PETER R. MANSOOR, a retired Colonel in the U.S. Army, is Raymond E. Mason, Jr., Chair in Military History at the Ohio State University. He served as a Brigade Commander in Iraq in 2003-4 and as Executive Officer to General David Petraeus, Commander of the Multi-National Force-Iraq, in 2007-8.
When U.S. forces invaded Iraq in 2003, the U.S. military was not particularly concerned about the impact of culture on its operations. U.S. leaders believed that the assault would play out as a high-tech conventional conflict and would be followed by a stabilization effort only slightly more difficult than the one U.S. troops had encountered in Kosovo a few years before. As the commander of the U.S. Army's First Brigade, First Armored Division, in Baghdad during the first crucial year after the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime, I quickly discovered not only that this assumption was incorrect but also that sectarian and ethnic identities, the role of tribes in Iraqi society, and the U.S. Army's own internal culture would weigh heavily on the course of the conflict, influence our approach to waging the war, and impact our interactions with our coalition allies.
Subsequently, U.S. forces adjusted their procedures to take cultural factors into account. Troops became more sensitive to issues of honor and the treatment of women during routine security operations. Commanders learned the significance of sectarian and ethnic identities as civil strife began to tear at the fabric of Iraqi society. Perhaps most important, Iraqi tribes -- ignored by the Coalition Provisional Authority during the first year of the war -- became a major ally in the battle against al Qaeda in Iraq beginning in 2006. By the beginning of the surge in early 2007, the military had undergone a renaissance in its ability to connect with the Iraqi people, an adaptation that greatly assisted its ability to conduct counterinsurgency operations. The creation of the Sons of Iraq program, which brought more than 100,000 largely Sunni Iraqi tribesmen and former insurgents into alliance with coalition and Iraqi forces in 2007 and 2008, would have been inconceivable absent that transformation.
The need for reconsidering culture's impact on warfare should not have come as a surprise. Culture's relationship to armed conflict has been an important focus in war studies in the
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