How important is culture training, anyway?

afghanistan shura meeting culture

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 assumption—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 simple—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 up” 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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On Quiet Professionals

red lens lamp land navigation map reading

Another piece of evidence proving some of the best contemprary military writing originates from a gym in Wyoming.

Years of organizational observation, and several months of work with MTI’s Quiet Professional Discussion Groups, have reinforced for me that most Quiet Professionals are so in spite of their unit or company culture, not because of it. 

This is disappointing but understandable. Self-promotion and individual advancement dominate the cultures of most tactical units, private companies, and government organizations. The up-and-out promotional pressure of the military, and financial compensation for advancement and increased responsibility at private companies, by their nature, don’t readily reward “quiet” team members who consistently put mission ahead of self, i.e. Quiet Professionals. 

THOUGHTS ON ORGANIZATIONAL ETHOS, INCENTIVES AND STRUCTURE REQUIRED TO PROMOTE QUIET PROFESSIONALISM, Mountain Tactical Institute

If you do the work, and no one knows you did it, is it still valuable?

“Quiet does not equal silent. You’re expected to confidently and candidly speak up to improve quality and/or put the mission first.”

A mentor recently shared with me that in most units, there’s about 10% of folks who do the heavy lifting. The rest are there and doing the work, but they’re not invested in the same way.

Anecdotal, sure, but it resonates.

Maturity comes in when you recognize that this is okay. This is the way it is and you work with what you have got.

You don’t criticize, condemn, or complain.

You do the work.

That’s being a quiet professional.


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Human Dynamics in Great Power Competition

a crowded market in the middle east

Interesting article over at MWI on the role of the ‘human domain’ in strategy.

The US military flounders in the human domain of conflict, with respect to foes, friends, and bystanders alike. Failure to engage with the building blocks of humanity—culture, society, politics, economics, and religion—leaves our strategies and plans untethered to reality. The result has been on display to the world for decades. The Afghan collapse provided a final exclamation point.

GETTING COMPETITION WRONG: THE US MILITARY’S LOOMING FAILURE

There is a lot I agree with in this article – like the importance of understanding human dynamics in warfare. The authors don’t really talk about language – but I’m coming around to believing that you can’t call yourself a “regional expert” if you don’t have some language ability in the region in which you claim expertise.

However, I’m skeptical about the idea of building strategy on all of the granular human stuff.

It seems like the powers that be should set the goals, set the objectives, set the end states. And then it is the role of the rest of us to use what we can to achieve those.

I’m not sure it works any other way.


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“Getting after it”

I don’t have much to say about this, other than I’m not a fan of the phrase “getting after it.”

I’ve seen it used too often in briefs as a cheap way of not explaining what is actually happening and instead leaning heavily on an inference that good work is being done, but it’s just kind of hard to explain.

Worse, I’ve seen commanders watch someone brief them, seemingly perplexed or confused, and then have that confusion wash away when the briefer attests that they’re “getting after it.”

Getting after what?

It’s a term that seems to make more sense describing a fitness enthusiast’s zeal for exercise than a complex military operation.

This is also a relatively new term. I don’t know if it originated in the military, but it’s all over the place now.

It’s only a matter of time until someone makes a military movie titled “Getting After It.”

You can add this to other terms that stand in for things that require nuanced explanations, like “setting conditions.”


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Picking up brass with a Green Beret

soldiers picking up shell casings while wearing gloves

The first time I met someone from special forces was on a MOUT site at Fort Bragg back when I was a Private. We were the OPFOR for some green berets.

They had simunitions, we had paintballs.

There are three things I remember about that training:

  1. They were good – all of their movements were crisp and professional (I kept getting shot before I event saw anyone)
  2. They were older – like, way older. I was probably 19 at the time. They all looked to be in their mid-30s or early 40s.
  3. They were humble – story below.

At the end of one of the training days, we were under the stars with white lights picking up brass from the exercise. We had a platoon of infantrymen from the 82nd there, but every member of the SF team was out there picking up brass with us.

I remember plucking brass off of the concrete and dropping it into my helmet while a Segreant First Class next to me told me about Special Forces, the training, and the mission. He told me about the different schools he hasd gone to. He told me how he speaks a foreign language as a job requirement. He told me about trips to South America and working with partners.

All of that was cool, but it’s not what struck me.

The thing that struck me was the fact that he was out there picking up brass. He wasn’t above it. It displayed a professional maturity I wasn’t accustomed to yet – my experiences to date had been infantry training and being a new soldier in the 82nd.

Picking up brass was something privates did while the platoon leadership waited.

This was something different.

Something to admire.


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The Battalion Commander Effect

battalion commander on the radio in vietnam

Catching up on podcasts.

Great interview over at From the Green Notebook with COL Everett Spain on his research and paper concerning the “Battalion Commander Effect.”

Recently, U.S. Army Colonel Everett Spain coauthored an article in Parameters titled, The Battalion Commander Effect. Spain and his coauthors found that evidence suggests Army battalion commanders are a major factor in whether or not high-potential lieutenants stay in the Army.  In this episode, Joe and Everett discuss the research and dive into why self-awareness and humility are important traits for military leaders.

S3, Ep8: Everett Spain- The Battalion Commander Effect

The research and interview is focused on the effect battalion commanders have on junior officers specifically when it comes to retention. The research shows – not surprisingly, I think – that battalion commanders have a tremendous effect on junior officer retention, for a variety of reasons.

It was only recently that I actually began to fully understand how important the battalion commander is in an organization.

Yes, of course I know their role is important – but I didn’t quite realize how critical it is. I used to think that if the subordinate leaders (company commanders, first sergeants, and beyond) were good, a battalion could make up for the shortcomings of a weak BC.

Kind of, but not really.

That battalion commander represents the battalion – inside and outside the organization. It’s hard to get past that.

It wasn’t until I’ve had both good and bad battalion commanders and numerous different positions within different battalions over the course of many years to see just how critical the battalion commander is. It affects professionalism. It affects morale. It affects retention.

Have you ever been in an organization where people like to ask “Where’s the BC?”

The chief thing that I’ve learned, and what is discussed in the interview, is that the battalion commander set the culture.

There really is something special about that role – battalion commander – that I don’t think many people truly appreciate. The expectations are so high. We want that person to be the epitome of professionalism.

To inspire us and lead by example.

To put in the work but also go home at a reasonable hour.

To be an expert in their field – technically and tactically proficient.

To be in just as good shape as the much younger leaders.

To be firm and fair but also display empathy.

All that, at a time when the said leader is often in a mature family with older children.

I think about the leaders taking command now who grew up in the GWOT.

What ghosts have they accrued?

It’s a huge responsibility. I’m glad that the Army is doing more to find the right people for this position with the introduction of the Battalion Commander Assessment Program (BCAP).

One of the things that stood out to me in this episode was a short conversation on giving feedback – something Joe has discussed in the past as something he is working on (me too!). It’s hard to tell someone they are failing in an area or they are not hitting the mark in a certain domain. How can we do it more effectively?

COL Spain recommends leading off with a statement like “I care deeply about you, so I want to tell you…”

I like that. I think that works. For whatever reason, whenever I am ready to give a critique, I feel my body tense up and steel itself for a rebuttal – I get pre-defensive.

This other way – leading with care – disarms that.

There was a short aside towards the end discussing what the equivalent might be for the enlisted side – which leader in an organization has a significant effect on junior soldier retention?

I love that they hypothesize that it is the Sergeant First Class.

If we’re talking about retention – especially for first-term soldiers – it is that Sergeant First Class who will shape the impression of a junior soldier. I was fortunate to have a cadre of amazing platoon sergeants when I first joined the Army. Professional, firm, but with the right amount of empathy.

In Kuwait, just before the invasion of Iraq, my platoon sergeant scooped me up one afternoon to bring me to a tent that had a television because he knew that I was a news junkie. He knew who I was and he had an interest.

Those things stick with you.

And here I am.

Lots to think about from this episode – check it out.


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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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The USA, China, and the “Whole of Society” approach

composite shot of all marvel stuff

Still catching up on the backlog of podcasts. I listened to episode 34 of the Irregular Warfare podcast weeks ago – and jotted down a few notes. This episode was on “China’s Strategically Irregular Approach.”

Before I even listened to it, I opined that there would be a discussion or comment about how “good” China is at irregular warfare and how “bad” we are at it.

The discussion was more nuanced than that, thankfully. But there is one area in which I think we (the US) continue to get a bad rap.

And that’s on the topic of the “whole of society” approach.

In any discussion on China’s approach to competition, their ability to marshal their entire society in lockstep towards their political goals is touted as a huge advantage. A top-down approach, where the CCP dictates the direction, and often the pace and style.

To the outside observer, it can appear as if they’re “doing it well” or “doing it better.”

Wolf-warrior diplomacy, banning video games, social credit systems. It’s all in the name of winning.

And what do we have to counter that?

A system that appears (to outsiders and insiders) to be falling apart, constantly at odds with itself, and seemingly incapable of coming together for a common purpose.

If you believe the above and swallow it whole, you’re missing the bigger picture.

The USA already does the whole of society approach – and does it incredibly well.

Here, we trust our people with free speech, to make decisions in their best interests and pursue what makes them happy. This is mission command at a societal level.

We don’t need to tell our people that they need to go out there and counter adversarial aggression. Instead, we provide the space and the means for people and organizations to thrive.

And they create things. Entertainment. Sports. Fashion. Philanthropy. Finance.

Hollywood. College sports. Non-profits. The iPhone.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe – an American media franchise – is worth billions of dollars worldwide, but more importantly, carries the power of American culture, creativity, innovation, and humor across the world.

If you’re on the outside looking in, American society, with all its cracks and fissures, is a behemoth. It is worth envying.

We don’t need to try to recreate something that “gets everyone on board.” We don’t need to force it.

Do the right thing, speak the truth, and trust your people.


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Language ability is what sets Army SOF apart

the halo jump wasn't the hard part knowing which arabic dialect to use when i landed was

This episode is for the SOF nerds who understand the importance of foreign language capability in special operations.

It is also for those who want to know a little more about the language and culture programs that make, train, and sustain Army SOF.

Language, regional expertise, and cross-cultural competency (LREC) don’t get the same attention as sniper teams in ghillie suits or a bunch of operators touching down on the roof of a house off of a little bird.

But have no doubt, as Special Forces officer Tim Ball says in the episode, it is language ability (and the cultural-competency that comes with it) that sets Army special operations forces (ARSOF) apart from its peers in the other services (Navy SEALS, Marine Raiders, etc).

The episode is a deep-dive on ARSOF language training, to include:

  • Language standards have increased over time (From 0+ -to 1+ on the Oral Proficiency Interview as a graduation requirement)
  • The numerous language programs inside of SOF beyond initial acquisition, including advanced unit training, foreign immersion, operational unit exchanges, and on-demand computer-based online training (with live instructors)
  • The use of virtual reality to enhance language ability and cross-cultural competency

I really appreciated some of the comments that Tim made. He highlights the fact that ARSOF traditionally works with a partner force, and that parternship inherently involves lots of face-to-face communication.

The ultimate aim of language training is to prepare the SOF soldier to instruct and communicate in the target language – to stand up in front of a tough, dedicated fighting force, and communicate to them what it is they need to do.

Tim admits this is hard – not everyone achieves that level of language fluency.

But some do. And in just about every SOF unit, there is “that one” who really gets the language and becomes the de facto communicator on the team.

At the very least, the fact that every SF/CA/PO soldier goes through significant language training provides them with the tools they need to exchange basic expressions and pleasantries. Like it or not, there is an “ugly American” stereotype that precedes us everywhere we go. If you can blast through that by demonstrating basic understanding of the language, it goes a long way.

Related, Tim also wrote a great article on War on the Rocks discussing the role of language in special operations – and the fact that we’ve gotten better.

If you’re not already a subscriber of the Indigenous Approach, you should be. It’s a must-listen for me and bumps my queue every single time.


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Army and Air Force, working together (in information warfare)

a world war 2 era poster about the army air force

New article up at MWI on the importance of bringing service-specific IO folks together in training and operations.

There are so many reasons to bring together the different IO stakeholders across the services. And while the below is the last reason, I actually think it might deserve top-billing.

If nothing else, even just the unique qualities everyone brings to the fight based on their respective service’s culture enables joint access to potential capabilities and personnel that might otherwise be missed or overlooked.

Breaking Out of Our Silos, Modern War Institute

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