War and Culture

The most important problems that Arab militaries have experienced in battle since 1945 derive from behavioral patterns associated with Arab culture. It starts from the fact that the other explanations just don’t cover the full extent of the problem. The Russians probably helped the Arab armed forces more than they hurt, and while politicization and underdevelopment played important roles, they cannot explain the most damaging and consistent shortcomings of Arab militaries in the modern era. But it’s not enough just to demonstrate that the other explanations don’t fully explain the problem.

There is a compelling case to be made that the primary weaknesses experienced by the Arab armed forces since 1945 derive from culturally motivated patterns of behavior inculcated by Arab educational processes.

That said, dealing with culture is like working with nitroglycerin: it may be necessary to do so, even useful, but you have to handle it with great care. This is one of those instances. Culturally driven patterns of behavior are a critical element of the story of Arab military ineffectiveness, but culture lends itself too easily to all kinds of abuse. Like nitroglycerin, you have to treat culture with a lot of respect if you want to use it without doing a lot of damage.

The Development of War-Making

Human beings have been waging war for longer than we can remember. Warfare literally predates civilization and written history. Yet the methods of war-making have changed radically over time as technology and human organization have evolved. Unorganized bands of spear-throwing men gave way to organized formations of spear- and shield- (and sword-) bearing men, which gave way to bands of armored men mounted on horses, and so on up to the age of drones, cyberwar, and stand-off precision munitions.

Over the millennia, it has been this interaction between technology and human organization that has defined war-making in each era. Of course, the technology has been more unpredictable and harder to control than the organization. The technology typically comes into being for reasons having little to do with war-making, and rarely at the opportune moment for war leaders. Yes, Oppenheimer and company harnessed the atom in time to help the United States win World War II, but they were able to do so only because Rutherford, Bohr, Einstein, and others had discovered the basic scientific principles by then, and those discoveries had nothing to do with warfare. Generals have probably always wanted to be able to wage war from the air, but that was effectively impossible before the Wright brothers figured out how to fly.

Humans have often adapted scientific principles to develop new weapons for a war when those principles were known, but that’s about as far as it goes. German scientists devised the Snorkel to make their U-boats more survivable in response to Admiral Dönitz’s pleas during the Second World War, but Nelson, Andrea Doria, and even Themistocles would have loved to have had submarines too; their wants had little impact on the progress of technological development. When the scientific principles are unknown, they are unknown, and a general cannot demand that they advance the way that he can his armies. As a result, technology has really only ever been marginally responsive to the desires of the warrior, even though it is one of the most important factors driving the evolution of warfare.

Instead, the part of warfare that humans have been best able to control has been our own organization, and there the demands of war have weighed heavily. Throughout history, war leaders have sought and experimented with new and better methods of organizing (and employing those organizations) to defeat their foes. Although there are often difficult political and bureaucratic fights to be won to institute a new organization, it has typically proven far easier to increase military power by changing organizations (and the tasks that those organizations perform) than to try to do so by demanding new weapons. Indeed, as many starting with Charles Tilly have noted, organizing for war has been an important element in the development of states themselves.

Thus, technology can be said to be an “objective” condition of war-making, proceeding largely at its own pace and only modestly susceptible to human manipulation at any given time. In contrast, organization and the employment of military organizations—what we call tactics and strategy—can be seen as a “subjective” condition that humans can change far more easily to try to gain advantages with the technology at hand. Another way of putting it is that at any given moment in time, the technology available to mankind makes it possible to fight in many different ways, and different societies and militaries will try to organize themselves and use those organizations to act in different ways to gain advantages in battle.

The Dominant Mode of Warfare

Warfare is a competitive activity. For that reason, if only in theory, there will always be a “best” way to organize and act in battle given the available technology. I refer to that best way as the “dominant mode of warfare” of the time. Few societies ever perfect the dominant mode of warfare, but those that do typically enjoy great success on the battlefield. Even those that come closer to the dominant mode than their foes secure an advantage, possibly a decisive one. Indeed, it is ultimately what we mean when we talk about one country having greater military effectiveness than another. The Chadian armies of the 1980s were hardly the epitome of twentieth-century warfare, yet they were much better at practicing the dominant mode of warfare of that era than their Libyan foes, and that enabled them to defeat Libya despite all of the Libyan advantages in firepower, air power, fortifications, and logistics. The Chadians demonstrated greater military effectiveness, and that is why they won.

The concept of military effectiveness itself ultimately derives from an unstated conception that there is just such a “best” way of doing things at any point in time given the technology available. It is what US military personnel implicitly mean when they refer to “best military practices.” That is why it is useful to have a concept such as the dominant mode of warfare, because it establishes a constantly evolving but absolute ideal that the relative concept of military effectiveness can be measured against. The great military historian John Lynn has made a similar point, suggesting the idea of “paradigm” armies that define the height of military effectiveness at any given time, the best practices to which other militaries aspire.3 These armies define the paradigm because they have proven best at practicing the dominant mode of warfare of their era.

Of course, those nations with the highest military effectiveness—those best able to perform the dominant mode of warfare—are not inevitably bound to win at war because other factors such as numerical balances, generalship, etc., can trump military effectiveness. But like the Chadians, they have an important advantage that can prove decisive. For that reason, most militaries endlessly (and rightly) pursue the dominant mode of warfare of their time, and the best try to refine or even reinvent it, trying new technologies or new organizations and methods to take advantage of existing technology.

The Role of Culture

The notion that there is always a dominant mode of warfare to which most militaries will aspire is a way of placing military effectiveness in the context of time and circumstance. This is important because it points out that what constitutes military effectiveness at any given time and what it takes to be a dominant military change over time as the dominant mode changes. Because technology changes and because humans are constantly innovating new ways to organize and employ that technology, the best practices that constitute the epitome of military effectiveness are constantly changing too, mostly evolving slowly but sometimes very quickly in what have been called revolutions in military affairs.

The reason that this is important is that what is required from groups of humans to achieve the dominant mode of warfare at any given time is also constantly changing. Human beings are not all alike, nor are groups of human beings. Just as individuals have different abilities and ways of doing things, so too do groups and societies, inculcated by the culture of the society. Those traits are enormously important to war-making, and always have been throughout human history.

Spears, swords, and shields were some of the earliest weapons known to mankind but there are lots of different ways to use them in battle. The Greek phalanx was a far more effective way to use those weapons than the way most ancient civilizations had previously. But not every society could field a competent phalanx. Really only a very few could, and some—notably Sparta—were much better than others. That is because what it took to field an effective phalanx was men steeped in certain patterns of behavior that caused them to act in a certain way and that in turn allowed them to perform the way that the organization and tactics of the phalanx required. Really only Greek city states (and their colonies) could produce enough such men to field a phalanx.

Sparta famously engineered its entire culture to produce the maximum number of men who would act in exactly the best manner possible to make the phalanx effective. So for a period of time, the Greeks figured out the best way to employ the war-making technology of the time (spears, shields, and swords). But only the culture of the Greek city state produced large numbers of men able to function effectively in a phalanx. No other ancient society of the time could do so. And Spartan culture took that to its absolute extreme, making the Spartan phalanx the most effective of all.

In other words, what made Sparta the greatest military of its era was its culture. Spartan culture was consciously engineered to produce large numbers of men who would axiomatically perform in the manner that was most conducive to success in the phalanx, and as long as Spartan culture continued to produce large numbers of such men, and as long as the phalanx was the dominant mode of war-making, Sparta was the greatest military power.

The same phenomenon was at work in later eras with English longbowmen, Parthian cataphracts, Mongol horse archers, Swiss pikemen, British men-of-war, German panzer divisions, and any number of other dominant military forces that won not because of better technology, but because their societies produced relatively large numbers of men with a skill set that enabled them to use the existing technology in the best way possible. And because they produced considerably more such men than their rivals, in some cases having men uniquely able to employ the military technology of the era, they had an enormous advantage over their foes.

What this demonstrates is that culturally derived traits and behavior can be absolutely critical in determining military effectiveness, but what matters is the extent to which those traits mesh with the technology and organization (including the tactics) being employed by the armies of that era. When the culturally driven traits of a society mesh well with the demands of the dominant mode of warfare of the era, the armies of that society will tend to be more effective, and in some cases may prove all-conquering. When they do not mesh, the armies of that society will tend to do worse and—unless saved by other factors such as numbers, wealth, favorable geography, powerful allies, etc.—the society may be wiped out altogether.

Inevitably, the traits and behavior that allow a military to succeed will change over time as the dominant mode of warfare changes. Some societies may deliberately adapt, and adopt cultural practices that serve the dominant mode of warfare, as the Spartans (and arguably the Prussians and Israelis) did. Most won’t do so consciously, but they will nevertheless be helped or hindered anyway based on the extent to which the dominant mode of war suits the behavioral patterns fostered by their society—their culture—which typically will have evolved for reasons unrelated to war-making.

The Mongols did not become great horse archers purposely so that they could conquer Eurasia. The Mongols became great horse archers because those were the skills they needed to survive on the twelfth-century Eurasian steppe. However, once their society developed this skill and Mongol culture began to produce large numbers of skilled horse archers, it gave Mongol warlords such as Genghis Khan a military tool that enabled him to conquer Eurasia. The Mongol army defined the dominant mode of warfare of the time. Although the technology they employed—the horse and composite bow—were readily available to other societies, no one was able to use it to make war as well as the Mongols. This gave them an overwhelming tactical advantage over so many other societies whose cultures did not produce large numbers of skilled horse archers, not by any mistake on their part, but simply because their physical and historical circumstances did not create a need for large numbers of skilled horse archers.

The Mongols are an extreme example, useful to illustrate the point. Let me turn to another example that shows the more normal course of how culture and warfare interact over time. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, European wars were fought largely with muzzle-loading, smoothbore muskets; flat trajectory cannon; and horsemen armed with swords, lances, and pistols. This technology defined the dominant mode of warfare for that era, and over time, the best armies learned how to organize themselves, train, and devise tactics to get the greatest performance when using that technology. Specifically, they learned to organize large groups of infantry in tight formations to maximize firepower. Because muskets were horribly inaccurate, it was possible to have such formations walk slowly, in formation, to a point on the battlefield, then shift from a marching formation (column) to a firing formation (line) and begin firing at the enemy, reloading, and firing again. The cavalry of the time was typically held back, waiting for an opportunity to charge forward and terrorize, disorder, and break enemy infantry formations, as well as overrun enemy artillery. The artillery sought to slaughter and disorganize enemy infantry (and cavalry) to render them more vulnerable to friendly infantry and cavalry.

All of this called for a very particular set of skills and behavior to produce military effectiveness, let alone victory. If we just stick with the infantry of that time, we see that they had to be able to move in formation and not become disorganized. They had to be able to fire and (of even greater importance) reload their muskets while being fired at by their enemy counterparts often no more than 50 yards away. And they had to be willing and able to eventually fix bayonets, charge the enemy, and kill him in hand-to-hand combat. For the soldiers, that meant that they needed to be brave (or inebriated); highly disciplined; well-practiced at marching in formation, firing, and reloading; and competent in hand-to-hand combat. For junior officers, it meant that they needed to be able to organize the formations of their men, shift from one formation to another at a moment’s notice, and move them quickly and efficiently around the battlefield. In particular, they had to maintain iron discipline among their troops in the maelstrom of an eighteenth-century battle, which required that their men fear them more than the enemy. And they had to be brave enough to stand or charge, as directed when directed, setting an example for their men to follow. It is important to note that field officers in eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century European armies were not expected to show lots of creativity and initiative. Indeed, they were generally trained and encouraged to be unquestioning martinets because that was what was needed from lower-ranking officers for an army to be successful in this mode of warfare.

The deprecation of independent action by junior officers was in large part a result of the fact that the general commanding an eighteenth-century European army could (theoretically) see the entire battlefield, and it was his responsibility to formulate strategy, look for opportunities, and maneuver his forces in response to the actions of his adversary. The last thing that an eighteenth-century general wanted was a subordinate acting on his own—or refusing an order from the general orchestrating the battle. (General Seydlitz’s famous act of insubordination to Frederick the Great at the battle of Zorndorf was a salient exception proving the rule.) An eighteenth-century army would have been pulverized if all of its captains and majors made decisions for themselves and acted independently, even if in pursuit of their commander’s overall objective. The strength of such an army was in the coordination of its forces and the ability of a general to see (or create) an opportunity—a mistake by his adversary—and then quickly concentrate superior force against it. Napoleon’s victory at Austerlitz, achieved by separating the Austrians and Russians and then crushing each in turn, is a perfect example. On the other hand, if some English major at Waterloo had seen a hole in Napoleon’s line and charged in with his battalion, it would have created a battalion-sized hole in the English lines, through which Napoleon would have quickly pushed a division or a corps. As Wellington would have been the first to warn, nothing could have been more disastrous, and why the Iron Duke would never have countenanced it.

Indeed, one of the most famous instances of such independent and creative officering from that time—Sir John Colborne’s defense against the French Guard at the end of the Battle of Waterloo—is a perfect exception proving the rule. Colonel Colborne commanded the 52nd Regiment of Foot at Waterloo and during the final attack by Napoleon’s Middle Guard, he led his men out of the line of British infantry regiments and turned them at a right angle to fire into the flank of the French, helping to rout one of the French battalions. It is worth noting that this only came at the very end of the battle, when the French had completely shot their bolt and were making one last, desperate attempt to break the British lines. Had Napoleon anything left to counter Colborne’s move, it could have been disastrous. But he didn’t and so it worked. Moreover, Colborne’s feat is legendary because he was the only battalion commander who did so. There were several dozen others manning the ridgeline all afternoon, facing repeated attacks, and none of them (including Colborne earlier) had tried this stunt. Moreover, even when Colborne did it, he was the only one. None of his peers thought to do the same. Colborne was a celebrated exception, but he was very much an exception to the rule of the time, and he was only celebrated because he tried it in exceptional circumstances that allowed it to succeed.

Fast forward to the twentieth century and everything has changed. New technology has emerged: automatic weapons, indirect fire artillery, trucks, tanks, airplanes. They have transformed the battlefield and defined a new dominant mode of warfare. Firepower has become so lethal that armies must disperse and rely on camouflage at all times. Demographic and political changes have also placed far larger armies at the disposal of the generals. Ground forces must deploy in open order, concealed as best they can, and moving very quickly whenever forced to do so. Given the C3I (command, control, communications and intelligence) available at the time, no supreme commander could possibly control such forces in real time let alone orchestrate a battle the way that an eighteenth-century general would. As a result, the skills required of soldiers and (especially) field officers to succeed have changed dramatically. Now, junior officers (including even NCOs) are expected to understand the strategic plan of their commander but act independently to try to accomplish the commander’s objectives, the famous German principle of auftragstaktik. In this mode of war, tactical commanders have to show initiative and creativity to win tactical victories. The job of the general is now to recognize the pattern of tactical victories, reinforce success by committing reserves, and so turn the tactical victories won by his subordinates into strategic victories (largely by breaking through the enemy’s front lines, routing his reserves and rear area services, and either surrounding or causing the logistical and psychological collapse of the enemy army). For those familiar with it, Stephen Biddle’s concept of the “modern system” of warfare captures this approach, representing the dominant mode of warfare of the twentieth century.

The point of this comparison is to illustrate that what it means for a military to be effective changes over time as the dominant mode of warfare changes. The skills that allowed the British Army to thrive on both eighteenth-century European and nineteenth-century colonial battlefields were the same skills that caused it to consistently underperform in the wars of the twentieth century. It was largely the same British Army—with new kit—fighting largely the same way. But the skills, methods, and approaches to warfighting that produced success at Blenheim, Waterloo, and Omdurman produced disaster at the Somme, Gazala, and Goodwood. The dominant mode of warfare had changed, but the British Army had not, and its military effectiveness suffered as a result.

It should not be surprising that some societies (and some military organizations) will be better able to produce the skills required by the dominant mode of warfare than others. Those that do demonstrate greater military effectiveness than those that don’t. Those that produce these skills in the greatest abundance tend to be Lynn’s paradigm armies. As the great French philosopher Raymond Aron once observed, “An army always resembles the country from which it is raised and of which it is the expression.”

To some extent, this explains the rise and fall of some countries and their militaries. Of course, economics explains a lot of that, but there are always countries that punch far above their weight militarily in any given historical period: the Swiss during the sixteenth century, the Swedes during the seventeenth century, the Prussians during the eighteenth century, the English and American Confederacy during the nineteenth century, and the Germans and Israelis during the twentieth century. It would be argued that in every case it was because their society just happened to produce large numbers of men with the traits required for success by the dominant mode of warfare of the era. Of course, over time, technology shifted, the dominant mode of warfare changed, and what was required to succeed in war changed, disadvantaging those who had once been dominant and bringing to power new countries whose societies produced large numbers of men with the requisite skill sets (or behavioral patterns) needed to succeed in the new dominant mode of war. Thus the Swedes were the terrors of the seventeenth-century battlefield and that made them a major player in European international relations at that time. But by the eighteenth century they were no more potent than any other European country, and so they declined to a second-rank power as befitting their economic, demographic, and other endowments.

People’s behavioral traits can be shaped by many different factors. Every kind of human grouping has a culture, but different kinds of groupings have greater abilities to inculcate that culture than others. The community or society we are born into (the country, nation, state, empire, etc.) typically has the greatest ability because it dictates childrearing practices and the educational methods employed with children and adolescents. Nothing is a more potent means of socializing people into a set of cultural norms.

But institutions and organizations within a society develop their own cultures too. Often these cultures are themselves influenced by the wider society’s culture. In other circumstances, they may employ a variation on that wider culture, or develop something quite different—even directly contrary to the wider culture. Militaries can be very powerful agents of socialization because they take relatively young men (overwhelmingly men in the past, still mostly at present) and put them through ferocious forms of education—what we call training—to try to get them to think and act differently than they did as civilians. Indeed, military training is a deliberate form of cultural socialization. It is how armies get people to think and act in the ways considered most conducive to warfighting by that society at that time.

So it is important to recognize that while the traits and behaviors that provide an advantage or disadvantage to militaries at any time given the dominant mode of warfare of that era are inevitably derived from culture, that culture may be national/societal, it may be the organizational culture of the military (which may replicate that of the wider society or diverge from it in important ways), or it may be the culture of some important subgroup—a particular tribe or ethnicity, an elite military formation, etc. Indeed, it is a fascinating question how much the culture of the British Army—which produced such incredible success from 1689 to 1898 and then so many stunning failures from 1914 to 1945—was a product of the wider British culture and how much the product of the unique features of the British Army (like the regimental system) as it evolved over time.

No Judgments

Because it is culture—dominant or national, local or subcultural, institutional or organizational—that determines which societies, or which groups within societies, generate the largest numbers of men (and increasingly, women) with the skills needed for success in the dominant mode of warfare of the time, culture can obviously play a critical role in determining military fortunes. However, none of this should be seen as applauding one culture or denigrating another. Cultures, especially the cultures of nations and other societies that lie beyond mere military organizations, emphasize some traits and behavioral patterns over others based on the circumstances of the society, both physical and historical. The traits and patterns of behavior the culture favors make sense for its society in that place at that time.

In other words, culture can grant some advantages to a society in certain activities where two societies are competing, but that does not mean that one is superior to the other except in that narrow area of competition. Remembering both the Mongols and the Romans is helpful here. The Roman empire that stretched from the second century b.c. to the fifth century a.d. and the Mongol empire of the thirteenth century a.d. were both phenomenal conquerors. Both invaded numerous neighboring states and crushed their armies, fought vast wars, and were consistently victorious. In both cases, there were cultural aspects of their societies that were critical to their military successes. Both societies contained cultural tendencies that allowed them to generate much greater military power than their neighbors—whether it was the tactical excellence of the Roman legion or the Mongol archer, or the strategic ability of each society to keep generating large numbers of both. Both were often superior to the societies they conquered in this narrow aspect of human activity: warfare. That narrow superiority turned out to be extremely important, especially to peoples conquered by these empires, such as the Carthaginians and Chinese.

However, it does not follow that Roman or Mongol society was superior in general, or in every way, or in any other way other than war-making to other societies, even to those societies they conquered. Culture encompasses a vast range of traits related to an equally vast number of human activities. Just because the Mongols were better than the thirteenth-century Chinese at war-making does not mean that they were superior in any other way. The Chinese generally believed they were far more sophisticated, creative, and knowledgeable than the Mongols. They may well have been, suggesting their own culture was superior to that of the Mongols in producing many other desirable skills. That sophistication did not save them from conquest because the Mongols were superior in the one area that mattered when they clashed: war-making. (Had the Mongols and Chinese competed in poetry or pottery rather than killing, the outcome probably would have been very different.) But their competition was military, and the Mongols proved far superior in that one area. Similar arguments could be made about the relative advantages of Roman and Greek cultures—arguments in which many Romans would have agreed on the superiority of Greek philosophy, sculpture, rhetoric, etc., just not war-making.

There is also an important difference between the Romans and Mongols. Whereas Roman culture seems to have given the Romans an excellent ability to hold, retain, and integrate its conquests such that their empire lasted for centuries, Mongol culture, so equally superb at conquest, did not grant the same advantages to their empire. Mongol society did not do as well at holding and building on what they had conquered, and so the Mongol empire did not endure the way that the Roman empire did. Just because two great nations were equally adept at conquest did not mean that they were equally adept at other aspects of human endeavor. The advantages that culture may grant to warfare does not mean that that culture or its society are somehow superior in any way except in war-making at a particular moment in time.

Nevertheless, what should be clear from this discussion is that culture—national, subnational, and organizational—is an important element in military effectiveness. Moreover, just as we recognize that some cultures have proven instrumental to battlefield success by enhancing military effectiveness at certain periods of time, we should also recognize that other cultures can be just as critical to martial weakness by undermining military effectiveness. For every Sparta, Rome, Mongol horde, Wehrmacht, and Israel Defense Force there is likely to be another society badly hamstrung because its culture is not producing sufficient numbers of people with the traits best suited to the dominant mode of warfare of the time. In the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, that was exactly what happened to the Arabs.

Culture Wars

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.