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NATO’s long-lasting relevance

Plus ça change…

A new focus on cultural intelligence in the military takes us back over well-trodden ground

David J. Bercuson

Emily Spencer undertakes a daunting task in writing Solving the People Puzzle: Cultural Intelligence and Special Operations Forces. In one short book she tries to introduce and explain the concept of cultural intelligence as applied to contemporary military operations while tying it to special forces operations in what she calls the “contemporary operating environment.” The contemporary operating environment, she explains, is war in places such as Afghanistan and Iraq—or any of the many insurgencies raging around the globe today.

The strength of this book is that Spencer succeeds admirably in spelling out what cultural intelligence is and why it is so important for military forces today. She also gives a somewhat abridged but equally valuable account of what special forces are (including Canada’s own Joint Task Force Two) and why they are so suited to some of the needs of counter-insurgency war. She does less well in tying cultural intelligence directly to special forces in that she fails to present a clear explanation why cultural intelligence should be any more, or any less, important to special forces than to, say, conventional infantry.

This is not a book for a general reader—it is a professionally oriented primer. The writing is dense, acronyms abound, and the author takes for granted that many of the ideas and situations she discusses will be familiar to her audience. That is fair enough because the book was clearly not written for sale at big box stores. But it is a shame that the parts of this book that are so valuable will only reach a small and highly specialized audience.

Spencer’s aim is to describe the new environment within which Canadian and other western military forces operate in places like Iraq and Afghanistan and to explain how the gathering and dissemination of cultural knowledge about the societies within which those insurgencies are being fought—solving the people puzzle—can be a distinctly valuable tool in defeating the enemy and winning military victory. She presents the conundrum of counter-insurgency war very clearly—the need to “win the hearts and minds” of the people so as to isolate the insurgents and choke them off. But she does so in a way that would leave the uninitiated with the impression that the challenges of counter-insurgency war are new. To give but one example, she quotes the French army’s head of the doctrine and combat development bureau as declaring that “the population constitutes a principal actor in conflicts, and that is a totally new factor.” Really? Has he never read Thucydides’ history of the Peloponnesian war?

The Americans in Vietnam 40 years ago discussed the need to win the hearts and minds of the South Vietnamese, which the grunts derisively labelled WHAM. The people, as Carl von Clausewitz pointed out so astutely in his classic study Vom Kriege (On War), have always been an essential component of war. And the enemy’s people have also usually been a target in war. What is different about counter-insurgency war from, say, state-to-state conflict is that the people, as Mao Tse-tung once declared, are “the sea” within which the guerrilla “fish” swim. But that type of war has also been around for a very long time; it is precisely the type of war that the biblical Maccabees fought against their Greek oppressors. Thus, although cultural intelligence as it is now being studied and put into practice by militaries in the United States, Canada, France, Britain, etc., is a singularly valuable tool in fighting counter-insurgency war, insurgency is hardly new in warfare.

War predates civilization. It is a universal experience that no organized society seems to have been able to avoid. Cave paintings show armies clashing in prehistoric times. Lawrence H. Keeley wrote in War Before Civilization: The Myth of the Peaceful Savage that resorting to organized violence to achieve goals that cannot be obtained through peaceful means may be basic to human nature—male human nature anyway. Azar Gat’s War in Human Civilization depicts war as arising out of a basic male need to procreate widely as a means to dominate through building familial alliances. War, then, has been around a very long time. Not much about war is ever really new; old lessons are constantly relearned and recycled, including lessons about cultural intelligence.

This does not mean that war does not change. Technological advances—many of which are driven by war and not the other way around—have transformed how wars are fought. It is obvious that innovations from the composite bow to the stirrup to the machine gun to unoccupied aerial vehicles (UAVs), linked by satellites to bases thousands of kilometres away and carrying GPS-guided munitions, have altered the face of war. But the basic aim of war—killing people and destroying property for political purposes as opposed to sheer plunder—is fundamentally the same today as in Alexander the Great’s time. The dirty, fear-ridden and often brutalizing life of the combat soldier today is little different from that of the Greek hoplite 2,500 years ago.

These realities do not stop those who study war and the practitioners of war from seeking ways to solve its apparent eternal mysteries, and in particular to dispel the “fog of war.” This last concept, most famously elaborated by Clausewitz, grows out of the basic confusion of combat, which arises from the extreme difficulty of really knowing what is happening in a battle.

Communicating information in war, from the bottom to the very top of the chain of command, is like playing the child’s game of broken telephone while under fire. The combatants themselves focus on the immediate danger to them—the sniper or the machine gunner—and are often well nigh oblivious to what else is happening around them. Hence the confusion, arising out of fear and adrenalin, about what is going on moment to moment.

Since the confusion is rooted in the clash of arms itself, confusion accompanies the accounts of the action up the chain of command and down through history to the historians who try to piece it all together. Inevitably the commanders who must make quick decisions during the clash of arms will themselves be confused, and their orders may be completely irrelevant at best, mortally dangerous at worst.

As long as there has been war, this fog of war has hung over battle, and commanders have searched for ways to dissipate it. If only the experience of war and the events of war could be more clearly understood, if only the practitioners of war could be made more efficient in doing war, then perhaps war could be better focused if it cannot be purged entirely from human experience.

One good example of this issue is the Revolution in Military Affairs, which dominated military thinking in the mid to late 1990s in the U.S. and other western countries. This “revolution” was said to be based on various combinations of satellites, computers, UAVs and instant data links that

drew tactical intelligence into a network known as C4ISR—command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance. For the first time in the long history of warfare, it was believed by some analysts that C4ISR would actually lift the fog of war and give commanders incredible new clarity. All arms, all commanders, all staff would know what was happening when it was happening.

But war defeated the RMA. One U.S. armoured division commander who led his unit to the southern outskirts of Baghdad in the spring of 2003 told reporters that his men never knew where the Iraqi armour was until they were attacked.

The current wars in Afghanistan, Iraq and Palestine, and countless other parts of the globe, are not great clashes of armour, artillery and attack aircraft. They are “wars among the people,” as former British general Rupert Smith described them recently in The Utility of Force: The Art of War in the Modern World. And in these wars, the Canadian and other western military forces are rediscovering that insurgents aim to overthrow governing authorities by winning the people over and by establishing shadow governments among the people, eventually to render “legitimate” authority completely untenable.

In these wars it is vitally important to know and understand the contours and the structure of the culture within which the struggle is being waged. This entails much more than identifying who is the enemy and who is not—although that is often in itself very difficult. It means essentially thinking in another culture, as Spencer aptly points out—as opposed to thinking in another language—so as to understand what motivates the people among whom the armed conflict is taking place.

Unless that capability is well developed, much of what is done to win the people over is useless and even counterproductive. Canadian general David Fraser, NATO commander in Sector South (which included Kandahar) in 2006, would later observe: “I underestimated one factor—culture … I was looking at the wrong map—I needed to look at the tribal map, not the geographic map.”

Thus we come to the concept of cultural intelligence now widely discussed in western military circles and the subject of Solving the People Puzzle. Spencer sets out to explain what cultural intelligence is, why it is important, how it can best be used effectively and how we might prepare our military forces to operate within cultural milieus that are very different from our own. She even discusses the ethics of using cultural intelligence in war because, despite the benign sounding name of it, it is after all another means of finding and killing the enemy. In all this she accomplishes a difficult task well. But this book promises more. It was written not only to outline the challenges of mastering the art or science of cultural intelligence, but also to show how cultural intelligence is uniquely important to special forces. And here she does not quite achieve her goal.

Special forces have been around for a long time, perhaps as long as war itself. In the Seven Years War (1756–1763), a New York militia major named Robert Rogers raised Rogers’ Rangers, an elite force of light infantry trained in forest warfare. They adopted Indian-style fighting—ambushes, quick withdrawals, harassing fire, living off the land. The creed of Rogers’ Rangers still motivates the U.S. Army Rangers today even though Rogers himself led his men to support the Loyalists against the revolutionaries in the American Revolution of 1775–83. In Canada, the ranger tradition was carried forward by the Queen’s York Rangers, which was a direct outgrowth of Rogers’ Rangers.

Spencer explains how special forces now operate. She shows the particular role they perform in counter-insurgency war—including targeted killing—and explains the many rivalries that have arisen between the Canadian Special Operations Forces Command and the regular army. She certainly demonstrates why cultural intelligence can be so valuable to special forces, who often operate clandestinely among the people, but she also shows how cultural intelligence can be important to conventional military operations. In fact, she urges the military in general to do more to prepare all its deploying forces to use cultural intelligence through enhanced education and training. But in doing so, she weakens her own stated argument that there is, or ought to be, a unique link between special forces and cultural intelligence in counter-insurgency operations. In other words, she has produced two books that are only loosely connected: one on cultural intelligence and one on special forces.

Still, there is much valuable information here and good cogent analysis for strategic analysts, military professionals and defence policy wonks. Military historians may be put off by claims that war has changed so much that old paradigms are no longer valid and that a whole new way of thinking is needed tactically, operationally and even strategically. Interested readers who succeed in absorbing Spencer’s message will be surprised to learn just how complicated counter-insurgency warfare is, especially today when it is conducted right in front of the world’s media. 

David J. Bercuson is a professor of history and the director of the Centre for Military and Strategic Studies at the University of Calgary. He is also a senior research fellow of the Canadian Defence and Foreign Affairs Institute.

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