Archive for April, 2011

Windshield ethnographers, Human Terrain Teams, and counterinsurgency: Improving the military’s cultural competence

I just finished reading Nathan Hodge’s Armed Humanitarians: Rise of the Nation Builders, about the evolution of the United States’ military’s mission in Iraq and Afghanistan in the last decade. There’s plenty to learn from Hodge, a staff writer at the Wall Street Journal, and the value of the book will be judged, I expect, for its documentation of (1) the massive philosophical changes that occurred within the military in response to instability in the wake of “regime change” in Baghdad and Kabul and (2) the massive outsourcing of military-relevant tasks to security firms, services corporations, and… anthropologists? Anthropologists and related social scientists were all involved in a new tactic, the use of Human Terrain Systems.

In a chapter titled “Windshield Ethnographers,” Hodge introduces us to the Human Terrain System which was based on the idea that “brigade commanders needed social scientists to provide advice” so that they didn’t have to rely on a “library loaded with ethnographic data” when making their rounds establishing alliances with local sheiks and mullahs. Five-person Human Terrain Teams would be embedded with brigades or regiments in order to provide intelligence — or, as social scientists call it, information (there’s some discussion of this in the awkward situations this distinction produced) — on local customs, relations between local leadership, and the little things that can really mess up inter-cultural communication (like an American soldier talking directly to an Afghan woman of the house).

What convinced the military that they should forge alliances with pointy-headed academics? Well, Hodge describes the source as an article by a policy fellow at the Office of Naval Research, Montgomery McFate, published in Military Affairs in 2005. Anthropology and Counterinsurgency: The Strange Story of their Curious Relationship argued that the military should bring in anthropologists and other social scientists in order to serve their new nation building objectives.

Once called “the handmaiden of colonialism,” anthropology has had a long, fruitful relationship with various elements of national power, which ended suddenly following the Vietnam War. The strange story of anthropology’s birth as a warfighting discipline, and its sudden plunge into the abyss of postmodernism, is intertwined with the U.S. failure in Vietnam. The curious and conspicuous lack of anthropology in the national-security arena since the Vietnam War has had grave consequences for countering the insurgency in Iraq, particularly because political policy and military operations based on partial and incomplete cultural knowledge are often worse than none at all.

Essentially, McFate was arguing that in order to succeed militarily against a counterinsurgency, the military had to improve its cultural competence. (There really are too many cynical comments to make at this point — I will refrain… but feel free to contribute in the comments section below.)

Hodge writes well, and he refrains from the holier-than-thou commentary that has become typical in critiques of the US’s blunders in Iraq and Afghanistan. His history is well-sourced, and much of the book is built on his own, first-hand, reporting. Put this on the required reading list for humanitarian aid workers, and maybe for soldiers too.


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