The Rise and Decline of U.S. Military Culture Programs, 2004–20

  • Published

The Rise and Decline of U.S. Military Culture Programs, 2004–20 edited by Kerry B. Fosher and Lauren Mackenzie. Marine Corps University Press, 2021, 272 pp. 

While the chaotic nature of America's retreat in Afghanistan may have surprised many, the outcome of America's latest, longest war surprised few. Indeed, scores of military and defense intellectuals long predicted America's defeat.

Accordingly, the American military’s performance in the Hindu Kush will likely be scrutinized and debated for decades, much like its last humiliating retreat in Vietnam. Undoubtedly, part of the scrutiny will focus on the US military’s partnership with its Afghan allies. Judging from preliminary reports after America’s defeat, the feedback will almost certainly be excoriating.

Future historians will find Dr. Kerry Fosher and Dr. Lauren Mackenzie's The Rise and Decline of U.S. Military Culture Programs, 2004-20, an excellent primary source in its Afghanist War—and overall Global War on Terrorism—analysis.

These two Marine Corps University professors edited a wonderful collection of 10 essays chronicling the Department of Defense's refound interest in culture and its harried attempts to stand up programs to educate its servicemembers. The results were predictable: quick infusions of large amounts of cash without much thought into objective standards of success or long-term planning. Nevertheless, many of these programs endure, like the Air Force Culture and Language Center in Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, hinting at a possible lasting, albeit much reduced, interest in culture.[1]

Having spent nearly four years in Iraq and Afghanistan, as an AfPak hand, an advisor, and a foreign area officer, I participated in many of these programs. Many of these programs made the mistakes highlighted in this excellent book—mistaking language proficiency for cultural agility, teaching culture as a PowerPoint seminar, and oversimplifying ethnic divisions as universal (e.g., Tajiks do not like Pashtuns).

The anthology's first essay, Big Battles, Small Victories: Personal Experience in Culture Wars by Ben Connable, is one of the book’s finest. The retired Marine field artillery officer and intelligence officer describes the herculean effort trying to imbibe the Department of Defense with cultural acuity from a completely blank slate. Prophetically, Connable was an early critic of the Army's controversial Human Terrain System (HTS). Not only was the HTS a lousy investment, as Connable points out, but it also was largely ignored in the field. The HTS teams I worked with in Afghanistan produced reams of reports that Army commanders regularly discarded. Instead, they focused on high-value individual hunting and maneuver to contact missions. Regardless of the Department of Defense’s reluctance to fully accept their efforts' importance, Connable astutely notes that the endurance of these programs is a testament to the success of the overall effort.

Four of the 10 essays in the book come from professors who provide a first-hand account of their struggles—and successes—teaching cultural competence to servicemembers. From struggling to navigate the military's strange fixation with acronyms to being astounded that even Army Special Operations Forces struggled with cross-cultural communication, these essays underscore many challenges that academics face when working with military students.

These often-humorous essays underscore the overall intent of the book: to provide a historical reference point for future practitioners when the Department of Defense inevitably stumbles upon the importance of culture as it did previously during Vietnam.

Further, these essays underscore the Department of Defense’s schizophrenic nature as it bounces from one shiny object (cultural competency) to another (third offset) at a moment's notice. As almost every author underscores: cultural competence takes time and patience, especially in a career field that often looks down upon such "soft" traits. Indeed, this book is nothing if not a historical marker for the Defense Department’s bygone flirtation with culture as the elixir for its incompetence in Iraq and Afghanistan. The irony, of course, is that many of these authors have proven their bona fides in cross-culture communication by learning the military's own strange culture, which varies from service to service and career field to career field. Nevertheless, the standard "all metrics are green" teaching objectives overtook their pragmatic advice on ingraining culture muscle memory into the force.

Despite the book's overall worth, it could have been stronger if they incorporated some students’ perspectives from the field. Essays from air advisors, AfPak hands, and female engagement team members would have helped future practitioners, too. Moreover, these essays could've added heft to the need to keep culture on the Defense Department’s radar screen. While culture is unlikely to rise to its population-centric counterinsurgency era heyday, it is still a vital topic despite the rise of great power competition. Cultural competency, especially with allied partners, will be pivotal as the department seeks to arrest China’s irredentist ambitions in the South China Sea. NATO’s ability to buttress Ukraine’s heroic stand against Russia's revanchist and imperialistic war is a testament to culture’s lasting importance in war and international affairs.

Despite its few missed at-bats, this collection of essays provides a road map for future officers and bureaucrats for resurrecting culture from its diminutive current standing. Moreover, it shows that the current culture programs acted as an effective bulwark against culture's complete disintegration from the Defense Department’s intellectual repertoire. One does not have to squint too far into the future to see a moment where a beleaguered staff officer stumbles upon this book after being tasked with helping the department improve upon its "squishy" culture skills—yet again.

Will Selber

[1] Kerry B. Fosher and Lauren Mackenzie, eds., The Rise and Decline of U.S. Military Culture Programs 2004-20 (Quantico, VA: Marine Corps University Press. 2021).

"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."