How important is culture training, anyway?

I was excited for this episode on the importance (or un-importance) of cultural training / cultural awareness in military operations.

Just like the information operations episode – which I wanted to dislike – this one nailed it.

It has become axiomatic that cultural intelligence is key to success in counterinsurgency operations. But is it? This episode examines this assumptionā€”is the cultural training we receive in the military indeed the linchpin to success, or is it a red herring, even a harmful distractor, in the absence of coherent strategy? Why does cultural awareness tend to be absent at the strategic level, and does this really matter? As with much of the questions we discuss on the Irregular Warfare Podcast, the answers are by no means simpleā€”but are important for both policymakers and practitioners to understand.

COIN AND CULTURE: HOW IMPORTANT IS CULTURAL INTELLIGENCE IN COUNTERINSURGENCY? Irregular Warfare Podcast

Cultural training has become an obsessive topic for me over the past few years. I have conflicting feelings.

On the one hand, it seems like cultural training – and especially language training – should play an important role in military operations. Knowing your adversary and the environment in which you might be operating is a no-brainer. The ability to understand what is being said and the writing on the wall will also help.

On the other hand, does that knowledge actually lead to any tangible wins? To develop the linguistic and cultural understanding we’re talking about – beyond the Wikipedia level knowledge – takes years and years of work. Is that juice worth the squeeze?

That’s what this episodes explores.

On the way military leaders treat cultural training as a “secret sauce” to achieving success:

[according to military leaders]…cultural intelligence was key to the success of counterinsurgency, or any intervention when you’re fighting wars amongst the people, and it’s held almost to be like some secret sauce – you get this understanding of the environment, you understand the people, and then you can exert influence and achieve your objective.

Dr. Christian Tripodi, ~7:00

Few people will push back against a senior leader saying “we need to understand the language and we need to understand the culture.” Yes, of course, that sounds good.

But why? Does it actually work? Can we demonstrate where this understanding meant something?

On politics as culture:

…politics – which is hugely important – and is the war-winning aspect of the whole shebang… Military actors become political actors and they are thrown into a deeply complex political environment and they are asked to become part of that environment…

Dr. Christian Tripodi, ~11:30

We tend to think about culture as the squishy things – the little rituals and norms of a society. Placing your hand over your heart after greeting, understanding differences in spatial boundaries, etc. But politics is a huge element of culture and one we tend to place in a different bucket altogether.

Think of the United States – our politics is part of the culture. How do you even begin to explain the way politics work in the US without roping in all of the cultural influences we see at play? They are deepy interconnected.

“We’re trying to be culturally aware, but we don’t like your culture!”

Sir Simon Mayall, ~15:30

This was a great portion of the episode which gets into how we “mess upā€ culture all the time. Sir Mayall uses an anecdote that demonstrates how we can get culture wrong at the organizational level by doing things which may make us feel good and demonstrate our cultural leanings but has harmful effects on the operational environment.

And of course, we see this all the time at the individual level. The GWOT is rife with examples. There’s a good anecdote from the end of the foreign fighters episode which illustrates this, as well.

On the military-centrism of applied counter-insurgency:

Western military professionals respond to counter-insurgency in very particular ways. They interpret it initially as a small version of “big war,” so they devote a primarily military response to addressing that… when they realize that only gets them as far as a stalemate because military primacy only matters to a certain degree in COIN, they incorporate some other methods, some population-centric methods, they engage with the locals, build some schools, build some hospitals, but they never divert far from their preferred mode of operation which is essentially the application of the compellence of force.

Dr. Christian Tripodi, ~19:30

It’s not going to matter – even if you’re Lawrence of Arabia:

Even if we had units who were fully culturally aware – they spent years immersing in this… it’s just too complex with local politics, for even the best-intentioned, best-informed external actor to ever fully-understand what they’re getting enmeshed in…

Kyle Atwell, ~20:00

This is the push back we don’t see very often, and it’s accurate. There is value in cultural knowledge, but it is not going to win the war. It might make things run a little more smoothly, and it might reduce the risk of a strategic faux pas, but that’s pretty much it.

Now, there is an argument to be made for integrating cultural understanding in the strategy that informs campaigns and operations. In many ways, that’s a more difficult proposition.

But in terms of the way we typically discuss it – training individuals and units on culture – all of this seems pretty dismal, no?

So at the end of the day, should we even being doing this culture stuff?

The simple answer is yes.

Sir Simon Mayall, ~40:00

Yes, it’s worthwhile. There’s a role for it. And it’s acutally important.

But the complicated answer is yes, we should train this stuff, but don’t expect it to win you any wars.

That’s just sorcery.


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