Archive for the 'colonialism' Category

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.


Book review of Crazy Like Us on

STATS is an organization that examines the reliability and validity of quantitative findings in social science and medicine for laypeople, specifically journalists. Today they feature a book review of Ethan Watters’ Crazy Like Us: The Globalization of the American Psyche, by none other than yours truly. Here’s a teaser:

those of us who work in the small corner of mental health research that examines the differences in diagnoses and symptoms between cultures are somewhat surprised by Crazy Like Us; our field, generally, remains well hidden in the crease between psychology and anthropology. That our first popular treatment should be a highly critical survey of this field of mental health is doubly shocking.

Keep reading, here .

Thoughts from Charles de Gaulle

Charles de Gaulle, Paris, en route to N’Djamena, Chad. Bleary-eyed, only half-awake after a six-hour flight during which I was awaked once when my doctor colleague was called to assist in a medical emergency (they actually say, “Is there a doctor on board?” who knew?), and then again when my kosher breakfast arrived (who knew I kept kosher?). Bought a 7-Euro breakfast (a cool $9.50 for a coffee and apricot tart) to replace my quickly-revoked kosher breakfast (ultimately I don’t pass for Jewish, just like Tara Frank’s grandparents told me in 11th grade), and now we’re lying about the terminal three hours before our connecting flight to N’Djamena. Charles de Gaulle, where everything looks good but is actually made of pvc piping, saran wrap, and aluminum foil. At least we didn’t have to change terminals–on previous trips I’ve had to transfer on those busses that only go in one direction, and it’s never the direction you want them to go in. To get from terminal 2e to terminal 2d, you have to go through terminal 2f, 3, 1, 2a-c. My favorite part of the whole trip is when you get to Hassan Djamous International in N’Djamena and there’s one of those Charles de Gaulle busses waiting to take you from the plane to the one terminal–a distance of about 50 feet.

Unless you fly through South Africa, humanitarian aid travel to African countries always takes you through major European hubs: Charles de Gaulle, Heathrow, Schipol. You can find your gate by looking for the well-dressed black people sitting next to the earnest looking white people in tevas, earth-tone tee shirts, and those pants you can zip off into shorts. Africans still dress up to get on planes; Western aid workers do not. I always feel like I should do something in between. I don’t want to look like I’m going on safari, but I also can’t quite bring myself to carry around a suit and tie through 110-degree heat for the rest of the trip. Besides, dressing up for the plane reminds me of when my mother used to make me wear those 1970s plaid shirts just to go visit my grandma. Still, when the guy sitting next to me is wearing a cream-colored Van Heusen with gold cuff links, pressed gray slacks, and shiny dress shoes, I feel kind of like the jerk who showed up to the prom in blue jeans.

On perhaps a more substative note, I do think that it is important to keep humanitarian aid work (particularly the short-term type that is invovled in evaluation) within the realm of venture, not adventure. I do not mean to accuse all Western aid workers of doing this work only for the thrill of it, or that I can tell the ones who are in it for the thrill by their tevas. There is, however, an undeniable excitement to traveling to conflict zones, and even for the most dedicated humanitarian it’s very easy to get caught up in the energy of it all and lose track of the work. It’s the same sort of problem that Chris Hedges talks about in his book “War Is the Force that Gives Us Meaning,” a clear (if perhaps overstated), testimonial on the attraction that some war correspondents have to the drama of conflict. Hedges’ revelry in this feeling bothers me a little bit, but his is an important book for my field in that like war correspondents, aid workers have a tendency to enjoy the “drama of trauma” as much as enjoy the work of delivering aid. IT’s also well-articulated in “Emergency Sex and other Desperate Measures” (the title alone says enough). This attraction to conflict-affected settings and people is something to acknowlege, and then guard against so that it doesn’t get in the way of what we are supposed to be doing. I have struggled with this myself, as the excitement of travelling to new locations and learning about cultures far-removed from my everyday existence is indeed something to celebrate. But war is not, and the line that separates reveling in the opportunity to travel to a place like Chad and the reason for that opportunity is a thin and sticky one.

Humanitarian aid work is, first and foremost, work. It’s a venture, not an adventure. There’s a time for adventure–and I happen to love adventures–it’s called vacation. This is not to say you can’t have fun at your work (I happen to love fun at work), only that to be respectful of the work and the people you work with you need to acknowledge and then do your best not to get caught up in the more dramatic aspects of the work environment.

December 2018
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