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Anthropologists 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 and Iraq.

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 unit’s 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.

“We’re looking at this from a human perspective, from a social scientist’s perspective,” he said. “We’re not focused on the enemy. We’re focused on bringing governance down to the people.”

“Call 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 military.

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 terrible tragedies:

“Anthropologists 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 its critics.

“I’m frequently accused of militarising anthropology,” she says. “But we’re really anthropologising the military.”

McFate’s 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 neutral.

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 someone’s home in Iraq, while exclaiming, ‘Hi, we’re from the government; we’re here to understand you.’”

I couldn’t 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 or anthropologists.

Scholars like McFate are obviously well-intentioned, but it’s 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.

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