Got No Culture: Anthropology Confronts Counterinsurgency

‘If you can’t beat them, empathize with them – then crush them.’ Behold the new operational motto of the beleaguered Pentagon as it strains to humor George W. Bush’s endless, limitless, clueless ‘war on terror.’ All the military needs is a few good PhDs. The Pentagon customarily has called upon white lab-coated scientists to conjure up lethal technical fixes, or summoned statistically trained social scientists to sift dubious data to determine how best to rub out elusive enemies. Now the top brass, to boost sagging counterinsurgency fortunes, is recruiting anthropologists, traditionally a rather scruffy and disorderly lot. Not what you call officer material at all.

During the Vietnam War, by contrast, many eager, unreflective, well-groomed social scientists, especially in the early going, got themselves deeply implicated in formulating and carrying out ugly repressive schemes such as the ‘strategic hamlet’ program (which generated millions of refugees), acted as obliging cultural ‘translators’ for bewildered American forces meandering in the boonies, and worked diligently alongside interrogators – though usually a bit beyond blood-spatter distance.

Tapping social scientific lore is a somewhat exotic military practice stretching back to World War II when luminaries such as Margaret Mead, Ruth Benedict and Clyde Kluckhohn scribbled pointers for Allied troops about the mysterious native cultures that they encountered as they fought their way across the atolls and islands of the Pacific. However, it was of course a German scientist in the First World War who stated the ethically obtuse principle that scientists belong to their disciplines in time of peace, and to their countries in time of war.

That was Fritz Haber, who garnered a Nobel Prize for peacetime laboratory research but, for the hideous Western Front, concocted new and improved poison gases as well as means to deliver them. So is poison what scholarship inevitably degenerates into when applied to military purposes, and especially to counterinsurgency enterprises? ‘We are opposed to current military uses of anthropology,’ said Sean T. Mitchell, a new PhD from the University of Chicago and co-organizer of a conference on ‘Anthropology and Global Counterinsurgency’ held there during 25-27 April 2008.  Instead of signing up unquestioningly with Uncle Sam’s global pacification program, ‘we want to make this a debate, one that includes real scholarly investigation.’

The human terrain system, according to jargon-juggling military spokespersons, is ‘designed to address cultural awareness shortcomings at the operational and tactical levels by giving brigade commanders an organic capability to help understand and deal with ‘human terrain’ – the social, ethnographic, cultural, economic, and political elements of the people among whom a force is operating.’ The militarized bookworms are slated to accompany squads on patrols, with a culturally attuned text in one hand and a locked and loaded Armalite in the other. ‘This isn’t embedding with the military, this is getting impregnated by them,’ one conference attendee beside me whispered.

In year six of Dubya’s eternal occupation of Iraq, most anthropologists have shunned military blandishments, despite the high (the ‘low six figures’) salaries reputedly being dangled. Nonetheless, for the sake of their particular sense of patriotism or from financial stress, or a bit of both, some would-be warriors with advanced anthropology degrees are joining the Defense Department’s “human terrain system” (HTS) teams. By mid-April there were ‘38 HTS personnel in Iraq distributed among 5 teams,’ according to a senior HTS leader, Montgomery McFate. “8 of those personnel are Social Scientists.† 13 of those personnel speak Arabic,of which 2 are Social Scientists and 11 are Human Terrain Analysts or Research Managers.  In May Michael Bhatia was the first such scholar to be killed in combat – a roadside bomb – with the 82nd Airborne Division in Afghanistan.

In an extraordinarily rare and notable admission regarding the oft-derided status of the ‘soft’ social sciences, Dr. AndrÈ van Tilborg, deputy undersecretary of Defense, told a joint session of the Armed Services Committee’s terrorism panel and the Science Committee’s research subcommittee, “the questions that the social and behavioral sciences try to answer are in some ways harder and more difficult than the physical sciences.’ Too true. ‘The need for improved cultural awareness training was identified in the early phases of Operation Iraqi Freedom,’ he continued. ‘It was realized that the general purpose forces needed some of the same cultural awareness competency that our Special Operations Forces have traditionally maintained.’

Defense Secretary Robert Gates last April announced the Minerva Consortia Project, a Pentagon-funded enterprise designed essentially to coax coy universities to ‘promote research on certain areas” of salient interest to the military. The National Research Council advised the Pentagon to double its research budget for behavioral and social sciences, which was declining, to come up with ‘important specific applications addressed to military needs.’ So, speaking figuratively, something akin to a Rumpelstiltskin Institute will spin threads of military gold out of stacks of scholarly straw.  Indeed, the Army Research Institute dispenses taxpayer money to research geared to the ‘understanding the foundations of culture skills and competencies that can be used across deployments and geographic assignment’ – a brisk if blurry statement. But a bracing taste of the experience was offered in a blog by participant Marcus Griffin whose site since has gone ‘under construction.’

First, I am working out regularly with Lt. Gato. He is showing me how to develop greater strength and endurance, pushing me to exert myself beyond my own motivation. When I complained about elbow tendonitis, he said, “Good, no pain no gain.” Thanks to him I am gaining greater strength and larger muscles. Second, I cut my hair in a high and tight style and look like a drill sergeant. I know because a woman at the gas station asked me if I was one and was perplexed when I said no but was satisfied when I said I was simply on my way to Iraq. Third, I shot very well with the M9 and M4 last week at the range. I previously paid careful attention to the training one of my team members gave me on his own time and our effort paid off handsomely. Shooting well is important if you are a soldier regardless of whether or not your job requires you to carry a weapon. Fourth, I am trying to learn military language with all the acronyms and idioms otherwise alien to university professor such as myself. I actually know what people are saying now half the time. By going native, I am better able to see social life from the viewpoint of the people I am working with.

Alas, this enthusiastic absorption into military manners and mores is not remotely what one usually means by ‘going native.’ Anthropologists are recruited to be embedded with U.S. troops at brigade and division level in Iraq and Afghanistan. The program is administered by BAE (an agency created by British Aerospace and Marconi Electronic Systems). “Winning the trust of the indigenous populations “is at the heart of the struggle between coalition forces and the insurgents”, reads BAe’s  chirpy advertisement for anthropologists. DARPA’s program manager Sean O’Brien even said that the research collected will help predict “what are the likely outcomes from executing different options’ and that the “increasing sophistication of agent based social simulations” combined with the “explosion of new data sources” means we are on the verge of breakthroughs in computational models for the social sciences.’ LeMettrie, eat your heart out.

“[The Bush Administration] is trying to buy more time,’ says John Kelly, Chair of Chicago’s top-ranked Anthropology Department and conference co-organizer. Objections to the HTS program range from the inherent secrecy of its mission-oriented research, to, as Chicago anthropologist Marshall Sahlins, also a co-organizer, observes, ‘manipulating local culture, imposing [our government’s objectives] on them, transforming anthropologists into spies, and putting people you work with [in the locale] at risk.’ In November 2006 the executive board of the American Anthropological Association formally discouraged its members from taking part in HTS programs.  (The AAA statement is at In sum, AAA says, the “HTS program creates conditions which are likely to place anthropologists in positions in which their work will be in violation of the AAA Code of Ethics and (ii) that its use of anthropologists poses a danger to both other anthropologists and persons other anthropologists study.’

‘The HTS teams are, in some ways, the easy case’ [because so many scholars find them ridiculous and repulsive], says Hugh Gusterson of George Mason University, ‘The hard case is the constant, slow, military infusion of resources into the Academy’ with its long-term distorting and corrupting impact on scholarship. ‘How can you gain the trust of a person [in another culture], he asks, ‘when the purpose of the trust is to control him?’

Gusterson and David Price of St Martins University formed the Network of Concerned Anthropologists to urge colleagues to pledge ‘non-participation in counter-insurgency.’. Proponents of the HTS program, such as anthropologist Montgomery McFate, argue that savvy integrated systems are beneficial because they produce more humane and streamlined combat operations. ‘The ultimate goal,’ Sahlins retorts, merely ‘is better aim’ – more pinpointed killing. ‘They call it humane because they want to target the people better.’

Several HTS advocates declined invitations to the Chicago Conference but scholars such as Brian Selmeski at Air University and Kerry Fosher of Marine Corps Intelligence Activity, showed up to make the case for ‘working within the system.’  Jeff Bennett of the University of Missouri and Chris Nelson of North Carolina, both former infantry officers, drew attention to the shocking PTSD rates and other baleful effects upon ‘19 year olds with 3 hours sleep or less’ scrabbling by in extremely dangerous conditions. Kevin Caffrey told the Conference audience about a Iraq era reincarnation of ‘Winter Soldier’ testimonies, a gripping event which first was mounted during the Vietnam War, and recorded in a 1972 documentary of the same title. No one present seemed to support HTS, in particular, or, the war in Iraq, generally.

The conference dissected the 2007 Army/Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Manual, a spiffed-up military document that became a US bestseller. ‘The Manual ‘implies ‘an endless future of counterinsurgency interventions,’ Kelly notes. ‘It contains no section on withdrawal.’ Those with strong memories, and deep acquaintance with, Vietnam, counterinsurgency doctrine there ultimately only led to “destruction of American hearts and minds and consciences.’

Does academic advise ever do any good? In the Pentagon Papers one finds a System Analysis paper entitled “Alternative strategies” which in 1967 accurately reports that “While we have raised the price to NVN of aggression and support of the VC, it shows no lack of capability or will to match each new US escalation.” The verdict was dead-on, and continued: “Our strategy of attrition has not worked, Despite massive influx of 500 thousand US troops, 1.2 million tons a bombs a year, 400 thousand attach sorties per years, 200 thousand enemy KIA in three years, 20,000 US KIA, etc. our control of the countryside and defense of the urban areas is essentially at pre-August 1965 levels. We have achieved stalemate at a high commitment, A new strategy must be sought.’ Did they? Are you kidding? . They ‘accelerated’ pacification instead.

An intrinsic problem for scholars is the habit of authorities to discard inconvenient data, as in the Vietnam case where General William Westmoreland was accused of ‘low-balling’ guerilla numbers until the stunning 1968 Tet offensive shattered his carefully edited story line of slow but sure progress.  Picture the armed social scientist abroad as Alden Pyle in Graham Greene’s classic The Quiet American – half altar boy, half John Wayne, and wholly determined to induce the ‘impressionable’ natives to conform to ‘our’ way of thinking. “Their [HTS’] uses of ‘culture’ is a travesty,’  Sahlins judges, ‘and is designed to make these [Iraqi and Afghan] people as foreign and incomprehensible as possible – which is the opposite of anthropology.’

Given that the one thing that prospective scholars-for-hire cannot say is that the proposed mission is a bad idea, how can they really be regarded as uninhibited scholars? What is the point of helping this Government ‘perform a bad mission better?,’ another Conference presenter remarked. Gusterson and others suggest that the National Science Foundation or Social Science Research Council supervise Minerva, rather than the Pentagon: “Unlike the Department of Defense, the NSF already has deep experience supervising this kind of research, and as a neutral party it comes without the Pentagon’s baggage.’ A volume presenting more than 2 dozen Conference papers, entitled Anthropology and Global Counterinsurgency, is forthcoming early in 2009 from the University of Chicago Press.

At the November 2007 AAA meetings former HTS anthropologist Zenia Helbig lamented the poor quality of fellow recruits and urged that first class talent patriotically queue up, a plea which reportedly got jeered. What should anthropologists really do to help?  The AAA executive committee does urge that anthropologists are “obliged to help improve U.S. government policies through the widest possible circulation of anthropological understanding in the public sphere. ‘Anthropology works best when it is in conversation, ‘ said Kelly, lead editor of the forthcoming conference volume, who praised participants from military centers for their candor and courage. ‘’We have to discuss and do real research and find things we don’t already know.’


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