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A Mistaken Anthropologist


Inside Higher Ed’s Elizabeth Redden has published a fascinating interview with Roberto J. Gonzalez, an anthropologist and leading critic of the Army’s Human Terrain System (HTS). HTS embeds social scientists with Brigade Combat Teams, helping them understand the local population and, yes, identify the enemy. Given the dramatic (and often radical) leftist tilt in anthropology, it’s hardly surprising that the program has generated outrage. Dr. Gonzalez’s interview provides a brief but valuable insight into a misguided academic mindset.

The entire interview is worth reading, but the core of his argument follows:

To fully understand HTS, we should place it in the broader context of what might be called today’s “cult of counterinsurgency,” which centers around the personality of General David Petraeus. For several years, he and a loyal group of advisors — many with Ph.D.s in the social sciences — have been involved in an effort to whitewash counterinsurgency. In other words, they have tried to clean up the image of counterguerrilla warfare, which is always a dirty business. The U.S. military has more than a century of experience of this kind of warfare (going back to the bloody “Indian Wars” of the 1800s and the cruel campaign against Filipino revolutionaries in the early 1900s), yet Petraeus and others have portrayed it as a newer, gentler method of fighting — “the graduate level of war” in the words of one enthusiast. HTS was developed as a central component of this “new” old method.

Many sources indicate that HTS was designed primarily as an intelligence-gathering program. As I’ve mentioned, government budget documents and military journals describe the program as means of collecting ethnographic intelligence to boost “combat power.” In the Department of Defense’s 2008 Global War on Terror Amendment, human terrain teams are described as military intelligence assets which “have proven invaluable in identifying and tracking threats.” The statements of brigade commanders are also revealing. For example, U.S. Army Lieutenant Colonel Gian Gentile recently wrote that “these human terrain teams, whether they want to acknowledge it or not … contribute to the collective knowledge of a commander which allows him to target and kill the enemy.” This fits the military’s definition of human intelligence.

There’s much to disagree with here, but this is a blog post, so I’ll be brief. Let’s start with Gonzalez’s inherent bias. To him, the Petraeus COIN doctrine is “an effort to whitewash counterinsurgency,” nothing more than an attempt to “clean up the image of counterguerilla warfare.” This is an astonishing statement. Does he really believe–as a scholar–that COIN is about “whitewash?”

Having spent almost a full year of my life living General Petraeus’s COIN doctrine, I can say without hesitation that COIN is not an effort to “whitewash” or “clean up the image” of our military efforts, but instead an effort towin a war against a brutal enemy in a manner that is consistent with our cultural values, just-war theories, and international norms of human rights. It answers the question: “How do you fight an enemy who combines a medieval religious mentality with the Gestapo’s commitment to unspeakable brutality while protecting the innocent and building a new democratic culture?”

Given this mission, the importance of HTS becomes clear. Social scientists can teach us about tribal norms, help us deliver aid in a culturally appropriate manner, and provide insights that allow us to separate the terrorists from the population. The real-world impact of these efforts is a dramatic improvement in the living conditions of the local population.

It is a sad reality (or not that sad, once you come face-to-face with the unspeakable evil of al-Qaeda) that improving the lives of ordinary Iraqis requires us to kill or capture “insurgents.” My question is this: How is it unethical for a social scientist to use their skills and training to help us solve historically the most tangled and difficult problem in counterinsurgency warfare–discerning combatants and noncombatants? A successful HTS team can go a long way towards making a conflict far, far more humane.

While there are many anthropologists who no doubt believe that the scholar should always study cultures rather than use their skills and training to participate in their rescue, I have the distinct feeling that much of the opposition to HTS is not so much driven by hostility to the concept but instead by its use in the current conflict. It will be fascinating to see whether anthropologists can maintain the intensity of their opposition when it is President Obama–and not President Bush–reinforcing Afghanistan and striking deep into Pakistan.


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