Military Cultures in Peace and Stability Operations: Afghanistan and Lebanon

  • Published

Military Cultures in Peace and Stability Operations: Afghanistan and Lebanon by Chiara Ruffa. University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018, 204 pp. 

In her concise but intriguing Military Cultures in Peace and Stability Operations: Afghanistan and Lebanon, Chiara Ruffa insists that military culture explains key differences in how various countries undertake peacekeeping. To do so, she takes a highly interdisciplinary approach, blending both history and political science as well as security and peace studies. Ruffa is a senior lecturer in the Swedish Defence University’s Department of Security, Strategy, and Leadership.

Based on more than nine months of field research in both Afghanistan and Lebanon to test her theory in multiple settings, Ruffa uses qualitative and quantitative evidence to illuminate her study of French and Italian peacekeepers. The bulk of her evidence consists of more than 160 interviews lasting about an hour each (p. 132). She draws from that pool of evidence restrictively, seeking to make conclusions only when they reflect the ideas of more than three different soldiers of various ranks while also coinciding with her own observations (p. 7).

Ruffa begins by exploring the changing military culture of each nation in the twentieth century, paying particular attention to how civil-military relations and domestic perceptions of military force shaped key trends. For Italy, this evolution has resulted in an institutional culture that celebrates the idea of its soldiers being “good people (p. 49),” which manifests itself in the urge to conduct humanitarian missions. This idea arose even before World War I, although it intensified after World War II when the Army needed to improve its external image. By contrast, French military culture is characterized far more by aggressiveness, which reflects French society’s position in Europe as the foremost advocate of military force (p. 56). Over time, this idea of boldness came to be reined in somewhat with the new notion of assertive control, which helped to retain domestic support (p. 58). Ruffa also briefly explores variations within different units to provide a more sophisticated examination of military culture.

Ruffa’s analysis reveals how French and Italian peacekeepers adhered to their respective institutional cultures first in Lebanon and then in Afghanistan. In other words, in two different settings, French soldiers acted more aggressively while Italians dedicated themselves primarily to humanitarianism. When such a wide range of western and nonwestern nations is engaged in peacekeeping (The choice of such similar nations might appear to narrow the study’s findings), it is precisely those areas of significant overlap, however, that help her to craft a compelling case for how greatly military culture shapes behavior at the tactical level in peacekeeping missions, especially as both nations share much in terms of North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) training and doctrine as well as western values.

Other similarities in these missions further reduce the number of independent variables. In both Lebanon and Afghanistan, for example, the two nations deployed similar numbers of troops, used comparable equipment, and adhered to the same mandate and rules of engagement (p. 68). Yet major differences existed in perspective between the French in Lebanon, which had a more adversarial mentality in expecting and perceiving a threatening environment, and the Italians, who demonstrated far greater “cultural awareness and neutrality (p. 74).”

This culture manifested itself in specific ways. The French, for example, participated in about 27 patrols per day in tanks and armored vehicles while the Italians did about 15 and never used tanks (pp. 75–76). Instead, the Italians grasped any opportunity to engage with the local population, including teaching Italian and deploying veterinarians to help farmers (pp. 79–80). The French, by contrast, believed that these activities should occupy the smallest proportion of their efforts (p. 79).

Ruffa found similar patterns in Afghanistan, where peacekeeping participants adhere to more restrictive NATO regulations (p. 90). Still, it is important to note that Ruffa asserts—albeit without citing any specific evidence—that the organizing entities, such as the United Nations, generally took a very laissez-faire approach to individual nations’ peacekeeping participation in both Lebanon and Afghanistan. The autonomy they have at the tactical level, then, reinforces her insistence that culture matters (pp. 77, 105). 

Again, few variables differentiated Italian and French missions in Afghanistan. Indeed, owing to more perilous security conditions, the Italians brought tanks, resulting in the key difference being the different geographical area assigned to each, although they both had a comparable threat level (pp. 94–95). But their participants continued to hold vastly different views of the situation. Interestingly, Italians believed they could discriminate between their opponents and the general population; moreover, they claimed this ability separated themselves from other nations’ soldiers (p. 96). Ruffa balances this type of qualitative analysis with quantitative analysis in some places. Fifty percent of Italian soldiers, for example, believed their role should result first and foremost in a stronger Afghan economy as opposed to 80 percent of French soldiers who believed NATO needed to concentrate on defeating the Taliban (p. 97). As such, 60 percent of French soldiers considered themselves to be warriors first and foremost; by contrast, only 8 percent of Italian soldiers held a similar view (p. 99). This manifested itself for the Italians, Ruffa contends, in a more “holistic, human” approach to patrolling (p. 107). Culture revealed itself, even in how the Italians and French approached security dogs. The French used leashed dogs to examine vehicles at base gates as opposed to the Italians, who made the detection of explosives into a game for their unleashed dogs (p. 108).

In terms of lessons to apply to current and future stability and peacekeeping operations, this work falls slightly short. Ruffa openly states that her conclusions must be considered carefully because her mostly qualitative evidence comes from a very short time span (pp 89, 116). Still, this book has great relevance for students of the US military’s conduct of insurgencies because it suggests how closely the nation needs to evaluate how its military culture shapes its peace and stability operations, and these insights have equal relevance for conventional operations (p. 127). Ultimately, Ruffa makes a compelling and eye-opening case for how differently the two nations approached their mission. But, while the reader might be convinced of the differences in peacekeepers’ behavior, the question remains how much culture matters in terms of peacekeeping’s effects. Moreover, if one nation offers a better peacekeeping model than the other, the follow-on question becomes how one institutionalizes this approach in the face of individual nations’ divergent military cultures.


Dr. Heather Venable
Maxwell AFB, Alabama

"The views expressed are those of the author(s) and do not reflect the official policy or position of the US government or the Department of Defense."