Small Wars Journal

Culture Wars

Culture Wars by Matthew Cancian, Modern War Institute

How can we study modern warfare through the lens of culture? Different armies fought in different ways for reasons that don’t look very rational without considering cultural context. The ritualized tribal warfare of twentieth-century New Guinea looks more like middle school dodgeball than battle to us, but it probably would have been very familiar to the Mycenaean Greeks of the Iliad. When different cultural systems collide, the results can be devastating to one side until it adapts: in the initial Mongol invasion of Japan in 1274 the samurai challenged the invaders to single combat, only to discover with disastrous results that the Mongols did not share their idea of what a battle was supposed to be. And this isn’t just a topic for military historians. Understanding how culture bounds the way we (and our enemies) think about warfare will help to ensure we’re on the winning side in future conflicts; better to be the marauding Mongols than the stupefied samurai, looking for a divine wind to save them from their lack of cross-cultural understanding…

Culture is a nebulous term that is always changing; it would be great to be able to talk about a uniform American culture or an unchanging Arab one, but alas, the world is more complicated than that. Changes in culture within the same society can lead to dramatic battlefield results: take, for example, the levee en masse. The cultural shift created by French Revolutionary ideals allowed France to mobilize a massive citizen army in the levee en masse; subscribing to different cultural ideals of traditional authority, the other European monarchies could not mobilize its subjects in the same way. The result was that the French could stave off the combined forces of the other European powers and even, under Napoleon, defeat them until they adopted similar reforms. If we didn’t understand that political culture impacts war fighting, we would be baffled as to why France, who had struggled for centuries to achieve hegemony in Europe, was suddenly able to do so. We would similarly be unable to understand why ISIS uses suicide bombing but the Kurds do not or how Russia has been able to prop up the Syrian regime. If we don’t recognize how culture influences why people fight, we won’t be able to recognize coming wars until it’s too late. And if we don’t see how cultures shape how people fight, we won’t be able to win those wars when they come.

Read on.