Embrace the Renaissance for the #FutureOfWar

Developing Diverse Cultural Knowledge

In the Army it is common to hear someone say, “Embrace the suck” to prepare for the rigors of combat. Corollary of our recent wars, however, is that we may need to “Embrace the Renaissance” to prepare for future war. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan showed that we needed renaissance-like traits in our leaders and formations to inculcate the diverse impact of culture. Ample evidence exists that a lack of cultural understanding led to mistakes from the tactical to the strategic level. Similarly, the future security environment will be driven by a broad array of culturally driven actors while our fiscal constraints will increase our dependency on diverse cultures to advance our interests. These realities of future war necessitate enhanced cultural immersion to broaden and encourage renaissance traits within our military formations. Our ability to adapt and think strategically in this future begins with identifying, developing, and rewarding intellectual curiosity in our leaders while nurturing an organizational culture that embraces diverse cultural exposure and development.

The Army’s view of the future is that a complex and dynamic mix of cultures will contribute to the competitive environment that will challenge U.S. interests.[1] A recent human performance paper published by the Army describes the importance of cultural understanding:

“Cultural understanding is instilled through regional alignment, broad cultural appreciation, professional judgment, and language proficiency. The Army of the future must produce leaders, at every level, who think broadly about the nature of the conflict in which they are engaged. They must have a nuanced appreciation of social context, and an ability to develop strategically appropriate, ethical solutions to complex and often-violent human problems. Future leaders must innovate rapidly on the battlefield. They must have a highly refined sense of cultural empathy and a social intuition for their operational environment.”[2]

In Head Strong: How Psychology is Revolutionizing War, Michael Matthews agrees with this assessment and explains the increased importance of respecting cultural needs and employing subtle approaches to win future war. He describes the near decisive impact that cultural mistakes will make given immediate and global dissemination of war images.[3]

Major Larry Workman reflected renaissance-like qualities before deploying his company to Afghanistan. His cultural astuteness contrasted well with the ignorance some showed such as urinating on dead Taliban or burning the Koran. He identified religion, politics, sport and food as four pillars of any culture. He ignored sensitivities about religion and politics and embraced both immediately by noting, “We all come from Abraham” when he first met his Afghan counterparts. He eventually built such a rapport that combined Christian and Muslim services were conducted and attended to by local village leaders. He assigned soldiers to learn Polo prior to deployment to better understand the Afghan sport of buzkashi. He set up a soccer team prior to deployment to ensure his soldiers were comfortable building relations on the field of friendly strife.[4]

Renaissance connotes many traits but potentially none more important than culturally astute.

These acts reflect renaissance-like traits that are needed at every level of command. The term “renaissance man” came out of the Renaissance and described a cultured person who was knowledgeable and educated or proficient in a wide range of fields. The description applied to Renaissance figures that performed brilliantly in many different fields such as Leonardo da Vinci. Some might call them polymathic or worldly individuals who have expertise that spans a significant number of different subject areas and are known to draw on complex bodies of knowledge to solve particular problems. They are curious, traveled, intelligent, knowledgeable, artistic, physical, social and confident. Renaissance connotes many traits but potentially none more important than culturally astute.

Renaissance, polymath, and worldly denote cognitive attributes that overcome biases and heuristics in decision-making while negotiating foreign cultures. Patton said, “I have studied the German all my life. I have read the memoirs of his general officers and political leaders. I have even read his philosophers…I have studied in detail the accounts of every damned one of his battles. I know exactly how he will react under any given set of circumstances…Therefore, when the day comes, I’m going whip the hell out of him!”[5] Patton was a renaissance man who knew his enemy and overcame otherwise crippling decision-making biases and heuristics. His intellectual curiosity, driven by innate attributes, exposure, and desire to win filled a reservoir of instinct making him a genius in war.

Intellectual Curiosity

Rapid adaptation in future war requires intellectually curious leaders now to fill their own instinct reservoir. A comprehensive report on the psychology of curiosity defines curiosity as “a form of cognitive induced deprivation that arises from the perception of a gap in knowledge or understanding.”[6] In other words, one must know and accept they don’t know something and have an intense desire to learn about it. Exposure to different environments and reasoned ideas is the first step to magnifying the light of diversity though many lack these opportunities prior to joining the military. Our geographic isolation and relative supremacy may lead to a false sense of American exceptionalism that impedes intellectual curiosity. Our culture may be one of our primary obstacles to intellectual curiosity, mental agility, and cultural understanding.

While more ambiguous than and indirectly contributing to other attributes such as agility, innovation and results, ‘inquisitiveness’ is also important to achieve the results we desire to not be more directly assessed.

Overcoming this obstacle starts with identifying the right innate attributes required in our leaders. In the Army’s manual on leadership, the term ‘inquisitiveness’ is buried within within the discussion about Army leader intellect. While more ambiguous than and indirectly contributing to other attributes such as agility, innovation and results, ‘inquisitiveness’ is also important to achieve the results we desire to not be more directly assessed. For these reasons, a sub-category called ‘Intellectual Curiosity’ should be added to the attribute category ‘Intellect’ in the Army leader model. ‘Intellectual Curiosity’ is a foundational requirement for mental agility, sound judgment, and innovation. It should replace ‘Interpersonal Tact’ that is largely redundant with aspects of ‘Character’ and ‘Presence.’ Intellectual curiosity should describe the level to which one has a desire to invest effort into learning about the unknown.

Awareness, Understanding, and Expertise

The military must then build off the core individual attribute of curiosity by prescribing more precise organizational training and educational requirements for cultural development. Commanders require organizational decisions about what level of effort is required to prepare cultural leaders to execute Phase Zero (shaping) and Phase Four (stability) operations. Our military’s joint doctrine accounts for the importance of culture in operations with the term well integrated into Joint Publication 3–0 Operations. This document, however, uses the terms expertise, awareness and understanding interchangeable in just one paragraph to indicate the level of skill required.[7]

Definitions of terms shouldn’t paralyze execution, but providing a coherent requirement based on the future environment enables subordinate leaders to prioritize requirements and manage risks in a highly requirement-competitive environment. The Chairman of the Joint Chief’s professional military education (PME) guidance introduces and defines another term, cultural ‘knowledge’, as “understanding the distinctive and deeply rooted beliefs, values, ideology, historic traditions, social forms, and behavioral patterns of a group, organization, or society; understanding key cultural differences and their implications for interacting with people from a culture; and understanding those objective conditions that may, over time, cause a culture to evolve.”[8] By this definition, cultural knowledge is a relatively comprehensive level of cultural skill that imbues leaders with the capacity necessary to succeed in a multi-cultural environment. This definition is a perfect target for educating and training most leaders and organizations.

The August 2014 Army Regulation 350–1 “Army Training and Leader Development” defines cultural awareness, understanding, and expertise as the three required levels of individual cultural capability. First, ‘awareness’ is the lowest level of cultural capability that includes fundamentals, self-awareness, and functional knowledge. Second, ‘cultural understanding’ is similar to the Chief’s definition of ‘cultural knowledge’ and “denotes a firm grasp of cross-cultural competence (3C) and a comprehensive level of regional competence. Generalist soldiers at this level are able to accomplish the mission in a specific geographic area.” It further describes, “Cross-cultural competence (3C) does not focus on a single region. It is a general awareness of the cultural concepts of communication, religion, norms, values, beliefs, behaviors, gestures, attitudes, and so forth. Also, 3C involves self-awareness of one’s own culture and the skills to interact effectively with other cultures.” Cultural understanding is the target objective for generalist leaders in the Army. Third, ‘expertise’ denotes sophisticated cultural competence to include strong language skills.

The Army’s current definitions are adequate if the Chairman’s concept of ‘knowledge’ is well integrated with the Army’s concept of ‘understanding.’

Another comprehensive way to define skill level is through Georgetown University’s National Center for Cultural Competence (NCCC). They define cultural awareness as “being cognizant, observant, and conscious of similarities and differences among and between cultural groups.” They call it the “first and foundational element because without it, it is virtually impossible to acquire the attitudes, skills, and knowledge that are essential to cultural competence.”[9] Developed for the domestic health care industry, cultural competence means that organizations and individuals “have the capacity to (1) value diversity, (2) conduct self-assessment, (3) manage the dynamics of difference, (4) acquire and institutionalize cultural knowledge and (5) adapt to diversity and the cultural contexts of the communities they serve.”[10] This definition sets the standard for an organizational culture that embraces culture in every aspect of operations.

The Army’s current definitions are adequate if the Chairman’s concept of ‘knowledge’ is well integrated with the Army’s concept of ‘understanding.’ As defined above, ‘knowledge’ hits the sweet spot of necessary individual skill. The NCCC concept of competence should be incorporated into organizational standards. Current military training and educating goals focus on individual skills and would improve with organizational level objectives. Coming to terms with the definitions sets the bar and starts to provide objective goals of education and training to meet the challenge of future war.

Training and Education

Students taking part in joint professional military education at the Naval War College | https://www.usnwc.edu/Academics/Catalog/RightsideLinks-(1)/2012-2013.aspx

Students taking part in joint professional military education at the Naval War College | https://www.usnwc.edu/Academics/Catalog/RightsideLinks-(1)/2012-2013.aspx

Next, the military must clearly define the requirements and measures necessary to prioritize and assess cultural development. The CJCS’s 2012 Officer Professional Military Education guidance directs that cultural knowledge is only a component of pre-commissioning education and only directs that culture be a factor considered while shaping policies, strategies and campaigns in military education post-commissioning. The Chairman’s six Desired Leader Attributes include leaders with environmental understanding, leaders that anticipate and adapt, leaders that use mission command, leaders who lead transitions, leaders that make ethical decision making, and leaders who use critical thinking.[11] Culture is a contributing factor to each of these attributes though not stated expressly in the guidance. The Chairman’s 30 October 2014 Notice, Joint Training Guidance, does not use the word culture once in the entire document. Of the thirteen high-interest training issues, none of them address culture directly.[12]

The Army only mandates that institutional education programs address cultural awareness training — the foundational element. There are no mandatory steady-state requirements for organizational training of ‘awareness’ or ‘understanding.’ It does not direct ‘awareness’ training within the units nor does the Army mandate that training or education move to the ‘understanding’ level in either operational units or institutions. Any enterprising and audacious commander will exceed this standard but have to do so at the risk of completing other mandatory requirements. Finally, other than language skills, the Army appears to say in AR 350–1 that there is no precise way to measure cultural awareness or understanding. Despite our institution acknowledging the importance of cultural immersion, the message implies that it is a low priority for training and education.

To better clarify and prioritize, cultural awareness must be a pre-commissioning source requirement similar to all other foundational elements of military leadership. Once commissioned, leaders achieve cultural understanding through life-long learning requirements including PME, organization training and operations, and self-development. Officers should reach and validate required levels of defined cultural understanding by the point they depart intermediate level education. Non-commissioned officers should receive awareness training and validation through the rank of E-4 and then achieve validation of understanding prior to promotion to the rank of E-8. Specific regional understanding is the requirement of the aligned or deploying organizations and can be tested locally through individual examination and organizational exercises. Organizational competence requirements integrated into Mission Essential Task List evaluation requirements provides broader unit competence assessments. Specific expertise requirements remain as defined by the Army for advanced skill requirements. Those who achieve skill qualifications might receive an additional skill identifier to provide some minor incentive and acknowledgment.

To achieve these goals, the institution can simply improve on the margins in many areas. Existing PME guidance can be stronger and be better integrated into PME programs. Joint Guidance should require PME to achieve cultural ‘understanding’ or ‘knowledge’ benchmarks. During Joint Military Operations (JMO) and National Security Decision Making (NSDM) trimesters at the Naval War College, culture is not well integrated into the core curriculum. For example, of 24 leaders analyzed in the Leadership sub-course to NSDM, only two were non-western thinking leaders (Indira Gandhi and Deng Xiaoping). In strategy, there are looks at regional economics, sources of conflict, and American interests but no serious look deep into the cultural core of politics, war, religion, family, food or sport. The base material for both JMO and NSDM has extremely few foreign views of operations or strategy. These isolated examples depict broader challenges with determining the total content of professional military education.

The lack of political ideology, philosophical or religious training in most core institutional programs is shocking given the level of influence they bear on foreign and domestic decision-making.

Currently, cultural understanding is too dependent on self-study and should be further emphasized within the PME systems while relegating other, less critical requirements to self-study or operational units. The lack of political ideology, philosophical or religious training in most core institutional programs is shocking given the level of influence they bear on foreign and domestic decision-making. For example, a quick read of Plato’s Republic might enlighten many as to why numerous regimes control the information their people receive. The history of Buddhism, Hinduism, or Confucianism beliefs might reinforce the President’s direction to re-balance to the Pacific. Our PME should be rigorous, enlightening, and less technical. Softer skills should penetrate deeper into beginning institutional education such as experiencing Thucydides, Sun Tzu and Clausewitz before War College where many experience them specifically for the first time.

Foreign Service member exchanges within the schools are very positive, but more can be done to promote deeper cultural integration and understanding in the schools. Despite the presence of a vast array of foreign officers in our PME systems, there is not enough done to create a truly immersed environment. It often appears that they are primarily here to learn from us versus us from them. Mandated fun has always been an effective tool for commanders to build cohesion. There should be more mandated fun in PME to better integrate our foreign resources. Deliberately assigning foreign officer ‘battle buddies’; inviting officers to sponsored cultural events; better integrating foreign officers in seminars; and mandating ‘show and tell’ events by foreign officers improves the effectiveness of an amazing asset already available. Further exposing foreign thought into our relationships and curriculum at every level of the military institution germinates exposure to broader thought.

Operational Immersion

Many operational methods of cultural immersion are in place but marginally executed. Shaping operations, through Theater Security Cooperation Programs, constitute the majority of global military engagement outside of combat zones. Hundreds of combined exercises, subject matter exchanges and missions are conducted annually to increase relations and interoperability. These missions often produce fine training results but often miss opportunities to increase cultural understanding significantly. In one example, an engineer platoon deployed to Northern Thailand to construct a school in partnership with Thai and Singapore military engineers. The platoon lived at the job-site with their military counterparts and within the local village. Over 40 days, a deep level of cultural understanding became a force multiplier. The platoon leadership felt comfortable and deeply integrated with the local community. Two years later, the leadership remains friends through social media with many of those they worked with closely during the project.

A soldier supports members of the Philippine Army as a part of Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines.

A soldier supports members of the Philippine Army as a part of Operation Enduring Freedom-Philippines.

Two months later, this same platoon deployed to the Philippines but lived in a resort isolated from the job site, the community, and their host-nation counterparts. They completed the mission but built no significant relationships. The design of the mission and incorrect criteria led to the loss of opportunity. The project site location created a security challenge and difficulty providing for American level quality of life. This miss-step happened because the wrong objectives were a priority. The priority became building something rather than developing relationships. Had the priority been building relationships, the choice of a different project mitigates the security and comfort issues. Doing this, therefore, enables deeper Filipino cultural understanding in some very young leaders and soldiers.[13] Overly conservative force protection rules often do more harm than good on these missions. Many times, force protection is an excuse to succumb to American comfort desires. If building cultural understanding is an identified priority for these missions, it will change the way they are planned and executed. It will increase the renaissance-like characteristics of those who participate.

While institutional education and unit training operations create domains for cultural immersion, extensive self-study is required to reach the genius expected of our future senior leaders. General Patton likely did a majority of his German studies on his own accord. Similarly, those who aspire to be great in our military will seek out the same individual development. But as the military withdraws back within our borders, the number of foreign assignment opportunities are dwindling and reducing foreign exposure opportunities. The military can, however, inspire an intense quest for knowledge with innovative exposure techniques. One idea to generate enthusiasm is to build from efforts at the military academies and allow our best to travel for an extended period in countries of interest. [14] Not only building renaissance skills, this opportunity rewards their demonstrated intellectual curiosity and sparks intense life-long learning.

The Army’s Military Personal Exchange Program is a long-term personnel exchange between the U.S. and a foreign military and should be expanded to support Security Cooperation and cultural understanding. An Australian engineer officer served in the 65th Engineer Battalion in Hawaii and was instrumental in conveying a different viewpoint. Similarly, a British infantry officer served within the 1st BCT, 10th Mountain in Iraq and provided yet another creative perspective.[15] Due to funding constraints, however, the Australian exchange program ended, and the British exchange was only combat related. These exchanges are expensive due to the duration and overly bureaucratic to execute. Shortening the military exchange to 6 to 12 months as a temporary change of station or extended temporary duty assignment from 12 to 36 as a permanent change of station reduces the costs to the government while still capturing many benefits. Similarly, the general policy of one-for-one should be relaxed to allow for more American officers to work within foreign militaries. Often, the foreign military cannot afford the cost of sending their officers to America.

Executing this program under the umbrella of ‘sister-units’ similar to ‘sister-cities’ by aligning specific American battalions with specific foreign battalions might generate a long-term relationship, momentum, familiarity, and cultural understanding. A fascinating expansion may include a concept similar to exchange programs executed in high school. The exchange of junior officers and noncommissioned officers who have the opportunity to live in the house of a foreign sponsor for three to six months would dramatically enhance cultural immersion and understanding. If all done through the concept of sister units, these programs would gain unit emphasis, momentum, accountability, and spirit. Initiating these programs through our tried and true allies such as the Canadians, Australians and British simplify the obvious concerns of language and force protection until these aspects can be more precisely developed and managed for countries further on fringe of our cultural understanding.

The intent is to spark an interest in junior leaders that will mature as their career progresses.

In the same vein, Foreign Area Officers are inculcated to a region partially through a year-long series of personal travel. That same methodology employed by regionally aligned units can broaden cultural understanding. For example, a junior officer or noncommissioned officer on a three-year assignment to the Pacific might be offered 30 days of permissive temporary duty to travel countries of interest in the Pacific. The intent is to spark an interest in junior leaders that will mature as their career progresses. Many simply do not have the opportunity or means prior to joining the military to become physically exposed beyond our borders. There are few strings attached to this sabbatical other than general guidelines such as 30 days permissive temporary duty, checking-in with the embassy, no uniform or grooming requirements, maintaining accountability with unit, providing summary reports describing culture lessons, and preparing unit cultural training support packages. Not to be confused with Japanese spies in South Asia prior to WWII, these soldiers are on sabbatical experiencing new worlds.

Potentially, two, one-month sabbaticals are authorized in the first ten years of a soldier’s career. In most regions, one might envision that the traveling soldier can experience three or four countries of interest. In the Pacific, for example, a soldier may visit China for a couple weeks followed by days spent in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. This abstract concept is likely more easily implemented than in reality, but the concept enables our success in future war and is exciting for our junior leaders who have expressly made known their intense desire for more extensive cultural exchange.[16] Not only do these enlightened concepts enhance our cultural understanding and thereby our decision-making but they also appeal to the self-interest of those we want in an adaptive military. This idea should resonate with senior leaders who had the opportunity to travel Europe with impunity or those who had the opportunity and means to travel on their own.


Doctrine is understandably vague in the particular desired cultural end-state, but more can be done to precisely define terminology and education / training requirements. Solid guidance eliminates ambiguity and encourages the joint community to integrate culture effectively in professional education and training. In an environment with too many directed requirements, focus on culture understanding will not be a priority for non-deploying commanders without top-level focus and accepting risk in areas less essential in future war.

The value or priority we place on these efforts will be a direct reflection of the value we place on shaping and stability operations or winning without fighting. If, as we might expect, we evolve back to a force driven by the two weeks or more of intense combat at a training center, we will be hard pressed to replicate the slowly emerging impact that cultural understanding has on protracted operations. By nature, we will be drawn to the kinetic or dominating fight and forego the humanities that underpin all conflict. Our home-station training and training center operations will never properly replicate the cultural dynamics painfully learned from over a decade of war in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Renaissance-like characteristics spring from intellectual curiosity that must be a recruiting, developing, and assessing focus. Opening the door for foreign exposure and immersion opportunities is essential to overcoming American biases and motivating curiosity. As defined by the Army, gaining cultural expertise is a long process best focused on those such as foreign area officers who operate in the culture daily. But, getting to cultural understanding as defined by the Army or cultural knowledge as in joint doctrine requires opportunity and inspiration. Our military and nation will be far better off if we do more to arouse that renaissance-like intellectual curiosity now. If so, our leaders will have the strategic perspective, mental agility and access to diverse communities of practice to win the future war.

Aaron Reisinger is an officer in the U.S. Army currently attending the Naval War College. The opinions expressed he opinions expressed are his alone and do not reflect those of the U.S. Army, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. Government.

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[1] U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command, Operational Environments to 2028: The Strategic Environment for Unified Land Operations, (Fort Eustis VA: TRADOC G2, August 2012).

[2] U.S. Army, The Human Dimension White Paper A Framework for Optimizing Human Performance, (Fort Leavenworth, KS: Combined Arms Centers, October 2014).

[3] Michael D. Matthews, Head Strong — How Psychology is Revolutionizing War (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

[4] Larry Workman, MAJ, United States Army, phone conversation on 13 February 2015.

[5] Roger H. Nye, The Patton Mind (West Point Military History, Avery Publishers, 1994)

[6] George Loewenstein, “The Psychology of Curiosity: A Review and Reinterpretation,” Psychological Bulletin 116, no. 1, American Psychological Association, Inc., (1994): 75–78.

[7] Chairman, U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Operations, Joint Publication (JP) 3.0 (Washington, DC: CJCS, 11 August 2011), III-19.

[8] Chairman, U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Instruction 1800.01D: Officer Professional Military Education Policy (Washington, DC: CJCS, 5 September 2012).

[9] National Center for Cultural Competence, Georgetown University,http://www.nccccurricula.info/awareness /

[10] National Center for Cultural Competence, Georgetown University,http://nccc.georgetown.edu/foundations/frameworks.html.

[11] Chairman, U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Instruction for Joint Training Policy for the Armed Forces of the United States (Washington, DC: 25 April 2014).

[12] Chairman, U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Instruction: 2015–2018 Chairman’s Joint Training Guidance (Washington, DC: 30 October 2014).

[13] Examples cited were from the deployment of 2nd platoon, 643rd vertical engineer company, 84th engineer battalion in 2013 to Thailand for Cobra Gold 13 and the Philippines for Balikitan 13.

[14] The academies have numerous requirements for language training and provide many opportunities for spending a semester abroad living with a family and studying in a host country. In my opinion, language training is only marginally useful unless combined with at least 6 months of immersion in a nation speaking that language.

[15] Both are personal experiences of mine while serving at the Operations Officer for the 65th Engineer Battalion and a Transition Team Chief with 1st BCT, 10th Mountain deployed to Kirkuk, Iraq.

[16] In a review of the Army Operating Concept at Fort Leavenworth from Feb 24–26 2015, nearly 100 Army captains participated in The Captain Solarium and recommended in the out-brief to Army Chief of Staff General Odierno that the Army expand cross-cultural understanding.http://www.army.mil/article/143655/Expand_cross_cultural_understanding__captains_tell_the_CSA/