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Leveraging culture: employing culture as a mission enabler.



Understanding the operational environment (OE) is one of the most critical requirements when deploying to an assigned area of responsibility (AOR). There are various methodologies that can facilitate the understanding of the OE at various operational levels. Two of the most commonly used methodologies are PMESII-PT (political, military, economic, social, information, infrastructure, physical environment, and time) and ASCOPE (area, structures, capabilities, organizations, people, and events).

To determine what the overarching theme is in these two methodologies, it would not be too far a stretch to say that all the variables within these methodologies can be either directly or indirectly tied to the culture of the AOR. In today's fluid battlefield, not only is understanding the primary culture and subcultures that exist within your AOR important, but the ability to apply and integrate this knowledge into mission planning and daily operations is critical to mission success.

Common Misperceptions of Culture Training

Many commanders now understand the impact that cultural considerations will have on their mission and are beginning to take the necessary steps to ensure that the overall cross-cultural competence (3C) of their unit is sufficient for the area to which they are deploying. Nevertheless, there are still a number of units that do not prepare their Soldiers, noncommissioned officers, and officers adequately to interact effectively with the culture in their AOR. There are myriad reasons for this.

One of the more common reasons is that there is a huge misperception about the purpose of culture training and how cultural knowledge should be used in the OE. Some consider culture training to be the same as Equal Opportunity (EO) training. While EO training is critical to maintaining the cohesiveness of today's Army and there are many parallels between EO and culture training, EO training and culture training are two entirely different areas of focus.

Cultural knowledge is a tool within your overall toolkit of competencies that can be used when deemed necessary. A colleague of mine has stated on many different occasions that there is "no place for cultural considerations in an active kill zone." A caveat for this quote is that the goal of any kinetic engagement should be to identify all hostile elements and engage those hostiles without any collateral damage to the local populace or existing infrastructure. The reason for this is that force protection should never be put in jeopardy because you do not want to offend the local culture. Cultural knowledge is not about not offending someone from another culture. It is about harnessing the information to make Soldiers more effective in their missions. Training Circular (TC) 31-73, Special Forces Advisor Guide, lists force protection and human rights as two areas that should not be compromised for the sake of maintaining rapport.

Three Steps in Culture Training

Like any tool, one needs to learn how to use it and maintain it, and when to use it. This leads us to an informal three-step framework on how to ensure that Soldiers are trained and mentored in the 3C arena. The first step is to develop a mindset within your unit in which culture is not thought of as a mysterious entity, but one that Soldiers feel is more of a mission enabler than a mission inhibitor. To create this mindset, leaders should ensure that Soldiers understand the foundational influences that exist within all cultures.

In addition, Soldiers should participate in various self-awareness exercises to gain a better understanding of themselves. A higher level of self-awareness will better equip a Soldier to interact more effectively with someone from outside their own culture. TC 31-73 states that:
 "When communicating with people across cultures, advisors must abandon
 any sentiments of ethnocentrism -- the tendency of individuals to
 judge all other groups according to their own group's standards,
 behaviors, and customs. Such notions lead an individual to see other
 groups as inferior by comparison."

Do not confuse developing self-awareness with sensitivity training. It is about understanding the potential obstacles that may exist in your cross-cultural interactions, accounting for them, and maintaining an awareness of biases or prejudices that may factor into your interactions and decision-making process. This mindset will not be accomplished via standalone culture classes, but from integrating cultural considerations into appropriate collective training sessions, battle drills, and OPD/NCODP. This allows Soldiers to process the practical applications of cultural knowledge and will increase the collective "buy-in" of the unit to the relevancy of cultural considerations in mission planning and execution.

The second step is to integrate cultural skill building training into the unit's training plan. Effective skill building training includes practice in cross-cultural communications, rapport building, negotiations, and key leader engagements. Cultural skill building training is a necessity because Soldiers need to understand how to employ their cultural knowledge when required. Not doing this would be like lecturing Soldiers on the functionality of an M4 and never allowing them to fire the weapon. The bulk of this training should not be conducted as separate training sessions, but should be integrated into your unit's STX lanes and squad/platoon level training. The ability to learn and properly execute these cultural skills will have a significant impact on your unit's ability to accomplish its mission. As with any training, an after action review (AAR) should be conducted to discuss all the learning objectives of the training exercise. If conducted properly, more learning points may be gained from the AAR than from the actual training itself

The third step is the actual execution of these skills sets in the OE. Your unit will not truly know its overall 3C level until service members perform on the big stage in the AOR to which they are deployed. Multiple evaluations and assessments can be executed and analyzed during your unit's train-up for a deployment. They will be missing one key element-the added pressure or intensity experienced while deployed; the one element that cannot be replicated sufficiently in a training environment. Commanders, first sergeants, platoon leaders, platoon sergeants, and squad leaders need to observe their troops' performance closely and provide timely feedback to the individual. One of the more effective times to do this would be during tactical debriefs that occur after each operation. This is an optimal time to critique the successes and failures of your interactions with the local populace. If a negative incident occurred, then discuss the incident in detail and develop strategies to handle the situation more effectively in future missions. This will ensure the continued collective growth of the unit be-cause the execution of cultural and other relevant skill sets should increase exponentially during the deployment.


If these three steps are followed in one form or another, the overall 3C of a unit will be increased to the point in which culture knowledge and skill sets can be leveraged to become a mission enabler. The point at which cultural knowledge becomes a mission enabler is when a Soldier views cultural considerations as a constant consideration in mission planning and execution. Once the perception of culture training evolves from mandatory (Crowd into a gym and listen to stand-alone training delivered as a lecture that is probably a waste of time) to instilling in Soldiers the operational relevancy of cultural knowledge and the practical uses of it, an environment will be established in which a unit views cultural training on the same level and relevancy as weapons training.

Mr. Clark served as an Intelligence Analyst in the U.S. Army until his retirement in 2008. His assignments included various locations in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Mr. Clark currently works on the Professional Military Education team at the TCC.
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Author:Clark, Chris
Publication:Military Intelligence Professional Bulletin
Date:Jan 1, 2011
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