my personal inability to communicate or fully understand the people and culture of Iraq.

“If only I could communicate,” I thought…

The authors make a distinction between language training and culture. Language training has been a part of military training (for specific jobs) for decades. But it is more of a technical skill than a holistic something else that cultural training is or should be,

And that is where much of the struggle with cultural training comes into play. How do we measure or assess the effectiveness of such programs?

“That kind of a financial investment [assessment on par with language training] has never been made in cultural skills, of even a fraction of the investment has never been made in cultural skills. So, we still don’t have really good, validated tools to assess the cultural skills of military personnel, even after the number of years of these cultural training programs, assessing the learning outcomes, was never really received the kind of investment that it needed to be able to demonstrate those quantitative outcomes to the same degree that you have with language.”

Allison Abbe

Measuring this stuff is hard, and even if done to some degree, is going to be imprecise.

Many military leaders have an almost monastic devotion to “measures of effectiveness” – perhaps a result of decades of being told to read business books for good ideas on fighting wars.

Followers of the blog will know that I have an against the grain take on measures of effectiveness – especially if you read the last newsletter. Often, they get in the way of achieving actual results in lieu of just doing something we can measure.

My take – good cultural training will result in taking fewer “L’s” on the battlefield and avoiding silly own-goals. But we are highly unlikely to see a “big win” as a result of cultural training. The best you can hope for – I think – is praise from partners or enhanced relations over time. Not very exciting, really.

But preventing those losses can actually lead to victory.

This has to do with the “strategic corporal.” As a senior leader lamented to me back in 2011 – “The problem with the strategic corporal is that it doesn’t work in the positive, it only works in the negative.” What he meant, was that the strategic corporal is usually only strategic when he or she makes a mistake. And this is almost always tied to a cultural faux-pas.

And yes, it can also be a strategic lieutenant, captain, command sergeant major, or general.

As someone who is deeply invested in language learning and culture – I honestly do think this is important. We should spend time and energy understanding one another. Especially if we’re showing up with guns.

However, I think that the most important cross-cultural skill is simple respect. It translates everywhere and is tried and true. It’s easily understood and we can practice it daily.

Lastly, this episode focuses mostly on “big picture” cultural programs designed to train conventional forces. The special operations community has maintained (and continues to grow) its language and cultural programs, although focused on a much smaller population.

The authors’ key takeaway is that when we inevitably return to re-establishing cultural education programs, we ought to take a hard look at our recent (and not so recent) past before we start building the CONOP.

One-hundred percent agree.

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