Culture in Conflict: Irregular Warfare, Culture Policy and the Marine Corps


In 2006, Paula Holmes-Eber agreed to teach Anthropology at Marine Corps University (MCU), not as a military instructor, but as a civilian anthropologist. Immediately upon arrival, it became clear that her effectiveness depended on her ability to understand United States Marine Corps culture, a unique subculture within the military and the United States in general.  In her book Holmes-Eber offers not only an overview of the uniqueness of the Marine Corps and its self -identification as a culture, but also demonstrates how analyzing the cultural dynamics of the Marine Corps, other DOD subcultures and indeed, any and all empowered groups such as other governmental organizations, can lead to a better understanding of how policies are transformed and applied. In describing both Marine Corps stories of on-the-ground needs and ideological foundations for Marine responses as reflected in Marine Corps language, Holmes-Eber depicts a process by which the Marine Corps and indeed, Marines translate, redefine and adapt policy directives from Washington DC, thereby also protecting Marine cultural identity. Holmes-Eber offers the Marine Corps as an example of how policy outcomes and even institutional changes are products of a dynamic process wherein organizations are active participants as opposed to passive executors.

Dr. Holmes-Eber offers two parts to Culture in Conflict. Part I is an overview of Marine Corps culture based on ethnographic fieldwork conducted over a period of six years. Part II develops the idea of policy transformation to fit Marine Corps needs and values or, in Marine speak: “Marinizing” policies. In particular, this part focuses on the directive to develop a Corps and indeed, a United States military that is culturally adaptable and educated. This directive was issued via numerous iterations since 2007 resulting in LREC: Language, Regional Expertise and Cultural Capability Identification, Planning and Sourcing (Holmes-Eber, p. 114).

The first part of Holmes-Eber’s book harkens previous discussions of Marine Corps culture, some of which have become popular both to laymen and Marines alike. Similar to Tom Ricks’ Making the Corps (2007), for example, Holmes-Eber describes the Marine Corps as its own unique culture, evidenced by Marines’ strong sense of history, a Corps with its own traditions, social structure and language.  Unlike the journalistic or personal accounts however, Holmes-Eber is able to go beyond mere descriptions, offering a cultural overview informed by anthropological theory, making it applicable to further studies of organizational culture. This book thus represents a model for future analyses on institutional cultural change and the integration of external directives that ultimately may affect changes in policy formation and implementation.

Part II focuses on how a policy, in the hands of the Marine Corps inevitably is molded to work within the context of its particular culture and extenuating circumstances. The process which a policy will undergo is itself culturally defined and organized. In the Marine Corps, for example, the process of molding involves a specific series of steps: simplification, translation, processing and reshaping (Ibid., p.115). Holmes-Eber dedicates a chapter to each of these steps. Each chapter is infused with stories and commentary by individual Marines themselves, thus offering a voice to the Corps, an insider’s view, an “emic” approach (Ibid., p. 200).

A pioneering work in contemporary military anthropology, Holmes-Eber’s study is essential reading for anyone working or interested in the areas of national security, military anthropology, organizational culture or international policy. While other accounts of military cultures exist, very few are empirically and theoretically based. “Culture in Conflict” offers an empirical, theoretical, emic and therefore useful and compelling study that will undoubtedly lead future studies of organizational cultural change and preservation.

Clementine Fujimura, United States Naval Academy

Homes-Eber, Paula. Culture in Conflict: Irregular Warfare, Culture Policy and the Marine Corps. Stanford University Press, 2014. Read more at Stanford University Press.

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