Posted By Marc on January 26, 2009
The past several days have seen more publications come out on the Human Terrain System. I want to focus in on one in particular that shows up, of all places (!), in Men’s Journal: Afghanistan: The New War for Hearts and Minds by Robert Young Pelton. The simplest way to describe Pelton’s article is as a cross between an episode of M.A.S.H. and some form of French bedroom farce. While I *hope* it isn’t accurate, i.e. that he has taken poetic licence, I have a sneaking suspicion that it is pretty bang on (then again, I always liked the credo quia absurdam proof…).
A link to the piece was posted over at Small Wars Council and revived one of the HTS threads there. This time, however, rather than a discussion of whether or not Anthropology might be useful to the military, things took a different turn. In particular, the question came up as to what type of knowledge is being produced and who should produce it. After all, you don’t need a Ph.D. in Anthropology to do a lot of the basic cultural mapping that the HTS is doing – the military (both US and British and others) have been doing it for centuries.
So, why exactly would the military need something like the HTS if not for basic socio-cultural terrain? Now that is the $64,000 question, isn’t it? At present, I *think* the answer is a rather complex one that goes well beyond the basic “cultural information is useful” line.
Last November, I presented a paper at the 2008 IUS conference at RMC on the use of “culture”, actually ethnographic knowledge, in Romano-Byzantine Professional Military Education (draft available here if anyone is a masochist; I’m not happy with it yet, but…). One of the advantages of using a 2000 year timeline is that you can see how things change over time.
Now, one intriguing thing that the Romans (and Byzantines) did with their ethnographic knowledge was to parse it out into knowledge for the sake of combat and knowledge for the sake of political manipulation. They didn’t start this way; it only developed after the disasterous Barracks Emperors period (3rd century c.e.) showed how dangerous it was to have political ethnographic knowledge in the hands of military commanders – they tended to revolt and set themselves up as Emperor.
Now, that happened in Rome, but is it analogous to the US? Probably not given a whole variety of other differences. What is important, however, is to draw out that distinction between knowledge for combat and knowledge for politics since they are, actually, quite different. Even more important is to recognize under what conditions “combat” requires “political” knowledge. In many ways, the Romans had it easy – beat someone on the field and enforce your political will.
The same option is not available today when combat and politics are so heavily entwinned. For the US, that comes in via the population-centric model of counter-insurgency (COIN), while for the various non-state actors, it plays out in their conceptualizations of the area of operations (AO). The reality, today, is that all combat is “political” in the sense that representations of it will be used to achieve political ends over and above any inherently political nature.
So, what does this imply regarding the HTS? Well, first off, it certainly implies that the military needs an organic “culture capability”. I would argue that the British had that, at least in the officer corps, simply because of the fact that their officers used to be “gentlemen” who, as part of their education, had to read many of the classics (in Latin and Greek), and were required to be fluent in several languages. Not Anthropologists per se, but pretty good amateurs. The US also had an organic capacity, originally via the officer corps and, later on, via the Foreign Area Officer career track. As with the British, good amateurs who knew a lot about the realities on the ground.
So why get the “pro’s” involved? Well, I would argue that Anthropologists showed just how valuable we could be during World War II. But this value didn’t really play out in the realm of “combat ethnographies” (outside of the comic book guides and some of the tribal studies in the Pacific theatre); it played out in PSYOPS and cultural analysis leading to the occupations and social engineering projects in Germany and Japan in the post-War period. Basically, the real “worth” of professional Anthropologists for the military was in the realm of political knowledge.
This does have some implications for the HTS.