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What's Wrong With the Army's Culture?

In the late nineties, Korean Airways had an statistically high number of plane crashes. The reason? Because of a strict Asian culture with a low tolerance for failure, co-pilots hesitated to inform their captains when they made critical mistakes. As a result, planes crashed. The culture of Korea, and Korean Airlines, was to blame for the high crash rate.

Two weeks ago, I praised Malcolm Gladwell's Outliers: The Story of Success for its insights. In that post, I wrote about how individuals become successful; today, I will expand into what makes cultures successful.

Outliers asks a very basic question: how does culture influence success? The US Army has a distinct culture: technologically-oriented, maneuver-focused, leadership-driven, top-down. And this culture has struggled for eight years to defeat the insurgencies in Afghanistan and Iraq. (Their own plane crashes if you will.) Outliers, of course, never mentions insurgencies or the army, but asserts an idea every Army officer should understand: your culture defines you. Only after understanding your culture can you break out of its confines.

An example: from the end of Vietnam to the Iraq invasion, maneuver commanders trained to lead battalion and brigade sized operations. There is a reason for this, large operations in a high intensity environment are difficult and complex operations. As I have written before, though, counter-insurgencies are no place for large operations. Our Army culture--through doctrine, leadership and practice--wants to continue conducting large scale operations, counter-insurgency be damned.

The US Army needs to ask if it has a culture of success, and I don’t think it is. Gladwell argues that certain cultures breed intellectual curiosity and intense work ethics. Is the Army one of those cultures? Do we care about reading military history? Learning languages? Developing new ideas and tactics?

Or do we care about physical fitness and fantastic PowerPoints?

Another example: Outliers mentions that Southern culture tends to respond violently to personal insults. The upshot is that Southerners believe in honor, and have a willingness to fight for that honor. 23% of the Army is from the South, and its cultural influences run even deeper. How does this affect the Army's culture? Or how we wage insurgencies?

The theory of “power-distance" is another important idea. High power-distance relationships discourage direct confrontation; low-power relationships allow subordinates to challenge their leaders. Is the US Military a low or high power-distance organization? America is a low power-distance nation, but the Military has some distinct high power-distance characteristics (rank, customs and courtesy, and saluting all reinforce high-power relationships). I have a feeling many in CENTCOM and DoD knew invading Iraq would turn out poorly, but high power-distance relationships discouraged honest discussion. Like Korean Airways, staff officers at CENTCOM saw the US Military plane crashing, but could not communicate that to General Franks.

Outliers: The Story of Success has a simple theme: think about what makes people successful. The Army should examine what social science tells us about how success really works, not how it worked in the 1950s. We are an industrial Army fighting information wars. We need to adapt.

eleven comments

There is so much culture stuff to mention, this post barely even covers it. We’ll be saying more in the future.


You know the last sentence really says it all: WE NEED TO ADAPT.
Frankly, one only survives to the degree, one is able to adapt to any given challenge/situation.

You guys should really read ret. Col. Tim Collin’s memoir “ROE”.
I think you might quite agree with him on “rigid discipline” and other remarks about the US Army… and you would also find it inspiring what he actually did in Iraq and why exactly he got accused of war crimes… (though I’m not entirely sure if he himself understands the whole background…)
Anyways, hope, you don’t mind me bringing up that particular book again… but it’s good inspiration in some parts and it might give your thoughts and concerns a new dimension.

And another book which might seem weird to you at first, is “The Magic of Conflict” by Thomas F. Crum. It’s based on Aikido. Well, check it out, you will either love or hate it.

Oh… and re the the airline… very good point, but I would like to add that quite a lot of these pilots do also have problems communicating in English!


So does this mean that the most successful people (defining success as ability to achieve their objectives) are able to bounce between cultures, using the ruleset and the people who subscribe with it to get what they want?

That sounds kind of interesting, and it would allow more flexibility, but requires some serious smarts.


I would say, you get what you want, if you give what is wanted and needed, while understanding and respecting both cultures and rules.


@ Sarah – You’ll love tomorrow’s post then.

Let me just clarify, ROE are rules, not guidelines. There are some things we need to do everytime. keeping civlians safe is one of those things.

@ AJK – That’s the rub isn’t it? knowing when and how to move between cultures, and when and how to change cultural norms?


AJK I would say the goal is learn what about your culture either limits your or helps you succeed. Being able to bounce between cultures is vital for national security folks, but we too often underestimate its power. Also, we fail to understand when something cultural is a moral requirement, and when it is just how we do business.

Sarah, I haven’t heard of the book but I will check it out.


@ Eric – I’m curious: what is it about what I have written that would make you presume that I would think ROE are guidelines and not Rules Of Engagement, laws of war which are written/changed to fit the actual operation? I really wonder, because some other time, on another blog, a vet said to me something like that: “…there are actually rules and laws you have to stick to when it comes to dealing with POW, refugees etc. …”
Do I make myself sound like I’m against that? Or that I wouldn’t know??? I’m just wondering… It must be something I write, which makes people think that…

However looking at real life it always amazes me how things actually work out. Yes, you’ve gotta stick to rules and laws – basically for your own sake, so you don’t open yourself up to any attacks. Also it’s disrespectful not to honor what is thought of as having been chosen on the behalf of the people and which in democratic countries is supposed to be for the greatest good.

However… if you look at real life, there where it gets really muddy and dirty… to tell you the truth, there people give a s… about rules, laws and conventions! And how often will those who actually are guilty of these crimes (war crimes and all kinds of other really sick violations) end up in any sort of a court room and how often do the real crooks receive a sentence which in any way reflects what actually has happened?

Justice more looks like a PR-war to me, where you complain – loud and noisy! – about whatever gets you the most attention to achieve your own goal. Get someone nailed for picking up an AK-47 or that sort of thing… But never do I see the real sickness revealed and exposed! – Just to explain my personal frustrations with the subject… and since you call this blog onViolence… this is a perfect example of “covertly exercised violence” which indirectly causes so much harm, so much hurting – and naturally also armed conflicts!

@ Michael – re the book, don’t know which one of the 2 you’re now talking about… but if you’re thinking about Tim Collins’s memoir – do yourself a favor and skip both “Op Certain Death” (Sierra Leone)and the (Irish) “troubles”, which make the first 90 or 100 pages. The remaining 400 pages are what you would find interesting. You would f.ex. be quite surprised reading about the British cemetery in Al Amarah, about the first Iraqi Lt.Col. surrendering to him, his negotiations and so on… it pretty much seems to touch a lot of the thoughts you express on this blog.


Ouch, as a born and raised Virginian, I’m not so sure about: “Southern culture tends to respond violently to personal insults..” Our culture is also to be kind and patient. Regarding personal insults, we do believe in the “turn the other cheek,” philosophy, too.


@ Sarah – Oh you just happened to mention ROE’s in your response, and I wanted to clarify the difference between Army doctrine, and ROE’s, not as much for you—I think you know the difference—but for a lay person reading the comments.

@ Alex – I appreciate your perspective. Stereotyping entire cultures is usually a futile exercise. I haven’t read “Outliers” so I’m curious to see what Gladwell’s proof is of this statement.


@ Eric – oh… well okay, get what you’re saying.
Sorry for taking it too personal, I’m just a bit hung up on the violation of human rights and people giving a d… about the Conventions of Geneva and that sort of thing…


Nice post. Yes the Army can be to hierarchial to be adaptable to fluid situations. The rigid hierarchy in the military does exist for a purpose, but its for purposes generally more related to a conventional high intensity conflict. It has quickly been becoming a relic or tradition within military culture that can hinder the overall objectives they´re being tasked with. Orders can be given from people at some HQ or another so far removed from the actual situation that they won´t realize the absurdity or infeasability of their orders at times, and soldiers will be expected to follow the orders without being able to so much as voice their concerns or better inform the people giving the orders about the actual situation. Not to mention orders can be garbled, warped, and twisted as they trickle down multiple layers of a chain of command. No formations in Iraq? Yeah right. Make your routine unpredictable to throw off people who are observing you? The Army lives on structure and routine. On top of all that, I feel that the military can sometimes just become comfortable with a SOP and not periodically reevaluate it to improve it, adjust it, or drop it. Great Post.