82nd Airborne Division, Anthropologists Brigade

No, it’s not an Eddie Izzard routine. It’s the U.S. Army assigning social scientists to combat units in Afghanistan, and it’s awesome:

[Tracy] is a member of the first Human Terrain Team, an experimental Pentagon program that assigns anthropologists and other social scientists to American combat units in Afghanistan and Iraq. Her teamís ability to understand subtle points of tribal relations ó in one case spotting a land dispute that allowed the Taliban to bully parts of a major tribe ó has won the praise of officers who say they are seeing concrete results.

Col. Martin Schweitzer, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division unit working with the anthropologists here, said that the unitís combat operations had been reduced by 60 percent since the scientists arrived in February, and that the soldiers were now able to focus more on improving security, health care and education for the population.

That’s more like it! Actually talking to (and listening to) people in the countries we “liberate”, who woulda thunk it? Let’s just hope it doesn’t become so successful they have to institute a draft for anyone with an anthro degree…

7 thoughts on “82nd Airborne Division, Anthropologists Brigade

  1. Interestingly enough, an article about this was distributed by one of my co-workers today and a lot of anthropologists disapprove of the anthropologists who do this. It’s considered using research to help oppress and kill and conquer. Since anthropologists were used in WWII to understand German and Japanese culture better, there’s been a stigma associated with this kind of approach.

    I was talking to a colleague about this today and we both had mixed feelings. I’m half-pleased that the military is finally realizing that there IS culture and that you might not have to kill so many people if you understand things from their point of view. I mean, this is valuable knowledge! But the whole send-someone-there-to-get-close-to-them-and-understand-them-so-we -can-better-manage-things aspect is uneasy-making as well.

  2. While I see your point, Deana, I agree with this quote:

    “Ms. McFate, the programís senior social science adviser and an author of the new counterinsurgency manual, dismissed criticism of scholars working with the military. ‘Iím frequently accused of militarizing anthropology,’ she said. ‘But weíre really anthropologizing the military.’”

    The military is supposed to be for the people — to protect our freedoms, etc. (and ad nauseum) – but how can they do so effectively if they are a group of ignorant, ethnocentric thugs with heavy weaponry? If our military can be “humanized,” can come to understand that might is not always right — it bodes well for our society. (I can see torture as becoming unthinkable — being replaced by cultural understanding in not only which folks become “suspects” but also how they are treated.)

    This means, however, that anthropologists must hold themselves to strict ethical standards; I’m sure y’all already have classes and opinions on ethics. Unfortunately, there might be a few bad apples; this should still not keep social scientists from doing what they can to make the world a better place.

    Anyway, the potential benefits do seem worth the risk of negative connotations.

  3. Truth be told, my initial reaction to reading this article was “Oh thank God, FINALLY.” But there IS a lot of angst in the anthropological community about it.

  4. I know there’s angst, but I also agree that my own first response was, “Finally!” I guess I’ve been paying a lot more attention to application than academia lately, but I also think that anthropology has grown as a field and there is a lot more room to use it appropriately while retaining proper oversight. For example, this article being passed around in your department, Deana–70 years ago no one was analyzing whether those anthropologists should have been helping the Nazis. (Okay, I admit that the anthropologists themselves probably thought they were being “helpful” to the “right side”–after a while we can’t second-guess motive.) It seems to me that the greater good of keeping people from being shot, combined with the fact that studying a culture to understand it has the potential to deem the people in the tribe Actual Humans With Real Lives (I hope) makes the good worth the potential ill.

    I know people, too, who have angst about being an anthropologist at all, for similar reasons to those already stated–you go in, you study a group, you come home and write about it and who benefits? Who gets a publishing deal? Who gets a job offer? Not the people studied. This is a serious issue for some potential and new (and maybe not-so-new) academics, and can be the place where application becomes more attractive than academia for some. If that application means that land use becomes more fair, or dialogue is facilitated, or a family isn’t shot at, who is to say that that career choice was a bad one?

  5. This finally made Fark.com, and I thought this comment by Scruffy1 was interesting:

    The article fails to mention it but anthropologists were asked to do the same thing in Vietnam, some worked with the military and the CIA only to find out afterwards that their research was being used to not only kill off the VC but also to kill Vietnamese villagers. Many anthropologists today fear that the same will happen in Iraq especially since the Bush administration and those under him have shown time and time again to not only be anti-intellectual but also to be more than willing to use brute force to get their point across.

    This comes in direct conflict with the credo and dogma of anthropologists where they are supposed to attempt their hardest to not harm the people whom they study. Think of the “prime directive” in Star Trek, it’s rather similar. It also doesn’t help that most if not all anthropologists are anti-Bush because if his feelings and commentaries about education, intellectuals and above all evolution and religion, topics that directly affect the vast majority of anthropologists.

    On can say that perhaps they are over-reacting but keep in mind that in WWII both the US and Germany used anthropologist and anthropological warfare in order to fight their enemies and punish and detractors. And then there was that whole master race thing Hitler was attempting to prove misusing anthropological data which coincidently had been mined and compiled by American anthropologists usually with a lack of understanding of what they were doing or how they were doing it.

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