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Anthropology and Military Planning

It seems that some people in the military have noticed the fact that we don’t really understand the territories and the countries about which we so glibly pontificate. And much of the pontification is official, which makes the ignorance more egregious.

In an BBC article received via e-mail, I read the following:

But that is not all. The US military has developed a new programme known as the Human Terrain System (HTS) to study social groups in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The HTS depends heavily on the co-operation of anthropologists, with their expertise in the study of human beings and their societies.

Steve Fondacaro, a retired special operations colonel overseeing the HTS, is keen to recruit cultural anthropologists.

“Cultural anthropologists are focused on understanding how societies make decisions and how attitudes are formed. They give us the best vision to see the problems through the eyes of the target population,” he said.

There’s a story that brings up mixed emotions. We certainly do need to understand people better, but a phrase like “target populations” presents an understanding that is at least equivocal. What exactly are we targeting these populations for? What are we going to do with them, and what gives us the right to do it?

But despite my questions I welcome the notion of creating a better educated military. Hopefully somewhere in this process some military leaders will be asking just how we can cooperate with, rather than dominate local populations. Perhaps troops can learn how to work in a way that minimizes offense. But as long as those military forces are operating under orders to transform those societies into an image that is desirable in American eyes, I don’t think it will work perfectly. It’s good military strategy, but good military strategy needs to be employed in the service of good political and diplomatic strategy.

And that is the level at which I believe our country as a whole, and particularly the appropriate portions of our government need to be better educated. A little bit of anthropology would go a long way with our diplomats. To those who suggest that we have such experts, I would answer that we are 1) not listening to them, 2) they are not as expert as they appear, or 3) we don’t have enough of them.

I suspect all three. Why? Because somewhere up there in the American government somebody thought that we would easily accomplish the invasion of Iraq (we did), would be welcomed by the Iraqi people as liberators, and then would easily create a new government. Low cost in money, in lives, and even in time. Then we could get on with other targets in the war on terror.

Whoever painted that scenario was somewhere between criminally negligent and grossly stupid. There was never any reason for anyone to believe that in the first place.

Of course we need anthropologists and other social scientists in the military. The more wisely force is applied, the less force is needed. In social situations, the best result is when no force is actually applied at all. I’m not so optimistic as to think we can attain that easily, but the more intelligently we act, the less people we’re going to have to kill–our own and others.

The tragedy is that we’ll be sending in anthropologists to help us deal with various tribal groups after much of the damage is already done. If we are to fight and win a war on terror, we will need more than a military strategy. The prime error of diplomats is the belief that diplomacy accomplishes all; the prime error of those who wield military power (but not usually of the soldiers on the front line) is to believe that force can ultimately solve all problems.

A strategic approach to the [tag]war on terror[/tag] will have to involve an intelligent strategy, first political, and then military where problems are actually intractable.

One further note–I can see the ethical objections to anthropologists in being part of these teams. Do you want to use your understanding of a tribal group to facilitate their manipulation by the military with no control over just what will be done and how? You would never know when your knowledge might become the key to destroying a culture. At the same time, applied at the proper level, such knowledge could result in great savings of life. Perhaps there is a balance to be sought here.

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  1. It’s a shame you don’t have a link to the BBC article (perhaps you intended to), which is here. While I am glad that the US military is trying to recruit anthropologists, I am hardly surprised that they are reluctant to sign up, especially as they are apparently expected to wear uniform and carry weapons. How can researchers do their job if perceived as an armed enemy?

  2. Oh, I agree with you entirely, Peter. Also, anthropology would be much better applied before we’re shooting at people, no? I bet the responses of research subjects are seriously skewed by machine gun fire.

    Also, I did intend a link, and I’ve fixed it. I did everything except paste the actual link which results in a link back to the post.

  3. I don’t think this is actually “news.” A friend of mine in college (U of Chicago) got a degree in anthropology in the mid-80s. His first job out of school was with the Army.

  4. Did the army use his anthropological skills, or did they just tell him to forget about the culture of the “target population”, forget even that they are human, and get on and shoot them?

  5. He was using anthropology, but mostly at the time not on “the enemy”, but internally, i.e., on subculture and populations within the forces themselves.

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