The Culture Episode

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

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


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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Not shooting can be more exhilarating than shooting

Sighing, I picked my head off the ground and looked around and then over to my team leader on the right, who was watching the objective. I was a little further back, behind a tree and lying on my stomach. I couldn’t see it. He looked at his watch and then to me and whispered “They don’t have any weapons.”

I looked back at him blankly.

He said, “What should I do?”

“What did the squad leader tell you to do?” I asked.

“He said to open up at this twelve o’clock and it’s twelve o’clock. But they don’t have any weapons.”

I took a deep breath trying to think of the right answer. They’re not showing weapons, yes, but is that because they don’t have them or because we don’t see them? With no weapons, the right answer is not to shoot, but we really didn’t brief a mission that had a contingency built in for an objective without enemy personnel or people without weapons. We’re in a training environment and on a training lane. The mission is a squad attack. Our team’s mission is to support the assault by fire. To do anything else might result in failing the lane, but the right thing to do might be to not shoot.

I certainly didn’t want to give the wrong advice, so I passed the buck. “Well, it’s your lane and you’re the one getting graded. Go with what you think is right.”

He nodded and jumped onto his feet shouting “Freeze! Don’t move!” Instinctively, but cautiously, I followed. It felt completely wrong.

No gunfire, no shifting fire, no assault.

We moved forward at a quickstep, weapons up and scanning. I felt like we were doing the right thing, but worried whether we were thinking this one through too much rather than just going with what was normally expected – shoot, fight, win.

Watching the objective, a figure dashed from a tent and over a log, curling up against the log in hiding. Another figure took off running away from the objective into the woods. As I reached the log I yelled over to the team leader that we had one person on the objective who didn’t speak English. She lay on the ground speaking gibberish.

The lack of gunfire coupled with the strange shouts eventually compelled the assaulting element to come out of their positions in the nearby woods and stumble into the objective, wondering what the hell had just happened. An eerie feeling descended on us as we whispered to each other, trying to figure out what was going on. We were all thinking the same thing – we probably just messed this up big time and someone was getting a no-go.

Still, when you’re in this deep you go with what you’ve got. We criss-crossed the objective looking to see if there was anything worth noting or anyone left hiding. I searched the one civilian(?) gingerly and fake zip-tied her hands. We then picked up and moved out with our one captive until the cadre called ENDEX.

I felt exhilarated. More so than any of the lanes where we conducted a flawless, textbook, squad attack with lots of gunfire and loud bangs. I was beaming. I was completely impressed and inspired by the decisive and bold leadership displayed by the officer candidate who decided that it was more important to do the right thing as he saw it and risk failing the lane than to take the easy option and follow through on the briefed plan.

Fortunately, our cadre had actually instructed the OPFOR to not show any weapons to see how we would react. The plan was to attack and destroy the personnel on the objective. But a junior leader made a tactical decision that, had he not, could have had strategic implications (if this was a real scenario).

Not shooting was the right thing to do in this case. The leaders passed the lane and we all left feeling good about the decisions made.

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