The driving force behind renewed U.S. interest in "cultural contexts" is obviously the War on Terror, which has taken U.S. soldiers and diplomats into some very culturally complicated corners of the planet. This interest is another indicator that the War on Terror is moving to a stage where it is less of a shooting war and more a vast "peace enforcement" operation, but that's a subject for another column.
Applying cultural common sense isn't new. A SEAL commander I met at CENTCOM in October 2001 told me that U.S. special operations teams that had just arrived in Afghanistan were "sipping a lot of tea." He meant they were engaged in negotiations with Afghan tribal leaders, and the greeting and tea ceremonies played a major role in framing the discussions. Cultural awareness is key to U.S. Army Special Forces operations. The U.S. Marine Corps' classic "Small Wars Manual" notes the importance of cultural contexts.
The military may risk "overcompensating" for a lack of "cultural awareness" in corners of the Department of Defense, however. Patrick Porter of the Defense Academy of the United Kingdom recently essayed "the cultural turn in studying war" in the U.S. Army War College's Parameters Magazine.
Porter actually focuses on using deterministic cultural explanations to shed light on very complex historical and social events. He's doubtful of academic generalizations like "Occidental versus Oriental warfare."
Hard, rational assessment often guides actions, not culture. He points out WWII's French resistance avoided pitched battles, as does today's Hezbollah.
Porter notes that "the U.S. Army's new counter-insurgency manual mentions' culture' 88 times and 'cultural' 90 times in 282 pages."
Well and good. Culturally informed diplomacy by the U.S. military helped persuade Sunni tribes in Iraq's Anbar province to turn against Al-Qaida -- but they helped, as part of a multi-pronged political approach, just like the NSCC's effort helped stabilize south Sudan. Porter warns against "seeing culture as the new magic bullet." And he's right.
Austin Bay is the author of three novels. His third novel, The Wrong Side of Brightness, was published by Putnam/Jove in June 2003. He has also co-authored four non-fiction books, to include A Quick and Dirty Guide to War: Third Edition (with James Dunnigan, Morrow, 1996).
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