This article was first published in the March-April 2005 issue of Military Review.
Over the past decade the Army has increasingly engaged in lengthy overseas deployments in which mission performance demanded significant interface with indigenous populations. Such interaction and how it affects military operations is important. In fact, engagement with local populaces has become so crucial that mission success is often significantly affected by Soldiers' ability to interact with local individuals and communities. Learning to interact with local populaces presents a major challenge for Soldiers, leaders, and civilians.
Lengthy deployments to areas with other cultures are not new. The Army has experienced many long lasting operations on foreign soil since the end of World War II. For most long-distance operations, the Army attempts to instill in deployed forces an awareness of societal and cultural norms for the regions in which they operate. While these programs have proven useful, they fall far short of generating the tactile understanding necessary for today's complex settings, especially when values and norms are so divergent they clash.
Working with diverse cultures in their home element is more a matter of finesse, diplomacy, and communication than the direct application of coercive power. Success demands an understanding of individual, community, and societal normative patterns as they relate to the tasks Soldiers perform and the environment in which they are performed. Cultural education is now necessary as part of Soldier and leader development programs.
During the Persian Gulf War, the United States demonstrated awareness of cultural issues and how they affected military operations. The potential for friction and a clash between ideas, behaviors, values, and norms led to adjusting paradigms for cultural engagement. For example, the significant differences between U.S. and Saudi Arabian cultures caused active isolation of U.S. troops from native populations. The risks over differing or competing cultural norms were too great to overcome.
Cultural friction is certainly a more complex issue today than it was in the past. During the Cold War a bias existed on the part of nations wishing to align themselves with either the East or the West. Siding with one or the other was necessary in a bipolar world in which the major powers' ideology competed through aligned or nonaligned states. Nations sought identity by becoming more like the Big Brother of their choice.
The end of the Cold War forced a new paradigm on prevailing ideas of national identity. States, individuals, and societies felt free to reconnect with their own cultural and social norms. In addition, U.S. and Western economic and cultural values overshadowed societies based on more traditional or religious values. This basic competition of cultural norms resulted in a retreat from western values in many regions of the world, becoming a source of friction rather than a means of achieving common understanding.
The emerging importance of cultural identity and its inherent frictions make it imperative for Soldiers and leaders - military and civilian - to understand societal and cultural norms of populaces in which they operate and function. They must appreciate, understand, and respect those norms and use them as tools for shaping operations and the effects they expect to achieve.
The first step in any problem is defining it. Defining "culture" usually consists of describing origins, values, roles, and material items associated with a particular group of people. Such definitions refer to evaluative standards, such as norms or values, and cognitive standards, such as rules or models defining what entities and actors exist in a system and how they operate and interrelate.1
Everyone has a culture that shapes how they see others, the world, and themselves. Like an iceberg, …