The Softer Side of War

Peter R. Mansoor
Content Type
Journal Article
Foreign Affairs
Issue Number
Publication Date
Council on Foreign Relations
The surge in Iraq demonstrated the importance of understanding the influence of culture on warfare. As new books by Dima Adamsky and Gal Luft argue, military and political leaders ignore such issues at their peril.
Political Geography
When U.S. forces invaded Iraq in 2003, the U.S. military was not particularly concerned about the impact of culture on its operations. U.S. leaders believed that the assault would play out as a high-tech conventional conflict and would be followed by a stabilization effort only slightly more difficult than the one U.S. troops had encountered in Kosovo a few years before. As the commander of the U.S. Army's First Brigade, First Armored Division, in Baghdad during the first crucial year after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, I quickly discovered not only that this assumption was incorrect but also that sectarian and ethnic identities, the role of tribes in Iraqi society, and the U.S. Army's own internal culture would weigh heavily on the course of the conflict, influence our approach to waging the war, and impact our interactions with our coalition allies. Subsequently, U.S. forces adjusted their procedures to take cultural factors into account. Troops became more sensitive to issues of honor and the treatment of women during routine security operations. Commanders learned the significance of sectarian and ethnic identities as civil strife began to tear at the fabric of Iraqi society. Perhaps most important, Iraqi tribes -- ignored by the Coalition Provisional Authority during the first year of the war -- became a major ally in the battle against al Qaeda in Iraq beginning in 2006. By the beginning of the surge in early 2007, the military had undergone a renaissance in its ability to connect with the Iraqi people, an adaptation that greatly assisted its ability to conduct counterinsurgency operations. The creation of the Sons of Iraq program, which brought more than 100,000 largely Sunni Iraqi tribesmen and former insurgents into alliance with coalition and Iraqi forces in 2007 and 2008, would have been inconceivable absent that transformation. The need for reconsidering culture's impact on warfare should not have come as a surprise. Culture's relationship to armed conflict has been an important focus in war studies in the post-Cold War period. The Culture of Military Innovation, by Dima Adamsky, and Beer, Bacon, and Bullets, by Gal Luft, both claim that culture plays a critical role in influencing the conduct of war. Adamsky explores strategic culture and its effect on military organizations, and Luft examines how culture impacts militaries operating together in coalition warfare. They both compellingly argue that policymakers and military leaders must either understand culture's impact on military matters or face the regrettable consequences of their ignorance. APPROACHING TECHNOLOGY In The Culture of Military Innovation, Adamsky, a fellow at the National Security Studies Program at Harvard, argues that strategic culture has a significant impact on internal military innovation and doctrine. By "strategic culture," Adamsky means shared beliefs and behaviors among militaries -- derived from common experiences and historical narratives -- that shape identities, influence relationships, and affect the manner in which armed forces define and achieve their security objectives. Adamsky analyzes the strategic cultures of the Russian, U.S., and Israeli militaries to explain why the information- and precision-based revolution in military affairs (RMA) -- the marriage of precision-guided munitions and advanced intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems in warfare -- developed uniquely in each of the three countries, yielding different solutions to similar operational challenges. Adamsky argues, for example, that a nation's strategic culture plays a major role in how its military leaders process information and develop new theories of warfare. Technological changes do not revolutionize warfare by themselves; this happens, according to Adamsky, only after militaries create new organizational structures to integrate the technology into new doctrine. Culture, Adamsky contends, affects how such structures and doctrines are created. The Soviet military was the first to foresee the transformative impact of the information technology revolution on war. Soviet military leaders in the 1970s theorized about the implications of precision-guided munitions and classified them as part of an emerging "military-technical revolution." Russian strategic culture, which, according to Adamsky, inclines toward a holistic examination of issues and therefore tends to promote the big picture over technical details, undoubtedly helped Soviet military leaders conceptualize new operational methods based on precision-guided munitions; improved command-and-control capabilities; and advanced intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems, despite the fact that the Soviet Union lacked the capability to produce the needed armaments to realize those methods in practice. The Soviets were more successful than the U.S. and Israeli militaries in conceiving the military-technical revolution because they placed the emerging technology firmly within the context of Soviet deep battle theory, in which the Red Army executed incursions by armored forces, supported by airpower, deep into enemy rear positions to disrupt command and control, hamper logistics, and destroy enemy forces in massive encirclements. The Red Army implemented this innovative operational theory of war in the drive to Berlin from 1943 to 1945, the greatest land campaign in the history of war. Deep battle theory gave Soviet military leaders a historical and cultural lens through which to examine the application of new technologies on the modern battlefield, which facilitated their ability to incorporate precision-guided munitions and advanced intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems into a new operational theory of warfare in the 1970s. Meanwhile, the U.S. military, which had pioneered much of the research into precision-guided munitions, failed to look beyond the technological implementation and tactical integration of the new weapons to their more important operational and strategic implications. U.S. military doctrine in the 1970s emphasized engaging enemy forces on the frontlines rather than in depth and ignored the broader implications of new weapons (such as laser-guided munitions) that were just coming into service. Only later did American military leaders understand that the new weapons would allow U.S. forces to disrupt enemy formations in depth, thereby extending the battlefield in time and space. For Adamsky, the culprit is strategic culture: the U.S. military's penchant for using massive firepower to annihilate its enemies stood in the way of its ability to think more holistically about the art of operations. This infatuation with technology for technology's sake resulted in a focus on tactical details rather than strategic and operational design, a flaw in American military thinking dating back to World War II. The U.S. military only came to understand the revolutionary potential of its new weapons after the Gulf War, an engagement in which a relatively small number of precision-guided munitions and stealth platforms inflicted the majority of the damage on Iraqi forces. By then, ironically, the information- and precision-based RMA was already largely consummated, and its implications had become clear to even the most casual observers. As Adamsky notes, the U.S. military's technological determinism endured through the 1990s, a cultural bias that I experienced before and after the invasion of Iraq in 2003. STRATEGY, PAST AND FUTURE Like the U.S. military, Adamsky writes, the Israel Defense Forces were quick to adopt precision weaponry and advanced command-and-control, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance systems but slow to change their doctrine to account for them. The Israeli military's strategic culture aimed to win wars rapidly by offensive maneuver, an outlook shaped by its short clashes in 1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973. The IDF has had much more difficulty waging extended conflicts, such as the War of Attrition along the Suez Canal in the late 1960s, the two Palestinian intifadas, and the war in Lebanon from 1982 to 2000. Much like the United States, Israel has viewed technology as a panacea to solve its strategic dilemmas and has failed to develop viable operational concepts to fight protracted battles against unconventional enemies, such as Hamas and Hezbollah. The pressing realities of a nation under siege have caused Israeli military leaders to focus on immediate problems rather than long-term strategic thinking. Their traditional reliance on improvisation, along with their reticence to create doctrine, made it difficult for the IDF to grasp RMA concepts. Without a solid grounding in military theory and history, Adamsky contends, the IDF officer corps became thoroughly bewildered by reforms in the early years of this century. A group of innovation-minded RMA advocates, supported by a series of Israeli army chiefs of staff, beginning with Moshe Yaalon in 2002 and culminating with Dan Halutz in 2005, used postmodern language and theories disconnected from Israeli military traditions to incorporate new concepts, such as effects-based operations (targeting components of a military system to disrupt the enemy, rather than destroying enemy forces for the sake of attrition) and systemic operational design (applying systems theory to translate strategic direction into combat designs), into Israeli military thinking. The resulting confusion contributed to increased casualties during the 2006 war in Lebanon, not to mention Hezbollah's strategic victory. Leaping into the future without a grounding in the past led to serious consequences for the IDF, which is still recovering today. EDUCATION IN THE FRAY Adamsky argues that differences in strategic culture also manifest themselves in national approaches to intellectual creativity and different levels of receptiveness to formal (classroom) versus experiential (field) learning. He states that societies with logical-analytic (inductive) cognitive styles -- in his view, most Western societies -- have a more difficult time recognizing emerging discontinuities in warfare than societies with holistic-dialectical (deductive) modes of reasoning, among which Adamsky lists Asian, Latin American, and Russian societies. By "discontinuities in warfare," he means fundamental evolutions of militaries and their approaches to combat, often prompted by important technological innovations, such as the introduction of the machine gun, the tank, and aircraft in World War I, each of which altered military operations on all sides and changed the course of the war. Yet these technologies did not fundamentally reshape the battlefield until combatants understood their full potential and integrated them into new military doctrine and organizations. Holistic-dialectical thought, according to Adamsky, is better suited to anticipating such discontinuities and so to developing new strategies to utilize them. Logical-analytic thought, meanwhile, lends itself to scientific experimentation and technological progress, but less so to incorporating that progress into broader strategic approaches. In Adamsky's view, then, societies based on holistic-dialectical thought should be better at creating new theories of war fighting. But his evidence for this assertion is based solely on the RMA example, which occurred in the late twentieth century. His theory cannot explain, for example, why western European states (with supposedly inductive modes of reasoning) were the first to understand the revolutionary implications of gunpowder technology during the early modern era, rather than China or Japan (which exhibit, in Adamsky's view, deductive modes of reasoning). Although this portion of his argument remains dubious, Adamsky is correct in noting that both the U.S. military and the IDF promote tactically competent problem solvers at the expense of cultivating military intellectuals. It is no wonder, then, that most RMA concepts originated in the Soviet Union or in civilian-run think tanks in the United States. Anti-intellectualism and an unwillingness to read and learn from history broadly characterize the officer corps of both the United States and Israel; U.S. and Israeli military leaders are far more likely to rely on personal experience than education in shaping their views of war. The lack of intellectual rigor in U.S. and Israeli professional military educational institutions is a symptom of this culture. Adamsky admits that he is more interested in the process of doctrinal change than in the efficacy of the final result. But change for its own sake is not inherently beneficial. He stresses the need to recognize discontinuities in the ways and means of fighting so as to prepare for the next war rather than the last one. But a closer reading of the historical record shows that truly effective military innovation is thoroughly grounded in the past. Innovation that has not been tied to responding to a real enemy and a discrete set of military challenges has all too often caused armed forces to waste precious time and resources. By 2001, for example, the U.S. military was well on its way to perfecting an information- and precision-based RMA perfectly suited to fighting itself -- a concept based on engaging a mirror-image enemy rather than a real one. Recognition of discontinuities is fine, provided it does not lead to a blind leap into the future without consideration of the past and the present. By the beginning of the last decade, the U.S. military's long-standing reliance on technological solutions to tactical and operational challenges had left it with a dearth of strategic thinking. Its trust in the concept of rapid, decisive operations nearly led the United States and its allies to defeat in Afghanistan and Iraq. In the absence of an organizational culture that valued intellectual creativity, the twenty-first-century U.S. Army operated, conceptually speaking, much like the early-twentieth-century German army -- a tactically brilliant force that lost two world wars because it failed to think strategically. "We hack a hole [in the front]," the German general Erich Ludendorff famously said of the 1918 spring offensives on the western front during World War I. "The rest comes on its own." Total German defeat followed after the tactical successes of the 1918 spring offensives fizzled and U.S. forces began to arrive in France in greater numbers. The blitz on Baghdad in the spring of 2003 -- with its emphasis on military success alone, absent a supportive political context both internationally and within Iraq -- had an eerily similar strategic underpinning. If anything, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have shown that despite what Adamsky argues, the information- and precision-based RMA has not "completely changed the combat environment." These campaigns, as well as Israel's ill-fated incursion into Lebanon in 2006, have illustrated the fallacies inherent in the effects-based approach to military operations, with its emphasis on precision targeting of enemy systems at the expense of a fuller understanding of the nature of the battle. This "high-tech, low [troop] numbers" operational approach has neither been validated by these wars nor proved suitable to counterinsurgency campaigns. The Red Army did not lose in Afghanistan in the 1980s because of its inability "to cope with the military-technological realities brought about by the MTR [military-technical revolution]," as Adamsky claims, but because it could not wage and win an old-fashioned counterinsurgency struggle against the mujahideen, who were supported by a coalition of Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and the United States. Despite the fact that the information- and precision-based RMA has not completely revolutionized all warfare, Adamsky properly recognizes strategic culture as a major factor in military innovation. The U.S. military eventually learned valuable lessons regarding counterinsurgency warfare in Iraq, lessons it put to good use in 2007 and 2008 when its strategic approach started to prioritize protecting the Iraqi people over targeting insurgent and terrorist operatives. U.S. military doctrine now clearly recognizes the need for organizational learning in counterinsurgency warfare, although it remains to be seen whether this new openness to adaptation will endure. COMPLEXITIES OF COOPERATION Just as culture affects how a given military organization conducts its internal affairs, it also influences its external relations with allies. In Beer, Bacon, and Bullets, Luft, a veteran of the IDF, describes how cultural variances among militaries can inhibit the effectiveness of coalitions during war. The subject is far from esoteric, for recent conflicts such as the Gulf War and the wars in Bosnia, Afghanistan, and Iraq have all required significant collaboration between allied forces, and coalition warfare will continue to be the norm in the twenty-first century. To answer how militaries from different nations and societies cooperate, Luft analyzes five instances in which Western armies operated in close alliance with non-Western allies. He first explores the German-Ottoman alliance during World War I, arguing that a shortage of cultural awareness and understanding severely weakened the coalition. The German military mission, staffed with a largely homogenous Prussian officer corps that lacked exposure to other peoples, alienated its Turkish allies through an attitude of cultural superiority and heavy-handed treatment. Kaiser Wilhelm II's misunderstanding of Islam led him to encourage the Turkish elite to call for a jihad against Christians, with the aim of energizing the Ottoman war effort against France, Russia, and the United Kingdom. The declaration had little of the intended effect, but instead spurred massive religious persecution within the Ottoman Empire and atrocities against Christian Armenians and Syrians. The lesson here, according to Luft, is simple -- leaders should be wary of trying to manipulate cultural sensitivities that they do not fully understand. Luft's next case, the United Kingdom's alliance with Japan during World War I, is an example of a successful partnership based on shared cultural understanding. British military leaders, who had inherited from their country's imperial experience a long tradition of cross-cultural communication, were well equipped to coordinate operations with their Japanese allies against German forces on the Shandong Peninsula in 1914. The Japanese commander, Lieutenant General Mitsuomi Kamio, spoke excellent English and cooperated closely with his British counterpart, the gracious brigadier general Nathaniel Barnardiston. Mutual respect at the top produced good relations, which was especially important since British troops served under Japanese command. As both this example and the rest of Luft's book make clear, to understand foreign militaries, one needs to view them through the prism of their cultures, not one's own. Luft's account of the ties between U.S. forces and the Nationalist Chinese army during World War II is a case in point. Padding unit counts with extra "ghost" soldiers who do not in fact exist, demanding kickbacks for services, and even selling intelligence to the enemy were commonplace in the Chinese army and often undermined its combat performance. American officers in China balked at the corruption and refused to play along, leading to a great deal of friction between the allies and, ultimately, a failure to defeat the Imperial Japanese Army on the Asian mainland. Senior military officials need to work with their foreign counterparts rather than attempt to impose their ways on them by fiat. The Gulf War proved that militaries of radically different cultures can work well together. The coalition commander, U.S. General Norman Schwarzkopf, diligently tried to comply with the cultural values of his Saudi hosts by ordering his troops to refrain from consuming alcohol or viewing pornography, from holding public religious services, and from fraternizing with the locals. The Americans' respect for cultural, ethnic, and racial diversity went a long way toward limiting potential sources of friction. For their part, the Saudis relaxed a few of their more stringent laws to accommodate the coalition's military needs: for example, they allowed female soldiers to drive military vehicles on Saudi roads. Military training and education also played a role in bettering relations between the allies. The Saudi military commander, General Khaled bin Sultan, had attended the U.S. Army Air Defense Artillery School, the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, and the Air War College. My experience in Iraq bore out the lessons that Luft highlights. U.S. military relations with such coalition partners as the Polish contingent were vastly improved by a common professional military education, shared training experiences in Europe, and a standardized NATO doctrine. The chief of staff of the Polish brigade in Karbala, with which my brigade collaborated in combat operations in the spring of 2004, was a graduate of the U.S. Army War College. His ability to understand U.S. military operations went a long way toward smoothing relations between our forces. Likewise, Australian and British military officers integrated seamlessly into the Multi-National Force-Iraq headquarters. As the U.S. military will undoubtedly fight alongside allies in the future, enhancing opportunities for the professional military education of U.S. officers in foreign schools and of foreign officers in U.S. military institutions is a crucial low-cost, high-payoff activity. THE CULTURE CHARGE Culture is undoubtedly a key determinant in the evolution of military affairs. It underpins military effectiveness and the ability to create operational doctrine, and it is also a major factor in managing relations between allies. Culture is also important because it helps explain the worldview and motivations of one's potential adversaries. As the two decades since the end of the Cold War have shown, military and political leaders ignore the impact of culture on military affairs at their peril. The U.S. military should enhance the education of its midgrade and senior leaders accordingly and take intellectual capability into greater account in promotion decisions. As the U.S. military selects its next generation of senior leaders, it would do well to keep in mind T. E. Lawrence's contention that "irregular war is far more intellectual than a bayonet charge." Embracing that concept is a cultural shift worth contemplating.