Intelligence: April 23, 2005


Another side effect of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is a change in thinking among American intelligence officers about how to use cultural understanding. The Department of Defense is once more trying to leverage the skills of cultural anthropologists, sociologists, ethnographers, and other scientists who study peoples and cultures. Historically, this cultural awareness stuff was left to intelligence officers, who often got it wrong. Not professionally trained in these fields, the intel folks usually just gathered ideas from published materials, or talked to people who had traveled in a particular region, or who were a native of that area. While this could provide useful insights, the intelligence officers often came away with some superficial impressions which they passed on, rather than an understanding of the critical buttons in a society. Special Forces personnel, many of whom specialize in particular areas, have been much better at this, often developing a deep understanding of the local culture to the point where non-Special Forces folks accuse them of going native.

But apparently Israel has been doing this for some time, with considerable success. The U.S. Department of Defense listens to American officers who have come back with details of new Israeli techniques. Especially since many of these techniques and tactics have subsequently been used with success in Iraq, Afghanistan and the war on terror in general. The army has also come to better appreciate its Special Forces operators, who have long been regarded as a bunch of strange characters who, while good at fighting, are just too eccentric and out of control to work with real soldiers. That has changed as Special Forces have proved an invaluable asset for the regular troops operating in Afghanistan and Iraq. There are still some tensions between the regulars and Special Forces, but its becoming more and more of a useful cooperation out in the field. This means that the regulars are learning more about how important it is to know the local language, and not just hire some natives that speak English to act as translators. The Special Forces have made it clear that knowledge of the local customs makes life easier for the troops, and saves lives. 

The Department of Defense is trying to capture a lot of this cultural knowledge and put in formats that can be easily understood and used by the troops. Thus the use of people who design instructional material, and study foreign cultures. This is nothing new for the Department of Defense, but in the past all it produced were phrase books and Things Not To Do lists for the troops.


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