Culture matters for the ADF

Against the backdrop of the recent culture debates within the Australian Defence Force (ADF), the Australian Army Journal recently sought submissions for an upcoming ‘special culture edition’. The decision to focus an entire edition of the journal on cultural issues is not only timely; it is welcome for a variety of reasons.

The culture edition should take a significant step towards addressing the dearth of research on a number of military and culture related topics in the Australian context. In terms of my own area of interest—cross cultural awareness training—the comparatively large volume of material being produced by American academics and military personnel on this topic carries with it a raft of useful lessons for Australia. But as previously recognised (PDF) within the Australian Army Journal, Australia must develop approaches to cross cultural awareness that are appropriate to our own circumstances and are based on deep reflection on our own experiences. Apart from the works of David Kilcullen and a handful of others, few Australian produced reports devote more than a few paragraphs to the discussion of cross cultural awareness. Nevertheless, most recognise its value as a capability that is integral to Australia’s conflict and HADR operations overseas.

The importance of cultural awareness should not be underestimated. Culturally based conflicts between foreign troops and local populations can have significant strategic consequences. In 2012 ISAF commanders estimated that between 50 and 90% of so called ‘green on blue’ attacks could be attributed to cultural and personal differences between Afghan and coalition forces. As part of a package of measures designed to curb the number of such attacks – which threatened to derail ISAF’s training mission and consequently its exit strategy – NATO increased “cultural sensitivity programs for foreign soldiers”. Although research shows that the causes for such attacks are likely to be complex and cultural training offers only a partial remedy to reduce such incidents, it also affirms that cultural differences have indeed played a significant role in the increase in attacks since 2008.

In an internet age the impact of cultural blunders can be magnified and they can have enduring security implications. When US troops accidentally burnt around 100 religious texts at Bagram Air Base in 2012, riots ensued causing at least 30 deaths in Afghanistan. But the influence of this incident was felt more broadly and its impact might be borne for years to come. In the latest copy of its Inspire magazine, Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) referred to this incident in order to persuade its audiences to conduct terrorist attacks in Western countries. AQAP’s discussion, in the same magazine, of the torture at Abu Ghraib shows that the memory and influence of some assaults on cultural values do not fade over time and they can continue to shape Australia’s domestic security.

But the Australian Army Journal’s culture edition is not only potentially valuable for its capacity to spark a deeper discussion in Australia on a range of significant cultural issues. As demonstrated by its publication of a number of unflattering assessments of the Army’s approach to cross cultural awareness training, the Australian Army Journal provides ADF personnel of various ranks with the capacity to shape its debates on culture; not just the ‘top brass’. This is important because the kind of ‘cultural evolution’ sought through the Pathways to Change: Evolving Defence Culture (PDF) strategy cannot be simply imposed in a top-down fashion. Lasting and broad cultural change will not occur unless it is also driven from the ‘bottom-up’ and by those at multiple points in the cultural hierarchy.

However, it doesn’t just fall to the ADF to deliver greater critical commentary on military cultural issues. Those of us who are best placed within academia and think tanks to study these issues—sociologists and cultural studies scholars—aren’t researching them in large numbers. In their ASPI special report on professional military education, Hugh Smith and Anthony Bergin offer a number of suggestions to address the underdevelopment of military sociology as a discipline in Australian. But their recommendations might not lead to greater study of the topics the Australian Army Journal asked scholars to address in its culture edition. There’s a chronic need to address the underrepresentation of women within military scholarship, and to increase the acceptance that certain cultural issues are legitimate topics of study within this field. In the absence of broader change, the Australian Army Journal should be applauded for issuing a long overdue challenge; an adaptive military needs to be backed by an adaptive field of scholars, and we should rise to meet their challenge.

Roslyn Richardson is an analyst at ASPI.