on front lines
IN September this year, Robert M Gates, the US Secretary of
Defence, authorised a considerable expansion in a novel Pentagon
programme called human terrain, which embedded
anthropologists in each of the combat brigades in Afghanistan
As the strategy became known, it quickly became polarising.
Military personnel and anthropologists in the programme could
see only positives in the move. Anthropologists on the outside
gave it a failing grade.
Martin Schweitzer, a commander of an airborne division unit
working with the new arrivals in Afghanistan, for instance,
said that his units combat operations had been reduced
by 60 per cent since they came, and soldiers were able to
focus more on improving security, healthcare and education
for the population.
looking at this from a human perspective, from a social scientists
perspective, he said. Were not focused on
the enemy. Were focused on bringing governance down
to the people.
it what you want, said his colleague, Col David Woods,
it works. It works in helping you define the problems,
not just the symptoms.
The academic anthropological community, on the other hand,
remains either uncomplimentary or hostile. Some of the members
speak of mercenary anthropology, armed social
work, or the exploitation of social science for military
gain. They fear that whatever the successes or failures of
the group, the overall impact will be that anthropologists
abroad will be viewed as intelligence gatherers for the US
Hugh Gusterson, an anthropology professor at George Mason
University and ten others are thus circulating an online pledge
calling on colleagues to boycott the combat team, especially
in Iraq. The pledge denounces involvement there as aiding
and abetting the war and being guilty by association of its
should not engage in research and other activities that contribute
to counter-insurgency operations in Iraq or in related theatres
in the war on terror. While often presented by
its proponents as work that builds a more secure world, at
base it contributes instead to a brutal war of occupation
which has entailed massive casualties.
Gates expanded the human terrain initiative a
few months ago, as I said, but the need for something like
it was identified since 2003. Army officers in Iraq had complained
that they had little or no information on the local population.
In fact, prospective planning for Iraq after the anticipated
cakewalk of an invasion was practically nil. Ignorance
of the people and the culture was just one of the many resulting
areas of strategic blindness.
The Pentagon contacted Montgomery McFate, a Yale-educated
cultural anthropologist working for the navy. She advocated
using social science to improve military operations and strategy.
McFate sees anthropology as a crucial new weapon
in the war on terror, Author of a new counter-insurgency manual,
she vigorously defends human terrain, and dismisses
frequently accused of militarising anthropology, she
says. But were really anthropologising the military.
McFates critics, on the other hand, dispute that what
she does actually counts as anthropology. She is in large
part, they say, just a tour guide accompanying the military
on non-lethal missions.
The news reports themselves provide no account detailed enough
to suggest what the programme looks like in totality across
the theatres of war. What is suggested is a combination of
social work, Emily Post, and useful advice on how to approach
issues of an alien culture.
Ms McFate, for instance, describes her front-line colleagues
as anthropological angels on the shoulder, offering
advice to soldiers negotiating a poorly understood environment,
telling them when not to cross their legs at meetings, how
to show respect to leaders, and how to be ethnocentrically
She herself wears a military uniform and carries a gun during
her sensitivity missions. In the words of Richard A Shweder,
anthropology professor at the University of Chicago, and a
participant at one of her explanatory sessions, (it)
brought to my increasingly sceptical mind the unfortunate
image of an angelic anthropologist perched on the shoulder
of a member of an American counter-insurgency unit who is
kicking in the door of someones home in Iraq, while
exclaiming, Hi, were from the government; were
here to understand you.
I couldnt help thinking as I read various accounts of
this new drive in counter-insurgency, what a totally different
approach is suggested by the Peace Corps, still at work in
over 70 countries of the world, and doing a great deal more
to bring governance down to the people, in areas
that include education, health, business, information technology,
agriculture, and the environment.
Initiatives like human terrain unintentionally
underline the need to expand the corps, revisit its mission
and equip it with the means to transform it into a 21st-century
engine for peace.
But to return to the present context, it seems to me that
the issue for anthropologists is not whether the military
should be better informed about foreign cultures and customs.
It obviously should be. The real issue is the level at which
anthropology becomes part of the fabric of foreign policy
planning and determination.
Just by way of illustrating this point, I checked the index
of Fiasco, Thomas E Ricks famous critique of the devolution
of the Iraq war from executive decision to military execution.
It contains not a single reference in any form to anthropology
Scholars like McFate are obviously well-intentioned, but its
unfortunate that at this point, late in the day of this war,
people like her should become armed angels riding the shoulders
of an uncertain American military.