How Cultural Ignorance and Cultural Arrogance Can Affect the Outcome of American Wars

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When studying war, historians and war strategists focus on command mistakes, surprise, morale, defensive depth, lack of flexibility, mobility, commitment to the offensive and other factors as they attempt to explain why one side succeeded while the other failed. All of these factors are useful to understanding wars. In a long war, however, cultura} differences, misunderstandings and what may harden into "the cultural arrogance of one side" are often very important to the outcome and, in some cases, are decisive factors of the long war.

Take the American Revolution (17751783), for example. In this long war, the Americans obviously had a different outlook from the British. To the Americans, it was important to survive on their own home ground, and thus to save their necks from hanging. To the British, it was important to quash these "upstarts" and bring them firmly under the Empire, where they would do their duty by paying taxes and providing military forces in times of trouble.

Given the American outlook in the Revolution, the American strategy was a hybrid of fighting set-piece battles à la British rules for warfare and fighting a guerrilla struggle to survive and move on to fight another day. This was well-illustrated at the Battle of Lexington and Concord (April 1775). The setpiece battle was fought on the Lexington Green, where two lines faced each other, and eight Americans died (one British soldier was wounded). The Americans fought, culturally, like the British, but the British retreat from Concord to Boston was marked by frustration- the Americans were firing at them from behind barns, rocks and trees, and then moving ahead to do it again on the 18-mile march. More than one-third of the 700 British soldiers were casualties in this first (and, to the British, bewildering) guerrilla episode. As the British saw it, it was unfair and unmanly to fight as the Americans did. The British began torching barns and a few houses along the way.

The cultures were different- - the Americans had learned from the Indians how not to fight the British. In addition, the Colonists believed in a different order of relationships that was driving the Revolution - in his Common Sense pamphlet of January 1776, Thomas Paine wrote that it was unnatural for an island to rule a continent. Along with other elements, these were the makings of a huge cultural divide between the British and the Americans, despite their common language.

The British saw their tactics as manly and courageous in lines of battle; the Americans saw these tactics as foolhardy. At Saratoga, N.Y, in the fall of 1777, the British complained bitterly about COL Daniel Morgan's American snipers, who decimated the British officer corps in the front ranks and units.

In the Revolutionary War, the Americans won three or four large set-piece battles and lost eight or nine large battles; one or two large battles were draws. Yet we won the war - partly through guerrilla tactics, partly through willpower and staying power, partly through French ships and troops, partly through GEN George Washington's leadership, partly through our knowledge of the countryside, and partly through our cultural flexibility by often ignoring British fighting norms. The cultural arrogance of the British was a key factor in their defeat.

We fought another long war in Vietnam (combat from 1964 to 1973). There, Americans exhibited cultural ignorance and, yes, cultural arrogance. Let me give some examples. (I served there from August 1967 to August 1968.)

Americans couldn't understand why the enemy didn't attack signal outposts on mountains. (They were lightly defended, with the nearest help being 2 to 3 miles away.) The first full-scale attack on a signal outpost was on Nui Ba Den (Black Virgin Mountain) in 1972. In the early 1970s, an analyst in Saigon looked into the lack of attacks on the signal sites. The sites provided 12-channe] very high frequency to link units that were 30 to 50 miles apart, all up and down the country. …