Understanding Other Cultures Helps War Efforts

Posted in: G-Town News- Nov 02, 2010 No Comments

A key strategy of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is getting local populations to join the fight against terrorism. This requires an engagement beyond traditional military combat to make local populations feel safe and to train coalition allies. But accomplishing this is often an uphill battle. Catherine Tinsley, associate professor of management in the McDonough School of Business, thinks that as the military expands its scope of activities, military personnel will benefit from understanding other cultures’ values systems. She says this understanding will help the military run successful diplomatic missions and may change how they approach future conflicts.

Q. Can you explain what sociocultural factors are and why they’re important?

A. Sociocultural factors are any type of influence on behavior that comes from the greater social environment in which people are embedded. Those include social, economic and cultural institutions. Culture is a system of meaning that a group imposes on itself and uses to set itself apart from other groups. These cultural systems are manifest in values and beliefs about the world, and also regulate behavior by setting a set of norms. These norms we have about how to behave certainly influence how we ultimately behave by setting up a system of rewards and punishments for acting in certain ways.

Q. Given that culture is so ingrained in people, how do you teach them to learn and understand what drives another culture’s behavior?
A. It’s very easy to see, when you’re on the outside, that another culture has cultural behaviors that are different from your own. It’s much more difficult to see that what you hold dear to you and what you know to be true about the world is culturally relative. It’s not until you’re out in other cultures that you realize how much of what you take as normal is socially and culturally relative — something that is rewarded by your culture, but may not be rewarded or might have a different meaning in other cultural groups.

It’s not to teach people that there are differences, but to teach people to understand where those differences come from and to understand how to respect the differences, even if they’re difficult to abide by.

Also, this is more than just understanding the surface behaviors. In the past, there was a lot of focus on the surface level of culture — that if we dressed the same way and made sure not to show the bottoms of our feet, everything would be OK. But culture is deeper than those surface artifacts.

Q. Why do you believe it is important to incorporate sociocultural training into military operations?
A. Countries can use hard power through threatening or coercion, or they can use soft power – the ability to persuade people to do things they might not otherwise do because they are internally motivated and believe in the message. There is an understanding that our hard power — our military might — is not enough anymore.

Although we may still be the one superpower out there, we’ve reached our limit with forcing people to do what we want them to do. We have to win hearts and minds, and that is predicated on understanding their cultural system as well as ours.

Q. Do you think it will be difficult for the military to change itself to rely more on soft power?
A. The military has always been at the forefront of changing social mores in our culture. For example, they racially integrated earlier than most other organizations. In some ways, the military’s recognition about the value of diversity within itself is really paying dividends when they try to do more diplomatic missions abroad.

Q. When do you envision these diplomatic missions occurring — before, during or only after a military operation?
A. Although I’m not a military expert, from what I understand, there is a timeline. You have to secure a place before you hold it and then settle it. That does suggest that you can’t be doing diplomatic missions at the time of intense fire. But there’s also the notion that you could avoid some of these conflicts in the first place with more diplomatic missions.

Q. Is there support from top military officials to perform more soft power missions?

A. Robert Gates and Hillary Clinton are very close and talk a lot. It’s wonderful to have the Department of Defense and the State Department so closely allied so that they can better coordinate their missions. You see the military taking over tasks that in previous years were ceded to the State Department. That’s an acknowledgement from the top that it’s important for the military to embrace soft power tactics.

Q. What is the current state of cultural training troops receive?

A. There is some sociocultural training before deploying overseas, but it has to fit into an already limited training timeframe. I think that [troops] don’t get the level of sociocultural training that they need. Everyone acknowledges that, but we have yet to come up with a better solution. 

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