The Pentagon deploys social scientists to help understand Iraq's 'human terrain'
By Anna Mulrine US News and World Report November 30, 2007
BAGHDAD—In the back of an armored Stryker vehicle bound for one of Baghdad's more volatile neighborhoods, the U.S. military is transporting what is perhaps the most controversial weapon in its counterinsurgency arsenal today: civilian anthropologists. Clad in camouflage and combat boots, notebooks at the ready, they step out of the Stryker and head toward a block-long line of Iraqis waiting for bags of rice and other staples to be distributed by soldiers and local politicos.
Lisa Verdon, blond hair tucked up in a camouflage head scarf, steps over a puddle of raw sewage and begins chatting with Iraqi women waiting in line with their daughters. The team's designated social scientist, she breaks out her camera and hands it to a colleague as she poses for photographs with the women. She then spends an hour in the kitchen of a new acquaintance from the line, learning how to bake flatbread—and alarming U.S. soldiers who are momentarily unaware of her whereabouts.
Another local approaches Moroccan-American Fouad Lghzaoui, the team's cultural analyst. He tells Lghzaoui in furtive Arabic that he has seen an insurgent planting a roadside bomb, but he doesn't want to be branded an informant. Lghzaoui arranges for him to speak with U.S. soldiers, then instructs the soldiers to publicly toss the man out by the collar after loudly threatening to arrest him. "It will help protect him," he says.
The Army began training social science recruits for Iraq this year, christening the teams with a classic military appellation—human terrain system. The name may not be an attention-grabber, but the mission has been: The teams act as advisers to brigades, mapping the relationships (human terrain in military parlance) of the power players and the local people. "How do they tie into each other? It's not always obvious," says Verdon. The teams also examine how tribal leaders relate to U.S. troops, she adds. "How are they leveraging what they have to maintain their power, to be able to get what they need from coalition forces?"
The military has come late to appreciate the role that social connections play in Iraqi society, where divisions are not just geographic or religious but also familial and tribal. Understanding those kinds of connections, a key aim of anthropology, can be critical to forging alliances, assessing intelligence—and, military officials add, avoiding unintended consequences. Since the teams began working in Iraq in September, their missions have ranged far and wide. In one neighborhood, a U.S. company commander was struggling with persistent violence coming from a low-income housing area filled with squatters. He was considering demolishing a couple of blocks and asked the team for advice: What would be the effects on the surrounding community's social fabric, he wondered, if he did that?
With a Muslim holiday approaching, another unit wanted to present a goodwill gift to a tribe. One American officer suggested buying 200 goats and bringing them to the local sheik. "The bottom line of our assessment was that you have no idea if they want 200 goats. Maybe they'd rather have some work done on the electrical grid," says Capt. Matthew Tompkins, who heads the team of social scientists—which includes Verdon and Lghzaoui—assigned to the 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team of the 1st Infantry Division at Forward Operating Base Falcon in southern Baghdad. "You want to do the right thing," Tompkins says. But his teammate Jeff, a former military intelligence analyst who asked that his last name not be used, noted, "The question becomes: How, exactly, do you do that?"
Debate in academia. If the military thought there were any easy answers to such questions, its efforts to encourage social scientists to lend their expertise to the Iraq war have been a case study in just how complicated such a prospect can be. The teams have sparked heated debate in universities and among professional anthropologists, dredging up some dark moments in the history of a field anxious to shake off its past image as a handmaiden of colonialism.
The anthropologists' work has also resurrected the painful specter of widely reviled Cold War-era campaigns, drawing comparisons to the Phoenix Program—a still-controversial Vietnam War operation in which the U.S. government is suspected of using the work of social scientists to help find and kill insurgents—and Project Camelot, in which anthropologists, concealing the military origin of their assignment, were sent to research the potential for internal war in Chile. As a result, many anthropologists rail against arrangements—depicted as the militarization of social sciences—that could knowingly or unknowingly draw academics into battlefield activities. "Anthropologists feel almost polluted by contact with certain parts of the government," says Richard Shweder, an anthropologist at the University of Chicago. "There's a breach-of-trust issue there that hasn't been repaired."
U.S. military officials are working hard to reassure wary academics that this is no covert intelligence operation, charges that have been fueled by ads placed by contractors on job-search sites (including some that specialize in intelligence careers), which request that HTS applicants have experience in the "intelligence arena." James Greer, a retired U.S. Army colonel and deputy director of the program, notes that the teams' reports are unclassified—and that the military is sensitive to the concerns of its critics. "One of the first things we have to be careful of is that anthropology is a very ethical profession. It's almost like doctors—first do no harm."
Greer adds that the teams are reducing the need for lethal military operations. Brigades in Afghanistan, for example, have reported a drop in "kinetic"—meaning violent—encounters since the HTS teams arrived. Largely as a result, the Army recently budgeted $40 million for the program, with plans to more than quadruple the teams, from the six now in Iraq and Afghanistan to 26 by next summer.
Academics, however, remain unconvinced, and recruiting for the positions has been slow and difficult. The Army had to delay the deployment of HTS teams bound for Iraq, in part because it had trouble finding willing Ph.D.-level anthropologists. Some troops grumble that doctorate or no, the teams are simply hitting the ground too late in the war, offering basic advice that falls short of a revelation for soldiers on their second and third tours. Others, however, stress that the teams are proof that the military is doing its best to adapt. "You have all kinds of people in the universities complaining that we got into a situation we don't understand in Iraq and that we're buffoons for not making any efforts to understand the culture," says Col. William Darley, who edits the journal Military Review. "On the other hand, when we try to do it, critics say, 'You can't do that,' or 'What you are doing is somehow immoral.' "
Priorities. There can be occasional tensions between the teams and the brigades they serve, as well. When Verdon and Lghzaoui meet their boss, Col. Ricky Gibbs, the brigade commander, for the first time, the encounter is a bit uncomfortable. Gibbs has just returned from his two-week home leave, and though he personally requested one of the HTS teams after hearing about them from a friend, he expresses concerns about how they will operate within the chain of command. After the team ticks off a few planned projects, for example, Gibbs has a question: "Who told you to study those things?"
What he most wants to know, he says, is the following: "How do I make [Iraqis] realize that I'm thinking what they're thinking?" The questions keep coming. "How do I approach them in a way that helps? How do I get into the clique? How can I win the information campaign using the way they think?"
Gibbs ends the exchange with a final query: "Are you all going to help?"
"We will try," answers Lghzaoui. " Inshallah [God willing]."
Verdon winces. Gibbs looks at his team. "There is no trying," he says. "We're going to do an American inshallah on this one." That means, he says, "We're going to do it." Later, Verdon digests the encounter, noting the teams have to be sensitive to the can-do American military culture, too.
It was not to be the only hiccup in cultural understanding. Generally about half of the HTS members on any given five-person team are troops who help translate the observations of the social scientists into action for soldiers. Each team member is authorized to receive weapons training and carry a gun. This policy caused a problem during FOB Falcon team's first weeks with the brigade, says Verdon. The soldiers "were wondering what we as civilians were doing carrying rifles," she adds. "It was not the kind of attention we wanted." Verdon and Lghzaoui now wear camouflage fatigues but carry no weapons. Authorizing civilian anthropologists to carry arms, however, has not advanced their case among academics, who argue that the result of any anthropological mission with weapons involved is intimidation, inadvertent though it may be.
Easy targets. Over dinner at FOB Falcon, Tompkins and Jeff decompress. Their days are stressful—in their first month in Iraq, a humvee they were in was hit by a roadside bomb. Jeff has bits of shrapnel still in his arm, and as a result of the explosion, both occasionally have trouble hearing each other over the din of the dining hall. They know, they say, that anthropologists in war zones are easy targets for satire—even within the brigade. They joke about soldiers coming to them to ask about the cultural implications of, say, killing an entire town—a bit of admittedly dark humor, they are quick to add.
Despite the occasional jokes, the input has been invaluable for the brigade, Gibbs says. He points to one recent incident, when the team came across a series of snake posters in an Iraqi neighborhood that read "Say no to sectarianism" in Arabic, explains Jeff, and had "some funky hand-drawn snakes on them." The team researched snakes—positive symbols in the context of local culture. "When I first saw the snake posters, I thought, 'Oh, my gosh, this means they hate us,' " Gibbs says. "Then I saw that I could capitalize on it."
Tompkins notes that the incident, too, illustrates the challenges of churning out clear-cut "lessons learned"—a favorite military pursuit—for the brigade. After the snake poster episode, for example, the initial impulse from one soldier was to suggest putting snakes on all posters. "You can draw the wrong lessons," says Tompkins, "or the lessons too strongly."
The teams are aware, too, of the controversy surrounding the work they do and what the military calls "information operations," also known by the highly charged but still commonly used term "psychological operations." These are efforts that the military believes are at the crux of any counterinsurgency campaign: winning over the local population. "It's marketing, not mind control," says HTS Program Director Steven Fondacaro. "A commander might say, 'Wow, it's great to know that this tribe has been fighting for water rights in this oasis area for 600 years.' But the question still on his mind is 'So what?' How do you reach people with a message and a solution that's right for them?"
Making a difference. For their part, Tompkins and Jeff would like to see the military do less advertising through big contractors on job websites and more outreach to the academic community, perhaps offering to speak in debates on campus. Doing so might give a chance, Tompkins adds, for the military to challenge scholars, too: "One argument I haven't heard the military make is 'To what extent are you valuing your discipline over real lives that you could be making a difference in?' That might not change any minds, but you could make the case."
Some anthropologists, while remaining critical of the program, are beginning to argue that perhaps the Pentagon has a point, to an extent. "I think we need to break out of the 1960s mold that many of us are in," says Shweder. He notes that such a move is "a long way" from supporting the notion of anthropologists on the Pentagon payroll, but he adds that perhaps it is time for social scientists to more constructively participate in conversations with the military. "My perception," he says, "is that the military is more free-thinking than other parts of the government." Fondacaro says that he was recently approached by the head of the American Anthropological Association, who suggested a sit-down.
Back at FOB Falcon, Tompkins says that the team's greatest challenge on the streets of Iraq mirrors its biggest hurdle on the home front: overcoming suspicion of the American military. "Just saying, 'Trust us, we're the good guys,' isn't going to get us very