A recent article in the New York Times Book Review surveys new anthropological writing on Afghanistan, with an eye to contrasting this with ongoing U. S. military efforts to carry out effective culturally-informed counterinsurgency in that country. The reviewer wants to underscore the considerable challenges the U. S. — or any military — faces when it aspires effectively to apply cultural knowledge to its missions. Highlighting these difficulties, the review contrasts ethnographically-grounded insights about the workings of local politics, power, and culture from anthropologist Noah Coburn’s book Bazaar Politics with the often very different top-down efforts of “centralizers, modernizers, and humanitarians” in Afghanistan to apply cultural knowledge to encourage particular outcomes.

The review also makes passing reference to a report written by a commission I chaired for the American Anthropological Association, which described in some depth many of the concerns anthropologists have had about a U. S. Army program to collect and apply cultural knowledge to its decision-making in theater. Even as the U. S. mission in Afghanistan follows its long and winding path toward an end-game, the question of how the military chooses to make sense out of, and to apply, local cultural knowledge, promises to be a significant feature of its mission for years to come. The U. S. military is likely to continue to have an interest in developing its cultural assets, as it is deployed in the context of varieties of “operations other than war,” including humanitarian, stability, development, and diplomacy operations. And, just as the Times review reflects on the U. S. military’s “applied anthropology” in Afghanistan, now is a timely moment to sort though what the military’s cultural turn might mean for the U. S.’s foreign policy and global footprint for the foreseeable future.

This is exactly the spirit behind a conference I’ve organized together with Vanderbilt University’s Curb Center, to be hosted by the Wilson Center in Washington D. C. this December 9th. The conference offers a snapshot — along with discussion of associated implications — of ongoing developments across the U. S. military dedicated to cultural capacity-building. Giving particular attention to clusters of activity around: cultural training and education, cultural data collection and analysis, and cultural heritage conservation and management, this conference also locates this conversation on the frontier between the U. S. military’s cultural policy-making, program-building, and operations, on the one hand, and diverse humanitarian efforts into which it is often drawn, on the other. Further details about the organization of the conference, including speakers, can be found here. What follows is the conference precis:


Invited Conference:

Accounting for Culture in the Military: 

Implications for Future Humanitarian Cooperation


This one-day conference, organized by Vanderbilt University’s Curb Center for Art, Enterprise, and Public Policy and hosted by the program in United States Studies at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars in Washington D.C., builds directly upon the success of the Curb Center’s Arts Industries Policy Forum. Since 2003, this forum has convened cultural policy experts and government decision-makers to discuss the policy implications of key cultural issues through a participant-driven, nonpartisan program of information exchange. This has included attention to the implications of culture for national security, as represented by 2008’s Cultural Diplomacy and the National Interest, and which the present conference actively extends. As host, the Wilson Center’s program in United States Studies has a track record of attention to complementary concerns, including: the relationship between U.S. culture and Muslims in the U.S., the domestic impacts of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the work of citizen diplomacy. As partners, the Curb and Wilson centers are well-prepared to take the next step to examine the varied connections between culture and security in greater depth.

This conference takes that step focusing specifically upon the U.S. military’s efforts to develop cultural expertise and the forms that this expertise is currently taking. While the military has made the question of culture a focus of particular attention starting in the mid-2000s, in the process elaborating doctrinal, strategic, and operational ways both of understanding and applying cultural knowledge, this conference seeks to build a broader inter-agency conversation among military and non-military stakeholders about implications of the U.S. military’s several approaches to cultural problem-solving. If these approaches are non-traditional for the military, they are nevertheless becoming increasingly relevant to the work of other government agencies and non-governmental actors, across a wide array of efforts in diplomacy, development, and humanitarian relief, among others.  This makes the present moment a good one for a fruitful exchange with stakeholders across government and outside of government regarding the ways that the military understands the relationship of culture to security.


That the purposes, methods, and organization of the U.S. military have changed dramatically since the Cold War is now taken largely for granted. Nowhere have these changes been more evident than in the pursuit by the military in recent years to increase its cultural understanding, and to incorporate cultural knowledge into its operations. And while the military’s cultural turn has been widely noted, most often as represented by the so-called “Petraeus doctrine” of culture-centric counterinsurgency, implications of the military’s turn to culture are still not widely recognized or well-understood beyond the military itself.

This turn is not illustrated by a single overarching approach, so much as by multiple parallel approaches across the services meeting a variety of different needs, among them: training and education, cultural intelligence and analysis, and culturally-informed decision-making in theater, including cultural heritage resource management. As the military has developed a variety of culture-based policies, programs, and operational goals to meet its current mission requirements, these developments have remained largely siloed within the DoD. But, as present and future military missions increasingly include traditionally non-military dimensions, forms of expertise, and priorities, civil-military collaborations are becoming more regular and routine. This makes the need for a more comprehensive inter-agency understanding of the military’s particular approaches to culture more urgent, both at present and during peacetime after the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have wound down.

Since the military’s commitment to cultural capacity-building has been widely discussed, we will not rehearse the details of this story here. But, briefly, the more important drivers include the following: 1) In broad terms, post-Cold War and post-9/11 realities have been regularly referenced by the U.S. policy community using “clash of civilizations” frameworks, for which soft power becomes a crucial tool, and which are understood in essence as cultural conflicts; 2) for the military this has meant refocusing basic objectives toward waging asymmetric warfare, that is, unconventional conflicts among non-state actors and with culturally distinct populations; 3) for which counterinsurgency doctrine, requiring significant awareness of and sustained engagement with non-combatant cultural communities, has become the answer; 4) and where its ongoing missions in Iraq and Afghanistan have spurred the military to seek to rapidly raise its perceived “cultural knowledge gap” and to build up a sustainable cultural capacity.

5) Paralleling these developments, as the U.S. military’s global footprint has shifted significantly away from preparing for the next large conventional conflict, its logistical capabilities have been utilized as a first responder and global backstop for diverse humanitarian disasters, ranging from the 2004 Banda Aceh Tsunami to the 2010 Haiti earthquake; 6) As a humanitarian agency, the military must frequently coordinate with such diverse civilian and NGO actors as the United Nations Development Programme, USAID, the Department of State, other development, refugee, and human rights organizations, and including the Smithsonian; 7) If many of these activities are incorporated into counterinsurgency efforts in Afghanistan (often in the form of civil-military cooperation on provincial reconstruction or civil affairs teams), they are also recognized parts of military doctrine as “operations other than war” (MOOTW) or as “stability, security, transition and reconstruction operations” (SSTR), 8 ) which complexly combine work in development, diplomacy, peace-keeping, human rights, governance, and reconciliation, among other activities, requiring an in-depth concern for relevant “socio-cultural dynamics.”

The increase in civil-military collaborations in this changing environment of military cultural initiatives has also been characterized by regular reaching out to new interlocutors, in government, in academia, and in the private sector. This involves a broad range of “culture experts” historically not looked to by the military, and including: sociocultural anthropologists, archaeologists, cultural geographers, cultural psychologists,  people with backgrounds in communications, international relations, cultural studies, and other subject matter experts from the humanities (e. g. experts in Arabic literature). However, such military-academic relationships can present conceptual, practical, and even ethical, dilemmas, where differences in background and training, in conceptual framing, and in modes of analysis can mean that potential collaborators find it challenging to bridge these divides. They are often working with different definitions of culture and its relationship to policy in the first place, which makes constructive exchanges about cultural interpretation, analysis, assessment, or metrics, difficult to achieve.

Another collaborative challenge, in the context of inter-agency whole-of-government efforts, is that the different historical roles of stakeholders lead to distinct assumptions about best practices and tools, which can be perceived as competitive rather than complementary. Finally, discussions of new cultural initiatives that require coordination across agencies, such as standing up rapid cultural response teams dedicated to helping secure national heritage or patrimonies in the aftermath of humanitarian disasters, also create new working relationships between the military and counterparts, which would benefit from substantial ground clearing. For these reasons, this conference seeks to open up a space for dialogue about military-culture efforts along the frontier of potential collaborations between military and non-military counterparts.