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Studies in the Social and Cultural History of Modern Warfare
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Jennifer D. Keene
Issue Section:. You do not currently have access to this article. Download all figures. Sign in. You could not be signed in. Sign In Forgot password? Don't have an account? American Historical Association members Sign in via society site. Sign in via your Institution Sign in. In Afghanistan, too, an inability to understand different cultural frames of reference has hurt us. Some authors like Sarah Chayes attribute the breakdown in security in Afghanistan to corruption ; if all government employees in the United States started demanding bribes to do their jobs, we would similarly be upset.
In cultures across the world, however, governments are endemically corrupt but there are no rebellions; corruption does not lead ineluctably to grievance. As a Marine officer in Afghanistan, we held several shura townhall meetings in Sangin in Invariably, the locals complained about our patrols staying overnight in compounds, which was offensive to them because they had women there. And invariably, the commanders expressed their sympathy and continued to do it.
This was nowhere near as egregiously offensive to Pashtun culture, however, as the efforts to educate and empower women; while eminently sensible and moral in our eyes, it was a huge cause for grievance in the eyes of a different culture. While the importance of cultural sensitivity was often mentioned in our interventions, it sadly was not really understood. Culture is a nebulous term that is always changing; it would be great to be able to talk about a uniform American culture or an unchanging Arab one, but alas, the world is more complicated than that.
Changes in culture within the same society can lead to dramatic battlefield results: take, for example, the levee en masse. The cultural shift created by French Revolutionary ideals allowed France to mobilize a massive citizen army in the levee en masse ; subscribing to different cultural ideals of traditional authority, the other European monarchies could not mobilize its subjects in the same way.
The result was that the French could stave off the combined forces of the other European powers and even, under Napoleon, defeat them until they adopted similar reforms. We would similarly be unable to understand why ISIS uses suicide bombing but the Kurds do not or how Russia has been able to prop up the Syrian regime. Image credit: Kurdishstruggle. Matt, Semper Fi. I think you have articulated very well something that I have been arguing for a long time. We rarely attempt to understand our enemies psychology, and when we do, it is almost always judged through the lens of our western culture.
It is the rare officer or politician indeed who attempts to truly understand the enemies culture — which is an unmistakable component of the enemy psychology — as opposed to simply reading some talking points or PowerPoint slides about COIN and cultural sensitivity. Understanding that culture and human psychology are inextricably linked, and that human being will always relate better to, and choose to support the known and familiar over the unknown and unfamiliar or threatening, is a necessary component to understanding your enemy.
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Part of cultural identity is contrast. We will never all get along. Most other ethnically homogenous cultures understand this. Just wanted to say that the article and the reply by Ben are the sorts of presentation and discussion that ought to be going on more frequently and at the highest levels of our government.
In my experience, they are rejected — sometimes viciously — as irrelevant or pointless in the name of a kind of simple-minded practically that seems to me to actually get people killed, including Americans. It would be very interesting to know exactly what it is in American culture that prevents, prohibits, dissuades, demotes, consideration of these issues, and what it would take to change it.
Excellent article about an issue that is not discussed often enough. Understanding the culture is critical to our future success or failure in Afghanistan. Frankly, to me this article says nothing new. In our present day, wishy-washy politicians neo-cons and liberal interventionists alike, among others cannot expect an extremely foreign culture to welcome norms and institutions that we value from our perch, so far away.
We got way too ambitious with our goals.
Intellectual rigor and moral courage are the must-have attributes in our military — and officer corps especially — to try to best advise the civilian policy-makers — as always — but once a legal order is given and constraints are spelled out, then the job has to be done. Riddle me what that looks like.
The author pays lip service to this difference at the end, but even then tries to reinsert it as a useful framework. In total this article is a gross simplification of how to begin to understand humans, groups and communities, and the different identities that comprise each of us them. The essentialist and deterministic undercurrents throughout the article rob people of individual agency and societies of intra-variation, despite the premise of the article being to take seriously difference.
It is these types of arguments that lead to deeply flawed policy and strategic decision making.
Why has that been the case? Because it is much easier to engage the world in terms of black and white, when really we need to embrace the gray and navigate with sound precision. I should note, I am a former Marine Infantry Officer and completed two combat deployments to Afghanistan, and spent the second deployment embedded with the Afghan National Army as their Operations Advisor. As a disclaimer, I was deployed with the author to Sangin, Afghanistan. My opinion of him did not affect my response here.
Agree that it is impossible to separate conflict from context. Where culture includes language and the associated thought patterns — important even in a theoretically homogenous culture such as the U.
Beg to differ. The aspects of the religion that are the primary belief structure of a people will influence the development of that culture: for example, Islam is patriarchal. Yes; too much of a rabbit hole for this discussion. Likewise Total War pioneered in the U. Civil War — or the two World Wars. One beef: Tzun-tsu is indeed pertinent.
But why has Machiavelli fallen out of fashion? The Borgias paid for his groceries?tf.nn.threadsol.com/map205.php
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