The Military Use of Anthropology

A couple of weeks back, I wrote about a post on the blog Savage Minds concerning cultural miscommunication. My post concerned ‘cultural communication’ as a key concept in the instruction of language teachers, and Kerim’s illustration that the term is frequently used to describe what would more accurately be called common sense. Specifically, his post addressed an episode of poor translation encountered by a group of US soldiers in Afghanistan. After thinking more about this, I decided to write my own post about the military application of Anthropology and particularly the issue that has captured the attention of many of the participants in Savage Minds – the Human Terrain System (HTS) (see the program website here). HTS is a program run by the US military that plans to decipher the cultures of regions that pose a high security risk to the USA. It originally was planned that HTS would employ scientists holding a PhD in Anthropology and that these Anthropologists, through their advanced training in methods designed to understand culture, would save lives by reducing the kind of confusion Kerim was pointing to.

Savage Minds has written extensively about HTS so it is important to realize that the issue here is not just one of the increased incorporation of Anthropology and culture into US foreign and military practices. I suspect that even the harshest opponents of US militarism at some level hope for a stronger sense of culture and local knowledge among US policy makers and their on-the-ground representatives, if only for the sake of the local people that current policies damage. The main problem expressed in Savage Minds is HTS.

It was not until I started reading about HTS and particularly about its main architect Dr. Montgomery McFate that I really came to an understanding of the weirdness of the program. Dr. McFate has impressive academic credentials. She is a legitimate Anthropologist holding a PhD in the discipline from Yale University, as well as other significant degrees. But the more I read about the program and what’s been going on, the more I have had to conclude this was one weird situation. The very least I can say is that the cultural information being uncovered by HTS may be saving lives, but it has nothing to do with culture as Social Scientists, and particularly Anthropologists, think of it. HTS has hired PhDs at $120K+ a head to tell them things that my mother probably could have figured out. Now let me put this in its less charitable form. The information available about HTS and Dr. McFate is – to use the word I have used twice – bizarre. It is so weird it’s hard for me to write about it. It defies common sense to think HTS is really a group of well-educated individuals trying to win the hearts and minds of the academic community and recruit their members. The characters involved in the program seem wacky, the information they produce perhaps useful but certainly not scholarly, and their conclusions seemingly composed of information that military officers would have figured out themselves.

I base this impression on two sources. The first of these stems from a reading of the comments of Internet writers claiming to be proponents of HTS and subsequent web searches addressing their comments. The second of these is a reading of the academic and professional writings explaining the work of HTS and it reevaluation of counterinsurgency.

The Savage Minds Posts and What They Tell Me about HTS

As Anthropologists, Savage Minds has been posting about HTS for a long time. This only caught my attention recently with a series of comments posted in reply to Kerim’s post about cultural miscommunication. Beginning with Comment 3, a person calling themselves Dee began to defend HTS. Dee’s comments have no hyperlinks or e-mail address or any indication of whom she could really be, but Dee expresses the tone that she has inside information about the program and that when it is presented publicly it will impress even the most skeptical of us.

But very quickly Dee’s comments turned into something different. In no time at all, Dee began calling others on the post names. And by ‘names’, I mean ‘names’ like the kind kids call each other. As the discourse developed, Dee becomes even more combative, as if she can not tell the difference between engagement and mudslinging. At one point (comment 9), she instructs a highly published associate professor of Anthropology to “stop acting like a sheep”, when in fact he was obviously expressing what would have been the mainstream attitude of others posting on Savage Minds and perhaps even Anthropologists in general. Interestingly, Dee abruptly stops posting comments after Maxamilian Forte speculates she is in reality the HTS scientist Dr. Montgomery McFate (comment 17). But in truth, by that time, Dee had completely alienated anyone who could have been convinced that HTS has any merit at all. As Dr. Forte points out in comment 17, this style of completely disregarding anyone who disagrees has been noted as one of McFate’s problems in performing her job of communicating with the public. Indeed, the reactionary periodical Counterpunch has said as much, accusing her of claiming that anyone who disagrees with her doesn’t properly understand the military.

But from there, it just gets weirder. It appears that someone has been posting anonymous blogs defending HTS. I did not see the blog in question but it seems that it had something to do with someone claiming to be an Anthropologist who supported HTS. Like the comments posted on Savage Minds, once the blog was associated with McFate, it vanished into the ether.

But the weirdness doesn’t stop there, either. In a number of interviews, McFate has talked about her unconventional upbringing, how she votes Democrat (not Republican), and holds other unexpected attitudes about life. As it turns out though, she’s not nearly as ‘different’ as one might expect. It appears her husband and his mother have worked spying for the National Rifle Association (NRA) on gun control lobby groups. Mother Jones magazine implies in their story that Dr. McFate was somehow involved in this work, but they do not elaborate. If you look at comments to this post from Savage Minds, many address the accusations of Dr. McFate’s involvement in corporate spying and blogging. In Comment 33, Dee replies with the bizarre remark that Dr. McFate has written adequate responses to her detractors, but you can’t read them.

I know for a fact that in some forums McFate answers criticisms (others on this blog know this too, sorry you’re tuned out…I for one don’t much care). I could produce links, but sorry…I’m ethically obliged not to.

What? Did I read this right? The evidence exists, it’s openly available on the Net, you know where it is, but it’s a secret? Is this an argument?

I am not an Anthropologist and as I have indicated in many other posts here, I am a somewhat conservative person. My sister is a highly decorated Canadian military veteran and my brother taught in the Canadian Armed Forces Infantry School in Gagetown, New Brunswick. Despite being predisposed toward accepting the use of scholarship in the military, I still don’t know what to make of this. What is someone who might have been convinced by a reasonable position supposed to think of this nonsense? Why would anyone even bother writing this? It’s almost as if they are trying to alienate their audience.

But in a sense, so what? It’s really character assassination to make these kind of accusations. While it’s so strange you would wonder if it’s not kids in Wisconsin trapped in a snow storm playing practical jokes on us, really, no one knows who’s writing these blogs and comments. So what if McFate fell in love with a right-wing gun fanatic? These are personal issues. Except that a closer look at what’s being said academically about cultural investigation and the military really makes me wonder if there isn’t a deeper message being spread.

Scholarly and Professional Discussions of the Use of Cultural in Counterinsurgency

Documents obtained from the HTS website make it sound like culture is the new buzz word among generals and that everyone sees this, rather than overwhelming force, as the key to whipping those tribal Iraqis. I’m not an American soldier and my main source of information about the war comes from mass media, but this is so much different from my impression of the war. All I’ve been hearing about for years now is about the need for more troops in the Middle East. Has there ever been a time in the Gulf War when the main issue in the news was not who would send troops and how many they would send? It’s as if when Shock and Awe didn’t work when the Iraqis forgot to rise up and fill in space left by the collapse of Suddam Hussain, the military has had to come up with another trendy marketing term to show us they’re doing something.

But what do I know about running a war in Iraq? The whole concept of counterinsurgency seems kind of creepy to me. I do, however, think I can give a more competent judgment of what HTS and Dr. McFate mean when they use the term ‘culture’ in their professional writing. And after reading much of this, I can only conclude with another question: why would HTS want an Anthropologist? After all, the kind of information they keep calling ‘culture’ and examples they give of knowledge about ‘culture’ that has ‘made a difference’ or ‘saved lives’ is not the sort that an Anthropologist would be particularly useful at gathering. In fact, when McFate gives such examples, it is never data gathered by a professional Anthropologist and always data from a military participant.

In the professional magazine Joint Forces Quarterly, McFate presents an influential article, The Military Utility of Understanding Adversary Culture. She produces example after example of cultural misunderstandings that have plagued operations in Iraq. But every single one of them is the kind of thing that an Anthropologist, like Kerim, would tell you is nothing more than a lack of common sense. McFate tells us that, “A lack of familiarity with local symbols also created problems.” She goes on,

Many Marines assumed a black flag was the opposite of surrender – “a big sign that said shoot here.”…as a result, many Shia who traditionally fly black flags from their homes as a religious symbol were identified as the enemy and shot at unnecessarily.

So culture is a bunch stuff that people do? It’s customs and daily practices? And Marines typically walk into a town and start shooting at things they don’t like? They don’t even bother to stop and ask their local translators what they mean? And they need a PhD in Anthropology to decipher and translate this for them?

But there’s an even stranger story inside all of this. Another of McFate’s influential articles, Does Culture Matter? The Military Utility of Understanding Adversary Culture appeared in the July 2005 issue of Joint Force Quarterly. McFate tells us a story about problems with roadblocks and how people get killed there. Her story is important because basic facts in it are wrong. They appear to me to be systematically corrupted in a way that magnifies the confusion between Iraqis and US military and in a way that accentuates the importance of miscommunication about customs. In fact, the miscommunication is the result of a problem that would occur with almost anyone, regardless of where they were brought up, what religion they are, or even their political stance on the US occupation of the Middle East. Here’s McFate’s incorrect statement.

There were also problems at roadblocks. The American gesture for stop (arm straight and palm out) means welcome in Iraq. While the gesture for go means stop (arm straight, palm down).

And it goes on.

There were also problems at roadblocks. The American gesture for stop (arm straight and palm out) means welcome in Iraq. While the gesture for go means stop (arm straight, palm down).

McFate has completely distorted the reality of this. The real problem is that US military uses a hand signal for stop that no one except soldiers can understand. It is this confusion about hand signals that was involved in the killing of an Italian envoy in Iraq. The military hand signal for stop is an raised arm bent at the elbow and a closed fist and the Internet is literally full of descriptions of this.

“Down the road in front of us, an old dude pedaled towards us on a bike. I gave him the closed fist hand signal to stop. He didn’t. I gave him the Iraqi hand signal for Stop. He didn’t.”

One basic hand and arm signal is the clenched fist, held straight up. This means “stop” or more specifically “freeze, do not move”.

The military expects all vehicles to stay at least 100 yards from a convoy. When cars come too close, troops signal them to move back, sometimes by waving a little stop sign and sometimes by holding up a clenched fist.

But what do I know? I’m an English teacher in Taiwan, except here’s a photograph from Defend America magazine of a soldier from 1st Battalion, 10th Special  Forces Group teaching Nigerians, in the words of the article itself, that…

The closed-fist signal means “stop.”

Go have a look at the picture and tell me what you think. McFate tells us it’s an “open palm” that every human raised in Anglo-American world would understand. Iraqis get shot because they lack that critical piece of cultural information that US soldiers take for granted. This story is so ‘common sense’ an example, it seems to have made its way into complete with a picture of the outstretched palm for stop. But the US Army says it’s a closed fist they use to indicate stop. So who is it in Iraq that’s using those confusing open palmed hands to indicate stop?

I don’t know how this strange problem with the open and closed palm got started, especially since its point was first raised in a military periodical. It could be that soldiers reading the original article would easily dismiss it as factual information not necessarily known by civilians but not really important to the message of the article. But it is a story that will click with non-military readers of an example where you would need critical cultural information to save lives. I can only wonder if this error was committed accidentally by McFate because her research is limited or deliberately because ignoring the facts makes such a great story.

McFate goes on to provide other significant examples of how cultural understanding has assisted in establishing order. She talks about tracking down Saddam Hussein through a mapping of the relationship between different tribal leaders. She discusses an American commander who established a court system based on 1950s Iraqi law that was accepted in his zone of control as legitimate. She provides details of how British commanders more experienced in counterinsurgency handling different issues that they encountered. All of the examples she provides are great. They are the sort of thing I wish I could hear more about – educated, intelligent, empathic military commanders using their brains to solve problems that guns and bombs aren’t that good at. The only problem is that, like the example of the roadblock – if it were true – why would you need a PhD in Anthropology to solve it? In fact, all the examples she gives were handled competently, effectively, and professionally by military personnel.

It’s not that Anthropologists have nothing to say about how to fight a war. One of the most interesting things I came across in my research was a paper written through the American University in Washington. Witchcraft, Sorcery, Magic, and Other Psychological Phenomena and Their Implications on Military and Paramilitary Operations in the Congo is a research paper written for the Special Operations Research Office in 1964. It discusses the military implications of the growing use of magic among insurgents during the Congo Crises. It is a very sophisticated analysis of the emergence of magic and its dialectical relationship with modernization. It appears written by professional scholars with extensive experience in the Congo. I liked it very much and would recommend it highly to undergraduates.

Ironically, the conclusion of the paper is that the military should stay away from playing with culture. The authours recommend that the military do not become involved with the use of the symbols and practices associated with magic. Their position is the use of these symbols is too complex and arbitrary for soldiers to be handling. Instead, the authors recommend the preparation of highly disciplined and well-trained soldiers to demonstrate to practitioners of magic that sorcery doesn’t stop bullets. If you want to read the article, it can be downloaded from this site through the link
If the paper is taken down, just contact me and I’ll forward my copy to you.

What I’m saying is the same thing that Kerim has been saying all along. The kind of culture a military commander needs to know about has nothing to do with the complex sense of meaning and identity that Anthropologists are masters of describing. The sense of the term that is needed in the battlefield is already well understood by bright, open-minded, educated officers given the opportunity to develop their own command. Let me put this another way; anything I have seen about the cultural information uncovered by an HTT (for example, see here) seems pretty trite. The reports from McFate sources of military commanders acting on their common sense understanding of local activities seem significant and useful. In fact, in the examples given above by McFate, the biggest problem she discusses is not some lack of understanding but the manner in which senior command interfered with the traditional court system developed by the local military commander.

This theme of the ignorance of senior command is one that I kept coming across. It appears over and over again in descriptions of local knowledge in US foreign and military policy. This interview with Montgomery McFate and Sarah Sewall from the Harvard School of Government claim the new US Army/Marine Corp Counterinsurgency Manual incorporating concepts of culture and cultural understanding is “radical and paradigm shifting work”. While the interview initially seemed interesting, it very quickly became a repetitious message about how we need more ‘cultural understanding’ in the military. Keep in mind that the argument is not supposed to be about culture but rather why we need these high-powered culture thinkers interpreting what’s really going on. As an example of cultural confusion in national security thinking, McFate gives the case of US Secretary of State Dr. Condoleezza Rice. Dr. Rice, another PhD, is represented by Dr. McFate as saying that months or even years in the Iraq War, she did not understand the difference between the different layers of Iraq government. Around the 7:00 mark, McFate asks “…why didn’t she have a better understanding?” Is the answer supposed to be that the Anthropological wing of the US military hadn’t divulged it? Dr. Rice has a PhD in political science from the University of Denver and is an associate professor of the subject at Stanford University. I am deeply confused about how such a point could not be common sense for her. I sincerely doubt with such confusion among top-ranked politicians, academics, and military officials that pointing out examples of custom or the presence of a PhD in Anthropology will make much difference.

I’m not sure why I have been able to see only information that seems trite and meaningless. Perhaps the really good stuff is classified. Perhaps it’s much like Dee implies and I’ll be eating my words once I hear the really juicy stuff she’s seen, and we’re supposed to be able to see later. But it may be there’s not a lot of useful stuff to be learned in the setting studied by HTS. The description of how teams work seems to be nothing like the way ethnographers go about their work. There seems to be little real rapport being built with groups and individuals. I doubt any of HTT members will leave feeling they have become an Afghani or a local tribesman. So how could they be getting at deep cultural information about the motives of tribal Muslims in Iraq and Afghanistan like that an Anthropologist would be expected to uncover?

Is There something Else Going on Here?

So if the people running HTS are whackos and their scholarship on culture less than Anthropological, what could really be going on here?

The first point that hit me when reading all this was the endless rhetoric that makes Anthropology the enemy. It is hard not to notice the large number of bad things Dr. McFate has to say about the discipline of contemporary Anthropology. This article written by Dr. Montgomery McFate makes it clear that Anthropologists are a bunch of academic bums hanging around the campus beer parlour talking about the latest primitive ritual.

Unlike political science or economics, anthropology is primarily an academic discipline. The majority of newly minted anthropologists brutally compete for a limited number of underpaid university faculty appointments, and although there is an increasing demand from industry for applied anthropologists to advise on product design, marketing, and organizational culture, anthropologists still prefer to study the “exotic and useless,”

In an example that foreign residents of Taiwan may find particularly humourous, Dr. McFate points out the increasingly useless nature of research in Anthropology. Dr. McFate cites examples of recently published articles in the prestigious Current Anthropology including ‘Recovering True selves in the Electro-spiritual Field of Universal Love’. Ironically, the authour of the article is Nick Pazderic who taught at Chaoyang University of Technology and has been a contributor of comments to this blog.

That HTS believes something bad is going on in Anthropology as a scholarly discipline is indicated by what appears to be spying conducted during meetings of the American Anthropological Association (AAA). Members of HTS have been seen at AAA recording names of members pledged to observe a statement drafted by the Network of Concerned Anthropologists. While I recommend that readers have a look at the whole statement, its point is to rally Anthropologists in resistance to HTS and other military applications of Anthropology.

Returning to Dr. McFate’s point, much of her writing only makes sense if you don’t think about it too much. In a sentence just underneath her earlier cited disregard for Anthropology as a discipline, she comments on the skill sets provided by training in academic Anthropology,

Their [Anthropologists] habits of wandering in remote areas and skill at observations proved to be quite useful to the government

I’m really confused by this. Anthropology is irrelevant because it focuses on the esoteric and exotic but wandering around in exotic locations observing the esoteric is what made them useful to governments? What’s really the issue here? If Anthropologists studied “useful” things like Economists, would they still have such skills? Or is it just that so many people who have developed Anthropological skill don’t agree politically with HTS and McFate? Is it that she’s really trying to rationalize her disagreement with the politics of almost all Anthropologists, even though it is clear that their techniques are powerful, useful, and able to accurately lead to meaningful conclusions?

All of this brings me back to the issue of who would want to work for HTS. While the original goal appears to have been the recruitment of PhD holders in Anthropology, they seem to have failed miserably in this respect. It is widely understood that many HTT members hold doctorates in disciplines like Political Science. It also seems to me that at least some number of their members are students. Two HTT members killed were both doctoral candidates in Poli Sci (here and here). The HTT leader discussing in this article does not have a doctorate. I have read many accounts of HTT activities and the most striking thing is the number of people who do not hold doctorates. I’m not sure what effect this has on the program’s ability to decipher culture for soldiers. Certainly if Condoleezza Rice is any indication, a social worker would be better off than a PhD in Political Science. But it is clear they’re having trouble getting the kind of people they originally thought would be necessary for the program’s success.

It seems that much/most/all of the information gathered by HTS is straight forward and obtainable through the methods employed by talented military commanders. HTS is doing nothing in the way of real ethnography or cultural analysis. The work of an HTS team member is unrelated to the work that Anthropologists are involved with. As such, Anthropologists have shown no interest in assisting HTS which is already perceived as immoral and damaging to the discipline. But really, I have little doubt that if the work was exciting and perceived as cutting edge, producing the best knowledge available in the field, and exposing scientists to the best data possible, it might be a whole different story. Instead, on top of being morally repulsive, it’s stupid, boring, and dangerous.

My Final Thoughts

Through all of this, I couldn’t shake the uncomfortable feeling that this has little to do with producing a better, more sensitive military for the American people. Rather, it is as though McFate is trying to create a discourse about cultural knowledge. First, it aims to discard Anthropologists as legitimate producers of meaningful knowledge. This message is aimed at officials in the military-industrial organizations. Its goal is to discredit the creators of a cultural critique of American militarism as the only or even a legitimate voice of anthropology (with a small ‘a’). Second it will replace the Anthropological discourse with the message of how a legitimate cultural critique addressing military-oriented issues does exist. The intended audience of this discourse is non-experts in culture studies – such as interested military experts. The goal is to demonstrate that HTS has legitimacy as a producer of cultural knowledge and critique. It is an attempt to state that in spite of academic prejudice, HTS researchers have bridged and engaged academic Anthropologists, even attracting some to aid in their project.

To put it in a rather silly way, McFate seems to be conducting her own counterinsurgency against conventional Anthropology.

The problem is that it hasn’t worked. Anthropologists have refused to engage in academic dialog and instead have discredited her research as trivial and without any academic merit – a judgment I agree with. The people working in HTS do not appear to be what the program had in mind when it was first conceived. HTS is a poorly conceived version of incorporating cultural knowledge into American foreign and military policy. Almost from the beginning, it was bound to be a disaster. After all, what difference is it going to make if soldiers know that a black flag is not a hostile sign when those who speak directly to the president don’t even know how government works in the countries they are invading? What difference will this make if the US military is bound up in practices that inhibit its ability to function locally, such as firing Arabic language experts because they are homosexual or confusing the different Muslim sects fighting in the Middle East? And what difference will it make to HTS if its members have a PhD in Anthropology, Biology, or are even military personnel with no special educational background?

While I can see that local knowledge is very important to a properly run military campaign, I can not see how HTS or any of the doctrine espoused by Dr. McFate could contribute to this. HTS is ill-informed, poorly led, and confusing.


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Hello Scott,

I see you have been wading neck deep in the flood of HTS discussions and articles. It’s becoming impossible to write briefly about these details. Yet, I think you really hit the nail on the head with this observation, which is far from silly:

“To put it in a rather silly way, McFate seems to be conducting her own counterinsurgency against conventional Anthropology.”

Incidentally, the anonymous blog was McFate’s own blog, and it consisted of lewd commentary on the bodies of her military colleagues and bosses. When I used the contents of the blog as ammunition for a post of mine, it was taken down very quickly.

We’ll never know if “Dee” was McFate, and perhaps it is more likely that she is Laurie Adler, HTS’ specialist in propaganda (you can see more on my blog, check the list of posts, or do a “HTS” search on the blog).

A really good post overall, essay more than mere post, thanks very much for sharing this.

Good post. I’ve used your post to elaborate on my own ideas some more over at Savage Minds.

Maximilian, thank you for your remarks. The aspect of this that bothers me the most is the US military’s knowledge of HTS as counterinsurgency against Anthropology. Is there wider understanding of this problem of what she is doing or is she pulling an ‘Oliver North’?

For readers interested in more of what Maximilian has to say on HTS, I have provided a link.

I also highly recommend Kerim’s article where he talks more about the confusion concerned hand signals and what this means for cultural miscommunication.

hi Scott, what I read of your post was interesting but long and I didn’t get through all of it, but as for this bit about Dee saying she couldn’t reveal where McFate defends herself:

“What? Did I read this right? The evidence exists, it’s openly available on the Net, you know where it is, but it’s a secret? Is this an argument?”

Here’s what Dee was talking about. There’s a listserv called Mil_Ant_Net — military anthropology network. McFate has occasionally posted rebuttals to criticism of HTS there. But the rule of that listserv is that things posted there are supposed to be private, you can’t repeat them. Kinda weird, huh? Anyone can join, but I guess it’s just for your own edification and for info “on background” as journalists say. That’s what Dee was referring to when she said she was “ethically obliged not to.”

Thanks very much Scott, I also added your blog to my links.


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