Last Updated 16 Jun 2020

Cultural Awareness in an Asymmetric Environment

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I believe all experienced military leaders, both noncommissioned and commissioned, realize the importance of knowing every facet of the enemy and their environment. Throughout history, we have studied, witnessed and experienced great examples of the use of cultural knowledge during combat operations. Lieutenant Colonel T. E. Lawrence (of Arabia) of the British Army documented his experiences while living among the Arabic people. He learned about their society and culture in order to improve his military expertise (McFate, 2004).

With constantly changing interests, influences and enemy TTPs in today’s asymmetric environment, Soldiers on all levels are often focused on new strategies, equipment and tactics and unintentionally lose focus on the importance of cultural awareness. In today’s contemporary operation environment, cultural understanding and knowledge is a key element to successful counterinsurgency operations. This paper will stress the need for intensifying cultural awareness training in preparation for today’s asymmetric warfare and will emphasize the effectiveness of this principle of war.

Cultural Awareness in an Asymmetric Environment Any WWII or Korean War Veteran can probably tell you how the phrase “combat operations” had a completely different connotation back in their day. Where conflicts of the past may have been focused on manpower, fire superiority and maneuver, today we are focused on variables like sociological demographics, politics and economy. Currently, U. S. forces are engaged in asymmetric warfare where the insurgents are adapting their strategies to avoid the direct fight and attempting to exploit the weaknesses of U. S. forces.

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The insurgents have the upper-hand; they know the customs, geography, influences and people and are able to maneuver unnoticed. To combat this, we have adjusted our training by implementing cultural familiarization in pre-mobilization training and inserting COIN doctrine into many leadership courses. However I argue that Soldiers on all levels, but especially the junior leaders and tacticians who are often engaged in the midst of the local populace, do not fully understand the value and second/third order effects of properly implementing this principle of warfare.

Today, more than ever, we need to focus our training on cultural awareness and employ this knowledge to reverse the trend of the insurgency exploiting our cultural ignorance. Argument Just as a college football coach studies the footage of their opponent’s previous games; we need to study the norms, interests, relationships and socio-political patterns of our operating environment. In the last decade, we have taken measures to emphasize this principle of war but most significantly the publication of FM 3-24 has developed doctrine to defeat counterinsurgents with lessons learned in combat.

It teaches the importance of cultural awareness in an asymmetric environment and stresses to avoid imposing our ideology of what we think is normal upon a foreign society (2006, p. 1-15). Today’s COE demands a more robust pre-mobilization training package on the culture, language, geography and anthropology. Training for this principle of warfare has been trivialized to higher-level familiarization of COIN doctrine and lower-level “check-the-block” pre-mobilization training.

We need comprehensive training that involves every Soldier and incorporates advanced studies with scenario based exercises. Sergeant Elkhamri, a U. S. Army translator that spent 18 month with a Special Forces unit in Iraq, explained that the way to increase the Iraqi support in our fight against terrorism is to “improve the quality and increase the quantity” of pre-mobilization cultural awareness training. He further emphasizes how the we cannot expect deploying Soldiers to get a full understanding of Iraqi culture in a two hour PowerPoint class (2007, p. 110).

The Philippine Insurrection The Philippine Insurrection is one of the strongest examples of how the lack of cultural respect and understanding can render significantly negative effects on military operations. From the American stand point, the Philippine Insurrection should have been a quick and easy conflict. Originally, the U. S. deployed with 20,000 troops in order to quickly quell the insurrection. After the realization that the resistance was not going to collapse quickly, troop strength doubled, tripled and finally peaked at 74,000 by the end of the conflict (Wikipedia, 2009) .

In short, this stemmed from the U. S. underestimating the importance of cultural understanding by disregarding the Filiopino culture. The U. S. also demostrated that it was their duty to rescue the Filipino people by imposing American democracy upon them. This mindset, which was evident among U. S. military leadership in the Philippines, is sometimes apparent to this day. The Philippine Insurrection is one of the lowest points in U. S. military history. The Filipinos were often described by American military and media as uncivilized, fiendish savages. The U. S. ilitary strategy was executed with no consideration towards the local populace.

American Soldiers tortured, mutilated and even decapitated Filipino troops. There were reports of U. S. Soldiers shooting surrendering Filipino troops and burning entire villages to the ground (Wikipedia, 2009). Picture these atrocities happening in America to Americans by a foreign military force. I would bet that we would have an enormous insurgent force of enraged Americans. Human nature dictates that the Philippine people would react the same way, and they did. The insurgency grew as word spread of the atrocities.

Agoncillo described how the Filipino troops would exceed American brutality on some prisoners of war. He told stories how ears and noses were cut off and salt applied to the wounds; other reports described captured U. S. Soldiers being buried alive (Wikipedia, 1990). This cause and effect cycle was mutually destructive; in the end, both sides were blatantly breaking the Laws of War. John White was one American that understood the effectiveness of cultural understanding. He was a former American soldier that served as an officer in the Philippine Constabulary and led foreign indigenous troops in combat.

His experiences served as a perfect example of the positive effects achieved by applying cultural understanding. In 1928 he wrote a book describing how he built a unified and highly effective combat unit of indigenous people that were both Muslim and Christian. These specialized squads would hunt down the insurgents into their own domain and defeat them in battle. Some of the keys to his success were emphasizing common soldier skills, trusting the integrity of his troops, treating his subordinates and their cultures with respect and adapting proven army methods to the native culture.

He became fluent in Spanish and lived among his soldiers and the native people (2009, Dimarco). White was hugely successful in overcoming the insurgency by understanding their culture and adapting his knowledge of combat operations and tactics to fit his operating environment. Operation Iraqi Freedom The roots of the problems we face in Iraq stemmed from the strategic level. McFate, explained how some policy makers misunderstood the tribal nature of the Iraqi culture and assumed that the government would remain stable even after Saddam’s regime was overthrown.

Consequentially, without any governmental structure the tribes assumed control and once the Ba’thists lost their power, the tribal network became the backbone of the insurgency. The Iraqi tribal insurgency was born from American cultural ignorance (McFate, 2004, p. 44). Cultural misunderstanding continued to be our weakness with the misinterpretation of certain symbols and gestures. American forces often associated the black flag as the opposite of surrender but among the Shia population it is a religious symbol.

Consequently, many Shia who flew the black were shot unnecessarily for displaying their religious beliefs. Another example is how the American signal for stop was often misinterpreted since this gesture means welcome in Iraq; as you can imagine, this resulted in tragedy as well (2004, p. 44). In 2006, Elkhamri witnessed numerous appointments of powerful political figures solely based family-ties and political affiliations. He met Iraqi Commanders who were promoted from lieutenant to lieutenant colonel exclusively for political reasons.

Naturally, these shady antics did not go over well with the local populace. With a better under¬standing of the social-political framework, leaders could prevent these situations and earn the trust and respect of the community (2007, p. 111). Inversely, understanding the culture and society of your COE can positively impact military operations. By recognizing that pre-existing social structures were key to political stabilization, British Brigadier Andrew Kennett implemented historical lessons learned by adjusting to local cultures and understanding the inner workings of the tribal hierarchy.

He learned that the most important element of the Iraqi society is the tribe and their supporters and observed the tribal relationship between currency and loyalty. Knowing this, he appointed tribal leaders to the local councils and gave them money to distribute. By doing this, he empower the sheiks and gained favor with the local tribes (McFate, 2007, p. 45). General Odierno understood how the structure of any insurgency always mirrors the structure of the indigenous society; with this notion he tasked two junior intelligence analysts to construct a chart in order to locate Saddam.

By identifying, depicting and tracking key figures’ nterrelationships, social status, and last-known locations, this intelligence led the 4th ID troops directly to Saddam Hussein (McFate, 2007, p. 45). This turning point in the war stemmed from the leadership’s knowledge of the Iraqi society and culture. Counter Argument There are some that believe cultural understanding is over rated and over emphasized. In some military subcultures, hardened emotions and apathy towards your enemies’ culture and interests correlates to strength, courage and fearlessness. Some argue that the Warrior Ethos contradicts with cultural understanding and COIN doctrine.

Many years ago, my friend SSG Delagarza jokingly said, “My definition of hearts and minds is two in the heart, one in the mind” and yes, we all laughed because that was part of being in that subculture. There are situations where this hardened mindset is essential to mission success, but just as we need to select the right weaponry for each planned target, we need to select the proper approach for each military operation and situation. Selecting the proper weaponry and the proper approach is a key decision that is based on thorough analysis of every aspect of your enemy and AO.

Cultural knowledge of your enemy goes hand in hand with the strategy and tactics used to defeat them. A former commander and one of the hardest Rangers I ever met used to always tell us, “You got to be hard AND smart. ” It was a simple little phrase that we usually ignored but it’s always stuck with me. Now that I have grown as an NCO and leader, I realize what he was saying. There are times to use your brawn by showing overwhelming aggression and firepower but there are also times to use your intellect by employing the most efficient methods to handle a situation.

As a young first sergeant I learned the hard way. There were times my hard charging methods of demanding battalion staff NCOs to “do their job and fix the problem” may have worked, but in due course I realized that I was destroying critical relationships and losing all rapport with supporting elements. The secondary effects were evident by the lack willing support from these same staff sections for months to follow. Ironically, the trickle-down effect eventually affected the ones I was so adamantly fighting for, my Soldiers.

Conclusion I believe the U. S. will always overcome any military adversary with our verwhelming land, sea and air superiority, advanced intelligence, technology, weaponry and training but at what cost? In today’s asymmetric environment, direct action may not always be the best option. The finesse of properly executed cultural diplomacy may be an effective force multiplier. There is a significant need to train every Soldier on effectively implementing cultural understanding, especially at the lowest level. With an advanced understanding of our COE’s culture, society, geography and anthropology we could achieve success swiftly, efficiently and most importantly with considerably less casualties.


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Cultural Awareness in an Asymmetric Environment. (2017, Mar 19). Retrieved from

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