Monday, October 29, 2007

The Real Culture Warriors: Anthropologists on the Front Lines

With superior military technology and a belief in democracy, the US armed forces and the White House jumped head first into two Muslim nations. What they found was a complex network of tribal alliances, bitter rivalries and foreign customs that confounded all military personnel from the highest ranking officers to the infantryman patrolling in the street. Where firepower has failed, cultural anthropologists may succeed. The Army recently developed a program in which anthropologists use their cultural knowledge to help foster peaceful interactions between soldiers and local populations. Dubbed the Human Terrain System (HTS), the program name sounds like a totalitarian nightmare but in reality may be an effective alternative to ending the violence. A team of five anthropologists called a Human Terrain Team (HTT) provides commanders “support in the form of ethnographic and social research, cultural information research, and social data analysis that can be employed as part of the military decision making process,” according to an article in the US Army Professional Writing Collection. The article looks at the value of anthropological research from a purely strategic standpoint but it does draw the conclusion that military superiority cannot produce victory in an occupation-type situation like Iraq. Insurgencies most often sprout from the ideologies of the society being occupied, and who better to handle to understand this concept than those studying culture: one of the most abstract and difficult concepts to grasp. (Indiana the famed archeologist is back, above left)

Many anthropologists responded by denouncing the use of cultural scientists by the military. Roberto J. Gonzalez and other academics are concerned the “war on terror threatens to militarize anthropology. For Gonzalez it is an ethical issue. He feels that information passed from the researcher to the military could result in the deaths of the very people they are studying. Gonzalez believes the practice of using anthropologists for the military will hurt the discipline in the long run. “When they participate in secret military operations that taint the reputation of all anthropologists, they are engaging in scorched earth fieldwork, for they make it impossible for future researchers to establish the trust necessary for establishing rapport with research participants,” Gonzalez wrote in an article for Counterpunch. He also charged the CIA of misusing anthropological research for counterinsurgency and propaganda campaigns.

The American Anthropological Association(AAA) organized a commission two years ago investigating the ethics of cultural research for national security. There is also an organization called the Network of Concerned Anthropologists that opposes using cultural research to aid the US in combat. They believe covert ethnographies that violate the trust of the studied population also compromises the ethical standards of the discipline. Their criticism is understandable. The relationship between anthropologists and governments has been controversial. Anthropologists were gain insights into colonial subjects. According to the AAA statement on race, “early in the 19th century the growing fields of science began to reflect the public consciousness about human differences.” The idea of race born from science helped legitimize the strategy for dividing, ranking, and controlling indigenous people. (example of an Iraqi geneology above right, geneologies are a focus of study for many anthropologist)
However anthropologists who oppose using cultural field work in Iraq and Afghanistan appear to be doing so more on political beliefs than on professional ethics. The AAA called for an end to the Iraq war last year. Also the Network of Concerned Anthropologist say it would support the military in humanitarian operations but not combat missions in Iraq and Afghanistan because they fear human subjects would be harmed. But the need for more cultural understanding between the Middle East and the commanders and politicians could not be more pertinent. The endless violence that fuels the insurgency stems from the ideologies cherished by indigenous cultures, a culture most soldiers and civilian workers are clueless about. Just as people speaking two languages cannot communicate, opposite cultures with no understanding of each other cannot negotiate. Anthropologist Montgomery McFate said in the San Franciso Chronicle “the military is so willing to listen now ... and for anthropologists to sit back in their ivory tower and spit at these people that are asking for their help -- I think there's something unethical about that," she said. "If you're not in the room with them, you won't influence their decisions." (left, Marcus Griffin an anthropologist researching in Iraq)

A colonel with the 82nd Airborne already credits anthropologists with allowing the unit to decrease 60 percent of its combat operations. In one instance an anthropologist observed a high number of widows in one Afghan village. Because of her cultural knowledge she knew the widows’ sons would be pressured to provide for the family; with no jobs available the boys would likely have to join the Taliban. The US military promptly developed a job-training program to discourage recruitment. This type of cultural knowledge can save more lives among local populations and troops than any political statement by the AAA. Anthropologists are in a unique position to build a bridge between the US military and insurgents. The US military is slowly learning (with the help of anthropologists) that respect and dignity can yield powerful results. Cultural researchers should jump at the opportunity to finally have the influence to fix policies they have disagreed with.

1 comment:

JW said...

This post was very intriguing! I think you brought up a great topic and supported it with good solid evidence and quotes. Your links were very well placed and extremely informative. I would, however, have liked to see your own opinion developed a little earlier on in the post. As it is, your opinion doesn’t surface until the last paragraph. I think if you were to briefly provide a statement of your own stance on the issue, it would better assist your readers in understanding your choice of evidence and quotes. I also think that this post was rather long winded, it felt as though it took a long time to read (which also may have something to do with having to wait for your opinion until the end).

The images in your post were awesome! They really fit in with the post and helped to tell the story. However, for that same reason, I would have liked to find out more about the pictures. I think that (even though you referenced them contextually) you should have provided some back story to each image as far as what was happening and what was the intended purpose of those actions. Other than that, great post!

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