The Frontal Cortex

Anthropology and the Military

This seems like a really good thing:

In this isolated Taliban stronghold in eastern Afghanistan, American paratroopers are fielding what they consider a crucial new weapon in counterinsurgency operations here: a soft-spoken civilian anthropologist named Tracy.

Tracy, who asked that her surname not be used for security reasons, is a member of the first Human Terrain Team, an experimental Pentagon program that assigns anthropologists and other social scientists to American combat units in Afghanistan and Iraq. Her team’s ability to understand subtle points of tribal relations — in one case spotting a land dispute that allowed the Taliban to bully parts of a major tribe — has won the praise of officers who say they are seeing concrete results.

Col. Martin Schweitzer, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division unit working with the anthropologists here, said that the unit’s combat operations had been reduced by 60 percent since the scientists arrived in February, and that the soldiers were now able to focus more on improving security, health care and education for the population.

“We’re looking at this from a human perspective, from a social scientist’s perspective,” he said. “We’re not focused on the enemy. We’re focused on bringing governance down to the people.”

And yet, academic anthropologists are criticizing the venture:

Citing the past misuse of social sciences in counterinsurgency campaigns, including in Vietnam and Latin America, some denounce the program as “mercenary anthropology” that exploits social science for political gain. Opponents fear that, whatever their intention, the scholars who work with the military could inadvertently cause all anthropologists to be viewed as intelligence gatherers for the American military.

Hugh Gusterson, an anthropology professor at George Mason University, and 10 other anthropologists are circulating an online pledge calling for anthropologists to boycott the teams, particularly in Iraq.

Obviously, I have no idea what’s really going on in the war zones, but judging from the article it seems pretty clear that the anthropologists are helping reduce tensions and lessen the collateral damage of military operations. In other words, they are helping one group of people (American soldiers) understand what it’s like to live in a completely different culture (the tribal culture of Afghanistan). Isn’t that what anthropology is all about? Don’t we want the Army to have a “thicker” understanding of the places in which it is operating?

And if this is about taking research money from the Pentagon…That’s a moral quandary molecular biology got over a long time ago.


  1. #1 KevinC
    October 5, 2007

    Molecular biologist do not go live with their study subjects for years at a time. Doing field anthropology requires trust. If your subject thinks you could be spying for a government they could not divulge information, distort it, lie to you or even kill you.

  2. #2 Luria Bertani
    October 8, 2007

    I think the issue is that this is not truly the Anthropologists role in society. As social scientists their function is to observe objectively, not with some overall agenda in mind for the furthering of some larger governmental opposition. Although it may seem to be the perfect functional manifestation of an Anthropologist’s perspective, it is actually seen an exploitation of it.

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