McFate: HTS offers ‘more granular baseline knowledge of the societies in which operations were to be conducted’

USA Today yesterday published a new piece about the human terrain system.  The article, which consults familiar experts such as Roberto Gonzalez and Kerry Fosher, would be completely unremarkable except that it reads almost like the last year did not happen.  Reporting no new information, the article fails to even mention many alleged weaknesses in the conceptualization and execution of the HTS idea, weaknesses that have been amply reported over the last several months (see for example John Stanton’s articles, linked to by Open Anthropology).  If the article contains no new information, and indeed if it ignores much information that has come to light about HTS, it does feature a sidebar with Montgomery McFate doing a familiar song and dance about the program’s virtues.  McFate, who skipped the AAA panel she was meant to be on, is still selling the program.  She is perhaps also offering an explanation of why HTS has so far proven a failure:

The need for HTS as a capability was recognized in Phase 4 of Iraq and Afghanistan, when the military identified their lack of socio-cultural knowledge as an operational gap.  Building HTS during the war was expensive and difficult because we were reacting to a crisis rather than planning ‘left of boom’.  Had this capability been developed and implemented during a Phase 0 pre-conflict phase, policy decision-makers and planners in the Pentagon would have had a much richer and more granular baseline knowledge of the societies in which operations were to be conducted, which would have allowed them to develop more effective policies and strategies.  Even more important, these senior officials would have potentially had the opportunity to use this knowledge to deter conflict in the first place.

If HTS wisdom had been incorporated during the ‘Phase 0 pre-conflict phase,’ perhaps the conflicts could have been avoided.  Is McFate here saying that more ethnographic knowledge would have stopped the wars?

38 thoughts on “McFate: HTS offers ‘more granular baseline knowledge of the societies in which operations were to be conducted’

  1. Is McFate here saying that more ethnographic knowledge would have stopped the wars?

    Is that such an unreasonable thing to suggest?

  2. I’ve been saying for years that policy would be well served by politicians and generals reading more. But the DoD never threw any public funds my way for my trouble.

  3. Would more ethnographic knowledge have stopped the wars? Perhaps. But only if (1) it were known to policy makers and (2) taken seriously by them.

    I recall a class at Cornell on Southeast Asian ethnography taught by Lauriston Sharp, who remarked one day that at the time of the Gulf of Tonkin incident there were, to the best of his knowledge, only three scholars in the United States who spoke Vietnamese, two of them archeologists. Supply of relevant information was certainly one problem.

    I also recall thinking about Lyndon Baines Johnson and reflecting that to become President of the United States he had, first, to be a successful Texas politician, then a successful Senate Majority Leader. He had, in other words, to be strongly attuned to the views and interests of his constituents and fellow members of Congress. Where in his life was the time or interest to have learned anything about Vietnam of sufficient weight to overcome the post-WWII fear of Communism, a fire on which just over a decade earlier the “fall of China” had poured a truckload of gasoline?

    I also recall an anguished debate on Anthro-L when someone asked why Bill Clinton had not appointed any anthropologists to his national commission on race. Being, then, deeply involved in Democratic Party politics, I asked what seemed an obvious question: “How many votes can anthropologists deliver?”

    This ramble is not to say that ethnographic knowledge should not be taken into account in national policy making. But who, more than anthropologists, should be aware of material and social structural constraints on the distribution of knowledge or less susceptible to the notion that because knowledge exists it must have some effect?

  4. McFate’s suggestion that, in a sense, ‘more intelligence’ might have reversed or changed the course of events sounds unconvincing to me and ultimately self-serving, especially given what we know about how the intelligence can be and was ‘fixed’ to suit a political situation prior to the Iraq invasion. As many have pointed out, the problem was less a lack of knowledge per se, the problem was in the political leadership. This might also be what John is suggesting in his comment. What I want to draw attention to here is the apparent fact that McFate is still selling this thing (I guess it is still a ‘proof of concept’ program?), and that her pitch is made to sound convincing through the use of jargon (‘granular,’ ‘Phase 0’) that ostensibly indexes her credibility in national security circles – and that a question that generically asks McFate to respond to criticisms (without actually enumerating what they are) allows her to get away with this. A big criticism of HTS for the last year has been that it is simply a grab for funds that was poorly conceived and poorly executed.

  5. Could it be the case that both hype and critique are premature. What little I’ve heard suggests that few, if any, of the anthros/others involved in HTS speak or read Arabic with any degree of fluency. I try to imagine what it would be like to be dumped into the equivalent of fieldwork in a totally new group, with minimal language preparation and only a rush-rush acquaintance with literature on the area. Sounds a lot, to be frank, like my first fieldwork. A year in, I was still just getting oriented—and I wasn’t having to cope with a war at the same time.

    Then, suppose I had discovered something important. Finding ways to communicate it , let alone get people to act on it? Probably not easy. Serendipitously, I met today with an applied anthropologist who works for a large Japanese precision machinery manufacturer today and her colleague, whose academic background is chemistry. A lot of the conversation was about the colleague’s difficulty in getting used to the sloppy give and take of ethnography, as opposed to the scientific method and lab technique in which she was trained. She was motivated—fascinated in fact by the questions what people did with the products she had helped to develop as a chemist and what those products meant to them. But that just heightened her awareness of the disconnect between what she was used to calling research and the job she is currently doing. And again, this is a peaceful setting—not the middle of a war.

    So, returning to HTS, we’ve got people trying to do anthropology in less than favorable circumstances. They probably don’t know much yet, and communicating what they have learned to the people who need it most, the soldiers with whom they are embedded forces? Even if the soldiers are receptive to learning something new, and they may be, especially if it will help them to stay alive and achieve what they believe to be their mission, there is bound to be a lot of training and habit to overcome. And it’s only a year into the process. Hardly the time, I’d think, to be making any judgment about success or failure.

  6. The article isnt that much outdated, some facts of last year were mentioned, but not much of the debate since summer 2008. The article mentions the deaths of Bahita and Surveges, but the attack on Pauly Loyd wasnt mentioned, let alone the fate of her attacker.

    I find Kerry Fosher’s uncommented remark the most disturbing:
    “If we were a little bit less terrified of somebody harming themselves or the world with the knowledge we share,” she says, “maybe the world would look a little bit different than it does.”
    Such possible differences by sharing information too closely with the wrong people (e.g. the “security” and counterinsurgent institutions) has have been shown to us in the CORDS/Phoenix-Project and the misuse of Georges Condominas’ work on Vietnamese Highlanders in the 1960s – facts that M. McFate forgets to mention in her interviews/articles.

  7. McFate stopped being an anthropologist years ago. I’ll start considering her and her work to have ANYTHING to do with anthropology when she has the nerve to actually show at the AAA meetings and answer the direct questions raised at the session she chickened out on a few weeks ago. Until then, she’s a military contractor, NOT an anthropologist. Why is she in hiding? Why won’t she answer all these questions?

    Her argument that “if they’d listened to me, we wouldn’t be in this war” is sophomoric and shows that either she doesn’t understand the system she is a part of, or she does and she is cynically trying to recruit more cannon fodder risking death or sever injury in her Human Terrain program.

    If she believes HTS actually works, I invite her to walk around Afghanistan without a birka unarmed and interview people like the poor seriously burnt HTS employee of hers did in the case that led to the first (reported) Human Terrain Murder.

  8. Comments about McFate’s absence at the AAA seem a little off-base for several reasons. First, to the claim that she chickened out, remember that she did agree to present in that session; if she were really too timid to confront critics at the AAA she wouldn’t have signed on to begin with. Second, McFate works in the real world, where other obligations sometimes intervene, while academic schedules easily tolerate 5 days at a conference. As I understand it, she was called out of the country on short notice – it happens – and to attribute motives to her actions in the absence of any data doesn’t seem like good social science. And, after all, it is hard to imagine why McFate would feel any overwhelming obligation to answer to the ‘profession’ about her work. The AAA does not license or certify anthropologists or exercise any regulatory control over the activities of its members, let alone anthropologists in general. The fact that McFate was willing to sign on to the AAA panel to begin with was extraordinary. Why would any of us voluntarily subject ourselves to critics, some of whom appear to have serious anger-management problems, when we have nothing to lose or gain by it?

  9. BSH is right that the article mentions the two deaths of HTS researchers — but the bulk of the piece is devoted to debating at an abstract level ‘anthropology vs. the military.’ My sense is that this very general framing enables a particular kind of sales pitch: who can argue with the idea that ‘more knowledge’ is a good thing? The problem is that we now have lots of reports about, among other things, major distrust of HTS researchers within HTT units, major disagreements between HTS higher-ups about program administration, shoddy recruitment by BAE systems, lax training for HTS researchers, continuing stonewalling from HTS folks about any of this, apparent legal/ethical aporias regarding whose laws or rules govern private contractors, and so on. Instead of asking McFate to respond to specific problems and incidents, the debate is abstracted out into ‘is anthropology the handmaiden of colonialism?’… which I think allows for evasion.

    John: don’t your stories about the nature of ethnographic methods perhaps indicate a real problem with anthros ‘parachuting’ into situations and consulting? Ethnographic methods are deliberately slow and are built on relationships. Like many others I see a basic (insurmountable) contradiction between ‘anthropology’ and the ‘less than ideal circumstances’ you point to.

  10. bq.Instead of asking McFate to respond to specific problems and incidents, the debate is abstracted out into ‘is anthropology the handmaiden of colonialism?’… which I think allows for evasion.

    An excellent point. To which I would add that, whatever the argument, it is bad anthropology to debate abstract points while ignoring local detail. That brings me to

    bq.Like many others I see a basic (insurmountable) contradiction between ‘anthropology’ and the ‘less than ideal circumstances’ you point to.

    Here we may see things a bit differently. The assertion of insurmountable contradictions is one I always take with a grain of salt. In this particular case, I ask myself, for example, “Should we, given this contradiction, ban the collected works of E.E. Evans-Pritchard from the anthropological canon? Do they not demonstrate that some measure of anthropological insight is possible in ‘less than ideal’ circumstances?”

    One can, of course, say that E-P should not have been where he was, doing what he did. One can also debate whether his research was of any significant utility to the colonial regime of which he was a part. For me, bracketing the first of the questions and focusing on the second leads me to look at the detail issues to which you direct our attention in a way that reminds me how much of current political debate (not just in anthropology!) is rooted in an attitude that demands immediate solutions and sees events in a static, moralistic frame that ignores time, chance, and change.

    You write,

    bq. we now have lots of reports about, among other things, major distrust of HTS researchers within HTT units, major disagreements between HTS higher-ups about program administration, shoddy recruitment by BAE systems, lax training for HTS researchers, continuing stonewalling from HTS folks about any of this, apparent legal/ethical aporias regarding whose laws or rules govern private contractors, and so on.

    I respond, why do we find this the least bit surprising? Is not SNAFU (situation normal, all fucked up) a term of military origin but of far wider application? Is not the notion that any program of human construction should be perfectly planned and executed utterly naive?

    I work in a business where three to six month development cycles are not uncommon and even successful campaigns may seem totally screwed up until the last minute. I work with people for whom planning in terms of three to five year cycles is common and ensuring that schedules include enough time to learn from mistakes and make adjustments is common sense. Add the somber recognition that people who work in war zones risk serious injury or death–it goes with the territory–I don’t see a case for moral panic because the launch of a program that is, what? roughly a year old? has involved screw-ups and, regrettably, casualties.

    P.S. I say this as someone who protested against the Vietnam War and found the Phoenix Program appalling, who protested the start of our current wars and believes them to have been unjustified and conducted very badly, indeed. I also say them as a native anthropologist who, observing my own anthropological tribe, finds it curious how we preach withholding judgment when researching other lives but remain fully susceptible to the ideological simplifications that having one’s own ox gored induces. We are, after all, only human.

  11. Is McFate here saying that more ethnographic knowledge would have stopped the wars?

    If she is, I think that is not a viable proposition to make at all. But I think what she’s really saying is more and better ethnographic knowledge during the planning phase of Operation Iraq Freedom might have prevented post-conflict instability from blooming into outright insurgency. Here I think she’s on more solid ground, if she wishes away the incompetence of military planners and the lack of vision from the 2003 military leadership.

  12. bq. if she wishes away the incompetence of military planners and the lack of vision from the 2003 military leadership.

    Gonzo, thank you for yet another example of gross stereotyping when it comes to the military. Do you think, for example, that General Shinseki was wrong when he tried to persuade Donald Rumsfeld that while a small army might win the war in Iraq, a lot more boots would be needed on the ground to secure the occupation? Was my daughter, then still in the Navy, wrong when she told me privately that the Naval Intelligence types among her friends knew full well that the orders coming down from on high were crap.

    This is not to say that the military lacks its predictable share of villains, fools, those who go along to get along, or many who simply follow orders because that is what they are trained to do. But gross stereotyping is gross stereotyping, whether the victims in question are the military, business people, WOGs, gooks or those referred to by the “N” word.

  13. John, thanks for your comments. I see your point about E.E., but respond that it might be more interesting to consider once Dr. Marcus Griffin writes his ‘The Nuer.’

    Was I suggesting that the SNAFU situation with HTS is ‘surprising’? Did I suggest that we should expect perfect execution and planning? To the contrary. This point however does not obviate assessment, analysis, and accountability. I suspect more than one ‘culprit’ here. My take since the start has been that the guiding rationale for HTS has been a grab for money, in which some anthropologist leverages her putative expertise as cash-accumulating cachet in contexts where people are not really able to assess that expertise. My gut tells me that anthropologists in fact do this a lot outside the discipline. So far from casting moral aspersions (I haven’t been writing very much about HTS {or about anything} at SM, but you may recall that I have in the past here said we should refrain from such and instead focus on the details where possible), I’m trying to divine (guess at) what’s really going on. Notice that McFate & Co. make this rather difficult.

    As regards insurmountable differences, your analogy with business/corporate settings is interesting and perhaps telling. Do we plan to start modeling ethnographic ‘best practice’ on corporate and military consulting? Will this be better at incorporating ‘time, chance and change’?

    Rather than demanding immediate solutions, I’m suggesting that anthropology is constitutively *slow*. This slowness is producing all sorts of angst in the discipline since it is at odds with the speeding-up world we live in (although maybe that will change with a global recession). I do insist that the key to good ethnography is the quality of relationships that an ethnographer establishes. These relationships are what yield ‘granular baseline knowledge’. I have questions about the degree to which working for an occupying military power represents fertile ground for sowing the seeds of these relations.

    See also:

  14. Strong, you are, of course, quite right that the imperfections to which all human projects are prone does not obviate assessment, analysis, and accountability. The prevalence of these imperfections is why these steps are needed. Jumping to conclusions while a program is still in its early stages is not, however, good practice, anthropologically or otherwise.

    I am not, moreover, convinced that good ethnography depends on the quality of relationships. Good relationships may allow deeper probing into what are normally confidential matters. They may also be distractions from systematic observation. A shy but careful observer may see things more revealing than what he is told by a close friend who may be, in fact, the village idiot or, alternatively, a village savant with an idiosyncratic perspective.

    I think here of a study in northern Taiwan that involved interviews with fourteen informants who were asked about various aspects of Chinese popular religion. Three were village theologians, each of whom had elaborated his or her own version of the usual assumptions concerning gods, ghosts, ancestors, souls and the afterlife. One, an elderly woman of strong character, was the village atheist, who declared that locally practiced ritual was all superstitious nonsense. The remaining 10 said the usual sorts of things and when asked why they believed them said only, “It is the custom.” Had the anthropologist been dependent on strong relationships with only some of these people, the research would have been, shall we say, a bit biased.

    In the best of all possible worlds, the anthropologist may have the tact and charisma to form good relationships with a wide variety of people and the time and financial resources to renew them periodically over a long period of time, during which she accumulates a rich store of observations to supplement what she hears. She may then be like Paul Stoller, who makes a very strong case for the virtues of long-term ethnography. That’s a model we should all want to emulate.

    But as everyone who has ever done fieldwork knows full well, some avenues may open, others remain closed, and what is learned, even in the same place, may vary quite dramatically from one time and observer to another. We have already heard mentioned here how Malinowski and Weiner came away with different views of the Trobriands. Do people still read Robert Redfield’s and Oscar Lewis’s quite different accounts of Tepotzlan? Can anyone here demonstrate that, in either of these cases, one account is superior to the other and superior because one ethnographer developed better relationships than the other?

    As for short-term research in corporate settings, I can do no better than to recommend again Patricia Sunderland and Rita Denny’s Doing Anthropology in Consumer Research, a very good and thought-provoking book, indeed. That’s a topic for another day.

  15. Hi John. Nice chatting with you. At this stage, I don’t see anyone ‘jumping’ to conclusions. I see folks making assessments based on many months of HTS in action. Also, I am curious when you think the ‘early stages’ of this program will be over? When Montgomery says so?

    It’s hard for me to imagine something called ‘ethnography’ resulting from research that doesn’t include relations premised on something other than a researcher pointing a microphone at someone. But I don’t mean to imply that ethnographers have to be best friends with everyone, though my phrasing perhaps suggests this. When I write of the quality of relationships I don’t just mean ‘nice relationships’ or ‘strong relationships’ or ‘better relationships.’ It’s a peculiar idea that some folks seem to have that ‘relations’ are basically nice to have. What I mean is that ethnographic methods take the relational context of research as a basic premise — it means that ethnographic knowledge is produced in (and as) the complex negotiation of specific relationships. This is what makes ethnographic knowledge different than the systematic observation one might call ‘polling,’ and I think it requires a stance in relation to the field that’s difficult to adopt when you’re sleeping in the quarters of an occupying army. (I note that recent reports on HTS actually emphasize polling of local populations.)

    When I refer to ‘good ethnography,’ then, and the quality of relationships, I’m suggesting that an ethnographer is attentive to the kinds of relationships s/he creates in the course of research, and how these relationships structure what s/he learns. This would mean that an ethnographer will have some awareness of the social context in which s/he is conducting research (a context that includes him or her), and that this awareness might prevent her from mistaking the random discourse of the village idiot for widely held opinion (while also not overlooking the fact that village idiots are out there). Importantly, this further means that ethnographers put themselves in situations that are *not structured by them*. Again, whether or not this is possible in an HTS-like context is, for me, an open question.

  16. “Gonzo, thank you for yet another example of gross stereotyping when it comes to the military.”

    John, you’re quite welcome, but really, your gratitude is undeserved. A more careful reading of my comment would reveal to you that I was merely “stereotyping” two sub-sets, maybe 200 folks altogether, of the very large (>500,000) and complex organization that is the military: the incopetent planners that developed an Iraq war plan that assumed away real problems, and the military leadership that failed to imagine, and hence prepare the force for, the quagmire that ensued.

    Shinseki? Can you name another General that “dissented” from the way the plan was unfolding? I can. But that’s it. Just two out of, say, 25 or so people who could legitimately be labeled military leaders. Your daughter herself proves my point: “…orders coming from on high were crap.” Was she stereotyping the 2003 leadership?

  17. Strong writes,

    bq. I see folks making assessments based on many months of HTS in action. Also, I am curious when you think the ‘early stages’ of this program will be over? When Montgomery says so?

    I don’t see Montgomery has having any credibility at all. On the other hand, I have worked on numerous projects where the nominal boss was an idiot and the whole thing looked hopeless until someone else stepped up or stepped in and pulled things together.

    The question “how long before” is an important one. Here you say “many months”; I say “just getting started.” How can we find some common ground on which to move forward?

    It may simply turn out to have been insane to parachute a bunch of minimally prepared people into a war zone and expect them to learn or do anything useful. On the other hand, we do have examples like E-P, who may have been an amoral bastard—I was lured into anthropology by someone called him an “absolute swine”—but wound up writing a series of books regarded as anthropological classics. What is the difference here? Is it simply a question of personal talent? A different kind of education? A situation significantly different from that in which HTS is trying to operate in Iraq and Afghanistan?

    But, returning to HTS itself. While it may be what the military calls a clusterfuck, I would still maintain that we don’t yet know that. “Many months” seems a long time to you, but it’s not so long to me. Corporate experience gives me one comparison. In that light, “many months” is not very long at all for the launch of a program built around, as yet, largely untested ideas. My own fieldwork gives me another: Half a year to settle in and begin to speak Hokkien; another half year thrashing around settling on a topic and forming the key relationship, to the Daoist master whose rituals I studied; a year of running around behind the master. Then it was back to the States, “writing up,” finding a job, that sort of thing. Total time elapsed between start of fieldwork in 1969 and Ph.D. in hand in 1973? Four years. That’s where I’m coming from. What about you?

  18. As LL notes at Culture Matters, Nature’s editorial board is also apparently “jumping to conclusions”:

    bq. Failure in the field: The US military’s human-terrain programme needs to be brought to a swift close.

    bq. The US Department of Defense’s Human Terrain System, an attempt to have social sciences inform military decision-making, is failing on every level. In theory, it is a good idea. The Human Terrain System aims to embed anthropologists and other social scientists in military units in Iraq and Afghanistan to help improve understanding of local cultures and thus relieve tensions between civilians and soldiers. In practice, however, it has been a disaster. Questions have been raised about how well the programme vets its employees (see Nature 455, 583–585; 2008). Some scientists who have joined the system have complained about inadequate training. And qualified researchers have been dismissed for seemingly trivial reasons, even though much more questionable people seem to breeze onto the payroll.

    bq. A case in point is Issan Hamama. Under investigation by the Federal Bureau of Investigation since 2003 as a possible former spy for Saddam Hussein, Hamama nonetheless managed to secure a job as a translator for the Human Terrain System. Late last month, he was arrested in Maine and indicted for conspiracy; he is currently free on bail. Another contractor, bodyguard Don Ayala, is also out on bail after being indicted for a murder committed in Afghanistan last month. According to a military affidavit, Ayala shot Abdul Salam at close range in the head after Salam doused his colleague, social scientist Paula Lloyd, with petrol and set her on fire. Lloyd had approached Salam on the street — he was carrying a fuel jar — to ask him about the price of petrol.

    bq. Lloyd returned to the United States to recover from her burns; some of her colleagues have not been so lucky. Social scientist Michael Bhatia was killed in Afghanistan in May; Nicole Suveges, a PhD student from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, died in Iraq the following month.

    bq. Their names and sacrifices should be remembered. But the programme that employed them should not — except, perhaps, as an example of yet another good idea gone wrong on the war fields of Iraq and Afghanistan. The immediate problems with the Human Terrain System can be traced to BAE Systems, the military contractor based in Rockville, Maryland, that screens potential employees, then trains those it hires. It has failed in every one of those functions, and army management has failed in its oversight of BAE.

    bq. But the larger question is whether the Human Terrain System is viable at all. Nature is not opposed in principle to academics working with the military; we have said before that social science can and should inform military policy (see Nature 454, 138; 2008). We continue to believe that the insights of science have much to offer strategies in a war zone — not least through training combat troops to understand the local cultures within which they operate. But as currently constituted, the Human Terrain System is not the way to do this. Unless the programme can be reborn in a format less plagued by deadly mistakes, it needs to be closed down.

    Separately, I’m puzzled upon reflection about the idea of HTS being part of ‘phase 0 pre-conflict phase’ of operations. The HTS website “says”:

    bq. HTS is a new proof-of-concept program, run by the U.S. Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC), and serving the joint community. The near-term focus of the HTS program is to improve the military’s ability to understand the highly complex local socio-cultural environment in the areas where they are deployed; however, in the long-term, HTS hopes to assist the US government in understanding foreign countries and regions prior to an engagement within that region.

    Yet, my understanding is that HTS is operationalized through HTTs. How does ‘granular baseline knowledge’ then emerge *prior* to conflict? Do HTTs get stationed in countries before the onset of hostilities? And how does that happen exactly? (“We’re here because your country is about to be invaded. Can we discuss your social system with you? Also, how do you gesture to ‘stop’?”) Or am I not understanding McFate again? This goes to the question of time, because I’m saying that anthropology takes time — agreeing with John that anthropological/ethnographic fieldwork is slow process involving mistakes, mis-steps, misunderstandings that take a long time to understand and analyze — and I’m trying to understand how this works when you have people dropping in along with the invading army. I’m just puzzled about the contradiction between the way most anthropologists work in the field, and the structural circumstances of the HTS.

  19. As I said, HTS could turn out to be a total clusterfuck adds nothing to the data we have already discussed. A program has been rushed into the field without adequate preparation; casualties have occurred, SNAFU is, indeed, the word. But, I still note, none of this bears on the E-P counterexample to the claim that there is a fundamental contradiction involved.

    Waffling with a reference to “the way most anthropologists work in the field” does not exclude the possibility that a modern-day E-P could, with proper preparation, do serious anthropology in a war zone. I am not saying that this is likely, let alone an easy thing to pull off, just that contradictions, by definition, require mutually exclusive alternatives. Thus, logically speaking, even a single counterexample demonstrates that the issue, however difficult, is not a contradiction.

    As I write I realize that I have introduced my own waffle, that “with proper preparation.” I note, however, embedded in the words that Strong has cited above,

    bq. Nature is not opposed in principle to academics working with the military; we have said before that social science can and should inform military policy (see Nature 454, 138; 2008). We continue to believe that the insights of science have much to offer strategies in a war zone — not least through training combat troops to understand the local cultures within which they operate.

    This seems to leave open a door to either a reformed HTS or HTS replacement that would learn from the current clusterfuck and be improved accordingly. Closing that door is a reasonable objective for those morally opposed to any anthropological involvement in warfare. But citing flaws in the current program and, yes, leaping to the conclusion that no such program could ever work is not a convincing argument.

    Here I recall the words of Warren McCulloch, one of the founders of automata theory, in _Embodiments of Mind_. McCulloch observes that when he attempts to build machines that do what humans do, they usually fail. Then there are always those who say, “See, no machine can do what a human does.” McCulloch then builds a better machine, moving as science does, incrementally toward his goal.

    Current evidence suggests that the machine called HTS is a sorry excuse for a tool designed to achieve what it is supposed to do. Is no such tool possible? That remains to be seen.

    The evidence for no is compelling only if used to bolster assumptions made on moral grounds. And, as indicated above, the editors of _Nature_ do not appear to share those grounds with many of us here.

  20. David Price just published in CounterPunch an article analyzing the implications of the Nature editorial AND the recent publication on of the HTS handbook (non classified but previously unreleased publicly). Price sees it as coming possibly from high-powered centers in the military itself, groups of people who are of the “let’s just shoot ’em instead of learn to understand them” variety.

  21. E-P wrote a book about the political system of a people for whome, he said, the political system encompassed “everyone they come in contact with”. And yet, nowhere in _The Nuer_ is there a chapter on the colonial regime with against the Nuer were *actively* in revolt. Soldiers besieged the community while he was working there — that sounds indeed like people with whom the Nuer were “in contact with” and even more like a part of their political system. Yet the colonial presence is only felt in the introduction to _The Nuer_.

    That sounds to me pretty much like the HTS situation, actually. The problem is, as I’ve said before, that it may well be that the most effective way to counter the insurgency is to remove the cause for the insurgency — but I very much doubt that this line of research is encouraged by HTS, most notably because eliminating the occupation would eliminate the conditions under which the research could be performed.

    Put a little more mildly, it’s more likely than not that insurgency is a healthy social response to occupation (and to counter-insurgency). Counter-insurgency must necessarily take insurgency as a “problem”, just as E-P had to take revolt as a “problem” rather than as part of the functioning system.

  22. One more thing:

    “Current evidence suggests that the machine called HTS is a sorry excuse for a tool designed to achieve what it is supposed to do. Is no such tool possible? That remains to be seen.”

    II believe that, in this case, it behooves social scientists to be a little more predictive. The problem is that when a “machine” like HTS fails, people are hurt or even killed. I’m not sure we can afford to reiteratively test this concept in the field on the off chance that eventually the “machine” works.

  23. bq. The problem is that when a “machine” like HTS fails, people are hurt or even killed.

    How, then, to we make ourselves credible to people who have read even a bit of history and know how much of the world we take for granted was created through projects that involved people being hurt or killed?

    Not wars or monuments to vanity e.g., the Pyramids, alone—things like the transcontinental railway, the Brooklyn bridge, aircraft, space exploration, medical advances that depend on testing, including testing of treatments that fail. How do we get up in the morning and take the risk of driving an automobile, knowing that accidents will kill and maim tens of thousands of us within the next year or so?

    Are we anthropologists the ones who are supposed to be able to make sense of behavior that others find too disturbing to contemplate (head-hunting, suttee, rituals in which real pain is inflicted and real blood flows, for example)? Or have we become so tender-minded, so delicate in our sensibilities, reduced to pursuit of otaku hobbies that the powers that be and act in the world can safely ignore as irrelevant to anything of importance?

    This stereotype does not, of course, apply to all anthropologists and this is, in no sense, a call for lack of empathy. The question to which it points for me is this: When does a moral choice, a form of conscientious objection, become a form of self-isolation that may protect our purity but, at the same time, render our attempts to “speak truth to power” absurd?

  24. John: “much of the world we take for granted was created through projects that involved people being hurt or killed?”

    Fair enough, but they managed that without anthropologists. What is the call for anthropological involvement but an effort to minimize the hurting and killing? If we’re not *sure* we can do that, it seems to me the height of immorality to get involved.

    As to the other point, I’ll say again that if the only way anthropologists can be relevant when it comes to war and military occupation is to provide information to the conquerors, then we’re already done. What’s the point in keeping anthropology around if that’s all we can offer?

    I don’t see that HTS, or any other military deployment of anthropology, is in any way an effort “to make sense of behavior that others find too disturbing to contemplate”; I haven’t exactly seen, and don’t imagine I will, the flood of monographs making sense of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan — nor did we see that in WWII, when so many anthropologists laid their shoulder to the wheel. I also don’t see HTS or any other program changing the fact that “the powers that be” already “safely ignore as irrelevant to anything of importance” the work and word of anthropologists. And, again, for all our efforts, they never have before, either. Anthros have been, time and again, listened to whenever what they said confirmed the policy already in place, and marginalized or actively persecuted when it didn’t.

  25. “If we are not sure we can do that….” So our moral choice is to be so risk aversive that we render ourselves useless? We consign ourselves forever to the chorus because being a protagonist… that’s too scary?

  26. “So our moral choice is to be so risk aversive that we render ourselves useless?”

    If being useful costs people their lives, hell yeah. You know, you sound like an ex of mine who liked Ayn Rand. How could I have an opinion on Rand if I never read her? SO I read _Anthem_. Hated it. Simply evil, stupid, sophomoric stuff. Ah, but to *really* have an opinion on Rand, I needed to read _Fountainhead_. SO I read _Fountainhead_. The height of depravity. Pure shite. Ah, but to really REALLY have an opinion, I should read _Atlas Shrugged_.

    We’re no longer together.

    The thing is, aside from a stain on my brain that I can never clean, reading Rand didn’t hurt me. Much. But you’re saying we have to keep trying at counter-insurgency, because apparently that’s the only way we can be relevant, until people stop dying. And that somehow hurting people is acceptable if it’s for the good of the discipline.

    I’ve said a thousand times here that being “a protagonist”, as you put it, is not limited to following the military’s marching orders. If that’s the best we can come up with, we’re dead in the water. But it’s not the best we can come up with. I’ve known anthros who marched with groups of refugees over Central American borders acting as human shields in the face of armed paramilitaries. Who have had guns stuck in their mouths in an attempt to get them to identify guerrillas or sympathizers. Was Marshall Sahlins not being “a protagonist” when he started organizing teach-ins during the Vietnam War, rather than volunteering his services to the military as others did?

    Whose framing is this, anyway?

  27. The David Price piece that LL mentions is “here”:

    Of special interest to me is this passage about the handbook:

    bq. In a few places the Handbook makes fleeting suggestions that issues of research ethics are being dealt with by someone or something else. Without explanation, the Handbook states that “an accompanying document is written outlining how the research will comply with the protection of human research subjects according to 45 CFR 46 to ensure the research falls within accepted ethical guidelines.” The Handbook also claims that, “the results of our research provide non-target data that suggests Courses of Action to the commander and his staff. Our research is performed in the same manner in which academic social scientists conduct their research and is similarly rooted in theory and complete with ethical review boards.” It is difficult to evaluate the claims of non-targeting. In his forthcoming book American Counterinsurgency: Human Science and the Human Terrain, anthropologist Roberto González quotes U.S. Army, Lt. Colonel Gian Gentile, scoffing at suggestions that such cultural data would not be used for targeting in active war situations, responding to similar claims by Human Terrain anthropologist Marcus Griffin: “Don’t fool yourself. These Human Terrain Teams whether they want to acknowledge it or not, in a generalized and subtle way, do at some point contribute to the collective knowledge of a commander which allows him to target and kill the enemy in the Civil War in Iraq.” That the Handbook claims HTT’s research is “complete with ethical review boards” is news to me, and I await further clarification for how this claim is actually being implemented. I remain skeptical that this has in fact been implemented in any meaningful way.

    Last year I made some inquiries into the human subjects question and got a little data before being stonewalled by both HTS people and by universities I contacted. I’m still convinced that there are real questions about whose oversight a university anthropologist, contracted to HTS, is governed by.

    Thanks Dustin & John for your discussion.

  28. Dustin, you’re flailing. If I sound like Ayn Rand to you, it’s because you can’t get your head around the idea that someone who was part of the anti-Vietnam war movement, demonstrated alongside the Berrigan brothers, carried medical supplies for North Vietnam across the Peace Bridge into Canada, and cheered with everyone else in the Cornell Student Union when LBJ announced that he wouldn’t seek a second term, could think in ways that fit neither the moral purity you seek nor Rand/Bushite ideology. Stop and consider for a moment that I may be like one of those folks we encounter doing fieldwork, who say things that might sound crazy to the people we grew up with, things that it is our professional obligation to try to see the sense of before we make judgments about them.

    All I’ve said so far in terms of personal commitment is that I am reserving judgment because a lot of personal and professional experience convinces me that we aren’t yet in a position to render a verdict on HTS and because, from my perspective, I see a lot of colleagues rushing to judgment in what looks an awful lot like a moral panic.

    I’ve got friends who are Quakers and Bahais and deeply respect people who are willing to put themselves at risk on behalf of their beliefs. I could be projecting some of the shame I felt that I lacked the courage to either go to war (why not me instead of some poor SOB who lacked my options?) or go to jail for genuinely conscientious objections.

    I am becoming increasingly certain that HTS, in its current incarnation, is a hopeless clusterfuck; not terribly surprising given the continuing news about how badly other aspects of the U.S. effort in Iraq have been run. But, like the editors of _Nature_ I am not yet willing to say no to social science involvement in military operations as a matter of principle. LIke our new president, I am opposed to stupid wars, not to war per se. Given a just war, anything we might do to shorten that war and reduce the damage done would be, in my view, not only right but an obligation.

    Why? Because almost every morning I hear Aaron Copeland’s homage to Abraham Lincoln and hear Lincoln saying, “We cannot escape history.” Because my historical memory includes the 1933 King and Country debate in which the Oxford Union debated and carried by a vote of 257 to 153 the motion,”That this House will in no circumstances fight for its King and Country” as Hitler was coming to power in Germany. It also includes Socrates taking his place in the Athenian phalanx and drinking the hemlock, Christ on the cross, and the virtuous officials who, at various crucial moments in Chinese history risked exile or death with memorials chastising imperial misbehavior. I probably saw _The Patriot_, the short film aired at the Colonial Williamsburg Visitors Center, too many times when I was growing up. I believe in the doctor’s principle, “First, do no harm,” but, like Howard Dean, I know that there are times when a surgeon has to operate and that leaving a patient opened up on the table is highly unethical behavior (the imagery Howard used to explain both his opposition to starting the war in Iraq and his unwillingness to end our involvement irresponsibly, a position that Barack Obama appears to share).

    So, yes, I feel conflicted. But I’m no John Galt, nor would I want to be.

  29. John: I think you misunderstood me. I don’t think you’re a Randian, or anything like a Randian. I’ve known you what, 10 years now? I think that’s plenty of time to know better than that.

    The point was, there comes a point when you have to pass judgment. I could have devoted my life to studying Rand’s work, so that I could feel fully confident in dismissing it, but that’s ridiculous. But other than myself, it wouldn’t hurt anyone. Your argument is that we need to keep trying to do HTS better, on the off-chance that it’s not impossible to do effective counter-insurgecy by deploying anthros and other social scientists, and the even more unlikely chance that a military organization would deploy them in a way that would satisfy anthropological criteria and anthropological ethical demands rather than the contingencies of power.

    But if we fail, and if I’m right and it just isn’t possible then we DO fail, people are hurt.

    At the Anthro and Counter-Insurgency conference in Chicago, I met a couple of anthropologists who worked at military universities. I would venture that the two of them, simply by teaching some sort of cultural awareness, have done more to save lives in Iraq than the entire HTS program. Hell, I wouldn’t be surprised if *I’ve* done more, by teaching at a community college near a major military base. Certainly, I’ve killed and maimed fewer social scientists.

  30. Dustin, my apologies for the misunderstanding. Let me try to summarize where I think we are now, starting with areas of agreement.

    1. Current evidence suggests that, like so many aspects of our current wars, HTS is totally messed up.

    2. We agree, too, that there comes a point at which decisions have to be made.

    To me, however, whether we have reached that point remains problematic. This reflects my experience with complex projects that can take months to barely get off the ground and look totally messed up until, it can seem miraculous, things come together. I have mentioned examples from businesses, but if you have ever played in a concert band or been part of putting on a theatrical production, you might recall that experience.

    You note that if those involved in HTS or similar activities fail, people get hurt. But the fact is that people are already getting hurt, people are being killed and maimed. And that rescue attempts fail, often because someone screws up, is a fact of life.

    By your logic, no doctor should ever attempt an unfamiliar operation. The patient may be dying, but, “Oh, no, not me, I might be sued.” No firefighter should ever enter a burning building: “I might screw up, somebody might get hurt.” No policeman should ever use force.

    You might, of course, reply that in all these cases, we are talking about people trained to take certain risk, with possibly fatal consequences. But to me this points to the heart of the HTS and similar matters. To me the risk of death or injury is a given. The question is how to reduce it. Wishing won’t make it go away and refusing to get involved because we might be blamed for whatever goes wrong–there are ugly words for that. MIghtn’t this be a case of, Better to have tried and failed than never to have tried at all?

  31. John: You’re assuming that some risk might be worthwhile if we could do a greater good. But I don’t believe we can do any good under military conditions, and the historical record is on my side in this. The problem is one of power – in any relationship with the military, we don’t have the power to make ourselves be heard, nor to work according to anthropological standards, rather than military goals. As the Price quote above suggests, we cannot prevent our work from being used to kill people, period. If we sign on to do the work, those are the terms.

    If we did have the power to make a difference, we wouldn’t be at war in the first place. 11 smart, informed anthros who dared to publicly suggest that war was not an answer to 9/11 were put on a list by the Vice President’s wife and the Chair of the Senate’s Armed Forces Committee, through an organization dedicated to having professors like them marginalized and, where possible, removed from their posts.

    This is what has *always* happened. The anthros who worked in the Japanese internment camps were turned into informants on “disloyals”; those who resisted were marginalized and threatened. It’s what happens when you work at the pleasure of your employer. We saw it in the first wave of HTS – anthros and other social scientists who weren’t willing to tow the party line never even made it to the field. What do you expect when the military is setting the selection criteria?

    Here’s a thought experiment: could you imagine McFate dropping me a line to help out with HTS? I’m as qualified as Marcus Griffin, meaning I have no experience of any relevance to that field; I might even be better-qualified, because at least I’ve studied with Arabists like Stephen Caton. Or better yet, could you imagine them seeking someone like David Price, who *does* have Middle East experience? Anything we could have to say would be disregarded as “politically-motivated” and I don’t believe that people serving in a theater of war are accorded the opportunity to resist their orders.

    Look, anthros have been writing about the use and abuse of military and colonial power for decades; do you see any effort to take that work into consideration? When Benedict thought she could ease some of the problems in an integrating military by producing a work about racial diversity, her work was banned from military libraries. Ours is not a perspective the military wants to hear, except where it’s of immediate practical application, generally in pursuit of goals that have already been determined by non-anthropologists.

    Again, is taking part in misguided programs like HTS the only way anthros can prove our relevance? I doubt it, but if it is, then there simply is no more room for anthropology.

  32. bq. Again, is taking part in misguided programs like HTS the only way anthros can prove our relevance?

    Heavens, no. If you have a chance to take in a Society for Applied Anthropology (SfAA) meeting, you will find yourself meeting hundreds of people who have made anthropology relevant in all sorts of practical ways. And, hey, I would no more push someone needing a job to work for HTS than I would have pushed my daughter to fly helicopters for Blackwater (from whom she had, and turned down, a nice 6-figure offer).

    bq. I doubt it, but if it is, then there simply is no more room for anthropology.

    No more room for anthropology, or no more room for an idealized cartoon of what anthropology might be in the best of all possible worlds? It seems to me that what critical historians of anthropology have revealed through there work is that, whatever anthropology might be, it has never been that. Its roots are deep in imperialism, its classics mostly worked produced in colonial situations. And even in these postcolonial days, few, if any, anthropologists have ever achieved sainthood.

    What I worry about is friends who fret about anthropology’s lack of influence and, simultaneously, recommend a moral stance that virtually guarantees that anthropologists will not be influential. They can’t deliver votes. They can’t deliver money. There are, after all, fewer of them than a middling-size megachurch. And now they say, “No, no, we can’t do that. Somebody might get hurt.” So, it’s got to be our world-changing ideas, right? No, can’t do that; we’ve junked our grand narratives.

    So, where does that leave us?

  33. For one thing, it leaves us in the position of criticizing the low quality of HTS organization, policy, personnel, and “research,” whatever that turns out to be, at the same time that we actively discourage better qualified people from potentially improving it by participating in the program. Neither of these positions is wrong or unreasonable, but it is to our benefit to think about the contradictions that suffuse our discussions of HTS and other sorts of engagements with and avoidances of the military/industrial complex.

    While there are many distinct stances represented in the discussion of HTS in this forum over the last several months, these kinds of discursive contradictions–we cry out at the loss of life among HTT members killed in the field, after having criticized their venality for accepting substantial hazard pay as part of their employment–arise over and over again.

  34. Montgomery McFate once again proves that anthropology can accomplish what others fail to do. McFate’s leadership of Human Terrain Systems has led to the first conviction of a civilian military contractor for manslaughter in Afghanistan, see: Reports are that Blackwater’s lawyer are pissed off because McFate’s Human Terrain murderer’s plea now sets poor precedent for their employees facing murder charges in Iraq.

  35. “Would more ethnographic knowledge have stopped the wars? Perhaps. But only if (1) it were known to policy makers and (2) taken seriously by them.”

    A couple of things wrong with your examples. This isn’t the 1960’s, and the policy makers are not requesting this information, those carrying out policy are. Actually, everyone is seeking out this info., and they aren’t doing it for no reason.
    There was once slavery in the country, but we no longer live in that country.

    There is also a serious lack of logical reasoning in many of these posts. A single HTT member has been charged with manslaughter, what is an anthropologist? Can you say “stigmatizing pollution?” We would recognize that immediately in any other context, and be smug about it, but some how it doesn’t apply to this situation.
    The DOD is a huge gov’t bureaucracy, full of waste, fraud and abuse. So, are most university systems, and pretty much any of the organizations we work for. One thing has nothing to do with the other.
    A priest molested a kid, therefore the Pope and Church are evil. A cop killed a civilian, therefore we shouldn’t have police.
    This is really irrational.

    General McCrytal has stated that his number one current goal is to reduce civilian causalities as much as possible, and ya’ll seem to want to reduce his ability to do that.

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