Louise Rasmussen and Winston Sieck, Save Your Ammo: Working Across Cultures for National Security (Global Cognition, 2020)
As the world enters a period with significant reduction in resources, partners will be increasingly necessary. A global pandemic resulting in economic turmoil makes it exceedingly difficult for any one nation to unilaterally win against current national security challenges posed by near-peer rivals. David Barno and Nora Bensahel argue the impact of our new reality will shift national-security focus toward domestic issues. When coupled with burgeoning debt, recession, and other social disruptions, nations have little choice but to solve the problems nearest to home. This shift in focus does not eliminate external threats. If anything, challengers to the current world order will see an opportunity to expand their influence. Harnessing the collective strength of US partners and allies is necessary to maintain the status quo and prevent further erosion of the liberal world order. Collective security is no longer an option; it is the only option.
Thankfully, the United States is not starting from scratch. It has decades of experience working with allies around the world. Leveraging this experience will make future partnered operations more efficient and productive. A new book by Louise Rasmussen and Winston Sieck, Save Your Ammo: Working Across Cultures for National Security, captures lessons from this experience, seeking to provide “the most essential skills and best practices for building and employing cultural competence in a national security context.” The publication is a valuable resource for practitioners tasked with conducting operations with partners from different cultures. While the book’s contents do not present a panacea, it does provide a framework for increasing interoperability through best practices and vignettes. The material it presents can also help increase trust and effectiveness, which will remain vital as the United States and its allies confront a demanding future.
Interoperability is difficult. Differences in equipment, tactics, and organizational structures are only a few areas of potential friction. Cultural and language differences add greater complexity—and thus risk—to mission accomplishment. But where to begin? It starts with trust and understanding. Relationships matter. In any organization, when people trust each other, goals can be achieved. Save Your Ammo first emphasizes bridging cultural gaps at the individual level. The book does not focus on organizational development or institutional models, but rather on the ground level where orders are executed, based on the idea that individual partnerships foster trust and when aggregated, success follows.
The current operational environment is rapidly evolving. The recent addition of space and cyber domains coupled with technological innovation has reduced the time required for threat actors to operate. These increasingly mobile and lethal challenges require an equally responsive counter. However, partnered operations are historically inefficient and cumbersome due to the demands of interoperability. Removing barriers to trust in advance is critical to maintaining collective readiness. You can’t surge trust. However, focusing purely on strategic solutions is unhelpful for the warfighter or diplomat on the ground. Most discussions on interoperability follow the same pattern of hand waving theoretical ideas. Save Your Ammo fills this needed gap in the literature.
The primary evidence throughout Save Your Ammo is derived from thought-provoking anecdotes. The authors interviewed hundreds of practitioners, to include senior military and national-security professionals, and used their experiences to support the book’s thirteen core concepts. The concepts serve as book chapters and are less rigid than one would expect from a guide that employs a very specific metaphor in its title. Rather than offering a concrete set of firm rules, or “ammo” as the metaphor suggests, the authors acknowledge that experiences will vary and that no situation is the same. But that contributes to its value: the book teaches you to think rather than offering a scenario-based checklist.
The overseas experience of the subject-matter experts in this study averages close to a decade. Their stories are woven seamlessly throughout the book to create an engaging and quick read. The book stays true to its goal as a practitioner’s guide by offering bulletized key points at the conclusion of each chapter. While it tangentially provides context for policy development, its real strength lies in its ability to put the reader in a scenario that forces a decision. The question “What would I do in this instance?” is common throughout the book and provides an excellent mechanism for personal reflection and small-group discussion. The book is best suited as pre-deployment reading for novices in the subject area or as a primer for professional-development discussions at the small-unit level. Experienced practitioners should use the book as a refresher, but should expect a lot of “well yes, that was obvious” moments as they read it. The key strength of the book is as a practical guide for bridging cultural gaps at the individual level. Its readability and smooth transitions make it a quick read that fills a much-needed gap in cross-cultural literature for the warfighter and diplomat.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Gen. Mark Milley recently described how important he believes the US network of allies and partners is. “I think that’s an important message to always remind people that the United States of America is a global power,” he said, “and we remain committed to our responsibilities throughout different regions.” Save Your Ammo is an evergreen user guide for those soldiers and professionals who will be on the ground in those regions. Interoperability is clearly a priority for the United States and its allies. Save Your Ammo contributes to enhancing that interoperability by helping to identify and overcome ground-level friction caused by cultural biases. For experienced practitioners, the book is an excellent refresher. For the inexperienced, it could mean the difference between success and failure. Finding ways to bridge cultural differences and solidify common cause is a necessary first step that can be taken now. Save Your Ammo is a valuable resource to help accomplish these goals. We are stronger together and must leverage collective strength during difficult times.
Maj. George Fust is a military intelligence officer who currently teaches American Politics and Civil-Military Relations in the Social Sciences Department at the US Military Academy at West Point. He holds a master’s degree in Political Science from Duke University.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the United States Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.
Image credit: Spc. Thomas Scaggs, US Army