The concept of “culture” took on new life in US military strategy in 2006. At the time of the US invasions of Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003, cultural knowledge and training played no role in US military calculations; it was simply not part of the vocabulary of war. Culture became an official element of the US military’s arsenal with the 2006 publication of Field Manual 3-24: Counterinsurgency, referred to colloquially as “the COIN manual.” Under the COIN rubric, cultural knowledge functions as a tactical asset for troops and military strategists. Familiarity with language, codes of behavior, belief systems and social networks is valuable for day-to-day encounters with civilians, for targeting insurgent groups, and for planning a multi-year military engagement, what some COIN advocates call “culture as a weapon system.” [1] Cultural awareness at all of these levels is also seen as a way to soften (or even reverse) civilian opposition to the US military’s presence and operations.

Mission Shift

After President George W. Bush declared victory in Iraq in May 2003, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld established the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) to govern Iraq under the Department of Defense. Sidelining the State Department and other civilian parts of government, Rumsfeld handed the job of rebuilding the country to the Pentagon, which had neither prepared nor trained for such a job. With the CPA holed up in Saddam Hussein’s former palace in Baghdad, the military tried to control the chaos resulting from the CPA’s policies by using overwhelming force. The failure of that strategy opened the door for proponents of COIN, most prominently then-Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, who had overseen writing the COIN manual and whose public works-centered campaign for hearts and minds in northern Iraq from April 2003 to February 2004 was viewed as key to that region’s stability in the first year of the war. Petraeus’ appointment to lead all US forces in Iraq in 2007 brought COIN center stage and made cultural awareness part of the US military’s mission there.

Gen. Petraeus’ critique of US operations during the early years of the war in Iraq — one shared by many Iraqis — is that from the outset the US military prioritized its own security far above the safety and wellbeing of Iraqi civilians. While many Iraqis accepted and celebrated that the US had removed Saddam Hussein and his regime, the condition of their lives following the 2003 invasion contradicted the rhetoric of liberation touted by the US government. Iraqis found it increasingly difficult to reconcile feeling free of despotic rule with the ongoing destruction of the country’s infrastructure, the threat to their personal safety from US troops encountered on the street and in their homes, and the overwhelming lawlessness they experienced on a daily basis. The most powerful military in the world could not keep their neighborhoods and children safe, ensure regular electricity and water service, or provide decent sanitation. US troops lived in well-protected bases and patrolled the streets heavily armed and armored, faces obscured by helmets and sunglasses, with guns drawn. For many Iraqis, interactions with troops involved being yelled at, fired upon or interrogated by masked interpreters after being thrown on the ground with a boot on their head or neck. The insecurity wrought by the US military’s focus on protecting its forces from gunfire, snipers and bombs eroded the good will that the overthrow of Saddam generated among many Iraqis.

After “major combat” was declared over in Iraq in May 2003, the enemy shifted from the Iraqi army and the former regime to groups and individuals affiliated with Baathist resistance, Iraqi nationalism, al-Qaeda in Iraq, the Mahdi Army and Iranian and Arab sympathizers or infiltrators, among others. The enemy shifted so regularly that US troops considered every Iraqi suspect. In interviews for this article, the moral distinction between “good guys” and “bad guys” was clear, but who the “bad guys” actually were was hazy. This generality was due in part to not remembering the details of a specific mission or because interviewees experienced many deployments, and who they were fighting changed from year to year. But the term was also a catch-all for “the people that were against us.” US troops struggled with thinking of themselves as liberating the poor, oppressed Iraqis while at the same time scrutinizing every one of them as potential “bad guys.”

Due to the prioritization of the specific mission and the overall goal of getting the “bad guys,” raids endangered Iraqis who were not the target, made them vulnerable and alienated them without tangible results for the task at hand or the larger American mission in Iraq. An Air Force sergeant stationed in Iraq in 2007 recalled a night raid with some Rangers conducting area-wide clearances of homes:

The first house we raided, there were no men at home, just half a dozen women with children, and one older gentlemen in there. It was a huge fiasco on this one — [there was no one useful there] so why were we there? We needed info. So instead of being a dick about it, we could have brought them in and said, “Sorry, we have to do this raid, we’re looking for these people,” and if we were smart, we’d bring a woman with them, let the wife get dressed, calm them down and talk to them. When they’re getting shot at, bombs are going off, people go into fight or flight. Instead, the interpreter beat the old guy to get information and got nothing. Another problem — the respect for the older guy is gone. So here is the interpreter, who doesn’t have to abide by LOAC [Law of Armed Conflict] and is a third country national representing the US…[and he’s doing the dirty work]. So we go to another house. Here I watched a family get completely mortified. We woke up the family — husband, son and wife. The husband is educated but we didn’t find this out until later. We are throwing people around, yelling at them. We didn’t have any intel on this particular house, just that we were doing an area-wide clearance of homes. The father and son spoke English — therefore they were rolled up and taken to base for interrogation. And we then left a single female alone in the house [with a broken-in door] in the middle of the night after a raid.

The singular drive to find the “bad guys” humiliated, endangered and sometimes injured or killed many “good guy” Iraqis — and Afghans as well.

The COIN strategy was designed to shift the military’s approach from military might to rapport and rapprochement, achieved through a larger US presence and increased attention to cultural sensitivity. In the case of searches and raids, for example, the troops interviewed suggested that things like men not searching women, letting women cover themselves or be with the other women, or not being disrespectful of elders were cultural considerations. Though that is likely true — these things are important in Iraqi and Afghan cultures — the experience from the point of view of Iraqis I spoke with is that these are not issues of culture. Armed men barging into your house in the middle of the night, yelling at you in a language you do not understand, seeing you and your family in nightgowns and taking away family members for no reason are universally terrifying human experiences. The fundamental implications of the occupier’s overwhelming power remain unaddressed in the shift from conventional war to counterinsurgency.

How to Teach Culture?

Since the initial turn to culture in 2006, the military’s approach to cultural competence has become more sophisticated. Each of the four combat military branches created new institutes to provide language training and courses on the history, religion, politics, cultural traits and social organization of different countries, as well as generic cross-cultural communication. Prior to COIN, servicemembers had varying perspectives on the efficacy or utility of the military’s cultural training. Of the 40 servicemembers interviewed in 2007, 33 had received cultural training, and only five felt it had been useful to their work. The most valuable information for their day-to-day activities was learned from interpreters, civilians or other troops. In contrast, almost all 25 of those interviewed who were deployed after 2007 found cultural education useful. This shift can be attributed in part to the expansion of the cultural curriculum after the widespread implementation of COIN in Iraq. Prior to 2007, training sessions on culture were often a single lecture or three-hour course. For most troops, the only cultural education they received was in the form of Smart Cards, laminated pamphlets that described (often inaccurately) conventions of dress and behavior meant to facilitate soldiers’ interactions with Iraqis and Afghans. Smart Cards distilled complex social and political histories into bullet points that encouraged US troops to divide the population into different social groups based on ethnicity, religion and sect. This model of culture as a fixed set of rules about how all Iraqis and Afghans behave and what they believe has been replaced by situational training in the form of mock Iraqi and Afghan villages (complete with both mock and real Iraqis and Afghans), along with Computer-Based Trainings and lectures by experts.

The early pre-deployment cultural training programs targeted officers and enlistees based on their Military Occupation Specialty, and thus those people in intelligence or civil affairs received much more, and more targeted, cultural and linguistic training than others. The theory was that if the officers received such training, they would pass the information to their team members and emphasize its importance. This system was likely designed to limit cost, though it also reflects military thinking about how to communicate information and values in a hierarchy. The shift to COIN strategy, however, caused the Army and Marines to implement new requirements for training enlisted troops by 2010. The Army now requires a four- to six-hour online training program in basic language and culture to all troops deploying to Afghanistan. Since February 2010, all Afghanistan-bound Marines receive one full day of training and some are selected for further language training. According to Marines who deployed to Afghanistan in the last three years, unit leaders are also designating one person as the culture and language specialist. This person receives extra training and then becomes a trainer and guide for others on cultural and linguistic issues. This practice has been formalized at the platoon level, where one person “who will have regular contact with a local population” should complete 16 weeks of on-site language training or 100 hours of Computer-Based Training. [2]

The majority of those troops interviewed in 2012 appreciated the new approach of giving cultural training to everyone. They explained that, on the ground, officers are the ones who tend to have interpreters with them to translate and help with cultural issues. Enlisted personnel who were interviewed, who encounter civilians daily and often work side by side with local army and police, do not always have interpreters by their side. Having basic knowledge was crucial to them in clutch decision-making situations and in guiding how to approach and interact with people.

Cultural lessons also seemed more important to servicemembers who had served multiple deployments, both in Iraq and Afghanistan. One Air Force officer who served in Afghanistan in 2010 (after prior tours there and in Iraq) commented on the new emphasis on COIN and cultural knowledge:

I wish I had had more [training] on cultural norms, I know the last time I was in Afghanistan they were focusing on hearts and minds, [teaching us] more about behaviors — don’t show bottoms of feet, don’t talk to females, you can ask about family but not women, when having a meal, eat what is offered you, and if you eat everything on your plate, then they’ll give you more which means less for them in the long run. These things are the things that are fresher in my mind, either from the Computer-Based Training or what someone told me. CBTs improved as years went by.

According to one Explosive Ordinance Disposal technician: “When we know there’s an IED [improvised explosive device] somewhere, we go to whoever’s land it’s on, and we sit down and talk to them and tell them what we’re going to do, and tell them we’re going to try to protect their property and thank them. Because we know we’re going to have to go back.” In these cases, troops believed that cultural training was the key to establishing relationships with individuals and communities over the long term, and also for acclimating to years of foreign deployment. The majority of people I interviewed in 2012 had been deployed at least three times. They knew that, at some point, they would likely “come back” to wherever “back” was. While the cultural and linguistic knowledge of troops has improved markedly over the years, multiple deployments also taught troops that skills such as patience, perspective, communication and respect are essential to achieving their goals with populations they may only see on occasion, but that see them regularly — and see them as occupiers. In this sense, the cultural training may have had a greater effect on the troops’ own cultures of relating to people than on their specific knowledge of Iraqis and Afghans.

Despite its formal promotion, integrating the cultural training into decisions about deployments has been stymied by bureaucracy and inadequate follow-through. A Government Accountability Office review of cultural training programs in 2011 concluded that there is no one unified system to track participation and completion. Some units record it on paper while others record the information in the personnel system. The Army does not have data fields for all mandatory language and culture tasks in their primary training system, thus “units were unable to document the completion of the training.” [3] Likewise, the Marine Corps does not require those who complete language training to take formal proficiency tests. In the absence of adequate recordkeeping, cultural and linguistic skills that troops develop during pre-deployment training cannot be part of the decision-making process for their deployments or on their assignments. An Air Force staff sergeant I interviewed completed a Dari language training class and was then sent to a province in Afghanistan that is entirely Pashtu-speaking. In another case, a Marine reservist who had studied Arabic for two years at university found out his unit was deploying to Afghanistan. On his own initiative, he convinced his commander to allow him linguistic training in Pashtu in the weeks prior to his deployment. The effectiveness of cultural and linguistic training is often a matter of a servicemember’s job, character and luck, or the foresight of commanders and the time and resources available prior to deployment.

As the rise of cultural knowledge in military strategy was tied to the US military experience in Iraq, so is its fall. Though it has been central to US operations in Afghanistan since at least 2009, and will likely play a role in the “soft power” of Africa Command’s humanitarian and development programs, cultural knowledge (and COIN more broadly) is not the hot topic it once was among military and civilian war strategists. This shift underscores the place of cultural knowledge within the US military establishment as a tactic deployed specifically for invasions and occupations. Shifts toward more behind-the-scenes military action — as in Libya and Syria, where the United States is supplying tactical advice at the very least — have sent cultural and linguistic knowledge back to the purview of a few well-trained officers and covert operatives. In continuing the war on terror in Pakistan, Somalia, Yemen and the Sahel, counterterrorism and advanced technology are the tactics of choice. It is a war of a very different military from that of COIN, one that (along with the CIA) relies on targeted attacks and assassinations — by drones and robots operated by people in control rooms who never have to interact with other cultures, languages or even people.


[1] See Rochelle Davis, “Culture as a Weapon System,” Middle East Report 255 (Summer 2010).
[2] Government Accountability Office, GAO 12-50 (2011), p. 7.
[3] GAO 12-50, executive summary.

How to cite this article:

Rochelle Davis "Culture, a Weapon System on the Wane," Middle East Report 264 (Fall 2012).

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