Cultural Training for Military Personnel: Revisiting the Vietnam Era

By Abbe, Allison; Gouge, Melissa | Military Review, July/August 2012 | Go to article overview

Cultural Training for Military Personnel: Revisiting the Vietnam Era


Abbe, Allison, Gouge, Melissa, Military Review


IN THE YEARS since the 9/11 attacks and in the subsequent conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, the U.S. Department of Defense has initiated many programs and policies to prepare military personnel to operate in foreign cultures. Although these programs are new, the problem of preparing military personnel for operations abroad is not. In this article, we review Vietnam-era and more recent cultural training methods in the context of their underlying instructional principles. There is much to learn from the Vietnam-era programs in terms of successful instructional methods and ensuring the transfer of cultural learning.

Relations between U.S. military personnel and members of the communities in which they operate abroad are an ongoing consideration for defense leaders. These relations have sometimes turned hostile, such as when naval ships were barred from harbors in Spain in the 1960s due to a liberty incident at a bullfight in which U.S. sailors were cheering for the bull.1 Another example occurred when violent crimes allegedly committed by U.S. service members soured relations with German host nationals after World War II.2 In addition to relations with host communities, intercultural interactions have been an integral component of operations, such as in training and advising indigenous forces. The United States has engaged in military advising around the world, from Southeast Asia to Central America. Thus, it was somewhat surprising that the U.S. military did not have existing programs on which to build when the need arose after 9/11 to prepare ground troops for the realities of counterinsurgency operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

In the years since 2001, the U.S. Department of Defense has initiated many changes in policy and organizational structure, such as the addition of cultural issues to Army doctrine.3 Moreover, it has established culture centers to develop and deliver training.4 Although these programs are new, the need to prepare military personnel for operations abroad is not. For example, Special Forces personnel have always had a cultural and regional element to their roles and training.

The years of both Vietnam and post-9/11 were rapid growth periods for research on and implementation of cultural training programs for general purpose forces. This paper will review some of the methods developed in those two eras to highlight notable methods that can be incorporated into current and future training and education programs.

In subsequent sections, we review the Vietnam era and more recent cultural training programs in the context of their underlying instructional principles.

Applying Merrill's Principles of Instruction

In synthesizing instructional design theories, professor of instructional technology M. David Merrill identified five core principles of instruction. 5 These principles provide a prescriptive framework for designing instruction in a way that best facilitates learning. Applying these principles to cultural training can help identify valuable lessons from past programs and guide the design of current and future programs.

Learning is promoted when learners are engaged in solving real-world problems.6

Training for intercultural effectiveness should focus on the interaction between members of cultures rather than on the cultures themselves.7

Effective instruction tends to provide a realworld context or frame concrete problems for the learner.8 Case studies, critical incidents, and narratives provide context. They also frame cultural learning in terms of problems or situations that military personnel are likely to encounter. Early cultural training methods often advocated this approach.

A product of U.S. defense research efforts, the critical incident technique was developed by John Flanagan while devising methods for aviation personnel selection.9 Other researchers subsequently used this method to identify intercultural situations and published a set of critical incidents for use in cultural training. …

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