How can we study modern warfare through the lens of culture? Different armies fought in different ways for reasons that don’t look very rational without considering cultural context. The ritualized tribal warfare of twentieth-century New Guinea looks more like middle school dodgeball than battle to us, but it probably would have been very familiar to the Mycenaean Greeks of the Iliad. When different cultural systems collide, the results can be devastating to one side until it adapts: in the initial Mongol invasion of Japan in 1274 the samurai challenged the invaders to single combat, only to discover with disastrous results that the Mongols did not share their idea of what a battle was supposed to be. And this isn’t just a topic for military historians. Understanding how culture bounds the way we (and our enemies) think about warfare will help to ensure we’re on the winning side in future conflicts; better to be the marauding Mongols than the stupefied samurai, looking for a divine wind to save them from their lack of cross-cultural understanding.

The Push of the Hoplites

While many contemporary Westerners might assume that the ancient Greeks—to whom we trace much of our cultural lineage—must naturally have had a similar cultural perspective on war as we do today, looking closely at the conduct of their wars shows this not to be the case. In most Greek city-states in the late Archaic period, only the wealthier members of society could become hoplites and serve in the military. Rather than using their income to hire others to fight for them, the yeoman farmers of the Greek city-states bought heavy armor and went to battle themselves. Clashes between city-states could arise from practical concerns like trade disputes, but they also could have their roots in longstanding grudges (like between the Argives and Spartans). Whatever the conflict, the Greeks met their adversaries, who were similarly composed of heavy infantry, on open ground and fought a decisive battle to resolve the issue at hand. Whoever won the battle erected a tropaion (from which we get the word “trophy”) of enemy armor to commemorate their victory, an act which would get an American soldier time at Leavenworth rather than accolades.

The cultural bounds of warfare aren’t irrational or crazy; in fact, they could be highly effective, as evidenced by the trouncing the hoplites gave to the Persians at Marathon in 490 BC and later at Thermopylae and Plataea. Throughout history, cultural influence has also reinforced domestic regimes and helped to limit the bounds of warfare. When the Athenians broke with tradition by refusing to meet the Spartans in open battle at the start of the Peloponnesian War, instead choosing to hide behind their Long Walls, it began a uniquely long and devastating war. To us, this seems obvious—if you are facing a superior enemy force, you avoid battle. To the Greeks, however, this was a revolution. By unmooring war from its previous cultural bounds, the Athenians opened the way for all sorts of social change. Mercenaries became common, the Greeks started using light missile troops called peltasts, and there was domestic upheaval. When Athens began hiring the poorest members of society as rowers for long periods of time, for example, it empowered them and led to a more radical democracy.

The relationship between culture and warfare for the Greeks, then, was not static but evolved over time. Ascribing specific characteristics to particular groups over wide periods of times (“all Europeans fight this way” or “Greeks have always fought like this”) leads to mistaken analyses. Nor is culture a rigidly deterministic rule: there are always exceptions. But culture does demonstrably have an important macro-level impact on war, which can be sorted into three categories: who fights, how they fight, and why they fight. What do we find when we move beyond historical examination and apply this framework to modern combatants?

Ideal Society, Ideal Army

The cultural ideal of a society manifests itself in the way that society structures itself for war. In the case of the Greeks, the societal ideal of a landed yeomanry translated into a uniform phalanx of heavy infantry. For many feudal cultures, however, the division between noble and peasant was reflected by a contrast between well-armored mounted knights and lowly foot soldiers. Today, by contrast, given the sophistication of contemporary weaponry, there are comparatively fewer situations in which culture defines the equipment of individual soldiers.

Instead, culture is reflected in the command-and-control structures of contemporary militaries. One of the most insightful commentaries on this aspect of contemporary conflict and culture can be found in Kenneth Pollack’s “Arabs at War,” which seeks to explain why Arab countries since the Second World War have not done well in war. Pollack cites the extremely hierarchical nature of Arab regimes, often centered on a strong man, as a cultural factor that has led to a lack of initiative and mutual suspicion between officers. Only members of the military close to the strong man can give orders, and closeness is often determined by family ties, as was the case under Saddam Hussein’s regime. Contemporary social structures are not expressed in modern Arab warfare by owning a suit of mail and a horse, but rather by having the cell phone number of the chief.

Cultural ideals in modern warfare do, however, influence who can and who cannot fight. The most striking example of this is in the role of women. While most combatant groups reflect particular societal values by not allowing women to fight, others—those with leftist ideology roots like the FARC in Columbia or various Kurdish militias, for example—readily use women as combatants.

All’s Fair in Love and War . . . Except for What Isn’t

What tactics are acceptable in combat? Between societies of similar cultural backgrounds, the array of permissible tactics can be very circumscribed; between groups with different cultural norms, the use of certain tactics by opponents can seem abhorrent. On the modern battlefield, for instance, utilizing soldiers as suicide warriors is generally viewed as repugnant by Western audiences, but is perfectly acceptable to other groups. Radical Islamists who undertake suicide bombings interpret the Koran to define such attacks as not only allowable but also commendable. From a tactical standpoint, suicide attacks make a lot of sense: human beings can provide sophisticated guidance for explosive payloads without the need for the technological systems and industrial capacity of Western militaries. This is made especially clear by videos of suicide bombings by ISIS in Mosul; without computer chips or laser designators, a human can deliver high explosives to a very specific target. But while this makes sense tactically for many armed groups without high technology, only some of them use it because of cultural constraints.

Suicide bombing also illustrates the many difficulties we have in defining a culture. Ascribing the use of suicide tactics solely to Islamic militant groups is clearly incorrect; non-Islamic groups like the Tamil Tigers used suicide bombing, and the Japanese had their kamikaze pilots during World War II. Even within the Iraqi insurgency, religiously motivated groups like al-Qaeda used suicide bombing extensively, while nationalist Iraqi groups tended not to. Some cultural aspects extend uniformly throughout a society, while others are confined to specific, sub-societal organizations (for instance, we often discuss the Army’s “culture”  vis-à-vis that of other services).

Besides suicide bombing, we see other disagreements on the bounds of proper warfare: while the Assad regime and ISIS both use chemical weapons, most members of the international community view them as anathema. In making predictions about the Russian intervention in Syria, someone who assumed that they had the same cultural attitudes towards collateral damage as Americans might have expected only limited Russian bombing because “the effectiveness of strikes in the absence of real-time intelligence and high-precision munitions is certain to be low.” A student of the differences in Russian and American strategic culture, however, might have predicted that the Russians would adopt a satisficing “close-enough” philosophy that would allow them to be militarily effective by bombing targets in civilian areas with unguided munitions. Different cultures continue to produce different battlefield tactics in the twenty-first century.

Why Are We Even fighting in the First Place?

When different cultures meet, even the causes of conflict can be confusing. Take, for example, the meeting between the conquistadors and the Aztecs. The conquistadors fought wars to conquer territory and eliminate rivals, while the Aztecs fought to take sacrificial victims rather than to conquer opponents. Different perspectives on why a conflict is occurring inevitably complicate efforts to end it.

Cultural misunderstandings of the causes of conflict have bedeviled efforts in America’s post-9/11 wars. In Iraq, American leaders initially attributed the nascent insurgency to regime “dead-enders,” without understanding the tensions between Sunni and Shiite Arabs. In the event of a breakdown of the government in America, the battle lines would probably not be drawn along ethnic (Irish vs. Italian) or religious (Mormon vs. Protestant) lines; in the cultural context of Iraq, however, this was the case.

In Afghanistan, too, an inability to understand different cultural frames of reference has hurt us. Some authors like Sarah Chayes attribute the breakdown in security in Afghanistan to corruption; if all government employees in the United States started demanding bribes to do their jobs, we would similarly be upset. In cultures across the world, however, governments are endemically corrupt but there are no rebellions; corruption does not lead ineluctably to grievance. As a Marine officer in Afghanistan, we held several shura (townhall) meetings in Sangin in 2011. Invariably, the locals complained about our patrols staying overnight in compounds, which was offensive to them because they had women there. And invariably, the commanders expressed their sympathy and continued to do it. This was nowhere near as egregiously offensive to Pashtun culture, however, as the efforts to educate and empower women; while eminently sensible and moral in our eyes, it was a huge cause for grievance in the eyes of a different culture. While the importance of cultural sensitivity was often mentioned in our interventions, it sadly was not really understood.

Culture and Modern War

Culture is a nebulous term that is always changing; it would be great to be able to talk about a uniform American culture or an unchanging Arab one, but alas, the world is more complicated than that. Changes in culture within the same society can lead to dramatic battlefield results: take, for example, the levee en masse. The cultural shift created by French Revolutionary ideals allowed France to mobilize a massive citizen army in the levee en masse; subscribing to different cultural ideals of traditional authority, the other European monarchies could not mobilize its subjects in the same way. The result was that the French could stave off the combined forces of the other European powers and even, under Napoleon, defeat them until they adopted similar reforms. If we didn’t understand that political culture impacts war fighting, we would be baffled as to why France, who had struggled for centuries to achieve hegemony in Europe, was suddenly able to do so. We would similarly be unable to understand why ISIS uses suicide bombing but the Kurds do not or how Russia has been able to prop up the Syrian regime. If we don’t recognize how culture influences why people fight, we won’t be able to recognize coming wars until it’s too late. And if we don’t see how cultures shape how people fight, we won’t be able to win those wars when they come.


Matthew Cancian is a PhD student in Security Studies and International Relations at MIT. He formerly served as an artillery officer in the Marine Corps, deploying to Sangin, Afghanistan as a forward observer. The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the Department of the Army, the Department of Defense, or the US government.


Image credit: Kurdishstruggle