by Howard Ward, AFCLC Director
“Global operations require global skills” – Lt Gen Grosso, Air Force LREC Flight Plan
I’m in the process of reviewing a pretty good book titled A Sense of the Enemy by Zachary Shore, Professor of History at the Naval Postgraduate School. The central premise of the book is about a concept called strategic empathy. Shore loosely defines strategic empathy as “the ability to see as your enemy would see in the spirit of ‘know the enemy and yourself.” There are some important implications for airpower operators who have undertaken our deliberate path of force development called LEAP. Culture can help understand the thinking and behavior of an adversary, but it can also lead to some pitfalls.
The study of culture can be very helpful as it helps us understand beliefs, values, customs and practices that help shape the identity of a group. This type of knowledge can be powerful in helping to gain trust and develop lasting relationships built upon mutual respect.
There is also a real danger in using culture to predict the behavior of individual decision makers engaged in strategic statecraft. Shore uses the term “continuity heuristic” which is a way of thinking based upon the premise that past behavior is the predictor of future behavior. As you can imagine, there is opportunity for error when applying the tendency of a group to the tendency of an individual.
What we do know is that in every culture, no two people are alike. While people within a culture will have many things in common, we all respond differently to certain behavioral drivers from our childhood, education, and adversity. The same is true even in our own Air Force. While certain career fields have some things in common, the career fields are made up of individuals. This is why it’s important to know people as individuals, because in the end many of the biggest decisions will be based on individual drivers rather than steadfast adherence to beliefs of the group.
As a LEAP participant being developed for leadership opportunities, your educational experience offers the best of both worlds. You get to learn about the language and culture of a people through AFCLC’s educational opportunities. You also get to know individuals and build relationships of trust that will bear fruit when we partner together as a coalition.
I urge you to learn from Zachary Shore’s scholarship and through your AFCLC education, learn the time and place to consider cultural considerations of a group, and the time and place to look deeper at what drives the behavior of an individual. If you learn this lesson, you will become an airpower leader that can help facilitate seamless operation with many air forces.
Culture and language…essential and operational.