Anthropologists At War

New military program that embeds anthropologists with soldiers has academics up in arms

Bill Stamets

Maj. Robert Holbert takes notes and drinks tea with local school administrators in Nani, Afghanistan, on June 2, 2007. Holbert is attached to the 4th Brigade's Human Terrain Team.

Not in our name. That could be the battle cry of American anthropologists resisting the recent use of their discipline in Iraq and Afghanistan.

The U.S. Army is sending anthropologists into the field to help soldiers counter insurgents. The program, called Human Terrain System (HTS), responds to combat brigade commanders’ 2006 call for operationally relevant cultural knowledge.”

In June, 12 Human Terrain Teams (HTT) – each made up of three military members and three civilians – were expected to join combat brigades in either Iraq or Afghanistan. By the end of September, another 12 will deploy.

Training for the six-member teams occurs at the Army’s Combined Arms Center at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. The teams spend six to nine months in Iraq or Afghanistan and spend anywhere from three days to three weeks in a given locale, according to James K. Greer, deputy program manager of the Human Terrain System.

According to HTT’s website: The role of the HTTs is to help the troops better understand who is NOT their enemy.” The teams help the U.S. Army influence the population through non-lethal means.”

At an April 24 hearing at the House Armed Services Subcommittee on Terrorism, Unconventional Threats and Capabilities, Col. Martin Schweitzer testified that HTS helped decrease kinetic operations” by 60 to 70 percent in his brigade’s area of operations in Afghanistan.

We must understand the culture to win,” Schweitzer testified. 

In 2007, his 4th Brigade of the 82nd Airborne Division was the first to use a Human Terrain Team. It was also the first to have an HTT fatality. On May 7, 2008, a roadside bomb in the Afghan province of Khowst killed Michael Bhatia, an Oxford doctoral candidate and the brigade’s field social scientist. After his year-long contract, Bhatia had planned to finish his dissertation titled The Mujahideen: A Study of Combatant Motives in Afghanistan, 1978-2005.”

Anthropologists outsourced

BAE Systems, a global defense firm, has recruited and trained HTT members since 2006. To date, BAE has placed about 30 field social scientists in HTTs, says Scott Fazekas, a BAE press contact.

Academics at home have been raising a ruckus over the military’s use of a mobilized, militarized and weaponized anthropology. In September, the Network of Concerned Anthropologists formed to circulate a Pledge of Non-participation in Counterinsurgency. The pledge has since garnered nearly 1,000 signatures.

Last November, at its annual meeting in Washington, D.C., the executive board of the American Anthropological Association (AAA) issued a statement deeming HTS’s application of anthropological expertise” both problematic” and unacceptable.”

The impact of anti-HTS activists on program recruitment in universities, especially in anthropology departments, is profound,” Zenia Helbig, an academic kicked out of HTS, tells In These Times. Helbig brought BAE Systems – and its three HTS contracts, estimated at $160 million – to the attention of the Project on Government Oversight, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that investigates corruption in the federal government.

Felix Moos, an anthropology professor at the University of Kansas who has taught some HTT classes, concedes, Because we are outsourcing the war, we are giving the title of anthropologist’ to people who are not really anthropologists.”

In a May 6 letter to Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), Roberto J. González, an anthropology professor at San Jose State University and a member of the Network of Concerned Anthropologists, attacked HTS: The program is dysfunctional, wasteful, and perhaps even fraudulent. As an anthropologist, it is also clear to me that HTS simply cannot work as its proponents claim.” 

Key players

Counterinsurgency is the specialty of two key players in the Pentagon’s post-9/11 turn to culture. 

Anthropologist Montgomery McFate is the senior social science adviser to the HTS program. Her 1995 thesis at Yale University was Pax Britannica: British Counterinsurgency in Northern Ireland.” David J. Kilcullen is a policy-planning adviser in the State Department. His 2000 thesis at the University of New South Wales – Australian Defense Force Academy was titled The Political Consequences of Military Operations in Indonesia 1945-99: A Fieldwork Analysis of the Political Power-Diffusion Effects of Guerrilla Conflict.” Kilcullen’s non-academic credentials include a stint in the Australian Army as a commander of counterinsurgency operations in East Timor.

McFate is credited with jumpstarting a program – called the Cultural Operational Research Human Terrain System – at the Department of Defense (DOD) that was the springboard for HTS.

Cultural ignorance can kill,” argued McFate in a 2005 article published in Joint Forces Quarterly. Cultural knowledge and warfare are inextricably bound. … The U.S. Armed Forces must adopt an ethnographer’s view of the world.”

It has begun to do so. A piece in the Jan. 1, 2007, Field Artillery Journal briefed officers on greeting their Iraqi Army counterparts: If you are especially close, a kiss on the cheek may become commonplace. You will get used to it – it is a compliment indicating that your status has been raised to brother.’ ” Marines now receive how-to pamphlets, such as Cultural Considerations in House Occupations,” for tips on the Iraqi human dynamics when coalition forces enter Iraq residences.”

Normality in Kandahar is not the same as in Kansas,” Kilcullen wrote in a 2006 memo e-mailed to military officers. Armed social work” is his pithy take on culturally aware counterinsurgency.

He posts tips from the front: Stop your people fraternizing with local children. Your troops are homesick; they want to drop their guard with the kids. But children are sharp-eyed, lacking in empathy and willing to commit atrocities their elders would shrink from.”

Troops can also acquire practical cultural knowledge, sensitivity and awareness” by playing Mission to Iraq.” According to its promo materials, this $795 video game has socially intelligent virutal humans” driven by cultural puppets.” Alelo, the company that makes it, also sells Dari and Pashto versions for Afghan deployments. 

Testifying before the 2004 Armed Services Committee, retired Maj. Gen. Robert H. Scales proposed a cadre of global scouts, well educated, with a penchant for languages and a comfort with strange and distant places.”

He continued: These soldiers should be given time to immerse themselves in a single culture and to establish trust with those willing to trust them,” saying that ethnographic embedees ought to stay for extended periods within the countries, not just a few years but perhaps decades.”

Scales, a defense consultant with a doctorate in history from Duke University, has other ideas for anthropologizing the Army. He wrote this in a 2004 article Culture-Centric Warfare” for the Naval Institute’s Proceedings magazine:

The military spends millions to create urban combat sites designed to train soldiers how to kill an enemy in cities. But perhaps equally useful might be urban sites optimized to teach soldiers how to coexist with and cultivate trust and understanding among indigenous peoples inside foreign urban settings. Such centers would immerse young soldiers within a simulated Middle Eastern city, perhaps near a mosque or busy marketplace, where they would be confronted with various crises precipitated by expatriate role players who would seek to agitate and incite a local mob to violence. 

War is a thinking man’s game,” argues Scales. Gen. David Petraeus, a Princeton Ph.D. and commander of the Multi-National Force, agrees, telling Germany’s Der Spiegel magazine in December 2006: Counterinsurgency operations are war at the graduate level, they’re thinking man’s warfare.”

Contested cultural terrain

Between April 25 and 27, the Human Terrain System came under fire at the Anthropology and Global Counterinsurgency conference held at the University of Chicago. Organized by John D. Kelly, chair of U.C.’s Anthropology Department, and three U.C. doctoral candidates, the conference aimed to pursue the full implications of the connection now being sought by the U.S. military between culture and insurgency.”

HTS is among the largest social science projects in history,” argued González, who has sparred in the pages of Anthropology Today with Kilcullen, who was invited but did not attend, and with McFate, who was not invited.

I would have been delighted to attend,” she wrote in an e-mail to In These Times. It’s not everyday that there’s a conference on the subject.”

The national security structure in the U.S. needs to be infused with anthropology, a discipline invented to support warfighting in the tribal zone,” McFate urged in her 2005 Joint Forces Quarterly article.

Many of McFate’s colleagues at the Chicago gathering challenged that spin on their discipline. González told the conference-goers, In the end, it is by sharing what [anthropologists have] learned with the general public – not political, military or corporate elites – that we might spark lasting progressive change in democratic societies.”

Another dissenter is David Price, an anthropology professor at Saint Martin’s College in Lacey, Wash., who researches the history of American anthropologists colluding with the American government.

Military planners dream that culture can fix what thousands of tons of munitions broke,” Price said at the gathering. We should use anthropology to keep us out of these invasion fiascos in the first place.”

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Bill Stamets is a Chicago-based freelance writer who once took 10 grad school courses in anthropology at the University of Chicago.
Democratic Rep. Summer Lee, who at the time was a candidate for the state House, at a demonstration in Pittsburgh for Antwon Rose, who was killed by police, in 2018. Lee recently defeated her 2024 primary challenger.
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