The Army Teaches American Culture to Americans

Sorry for my absence over the last week. Mr. EW and I drove to South Carolina to visit his family. I had thought I’d get posting time. It didn’t work out that way.

Profuse thanks to Jim White and bmaz for watching the shop while I was gone.

While I was in SC, I read this Secrecy News piece about the cultural literacy flash cards the Army had developed for soldiers serving in Afghanistan.

These cards can be used in many different ways, but they are designed as ―fillers‖ to be taken out of your ACU pocket and used between tasks or waiting for the next training to begin. Soldiers must understand how vital culture is in accom-plishing today’s missions. Military personnel who have a superficial or even dis-torted picture of a host culture make enemies for the United States. Each Soldier must be a culturally literate ambassador, aware and observant of local cultural be-liefs, values, behaviors and norms.

I was interested in the cards because I’ve had several conversations with fans of CounterInsurgency doctrine. Repeatedly, I’ve argued the US is never going to be good at COIN, because Americans generally–and a good proportion of grunt recruits more specifically–are too parochial to be able to execute COIN, which requires a fairly acute sensitivity to culture. Hell, we don’t even learn other languages–not even Spanish, which is virtually a second language in this country. So I was curious about how the Army tried to overcome this parochialism.

The cards struggle to explain what culture is, generally.

Humans are biologically equipped to create and use culture. Culture is all knowl-edge passed from one generation to another. Culture can be divided into symbolic culture and material culture. Symbolic culture is all of a group’s ideas, symbols and languages. Material culture is tools, clothing, houses and other things that people make or use. It is all human inventions: from stone tools to spacecraft.
[Critical Thinking: What kinds of culture do we take for granted in everyday life?] [brackets and emphasis original]

Having tried to get honors college freshman to understand culture, I get that this is a tough concept for relatively sheltered young adults to understand. The cards, curiously, didn’t ask readers to do what has worked for me in the past–a straight inventory of differences between one’s own culture and that of others. Rather, it spent pages laying out Afghan culture (without, IMO, distinguishing sufficiently between Pashtun and other Afghan cultures). And then included one page (see page 31) describing what the card authors believe American culture to be. Here’s how the cards describe “the characteristics of American Culture”:

  • Fast-paced.
  • Punctuality.
  • Women’s rights.
  • Egalitarian, belief in equal opportunity; not outcomes.
  • Goal-oriented.
  • Individualism.
  • Pragmatism.
  • Tolerance.
  • Separation of church and state.
  • Value work and personal success.
  • Love of technology.

Now, to be fair, the military generally is one of the most egalitarian institutions left in our increasingly unequal country. So I don’t blame whatever contractor the Army inadvisedly picked to write these cards for claiming the US still is egalitarian.

But “women’s rights”? “Separation of church and state”? “Tolerance”?

Maybe I found these assertions to be all the more laughable because I read them in SC–not known for either its commitment to women’s rights or tolerance.

But if you want to point to one reason why we’ll never succeed at COIN, you can look to the military’s institutional misunderstanding of who we Americans are.

Marcy Wheeler is an independent journalist writing about national security and civil liberties. She writes as emptywheel at her eponymous blog, publishes at outlets including Vice, Motherboard, the Nation, the Atlantic, Al Jazeera, and appears frequently on television and radio. She is the author of Anatomy of Deceit, a primer on the CIA leak investigation, and liveblogged the Scooter Libby trial.

Marcy has a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she researched the “feuilleton,” a short conversational newspaper form that has proven important in times of heightened censorship. Before and after her time in academics, Marcy provided documentation consulting for corporations in the auto, tech, and energy industries. She lives with her spouse in Grand Rapids, MI.

20 replies
  1. Sparkles the Iguana says:

    Well, they got “individualism” right at least. And love of technology. Egalitarian, I don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

  2. Sparkles the Iguana says:

    I’m making up my own cards to carry around with me, in case I get kidnapped by Somali pirates or something.

    Superficial
    Short-sighted
    Ignorant of much
    Short attention-spanned
    Tramp Stamped

  3. MadDog says:

    …Now, to be fair, the military generally is one of the most egalitarian institutions left in our increasingly unequal country. So I don’t blame whatever contractor the Army inadvisedly picked to write these cards for claiming the US still is egalitarian.

    But “women’s rights”? “Separation of church and state”? “Tolerance”?

    Whoever put this together for the Army sounds awfully liberal. Ain’t no way it was put together by today’s Repugs or conservatives.

    My take on what today’s Repug or consevative would say instead:

    Fast-paced Lazy and always procrastinates.
    Punctuality Always late.
    Women’s rights A true Constitutionalist (unmodified by silly amendments) knows that women can’t vote and shouldn’t be allowed to have money.
    Egalitarian, belief in equal opportunity; not outcomes Believes in equal opportunity for themselves but no one else.
    Goal-oriented Fantasy-oriented.
    Individualism Group-think.
    Pragmatism Irrational.
    Tolerance Intolerant.
    Separation of church and state The state must defer to the Bible.
    Value work and personal success Avoids work and doesn’t care about success unless it means more money.
    Love of technology Loves only technology that gives a meth-like buzz, more blood and gore, or more access to porn.

  4. Bustednuckles says:

    Hmm, nothing about it being OK to murder abortion providers, shoot peaceful protesters in the face with a skull breaking bean bag, alright for giant corporations to secretly deliver untold millions of dollars to influence national elections, let war criminals run at large or let entire financial industries to defraud millions of citizens.

    Create an entirely new national security department out of thin air with the power to strip search citizens on a whim, including young children, seize their electronic devices at the border without a warrant and not have to give them back for six months or longer, can seize a persons money at the border and not have to give it back, ever?
    Are we talking about the same country who thinks it is just peachy to use SWAT teams to deliver a summons to court,after they blow the door off a person who is three blocks away from the address on the summons and shoot to death that person for trying to defend their loved ones from a perceived home invasion?
    You talking about THAT Amerika?

    Because I am.

    Are you sure they weren’t talking about Pakistan,Iran or some other autocratic state instead of Amerika?

  5. rosalind says:

    “separation of church & state”???!!!

    uh toh, the Air Force Academy is gonna bust a death drone on da army’s ass…

  6. emptywheel says:

    @MadDog: I’m imagining they got some PhD Anthro folks to do it. And most of THEM are tolerant. But that’s not America.

    I’m hoping Bob Schacht shows up, as this is his expertise.

  7. RobSWFL says:

    The Army paid someone to write this? There should be a huge refund coming to the Army BUT the person who originated the Contract AND the person who signed as approving the completion of said contract should be arrested for fraud as well as dereliction of said duty.

  8. Phil Perspective says:

    It’s OT, but a very interesting movie was on tonight, even though it is already six years old. And it covered a topic that is somewhat talked about here. It was Lord of War.

  9. WilliamOckham says:

    I think what this conversation is getting at is the difference between what we tell ourselves our culture is and what it really is. Conservatives are much more likely to think that this list from the Army describes our culture than liberals are.

    Egalitarian, belief in equal opportunity; not outcomes.

    That’s the rallying cry of the 1%. At least the ones that think that they are the 1% because they are smarter than everyone else.

  10. emptywheel says:

    @WilliamOckham: I don’t agree entirely. A good many conservatives would object to the separation of church and state comment, for example.

    This is what our culture is supposed to be. Not what it is.

  11. orionATL says:

    not only is south carolina laughably backwards with respect to traditional american political values,

    but at least a plurality of the citizenry fervently believe themselves to be behaving in concert with those values,

    this peculiar delusional brand of right-wing claptrap acquires strong support from south carolina’s large base of military retirees and military families – the anti-democratic face of the american line-officer and enlisted careerist.

  12. WilliamOckham says:

    @emptywheel: I don’t think they would. The religious conservatives believe that we do have separation of church and state, but we shouldn’t. I really do think that most Americans, but especially more conservative ones, would agree that this list describes our culture even if they would like to change one or more of these things.

    I look at that list and see the exact things that the Texas public schools teach about American culture.

  13. earlofhuntingdon says:

    The Army’s list of attributes does not distinguish between aspirations or self-beliefs and reality. I wonder if, like its other programs, that is because the Army’s “experts” on this subject lack backgrounds in culture and cross-cultural studies

    “Michigan State is the dominant force in state football,” might reflect the aspirations of those who wear green and white, but not be an accurate description of the cultural milieu in southern Michigan or of the relative competitiveness of MSU compared to its in-state rivals.

    The Army might have had more luck had it started with a discussion of the Army’s culture – something all soldiers would have knowledge or opinions about – then compared it to other American subcultures. That would have introduced the terms and concepts, and made it easier to explore a completely foreign culture. Which makes us ask whether this program seriously aspires to inform the troops or whether its principal aim is to inculcate myths about American culture and the uniformity with which its main tenets are held.

  14. Bob Schacht says:

    @emptywheel:
    Well, OK, here I am. This looks like someone’s attempt to create some cliffs notes for the first month of Anthropology 101, without really doing much research. I applaud the effort, however. Can you imagine this being produced by the Rumsfeld DOD?

    The article you link to actually has some pretty interesting questions in the opening paragraphs, and there are 36 or so “flash cards” on a wide range of subjects.

    The most recent Anthropology class I taught was an intro to cultural anthropology for incoming freshmen– I had about 80 students in the class. They were probably a tad more educated than your basic army recruit, but in both there is a wide range of attitudes and knowledge of other cultures. What these flash cards do is to start the process of opening up the minds of greenhorn troops to the world of culture. But what is missing (did I miss it?) was any suggestion of discussing the points made in these flash cards with others in their unit. Each platoon using these cards should be having a debriefing session at least once a week to discuss how their experiences compare to the flashcards, pro or con.

    Personally, I’m in favor of the Richard Burton school of spycraft, which includes carefully observing what the natives wear, what symbolic meaning different items of clothing indicate, developing one’s own wardrobe so as to “blend in,” all the while learning the local language dialect and culture, while spending time away from other Americans and with local people. There are now certain branches of our military (JSOC?) that do this rather more than the typical army grunt.

    As for the “the characteristics of American Culture,” those are mainly part of the American Mythos, and part of what you are objecting to is to contrast these with American praxis, which can be pretty ugly. Equality is written into our foundational documents as an ideal (with the unspoken exception of women, slaves, and Native Americans), and gradually, the power of the mythos is prevailing over the praxis.

    These flash cards are perhaps also meant to bring some cultural perspective into what, without the flash cards, quickly descends into stereotypes, bigotry and racism (e.g. using the term “ragheads” to describe the locals).

    So I’m a bit more inclined to regard these flashcards as a step in the right direction. I hope they are doing post-hoc evaluations about each one of the flash cards to see which proved most useful, and which were not useful. I also need to examine all of the cards in more detail.

    We need to remember who the target audience is.

    Bob in AZ

  15. Jeff Kaye says:

    Repeatedly, I’ve argued the US is never going to be good at COIN, because Americans generally–and a good proportion of grunt recruits more specifically–are too parochial to be able to execute COIN, which requires a fairly acute sensitivity to culture.

    Can you give a good example of who is “good at COIN”?

    Counterinsurgency is aimed at imperialist control of another country. It is a colonial or imperialist doctrine of intervention, and almost always coupled with other forms of aggressive intervention. COIN is a joke. It can never be anything other than a cover for imperialist control.

    Winning the “hearts and minds” of the people was also the “strategy” in Vietnam. But there, as in Afghanistan today, the project is subservient to overall military and intelligence goals. While they were building schools in Vietnam, they were executing tens of thousands in the Phoenix prisons. In Afghanistan, while they build roads or schools, those roads are meant for military transport, and even if the schools are well-meaning, the children who get to sit in one are by definition not the children killed elsewhere by drones, or whose parents are tortured in Afghan jails.

    In that sense, I’m afraid your criticism of COIN misses the mark, in my opinion, because there’s no goal that one can reach. Even if you found a list of attributes about U.S. society that met your approval, it wouldn’t change the reality of U.S. intervention in Afghanistan, or its purposes, one whit.

  16. Bob Schacht says:

    @Jeff Kaye: You make a good point. So, to take in my long comment, even if the flash cards were the best anthropology can offer, they would still amount to a tool of an imperialist occupation, and that successful flashcards would just enhance the effectiveness of the occupation.

    I prefer the “Three Cups of Tea” approach, with security being provided by local Afghans rather than Americans with flash cards, machine guns, armored vehicles, and air support.

    Bob in AZ

  17. klynn says:

    I cannot begin to address any of this due to my anger over the practice. As a cross-cultural mediator, I cannot tell you how ineffective cultural “flash cards” are for trying to instill cultural understanding and sensitivity.

    Thanks for the post. I ah no idea this was even happening.

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