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Cultural awareness in the army: harnessing the disciplines.

The opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not represent those of the DOD, U.S. Army, or the Maneuver and Support Center of Excellence.


Cultural awareness is gaining attention in the Armed Services and for good reason. Cultural awareness is value added to the military by enabling the Soldier to see his area of operation from broader perspectives. Among the many efforts to enhance Soldier combat skills, the U.S. Army has recently finalized recruiting Cultural and Language Advisors (CFLAs) to serve at the Army Centers of Excellence. (1)

I am one of the first recruits. I was hired in 2009 at the Maneuver and Support Center of Excellence (MSCoE) at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri. As an academic and cultural advisor, I feel it is appropriate for me to offer some thoughts with respect to my position as a CFLA. I will limit my comments to the training of cultural awareness in the Captains' Career Course-Common Core.

Coming from an academic background, I knew I had to adapt quickly to my new environment by calibrating my professional background to the fast pace and sense of urgency that was apparent as soon as I began. I prepared myself by learning about the organizations, the critical personnel, and the missions of the Center. I also determined to be always ready to provide advice when asked and initiate ideas as judiciously as I could. I proceeded cautiously so as not to interfere with the instructional schedules already in progress. At the same time, I made myself and my position visible as to what I could offer in the area of cultural awareness. As part of my initial responsibilities, I was tasked by the Director of the Maneuver and Support Center's Directorate of Training with reviewing the U. S. Army Captains Career Course on Culture (CCCoC) and provide him and his civilian deputy with summary feedback:
 I sense the focus of the lessons needs to be sharpened. The authors
 address the various elements of culture in terms of values, beliefs,
 behavior, and norms and then stop short of involving the soldier to
 his immediate and temporal challenges. Throughout the lesson
 commentaries, slides and illustrations, I felt the lesson needed to
 be brought to the military personnel and their objectives in an
 intimate sense. It needs to speak to them instead of meandering to
 the broader analysis of geographical/environmental, historical,
 economic, and social issues.

 The soldier learns culture to fulfill his/her technical challenges
 in preparation for deployment. Culture in this sense is
 instrumental, equivalent to the sidearm-effective at a close and
 intimate range. I feel the course might be more effective if it
 instructs the soldier how to meet the family, the village, the
 township and elaborate on the myriads of issues dealing
 with religion, ethnicity, tribal divisions and economic and
 political problems. Indeed, these topics are discussed in the
 lesson, but they are discussed in broad geographical, historical,
 and environmental contexts. They needed to be factored and detailed
 to the specificities of military mission. The soldier, I feel, needs
 the tools that help him or her now and here at the front
 (email of June 26, 2009).

After two years of observing and teaching the cultural blocks, my opinion has not changed. In the following pages, I expand upon my opinion and offer some suggestions.

The Challenge

The mission of the CFLA is a challenging one. The CFLA must make him/herself useful to the Center even where there is uncertainty as to whether one's efforts are bearing results or not. Coming from the academic world where formalities are nonexistent, it was a humbling experience to witness the level of seriousness, high mindedness, excellence, and dedication of the servicemen and women. They are professionals of the highest caliber. Even though there is constant rotation in and out of the Center and I have to start all over again, I find the opportunity of working with such world class leaders a highly rewarding experience.

Initial Analysis

The lessons in the CCCoC are well written and reflect the highest quality of writing and editing. There is clarity of definition, organization, and writing style. The organization of the lessons, sequences of discussion and lecture sessions, and class exercises are exemplary. The technical approaches in creating the instructional materials are also of the highest quality.

Quite frequently, it is common for evaluative studies to differ in style, approach, and discipline; as such I am not criticizing the pedagogical or disciplinary contents of the course. What I suggest is that the qualitative excellence of the lessons may need to be balanced with more relevant and substantive material content. As an example, in Module 1, Cultural Influences and their Impact on Military Operations, I perceive problems of relevance and suggest utilizing anthropological, sociological, and political science perspectives to enhance this module's relevance. This module contains a most critical aspect of cultural awareness down range.

This module has four sections and a practical exercise:

1. Definition of Culture.

2. Influences on Culture.

3. Social Organization.

4. Political Structure.

Each of the lessons deals with the fundamental issues of culture. Culture is defined throughout the lessons, but the following details seem to be absent.

First, the composition of the lesson and the slide presentation is eclectic. Each has political, economic, anthropological, and sociological elements. The lesson commentaries and slides offer descriptions of political players, ethnic organizations, kinships, and tribal forms of societies. These topics, in my opinion, need to be segregated and addressed separately in their specific discipline or area of study. This does not mean taking each subject and presenting it as a separate lesson presentation. It only means identifying topics and organizing them by discipline with a short bibliographical list (five to seven authors). This will contextualize culture by functional and conceptual areas.

Second, the topics discussed are largely cast in non-military settings broadly describing cultural factors in general terms. Specificity, targeting, and applicability based on specific pedagogical disciplines seem to be lacking. The heavy emphasis on anthropology to explain political, economic, social, and historical issues weakens the lessons' impact. Balancing the discipline content of the cultural studies will enrich the experience of learning. This can be done by integrating relevant topics from the disciplines of anthropology, sociology, and political science.

Third, values, beliefs, behaviors/attitudes, and norms (VBBN) are the central focus of cultural studies. In a much larger measure their central features, such as respect, honor, dignity, fear, anger, resentment, and such attitudes as family unity, clan intensity, and tribal cohesion or schisms are psychological manifestations. They are the cultural challenges in which Soldiers will need to be well versed in order to navigate their operational environment.

It may be argued that the Soldier cannot be expected to be an authority on the peculiarities of limitless cultural topics as they apply to multiple societies. For that reason alone, I believe focusing and targeting VBBN as to their emotive effects can prepare the Soldier in what to expect from the initial contacts with others. Highlighting these factors will bring culture much closer to the Soldiers' immediate deployment circumstances.

Fourth, the definition of political structure is intrinsically linked to political functions, formulating and implementation of policies, evaluation of functions, and carrying out adjudicative functions. The structure of any political system identifies power centers in their hierarchical or symmetrical forms. Political players associated with governments, both local and national, are most relevant to political approaches. The lessons underemphasize this impact and focus on tribal, kinships, and clan formations. Randomly mixed anthropological and political concepts create duplication of the functional role of social organizations and political structure with watered down impact and less disciplinary potency.

The relevant definition of political structure is missing in the lessons and in the slides. Similarly, the block, Forces that Shape Culture, veers off on topics such as geography, climate, religion, social, political, history, and economic "forces" of influence. The rational for this is that the Army has recognized these regional and socio-economic variables as useful. From this list, geography, climate, history, and economics bear marginal influence on culture. For efficiency and maximization of cultural awareness purposes, it seems they are better replaced by topics that cut directly to the immediate tasks of the Soldier. To illustrate this, geography and "physical environment" will be selected and elaborated upon to show that their relevance is only marginally essential.

All humans adapt to their physical environment in similar survival strategies. Geographical attributes such as land and water have identical cultural effects for the American Soldier who grew up in the deserts of California, Arizona, New Mexico, and northern Texas, as they do for the villager in remote Middle East, Australia, North Africa, or Africa desert environments. Physical environments are universal; they are common to all. (2) The Soldier's "physical environment," even when dramatically different in climate, possesses natural characteristics that the Soldier and his/her habitat had, over the years, adapted to. Hunters and gatherers in the jungles of Africa share identical life styles, manners of conflict resolution, and survival skills as those in the jungles of the Amazon. Farmers in Africa and Asia can predict rainfall as the pioneer American farmers used to do before the advent of weather satellites.

The survival skills of desert dwellers throughout the African, Asian, and American deserts appear to be identical without inhabitants ever meeting each other. Prior to modern times, family units, tribes, clans and kinships, possessed naturally embedded similarities that could be inferred upon from observing a few members. (3) Their manner of hunting and gathering, sense of time, adaptability to temperature, water, medical practices, and reaction to natural disasters share many similarities. Such problems as water scarcity, border conflicts, inter-ethnic and intra-ethnic conflicts resulting from the physical environment have identical aspects and approaches to conflict resolution. The American Soldier by his childhood training, observation, intuition, and by general exposure to the American terrain is cognizant of the effects of physical environment. I feel that the section is better replaced by other cultural topics that describe societies' interrelationships and human relations.

Harnessing the Disciplines

An alternative approach would be to apply the disciplines of anthropology, sociology, and political science to those cultural topics most relevant to each of the disciplines. In this author's view, the four lessons in question are better defined and articulated if the analysis and course descriptions are aligned with their most relevant discipline. Social organizations fit better when analyzed from the point of view of sociology. Political structures are amenable to political analysis. Defining culture is mostly a province of anthropology. The Soldier's mission, purpose, and training being heavily influenced by domestic politics, I argue that influences on culture are better suited when analyzed from the perspective of socialization as used in the field of political science.

The three disciplines have functional features which can be described as follows:

1. Anthropology defines the primordial culture of societies focusing on family units, family types, ethnics, tribal systems, cults, and fringe groups as well as others such as the homeless, gangs, and stateless groups.

2. Sociology defines the organizational culture of groups such as labor organizations, educational groups at elementary, secondary, and tertiary level, peasant associations, business professionals, religious groups, military clubs, and inclusive and exclusive clubs.

3. Political Science defines the political culture of societies beginning with beliefs, forms of governments, regime types, ideologies, political parties, bureaucracies, independent and state-linked institutions.

Application of these three areas of study offer comprehensive details that can define culture in terms of VBBN. Forces that Influence Culture can then be examined in its most direct and causal element-socialization.

Socialization is the process by which societies learn their VBBN. Carefully selected political and social forces can be presented in terms of their relevancy to the Soldier's area of operation. These are social and political organizations with whom the Soldier is bound to interact on cultural grounds. Presentation and analysis of relevant political institutions introduces the Soldier to the functional role of community or state power. Institutions can also be presented in terms of their ideological bases (democratic, dictatorial, theocratic), constitutional provisions (civil rights, civil liberties, the roles of women and respect for or injustice against minority rights), and policy making and implementing. Having done so, we then would focus on the instrumental features of each of the disciplines as will be described and analyzed below. (4)

Discipline Perspectives

All three disciplines have critical elements that are essential for cultural and civic education. Allocating topical subjects to each of the three disciplines helps us identify forces that affect culture and their relevancy to the Soldiers' deployment and redeployment missions. Frontline cultures in rural areas where the Soldier is bound to be exposed to the rural culture are better defined by anthropological studies.

The Anthropological Perspective: As stated above, anthropology is at its best when it addresses the many basic features of societies. It is a pioneer discipline well suited for the purpose of looking at societies from their initial formation. Long before political scientists and sociologists began to borrow from the treasure trove of anthropologists, anthropologists themselves had operationalized values, beliefs, attitudes, and norms (VBAN). This is particularly true in the definition of culture and its influences at their generic, organic, and localized level. Anthropological methods of analysis can be employed to bring in to focus such topics as language, religion, cultural symbols, and historical and legacy features of specific societies. The rural life where the Soldier may be first deployed can be defined to equip the Soldier with information that he can use in dealing with individuals, groups of men and women, chiefs, and tribal elders, and the attendant cultural norms, habits, and religious beliefs.

Anthropology is robust in defining societies at their micro level. Societies at their most basic level of organization are defined as entities preoccupied with finding means for survival. The family in its unitary and extended features-the clan, ethnics, tribe-and higher levels of social organization regional, sub-national and national levels, become the main focus of lecture, discussion, and exercises. When anthropology reaches into the analysis of social organizations, political structures, political systems, and political ideologies, it overlaps with sociology and political science. This overlapping of disciplinary fields will cause problems.

Basic aspects of culture, mainly the VBAN when defined from the anthropological perspective will have maximized returns. Anthropology is focused on the early development of societies. It is pedagogically equipped to identify universal commonality of the human race such as family love, community solidarity, care and affection for children and transposing those cultural values to higher levels of cultural interaction. At the point where cultural differences are affected by modernization and the complexities of societies, sociological and political methodologies and concepts are better used to address cultural impacts.

The Sociological Perspective: Behaviors and attitudes as well as the ideological stand of organized groups are better defined by sociology. Group dynamics such as joining professional associations, social organizations, petitioning, demonstrations, and riots are best analyzed in the sociological realm. Social forces in this category include political movements, labor unions, syndicates, and activist, racial, gender and ethnic based groups. From this list, the relevant social forces to concentrate upon would be groups such as labor unions, religious organizations, or professional organizations such as the teaching professions at the elementary, secondary, and tertiary level, as well as members of elite clubs, and business professionals such as chambers of commerce. The values associated with these group dynamics are economic, professional, and personal recognition to include promotions, bonuses, and awards.5 The ways and means of group interaction, conflict resolution, negotiation, and communication would fall into this category. Even shoeshiners, street peddlers, and taxi drivers have specialized cultural and survival skills that are described by sociologists which enter the cultural realm. A sociological approach to cultural studies provides a treasure trove of critical information on the behavior of organized groups in urban centers.

Political Science: Soldiers' missions, professions and whether they engage in war, are determined mostly by politics. The political prestige of the state is reflected in the strength of its armed services and in the intensity and tenacity of their dedication. The Soldier is a defender of the state and his combat skills are enhanced if his cultural skills are also well developed. The Soldier's sense of self awareness relative to his/her own political values is critical here. Self-knowledge, self-actualization, self-assertion in manners that affirm democratic values are as essential as winning frontline battles.

The field of political science provides us with tools for defining and analyzing governing principles-constitutions, institutions (legislative, executive, judiciary), ideology (liberal/democratic, communist, authoritarian, theocratic) and the instruments of governance. A political system's maturity is measured by the absence of conflicts, by the presence of freedoms and opportunities for citizens, and public and private sectors which maintain a high level of integrity.

Political scientists see political culture as a way of explaining the political phenomena described above. Political culture in this case is the orientation of citizens relative to each other and to their political institutions. The trust, integrity, civility of citizens towards each other is a measure of the maturing of a political culture. A harmonious and participatory political culture reflects maturity of institutions. A political culture oriented by authoritarian, totalitarian, or theocratic types of leadership displays subjective behavioral attitudes. Citizens' trust is elastic, civility is contrived and harmony and consensus are forcefully imposed through tyranny. Citizens under such systems live with defeated and broken spirits. These systems have tendencies to prevail for decades until successful revolt. (6)

Cultural topics when they are addressed from the political science perspective, give a wider view into the broad reaches of VBBN. The political science perspective also brings into focus the political structure in its law making, executing, and implementation, legal adjudication, as well as policy evaluation functions. The ways and means by which citizens express their motivations, hopes, and aspirations flow from the political culture as they interact with their government and with each other. Of the three disciplines, political science brings the secular, functional, and ideological attributes of societies to the cultural studies of the Soldier.

Final Words

In my opinion, the most valuable political, social, and economic capital today is democratic freedom and liberty. It must not be taken for granted. The temptation to see democracy as just another political ideology and to assume that its key features are not transferable to other societies is overwhelming. The American Soldier, by heritage and purpose, is a vanguard of democracy.

There are frequent misgivings expressed against "pushing our own values" on societies who may not "share our democratic values." Simply because the American system in the past and occasionally today may demonstrate systemic decay and dysfunctional behavior does not mean that the democratic culture is therefore dysfunctional. What should be kept in mind is that the dysfunctions that may be seen from time to time serve to refine and elevate the system to a higher level of democracy. It attracts mass participation. People can mobilize, vote political actors out of office, launch petition drives, and participate in demonstrations.

By selectively integrating the disciplinary fields of anthropology, sociology, and politics science as well as historical perspectives, we can provide the Soldier a broader understanding of cultural studies. We can leverage values, beliefs, attitudes/behaviors and norms (VBA/BN) by anchoring our pedagogical endeavors with steadfast commitment to what are universally desirable-human rights, human dignity, justice, equality, and individual liberty. These are embedded in what is globally recognized as Natural Rights.


(1.) The guide for the implementation of cultural awareness training in the Army is the document, Army Culture and Foreign Policy Strategy, 2009.

(2.) Akhil Gupta and James Ferguson, "Beyond 'Culture': Space, Identity, and the Politics of Difference," Cultural Anthropology, Vol. 7, No. 1, (February 1992), 6-22. See particularly page 7.

(3.) See Raoul Narol, "Some Thoughts on Comparative Methods in Cultural Anthropology", Methodology in Social Research, Eds. Hubert M. Blalock, Jr. and Ann B. Blalock (New York: McGraw Hill, 1968), 236-277.

(4.) Political scientists such as Gabriel Almond and Sydney Verba voice their appreciation of anthropologists for influencing them enough to have adapted anthropological methods to political science. See Gabriel Almond and Sidney Verba, Eds., The Civic Culture: Political Attitudes and Democracy in Five Nations (Boston: Little Brown, 1963), 13.

(5.) Mancur Olson, The Logic of Collective Action: Public Goods and the Theory of Groups, Volume 124 (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1971) and Charles Tilly, From Mobilization to Revolution (Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1978).

(6.) Theda Skocpol, Social Revolutions: A Comparative Analysis of France, Russia, and China (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1979).

Other References

Huntington, S. Political Order in Changing Societies. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968.

Kaplan, Abraham. The Conduct of Philosophical Inquiry: Methodological for Behavioral Sciences. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 1998.

Lerner, Daniel. The Passing of Traditional Societies. Glenco, IL: The Free Press of Glenco, 1978.

Moore, Jr., Barrington. Social Origin of Dictatorship and Democracy: Lords and Peasants in the Making of the Modern World. Boston: Beacon Press, 1966.

by Tseggai Isaac, PhD

Tseggai Isaac completed his PhD in Political Science from the University of Missouri, Columbia, in 1991. He then went on to teach at the Missouri University of Science and Technology, formerly University of Missouri-Rolla. His research interests are economic and public policies of the Horn of African and Middle Eastern states. He has published articles in peer reviewed journals and encyclopedias as well as book chapters.
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Author:Isaac, Tseggai
Publication:Military Intelligence Professional Bulletin
Date:Jan 1, 2012
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