Of Culture and Cliché: Politics and the Uses (and Abuses) of Anthropology

By: Dr. Siamak Naficy teaches in the Defense Analysis Department at the US Naval Postgraduate School.

Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it everywhere, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedies.

  • — Groucho Marx1

When we try to use anthropology to more effectively conduct war, we can find ourselves with a flawed understanding of both culture and warfare. In theory, the consideration of culture is a good thing, and cultural insight can be especially helpful in a time of military occupation at every point along the occupation spectrum, from peacekeeping to counterinsurgency. But when it comes to developing strategic depth and understanding, overly deterministic cultural explanations will likely cause more harm than good. In this paper, I argue that while recognizing culture and social identity are important considerations in the construction of both foreign policy and warfare, an uncritical reliance on cultural factors to determine military strategy or predict political behavior can be perilous. We must not overlook the important role that material experience plays in defining cultural parameters, or downplay the complex interplay between culture, policy, and war. A static view of culture leads us to the false perception that our opponents will always follow predictable foreign policies and strategies of war.

An uncritical reliance on cultural factors to determine military strategy or predict political behavior can be perilous.

To be sure, the cultural approach to understanding human behavior has notable merits and so, like the proverbial baby, should not be thrown out with the bathwater. This paper is not a call to ignore the fact that "culture exists," but rather is a friendly reminder that we must do a better job of understanding what culture might mean in terms of real people; it's not a question of whether culture matters, but how it matters. If we insist on clinging to an ahistorical and defective account of culture that depicts "others" as inscrutably exotic and incapable of contradiction or dynamic change, we will end up profoundly misunderstanding them and will constantly be surprised by them.

It's not a question of whether culture matters, but how it matters.


What Culture Doesn't Do

The relationship between groups can be dialectic. For instance, the evidence shows that many insurgents are realists of a sort who do not necessarily conform to the traditions of their native culture. Instead, like us, they can demonstrate a surprising readiness to feed off global information and defy tradition in favor of practicality, if that will help them achieve success. They are able to rewrite their codes and rules as needed. They can be influenced by us (and our Twitter accounts), just as we can be influenced by them. At a larger level, the policies of regimes—like the human beings they are composed of—can be driven by different, competing, and at times contradictory impulses. Predicting a regime or an insurgent group's behavior based on cultural characteristics can be tricky and requires discerning the consistencies and disconnects between what people say, what they think or imagine about themselves, and what they actually do. These things can be quite different, of course. By drawing sharp boundaries to corral and separate cultures into simplified categories, we tend to exaggerate the differences between categories and underestimate differences within categories. We also risk overlooking the ways in which ideas traverse such boundaries. This approach fundamentally misconceives what culture is.

A culturally deterministic approach rests on profoundly incorrect ideas of the ways in which cultures operate, particularly during war and other crises.

A culturally deterministic approach rests on profoundly incorrect ideas of the ways in which cultures operate, particularly during war and other crises, and tends to evoke stereotypical categories of "Western" and "Eastern" warfare.2 The Western stereotype—guileless descendants of Clausewitz who march in step with a military band, or knights clad in heavy armor who embody the ideas of blunt force and superior strength—contrasts with the Eastern stereotype, which imagines deceitful minions of Sun Tzu leading hordes of archers who timidly avoid a direct battlefield charge. The facts, of course, mock such overwrought assumptions. Early Iranian tribes like the Massagetae (and later the Sassanid Persians) are in fact thought to be the originators of the class of armored cavalry known as cataphract, while the Iran-Iraq War of 1980 to 1988 in some ways resembled the Western front in World War I: both featured the mass slaughter of young men who charged headlong to their deaths and the use of poison gas (by at least one side). Also contrary to stereotypes, in 1944 the Western Allies carried out what was arguably the most brilliantly deceitful act of twentieth-century warfare (Operation Bodyguard) to mislead German intelligence regarding the D-Day invasion of Normandy.3 The military marching band, so emblematic of Western esprit de corps, was introduced into Western Europe through the Ottoman Turks, whose martial music also helped inspire such European classical composers as Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Ludwig van Beethoven.

There are numerous other such examples of how wrong stereotypes can be,4 but the point is that history viewed through a culturally deterministic lens is not just bad history, it is fraught with potential strategic costs. Ironically then, though its purpose is to enhance sensitivity to the subtle and not so subtle distinctions among cultures, a culturally deterministic view helps promote an unsophisticated, essentialized, and crude view of culture, foreign policy, and strategies of war.

"War of the Worlds"

This is a "war of the worlds" in the cultural sense, a head-on collision between civilizations from different galaxies.

  • — LTC (retired) Ralph Peters5

Let us imagine that there is some definable quality that differentiates people into categories we call cultures. It might even be useful to imagine "essential" differences between groups of people. The problem arises, however, when we conflate cultural attributes with a group of preordained, scripted, or genetic attributes. There may be stereotypic (even essential) differences between groups of people today that were shaped by those groups' cultural history, but we must not forget that there was in fact cultural history. In other words, culture is a dynamic quality that evolves over time. Thus, any categorization scheme, however accurate, must also incorporate this potential for change. To see the Taliban, for example, as being from an entirely different planet or galaxy, as LTC Peters apparently does, according to his quote above, is to seriously underestimate the agility, freedom, and alacrity with which the Taliban can adapt, adopt, and transform strategies to cope with changing circumstances. The assumption that the Taliban (or any other group) are so alien as to be unknowable can also prevent us from paying attention to the available evidence when we try to understand their motivations.

The "otherness" of the outsider, especially the enemy, serves as a marker we use to define ourselves and establish our own identities.

Of course, the notion of fighting against a culturally alien enemy holds a powerful attraction, at least in part because the "otherness" of the outsider, especially the enemy, serves as a marker we use to define ourselves and establish our own identities. So when we describe the enemy as primitive, barbaric, and irrational, it's also a way of saying who we are: modern, civilized, and rational. But, of course, this impulse can also be off the mark. Westerners historically have debated our understanding of ourselves through the lens of the enemy, from the ancient Persians through the Soviet Union all the way to today's Taliban. The impulse to categorize and simplify group identities in turn can affect the way we read and interpret history. We tend to extrapolate the same themes and assumptions that we embrace now to the past and then imagine them to be eternal.

Alexander soon came to admire what he found in his new territories, adopting Persian titles, dress, and courtly manner.

An example of what we might call retrospective cultural determinism can be found in our popular understanding of Alexander the Great's invasion of Persia. Reading certain history books or watching certain recent films might lead us to believe that the ancient Persians existed to be conquered by Alexander the Great. Slightly more nuanced minds might make the argument that Alexander's war against Persia was retribution for two prior wars that the Persians had launched against the Greek city-states. Some may even be tempted to see Alexander's march as the first of many attempts by "civilized Europe" to bring its light to the "barbaric East." But in truth, Alexander deemed the Persian Empire to be worth conquering because of its wealth and not because it was in need of civilizing. In fact, much like the Huns who would later sack Rome or the Vikings who periodically raided the British Isles, Alexander soon came to admire what he found in his new territory, adopting Persian titles, dress, and courtly manner. From a Persian perspective, of course, Alexander was not so great. Among the many uncivilized things he did, his armies looted and burned the great city of Persepolis, and he is thought to have encouraged similar mayhem against other cultural and religious (e.g., Zoroastrian) sites throughout his new realm. What is most often overlooked in these various interpretations of history is that the Persians and the Greeks were in contact well before Alexander's invasion and were in fact deeply influencing each other in such areas as the arts, architecture, philosophy, religion, worldview, and so on. Alexander's conquest merely amplified such syncretism.

Even knowing this, it is still tempting to imagine that different ethnic or national groups are of fundamentally different kinds,6 and that cultures are sharply distinct and bounded. We can readily imagine that the ancient Greek and Persian cultures existed in isolation from one another and interacted only through warfare, but cultures haven't been homogenous or necessarily quarantined to territorial boundaries since emigration, trade, and exploration began. Cultural borders are porous, especially with the advent of modern globalization and social media, and we should not ignore the reality of continuous and dialectical interaction.

The recent push in US policy and military circles to emphasize the cultural dimension in strategic assessment may be driven by a variety of forces. On the one hand, it is likely inspired by the failures of recent American military operations to deliver the desired political outcomes. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, which Americans like to presume was predicated on US efforts,7 the thinking was that its better intelligence and superior weapons, satellites, and drones would give the United States technological supremacy over the battlespace and make it invincible.8 Because this has not turned out to be the case, even against vastly technologically inferior foes, the fashion of invoking culture as a significant factor in war may be an antidote to the failed hubris of technological superiority.

The fashion of invoking culture as a significant factor in war may be an antidote to the failed hubris of technological superiority.

On the other hand, Americans' shift towards cultural explanations for the decline in US power may also be a reaction to the world's growing rejection of the United States' cultural and commercial hegemony and the pressure to remake the planet in America's image through globalization. Such a universalist vision, some would argue, has been the source of much of the recent troubles in various regions of the world, and is becoming largely unfashionable, for good reason. Nevertheless, one need not be Edward Said to point out the danger in embracing the opposite idea—the idea of orientalism—which postulates an ancient, fundamental, and unchanging difference between people.9 This kind of simplistic dualism is also sometimes used to account for why desired political changes—such as embracing Western democratic liberalism—have not been embraced in chronically troubled spots like the Middle East. In a sense, there has been a swing from thinking they're just like us to thinking they're nothing like us.

Culture as a Weapon

When I hear [the word] culture … I release the safety from my Browning!

  • — Thiemann, from the play Schlageter 10
In a sense, there has been a swing from thinking they're just like us to thinking they're nothing like us.

In late September 2001, Maulana Inyadullah, who had begun fighting the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan at the age of 16, in 1982, was holed up in Peshawar. On the eve of the American-led invasion of Afghanistan, he offered this pithy sound bite to David Blair of Britain's Daily Telegraph: "The Americans love Pepsi Cola, we love death."11 Of course this statement is appalling and shocking, but then again, in all likelihood, it was meant to be. In other words, Inyadullah's sneer is simply good propaganda, designed to evoke fear in the enemy by sounding as brutal, savage, and inhuman as possible. The real threat, however, is that we have leapt to embrace assumptions about groups like the Taliban (and most recently, ISIS—the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria)12 according to what they say to Western reporters and the image they project when they pose for us in photographs that appear in Western publications: angry, uncompromising, draconian theocrats and tribal warriors who are stuck in amber, slaves to their culture.

Those menacing propaganda photos stand in stark contrast to the way the Taliban present themselves to the camera when posing for personal photographs. Not long after the Taliban lost control of Kandahar and fled from the city, photographer Thomas Dworzak visited Kandahar's local photography studio, the Shah Zadah Studio, and discovered photographs apparently left behind by Afghan Taliban soldiers who had come in for a "flattering portrait, retouched by the photographer, secretly taken in the back room studio and decorated the best the photographer could manage."13

The men aren't quite the snarling soldiers we're used to seeing. On the contrary, many hold flowers alongside their guns.
Here, in intimate photographs that were clearly meant for private consumption, were Afghan men in surreal poses like so many silent-era movie stars, standing or sitting against cheerful backdrops of what look like Swiss mountain villages. These images are especially ironic and even touching, not merely because they defy the Taliban's mandate against images of living beings, but because the men aren't quite the snarling soldiers we're used to seeing. On the contrary, many hold flowers alongside their guns. In some photos, they affectionately throw their arms around one another. These intimate photographs are as disorienting to Western eyes as if Sylvester Stallone as Rambo and Arnold Schwarzenegger as the Terminator were to show up in a film toting their automatic weapons, only to smile, hug each other, and begin to exchange gardening tips.14


We need to remember that the popularized version of any phenomenon is likely not fully real. To continue with our example, the Taliban certainly do cultivate a particularly draconian form of orientalist nostalgia,15 but history shows us that they are also practical: they are innovative, and they break with tradition when it serves their purpose. The term Taliban ("student" or "seeker" in Arabic) has now become a trash can term of sorts for fractious Pashtun tribesmen who collectively hate the foreign invaders enough to turn even traditional enemies into friends. This shifting series of alliances comes with its own internal disagreements over many issues, including religion. For example, in 2010, when the Quetta Shura sent a Muslim scholar to reprimand a band of young commanders in Paktia Province who were not following Taliban leader Mullah Omar's directives, the young men just killed him.16

In times of war when a group's future is at risk, an idealized collective identity can be reinforced by the group's very opposition to the enemy force.

Just as our conflicts are interactive, so too are our cultures. It could even be argued that one of the surest ways cultures interact and influence each other is through conflict and warfare. In times of crisis, particularly in times of war when a group's future is at risk, however, an idealized collective identity can be reinforced by the group's very opposition to the enemy force, and by extension the enemy's culture.

Because of this dynamic, once again it is important to discriminate between how people think about themselves, what they say they do, and what they actually do. When forced to choose between pragmatic compromise and hard-headed dogma, Taliban leaders will frequently opt for the former. Just consider how on a whole range of fronts, from suicide bombing to the education of girls, from narcotics cultivation and trafficking to the use of music and media operations, the Taliban have repeatedly adapted their rules to justify practical change.

Of course, they often justify such changes by reinterpreting passages from the Qur'an. Suicide bombing, for example, was once considered off-limits—not just because it was immoral, but perhaps worse, because it was considered unmanly. Nowadays, the Taliban assert that verse 2:207 of the Qur'an, as it turns out, actually supports suicide bombing.17 Similarly, when the Taliban banned girls from school in the 1990s, Mullah Muttawakil served as the Taliban foreign minister. Now, his daughter attends a school in Kabul—one he himself set up.18 Likewise, Taliban leaders once insisted that all narcotics were not just dangerous but also sinful, yet they were able to interpret the Qur'an in a way that permitted them to set aside religious laws—ostensibly in times of extreme hardship, such as starvation—so that today they describe themselves as the protectors of poppy farmers and indeed, the narcotics economy.19 Similarly, they once banned all music but now spread their own motivational musical propaganda electronically from cell phone to cell phone via Bluetooth.20

Not only do Taliban leaders regularly give TV and online interviews, they also have websites, sophisticated media operations teams, and even embedded journalists.
The Taliban once shunned any depiction of the human form as idolatry and smashed everything from television sets to pedestrian crosswalk signs. They infamously blew up what were apparently threatening religious/cultural artifacts such as the ancient Buddhist statues at Bamiyan, Afghanistan. Nowadays, however, not only do Taliban leaders regularly give TV and online interviews, they also have websites, sophisticated media operations teams, and even embedded journalists.21 More recently, the Taliban used the official Afghan Taliban website to advise other groups to "calm down."22 Although they did not name ISIS directly, they called on "scholars in Sham (Syria)," a clear reference to ISIS, and warned somewhat paradoxically that "Muslims also should avoid extremism in religion."23


Such examples emphasize the imperative that we interpret culture cautiously and anticipate such mutations and adaptations. Culture is an arsenal of metaphors and ideas that can be skillfully used, abused, interpreted, and even "weaponized" to justify a variety of choices.

Country, Culture, Character, and Contradiction

Do what you will, this world's a fiction and is made up of contradiction.

  • — William Blake24

There is a common saying in English: "He can't see the forest for the trees." This means that if one focuses too closely on the details of a subject (the trees), one is likely to miss the bigger picture that those details form when taken together (the forest). When it comes to predicting the behavior of members of a specific culture or state, a researcher who knows something of, say, international relations, but is not immersed in the subject's specific cultural symbols and is unaware of the social structure, uneducated in the language, ignorant of geography, and uninformed about the ruling power structure, will have little understanding of his or her subject (cannot see the trees). A researcher trained only in the cultural details of a society, however, may be equally limited and prone to consider the specifics of a case without grasping the general principles that may be having a greater effect on a cultural group or a state's decision making (cannot see the forest).

Decisions and policy choices are made by decision makers who are steeped in particular cultural biases, values, and memories.

Culture is an important and significant component in the architecture of choice, and cultural insight can therefore certainly shed light on the context in which choices are shaped. After all, ideas are tools with which to interpret the world, and ideas about appropriate norms, values, security, land, what is worth fighting for, or the appropriate use of violence are passed down within groups. Decisions and policy choices are made by decision makers who are steeped in particular cultural biases, values, and memories.25 A nation or tribe's interests, what is "sacred," what can be sacrificed, risked, or compromised, or even the conditions of success, are not necessarily self-evident or objectively obvious.26

For example, the contradictory nature of risks in war or even "kinetic military actions" adds further variables to intelligence estimates. Assuming so-called rational behavior on the part of the enemy,27 an intelligence analyst is supposed to predict that the opponent will avoid a very risky operation that entails high costs but uncertain benefits. The fundamental flaw in such assumptions is that they are true only in theory. In practice, what is considered a high risk in one culture may be acceptable in another. In other words, there can be little doubt that culture informs and in some significant way, can shape the priorities of a state when defining its foreign policy objectives, but culture does not exist in a vacuum and is itself shaped by material experience. An ideological worldview is defined (and in many ways propelled) by the harsh realities of experience.

The late US Naval War College professor Michael I. Handel offered an excellent example of how a culture can develop around a state's strategic context in his assessment of the plight of Israel.28 Since its founding in 1948, Israel has more than once achieved remarkable operational and tactical victories against invading Arab armies. Paradoxically, however, as Handel points out, these victories may also have served to screen Israel's considerable strategic inadequacies. His observation echoes that of political theorist Hannah Arendt, who warned in 1948, on the occasion of war in Palestine, that Israel could become

something quite other than the dream of world Jewry, Zionist and non-Zionist. The "victorious" Jews would live surrounded by an entirely hostile Arab population, secluded into ever-threatened borders, absorbed with physical self-defense to a degree that would submerge all other interests and activities. The growth of a Jewish culture would cease to be the concern of the whole people; social experiments would have to be discarded as impractical luxuries; political thought would center around military strategy.29

In a culturally multifaceted society, policy may be defined through the interaction of competing cultures and their own particular interpretations of experience.

A cultural approach informed by history may help illuminate why Israel, with a small but well-educated population and a collective memory of both recent and ancient existential crises, is overcome with a siege-like mentality—a sense of itself as having "circled the wagons"—and is overly reliant on military solutions and preemptive war, technological superiority, and an absolute sense of security.30 Culture, then, can be thought of as comprising the collective living memory of historical experience and the mythology and narratives that the group develops to share and pass on that experience. In this way, a diachronic account of Israelis' personal histories, along with a synchronic understanding of Israel today as a fortress state, can in part explain the cultural context that shapes Israel's strategic security policy.

Nevertheless, when it comes to writing history, an overly deterministic culturalist approach underestimates the tangled relationship between war, politics, and culture. For instance, in a culturally multifaceted society, policy may be defined through the interaction of competing cultures and their own particular interpretations of experience, which ultimately determines how competing interests are prioritized. In multicultural polities like Iran, the United States, and others, this can result in a contradictory experience at different levels of policy making—a reality that can make any coherent and constructive international response problematic.

Pragmatic leaders are not necessarily trapped in their own articulated state identity, even when their foreign policy choices compete with or contradict the official rhetoric.

We may even come to see culture—and not, say, the economic and social unmooring of traditional territorial societies and identities that inevitably accompanies the uncertainties and insecurities of an increasingly globalized world—as the primary source of international conflict. But in the real world, of course, nations do not behave as culturally-chained-and-bound actors. From alliances of convenience between sixteenth-century England and Safavid Persia (for his part, Shah Abbas I "preferred the dust from the shoe soles of the lowest Christian to the highest Ottoman personage" 31), to Nazi Germany's alliance with Imperial Japan, to the security cooperation between modern Shi'a Iran and Christian Orthodox Armenia (rather than Shi'a Azerbaijan), it becomes obvious that pragmatic leaders can cheat and play musical chairs with identities. They are not necessarily trapped in their own articulated state identity, even when their foreign policy choices compete with or contradict the official rhetoric.

The Case of Iran: Culturally Consistent, Politically Contradictory

The assumption, apparently harbored by many Americans, that the current differences between the United States and the Islamic Republic of Iran are due solely to the ideologies of Iran's leaders is both one-dimensional and ahistorical. Current geopolitical frictions in the Middle East date to the fall of the Ottoman Empire at the end of WWI. The end of Turkish rule left a regional power vacuum that the war's European victors and their newly urgent oil interests swiftly filled. This political, economic, and cultural semi-occupation by outside powers only deepened when the United States joined in during the Cold War, a move that perhaps inevitably put some of Iran's strategic interests in direct conflict with those of the United States.

Even the reformist leaders of the Iranian Green Movement were equally fiercely nationalistic and supported Iran's sovereign right to a complete nuclear fuel cycle.

Although the domestic policies of successive Iranian regimes may have been vastly different, there has been remarkable continuity in their search for political and economic autonomy, as well as regional preeminence. A deep understanding of Iran's geography and resources, its long history, and its rich Persian cultural roots, for example, may help critics appreciate why the Islamic Republic insists on an "absolute and inalienable right" to enrich uranium under the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT). According to one expert, an indefatigable commitment to independence is a core component of Iranian political culture.32 If Iranian leaders regard nuclear energy as a means of assuring independence, then US and European analysts who imagine that Iran's reformist leaders will be more willing to compromise on Iran's nuclear energy than the so-called hardliners will have missed the mark. Even the reformist leaders of the Iranian Green Movement, who were fiercely critical of the Mahmoud Ahmadinejad presidency, were equally fiercely nationalistic and supported Iran's sovereign right to a complete nuclear fuel cycle.33

"Neither an Islamic State nor a Republic"

The Islamic Republic of Iran is a good example, not just of the continuities but also the contradictions that may be rooted in a nation's multifaceted and complex sense of identity. The internal contradictions in Iran's conduct of both domestic and foreign policy, and in even the way the state describes itself, were familiar to the late Ayatollah Hussein-Ali Montazeri. This Ayatollah, widely recognized as the most knowledgeable senior Islamic scholar in Iran during his lifetime, openly criticized the Islamic Republic's domestic and foreign policy for more than 20 years.34 In 2009, he even admonished the top officials directly when he wrote, "At least have the courage to admit this is neither an Islamic state nor a republic."35 To fully grasp what Ayatollah Montazeri was driving at, we need to understand the meaning behind the seemingly straightforward words Islamic Republic of Iran.

First, the word Islamic implies a transnational identity and a global interest because it refers to a world religion that cuts across territorial boundaries and ethnicities. In this way, it transcends the interests of the Iranian nation. Furthermore, Iran's official state religion is Shi'a Islam, and some scholars have argued that the moral authority and legitimacy of Shi'ism itself as "a religion of protest and revolt" are lost if it is ever successful politically.36 This is a provocative position, given the status of Shi'ism in Iran today. Second, a state that calls itself a "republic" purports to represent the will of its own population. But this is hardly the case in Iran. Apart from rampant cronyism, nepotism, and rigged elections, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has speculated that one day the elected office of the presidency may no longer be needed.37 Without representation of its people, what Khamenei is hinting at amounts to an Iran without Iranians.

Finally, perhaps Ayatollah Montazeri should have gone further and insisted that the regime drop "Iran" from the state's title as well. The name Iran signifies an accepted and recognizable geographical and territorial entity, replete with a people called Iranians, whose interests an "Iranian state" represents.38 In practice, national (Iranian), cultural (primarily Persian or Azeri), and/or ideological (Islamic) goals might be promoted by the regime when they are in step with the material interests of the rulers, but such interests are commonly sacrificed when they are in conflict with regime policies. Thus, the very name of the Islamic Republic of Iran is in conflict with itself and revealing of its own competing identities. This situation is only further complicated when one considers the multi-ethnic and multicultural polity that makes up Iran.

There can be some tension and ambiguity among citizens with regard to just what it means to be Iranian. While ethnic minorities in Iran may see Iranian identity as a meta-ethnic label, extending to all members born in and/or living in the Iranian state (a concept that has historical veracity), there are those among the dominant Persian ethnicity (especially perhaps among the Persian diaspora) who view being Iranian as synonymous with being Persian and of Persian culture. The state, regardless of these ideas, strategically evokes and embodies different identities for itself depending on the circumstances. This strategy was especially obvious after the fall of the Soviet Union, when Iran's overtly Shi'a identity had little currency among the newly independent states. Iran's rulers recognized that they could utilize Iran's "Persian" identity as a source of strength in some areas (e.g., among the Farsi-speaking populations of Afghanistan, Tajikistan, and Uzbekistan) and leverage its sizable Azeri minority identity in others (e.g., Azerbaijan and other Turkic states), while Iranian history and its ancient traditions (like the New Year festival of Nowruz) could be invoked in general when trying to foster goodwill and cooperation across Central Asia. In attempts to broker its regional ambitions in Central Asia, Iran's former deputy foreign minister, Abbas Maleki, famously even said that Iran did not wish to become involved in "rivalry and competition" but that, "naturally," Iran had "far more deep-rooted ties with Central Asia than any other party competing for influence there." 39

Iran is by no means unique in encompassing such internal contradictions, but if we are aware of both the cultural and pragmatic roots of regime decision making, we are less likely to be surprised by policies that seem highly contradictory. For example, consider how Iran's support for Hezbollah in Lebanon is typically justified by Tehran on the basis of Islamic brotherhood and shared Shi'ism. Meanwhile, the same Iranian regime maintains closer ties to Christian Orthodox Armenia than to its Shi'a neighbor Azerbaijan and was revealingly uninterested in the plight of the Farsi-speaking Tajiks during their civil war (1992–1997). To say that such choices were made because of state interests is exactly the point. The same argument could be made to explain why Iran once considered it expedient to support Iraq's Shi'a president, Nouri al-Maliki, while the now looming threat of ISIS has apparently caused that support to vanish.


Oceania was at war with Eurasia: therefore Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia.

  • — George Orwell, 1984 40

Given that warfare is often a celebration of group identity in the form of patriotism, it is paradoxical that there is perhaps no knowledge guild more insular and less aware of human cultural variations and interconnectedness than military and security studies. In theory, an understanding of culture is advantageous for militaries and policy makers at every level, from the strategic to the operational to the tactical. Appreciating the importance of a cultural perspective can help overcome any strong-headed ethnocentrism and foster an understanding of others' perspectives. Further, by incorporating cultural studies into its training curricula, the military shows that it is capable of reforming and transforming itself, while the larger society acknowledges the utility and morality of improving its ability to communicate and empathize with others. This willingness to adapt is especially important when operating on foreign soil, where military personnel are asked to put on various hats, from peacekeeping to security to nation-building. Under such circumstances, recognizing and mapping the maze of networks, cross-cutting relationships, power dynamics, and ethnic perspectives that influence local decision making may allow for a certain nimbleness in dealing with the possible problems at hand.

At the same time, we should not uncritically invoke culture in international relations and policy making. Although culture is an important variable, it may not always be highly predictive. A naïve consideration of culture leads to the illusion that other people are prisoners of their own culture, and that they are thus somehow always consistent—primordial and timeless. Taking a purely cultural perspective makes it easy to miss the practical, protean, and flexible nature of people everywhere. Culture is never simply a conservative reservoir for tradition and maintenance; it's also a wellspring of powerful ideas and metaphors that its members can make use of to transform society.

To avoid being caught in the amber of our own stereotypical thinking, we must account for, consider, and appreciate contradiction on the one hand and change and continuity on the other. Foreign policy is best understood as resulting from the interaction of competing cultures and their interpretations of experience, which provides the prism through which interests are rationalized and prioritized. In multicultural polities, this process can often result in a contradictory experience at different levels of policy making, a reality that can complicate any constructive international response. Because it is easy to mythologize stereotypes about others, our aim shouldn't be to try to erase prior prejudices and stereotypes, but rather to be in constant argument with them. This is the real value of what anthropology can bring to policy.

About the Author(s):

Dr. Siamak Naficy teaches in the Defense Analysis Department at the US Naval Postgraduate School.

This is a work of the US federal government and not subject to copyright protection in the United States. Foreign copyrights may apply.

  1. Attributed to Marx by Bennett Cerf in his column "Try and Stop Me," Kentucky New Era, 9 November 1944, 3. The original quotation ("Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it whether it exists or not, diagnosing it incorrectly and applying the wrong remedy.") apparently belongs to Sir Ernest Benn; a first known citation reportedly appears in the Springfield (Mass.) Republican on 27 July 1930.
  2. The phrasing of a "Western way of warfare" was popularized by Victor Davis Hanson in The Western Way of War: Infantry Battle in Classical Greece (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1989). Hanson in turn was influenced by John Keegan, The Face of Battle (New York: Penguin Books, 1976). Generations of European peoples have embraced this idea of a consistent and continuant "Western way" of fighting, based on an idealized concept of the ancient Greek hoplite. I find the term and the associated concepts, along with its equally spurious "Eastern" counterpart, ahistorical and useless.
  3. Operation Bodyguard (1944) was one of several successful operations devised by the Allies in World War II to mislead German intelligence as to the size, strength, location, and timing of a potential Allied invasion of the French coast.
  4. See, for example, Patrick Porter, Military Orientalism (London: C. Hurst & Co., 2009).
  5. Ralph Peters, "Taliban from Outer Space," New York Post, 3 February 2009: http://nypost.com/2009/02/03/taliban-from-outer-space/
  6. David Berreby, Us and Them: The Science of Identity (New York: University of Chicago Press, 2008).
  7. See Tim Benbow, The Magic Bullet? Understanding the Revolution in Military Affairs (London: Brasseys UK, 2004), 80.
  8. In his book Writing Security, David Campbell describes how the narrative of "the city on the hill," a "New Eden," or an "American Jerusalem" affected and shaped American security discourses during the Cold War. Following Campbell's argument, the Cold War can be seen as a struggle, at least in part, over American identity: a struggle that was not context-specific and thus not dependent on the existence of a specific kind of Soviet Union. Thus, the Cold War was an important episode in the ongoing enactment and reenactment of the American identity and national character through the performances and practices of its foreign policy. David Campbell, Writing Security: United States Foreign Policy and the Politics of Identity (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1998).
  9. Edward Said was a Christian Palestinian-American professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University. He was also a cultural critic and public intellectual who is best known for the 1978 book Orientalism. In this book, Said observes that the West's condescending and assumed authoritative perceptions of North African, Middle Eastern, and Asian societies are neither "innocent" nor objective. Instead, these views are inherently political, shaped by imperialist and colonialist interests. These kinds of binary distinctions, Said notes, aren't limited to the actual, geographic East and West, but represent a paradigm defined by orientalism wherever they're applied. See Edward Said, Orientalism (New York: Vintage, 1979).
  10. Friedrich Thiemann is a secondary character in the pro-Nazi play Schlageter (1933), by Hanns Johst. Hanns Johst's Nazi Drama Schlageter, trans. Ford B. Parkes-Perret (Stuttgart: Akademischer Verlag Hans-Dieter Heinz, 1984). This quote is often misattributed to Nazi leader Hermann Göring.
  11. David Blair, "‘The Americans Love Pepsi-Cola, but We Love Death,'" Telegraph, 24 September 2001: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/asia/afghanistan/1341470/The-Americans-love-Pepsi-Cola-but-we-love-death.html
  12. ISIS is known alternatively as ISIL—the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant—Da'esh, and the Islamic State.
  13. Thea Traff, "Thomas Dworzak's Taliban Glamour Shots," New Yorker, 29 March 2014: http://www.newyorker.com/culture/photo-booth/thomas-dworzaks-taliban-glamour-shots
  14. The Rambo series of films (begun in 1982) starring Sylvester Stallone, and The Terminator series (begun in 1984) starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, are two iconic Hollywood odes to American machismo.
  15. Although they preach a particularly draconian version of orientalist nostalgia, the Taliban are not "medieval" in practice. If their actual behavior is compared to a medieval Afghan dynasty like the Ghaznavids, similarities such as book burning and a fondness for public hanging are found, but these are vastly outweighed by the differences: in the ancient dynasty, women and poets had a prominent role in society, people played the game of chess, and they drank alcoholic beverages. The Taliban are more accurately "barbarian".
  16. Scott Atran, "Turning the Taliban against Al Qaeda," New York Times, 26 October 2010: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/27/opinion/27atran.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0
  17. The verse is translated variously: "And of the people is he who sells himself, seeking means to the approval of Allah. And Allah is kind to [His] servants"; or, "There are those among people who give their lives to seek God's pleasure. God is Affectionate to His servants" (italics added). See the Quranic Arabic Corpus, Verse (2:207)—English Translation: http://corpus.quran.com/translation.jsp?chapter=2&verse=207
  18. Margherita Stancati and Habib Khan Totakhil, "Taliban Take Girls Back to School," Wall Street Journal, 16 January 2014: http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304049704579318592003912998
  19. Vartan Gregorian, "Preventing Afghanistan from Becoming a Narco-State," Carnegie Reporter 6, no. 4 (Spring 2012): http://carnegie.org/publications/carnegie-reporter/single/view/article/item/311/
  20. Thomas H. Johnson and Ahmad Waheed, "Analyzing Taliban Taranas (Chants): An Effective Afghan Propaganda Artifact," Small Wars & Insurgencies 22, no. 1 (2011): 3–31.
  21. See "Life among U.S. Enemies: Embedded with the Taliban," CNN, 10 December 2010: http://www.cnn.com/2010/WORLD/asiapcf/12/10/taliban.refsdal.inside.look/
  22. Kieran Corcoran, "Now Even the Taliban Warns ISIS Islamist Rebels in Iraq to ‘Avoid Extremism' as It Calls for a New Council of Jihadi Factions to Keep Them on the Same Page," Daily Mail, 12 July 2014: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2689776/Now-Taliban-warns-ISIS-Islamist-rebels-Iraq-avoid-extremism-calls-new-council-jihadi-factions-page.html
  23. Ibid.
  24. The Poetical Works of William Blake, ed. John Sampson (London: Oxford University Press, 1908).
  25. See Colin S. Gray, Another Bloody Century: Future Warfare (London: Phoenix Press, 2005), 90–91.
  26. Scott Atran and Jeremy Ginges, "Religious and Sacred Imperatives in Human Conflict," Science 336, no. 6083 (2012): 855–57. See also John Robert Ferriss, Intelligence and Strategy: Selected Essays (New York: Routledge, 2005), 107.
  27. Joseph Henrich, Steven J. Heine, and Ara Norenzayan, "Most People Are Not WEIRD," Nature 466, no. 29 (1 July 2010): 29; see also Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, "Prospect Theory: An Analysis of Decision under Risk," Econometrica 47, no. 2 (1979), 263–91.
  28. Michael I. Handel, "The Evolution of Israeli Strategy: The Psychology of Insecurity and the Quest for Absolute Security" in The Making of Strategy: Rulers, States and War, eds. Williamson Murray, MacGregor Knox, and Alvin Bernstein (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 534–78.
  29. Hannah Arendt, "To Save the Jewish Homeland," in The Jewish Writings, eds. Jerome Kohn and Ron H. Feldman (New York: Schocken Books, 2007), 396.
  30. Handel, "The Evolution of Israeli Strategy."
  31. Houchang Nahavandi and Yves Bomati, Shah Abbas, Empereur de Perse (1587–1629) (Paris: Perrin, 1998), 114.
  32. R.K. Ramazani, Independence without Freedom (Charlottesville, Va.: University of Virginia Press, 2013). Ramazani explains, "Although Iran had never been colonized, it had enjoyed only nominal independence since the turn of the nineteenth century, when it was sucked into the whirlwind of international politics, including economic and political domination by Britain and Russia, world powers that invaded and occupied Iran in World War I, as they would again in World War II" (ibid., 2).
  33. As Harvard University's Stephen M. Walt has warned, "We should not assume that far-reaching political change in Iran would eliminate all sources of conflict between Iran and the United States (or the West). It would have little effect on the nuclear issue: Iran has been seeking nuclear energy (and possibly nuclear weapons) ever since the Shah. … Iran was a more expansionist power under the Shah than it has been as an ‘Islamic Republic,' and the Shah also supported insurgent groups in other countries when he thought it suited Iranian interests." Stephen M. Walt, "Be Careful What You Wish For: Would ‘Regime Change' Help Iran?" Foreign Policy, 14 December 2009: http://www.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2009/12/14/be_careful_what_you_wish_for_would_regime_change_help_Iran
  34. Michael Slackman, "Cleric Wields Religion to Challenge Iran's Theocracy," New York Times, 21 November 2009: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/11/22/world/middleeast/22ayatollah.html?_r=0
  35. Massoumeh Torfeh, "Neither Islamic nor a Republic," Guardian, 29 August 2009: http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2009/aug/29/iran-clergy-infighting-ayatollah
  36. Hamid Dabashi, Shi'ism: A Religion of Protest (Cambridge, Mass.: Belknap Press, 2011).
  37. Robert F. Worth, "Iran's Power Struggle Goes beyond Personalities to the Future of the Presidency Itself," New York Times, 26 October 2011: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/10/27/world/middleeast/in-iran-rivalry-khamenei-takes-on-presidency-itself.html
  38. Touraj Daryaee, Šahrestānīhā ī Ērānšahr: A Middle Persian Text on Late Antique Geography, Epic, and History (Costa Mesa, Calif.: Mazda Publishers, 2002).
  39. Abbas Maleki, "Iran," in The New Silk Roads: Transport and Trade in Greater Central Asia, ed. S. Frederick Starr (Baltimore, Md.: Silk Road Studies Program, Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, Johns Hopkins University, 2007): http://www.silkroadstudies.org/new/docs/publications/GCA/GCAPUB-06.pdf
  40. George Orwell, 1984 (1949; repr., New York: Random House, 1992).
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