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Cultural Awareness Month At The Pentagon

The good guys are on the left.
The good guys are on the left.
Now here's a question: Why does the U.S. military have such a hard time with culture? I'm not talking about military bands, of course -- the Pentagon has plenty of those already. What I'm talking about is the ability to understand the cultural intricacies of the various battlefields around the world where the powers-that-be in far-off Washington are sending war fighters into life-or-death situations.

The thought comes to mind today thanks to an excellent post by Tom Ricks over at The Best Defense. Ricks has just produced an impressive snapshot of one of the Pentagon's flagship programs for improving the language and cultural skills of U.S. military personnel. It's called Afghanistan-Pakistan Hands, and, as Ricks points out, it has been singled out as a priority by no less than Admiral Mike Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. And yet, as Ricks shows, many of the people who've joined it are frustrated by bureaucratic torpor and conservatism. (And let's not even get into the Human Terrain System, which has consumed billions in the mostly quixotic effort to put academic anthropologists to work as cultural mapmakers for the Pentagon.)

Now, I know what some readers are going to say: You don't hand that 20-year-old from Iowa City a 50-caliber machine gun in Helmand Province and then hold him back from pulling the trigger until he's figured out "pashtunwali." But that's actually the point I wanted to make. The British controlled the Raj for centuries with a handful of colonial administrators precisely because they created a solid core of cultural specialists -- from Indian Civil Service experts to academic area studies scholars to intelligence officers -- who had both motive and means to steep themselves in local languages and cultures. The regular European soldiers in the British Army probably weren't any more clued-in about Sindh than modern-day U.S. troopers are about P2K. But the officers and the administrators were generally extremely knowledgeable about the particulars of Indian life -- which frequently came in handy when it was a matter of finding nonkinetic ways of solving conflicts.

I can imagine some of the things that have gotten in the way -- like a certain national tradition of anti-intellectualism, or the peculiarly legalistic character of the Washington bureaucracy, or even our understandable skepticism about anything smacking of an "imperial" role. I'd bet you money, though, that one of the biggest problems is the U.S. fixation on technology. The U.S. military rightfully prides itself on its engineering savvy, and it's easy to understand why its senior ranks are always eager to translate the country's economic power into the best possible weapon systems money can buy. Unfortunately, it's precisely the sort of wars that America is fighting today that show most vividly the limitations of this approach.

Just take improvised explosive devices (IEDs). As revealed in a recent expose by McClatchy and the Center for Public Integrity, the U.S. has spent some $17 billion trying to counter the threat from roadside bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan over the past five years -- yet the number of U.S. warfighters who lost arms and legs to IEDs actually went up last year by a factor of three. You can buy all the mine-resistant vehicles and drones and bomb-sniffing technology you want -- but nothing is more effective than understanding and neutralizing the networks that plant the bombs in the first place. And you can only do that with other human beings.

So it's probably no accident that some of the most devastating comments on the military's failure to appreciate the central significance of culture come from Lieutenant General Michael Oates, the man who ran the Pentagon's counter-IED program until his retirement a few weeks ago. "We're still pretty ignorant about a lot of cultures in the world," he said in one recent interview. "That is compounded by the fact that we don't really understand what the new communications structures are. We cannot get at disabling those enemy networks until we understand them better."

And here's an equally eloquent excerpt from another piece on Oates:

The biggest challenge to the social networking efforts is cultural understanding. General Oates said that understanding dynamics like language, which ranges from Pashto to Arabic and many other dialects, and complex foreign tribal and family networks are difficult for US analysts. "Getting to the level of sophistication to understand who controls what in the society is very difficult," he said, our efforts are hampered by "cultural ignorance."

"Cultural ignorance"? Ouch!

Now, I don't doubt that people like Mullen and David Petraeus, with their appreciation of the subtleties of modern counterinsurgency warfare, need any convincing on this point. But perhaps it would be nice if we could learn this lesson before the next irregular war we find ourselves fighting -- rather than right at the moment when it starts winding down.

So here's my question to readers: What's your theory? Why is the Pentagon so hapless on this front? And how can it do better? Or is Outpost just being plain unfair? Please post comments or send your answers to Let's see what the discussion reveals.

-- Christian Caryl