Salil Puri and Blake Whitaker are PSYOP personnel and consultants with the Culper Group, an organization that provides training and consulting services to corporate and government clients. Mr. Puri earned a Bachelor’s in History, Psychology, Middle Eastern Studies, and Government, and a Master’s in Security Policy. Dr. Whitaker earned undergraduate and graduate degrees in History, completing a PhD focusing on post-colonial African conflict. These opinions are the authors’ own, and do not reflect the opinions of the US Army or the Department of Defense. The authors can be reached via [email protected].
If it weren’t so troubling, the irony behind the U.S. Army’s latest embarrassment would be hilarious. On April Fool’s Day of this year the Army released “ATP 3-24.3, Cultural and Situational Understanding”: a horribly written document chock-full of cultural faux pas and offensive language. If the comedic geniuses behind Range 15 had scripted this entire scenario purposefully, they probably couldn’t have done it better.
Criticism of the publication was so profound, the Army, as slow-moving as it is, decided to withdraw the ATP just a month after its release. One can assume that somewhere at the Combined Arms Center, fingers are crossed and people are wishing this whole fiasco would just go away. Let’s hope it doesn’t. The Army can’t get better without a lot of introspection.
This debacle gives America a rare insight into some of the critical institutional problems that continue to plague the Army when it comes to sophisticated efforts requiring academic consideration. These are problems that persist despite nearly 15 years of complex conflict that has demanded thoughtful and educated responses. Civilian criticism of the manual has focused on the fact that it is largely plagiarized, with some attention given to the sources it relies on, such as books of a homophobic and evangelical bent. These observations only scratch the surface.
Plagiarism is a problem, but it isn’t nearly as important as civilian academics and journalists seem to think. ATPs and FMs are meant to be practical guides, not original peer-reviewed material. A related and pressing concern is why the Army hasn’t adopted the practice of footnoting and citation that has proliferated out of academia, into professional journals, and even into journalism, in the form of hyperlinks. Citations don’t just give credit to sources, they encourage and direct further research—something that soldiers reading a 55-page manual on culture might want to do if culture is important to their mission. In high school, citations were a pain students endured to prove their work. In college, and certainly graduate school, students realize how important they are for the purpose of learning.
The failure with ATP 3-24.3 goes much deeper, though. Why was the Combined Arms Center even tasked with writing this document? Inherent to the concept of Combined Arms is the grouping of combat arms elements for the purposes of maneuver warfare. The first sentence of the manual identifies irregular warfare as being the primary motivator for cultural understanding. While the CAC may have dabbled briefly in this arena, the U.S. Army already has a Center of Excellence dedicated to the field of irregular and unconventional conflict: the U.S. Army JFK Special Warfare Center and School.
The Army already has SOF branches tasked with not just cultural understanding, but cultural competency: PSYOP, Civil Affairs, and Special Forces. Working within the 4th MISG is a PSYOP organization unlike anything found anywhere else in the Army: the Cultural Intelligence Element, formerly known as the Strategic Studies Detachment. The CIE is staffed by civilians with PhDs in fields such as anthropology and MAs in area studies. Perhaps it would have been a better idea to look to the Cultural Intelligence Element instead of the Combined Arms Center to draft the manual on cultural understanding?
What does it say about the authors of the ATP and the CAC itself that it allowed sources like the ones discussed above to even be considered for use? It says that there is no peer-review process established that would have stopped this disaster. It says that the people tasked with authoring the manual were patently and hilariously unqualified to do so. It says that other unqualified people tasked them with the mission.
Even the title of the ATP itself (“Cultural and Situational Understanding”) indicates a total lack of competency in this area. Understanding culture is an aspect of situational understanding, not the entirety of it, and the publication gives the reader no insight into the other aspects of situational understanding. The authors are probably experts in their respective fields, but we don’t ask PSYOP soldiers to write manuals on explosives disposal for a reason.
These are systemic and institutional issues, but the real root of the problem is much deeper. It’s philosophical. It is painfully obvious that this ATP wasn’t resourced and staffed correctly. High-priority items get the resources and staff they need; low-priority items don’t.
Despite years and years of lip service paid to developing cultural awareness and competency within the force, something that has become even more important with the recent regional alignment model, these efforts are an afterthought, not a main effort. Any soldier who has deployed has had to sit through briefings where senior NCOs who have never deployed teach classes on cultural awareness, explaining ‘getting off the bird in Kuwait at night, and it being 120 degrees outside, that’s what culture shock is’.
The solution to these problems isn’t even particularly difficult. Don’t ask professionals steeped in procedural thinking to write documents that require intellectual flexibility and theoretical comprehension. Culture is not a procedure. It is not a checklist. It is not a simple concept that can be rubber-stamped across theaters. Culture is a highly complex construct with meaning and definition that is fluid across usage, environment, and applications.
Training cultural competency requires a publication written by people who understand what culture is. It requires a modicum of resourcing directed toward the right authors. Too easy.