Military Cultures in Peace and Stability Operations

Chiara Ruffa argues that civil-military relations and societal beliefs about the use of force shape the military culture of an army in its home country and has an impact on soldiers' behavior overseas and their ability to keep the peace.

Military Cultures in Peace and Stability Operations
Afghanistan and Lebanon

Chiara Ruffa

2018 | 204 pages | Cloth $65.00
Political Science / Military Science
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Table of Contents

Chapter 1. Force Employment, Unit Peace Operation Effectiveness, and Military Cultures
Chapter 2. French and Italian Military Cultures
Chapter 3. French and Italian Units in Lebanon
Chapter 4. French and Italian Units in Afghanistan


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


Fatma is from Bar-al Canoon, a small village in Southern Lebanon, where more than 18,000 soldiers are deployed under the United Nations flag. At the end of my first interview with her in 2007, she asked a striking question: "Why, Chiara, do we need all these soldiers to bring peace?"

While this book may not be able to answer Fatma's seemingly simple but ultimately complex question, it does recognize the crucial role that military organizations play in international peace and stability operations, and tries to better understand the dynamics that influence military behavior on the ground. At the time of writing, more than 100,000 soldiers are deployed in UN peacekeeping operations worldwide. Another 300,000 are deployed under the auspices of regional organizations, such as the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) or the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS). Soldiers in these missions are important actors, with significant responsibility for implementing peace and stability operations—and a corresponding influence on the goals and impact of peacekeeping missions. Yet we know surprisingly little about the factors that influence soldiers' behavior. In an attempt to address this gap, this book examines the behavior of military organizations in peace and stability operations.

Soldiers deployed in multinational peace and stability operations are typically assigned to a specific area—called an Area of Operations (AO) or Area of Responsibility in military parlance—along with other soldiers from their country of origin. In their AO, soldiers are expected to implement a specific mandate to keep or enforce peace, in accordance with their rules of engagement (ROE). Usually, they are equipped with weapons. They may also have some responsibility for delivering humanitarian aid and maintaining control of their assigned territory. Their day-to-day tasks can vary widely, and could include, for example, conducting patrols, neutralizing improvised explosive devices, delivering humanitarian aid, organizing meetings with the village chief, launching programs to benefit vulnerable groups, and conducting combat operations against specific targets. Mandates and standard operating procedures (SOPs) must be interpreted and executed. In contrast to conventional military operations, which have precise tactical objectives such as fighting or holding terrain, soldiers in contemporary peace and stability operations have a wider range of responsibilities with significantly greater room to maneuver.

Given the relative autonomy of action of national contingents in peace operations, it is perhaps unsurprising to find that different national contingents interpret and implement identical mandates in a given mission in very different ways. Despite strong anecdotal evidence of such differences in interpretation, the factors that influence and impact soldiers' behavior have never been systematically studied in the literatures on peace operations or in the field of military studies. The existing literature on peace operations has indeed analyzed the different conditions under which peace operations can be successful, and has elaborated sophisticated ways of measuring what influences durable peace, but it has neglected the variable of soldiers' or contingents' behavior. This lack of attention is particularly pertinent in light of the recent finding that deploying troops, rather than military observers or police, in a peacekeeping operation affects the protection of civilians. Similarly, soldiers' behavioral variations may have important consequences on the level of violence against civilians, the local population's perceptions of the mission, soldiers' propensity to coordinate with other actors, and eventually the prospects for conflict resolution.

That different armies behave differently in war is a recurring classical theme in military studies. More recently, sociologist Joseph Soeters has launched a new research program that systematically examines cross-national variations. Anecdotal evidence also suggests that different armies behave differently in the same peace operation. For instance, in the UN mission in Lebanon, operating under the same regional command and implementing the same mandate, Indian troops conducted foot patrols and organized popular yoga classes, while the Korean units used high force protection measures and conducted patrols strictly in armored vehicles. Why do some military contingents prioritize humanitarian activities, while others prioritize operational activities when deployed under very similar conditions? No previous study has systematically examined the differences in peacekeeping practices in multinational missions and what might explain them.

The first aim of this book is to systematically document variations in soldiers' tactical behavior in peace operations. I borrow Stephen Biddle's concept of "force employment" to denote such variations. The force employment variable includes all activities carried out by soldiers in peace operations—force protection, patrols (including levels of armament, timing and types of patrols), interactions with local military forces and civilians, as well as command and control. This book also uses a concept derived from the literature on military effectiveness, which I call Unit Peace Operation Effectiveness (UPOE), to categorize and compare how different armies behave. UPOE does not analyze the impact or consequences of military behavior. Rather, by assessing how good military units are at doing certain things, it evaluates how likely it is that their behavior will have particular intended consequences on the ground. The impact and consequences of such actions, however, are very hard to discern because of several other potential confounding factors. Therefore, I limit myself here to evaluating units' behavior using the concept of UPOE. The book's second (and central) objective is to explain the determinants of behavioral variations. I argue that an important factor influencing soldiers' tactical behavior is the military culture of their home army, on which I elaborate in my next section.

Military Cultures, Domestic Political Configurations, and Force Employment

Militaries are a special kind of organization, often referred to by scholars and practitioners as "total institutions." Compared to other organizations or state bureaucracies, members of the military are bound together by higher levels of cohesion, hierarchy, and discipline, which are linked to their organization's core function of exercising the state's monopoly over the use of violence. Becoming a member of a military organization requires individuals to become socialized into a very specific set of practices, beliefs, routines, and rituals. In this book, military culture is defined as a core set of beliefs, attitudes, and values that, through processes of socialization, become deeply embedded within an army and guide the way in which it manages its internal and external lives, interprets its tactical and operational objectives, and learns and adapts. It operates as a filter between domestic political configurations and the way the military behaves in the field.

While conventional military operations are guided by tactical manuals that provide detailed behavioral prescriptions, there is more room for interpretation in peace and stability operations. Soldiers on such missions must decide, for example, how to behave when patrolling, how to interact with the local population, and how to protect themselves from enemy attacks. In this book, I argue that it is military culture that influences the way soldiers exercise their freedom of action and behave at the tactical level on peace and stability operations.

When a military unit deploys, its military culture goes with it. I argue that the values and beliefs that constitute this military culture influence the unit's perceptions as it enters the AO by shaping soldiers' interpretations of a number of factors of importance for their behavior on the ground: the perceptions of the local context, the perceptions of abstract concepts related to the operations (such as peace), and perceptions relating to organizational variables. For instance, units from different countries in the same AO may or may not perceive the "enemies" as easily identifiable and may understand the nature of their mission as a counterinsurgency or a peacekeeping mission. These perceptions, in turn, guide the choices made by active units in the field, within the boundaries of the freedom of maneuver left to the unit after the mission mandate, actual material conditions, and threat levels have been considered. In sum, I document that these perceptions are strongly consistent with the way soldiers behave and their respective military cultures.

When soldiers are abroad, they are usually deployed as units. Notwithstanding the level of heterogeneity across army unit cultures, this book focuses on military culture in countries' armies. This is because, a priori, the set of beliefs, attitudes, and values of an army's military culture seems to have the greatest influence on soldiers' behavior, through their socialization into the specificities of the service, frequent rotations, and basic and advanced training. I studied several units from different armies and detected common patterns across units of the same army. Empirically, specific unit cultures only account for some residual variation.

Ultimately, I am interested in understanding what influences force employment and UPOE—that is, why military units behave the way they do and how this might influence their ability to keep peace. But doing so requires finding out where military culture comes from, a topic long neglected by the literature on military culture. And I show empirically that military cultures do not emerge from nowhere. For the first time in the literatures on security studies and comparative politics, I use historical-institutionalist theories to trace the emergence of a specific military culture. I show how military cultures are nested in the domestic political configurations of the armies' respective countries.

This means that a military culture, with well-defined traits, is shaped by a specific domestic configuration, usually following a critical juncture (such as a war or the specific reaction to it)—"a moment at which decisions are highly contingent but, once taken, will shape politics." This configuration is shaped by two sets of domestic conditions of importance for setting the constraints to specific military cultures: policies about the armed forces and the military's relations with civilian decision-making processes and society. I hypothesize that military culture may acquire new salient traits or renegotiate old ones, providing them with new meanings to respond to the new domestic configuration—which emerged from a new set of domestic conditions. For instance, some specific beliefs—such as the importance of assertiveness or an aversion to combat operations—may change their meaning as a consequence of a critical juncture, while others may become less salient.

Two domestic conditions have particular influence on military culture. The first is societal beliefs about the use of force, that is, whether the public tends to be supportive of the armed forces. The second is domestic models of civil-military relations, specifically civilian decision makers' preferences regarding the degree of military input into decisions related to security and defense, including public expressions of opinions and views by the military. These two conditions create an environment within which military organizations must navigate; military culture tends to follow (and be shaped by) them.

While military culture is inherently conservative and inertial, it slowly adapts to the changed domestic context by reinterpreting and renegotiating its motives and approaches. In some extreme cases, such as a regime change, a military culture may have to change almost completely, as was the case of the Wehrmacht after the reconstitution of West Germany's armed forces in 1957. When new structural changes occur, for instance professionalization or new kinds of operations, military culture will attempt to develop within the constraints imposed by the two primary domestic conditions discussed above. Yet domestic conditions alone do not fully explain soldiers' behavior in peace and stability operations. Organizations respect constraints but also develop and work around them. Military culture crystallizes a well-specified group of attitudes, beliefs, and values that restricts the set of conceivable courses of action once soldiers are deployed in peace and stability operations.

I also engage in competitive theory testing. The book's research design takes into account as many potential intervening factors and competing theories as possible. The case selection controls for many factors by choosing examples with similar characteristics in terms of material resources, mandate, ROE, type of threat level, doctrine, and training. In addition, I discuss and empirically test three complementary factors (doctrines, SOPs, and training) and five relevant alternatives to my cultural argument, which fall into two categories: mission-specific explanations (headquarters' directives and leadership) and domestic-political explanations (governmental mandates, previous operations, and organizational interests). Empirical expectations and causal claims are discussed at the end of Chapter 1.

Case Selection and Strategy of Data Collection

My focus on variations in operational styles in peace and stability operations has a theory-building purpose. I have selected my cases in order to control for as many material and mission-related factors as possible so I can isolate the potential causal role of military culture and theorize about the relationships between domestic political configurations, military culture, and the observable behavior of soldiers in the field. Therefore, this book is the result of a long and complex "series of iterations." To increase the external validity of the findings, it analyzes two very different kinds of operations—the UN Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL II) and the NATO mission in Afghanistan, the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). UNIFIL II is a traditional peacekeeping operation: soldiers are tasked to supervise a ceasefire between Lebanon and Israel, and are mandated to use force only for self-defense. ISAF, by contrast, is a stability and security operation: its mandate requires soldiers to enforce minimal security conditions (using force if necessary) and provide security for reconstruction projects.

I assess my explanatory variable—military culture—through field observations, questionnaires, and qualitative in-depth interviews, which I supplement through historical analysis and secondary literature. I analyze the dependent variable, force employment, via interviews, observations, and military reports. For each case, the book relies on in-depth ethnographic material about two specific military units, and on interviews and analysis of primary sources for all other units across rotations in two armies, to detect potential variations across different units of the same army. I focus on the French 1st Fusilier Regiment from Epinal and the Italian 132nd Ariete Regiment deployed in UNIFIL II in 2007 and all the other French and Italian rotating units until 2015; and the French 8th Marine Parachute Infantry Battalion and the Italian 9th Alpini Battalion in ISAF deployed in 2008 and all successive units until 2013. The analysis thus combines cross-case and within-case comparative approaches.

The French and Italian armies deployed roughly the same number of troops in the AOs studied, and were deployed in areas with comparable threat levels and with identical ROE (as I discuss in Chapters 3 and 4). To illustrate, in Lebanon, the French deployed 2,000 troops and the Italians 1,800; in Afghanistan they deployed 2,500 and 2,510 troops, respectively. Troop deployment numbers remained roughly consistent across rotations. Nonetheless, despite all these similarities, the French and Italian units in each operation behaved differently and excelled at different tasks across the two missions.

I spent nine months collecting data in the two countries, embedded within each army and as an observer in the area. I was in Lebanon from September to December 2007 and in Afghanistan from July to November 2008. I also conducted seven follow-up fieldwork missions in Paris and Rome. I have maintained contact with each of the four units and visited their military bases, where I conducted follow-up interviews, and also circulated post-deployment questionnaires with the units that were subsequently deployed.

I interviewed thirty soldiers per unit and ensured that the sample was balanced between officers, noncommissioned officers, and soldiers, and also regarding activities undertaken, which included logistics, force protection, civil-military cooperation (CIMIC), and operational activities. The thirty-five- to ninety-minute interviews explored soldiers' everyday lives and activities, perceptions, and understanding of the context via open-ended questions. To ensure robust data, I recorded only those behavioral patterns that could be observed from interviews with at least three soldiers of different ranks and triangulated with my own observations, as well as those obtained through secondary interviews with humanitarian and UN staff and the local population about the French and Italian units deployed in their AO.

Interviews focused on soldiers' understanding of the situation, interpretation of the ROE, and their daily lives in order to highlight variations in force employment. I conducted more than 150 interviews in each case, with a well-balanced sample of soldiers deployed in each unit, as well as with civilian officials and military officers at the headquarters both in the field and at home. This data was complemented by approximately fifty context interviews with nongovernmental organization (NGO) practitioners and UN officials in each case. Where possible, interviews were conducted with parties involved in the conflict: Hezbollah and Amal members in Lebanon, and Afghan intellectuals who are critical of the NATO presence in Afghanistan.

Questionnaires were distributed following the logic of randomized stratification: I stratified by rank and then randomized within each rank (adhering to quotas of officers and soldiers, thus overrepresenting the officers). The questionnaires—30 of which were distributed to the units under study, while the others were received by other contingents in Lebanon, and thirty of which were distributed to the units under study in Afghanistan—gave respondents multiple pre-specified choices and room to elaborate on their answers. Though the rather small sample size has limits for generalizability, the careful sample selection, qualitative approach, and robust triangulation to ensure that the results were consistent across several sources enhances the validity of the findings.

Questionnaires were used to gain insights into different components of military culture, namely the organization's self-perception, perception of change within the army, and interpretations of basic notions such as victory and peace. Semi-structured questionnaires, which presented a limited set of options but left space for free answers where necessary, were used to cross-check this information and collect personal accounts of the soldiers' world views. The questionnaires were anonymous to encourage genuine responses about the beliefs and perceptions of the organization, and were distributed predominantly to soldiers who had not been interviewed.

I employed direct observation as a complementary methodological tool. As demonstrated in many studies, direct observation is one of the best ways to collect information on behavior, force employment, and military culture. Accordingly, it is widely used by scholars studying military culture: "Investigators typically participate in the daily life of the organization over a period of several months to a year." The goal of observation is to check and validate the findings emerging from interviews and questionnaires. In some cases where it was not otherwise possible to collect data about actors' perceptions, I have used data obtained by observation as principal data. Observations were conducted between 2007 and 2009, by living for several weeks with each unit on base in Lebanon and Afghanistan, and accompanying patrols and CIMIC activities.

Data obtained through interviews, questionnaires, and observation was supplemented by analysis of primary and secondary sources. Primary sources include army doctrines for the military organizations deployed, military training handbooks, white papers, military doctrines of the relevant regional organizations, mission mandates, and diaries and memoirs of soldiers in operations. The literature dealing with the history of each military organization was also studied as a secondary source, in particular historiographical research on the symbols, hymns, and history of each unit, of the French and Italian armies more broadly, and of civil-military relations in France and Italy.

Main Findings

Although the French and Italian troops in the NATO mission in Afghanistan and the UN mission in Lebanon were deployed under similar circumstances, they displayed consistent and systematic variations in behavior. The French troops emphasized operational activities and displayed high force protection levels, while the Italian troops focused on humanitarian and "hearts and minds" activities, such as implementing development projects and distributing toys to children. These traits were consistent across rotations and remained broadly similar across missions. Preliminary data suggests that these behavioral variations could have influenced the level of violence in each unit's AO. I find that these variations in behavior can be traced back to the respective traits of French and Italian military cultures, and that competing explanations are less convincing.

The perceptions of soldiers in each military unit were in line with the observed behavioral variations. French soldiers in Lebanon and Afghanistan understood their missions as more combative than the Italian soldiers did and clearly identified an enemy, while Italian soldiers did not. I find that these variations in perception can be traced back to the respective traits of French and Italian military cultures, and that competing explantations are less convincing. Before World War II, the French military culture was strongly based on assertiveness, while its Italian counterpart evolved based on the belief that Italian soldiers are "good people." Despite some remarkable differences, both countries displayed a similarly uneven military record in both world wars, with the disbandment of both armies in the aftermath of World War II. However, the different domestic conditions in the 1950s and 1960s resulted in the partial transformation of the core tenets of military cultures in Italy and France. In France, the disbandment of the officer corps in 1960-1961 and De Gaulle's forceful reaction to it (re)introduced a strong element of "obedience" and an overemphasis on executing orders to the letter into the inherited assertiveness culture. In Italy, by contrast, the army tried to overcome the consequences of its disbandment after the fascist dictatorship and World War II through humanitarian activities. The contemporary French military culture is thus one of "controlled assertiveness," while the Italian one is based on the belief of being "good humanitarian soldiers." Military culture thus adapted to new conditions, and their new versions within each of those military organizations eventually became inertial and deeply ingrained via processes of socialization.


Security studies scholars have written extensively about military culture in recent decades. My work builds on this tradition, namely on the third generation of studies on strategic and military culture, which defines culture as distinct from behavior. However, by considering military culture in a new field—peace and stability operations—my work tries to make three contributions.

First, and in line with recent scholarship, I reintroduce military culture as an important factor in explaining variation in military behavior, building on the third generation of strategic culture studies. I advance the "culturalist" debate in security studies by adding to existing empirical contributions about military cultures: I suggest a plausible causal mechanism of how military culture influences military behavior—via individual-level perceptions about the context in which soldiers are embedded. The existing literature has overwhelmingly focused on how military culture influences doctrines, inadvertent escalation, or norms of restraint—factors that are crucial to understanding military behavior at the tactical level—but few studies have focused on understanding how military culture influences military behavior or explored the underlying causal mechanisms. This book makes a first step in this direction by showing how military culture is consistent with individual-level perceptions in the contexts of operations and soldiers' interpretations of the mission, and how these are in line with military behavior in ways that are partly independent of doctrines, training, and SOPs.

Second, the book engages with the debate about the sources of military culture and suggests that military culture is not a monolithic and overdetermined variable, as it is often depicted. Military culture consists of long-lasting and deeply ingrained beliefs, attitudes, values, and norms that do adapt to new domestic conditions. Members of the organization internalize modified military cultures that emerge after changes in domestic conditions (post-World War II in this context). Although several scholars have demonstrated that military culture matters, how much (and why) it matters has rarely been the subject of systematic analysis. Without examining the specific domestic political conditions under which a given military culture emerges, one cannot understand the dominant traits of the culture, how this culture guides soldiers' actions, or how it is distinct from domestic conditions. This book answers the question "Where does military culture come from?" that was raised in the epilogue of Elizabeth Kier's famous book Imagining War; it finds that military culture emerges from specific domestic political conditions, namely traditions of civil-military relations and societal beliefs about the use of force.

Third, the book is the first study to systematically document strong behavioral differences across military contingents deployed under identical mandates, with similar troop numbers and material resources, and to propose a way to assess these differences. By studying the determinants of military behavior, which is considered to strongly influence military effectiveness, this book fills an important gap in the security studies and peacekeeping literatures.

The book thus seeks to connect two strands of related (but, until now, disconnected) literatures: peace research and security studies. While the study of peacekeeping operations is sophisticated and advanced in the peace research literature, few studies have considered how military organizations actually operate within their missions. It is, however, crucial to study the determinants of soldiers' behavior, as they are critical agents in these operations. Exploring cross-national variations is an important first step in this regard.

The literature in security studies has traditionally focused on conventional military operations or, more recently, counterinsurgency operations, which still have traditional military objectives at their core. There is a surprising lack of cross-referencing between military and peace research scholars. Undoubtedly, security studies and peace research originate from two profoundly different (and often conflicting) intellectual and normative traditions. However, their practical fusion in multidimensional peacekeeping operations, which comprise a relevant component of modern military operations, makes it imperative to reconnect the two traditions. Such a holistic approach can promote greater awareness among soldiers about the nonconventional context in which they are operating and, similarly, encourage a better understanding by peace scholars of the factors that guide the behavior of soldiers—the primary implementing agency in a peacekeeping operation.

Finally, this book can shed light on other kinds of military contributions in today's political and social climate. Despite the winding down of support to ground operations and the greater acceptability of more secretive operations, such as drone or special forces operations, it is still important to try to understand the conditions under which military organizations operate in foreign missions, and how domestic political configurations shape their military cultures and subsequent actions on the ground.

Structure of the Book

The remainder of the book is divided into four chapters and a conclusion. Chapter 1 outlines the book's main theoretical contribution, proposing the theory to be tested and developed in the subsequent empirical chapters. It reviews the literature on peacekeeping operations and demonstrates that variations in behavior across units and AOs have never been systematically explored. Next, the central argument of the book is put forward: that military culture shapes soldiers' behavior. In explaining the argument, a workable definition of military culture is provided, and a theory on how culture emerges and becomes inertial over time is elaborated. Chapter 1 concludes by discussing competing explanations.

Chapters 2-4 constitute the empirical part of the book. Chapter 2 presents and discusses the Italian and French military cultures, showing how they emerged from their respective domestic political configurations. Chapter 3 delves into the Lebanon case. The first part discusses how their respective military cultures influenced the perceptions of the deployed French and Italian soldiers, while the second explores how military culture via perception affects the core variation in operational activities, CIMIC, and force protection, and how these variations are consistent with the level of violence in the AOs. The same structure is then applied to the Afghanistan case in Chapter 4, where I also discuss the alternative explanations for both cases.

The final and concluding chapter probes the plausibility of the argument by discussing how it could be applied to other cases. Theoretical arguments and empirical findings are considered together, the contributions and limitations of the present research are analyzed, and possible implications for future studies and policy prescriptions are considered.