The Cultural Imperative for Professional Military Education and Leader Development

By Abbe, Allison; Halpin, Stanley M. | Parameters, Winter 2009 | Go to article overview

The Cultural Imperative for Professional Military Education and Leader Development


Abbe, Allison, Halpin, Stanley M., Parameters


There is emerging agreement within the military services that culture is an important factor in irregular warfare and stability, support, transition, and reconstruction operations. Sociocultural factors affect every level of engagement in irregular warfare, from the interpersonal interactions while negotiating with local leaders, military advisers training their counterparts, to group and societal engagements during strategic communication and influence operations. The impact of these factors has been widely recognized at every level of defense leadership, and some of the more frequently cited wartime leadership challenges have an intercultural component. The top challenges for Army company commanders listed in a 2007 article included interacting or working with indigenous leaders, security forces, and members of the population. (1) Cultural considerations are a pervasive factor throughout full-spectrum operations, as then-Lieutenant General Peter Chiarelli noted regarding Operation Iraqi Freedom: "Understanding the effect of operations as seen through the lens of the Iraqi culture and psyche is a foremost planning consideration for every operation." (2) These considerations are an integral component of the "indirect approach" and "small wars capabilities" that Defense Secretary Robert Gates has cited as necessities for current and future conflicts. (3)

The question now is how best to energize these capabilities. Creating specialized groups to assess sociocultural factors, such as Human Terrain Teams, provides an important asset but does not diminish the need for cultural capability across the force. Decision support and analytic tools are additional arrows in the quiver but still require that soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines understand their utility and limitations. To date, the problem of cultural training and education has primarily been framed in terms of increasing cultural knowledge--targeting cultural awareness or understanding. (4) Cultural knowledge is a necessary but insufficient component upon which to build the broad cultural capability needed by general-purpose forces to meet current and future challenges.

This article describes current conceptual approaches to increasing soldiers' and leaders' capability of dealing with cultural factors and explains why the services need to go beyond these approaches if they are to establish a comprehensive strategy for developing and institutionalizing broadly defined cultural capability. To understand and engage foreign cultures requires a cultural shift in the Army and other services as they restructure their effort to confront unconventional threats. The authors argue that this shift is essential primarily in professional military education and leader development programs to ensure a comprehensive and sustainable cultural capability across the force.

Cultural Awareness and Understanding Are Not Enough

Teaching cultural knowledge typically takes one of two forms, either region-specific or, to a lesser extent, culture-general. Both types of cultural knowledge are important but leave gaps in the practitioners' capabilities.

Region-specific training provides descriptive facts and figures about a locale. This training has the advantage of conveying information of immediate relevance to deploying units. Although region-specific training varies in depth, it typically conveys demographics and history regarding the various subgroups in a particular region, shared values of the population, a generalized description of the predominant belief system, and may include a list of "do's" and "don'ts" based on norms. Training materials are developed for the specific nations or regions where units will be deployed. Thus, the knowledge developed by such efforts may not readily transfer to other nations or geographic locations.

Another weakness of this type of training is that its effectiveness depends on the quality of the content, which can sometimes be inaccurate or outdated due to overreliance on subject-matter experts lacking recent experience in the region. …

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