Small Wars Journal

Language & Culture Note #1: On the Gray Zone and the Space Between War and Peace

Sun, 05/07/2017 - 2:32pm

Language & Culture Note #1: On the Gray Zone and the Space Between War and Peace[i]

Why a label and its use obfuscates the most critical variable of social and cultural reality necessary for mission success.

Introduction - We Are Not in Kansas Anymore

On the evening of April 6, 2017, the Trump administration launched 59 Tomahawk missiles at an airfield in Syria for retribution to the latest chemical gas attack in Syria.[ii]  In the leadup to the imminent attack and the aftermath, the print media, blogs, television and social media responded with analysis, the most succinct coming from those in the “know,” highly placed members of Congress and former DoD talking heads. The consensus was it was a proportional strike, but just a first step in what should be a more elaborate multi-phased strategy in Syria, and the entire region. The enlightened also suggested that operations should include continuing or even increased humanitarian aid and crisis response and the hard work at building coalitions through diplomacy.  There was as well the resigned understanding that accelerated fighting will increase the flow of refugees, and the horrific images of the conflict will continue to assault our senses.  There was also a palatable understanding in the responses and discussion that the Syrian civilians and other ethnic groups in the  area were of primary importance to seeking an end state. 

Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF) and Operations Enduring Freedom (OEF) were the first large-scale counterinsurgency efforts the US had ever been involved in and created a very steep learning curve in missions seeded with non-kinetic and population-centric operations.  If OIF and OEF confronted the US military with undergraduate cross-cultural issues and needs, Syria today gives us a PhD lesson in the cross-cultural complexity that now confounds our involvement in areas around the world.  The evolution of how we now go to war, or perhaps, better, how war now fits into missions that always feature a complex web of social and cultural relations has brought us to this point in time.  We are not in Kansas anymore.

This essay, or “note”,[iii] will focus specifically on the utility or lack of utility of using mission-centric labels, such as gray zone, in conceptualizing and operationalizing mission “space,” place and activity.  Bottom-line, there are all sorts of dangers of using comfortable concepts, labels and approaches to define and discern intent and motivation in behaviors of others.  We may not be in Kansas anymore, but are we in our deployments around the world really in a human domain or gray zone?

This “note” and future notes will also more generally consider the importance of being able to define, understand, and appreciate social and cultural realities of an array of actors that are a part of complicated and convoluted situations like Syria.  The background for these “notes” comes from some of my recent research and publications on cross-cultural complexity,[iv]

  • Cross-Cultural Competence for a 21st Century Military: the Flipside of COIN (R. G Sands & A. Greene-Sands, 2014);
  • “Thinking Differently: Unlocking the Human Domain in Support of the 21st Century Intelligence Mission” (R.G. Sands, 2013);
  • “Culture Clash” (R. G. Sands, 2015);
  • Assessing SOF LRC Needs: Leveraging Digital and LRC Learning to Reroute the “Roadmap” from Human Terrain to Human Domain (R. G. Sands, 2016), a Joint Special Operations University (JSOU) monograph on promoting a learning program for SOF that can provide transferable culture-general knowledge and skill-based competencies:
  • Channeling Malinowski: Advancing SOF Cultural Engagement through Qualitative Approaches, a forthcoming monograph I am co-authoring with Darby Arakelian on the need to organically develop a qualitative approach and methods in SOF to better facilitate a deeper and critically-engaged understanding of social and cultural reality of all involved in missions, even SOF themselves. 

The latter monograph suggests that accessing the many different social and cultural realities is critical to establishing strategy and building relationships, as well as is critical to building local and regional intelligence,  a large component of forecasting future behavior and essential to influencing behavior.    

This note and the “notes” to follow will feature perspectives and offer commentary that rests on the importance of the critical need to radically re-frame how the DoD goes about doing language and culture learning.  What we need to know and do to be successful in Syria or other places demands a greater emphasis on theoretically-informed and pedagogically-sound language and culture programs.  This includes development of an organic capability that allows a more nuanced understanding of what drives and motivates behaviors of others, and us, and the appreciation that current and future missions require a deeper and more involved approach to language and culture than what is offered now, even to populations like SOF.  This approach also is critical to the recent plan by the US Army to develop six brigades to do counterinsurgency efforts.[v]

Clash of Cultures

There seems to be community agreement across the military and civilian spectrum - in policy and doctrine, in think tank assessments, in leaders’ publications and op-ed writers alike - that what used to be considered war is only one of several different actions of which many are neither full-out war or peace. Familiar concepts of space and exclusivity of behavior toward mission have been infused with a human complexity that confound missions. OEF and OIF were first acts in the rise of insurgency and terrorism in regions where effects of globalization and issues such as climate change and effect on livelihoods created, and still create, conditions that exacerbated already tenuous and precarious threats to national and human securities.   

“A number of rising powers are frustrated with current patterns of influence or goods, or the shape of rules and norms, and have assembled campaigns to transform that order in service of their interests and values. Such powers are neither status-quo nor militaristic; they are both integrated into the world community and deeply exasperated with it.”[vi]

 Globalization has also been identified as a leveling influence in providing technology and social connectivity to non-state actors and individuals.[vii]  Adding to this environment were residual effects of colonialization in terms of ethnic and tribal strife and even civil war.  Finally, the re-emergence of nation-state powers such as Russia and China and their regional flexing of muscles in Eastern Europe, the South China Sea, in Africa, and potential realigning of traditional allies, such as the Philippines, create additional complexity. Throw a dart at a map and there is a good chance where it sticks is in an area where a variety of populations are caught in the pincer of unrest and even conflict.

Huntington advanced the notion of a Clash of Civilizations to reflect what he saw as a world careening toward a clash of the West and Islam.[viii]  That paradigm continues to have legs in some shape or form percolating through many, in and out of this current administration.  Syria is an example of how that worldview is limiting and dangerous.  Instead, elsewhere I have argued that what constitutes the reality of what we find on the “ground” in places such as Nigeria, Somalia, the Philippines, the Congo, even in the aggressive moves of Russia in the Ukraine, and continues to be expressed in Afghanistan, and other areas, is a clash of cultures.

“If anything, the clash of civilizations has become a clash of cultures (the use of clash here has no relevance to the expected violence from the West and Islamic apocalypse), where groups align based on local beliefs and features like kinship, land, or shifting alliances based on cultivation or herding of lands that do have antiquity. Or, perhaps their alliance is based on religion that is a mix of local ritual and belief, whereas connections to any ideal monotheism may be in name only. These are the variables that define cultures, and clashes do erupt and run the gamut – from violence to negotiations.

In fact, lose entirely the label of domain and instead consider just how intricate and messy the relations are between families and lineages, between villages, between communities and essentially everywhere. Now consider the various identities that form around ethnic and tribal affiliations, history, and yes, even religion. They are not mutually exclusive, but are drivers of behavior when engaged, such as when these identities interface with kinship. Then consider the various mechanisms of social control that define local behavior, and consider how family, religion and gender, for example, also are factored into social control. This is just a start to trying to untangle and tease out the meaning of culture groups; not touched were notions of conflict, honor, shame, a sense of what is family, and myriad other elements. Suffice it to say that the ramifications of behavior are deeply contextualized and layered.”[ix]

This is what is encountered in these many different locations that defy the notion of advancing civilizations, which is an easy and sometimes lazy way to categorize adversaries and friends.  

The Power of Tropes – The Gray Zone

The “gray zone” has recently been invoked as another metaphor to help define space and condition where organizations like Special Operations Forces (SOF) and their overall mission will take place.  There are more than just a few articles published on the subject of gray zones in prominent DoD publications, security-related, international relations and other “discipline”-centric journals and websites.  For example, this journal has more than 16 articles on gray zones in the last three years.  Much of this writing focuses on the military, and even the interagency, attempting to describe the concept while suggesting ways to approach, strategize, and work in this metaphor.  Not much, if at all, is there any mention or effort expended that looks at how the military “thinks” about how they think about the gray zone.  In other words, what are the cognitive and social and cultural biases and mental models or schemas that are unconsciously or even consciously “baked” into how this multidisciplinary and multiorganizational community describes, analyzes, strategizes and operates with and within cross-cultural complexity.  I have written on the need to “think differently” about working in missions.[x]

The gray zone joins “labels,” I prefer “tropes,” such as human terrain and human domain, that have attempted to characterize, even categorize, the human element in terms of the complexity of culture groups involved in missions where battle lines and front lines now run through neighborhoods, villages, families, clans, and tribes.   I suggest that these tropes, and others, stand in the way of accessing the kinds of social and cultural realities that are foundational to understanding core beliefs and behaviors they motivate.    There are other issues in language and culture, specifically DoD policy and learning approaches, that obstruct accessing these critical realities, and they will be the topics of future “notes.”

In the forthcoming monograph, we lay out the case that accessing the social and cultural reality of culture groups that are involved in forming strategy and engaging in missions is essential.  We cover how that is done, the knowledge and skills necessary to access, elicit and make sense of those realities, the utility of those realities in forming deeper understanding, as well as facilitating potential forecasting of future behaviors.  For this note, social reality is defined as the shared collective experience of those members in a group or larger society that includes the makeup and meaning of relations and behavior found in social relations.  Cultural reality refers more to the core beliefs that drive and coalesce behavior around distinct, but universal “cultural” components, such as kinship, exchange, gender, governance, and others, and yes, religion is included.   These realities can be described as distinct, but for all practical purposes, they are interwoven and create a complexity difficult to unwind if the proper approaches and methods are not used.  

An immediate obstacle to accessing and understanding these realities, in part, concerns lack of theoretical understanding, application of the qualitative approach and its participant-observation-inspired methods or analysis of sociocultural data that is accessed, or other critical variables.  Another major impediment concerns something that is endemic to how the military conceptualizes human agency in a population-centric approach and can be traced to what may be looked at as simple word choice.  Words have powerful consequences that can certainly obstruct or even just limit initial understanding of the people and groups involved in missions, and their social and cultural reality. 

The DoD’s worldview has always been screened through the lens of conflict and mission and operations.  No surprise there.  Conventional and traditional military activities always involved other militaries, conquest of land and sea, and with the increasing technology, the domains of air and space.  Counterinsurgency (COIN), through OEF and OIF, introduced a population-centric approach that still resonates in approaches of SOF and even the future development of Army counterinsurgency brigades.  The current, and continuing, emphasis on missions involves unconventional warfare, such as Foreign Internal Defense (FID).  Since missions and operations involve culture groups that are not directly, or even indirectly, involved in warfare, conflict or conventional missions, the DoD tends to interpret the human element through existing perspectives. This emphasis limits understanding of behavior of others, especially motivation for that behavior.  More importantly, this emphasis limits the grasp and use of an accurate and authentic social and cultural reality necessary in accessing, framing/analyzing and even forecasting human behavior in the kind of unpredictable, dynamic and uncertain or novel environments that SOF and others work in.  In other words, labeling and defining and describing the human element and behavior through traditional military means using concepts developed and designed for military action affects and engages the bias of military tradition, mission, organizational goals and the essence of success.

Elsewhere I have detailed the danger of tropes such as “human terrain” and “human domain” circumcising or limiting approach or understanding to policy, strategy, and mission.[xi]  We are held captive to the power of the label, and what those labels mean in the universe they have already been used in.  Anthropologists and linguists are well aware of the influence that language has on how humans see and interact with the social and natural world around them.  The Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis advances the notion that structure of a language affects its speakers' worldview, or different languages represent unique ways of thinking about those social, cultural and natural worlds around people. This is obvious when looking at “terrain” and “domain” in their use in military scholarship and operational perspective.  Others have also argued similarly.[xii]  Labels, or tropes, subtly and more overtly, force meaning and limit perception of critical variables, shrink the appreciation of actions and behaviors, and evoke meanings that may exist in social and cultural realities of others.  Labels also lead to generalizing and “stereotyping” of actions, behaviors and groups.  In effect, the words we use carry with them beliefs and behaviors, and bias

A further example of the power of labels are the variations of “Islam” used to connote terrorism and the makeup of terrorist groups.  The power of the label engenders, reinforces and expresses core beliefs; it also can be used to mobilize change.  The often-heated discussion surrounding the use of the label “radical Islam,” or perhaps just as telling, the choice to use the label or not by the current administration or other scholars and experts, reflects also the conscious and unconscious cultural biases that lurk in the words used to describe, define or explain.    John McWhorter, a Columbia, linguistics professor , argues similarly when discussing the ongoing defense of the use of  “radical Islam” by segments of our society. In those two words, the emphasis is linguistically on Islam, with radical as a modifier only, 

“They (the “right”) assert [further] that as long as we say "radical Islam" rather than "Islam" alone, we are suitably specifying that we don't hate Muslims. But that isn't how it would appear to Muslims themselves …. In a sentence such as "We must eradicate radical Islam," the object of the verb eradicate is technically "radical Islam," yes, but the core object, the heart of the expression "radical Islam," is "Islam." Radical Islam is a kind of Islam. The object of the eradication in the sentence is "Islam," modified -- not redefined into something else -- by "radical."[xiii]

Roberto Gonzales in 2008 offered an analogous analysis of the usage of human terrain.

“The unusual juxtaposition of words portrays people as geographic space to be conquered – human beings as territory to be captured, as flesh-and-blood terra nullius…. Human terrain is often contrasted with geophysical terrain – a familiar concept for senior officers trained for conventional warfare against the Soviets. It implies that 21st-century warriors will fight ‘population-centric’ wars…; therefore, the key to successful warfare is the control of people.”[xiv]

A label, such as terrain, like Islam in “radical Islam,” like it or not, skews perceptions of those using it as well as poisons the attitudes of those being cast as terrain.  And more to the point of this note, it ultimately lasers the focus on the kinds of behavior necessary to a location.

“…that connect to the mission, diverting attention away from the importance of beliefs and cultural expressions of those behaviors that are not seen to be critical to the mission, yet that actively influence that society.  The legacy of the term carries with it military associations and actions that can easily work against trying to establish partnerships.   For many, the human terrain was a space to be battled over and won; physical and social control does not invite active and voluntary association.”[xv]

McWhorter concludes that in the military and the world we live the words we choose to use can have dire consequences.

“But this is the real world. Let's face it: These days, most of us need reminding that Islam is a religion of peace. Human beings generalize; we harbor associations. In such a climate, it's particularly easy to interpret "radical Islam" as a summation of Islam in general. It's how many of us might guiltily hear it, and how many Muslims would process it. Certainly, Islamist terrorists would: Of all the qualities one might attribute to them, subtlety of interpretation is not one of them.[xvi]

The same rationale can be applied to the use of gray zone and its emphasis on boundaries and borders.  A zone is generally considered a “space” or area that differs in some respect from adjacent or nearby areas that may contain or express distinct circumstances. Adding the modifier gray suggests that the space is not readily apparent; it is neither black or white.

Gray Zone, Human Terrain and Human Domain Reflect a Lack of Foundational Understanding of Cross-Cultural Complexity

The use of the trope gray zone is an attempt to capture and define the boundaries of action and behavior of others that must be considered and then acted on through a range of gray zone operations. The need to apply the concepts of space and boundaries to the gray zone coupled with the ambiguity and cultural complexity can hinder military policy anddoctrine writers, andleaders and operators in conceptualizing what the gray zone represents.  Attempts to define the gray zone reflect the continued uncomfortable relationship that the US military has with ambiguity of mission and outcome in many of their non-kinetic operations.  An example of this understanding deficit is the title of a recent Army Times article, “Owning the Gray Zone.”[xvii]  The nature of “ownership” and dominance implied in the title certainly doesn’t translate well into the core beliefs of many of the local areas where these “operations” take place.  An asymmetry of perspective between the “owners (us)” and those included into the gray zone, is loaded into the concept of ownership, and subtly, or not, influences our behavior in interactions with those from the local area. 

The lack of understanding signals a deficit of social, cultural and behavioral theory and application, and the limitation that policy and doctrine have “downstream” in terms of preparation and learning about populations, cultures and behavior.  This foundational struggle includes confronting dichotomies that exist in military approaches to contemporary world order; conventional warfare/irregular/unconventional warfare; terrain and domain/social and cultural beliefs and values; and military/non-military roles in strategy and operations.  The problematic nature of a critical and active engagement with populations results from a lack of understanding of the many different social and cultural realities.  This lack of understanding continues to plague the US military when trying to apply a theoretically-informed learning program to address this deficiency. 

The gray zone represents not just a bias pertaining to a label, but a more foundational problem of being able to conceptualize about groups of people who essentially exist beyond or within the notion of a nation-state that should be ruled by a Western notion of rule of law and even common societal norms.  Thus, the use of gray zone reflects more the internal inability of DoD organizations to confront categories of “Western” logic, which is reflected in its use in policy and strategy.  Crucial to overcoming this bias and knowledge gap is to accept that understanding social and cultural knowledge and applying cross-cultural capability can start to break down the stranglehold of biases. There is a lack of consistent understanding of the gray zone across military experts; thus, the opportunity to promote policy, doctrine and strategy is problematic.

More than a Novel: War and/or Peace?

There is a larger conceptual problem associated with the gray zone; that of identifying a “space” between what has been advanced traditionally as two distinct states, war and peace.  Indistinct, undefined or defined poorly, the consensus of what is the gray zone reflects the continued inability to articulate social, cultural and behavioral science perspectives in conceptualization and the notion of a clear-cut dichotomy between peace and war.    

“The gray zone is the awkward and uncomfortable space between traditional conceptions of war and peace….[xviii]

“[An] ambiguous no-man’s-land between peace and war…. Indistinct landscape…”[xix]

“….. characterized by ambiguity about the nature of the conflict, opacity of the parties involved, or uncertainty about the relevant policy and legal frameworks. .[xx]

“…’Gray Zone’ refers to a space in the peace-conflict continuum…”[xxi]

This discomfort with defining the gray zone expresses a profound lack of the primary importance of accessing a deeper understanding of human behavior and how that is reflected in social and cultural reality, and how it is driven by systems of meaning and action.  There is no common perception of the nature, character, or hazard associated with the gray zone or its individual threats and challenges because the U.S. and its partners perceive risks differently than their principal gray zone adversaries and competitors.  There is neither an animating grand strategy nor a “campaign-like” charter guiding U.S. and allied efforts against specific gray zone challenges.[xxii]

Further, leaders and experts alike cannot agree on what type of “warfare” is relevant to oppose or interdict actions and activities in the gray zone. Tropes of counterinsurgency, or unconventional warfare (UW) and FID, are shuffled like decks of cards.  Recently, the trope of political warfare, used during the Cold War, was resurrected and joined with the concept of hybrid warfare and folded back into the conversation as guiding constructs and an overall approach to what has been identified as gray zone challenges.  “We struggle when dealing with challenges not fitting neatly into our traditional models. No organization in the U.S. government has primacy for gray zone challenges, so it is not surprising that our responses lack both unity of effort and unity of command.”[xxiii]  Another “translation” problem occurs with applying notions of “winning” in the gray zone.  What does “winning” mean when it comes to end states that have no “military” correlates for “clear” and operational objectives?  More specific to measurement and assessment, how do you know when you have “won” and what are the benchmarks and timelines associated with achieving success? 

It is easier to consider that populations like SOF have existing capability in warfare, technology and in language and culture - even though the latter capability in language and culture is an elementary proficiency in language and even a rudimentary appreciation of cross-cultural knowledge and skills - to respond to gray zone challenges.  What is required is introducing or perhaps enlarging capability that mitigates the effects of the military traditions and conventions that continue to influence thought and action when working in that space between war and peace.

Existing mental models or schemas operate to “fit” meaning of behavior into existing mentally-ordered categories influenced by a host of variables inherent to DoD and SOF approaches.[xxiv]  Redefining schemas does not necessarily negate the organizational or individual biases that exist when conceptualizing or trying to operationalize efforts concerning understanding or lack of appropriate understanding.  These attempts to characterize the human element invokes cognitive and cultural biases that affect categorization of appropriate behaviors across peoples and populations.  The acknowledgement that the US perspective may not capture others’ reality is joined by the difficulty in trying to capture human behavior that reflects others’ core beliefs and how they motivate action.  Specifically, underlying this inability to consider aspects of the the populational is the lack of capability and expertise to counter organizational and cultural biases of those defining and explaining the gray zone. 

Failing to understand the connection of human behavior and the inability to develop this capability effectively has led DoD Services and organizations to attempt to “translate or interpret” the importance of capturing the human element in important policies and doctrine.  Furthermore, this lack of understanding produces an inability to promote effective understanding of culture in operations from an incomplete perspective and one that fails to mitigate the natural biases of a lingering conventional warfare history when working across linguistic and cultural divides.[xxv]

Tropes in Review

Existing tropes trying to fit human behavior into mission and operations are influenced by a host of variables endemic to DoD and SOF approaches.  Redefining tropes doesn’t necessarily negate the organizational or individual biases that exist when conceptualizing or trying to operationalize efforts concerning understanding or lack of appropriate understanding.  These attempts to characterize the human element invokes several cognitive and cultural biases that effect categorization of appropriate behaviors across peoples and populations.  The acknowledgement that the US perspective may not capture others’ reality is joined by the difficulty in trying to capture human behavior that reflects others’ core beliefs and how they motivate action. Trying to manage or mitigate the same for US military and civilian personnel remains a bridge too far.  Specifically, underlying this inability to consider the populational aspects is the lack of capability and expertise to counter organizational and cultural biases of those defining and explaining the gray zone. 


Tropes can limit the preparation, activity and behavior of the US military.  The use of tropes carries all sorts of hidden effects, or viruses that bend or just obfuscate access to a more authentic and accurate social and cultural reality from the perspective of culture groups encountered on the “ground.”  Specifically, spaces and places are shared concepts across cultures, buy what makes them spaces and places varies widely and significantly.  The US military traditionally hewed to the concept of terrain (and other geospatially-determined perspectives).  However, as seen in West Africa in the Ebola Virus crisis, and in the “post-graduate” environment of Syria, social and cultural reality are not primarily appended to coordinates.  Instead  an accurate reality is determined by kinship, affiliation and other forms of alliances that don’t follow national or even provincial borders that were usually “drawn” by external forces such as colonial powers.[xxvi]  “Borders and boundaries” represent another trope that affects perspective - culture groups don’t always adhere to our sense of borders. 

How to mitigate the effects of tropes can consider a variety of approaches, to include introducing concepts that align more with discipline and scholarship, or utilizing a more theoretical nuance in their conceptualization.  However, the practice of approaching unknown or novel circumstances is to frame them in familiar terms, or metaphors.  The best means to mitigate the impact of what comes with those tropes is to provide a learning foundation that provides theoretically-informed content that alerts generators and uses of those labels to their unintended influence and/or consequences.  The use of tropes is a smaller piece of a much large puzzle – that of not having the necessary social and cultural knowledge and thinking and interacting skills to understand, navigate, forecast and ultimately influence culture groups in West Africa, or Syria, or other places. 

From an immediate perspective, the effect tropes can have should be considered in how one approaches missions and operations on one hand to policy and strategy development on the other.  Tropes are just an example of the many ways lacking a “cross-cultural capability” can limit the effectiveness of mission.  The DoD now faces a population-centric future. A new approach is paramount to develop a cross-cultural capability that synergizes language, culture and region general/specific knowledge, as well as develops cross-cultural competence, and cross-cultural communication competence.  Elsewhere I and colleagues have promoted this approach,[xxvii] the most recently through a re-orientation of SOF language and culture learning programs[xxviii] and a look at how such a capability could be assessed.[xxix]  A description of a more complete approach will be forthcoming.  It is clear, however ,that current language and culture learning approaches and programs are not sufficient for current and future DoD missions.

End Notes

[i] The author would like to acknowledge the efforts of Darby Arakelian, David Ellis and Mark Dye on the development of this article.  They are of course not implicated in the final product; the opinions expressed are mine alone, for better or worse.

[ii] Everet Rosenfeld.  “Trump launches attack on Syria with 59 Tomahawk missiles.” CNBC (April 7), 2017,

[iii] This article and the ones to follow will look at specific themes, concepts, and issues, that highlight a DoD language and culture program in need of transformation.  A “note” represents an author (s) specific exploration of a topic that features founded reason based on experience as well as other sources to promote a certain stance or position.  The author borrows from the concept of “note” utilized by anthropologist Clifford Geertz in his seminal essay on sport and culture, "Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight." This essay was part of a compilation of essays in the 1973 volume entitled Transformation of Culture (Basic Books).

[iv] Robert G. Sands and Allison Greene-Sands.  Cross-Cultural Competence for a 21st Century Military: Culture, the Flipside of the COIN (co-editor with Allison Greene-Sands, and contributor).  Lexington Books, 2014,; Robert G. Sands.  “Thinking Differently: Unlocking the Human Domain in Support of the 21st Century Intelligence Mission.” Small Wars Journal (20 August), 2013,; Sands.  “Culture Clash.”  Journal of Culture, Language and International Security, 2 (1), 2015,; Sands. Assessing SOF LRC Needs: Leveraging Digital and LRC Learning to Reroute the “Roadmap” from Human Terrain to Human Domain.  Joint Special Operations University Monograph, 16-8, 2016,; Robert G. Sands and Darby Arakelian.  Channeling Malinowski: Advancing SOF Cultural Engagement through Qualitative Approaches (forthcoming).

[v] Sydney J. Freeberg.  “Army Builds Advisor Brigades: Counterinsurgency Is Here To Stay.” Breaking Defense (February 16, 2017),

[vi] Michael J. Mazarr. Mastering the Gray Zone: Understanding a Changing Era of Conflict (Strategic Studies Institute and U.S. Army War College Press: Carlisle Barracks, December 2015), 2, accessed at: file:///C:/Users/rrgre/Downloads/pub1303%20(1).pdf

[vii] Philip Kapusta. “The gray zone.  Special Warfare, (October/December), 28:4, 2015, 18,,

[viii] Samuel Huntington.  “The Clash of Civilizations: The Nest Pattern of Conflict.” Foreign Affairs (Summer), 1993, pps 22-49.

[ix] Robert G. Sands. “Culture Clash.”  Journal of Culture, Language and International Security, 2 (1), 2015,  

[x] See for example, Sands, 2013, 2016, Robert G. Sands. “Training for the Perfect Storm.”  Journal of Culture, Language and International Security 2 (1), 2015,, and Sands and Arakelian (forthcoming).

[xi] Sands, 2013, Roberto Gonzalez, “’Human terrain’ Past, present and future applications.” Anthropology Today, 24(1) February, 2008, p.23,, Robert G. Sands. “Human Terrain, Human Domain and the Gray Zone,” presentation at the Essentials of LRC Learning, a second workshop in LRC learning, Workshop Director and co-presenter, National Foreign Language Center, University of Maryland, September 29, 2016,

[xii] Sanchez

[xiii]John McWhorter.  “The big problem with calling it 'radical Islam'.” CNN, (July 11), 2016, 

[xiv] Gonzalez, p.23.

[xv] Sands and Arakelian, (forthcoming).

[xvi] McWhorter, 2016

[xvii] John Chambers.  “Owning the Gray Zone.”  Army Times (November 6), 2016,

[xviii]Nathan Freier, Christopher Compton, and Tobin Magsig. “Gray Zone: Why We’re Losing the New Era of National Security.” Defense One, 9 June 2016, accessed at:

[xix] Mazar, 2

[xx] Kapusta, 18.

[xxi] Joseph L. Votel, Charles T. Cleveland, Charles T. Connett, and Will Irwin. “Unconventional Warfare in the Gray Zone.” Joint Forces Quarterly, 80, (1st Quarter), 2016, 101-109, accessed at:

[xxii] Frier et al, 2016.

[xxiii] Kapusta, 22.

[xxiv] Sands, 2013.   

[xxv] The use of provincial reconstruction teams (PRTs) in OEF provide perhaps the most relevant example of how to approach and “work” in gray zones, see Robert G. Sands.  “COIN and Beyond,” in R. Greene Sands and A. Greene-Sands (eds), Cross-Cultural Competence for a 21st Century Military: Culture, the Flipside of the COIN.  Lexington Books (2014),

[xxvi]Robert G. Sands, 2015. 

[xxvii] Robert G. Sands.  “Language and Culture in the Department of Defense: Synergizing complimentary instruction and building LREC competency.”   Small Wars Journal, (8 March), 2013,

[xxviii] Sands, 2016. 

[xxix]Robert G. Sands and Pieter DeVisser.  “Narrowing the LREC Assessment Focus by Opening the Aperture: A Critical Look at the Status of LREC Assessment Design & Development in the Department of Defense.” Special Topics Issue: Journal of Culture, Language and International Security, 2 (2), 2015,


About the Author(s)

Robert R. Greene Sands, PhD, is one of the foremost experts in cross-cultural competence (3C) and culture-general in the DoD and has worked closely with several DoD organizations to develop and deliver innovative blended learning programs in culture and language.  Several iterations of his courseware have been utilized by different Services, Special Operations Forces, US Army, US Air Force, US Marines, and Foreign Area Officers, among others. Sands developed the first-ever Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) in cross-cultural competence, Operational Culture: Thinking Differently about Behavior in the Human Domain.

Anthropologist Sands is currently CEO of LanguaCulture, LLC and adjunct professor at Norwich University.  His prior experience includes positions at Air University and Air Force Culture and Language Center, Defense Intelligence Agency, and Director and Senior Research Fellow at the Institute for the Study of Culture and Language at Norwich University and adjunct professor in the College of Graduate and Continuing Studies Program.  Sands’s research and writing on the various aspects of culture and language is represented in seven books (with one in press), numerous journal and book chapters.  He is also a preeminent speaker and lecturer and is often delivering addresses to various organizations and learning institutions on his research and experience, to include TEDx and other television and video appearances.  His most recent book published by Joint Special Operations University (JSOU) featured a re-envisioning of the Special Forces language and culture learning program, Assessing SOF LRC Needs: Leveraging Digital and LRC Learning to Reroute the “Roadmap” from Human Terrain to Human Domain.  Sands founded and is co-editor of the Journal for Culture, Language and International Security.  Dr. Sands received his PhD in anthropology from the University of Illinois.