Small Wars Journal

Modern War and Cultural Change

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Modern War and Cultural Change

Julian Koeck

“War is the father of all things”, Heraclitus wrote. In fact, most of human history is about war; war shaped societies; war made people rich; war made people poor; war destroyed cultures; war shaped cultures; war brought religions; war entertained; war was waged for nothing; war was waged for everything. It is only fitting that humankinds first true historian was a general. Thucydides of Athens was one of the ten “Strategoi”, the elected military leaders of the democratic Athens. When the Athenians lost an important battle in 422 BC, Thucydides was blamed for the loss and sent to exile. To serve for the Athenian democracy was in a certain sense not unlike serving under modern dictators: one “wrong” result could lead to banishment or even death. Thucydides, therefore, watched the great conflict between Athens and Sparta from the sidelines. Between 431 and 404 BC, both poleis fought a multidimensional war in which all Greek states and many of the neighboring nations got sucked in. Sparta won in the end, but lost the following peace. The Greek poleis had lost so much blood, treasure, and will that they were no longer able to fight off the monarchies around them (like they did against the Persians in 490 and 480 BC).

For Thucydides there were three reasons for war: fear, interest, honor. Undoubtedly, this was a most insightful concept that holds truth till today. However, in the 20th century another thought about war developed in the West as an answer to the destructive World Wars.

Unlike 1918, the USA did not isolate herself from international politics after 1945. She actively engaged in the construction of a new world community with the explicit aim to “maintain international peace and security”.[i] This ideology of peace resulted in a new framework for just wars. In theory, wars were only waged for the reason of ending (all) wars. Of course, geopolitical interests often trumped ideology but for all wars, reasons were presented that fit into the narrative. When there was no war between nations to stop, then, at least, a war of despots against their own people (e. g. Ghaddafi) or civil wars (e. g. Yugoslavia). It’s not important for us if these reasons were products of hypocritical rhetoric or true conviction: in the Western public discourse wars are nowadays only thinkable to stop or prevent wars. No politician today could, officially, wage a war because of interest or honor. From a historical point of view, this is a rather astounding fact. In most times war was seen as an integral part of the condicio humana and an irremediable recurring state of things.

Obviously, the ideal of a world without war is closely tied to other Western believes about desirable states of being, like democracy, human rights, rule of law, stable nation-state, freedom of religion, individualistic societies, and free markets. While these cultural traits and political aspirations are commonly viewed as intrinsically valuable, they have additional merit in preventing wars. Stable societies with similar cultures are less likely to wage war against each other.

Consequently, modern Western wars tend to be operations with the (sometimes hidden or unconscious) aim of cultural change. Unfortunately, Westerners tend to think that their own culture is the compulsory conclusion, if only malignant actors like the Taliban or Saddam Hussein are dispensed of. When the Allied troops defeated the Baath-regime in 2003, they took themselves to be “liberators”, not conquerors, and, therefore, initially tried to avoid all behavior that could have been seen as imperialistic, like taking over the local and regional government. This made sense in the context of the Western contemporary rather naive understanding of cultures, but it was not purposeful for the anticipated political and cultural change of Iraq. Time and time again, Westerners seem to have to learn the hard way that their culture is not the default. All contemporary American wars are paradigmatic examples for this. They are not about going in, hunting a few terrorists down and closing up shop, but about freeing culturally distant people from cultural traits that seem inhumane from a Western point of view.

To change cultures (for better or worse), cultural knowledge is essential. Furthermore, such cultural knowledge will arguably become more and more important even when no cultural change is aspired. A number of developments make this probable. The increasing number of humans – especially the population increase in Africa and the Middle East – in combination with increasing risks (environmental, health, wealth) leads to severe problems, which will likely increase in the future. This will lead to instable states, segmented populations, and, likely, political and religious radicalization. Even worse for the operational environment is the intensifying urbanization of humanity. 2017, more than 50 % of humanity lived in cities;[ii] nothing indicates that this trend will stop soon. Therefore, the military has to be prepared for prolonged operations in cities and megacities.[iii] Both factors – instable states and urban environments – demand an increasing amount of socio-cultural knowledge. In megacities, the military likely has to fight against a number of hidden opponents, while keeping the infrastructure of the cities complex systems intact. Therefore, a clear understanding of the human terrain and the necessary knowledge to keep order in a rapidly changing and highly complex environment are vital. Arguably, this can’t be learned on the spot. In their insightful article “Left of Bang”, Michael Flynn, James Sisco, and David Ellis not only stress the importance of “Sociocultural Analysis (SCA)”, they, furthermore, make the point that SCA needs to be implemented in traditional intelligence and has to be made useful “left of bang”, i. e. before the conflict becomes hot.[iv] Also, they emphasize the importance of cultural knowledge in a world with increasingly important non-state-actors.

Additionally, the old-new Great Game is mainly played in the Grey Zone. Unconventional Warfare, Influence Operations, Wars-by-proxy etc. make cultural knowledge crucial. One of the great strengths of America has always been her soft power, based on the attractiveness of her culture and the cultural approximation of smaller foreign cultures to hers. From an historic perspective, one could argue that the enduring of the American hegemony will be decided by the success or failure of further cultural integration of her allies.

In summary, cultural knowledge and cultural change are – on various levels – of significant importance for modern Western warfare. What does this mean for strategy?

In context of the contemporary ideology of just wars, the task of the strategist is the appropriate combination of means to reach military dominance, stable administration, and implementing cultural change (to prevent further conflict / war). Ideally, these Herculean tasks are achievable by a sound knowledge of one’s own culture (in which the political goals are formulated), a thorough understanding of her – in reference to the goddess of strategy Athene we declare the strategist an sich to be female – own military / diplomatic culture (and how they can be used as strategic assets), and, finally, a profound understanding of the foreign culture.

In a sense, the strategist acts as an inter-cultural translator – or transformer –, who knows how to transfer ideas from one culture into another. A direct implementation may work in cases of very similar cultures, but in most cases, the intended change must be made in a way that suits the overarching foreign culture, which is more than just a randomly exchangeable sum of cultural artefacts. For instance, the annihilation of Preussen post-1945 by re-creating German states that once were absorbed by Preussen made a lot of sense to the federalist Germans. They were able to transfer their particularistic pride and loyalty to a new subject, without losing this important feature of their culture.

Of course, tinkering with cultures is never a rational, revisable undertaking. On the contrary, it’s a sinuous art that will often fail even its masters. 1917, when the Germans sent Lenin in a plumbed train into Russia to increase social unrest there – hoping that this would weaken the Russian military significantly –, they would never have thought that this man would – by changing the very foundations of Russian culture – create an empire that by far excelled the old Russia and that would become the German downfall a quarter of a century later. Many more examples of the highly complex quality of cultural change can easily be found in the history of European-American imperialism.

Nevertheless, the modern understanding of justified wars makes the quest of cultural change elementary, as was said above. Idealized, war can thus be understood as an inter-cultural process with the intent of changing aspects of a culture according to the interest of another culture:


The schematic shows the importance of strategy, for which warfare is only a part of a greater set of means. However, it has to be stressed that the military can’t focus exclusively on warfare, but has to play its part in all other categories, too. The intended cultural change will very likely be only achievable by combining the efforts of all participating agencies according to the chosen strategy.

From a cultural point of view, the strategist has to deal with the Cultural Trilemma, shown below:


A successful strategy has to find a compromise between the different cultural needs and demands. Presumably, this very often won’t work in an ideal fashion. For example, it may be possible to befriend tribal leaders in Afghanistan by happily taking part in activities like bacha bazi, but this won’t be justifiable for the own Military and general culture. On the other hand, teaching the tribal leaders that their traditions are highly offendable to oneself and shall be punishable may be just the right thing to do in the eyes of one’s soldiers and the media at home, but won’t help in attaining influence over the tribal leaders.

Of course, such aporia aren’t mere problems (for which there are distinct solutions), but conditions that will force the strategist time and again to find a good enough compromise for the many cumbersome implications of the Cultural Trilemma. The difference between problem and condition is important, but often overlooked. It’s a typical Western cultural trait to believe that there is an ideal state of being that can be reached by eliminating all hindrances to it. In this context, the hindrances are understood as always solvable. However, these hindrances often have no clear and distinct solution, but are conditions that have to be endured (like dying and paying taxes).

While the schwerpunkt of the strategist’s work lies in the domain of the other culture, she constantly has to contemplate the texture of her own culture and ongoing trends. Arguably, modern social media and instant communication without gatekeepers (and censors) lead to an increasing amount of social risk for all ongoing political endeavors and especially war. The empires of the past had the luxury of a rather neat distinction between the center and the periphery. Today, there’s only center left, and cultural change becomes more and more a two-way-street. Western actions in Africa and Asia, for instance, can almost instantly result in an influx of immigration, strengthening the already on-going change from Christian-Atheist nations to Christian-Atheist-Muslim ones.

Cultural change through the military and other agencies can be done. However, it takes a lot of time and effort – the most important aspect very well might be education. The recent American wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are dreadful examples. To prevent such costly endeavors in the future, three ideal typical options seem possible:

1. Cultural change is understood as the main strategic goal – the schwerpunkt of effort has, therefore, to lie on the opponent’s society. For this, the political will for very long and costly operations has to be secured.

2. War is, again, seen as a political process in the line of Clausewitz’ thoughts. Wars, then, will be waged to fulfil limited political interests, without the ideological need for cultural change in other nations.

3. Cultural knowledge is used to avert risk on an inter-state and sub-state level, while war remains the last resort for preventing such risk. Military operations get tailored to the cultural specifics of the human terrain. Therefore, cultural knowledge needs to be integral part of campaign planning and execution.

End Notes

[i] United Nations Charter I, 1 (


[iii] Luckily, there’re already discussions about how to deal with this development, e. g.

[iv] Michael T. Flynn / James Sisco / David C. Ellies, “Left of Bang: The Value of Sociocultural Analysis in Today’s Environment,” PRISM, no. 4 (2012), 13–21.

About the Author(s)

Julian Koeck is a historian interested in how ideas change or change not societies.


In additional to the matters presented below, the following may also prove useful in this discussion:

"Within the existing framework of international law, is it legitimate for an occupying power, in the name of creating the conditions for a more democratic and peaceful state, to introduce fundamental changes in the constitutional, social, economic, and legal order within an occupied territory? This is the central question addressed here. To put it in other ways, is the body of treaty-based international law relating to occupations, some of which is more than a century old, appropriate to conditions sometimes faced today? Is it still relevant to cases of transformative occupation—i.e., those whose stated purpose (whether or not actually achieved) is to change states that have failed, or have been under tyrannical rule? Is the newer body of human rights law applicable to occupations, and can it provide a basis for transformative acts by the occupant? Can the United Nations Security Council modify the application of the law in particular cases? Finally, has the body of treaty-based law been modified by custom? These questions have arisen in various conflicts and occupations since 1945—including the tragic situation in Iraq since the United States–led invasion of March–April 2003. They have arisen because of the cautious, even restrictive assumption in the laws of war (also called international humanitarian law or, traditionally, jus in bello) that occupying powers should respect the existing laws and economic arrangements within the occupied territory, and should therefore, by implication, make as few changes as possible. This conservationist principle in the laws of war stands in potential conflict with the transformative goals of certain occupations."


Bill C.

Fri, 08/09/2019 - 12:52pm

Now let me argue somewhat with the following -- from the third paragraph of our article above:

"Unlike 1918, the USA did not isolate herself from international politics after 1945. She actively engaged in the construction of a new world community with the explicit aim to “maintain international peace and security”.  This ideology of peace resulted in a new framework for just wars. In theory, wars were only waged for the reason of ending (all) wars."

This would seem to be error.  As noted in the quoted items provided below, the concern of the U.S., post-1945, was with such things as (a) rebuilding the global economy, (b) maintaining a worldwide economic "open door" and (b) "fostering a world environment in which the American system can survive and flourish." 

These such restorative and expansionist matters, I suggest, and not "to maintain international peace and security," were the (a) understood basis for (b) America's post-WWII foreign policies. 

a.  Rebuilding the global economy:


Even if there were no Soviet Union we would face the great problem of a free society, accentuated many fold in the industrial age, of reconciling order, security, and the need for participation, with the requirement of freedom.



While Truman Administration officials were certainly concerned with the Soviet Union ... Rather their gravest concern was with rebuilding the global economy in the wake of the Great Depression and World War II. Virtually every move the Truman Administration undertook aimed at this effort. Part of that required containing communism, but, as Acheson told the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, "Even if there were no Russia, if there was no communism, we would still face very grave problems in trying to exist and strengthen those parts of the free world which have been so badly shaken by war and its consequences, the two world wars and the consequences of both of them."


b.  Maintaining a worldwide economic "open door:"


As Williams put it, the goal of U.S. grand strategy has been to create an "Open Door world" -- and international system, or "world order" -- made up of states that are open and subscribe to the United State's liberal values and institutions and that are open to U.S. economic penetration. An Open Door world rests, therefore, on two pillars: the economic Open Door (maintaining an open international economic system) and the political Open Door (spreading democracy and liberalism abroad). These pillars are linked by the PERCEPTION that "closure" abroad threatens the survival of American core values -- what policymakers call "the American way of life" -- at home. ... In other words, U.S grand strategy is based on the Open Door-derived assumption that political and economic liberalism cannot flourish at home unless they are safe abroad. This deeply rooted belief was reiterated by President George W. Bush in his second inaugural address, when he declared, "the survival of liberty in our land increasingly depends on the success of liberty in other lands." ...

(See Pages 30 and 31.)


America's involvement in Indochina in the late 1940s and early 1950s -- the first step down the "path to Vietnam" -- is a good example of how the link between economic openness and grand strategy not only requires the United States to defends its allies from direct threat but to guarantee their economic access to the periphery. ...

Although Indochina's intrinsic strategic value was minimal, it became important because Washington viewed it as a firewall to prevent the more economically vital parts of Southeast Asia from falling under Communist control. The United States crossed the most crucial threshold on the path to the Vietnam War in the early 1950s, when Washington concluded that the strategic requirements of economic openness -- specifically Southeast Asia's economic importance to Japan and Western Europe -- necessitated that containment be extended to that region. The progressive U.S. entanglement in Indochina that culminated in the Vietnam War was the logical consequence of Washington's commitment to the economic Open Door.

(See Pages 128 and 129.)


(From Christopher Layne's 2006 "The Peace of Illusions: American Grand Strategy from 1940 to the Present.")

c.  Fostering a world environment in which the American system can survive and flourish:

VI. U.S. Intentions and Capabilities--Actual and Potential


Our overall policy at the present time may be described as one designed to foster a world environment in which the American system can survive and flourish. It therefore rejects the concept of isolation and affirms the necessity of our positive participation in the world community.


d.  Additional thought:

Given that concepts such as "self-determination" are addressed in the U.N. Charter post-World War II -- and indeed may have been seen as a significant cause of conflict and war thereafter -- the following may prove useful in understanding how the U.S. would not let such things as "self-determination" get in its way of its goals and objectives noted above:


The principle (of self-determination) has been followed when it does not conflict with higher priority United States objectives or in those instances when following the principle adds rather than detracts from the ability of the United States to satisfy even more fundamental objectives of responsible policy.


(Item in parenthesis above is mine.)


Bottom Line Up Front:

An excellent article and, given the slant of my arguments over the many years I have been commenting here, a welcome acknowledgement of such things as (a) "cultural change" (more along modern western political, economic, social and value lines) as being (b) the basis for modern U.S./Western war.  In this regard, however, let me look at a few related matters and offer some thoughts on them:

1.  Whereas:

a.  (From the fifth paragraph of our aticle above) Modern Western wars do tend to be operations with the (sometimes hidden or unconscious) aim of cultural change,


b.  "Cultural change" would seem to have been the basis for earlier Western interventions and wars also?

"Where cultural backwardness of a region makes normal economic intercourse dependent on colonization, it does not matter, assuming free trade, which of the civilized nations undertakes the task of colonization.

"Small wars are a heritage of extended empire, a certain epilogue to encroachments into lands beyond the confines of existing civilization and this has been so from the early ages to the present time.  The great nation which seeks expansion in remote quarters of the globe must accept the consequences. Small wars dog the footsteps of the pioneers of civilization in the regions afar off.… 

(Note:  The concept of "interests other than peace" -- as the basis for war -- looms large here?  If you want peace, then you must adhere to the "self-determination" clauses and ideas of the U.N. Charter?)

2.  Whereas: 

a.  (From the fourth paragraph of our article above) Ideas of a world without war may, indeed, be closely tied to Western beliefs about desirable states of being -- this, given the thesis that stable societies with similar cultures are less likely to wage war against each other --

We should note that:

b.  This/these such same argument(s) might be made by all expansionist and universalists entities, for example, by the Soviets/the communists of old and/or the Islamists today?

3.  Whereas:

a.  The relationship between "cultural change," "modern war"  and Thucydides "honor, interest and fear" would seem to have been somewhat discounted by our author in his second and third paragraphs above(?),

b.  Should we not consider this relationship more carefully -- and indeed more centrally -- for example, as discussed/illustrated here: 

"Why do some subordinates seem to always resist significant change? Thucydides’ list – 'honor, interest, and fear' – answers this question. One driver of resistance lies in deep-rooted organizational culture or 'identity': 'Insurgents' may see themselves as protecting from assault a vital element of the organization’s identity. Another driver may be the perceived impact that proposed change will have on existing power structures and pay. A third may be subordinates’ fears that change will lead to their being demoted, moved, or losing their job. As in an armed insurgency, resistance typically coalesces around some combination of all three drivers." (See Page 5.)  And this:

"The overt attack on Afghan social values was presented, by the resistance forces, as an attack on Islamic values. This was also seen as an attack on the honor of women. The initiatives introduced by PDPA -- to impose literacy on women and girls -- inevitably raised questions as to the potential role of women outside the the home. This provoked defensive actions from men, concerned with protecting the honor of women with their families, and to also ensure that traditional roles of women within the domestic sphere continued to be performed. It also generated fears that the important roles of women, as the primary vehicles for passing traditional and Islamic values from one generation to another, would be undermined if they were exposed to external and, particularly, non-Islamic values. This enabled the exiled radical Islamic parties to claim leadership of the resistance and to also declare a jihad."… (See Page 58.)

Bottom Line Thought: 

Overall an excellent paper by our author Julian Koeck; a paper I will try to comment on further at a later time.