June 2018

The Culturally Competent Marine

Regional culture and language familiarization
Volume 102, Issue 6

Maj Brian A. Kerg
Table 1.
Graphic provided by author.

On 24 October 2012, Education Command announced the implementation of the RCLF (Regional, Culture, and Language Familiarization) Program with the goal to create the foundation for a culturally competent GPF (general purpose force). It aimed to do this by providing approximately 120 hours of training and education on the subject of culture and language spread over twenty years of a Marine’s career.1 Unfortunately, the time and resources devoted to this endeavor are insufficient to change individual predispositions to cultural learning and interaction. Indeed, as currently written, the RCLF Program makes cultural learning more about the military establishment than the continually evolving cultural environments to which Marines deploy or the people in them.2 This threatens to result in a force incapable of exercising the intelligent initiative required by operators in the “three block wars” of today and tomorrow.3

With regard to its general flow, this article first examines the education and training being offered through the RCLF program. It then turns to discussing a key component to cultural competency: individual motivation to learn about novel cultural situations and adapt to them. Finally, it provides three recommendations for increasing the level of training and education provided through the RCLF Program.

The RCLF Program

Barak A. Salmoni and Paula Holmes-Eber argue, in Operational Culture for the Warfighter: Principles and Applications, that learning about other cultures should be an integral part of being a Marine.4 Despite the importance they place on socializing cultural learning in one of the guiding documents for achieving cultural competence in the Marine Corps, the RCLF Program comes up short when measured against existing standards. The table below reflects the cultural exposure provided to unrestricted officers by rank under this program. Similar requirements exist for warrant officers and enlisted Marines.5

Per Table 1, Marines are provided with a total of four hours of exposure to culture-general topics, 36 hours of exposure to culture-specific topics, and 80 hours of exposure to language training. Given a 40-hour workweek and normal career progression for an unrestricted officer, this equates to three weeks of training and education devoted to cultural learning over a twenty-year career. With this amount of time devoted to the subject, the RCLF Program simply fails to socialize cultural learning into the Marine Corps.

Problem Ownership

Although training and education related to the study of culture and language would tend to improve Marines’ cultural knowledge and behavioral skills, improvement in these areas alone does not ensure cultural competency. Culture is so broad, complex, and dynamic that Marines must also learn to take ownership of the cultural learning process for competency to be achieved. A discussion on the difference between academic and practical problems helps to illustrate this point.

Psychologist Ulric Neisser explains that academic problems are typically characterized by being well defined and formulated by others, coming complete with the information needed to solve them, having only one right answer, and being simplified so as to be outside the context of normal experiences.7 By contrast, psychologists Steven Cornelius and Avshalom Caspi write that practical problems are typically characterized by being unformulated or in need of formulation or reframing, having multiple correct answers which are each only satisfying at best, and having multiple ways of being solved.8 Given the sheer magnitude and ambiguity of cultures, understanding them and interacting across them often falls into the practical domain. This is an important point when considering the relatively wide range of strategies that individuals employ when dealing with practical problems. Individual strategies range from problem-focused action and problem analysis to problem avoidance and denial.9 By extension, this presents the unmotivated Marine faced with an unfamiliar cultural problem with the opportunity, unconsciously or consciously, to avoid the problem or deny that it exists in the first place.

The importance of ownership to cultural understanding is signaled in Operational Culture for the Warfighter by Salmoni and Holmes-Eber’s choice to use Bloom’s Taxonomy to describe the operational culture learning process. Bloom’s Taxonomy’s division of learning into cognitive, psycho-motor, and affective domains is one of the things that sets it apart from other learning models.10 The affective domain’s contribution to the model is that it describes how a person interacts with what they learn and how they come to own it.11 Ownership also relates to cultural intelligence.

Cultural intelligence refers to a person’s capability to adapt effectively to new cultural contexts.12 In Cultural Intelligence: Individual Interactions Across Cultures, Christopher Earley and Soon Ang introduce a tripartite model of cultural intelligence, which includes cognitive, motivational, and behavioral facets. By examining their model’s motivational facet, we can gain a deeper understanding of how ownership drives thought and action across cultures.

The Importance of Socialization

Two components of the motivational facet of cultural intelligence, value questioning and integration and efficacy, are considered here. A person’s values shape his preferences to engage in particular actions. As this relates to cultural interaction, a person’s values influence the likelihood that he will proactively engage with another culture. For instance, the more “open” a person is to new experiences and ways of doing things, the more likely he will move from stereotypes to accurate representations of a given culture as he is increasingly exposed to it. Studies show that values guide the evaluation of decisions as well.13

Like values, self-efficacy influences the likelihood that a person will engage in certain activities. Moreover, a person with a high self-efficacy judgment in a given area is more likely to overcome obstacles, setbacks, or failures in that area than a person with low self-efficacy. This is because a person’s self-efficacy judgment, or how good he perceives himself to be at an activity, affects whether he anticipates success or failure as a result of doing the activity.14 Self-efficacy also affects the goals that a person sets for himself and the strategies that he adopts to meet those goals, since efficacy and goal setting expand and intensify a person’s search for the best way to engage the world around him.15

That both these components are tied to a person’s self-concept should not be lost on the reader.16 This realization supports the idea that cultural training and education should be aimed at shaping the identity of individual Marines. This in turn ties back to an idea proposed by Salmoni and Holmes-Eber, who argue that, “In any organization the greatest change mechanism is socialization, and in the Marine Corps that socialization mechanism is training and education, both formal and informal.”17 To succeed institutionally in the study of culture, Marines have to own the process.

Recommendations for Improvement

The Marine Corps can pursue multiple different strategies to increase the institutional emphasis on education and training related to the study of culture—such as implementing an appropriately targeted reading program, improving the availability and quality of language training on Marine bases and stations, and increasing the number of Marines participating in cultural immersion programs annually.

By instituting a reading program tied to the Commandant’s Professional Reading List, the RCLF Program could increase Marines’ exposure to anthropological topics and to the “war and society” approach to military history, among other subjects. Marines’ increased exposure to these topics would increase their general knowledge of culture while socializing them to the importance of cultural learning more generally. This option would also be relatively inexpensive to implement and would provide Marines with vicarious cultural experience.

Additional language training is another option that could be pursued. The RCLF Program might have to sacrifice the breadth of languages studied for the depth of knowledge gained in just a few languages to make this an economically viable option, but the Marine Corps could invest in part-time language instructors to provide evening classes at its bases and stations to support this initiative. This course of action would allow select populations within the GPF to develop competency in a target language during a given three-year duty assignment.

Yet another option would be to increase the number of Marines sent abroad annually on exchange tours and to resident PME institutions. Many of the United States’ NATO allies provide their officers with the opportunity to study at foreign institutions without designating them as cultural area specialists. Since a significant population of Marines enter the Marine Corps speaking foreign languages proficiently, why not capitalize on this capability and send them abroad for cultural immersion?


In closing, the way forward for cultural learning in the Marine Corps has recently been decided by the implementation of the RCLF Program. Revisions need to be made to the existing program, nevertheless, in order to better leverage the advice set forth in one of the Marine Corps’ guiding documents on cultural learning. After considering the importance of socialization on cultural learning, 120 hours of training and education on the subject of culture spread over a twenty-year career is too little to achieve the RCLF Program’s primary goal. Three options have been proposed to increase the amount of training and education provided to Marines within the GPF to levels that would change individual predispositions to cultural learning and interaction. This dispositional change at the individual level is what is required to create a GPF that can respond competently to complex and dynamic cultural environments that Marines continue to face.


1. Headquarters Marine Corps, MARADMIN 619/12, Implementation of the Regional, Culture, and Language Familiarization Program, (Washington, DC: 2012).

2. Barak A. Salmoni and Paula Holmes-Eber, Operational Culture for the Warfighter: Principles and Applications, (Quantico, VA: Marine Corps University Press, 2011).

3. Gen James N. Mattis, quoted in Operational Culture for the Warfighter.

4. Operational Culture for the Warfighter.

5. MARADMIN 619/12.

6. Ibid. An introduction to operational culture was provided to students at the Expeditionary Warfare School in the summer of 2012. This consisted of an hour-long class supplemented by an hour or two of individual study, leading the author to come up with the three-hour estimate.

7. Ulric Neisser, “General, Academic and Artificial Intelligence,” in Human Intelligence: Perspectives on its Theory and Measurement, L.B. Resnick, ed., (Norwood, NJ: Ablex, 1976). See also Christopher Earley and Soon Ang, Cultural Intelligence: Individual Interactions Across Cultures, (Stanford: Stanford Business Books, 2003).

8. Cultural Intelligence.

9. Steven Cornelius and Avshalom Caspi, “Everyday Problem Solving in Adulthood and Old Age,” Psychology Aging, (Online: June 1987), available at https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov.

10. Operational Culture for the Warfighter.

11. Ibid.

12. Cultural Intelligence.

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid.

17. Operational Culture for the Warfighter.

Capt Manuel wrote this article when he was a Student, EWS, AY12–13.