Helping Military Personnel Overcome Culture Stress


Welcome to this Operation Reveille pod cast on culture stress and culture adjustment in stability operations.

Recent YouTube video of US Marines urinating on Taliban corpses underscore how behavior and attitudes towards the local people can be more critical than beans, bullets, and firepower.

The degree to which service members successfully partner, advise, facilitate, understand, and influence in stability operations is directly related to how they handle culture stress. Good cross-cultural adjustment takes spiritual fitness and moral leadership. National-policy-directed military doctrine, training, leadership, education, and reset activities must press further than cultural awareness and language learning to wholeheartedly address culture stress and adjustment. Cultural adjustment failure has had incipient and sometimes catastrophic consequences in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Poor adjustment adversely impacts three areas: 1) individual emotional stability; 2) interpersonal team and staff dynamics; and 3) ability to influence the civil environment.

First, regarding emotional stability: stress from the foreign civil environment can cause the following four categories of reactions: 1) anxiety, confusion, disorientation, uncertainty, insecurity and helplessness; 2) fatigue, tiredness, lack of motivation, lethargy, and depression; 3) disappointment, unfullfillment, discouragement, and inadequacy; and 4) aggression, anger, irritability, contempt for others, and resentment.

Second, regarding team dynamics: poorly adjusted individuals on a team will likely work to suppress feelings of failure, fear, and hostility that they are experiencing due to a conflicted self-image. These repressed negative emotions will then bubble to the surface in what’s psychologically known as displacement resulting in overreactions to trivial matters, and they will also bubble to the surface in what’s psychologically known as projection resulting in viciously criticizing others.

Displacement and projection can lead to one or more of the following: 1) vicious competitiveness like sabotaging the success of others; 2) inordinate attention to peripheral projects like a principle-driven campaign for fairness; 3) withdrawal and isolation, like excessive working out; and 4) regression to childish behaviors like temper tantrums.

To maintain self-respect, the affected members on teams and staffs often rationalize these dysfunctional behaviors by blaming others for creating the conditions that make these behaviors inevitable.

Third, poor adjustment of individuals and of teams constrains and sometimes sabotages the mission in at least these three ways: 1) it increases the likelihood of misunderstanding and disrespecting the local people; 2) it undermines the ability to have influence among local people; and 3) it heightens the risk for atrocities and abuse.

I saw the problems that emerge from poor cultural adjustment when I was in Iraq where I spent time among 39 different small teams. The local national interpreters on one team confided to me that they thought force protection dog got treated better than they did. Most teams had volatile internal dynamics from tension between members who had adjusted and others who had not. I suspect this tension exists across all the services at all levels.

I suspect that allegations of scandal made a year ago in the Rolling Stone magazine over LTG Caldwell’s use of Psy-Ops resources and over GEN McChrystal’s attitude toward Richard Holbrooke have their origins in dysfunctional small group dynamics that result from different reactions to culture stress. The issue here is not whether or not the allegations are true, but the dynamics that made the situations even thinkable.

I discovered during my time in Iraq that when Soldiers encounter a “civil environment” with “customs” requiring “significant accommodation,” they typically adjust in one of three possible ways: 1) totally reject local forms and methods; 2) totally embrace local forms and methods; or 3) accommodate local forms and methods without appropriating those for themselves. Possibility #1 breeds ethnocentrism, disdain, withdrawal, and abuse. It essentially says, “These people are either stupid or immature.” Possibility #2 abandons the security found in one’s own identity that is a necessary foundation for unit cohesion and personal influence. It essentially says, “I need to become like them to help them.” Possibility #3 has the proper balance for effective influence. It says, “These people can do it a different way.”

In a unit or on a staff, the best-adjusted service members face hostility from colleagues at both extremes. The resultant tension sabotages unit effectiveness and undermines Army capabilities.

I also discovered that helping Soldiers to be more secure in their own spiritual identity and helping them to understand both culture stress and stages of adjustment enhanced team dynamics and mission effectiveness. Spiritual fitness and capacity for adjustment correlate with one another.

Awareness and adjustment are different. In the “Attributes-Knowledge-Skills” or “Be-Know-Do” expression of Army leadership, awareness is knowledge. Cultural awareness has little influence until combined with skills and attributes to proceed towards cultural adjustment. Cultural awareness (even combined with language proficiency) does not guarantee cultural adjustment. In fact, cultural awareness without good adjustment can be a recipe for disaster.

At Abu Ghraib, Soldiers likely used awareness of the Muslim belief that dogs are unclean and ceremonially defiling to intensify their abuse. On the other hand, Soldiers who are culturally adjusted are less likely to dehumanize culturally different people.

Pictures of “kill teams” in Afghanistan released last year by Der Spiegel magazine demonstrate how potential for abuse remains as threatening to national security as ever.

The concepts of culture stress and adjustment are not totally absent from Department of Defense doctrine, but they need exaggerated attention.

The Joint Chief’s Universal Joint Task List organizes and numbers training conditions for collective tasks. It embraces training for accommodating strong beliefs and significantly different customs in the civil environment.

The Army Culture and Foreign Language Strategy (ACFLS) defines “cross-cultural competence” as “a set of knowledge, skills, and attributes that enables leaders and Soldiers to adapt and act effectively in any cross-cultural environment.” The most critical component in this definition and for stability operations is “adapting.”

Culture stress along with the process of cultural adjustment is one of the greatest unaddressed challenges facing commanders at all levels. Poor adjustment adversely impacts three areas: 1) emotional stability; 2) team dynamics; 3) and influence in the civil environment.

Poor adjustment undermines stability operations and national security. Adjustment capacity depends upon service member attributes as well as skills and knowledge. It correlates directly to spiritual fitness. Filling this capability gap, therefore, becomes critical. All service members with spiritual fitness and capacity to handle culture stress must rise to the challenge of helping their brothers and sisters in arms with adjustment challenges.

For more information on culture stress and adjustment, check out the flow chart posted at this URL


– Associated Press. “Abu Ghraib Dog Handler: ‘Abuse Ordered‘” October 2009.
– Boone, Jon. “US Army ‘kill team’ in Afghanistan posed for photos of murdered civilians” The Guardian, 21 March 2011.
– FM 6-22, Army Leadership, October 2006.
– Hastings, Michael. “Another Runaway General: Army Deploys Psy-Ops on U.S. Senators” Rolling Stone, 23 Feb 2011.
– _____. “The Runaway General: The Rolling Stone profile of Stanley McChrystal that changed history” Rolling Stone, 22 June 2010.
– Khaled Abou El Fadl. “Dogs in the Islamic Tradition and Nature” Encyclopedia of Religion and Nature (New York: Continuum International, 2004).
-UJTL, Joint Chiefs of Staff, PDF Version of Approved Universal Joint Task List (UJTL) Database With Conditions, Version 4 – Posted 12 October 2010.

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