Wineman on Holmes-Eber, 'Culture in Conflict: Irregular Warfare, Culture Policy, and the Marine Corps.'

Paula Holmes-Eber
Bradford Wineman

Paula Holmes-Eber. Culture in Conflict: Irregular Warfare, Culture Policy, and the Marine Corps. Stanford: Stanford Security Studies, 2014. 272 pp. $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-8047-9189-2.

Reviewed by Bradford Wineman (Marine Corps Command and Staff College) Published on H-War (March, 2016) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey

Culture and Conflict examines the journey of the United States Marine Corps through its incorporation of the Department of Defense (DOD)-mandated culture and language programs beginning in 2003. In order to gain an appreciation for the value of cultural studies and for the challenges that these novel programs created for a traditional warfighting institution, Dr. Paula Holmes-Eber applies her skills as an anthropologist and commits first to conducting an ethnological analysis of the United States Marine Corps itself as a unique “culture.” She thoroughly traces the Corps’ hallowed history, traditions, values, and ethos, all the while emphasizing the self-image it cultivates of Spartan warriors, dedicated to their nation and service, who promote the adaptive and innovative thinking required to be successful as the “tip of the spear” of US military capabilities. Regardless of rank, specialty, location, or era, from recruitment to retirement, each Marine embraces the coda of “honor, courage, and commitment” and lauds the exclusivity of their cultural identity within both the Department of Defense and broader American understanding.

The extensive analysis of Marine warrior culture serves primarily to set up the book’s second (and less developed) half, which focuses on the aforementioned language and culture program. The recounting of the saga of incorporating this new training into the Marine Corps’ already intense combat preparations is not just about the functionality of language and cultural skills, but instilling a new institutional mindset focused on compassion, interaction, and friendship-building, instead of the aggression and destruction outlined in the first half of the book. The success of the cultural program sought to prove more broadly that Marines could be humanitarians, not just killers. However, this victory of inserting the cultural program into Marine “culture” has ultimately been a Pyrrhic one and its celebration in this monograph unfortunately misses the larger problems of the Marine Corps, “culture,” and war. 

One needs to start at the beginning and critically assess the reasons for the culture program’s naissance. Indeed, it met resistance and friction for all the reasons that Holmes-Eber identifies: its contrast to the USMC warrior ethos, competing time and priorities of other combat training requirements, etc. However, the cry for “culture” came as a reactionary panic from DOD high commands. The haste and overconfidence in the Iraq War planning left troops underprepared for postcombat requirements, to include an extended occupation, a laundry list of stabilization crises, and eventually a rushed shift to a counterinsurgency strategy. The author identifies that hurriedness under which the program was developed in her section “Building the Plane While Flying It,” but there is no acknowledgment of the strategic negligence that precipitated the plane taking off in the first place.

While a large portion of this book examines Marine Corps culture in detail (its values, customs, traditions, beliefs, rituals, behaviors, etc.), those same criteria for culture do not transfer to the actual content of the “culture” curriculum of CAOCL (the Center for Advanced Operational Culture Learning, the newly formed organization tasked with creating and teaching the new language and cultural programs). What did CAOCL consider “culture” with respect to Iraq and Afghanistan, what did the Marines need to know, and why? Certainly, there is much discussion about language education, but what else constitutes “culture”? The definition of culture is never clearly articulated. The author does acknowledge, as the Department of Defense eventually did, the distinction between language and culture, but does not elaborate on the latter. Most of the anecdotes come from Marines who trained Iraqi soldiers on Military Transition Teams (MTTs), but their stories either identify problems that were not necessarily cultural issues or do not clearly explain how the CAOCL training aided in their resolution. There is also a brief passage describing the inclusion of ethics training as part of the preparation for deploying overseas and interacting with a foreign population that makes for an uncomfortable intersection of moral decision making and cultural awareness. 

More importantly, there is an equal lack of discussion about the application of this cultural learning. A few passages offer instances of using Arabic tactical phrases at checkpoints as well as some interactions with key civilians, but the section labeled “The Big So What?” does not fully deliver a satisfactory answer. Several Marines comment on the value of “operational culture” training that transcended the “touchy feely” classes, but the substance of that curriculum is never clearly articulated. The book makes only indirect references to the culture program’s connection to broader strategic and doctrinal concepts for the Marine Corps. At best, it is mostly implied that language and cultural knowledge would be devices of “winning the hearts and minds” in counterinsurgency campaigns. Yet, the Marines who helped create the program sharply assert that these programs were not about “sensitivity” or creating “empathy.” So what exactly were the ends? Interviewed Marines attest that they supported language and cultural training as a means to defeat the enemy, and more importantly, to keep their own Marines safe. Several of them make reference to using culture to “build relationships” with locals, but how this was connected to counterinsurgency doctrine while being disconnected to sensitivity and empathy is not clearly articulated. 

Two larger dilemmas persist in regard to “culture” and the US Marine Corps--one that is addressed in this volume and another that is not.  The challenge that the author does discuss is that of the permanency of cultural training, both in its impact in the operational environment and within the Marine Corps itself. Whatever small gains individual Marines made with the use of their cultural and language skills, the benefits were often undermined by the reality of short operational rotations in theater. Any value gained from personal relationships with key locals disappeared with a unit’s departure and new rapports had to be established all over again with incoming forces, often with different personalities and agendas. Therefore, there was no long-term investment for individual Marines in truly understanding “culture,” as many emulated the behaviors of foreign tourists who read a traveler’s phrase book just to know enough to function for a short stay. Holmes-Eber invites the discussion of the Marine Corps’ enduring programs to maintain institutional knowledge and application of cultural understanding for the extended future. Her most thought-provoking chapter examines the debate about keeping these skill sets among a handful of specialists or throughout the entire rank and file. She also outlines the cost and benefits of having experts such as foreign and regional area officers (RAO/FAO) or Marine Corps Special Forces Command (MARSOC) maintaining control over all things language and culture.    

The major dilemma with culture that does not get acknowledged among all the tactical successes concerns the elements of culture that extend beyond the cursory and superficial greetings and daily engagements with individuals from a foreign nation. To be sure, CAOCL’s mission was to create cultural “understanding,” but Marines were rarely given guidance on broader Iraqi or Afghan cultural facets, many of which forced them to compromise their own moral code in the name of accomplishing their missions. Cultural training did not help countless Marines contend with the more unsavory realities in Afghanistan and Iraq, such as graft, corruption, kickbacks, extortion, violent intimidation, institutional nepotism, false official reporting, and sadly, sexual abuse of children, in a culturally astute way. While finding time to fit in cultural PowerPoint presentations in already saturated training schedules was a Herculean feat for many Marines units, the challenge of reconciling the other unsavory aspects of the local culture needs to be included in the narrative of the Marine Corps embracing “culture” as part of its approach to modern war. For many, this was the real test of the intersection of Marine culture and foreign culture, which birthed several distasteful catchphrase guidelines such as “Iraqi good-enough” and “acceptable level of corruption.” 

Other quibbles with the book’s content include a lack of critical analysis of the program itself. Every testimonial provided by a Marine applauds the positive outcomes of the CAOCL program while any negatives that came with its implementation were nobly overcome by traditional Marine “adaptability.” Additionally, nearly all of the veterans quoted were field grade officers (majors and lieutenant colonels), representing only a limited portion of the rank and file population of the Corps. Third, the book does not adequately examine the work of Marine Corps Intelligence Activity, whose mission was to provide cultural intelligence to forward deployed units, or the roles of Afghanistan/Pakistan hands, foreign area officers, cultural advisors, or other cultural support elements. Lastly, although published in 2014, nearly all of the examples in this book focus on experiences from Operation Iraqi Freedom while rarely drawing from efforts in Afghanistan. 

The incorporation of language and cultural training into the Marine Corps for Iraq and Afghanistan was nothing short of monumental. In doing so, the Corps added another laudable chapter to its legend of being some of military history’s most adaptive warriors. The forced acceptance then rushed application of these programs, antithetical to the USMC’s own ethos into one of the most challenging combat environments in recent memory, is most certainly worthy of the fine telling that it is provided in this monograph. But more importantly, the book highlights the need for further study and understanding of what culture actually means to the US Armed Forces and how it fits not just on the tactical level, but into the broader spectrum of military doctrine and national strategy. 




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Citation: Bradford Wineman. Review of Holmes-Eber, Paula, Culture in Conflict: Irregular Warfare, Culture Policy, and the Marine Corps.. H-War, H-Net Reviews. March, 2016. URL:

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