Military Cultural Education
Over the past decade the Army has increasingly
engaged in lengthy overseas deployments in which mission performance
demanded significant interface with indigenous
populations. Such interaction and how it affects military operations
is important. In fact, engagement with local populaces has become
so crucial that mission success is often significantly affected
by soldiers' ability to interact with local individuals and communities.
Learning to interact with local populaces presents a major challenge
for soldiers, leaders, and civilians.
Lengthy deployments to areas with other cultures
are not new. The Army has experienced many longlasting operations
on foreign soil since the end of World War II. For most long-distance
operations, the Army attempts to instill in deployed forces an awareness
of societal and cultural norms for the regions in which they operate.
While these programs have proven useful, they fall far short of
generating the tactile understanding necessary for today's complex
settings, especially when values and norms are so divergent they
Working with diverse cultures in their home
element is more a matter of finesse, diplomacy, and communication
than the direct application of coercive power. Success demands an
understanding of individual, community, and societal normative patterns
as they relate to the tasks soldiers perform and the environment
in which they are performed. Cultural education is now necessary
as part of soldier and leader development programs.
During the Persian Gulf War, the United States
demonstrated awareness of cultural issues and how they affected
military operations. The potential for friction and a clash between
ideas, behaviors, values, and norms led to adjusting paradigms for
cultural engagement. For example, the significant differences between
U.S. and Saudi Arabian cultures caused active isolation of U.S.troops
from native populations. The risks over differing or competing cultural
norms were too great to overcome.
Cultural friction is certainly a more complex
issue today than it was in the past. During the Cold War a bias
existed on the part of nations wishing to align themselves with
either the East or the West. Siding with one or the other was necessary
in a bipolar world in which the major powers' ideology competed
through aligned or nonaligned states. Nations sought identity by
becoming more like the Big Brother of their choice.
The end of the Cold War forced a new paradigm
on prevailing ideas of national identity. States, individuals, and
societies felt free to reconnect with their own cultural and social
norms. In addition, U.S. and Western economic and cultural values
overshadowed societies based on more traditional or religious values.
This basic competition of cultural norms resulted in a retreat from
western values in many regions of the world, becoming a source of
friction rather than a means of achieving common understanding.
The emerging importance of cultural identity
and its inherent frictions make it imperative for soldiers and leaders-military
and civilian-to understand societal and cultural norms of populaces
in which they operate and function. They must appreciate, understand,
and respect those norms and use them as tools for shaping operations
and the effects they expect to achieve.
The first step in any problem is defining it.
Defining "culture" usually consists of describing origins,
values, roles, and material items associated with a particular group
of people. Such definitions refer to evaluative standards, such
as norms or values, and cognitive standards, such as rules or models
defining what entities and actors exist in a system and how they
operate and interrelate.1
Everyone has a culture that shapes how they
see others, the world, and themselves. Like an iceberg, some aspects
of culture are visible; others are beneath the surface. Invisible
aspects influence and cause visible ones.
Ethnography, a qualitative research method
anthropologists use to describe a culture, attempts to fully describe
a cultural group's various aspects and norms in an attempt to understand
the group. The intent behind military cultural education is to help
soldiers be more effective in the environments in which they must
function. They must be culturally literate and develop cultural
expertise in specific areas and regions. When balanced with study
in potential areas of application, proficiency in cultural literacy
and competency aids understanding of cultural factors in areas of
Cultural Literacy and Competency
Cultural background is one of the primary sources
of our self-definition, expression, and relationships within groups
and communities. When we experience a new cultural environment,
we are likely to experience conflict between our own cultural predispositions
and the values, beliefs, and opinions of the host culture."2
Cultures often experience alterations in cultural identity, which
might create significant insecurity in both interacting cultures,
calling into question identity, and in values, which might result
in an adversarial relationship.
Culturally literate soldiers understand and
appreciate their own beliefs, behaviors, values, and norms but they
are also aware of how their perspectives might affect other cultures'
views. Achieving selfawareness of our own cultural assumptions enables
us to use this understanding in relations with others.
Cultural competency, which is more than just
a framework for individual interaction, is necessary for managing
group, organizational, or community cross or mixed cultural activities
and demands a more indepth and application-oriented understanding
of culture than cultural literacy requires. Competency is demonstrated
through organizational leadership capable of crossing cultural divides
within organizations and establishing cooperative frameworks between
communities and groups from different cultures. Competency is about
building successful teams with a common vision, effective communications,
and acceptable processes that benefit from cultural diversity.
Military leaders are trained to make decisions
rapidly with little time available for discussion, debate, or consideration
of dissenting views. Events involving potential destruction or violence
demand oneminute managers or leaders, but doing so entails rapidly
obtaining key facts and essential information, internal processing,
and then choosing and implementing an appropriate course of action
Encouraging participation of a variety of people
in all activities is difficult against this backdrop. However, encouraging
participation is a key value in the framework of cultural competency.
Recognizing differences as diversity rather than as inappropriate
responses is a challenge in tactical and operational environments.
Cultural competency accepts and creates an environment that allows
each culture to contribute its values, perspectives, and behaviors
in constructive ways to enrich the outcome. Cultural literacy is
about understanding your individual cultural patterns and knowing
your own cultural norms. Understanding how your culture affects
someone else's culture can profoundly affect any COA's chances for
success. Military leaders have an additional challenge; they must
understand and appreciate their own military culture, their nation's
culture, and the operational area's culture.
To effectively manage the dynamics of differences,
leaders must learn effective strategies for solving conflict among
diverse peoples and organizations. They must also understand how
historic distrust affects current interactions, realizing that one
might misjudge others' actions based on learned expectations.
Integrating information and skills to interact
effectively in various cross-cultural situations into staff development
and education systems helps institutionalize cultural knowledge.
Incorporating cultural knowledge into the mainstream of the organization
and teaching origins of stereotypes and prejudices also help.
Diversity might entail changing how things
are done to acknowledge differences in individuals, groups, and
communities. One must develop skills for cross-cultural communication
and understand that communication and trust are often more important
than activity. Institutionalizing cultural interventions for conflicts
and confusion caused by the dynamics of difference might also be
With the increase in coalition and multinational
cooperative military efforts, cultural competence is a critical
leadership requirement. Stability and support operations demand
adept leaders who can work with community, international, and private
organizations whose members come from widely divergent cultural
backgrounds. The Army's description of the objective force describes
the need for conventional forces with Special Forces qualities,
including being culturally competent.
The Army has many programs designed to build
cultural competency, including multinational and partnership training
exercise programs; liaison officers, foreign students integrated
into leader education and training programs; and officer exchange
programs, to name a few. These programs are useful, but unfortunately,
they are mostly crafted around educating the foreign student about
U.S. cultural norms and operations rather than the inverse. Perhaps
liaison officers could be charged with instructional duties and
exchange programs could bring in more foreign instructors and experts
into the school system. Would China, India, Egypt, or some African
country be interested in having an instructor on the staff of the
U.S. Army Command and General Staff College (CGSC) to teach decisionmaking,
culture, or management? A need for cultural literacy and cultural
competency is clear, but it is also clear the educational process
to achieve both will take some time to establish. The key question
is, where do we start?
Culture, which is learned and shared by members
of a group, is presented to children as their social heritage. Cultural
norms are the standard, model, or pattern a specific cultural, race,
ethnic, religious, or social group regards as typical. Cultural
norms include thoughts, behaviors, and patterns of communication,
customs, beliefs, values, and institutions.3
As individuals, groups, and societies we can
learn to collaborate across cultural lines. Awareness of cultural
differences does not have to divide or paralyze us for fear of not
saying the "right thing." Cultural awareness puts a premium
on listening and comprehending the intent behind others' remarks.
Becoming more aware of cultural differences and exploring similarities
helps us communicate more effectively. Chart 1 shows some aspects
of general cultural normative differences between U.S. culture and
With so many diverse cultures and the enormous
amount of study required to become expert on any given one, how
do we narrow the field to find the right focus for generating cultural
skills in soldiers? Certainly specific cultures represent states
or groups that might be more likely to develop an adversarial relationship
with the United States. Perhaps it would be best to learn more about
states or cultures with whom we are most likely to form a coalition
or participate in a multinational campaign. Unfortunately, history
demonstrates the uncertainty of predicting where, when, and with
whom soldiers might be required to operate. Of course, this would
not rule out the need to study high-probability cultures. Adopting
an approach, at least initially, oriented toward some foundational
cultural norms with broader application across a wider range of
settings might prove more prudent, however.
Foundational Cultural Norms
Foundational cultural norms are normative values
and factors having the greatest effect on military operations and
the relations of soldiers with the populations they encounter. Researchers
identify four cultural syndromes-complexity, individualism, collectivism,
and tightness-that are patterns of beliefs, attitudes, self-definitions,
norms, and values organized around some theme that can be found
in every society. Using cultural syndromes as a frame of reference,
we can develop foundational normative values having common application
across all cultures, which should provide the starting point for
a cultural education program.
Cultural norms often are so strongly ingrained
in daily life that individuals might be unaware of certain behaviors.
Until they see such behaviors in the context of a different culture
with different values and beliefs, they might have difficulty recognizing
and changing them.5 Usually, our own
culture is invisible until it comes into contact with another culture.
People are generally ethnocentric: they interpret other cultures
within the framework of the understanding they have of their own.
Six fundamental patterns of cultural norms have greatly affected
relations between differing cultures: communication styles, attitudes
toward conflict, approaches to completing tasks, decisionmaking
styles, attitudes toward personal disclosure, and approaches to
Communicating between two cultures involves
generating, transmitting, receiving, and decrypting coded messages
or bits of information; it is about much more than language, although
language is certainly key to communication and should be a part
of any cultural training program. The early focus, however, should
be more on effective use and application of language than on making
a soldier a linguist. Someone struggling to communicate in an unfamiliar
language cannot communicate complex issues. The goal should be to
orient language-skill developmental programs, at least initially,
on effectively conveying simple terms rather than on linguistic
competence-learning to make the most out of simple meanings. The
Army needs to find simple ways of communication that will speak
to other cultural norms and that will require listening. Communication
is a two-way street.
Common, universal languages are available that
almost all cultures understand. Other types of languages include
mathematics, music, computing, physics, and engineering. Although
such are not immediately useful in most military tasks, they offer
a common frame of reference of possible value under special circumstances.6
One of the most overlooked and effective communication
tools is using pictures, drawings, or photographs. A great deal
of truth is behind the expression "a picture is worth a thousand
words." Creating graphic and pictorial aides for cross-cultural
communication is much easier and often much more effective than
linguistic aides. However, in any form of information transmission,
meanings are not always clear, and certainly, missing presentation
skills, timing, and context can be as confusing and counterproductive
as any other. Using a culture's iconography, such as religious symbols-the
cross for Christians or the crescent moon for Islamics-can lead
to developing means of symbolic communication.
Another major aspect of communication is the
degree of importance given to nonverbal communication, including
facial expressions and gestures as well as seating arrangements,
personal distance, and sense of time. Different norms regarding
the appropriate degree of assertiveness in communicating can add
to cultural misunderstandings.7
Attitudes toward conflict.
Some cultures view conflict as a positive thing;
others view it as something to be avoided. In the United States
conflict is not usually desirable, but people most often deal directly
with conflicts as they arise. For example, a face-to-face meeting
is a customary way to work through problems. In many Eastern countries,
open conflict is considered embarrassing or demeaning. Differences
are best worked out quietly. A written exchange might be the favored
means to address the conflict. Another means might be enlisting
a respected third party who can facilitate communication without
risking loss of face or being humiliated.
American military culture deals with problems
head on. As in a game of checkers, the intricacies of subtle and
indirect moves are more often than not relegated to civilian and
military strategists. Many other cultures, however, employ indirect
approaches and subtle means as part of day-to-day activity. When
soldiers trained in the direct approach encounter these cultures,
communication is difficult and can often lead to profound misunderstandings
Approaches to competing tasks.
From culture to culture, people have different
ways of completing tasks. They might have different access to resources,
different rewards associated with task completion, different notions
of time, and different ideas about how relationship-building and
taskoriented work should go together. Asian and Hispanic cultures
tend to attach more value to developing relationships at the beginning
of a shared project, with more emphasis on task completion toward
the end, as compared with European-Americans. European- Americans
tend to focus immediately on the task at hand, allowing relationships
to develop as they work together.
The roles individuals play in decisionmaking
vary widely from culture to culture. In America, decisions are frequently
delegated; that is, an official assigns responsibility for a particular
matter to a subordinate. In many Southern European and Latin American
countries, strong value is placed on holding decisionmaking responsibilities
oneself. When groups of people make decisions, majority rule is
a common approach in America. In Japan, consensus is the preferred
Attitudes toward personal disclosure.
In some cultures, it is not appropriate to
be frank about emotions, the reasons behind a conflict or a misunderstanding,
or about personal information. Questions that might seem natural
to you might seem intrusive to others. (What was the conflict about?
What was your role in the conflict? What was the sequence of events?)
Approaches to knowing.
Notable differences occur among cultural groups
when it comes to epistemologies; that is, the ways people come to
know things. European cultures tend to consider information acquired
through cognitive means, such as counting and measuring, more valid
than other ways of coming to know things. African cultures prefer
affective ways of knowing, including symbolic imagery and rhythm.
Asian cultures tend to emphasize the validity of knowledge gained
through striving toward transcendence. Recent popular works demonstrate
that American society is paying more attention to previously overlooked
ways of knowing.
Obviously, different approaches to knowing
can affect how we analyze or find ways to solve a community problem.
Some group members might want to conduct library research to understand
a shared problem better and to identify possible solutions. Others
might prefer to visit places and people who have experienced similar
challenges and touch, taste, and listen to what has worked elsewhere.
Specific Cultures to Study
In the future, key powers in a regional or
global context will most likely be the United States, the European
Union, China, Japan, and Russia, and future alliances, coalitions,
and partnerships will most likely be tied to these nations. Key
regional powers, whose activities or issues have the greatest possibility
for creating global consequences, are most likely to be Indonesia,
India, Iran, Pakistan, Turkey, Egypt, South Africa, Brazil, Algeria,
and Mexico. In addition, natural resources in the Caspian Basin,
off the coast of east-central Africa and in Venezuela will certainly
increase those regions' importance. These nations might offer a
good starting point for a program of study of other cultures.
Cultural expertise takes time. Cultural literacy
and competency skills will enable us to cope with most any circumstance
of cultural difference. Areas of specific expertise deepen those
skills and provide context to their application, but programs designed
to achieve expertise in a given region or culture must begin early
and be continuous. The officer corps should begin training while
in precommissioning programs. Prescribed courses in regional studies
and some language training would be a great beginning. We could
certainly look at expanding summer opportunities for travel and
study in specified foreign countries. A program of this nature currently
exists within the foreign military studies office involving West
Point cadets. We could expand the program to include select Reserve
Officer Training Corps (ROTC) students. Branch schools could coordinate
with local universities for instructors, course materials, and expertise.
The Army War College's (AWC's) country studies
program could certainly serve as a model for cultural education
at lower levels. Using electronic connectivity between schools and
individuals would allow the creation of virtual teams with AWC,
CGSC, or advance course students around a specific country or regional
area. The AWC students could serve as study directors, orchestrating
and facilitating team members' efforts in other schools.
Another possibility is to leverage business
and industry programs for cultural education, making them available
through distributed learning. We should also not forget the expertise
available from the Special Forces. The bottom line is there are
many ways available to achieve our goals if we can agree on the
focus and end state.
Three other factors play into cultural differences
that influence communication: religion, tribal affiliations, and
Religion, one of the most important aspects
of cross-cultural conflict resolution, is a powerful constituent
of cultural norms and values, and because it addresses the most
profound existential issues of human life (freedom and inevitability,
fear and faith, security and insecurity, right and wrong, sacred
and profane), it is deeply implicated in individual and social conceptions
of peace. To transform current conflicts, we must understand the
conceptions of peace within diverse religious and cultural traditions
while seeking common ground.8
An exploration of religious cultural norms
could take the form of comparisons of foundational cultural values
as they apply to the world's prominent religions (Christianity,
Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Taoism, Juche).
Tribal cultures, prevalent in developing countries,
are often the only structure in ungoverned areas. Tribal cultures
differ, but at their core, they share a common foundation. They
arise from a social tradition that often lacks written histories
or philosophies and independent perspectives, and they espouse ideas
and beliefs held unanimously by the entire tribe. Tribal leaders
are not accustomed to external challenge.
Regardless of region, tribes also share foundational
norms with respect to decisionmaking, knowledge, and disclosure.
Studying norms for tribal structures might well prove the only way
to understand these cultures because of the absence of written material.
Studying nationalism is to study cultural norms
and values as driving factors. Separated from the context of states,
nations embody the importance people place on culture and heritage
without respect to geography. Nationalistic movements have common
aspects in how they relate to other cultures and how their behaviors
are governed. This area of study would be particularly useful in
understanding and dealing with transnational organizations, whether
they are legitimate, criminal, or terrorist.
Assessing Educational Progress
Any educational program requires a way to assess
its effectiveness. Chart 2, based on established cultural education
programs for academia, business, and government, is a good measure
for developing cultural literacy. I am not sure how training would
progress across the framework of a soldier's career, but every soldier
would at least be at the basic level after completing initial entry
training and, at the advanced level, culturally proficient after
completing the Primary Leadership Development Course.
Cultural education is not a new subject or
issue. Over the years, the Army has introduced internal and external
programs to address cultural factors within its organization and
during long-duration deployments. The programs effectively created
an Army value of cultural acceptance as a standard, but only so
long as differing values did not compete with Army values or standards.
These same programs, modified and refocused, could serve as the
foundation for an expanded cultural education program to create
better skills for dealing with other cultures during conflicts,
partnerships, or stability operations and support operations. Resources
associated with such programs could be the nucleus for a rapid startup
and foundation for expansion.
Cultural education is a growing concern among
major businesses operating in the global market. For this reason,
there are a wide variety of commercial, academic, and government
programs for cultural education. In many cases, courseware is available
and training-development work has been completed. Assessing and,
where practical, using these programs offers significant cost savings
in developing educational materials and courses.
The Army can expand on the educational base
by ensuring tactical and operational training programs address cultural
factors. At the national training centers, opposing-force role players
should be skilled in emulating key cultural norms that might affect
military actions and activities. All leaders should be exposed to
these factors and receive appropriate feedback on how well they
manage differences and accomplish tasks. Perhaps the Army should
also consider introducing cultural-awareness training into Battle
Command Training Programs and combat training centers where, with
allies and partners, command and staffs would be combined to foster
development of cultural competency skills.
Models and simulations in support of training
and education should begin to include cultural factors as the Army
moves to an agent-based construct, which will increase the number
of variables and complicate environments so they more closely approximate
reality. This program, which is already being worked by the Defense
Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is one we should seek
to guide and direct.
In generalized study areas, the Army should
educate soldiers and leaders on foundational cultural norms and
values and teach them skills used to understand and bridge cultural
differences, looking at religious, tribal, and nationalistic factors
in representative and nonrepresentative societies. Over time, specialized
study should enable soldiers to build expertise in specific regions
concerning specific societies.
Culturally literate soldiers-
-Understand that culture affects their behavior
and beliefs and the behavior and beliefs of others.
-Are aware of specific cultural beliefs, values,
and sensibilities that might affect the way they and others think
-Appreciate and accept diverse beliefs, appearances,
-Are aware that historical knowledge is constructed
and, therefore, shaped by personal, political, and social forces.
-Know the history of mainstream and nonmainstream
American cultures and understand how these histories affect current
-Can understand the perspective of nonmainstream
groups when learning about historical events.
-Know about major historical events of other
nations and understand how such events affect behaviors, beliefs,
and relationships with others.
-Are aware of the similarities among groups
of different cultural backgrounds and accept differences between
-Understand the dangers of stereotyping, ethnocentrisms,
and other biases and are aware of and sensitive to issues of racism
-Are bilingual, multilingual, or working toward
-Can communicate, interact, and work positively
with individuals from other cultural groups.
-Use technology to communicate with individuals
and access resources from other cultures.
-Are familiar with changing cultural norms
of technology (such as instant messaging, virtual workspaces, E-mail,
and so on), and can interact successfully in such environments.
-Understand that cultural differences exist
and need to be accounted for in the context of military operations.
-Understand that as soldiers they are part
of a widely stereotyped culture that will encounter predisposed
prejudices, which will need to be overcome in crosscultural relations.
-Are secure and confident in their identities
and capable of functioning in a way that allows others to remain
secure in theirs.
1. Peter J. Katzenstein, ed.,
The Culture of National Security: Norms and Identity in World Politics
(New York: Columbia University Press, 1996).
2. Nancy E. Briggs and
Glenn R. Harwood, "Furthering Adjustment: An Application of
Inoculation Theory in an Intercultural Context," Eric Reproduction
Services, no. ed. 225, 221, 1983.
3. Lisa Castellanos,
"Hispanic/Latina Women: Cultural norms and prevention";
Project Director, Abriendo Puertas, 1986, Florida Alcohol and Drug
Abuse Association, Tallahassee, on-line at <www,fadaa.org/resource/justfact/hispnorm.html)>,
accessed, 9 March 2005.
4. The charts are based
on those published by Lee Gardenswartz and Anita Rowe in Managing
Diversity (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1998), 164-65.
5. Jean Willis, "Understanding
Cultural Differences," American Society of Association Executives,
Washington, D.C., 1 March 2001.
6. A growing perception
in many circles is that military cultures are moving toward establishing
an artificial or formal language.
7. Marcelle E. DuPraw
and Marya Axner, "Working on Common Cross-Cultural Communication
Challenges," A More Perfect Union (AMPU) Guide, on-line at
<www.wwcd.org/action/ampu/crosscult.html>, accessed 5 November
8. Abdul Aziz Said and
Nathan C. Funk, "The Role of Faith in Cross-Cultural Conflict
Resolution," presentation at the European Parliament for the
European Centre for Common Ground, September 2001, on-line at <http://shss.nova.edu/pcs/journalsPDF/
V9N1.pdf>, 37, accessed 5 November 2004.
Also available online at: