Complex Operations in Africa: Operational Culture Training in the French Military

By Bore, Henri | Military Review, March-April 2009 | Go to article overview

Complex Operations in Africa: Operational Culture Training in the French Military


Bore, Henri, Military Review


FRANCE HAS DEPLOYED some 8,000 French troops around the world, and the way they interact with foreign populations and military organizations overseas is the direct result of a successful, 100-year-old marriage between ethno-anthropology and the French military experience in the 19th and 20th centuries in Africa, Asia, and Europe.

The French military definition of operational culture takes note of this alliance: "Operational culture is the understanding of foreign cultural norms, beliefs and attitudes: it is an operationally relevant field guide used by general officers as well as infantry squad leaders to navigate a complex human terrain." (1)

Deployed French Army units learn about a foreign country's culture by studying its customs, history, economic issues, social norms, and traditions. This anthropology angle became part of the military learning process as a result of lessons learned in two centuries of counterguerrilla wars, or what we today refer to as irregular war or "hybrid war." (2) The French military experience led to two counterintuitive principles:

* Effective leaders of small combat arms units must think like human intelligence collectors, counterpropaganda operators, nongovernmental organization workers, and negotiators.

* The combat arms battalion is the nexus of operational cultural training and education for complex military and nonmilitary tasks.

French Operational Culture Concept

The colonial era influenced the development of operational culture concepts throughout the 19th and 20th century. The colonial campaigns from 1862 to 1962 linked anthropological studies with strategic and tactical military courses of action.

Marriage of anthropological studies and irregular war. During the colonial expansion in Africa and Indochina in the second half of the 19th century, French military officers returning from campaigns in Asia and Africa travelled to Paris to share their observations and lessons learned with a large audience of politicians, journalists, geographers, and ethno-anthropologists. (3) A common interest in unknown populations led these military thinkers to share their cultural awareness with these groups. Colonial officers hosted anthropologists overseas who assisted them in the study of violence among nonstate groups. (4) This laid the foundation for the strong influence of ethno-anthropological studies on the colonial Army throughout the 19th and 20th century. Officers compared written reports with ethno-anthropologists' observations on lifestyle, customs, social structures, and tribal governments in the unexplored territories of Africa and Asia. In 1885, for instance, Captain Savorgnan de Brazza returned to Paris with ethno-anthropological information gathered during his exploration of the Ogoue, Congo, and Kouilou-Nari basins in Central Africa.

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Anthropologists also became more familiar with the planning and execution of military campaigns. Two French colonial military figures enforced this process: Marshals Joseph Gallieni and Hubert Lyautey. In 1899, building on 20 years of colonial campaign experiences, they established the first principles of expeditionary operations later integrated into operational culture. (6) In his The Colonial Role of the Army, Lyautey, then a colonel, called for permanently stationing a reservoir of units overseas to develop staff and small-unit leaders with expertise in foreign cultures and languages, and in mediation and negotiation techniques. Lyautey set the conditions for integrating operational culture into irregular-warfare concepts.

Expeditionary campaigns in Upper Tonkin (1885-1897) and Madagascar (1896-1900) served as on-the-ground laboratories to develop this approach. Company- to platoon-sized units operated independently to gain control of wide areas of operations. Captains, lieutenants, and sergeants learned that collecting the right intelligence at the right time was the key to mission success. …

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