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Converting the unknown to the known: misconceptualizing culture.

     As we know,
    There are known knowns.
   There are things we know we know.
     We also know
    There are known unknowns.
     That is to say
    We know there are some things
     We do not know.
  But there are also unknown unknowns,
   The ones we don't know
     We don't know.
--Donald Rumsfeld, February 2002 (1)

Subsequent to 11 September 2001, an increasingly popular topic has emerged as a thread in military thought, consisting of variations on the theme of the role of culture in operations. One line is an overt concern expressed by some military leaders that tactical implementation of national defense objectives in Operations Iraqi Freedom/Enduring Freedom (OIF/OEF) have encountered cultural parameters for which training and doctrine were conspicuous by their absence. Often identified in the literature is systemic failure to understand and appreciate the effects of culture on operational planning, resulting in unintended consequences--specifically in OIF and OEF, where operations inadvertently provoked the multiplication of violent adversaries. Some military thinkers have gone beyond present operations and extrapolated the contemporary salience of cultural awareness to hypothetical future operations subsumed under the rubrics "irregular" or "asymmetric" warfare, even the "Long War." (2)


Part of the response to adverse unintended consequences has included seeking out cultural expertise from a variety of sources, particularly drawn from fields specializing in professional expertise about alien--i.e., non-Western cultures. Outside of some special forces, the Army apparently lacked an organizational template for training cultural awareness or knowledge and skills (3) on the scale required to affect the cultural paradigm of the relatively large numbers of personnel deployed. Cross-cultural competence is by definition a variable individual characteristic, not a collective skill. Since 2001, however, there have been diverse efforts to include cultural considerations in operations, usually predicated on the efficacy of cultural training under several names. The success or failure of the current endeavors is yet to be determined. That said, history may provide a guide. Lack of preparedness may be laid directly on faulty organizational memory, with organizational memory defined as "the collective ability to store, recall, and retrieve information for reconstructing past experiences for present purposes. (4) Organizational memory is imperfect, being affected over time by attrition of the organization's membership and by environmental pressures affecting institutional attention. A useful theoretical construct describing organizational memory is the meme, (5) a unit of cultural information that propagates from one mind to another, a cultural analog to the biological gene. Untransmitted memes become extinct. The organization has then reached Mr. Rumsfeld's conundrum: it then does not know what it does not know.

Exactly which conceptualization of the term 'culture' is intended in contemporary military literature is often unclear. The fact is that operationalization of the concept 'culture' is sufficiently problematical that "many anthropologists have argued that the term (which has gained increasing popularity outside anthropology [original emphasis]) should no longer be used by anthropologists." (6) American cultural anthropologists have utilized the theoretical concept of culture for 120-odd years, since its introduction as a holistic concept meant to encompass everything that is "acquired by [M]an as a member of society." (7) From the wide methodological net cast by American anthropology came the 'four-field approach' to the study of Man, a core curriculum including courses in archaeology, cultural anthropology, anthropological linguistics, and physical anthropology. Thus, in North America the granting of degrees in anthropology implied possession of a body of knowledge of " [M]an as a member of society" and in the comparative study of culture.

Contemporary anthropology has since fragmented into a myriad of academic niches, including a bit termed 'military anthropology.' Like 'culture,' there is some ambiguity in what is intended by military anthropology, it may intend either the anthropological study of military culture or the military applications of anthropological culture. Thus far, Army efforts to institutionalize general cultural training have been tentative, frequently involving personal services contracts for expertise of consultants; contracting for transportable culture awareness training (e.g., the TRADOC Culture Center); assigning culture training to uniformed instructors (local commands); providing academic electives (U.S. Army War College); electives and immersion programs (U.S. Military Academy), or providing reading lists, (8) some of which overlap with other services. (9)

One result of the recent re-discovery of culture is the addition to the many facets of contemporary anthropology a casual use of the term military anthropology. To the extent that the silent hand of the market reflects reality, military anthropology has become at least a term of art. A single-site result of an Internet search for "Military Anthropology Jobs" produced the following advertisements for positions, including among their education qualifications a degree in anthropology:

Leadership Analyst:

* Social Sciences/Human Dimension Analyst

* JIEDDO-COIC Directed Studies Team

* Physical Anthropologist/Project Manager

* Undergraduate Coop Program Open Source

* Defense/Intelligence/Geopolitical

* Liaison Officer, Senior Program Officer

Cultural Anthropologist:

* Social or cultural Anthropologist

* Asymmetrical Warfare Analyst

* Information Operations Planner

* Social Scientist-PPL

* Red Team Analyst/Linguist

* Culture Advisor(s)

* Social Cultural analysts

* Socio-Cultural Intel Analyst (10)

Perhaps the most prominent contemporary example of military anthropology in the sense of an applied anthropology is the "proof of prototype" Human Terrain System (HTS) of the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), which both recruits anthropologists as Human Terrain Team (HTT) social scientists and trains the teams in anthropological concepts and methods. The HTS mission "is to provide commanders in the field with relevant socio-cultural understanding necessary to meet their operational requirements." (11) HTTs do not conduct military intelligence operations nor provide kinetic targeting--an important matter to which we return below.

A role for anthropologists in military operations is, despite the appearance of the term military anthropology, not new--only fallen out of organizational memory. Why this should be so is a matter for conjecture. Hershel Holiday cites a former Army Vice Chief of Staff's suggestion that after Viet Nam "the Army purged everything that has to do with irregular warfare or insurgency," (12) which would include implied cultural considerations. Whatever the causes, the contribution of anthropology to operational planning disappeared after the early fifties, with the notable exception of Special Forces, and only recently re-appeared in FM 3-24, Counterinsurgency.

The history of anthropology as 'hand maiden' to colonialism is oft recited, but rarely appreciated are the contributions of U.S. anthropology and its notion(s) of culture during a time of total war, from 1941 to 1945, as well as its subsequent role in military governments for several years thereafter in Japan and Micronesia. (13), (14)

One estimate is that by 1947 "one half of all professional anthropologists worked fulltime in some war-related governmental capacity, while another quarter worked on a part-time basis ... in contributing to national defense. ... These anthropologists used their skills to fill hundreds of positions in governmental agencies ranging from the Office of War Information to the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), and they engaged in activities ranging from bureaucratic drudgery ... to the cloak and dagger adventures of secret agents. ..." (15) The cross-cultural perspective of anthropologists was particularly suited to OSS operations and the Office of War Information. (16), (17) Important to the contemporary operating environment is the caveat that "[w]hile almost every prominent living U.S. anthropologist (including Ruth Benedict, Gregory Bateson, Clyde Kluckhohn and Margaret Mead) contributed to the World War II war effort, they seldom did so under the false pretext of fieldwork." (18)

The contribution of anthropology may have been most substantial in the Pacific Theater, of which the anthropologist Ruth Benedict observed that the Japanese "were the most alien people the United States had ever fought in an all-out struggle. ..." (19) A concept from this era relevant to current operations is the "culture at a distance" method advocated by Gregory Bateson and Margret Mead for "analyzing societies which are inaccessible to direct observation." (20) At slightly closer range in contrast to classic ethnographic fieldwork, are "windshield ethnography" and "rapid ethnography." (21) The Rapid Ethnographic Assessment Procedure taught at HTS for unstructured, opportunistic interviews is a close methodological cousin.

The opportunity for creating the intimacy necessary to thoroughly analyze culture and language requires extended time in the field, work sometimes defining an entire career. A relevant example is the 20-years' work of Louis and Nancy Dupree in Afghanistan, resulting in a substantial anthropological treatment in the four-field mode, Afghanistan. (22) There are two practical elements which are necessary considerations when anthropological methods are applied to essentially battlefield ('insurgency') environments: The degree to which the subject culture is alien, and the degree to which the subject culture is accessible. Consequently, the implication for military operations is that most analysis of culture derived from anthropology is inherently "culture at a distance" combined with the synchronicity of the "ethnographic present," which is essentially a historical method. (23) Furthermore, while anthropology may inform operations, anthropologists may not be expected to compromise professional ethical norms by collecting actionable military intelligence: "In research, anthropologists' paramount responsibility is to those [whom] they study." (24) Therefore, military anthropology cannot be presumed to constitute a subspecies of military intelligence.

When the cognitive template of military culture is overlain on anthropological notions of culture, the incongruence is immediately apparent. The logical fallacy is this: Where (alien) culture is an unknown, attempting to convert it to an (actionable) known involves disparate epistemologies--technically, virtue vs. propositional theories of knowledge, for example. (25) That is, the two templates postulate differing criteria of what constitutes justified knowledge. Moreover, the kinds of knowledge claimed are complicated by purpose. When HTS says that its mission is to provide "cultural understanding" to a commander, the implicit claim is knowledge of an intangible (culture) relying on the normative properties of the agent (anthropologist). Moreover, there are "levels" of cultural knowledge in warfare (26) that further affect claims to truth.

Cultural intelligence remains a chimera. It may be hoped that a combination of the nascent field of military anthropology and the institutionalization of cultural education and training will eventually provide the Army with practical ways of avoiding unintended consequences in areas of conflict. The alternative is, in the classic words of Charles E. Lindblom, "the science of muddling through." (27)


(1.) Hart Seely, Pieces of Intelligence: The Existential Poetry of Donald H. Rumsfeld (New York: Free Press, 2003), 2.

(2.) For example,

(3.) K.G. Ross, "Toward an Operational Definition of Cross-Cultural Competence from Interview Data," Spring 2008, Defense Equal Opportunity Management Institute, Directorate of Research, at

(4.) John Sutton, "Memory," The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 11.March 2003, revised 10 May 2004, at

(5.) Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976).

(6.) "Culture," at

(7.) Edward B. Tylor, Primitive Culture: Researches into the Development of Mythology, Philosophy (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1871). Religion, Language, Art and Custom.

(8.) Cultural Awareness, compiled by Lenore Garder, U.S. Army War College Library Notes, August 2009, at

(9.) Cultural Awareness and the Military, compiled by Diana Simpson, Muir S. Fairchild Research Information Center, Maxwell, AFB, November 2007, at

(10.) Positions listed at juju,

(11.) Human Terrain System, TRADOC, at

(12.) Hershel L. Holiday, "Improving Cultural Awareness in the U.S. Military," Strategy Research Project, U.S. Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, March 2008, at

(13.) Suzanne Falgout, "Americans in Paradise: Anthropologists, Custom, and Democracy in Postwar Micronesia," Ethnology, Vol. 34, 2 (Winter 1995) at;jsessionid=K5sFqWpB3MJztrTv81dkLJBNCJy9zSBQGDqT2pnp2l6c41zyq1p2!-745913116!-1366559283?docId=5000331481.

(14.) Robert C. Kiste and Mac Marshall, "American Anthropology in Micronesia, 1941-1997," Pacific Science, Vol. 54, 3: 265-274, (2000) at

(15.) David H. Price, "Gregory Bateson and the OSS: WW II and Bateson's Assessment of Applied Anthropology," Human Organization, Vol. 57, 4: 379-384 (Winter 1998).

(16.) Murray L. Wax, Some Issues and Sources on Ethics in Anthropology, in Handbook on Ethical Issues in Anthropology, American Anthropological Association, 1996 at http:/

(17.) David H. Price, Anthropological Intelligence: The Employment of Neglect of Anthropology in the Second World War (Durham: Duke University Press, 2008).

(18.) David Price, "Anthropologists as Spies," The Nation, 20 November 2000, at

(19.) Ruth Benedict, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword: Patterns of Japanese Culture (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1946).

(20.) Margaret Mead and Rhonda Metruax, Eds., The Study of Culture at a Distance (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1953).

(21.) Edward Liebow, Rapid Ethnography in Evaluation, June, 1008, at

(22.) Louis Dupree, Afghanistan (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1973).

(23.) Definition at

(24.) Statement of Ethics: Principles of Professional Responsibility, American Anthropological Association, May 1971, at

(25.) Peter D. Klein, "Epistemology," Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, 1998, 2005, at

(26.) Sheila Miyoshi Jager, On the Uses of Cultural Knowledge, Strategic Studies Institute, U.S. Army War College, Carlisle Barracks, 13 November 2007, at

(27.) Charles E. Lindblom, "The Science of 'Muddling Through,'" Public Administration Review, Vol. 19:79-88.

by Charles R. Morrison, PhD, TRADOC Culture Center
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Title Annotation:role of understanding culture in military operations
Author:Morrison, Charles R.
Publication:Military Intelligence Professional Bulletin
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2010
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