From the archive, originally posted by: [ spectre ]
Army Enlists Anthropology in War Zones
By DAVID ROHDE / October 5, 2007
SHABAK VALLEY, Afghanistan – In this isolated Taliban stronghold in
eastern Afghanistan, American paratroopers are fielding what they
consider a crucial new weapon in counterinsurgency operations here: a
soft-spoken civilian anthropologist named Tracy.
Tracy, who asked that her surname not be used for security reasons, 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 team’s ability to
understand subtle points of tribal relations – in one case spotting a
land dispute that allowed the Taliban to bully parts of a major tribe
- has won the praise of officers who say they are seeing concrete
Col. Martin Schweitzer, commander of the 82nd Airborne Division unit
working with the anthropologists here, said that the unit’s 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.
“We’re looking at this from a human perspective, from a social
scientist’s perspective,” he said. “We’re not focused on the enemy.
We’re focused on bringing governance down to the people.”
In September, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates authorized a $40
million expansion of the program, which will assign teams of
anthropologists and social scientists to each of the 26 American
combat brigades in Iraq and Afghanistan. Since early September, five
new teams have been deployed in the Baghdad area, bringing the total
Yet criticism is emerging in academia. Citing the past misuse of
social sciences in counterinsurgency campaigns, including in Vietnam
and Latin America, some denounce the program as “mercenary
anthropology” that exploits social science for political gain.
Opponents fear that, whatever their intention, the scholars who work
with the military could inadvertently cause all anthropologists to be
viewed as intelligence gatherers for the American military.
Hugh Gusterson, an anthropology professor at George Mason University,
and 10 other anthropologists are circulating an online pledge calling
for anthropologists to boycott the teams, particularly in Iraq.
“While often presented by its proponents as work that builds a more
secure world,” the pledge says, “at base, it contributes instead to a
brutal war of occupation which has entailed massive casualties.”
In Afghanistan, the anthropologists arrived along with 6,000 troops,
which doubled the American military’s strength in the area it patrols,
the country’s east.
A smaller version of the Bush administration’s troop increase in Iraq,
the buildup in Afghanistan has allowed American units to carry out the
counterinsurgency strategy here, where American forces generally face
less resistance and are better able to take risks.
A New Mantra
Since Gen. David H. Petraeus, now the overall American commander in
Iraq, oversaw the drafting of the Army’s new counterinsurgency manual
last year, the strategy has become the new mantra of the military. A
recent American military operation here offered a window into how
efforts to apply the new approach are playing out on the ground in
In interviews, American officers lavishly praised the anthropology
program, saying that the scientists’ advice has proved to be
“brilliant,” helping them see the situation from an Afghan perspective
and allowing them to cut back on combat operations.
The aim, they say, is to improve the performance of local government
officials, persuade tribesmen to join the police, ease poverty and
protect villagers from the Taliban and criminals.
Afghans and Western civilian officials, too, praised the
anthropologists and the new American military approach but were
cautious about predicting long-term success. Many of the economic and
political problems fueling instability can be solved only by large
numbers of Afghan and American civilian experts.
“My feeling is that the military are going through an enormous change
right now where they recognize they won’t succeed militarily,” said
Tom Gregg, the chief United Nations official in southeastern
Afghanistan. “But they don’t yet have the skill sets to implement” a
coherent nonmilitary strategy, he added.
Deploying small groups of soldiers into remote areas, Colonel
Schweitzer’s paratroopers organized jirgas, or local councils, to
resolve tribal disputes that have simmered for decades. Officers
shrugged off questions about whether the military was comfortable with
what David Kilcullen, an Australian anthropologist and an architect of
the new strategy, calls “armed social work.”
“Who else is going to do it?” asked Lt. Col. David Woods, commander of
the Fourth Squadron, 73rd Cavalry. “You have to evolve. Otherwise
The anthropology team here also played a major role in what the
military called Operation Khyber. That was a 15-day drive late this
summer in which 500 Afghan and 500 American soldiers tried to clear an
estimated 200 to 250 Taliban insurgents out of much of Paktia
Province, secure southeastern Afghanistan’s most important road and
halt a string of suicide attacks on American troops and local
In one of the first districts the team entered, Tracy identified an
unusually high concentration of widows in one village, Colonel Woods
said. Their lack of income created financial pressure on their sons to
provide for their families, she determined, a burden that could drive
the young men to join well-paid insurgents. Citing Tracy’s advice,
American officers developed a job training program for the widows.
In another district, the anthropologist interpreted the beheading of a
local tribal elder as more than a random act of intimidation: the
Taliban’s goal, she said, was to divide and weaken the Zadran, one of
southeastern Afghanistan’s most powerful tribes. If Afghan and
American officials could unite the Zadran, she said, the tribe could
block the Taliban from operating in the area.
“Call it what you want, it works,” said Colonel Woods, a native of
Denbo, Pa. “It works in helping you define the problems, not just the
The process that led to the creation of the teams began in late 2003,
when American officers in Iraq complained that they had little to no
information about the local population. Pentagon officials contacted
Montgomery McFate, a Yale-educated cultural anthropologist working for
the Navy who advocated using social science to improve military
operations and strategy.
Ms. McFate helped develop a database in 2005 that provided officers
with detailed information on the local population. The next year,
Steve Fondacaro, a retired Special Operations colonel, joined the
program and advocated embedding social scientists with American combat
Ms. McFate, the program’s senior social science adviser and an author
of the new counterinsurgency manual, dismissed criticism of scholars
working with the military. “I’m frequently accused of militarizing
anthropology,” she said. “But we’re really anthropologizing the
Roberto J. González, an anthropology professor at San Jose State
University, called participants in the program naïve and unethical. He
said that the military and the Central Intelligence Agency had
consistently misused anthropology in counterinsurgency and propaganda
campaigns and that military contractors were now hiring
anthropologists for their local expertise as well.
“Those serving the short-term interests of military and intelligence
agencies and contractors,” he wrote in the June issue of Anthropology
Today, an academic journal, “will end up harming the entire discipline
in the long run.”
Arguing that her critics misunderstand the program and the military,
Ms. McFate said other anthropologists were joining the teams. She said
their goal was to help the military decrease conflict instead of
provoking it, and she vehemently denied that the anthropologists
collected intelligence for the military.
In eastern Afghanistan, Tracy said wanted to reduce the use of heavy-
handed military operations focused solely on killing insurgents, which
she said alienated the population and created more insurgents. “I can
go back and enhance the military’s understanding,” she said, “so that
we don’t make the same mistakes we did in Iraq.”
Along with offering advice to commanders, she said, the five-member
team creates a database of local leaders and tribes, as well as social
problems, economic issues and political disputes.
Clinics and Mediation
During the recent operation, as soldiers watched for suicide bombers,
Tracy and Army medics held a free medical clinic. They said they hoped
that providing medical care would show villagers that the Afghan
government was improving their lives.
Civil affairs soldiers then tried to mediate between factions of the
Zadran tribe about where to build a school. The Americans said they
hoped that the school, which would serve children from both groups,
might end a 70-year dispute between the groups over control of a
mountain covered with lucrative timber.
Though they praised the new program, Afghan and Western officials said
it remained to be seen whether the weak Afghan government could
maintain the gains. “That’s going to be the challenge, to fill the
vacuum,” said Mr. Gregg, the United Nations official. “There’s a
question mark over whether the government has the ability to take
advantage of the gains.”
Others also question whether the overstretched American military and
its NATO allies can keep up the pace of operations.
American officers expressed optimism. Many of those who had served in
both Afghanistan and Iraq said they had more hope for Afghanistan. One
officer said that the Iraqis had the tools to stabilize their country,
like a potentially strong economy, but that they lacked the will. He
said Afghans had the will, but lacked the tools.
After six years of American promises, Afghans, too, appear to be
waiting to see whether the Americans or the Taliban will win a
protracted test of wills here. They said this summer was just one
chapter in a potentially lengthy struggle.
At a “super jirga” set up by Afghan and American commanders here, a
member of the Afghan Parliament, Nader Khan Katawazai, laid out the
challenge ahead to dozens of tribal elders.
“Operation Khyber was just for a few days,” he said. “The Taliban will
PM, HTS at TRADOC DCSINT / Norfolk, Virginia Area
Research Staff / Washington D.C. Metro Area
“A cultural anthropologist by training, Montgomery McFate’s work
emphasizes the importance of sociocultural knowledge in the formation
of national security priorities. Before joining the Joint Advanced
Warfighting Program at the Institute for Defense Analyses, she served
as an American Academy for the Advancement of Science fellow at the
U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Research (ONR). She was awarded a
Distinguished Public Service Award by the Secretary of the Navy for
her work at ONR. McFate also worked at RAND as a social scientist, at
the law firm of Baker and McKenzie in San Francisco as a litigation
associate, and as a consultant to various government agencies.
She has published in the Journal of Conflict Studies, Military Review,
and Joint Forces Quarterly, and has held grants from the National
Science Foundation, Mellon Foundation, and Smith-Richardson
Foundation, among others. She holds a J.D. from Harvard Law School and
a Ph.D. in anthropology from Yale University.”
Does Culture Matter? The Military Utility of Cultural Knowledge
Joint Forces Quarterly (No . 38, 2005).
Anthropology and Counterinsurgency: The Strange Story of their Curious
Military Review (March/April, 2005).
The Cultural Knowledge Gap and Its Consequences for National Security
Senior Fellow Project Report, May 10, 2007
United States Institute of Peace – 1200 17th Street NW – Washington,
+1.202.457.1700 (phone) – +1.202.429.6063 (fax)
Human Terrain Team filling key role
By Staff Sgt. W. Wayne Marlow / 15 October 2007
2nd Infantry Division Public Affairs
FORWARD OPERATING BASE LOYALTY – Omar Altalib was a year old when he
moved from Mosul, Iraq, to the Midwestern United States. Now, he is
back in his native country, armed with a social sciences Ph.D., and
part of Human Terrain Team (HTT) for the 2nd Infantry Brigade Combat
The HTT advises brigade Soldiers, usually leaders, on how Iraqis think
and operate, to give U.S. forces a better understanding of how to act
with residents. Besides Altalib, the other team members are 1st Lt.
Steve Albeita of Isleta Pueblo, N.M., and Master Sgt. Richard Howard
of Orange, Texas. Albeita has a masters in public health, while Howard
has a criminal justice background.
Altalib said his family expressed concerns about his return to Iraq,
but still encouraged him.
“They’re excited about me using my background in social sciences to
create a better situation in Iraq,” he said. “They’re very supportive
HTT members advise 2nd BCT Soldiers on a wide array of topics, from
economics to religion. The latter has proven especially important.
“Many Americans are used to ignoring religion,” Howard said. “Here,
that doesn’t work.”
The team breaks down the complexities of Islam and explains it to
brigade leaders so that knowledge can be useful in forging U.S.-Iraqi
“The biggest thing for us is breaking down Western cultural bias,”
Howard said. “We’re trying to come up with innovative ways of
“Everything comes with a bias,” Albeita added. “And not everybody can
know everything, but we get the answers the brigade needs.”
Albeita points out that dental care is mentioned in the Koran, and
that this is one of the many elements of Islam and Arabic culture most
people don’t know about. It is the team’s role to present information
like this to brigade Soldiers if it is relevant to a mission.
“My role is the social structure, data collection, and analysis,”
Altalib said. “I learn what is on the mind of locals and present my
findings to the brigade.”
The far-reaching knowledge is especially important in eastern Baghdad,
according to Howard, because in that area, he said, “You have a broad
spectrum. It is a microcosm of Iraq.”
Altalib noted that Iraqi suffering goes back decades, and that has to
be taken into account.
“There’s been a lot of trauma, so there’s a lot of need,” he said. “We
try to get a better feel for what is influencing local communities…and
how the government is servicing their needs.”
While Altalib received encouragement from his family, some in his
academic circles were less enthusiastic. But he said their concerns
“I recognize and respect the ethical boundaries of the social
scientist,” he said. “I have to remain within those boundaries. I’m
not involved in intelligence or psychological operations. I’d like to
make the world a better place…through better understanding.
“We fill the gap between civil affairs and public affairs,” Albeita
added. “A lot of people criticize this and say it’s a bad program,
that academics shouldn’t be involved in this. But we want people here
to get along. We’re here to make a better understanding, to quell
As such, the team, according to Altalib, “gathers information on the
Iraqi population to help develop a stable Iraq. We recognize what
mistakes have been made and make improvements.”
Montgomery McFate’s Mission
Can one anthropologist possibly steer the course in Iraq?
BY Matthew B. Stannard / April 29, 2007
“We’re trying to do something against mealy-mouthed policies that
don’t hold responsible those scum with Ph.D.’s who stand beside
torturers,” Gerald Sider, a professor emeritus of anthropology at the
City University of New York Graduate Center, snarled to a reporter for
Inside Higher Ed.
Sider was interviewed in November at the 105th annual business meeting
of the American Anthropological Association in San Jose. The meeting
was abuzz over a year-old New Yorker article by Seymour Hersh,
alleging that a 1973 book by cultural anthropologist Raphael Patai,
“The Arab Mind,” might have inspired the Abu Ghraib prison abuses, on
the theory that sexually humiliated Arab men would become willing
Hundreds of anthropologists at the business meeting — the first
official quorum in 30 years — unanimously endorsed a resolution
condemning “the use of anthropological knowledge as an element of
physical and psychological torture.”
But one anthropologist, while sharing her peers’ condemnation of
torture as immoral and ineffective, worried that some of her
colleagues had the wrong response to Abu Ghraib: Don’t scold the
military, she argued. Educate it.
“If Patai’s book had been used correctly, they would never have done
that. Because they would have understood that … you’re not going to
get intelligence information out of these people, you’re going to get
them and their families attacking you,” she said later. “Half-baked
knowledge is sometimes worse than none at all.”
She is Montgomery McFate, a Marin County native now at the United
States Institute of Peace. For five years, McFate has made it her
mission to convince the U.S. military that anthropology can be a more
effective weapon than artillery.
“If you understand how to frustrate or satisfy the population’s
interests to get them to support your side in a counterinsurgency, you
don’t need to kill as many of them,” she said. “And you certainly will
create fewer enemies.”
That kind of kumbaya comment seems misplaced in a militaristic era of
shock and awe, but so does McFate: a punk rock wild child of dyed-in-
the-wool hippies, a 41-year-old with close-cropped hair and a voice
buttery with sardonic amusement, a double-doc Ivy Leaguer with a
penchant for big hats and American Spirit cigarettes and a nose that
still bears the tiny dent of a piercing 25 years closed.
Her ideas have made McFate the focus of bitter criticism — but not
from the uniformed forces. After four years of a war that was supposed
to last more like four months, the military is now listening to
McFate’s ideas — and committing money and manpower to make them a
“By force of her intellect and personality, she’s going to shape the
way this is understood,” said Kalev Sepp, a counterinsurgency expert
at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey. “What she reveals can’t
The criticism of McFate comes from social scientists who say McFate is
following a path of good intentions toward a diabolical future where
science meant to improve humanity becomes a weapon of mass
“If people like McFate and their vision of anthropology becomes more
powerful, the discipline will really change in ways that I think would
be calamitous,” said Hugh Gusterson, a professor of cultural studies
at George Mason University and one of McFate’s more vocal critics. “I
think she’s encouraging people to do things that I regard as
McFate has little patience for what she views as academic malcontents
more interested in issuing resolutions than in finding solutions.
After 30 years, she wants to see an anthropologist sitting on the
National Security Council.
“The military is so willing to listen now … and for anthropologists
to sit back in their ivory tower and spit at these people that are
asking for their help — I think there’s something unethical about
that,” she said. “If you’re not in the room with them, you won’t
influence their decisions.”
Montgomery McFate was born on Jan. 8, 1966 in Waldo Point, a Sausalito
backwater of houseboats and hippies described by a San Francisco
Examiner reporter in 1972 as “equal parts fantasy and ghetto reality.”
McFate lived at what she calls the “art scene” of Gate 5. A childhood
friend, author Cintra Wilson, calls the denizens there “practically
“I lived in a little bit more gentrified houseboats … we had
plumbing,” said Wilson, who loosely based a character in her novel
“Colors Insulting to Nature” on McFate. “But Gate 5 had resolved to
not be gentrified, and there were riots where you’d have pregnant
women hitting cops with boat oars, like ‘No, we don’t want plumbing!’
McFate’s mother, Frances Pointer, bought a surplus World War II
ammunition barge for a dollar, converted it into studios and married
Martin Carlough, a 6-foot-8-inch former Marine who got out of the
corps on a mental health discharge.
“He used to walk around downtown in this pink denim jacket and it
said, ‘I am God’ in giant rhinestone letters,” McFate said. “It’s my
first memory of my father.”
Frances won custody in their 1968 divorce, despite her estranged
husband claiming that as the “living incarnation of the eternal
Buddha” he made a fitter parent. Hospitalized and treated with
electroshock therapy, Martin ended up wandering the streets of
Sausalito in the early ’70s.
“They basically fried his brain. He was no longer a human being,”
McFate recalled. “He rather flamboyantly threw himself off the Golden
McFate’s mother was comparatively stable. But her rejection of society
left her with no real income other than rent from the other apartments
on her barge — the white curtains in the bedroom of a Marin City
friend seemed to McFate an unimaginable luxury.
“Her advice to me when I was a kid was never write anything down,
don’t leave any records, never trust the government, don’t join any
organizations. She was a real anarchist,” McFate said.
The conflicts between the Gate 5 residents and the forces of
development led to a long standoff around a pile driver near McFate’s
barge. Sheriff’s deputies took up residence outside her bedroom,
protecting the equipment.
“It made me feel really sympathetic toward the police, who I saw as
people who were just trying to do their jobs as best they could,” she
said. “And these (protesters) have their really legitimate viewpoint,
too, which is that they want to keep the wild world wild.
“It made me feel like, well, there are two sides to every story.”
Her mother didn’t encourage academics, instead urging McFate to get
ahead on her looks. McFate and Wilson ended up studying at the local
bus stop. She excelled academically, but the fashionable cliques of
Tamalpais High School were daunting for a young woman who would be too
poor to buy a new coat until she entered graduate school. She sought
her own niche.
“She walked in the door one time and it was all black jeans, black
combat boots, tight black sweater and this big black hat with a big
black veil. It was this great look … we called her ‘Satan’s
beekeeper,’ ” Wilson recalled. “She was goth before anybody was goth.”
In the Bay Area punk scene — the Mutants, Pearl Harbor and the
Explosions, the Offs — it didn’t matter if McFate had thrift store
clothing and a bed on a barge. But after three boyfriends in a row
died — hanging, meth, heroin — McFate escaped back into academics.
Hard work paid off in a slew of small scholarships and in August 1985
she moved into the freshman dorms at UC Berkeley and tried to call her
“Her friend called me back an hour later and said, ‘I have some bad
news for you: She’s dead,” McFate said. Her mother had had a stroke.
“I had no brothers and sisters. My father was dead. Really I had no
one to turn to. … It was just me.”
She recovered enough to maintain a B-plus average in her first
semester, develop an interest in anthropology and enroll in graduate
studies at Yale with a full scholarship. But her dissertation on the
Republican community in Northern Ireland puzzled other
“People said, ‘You really should be doing this in political science,
because it’s not appropriate for an anthropology degree,’ ” McFate
said. “And I was like, wait, you don’t think that Republican community
in Northern Ireland is a culture? It seemed to me that how human
beings go to war is as much a product of culture as table manners or
In Belfast, McFate had an epiphany: The common view of the Troubles as
a battle between Catholics and Protestants, or loyalists and
Republicans, or even terrorists and the government, was not how the
warring sides saw it.
“The way (Republicans) legitimate their activities is that they are an
occupied country,” she said. “They’ve been occupied for 800 years by
the British military.”
What’s more, McFate said, the British troops involved in
counterinsurgency recognized the same narrative.
“They may think personally that these people are terrorists and
despise them, but they understand what’s motivating it,” she said.
“They could not have built an effective strategy in Northern Ireland
as they did without having a very full understanding of their enemy –
which, by the way, it took them 30 years to get.”
But McFate was realizing that academia — “where you read books about
books and then write a book about other people’s books about books” –
was not for her.
“I wanted to do something in the world, not about the world,” she
said. After receiving her anthropology doctorate in 1994, McFate
jumped to Harvard Law School, where she earned her juris doctor in
1997 and landed a job as a litigation associate at Baker & McKenzie in
“But I got there, and they took me up to my 24th floor office on the
Embarcadero and shut the door and I’m sitting there with a view of the
bay and all of a sudden I just started to cry. … ‘This is all wrong.
This is not what I should be doing. What am I doing here?’ ”
That quest for meaning would lead McFate into the gap between two
communities that had maintained a frigid divorce for 30 years:
anthropology and the military.
Anthropology has been called “handmaiden to colonialism” — a phrase
normally used to criticize the discipline, but one McFate uses to make
a point of historical fact.
In 1902, when the American Anthropological Association was founded
with an initial membership of 175, anthropology was dominated by
British scientists reporting on the empire’s subjects in Africa, or
Americans studying the Sioux for the Bureau of Ethnology.
Even then, there were those who argued for separation. In 1919, Franz
Boas, dubbed “father of American anthropology,” publicly complained
that colleagues had “prostituted science” by scouring Central America
for German submarine bases under the guise of research and was
censured by the association.
Boas died in 1942, when most anthropologists were helping wage World
War II, studying everything from Japanese culture to the physiques of
draftees. Even Margaret Mead, probably the most famous anthropologist
of all time, wrote pamphlets for the Office of War Information.
Some later regretted their involvement in propaganda efforts; others
complained that their advice to the military — such as that the
Japanese could be persuaded to surrender without a large-scale attack
– was ignored. Nevertheless, for many, victory was vindication.
“Everybody came out of World War II and said … that was a necessary
but nasty task,” said David Price, author of the forthcoming
“Weaponizing Anthropology: American Anthropologists in the Second
World War.” “Anthropologists came out of World War II and said, ‘We
can use anthropology to solve the world’s problems.’ ”
American military mistakes in Vietnam — a belief in American virtue,
listening to a few locals pushing an agenda instead of the entire
culture — presaged those in Iraq, McFate said.
“We lost in Vietnam. The Joint Chiefs of Staff and the entire national
security establishment decided that they would never do that again,”
she said. “They decided to focus their energies on a peer competitor
– the Soviets.”
The decision to avoid Vietnam-style counterinsurgency warfare led to
the creation of large-scale, high-tech, heavily armored conventional
forces that could play the Soviets to a draw and utterly overwhelm any
other foe. Military training mirrored that strategy, as young officers
were encouraged to pursue careers in combat leadership over more
“If what war fighting becomes is servicing targets from hundreds or
thousands of kilometers away, you don’t need cultural understanding,”
said Steven Metz, professor of national security affairs at the
Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. Army War College. “(But) the
people who were opposed to us, they learned from the Gulf War as
The adversary applied its lessons of asymmetric warfare in the Sept.
11 attacks, the war in Afghanistan and the war in Iraq, and the
American military under Donald Rumsfeld faced a task unlike any it had
before — and had all the wrong tools.
“Rumsfeld … was going to optimize the way the force functioned.
Other cultures didn’t matter. Other societies didn’t count. Just how
efficiently could you deliver firepower,” Sepp said. “(But) in Iraq,
just bombing and blasting things, the people who knew that wasn’t
working were the guys on the ground — the captains and sergeants –
that had to make this happen. You just can’t kill enough of these
At some point in the past 18 months, the focus in Iraq began to shift
away from a military solution. Rumsfeld was replaced by Robert Gates,
a former CIA director with a doctorate from Georgetown University.
Operations in Iraq went to Gen. David Petraeus, a Ph.D. from
Princeton, fresh from overseeing a new counterinsurgency manual that
urged field commanders to consult outside experts in governance,
economics and anthropology.
But as the military began embracing the academics it had effectively
forsworn since Vietnam, there were relatively few anthropologists
returning the embrace.
“Anthropologists for decades were screaming at the top of their lungs,
‘Hey, we can help you to administer your colonial empires, we can help
you to administer post-occupation Japan’ … and were ignored,” said
Dustin Wax, a doctoral candidate focusing on the history of
anthropology at the New School for Social Research. “Now it’s a couple
decades later, and they’re saying, ‘Well, where are you guys when we
need you?’ ”
The narrative of anthropology in the past 30 years is remarkably
similar to the military’s: a new generation recoiling from Vietnam.
“The elders of the day had not just fought in (World War II), but used
anthropology in the war. And among the anti-war forces were a whole
bunch of people who fought in (Vietnam) as 18- or 19-year-olds, got
the GI Bill and were in their 30s,” Price said. “So there was a
The resultant friction exploded in a series of meetings of the
association in the 1970s, fueled by two of the last gasps of
anthropological cooperation with the military: Project Camelot and the
Project Camelot was a 1964 Defense Department effort to identify the
potential for and means of preventing internal war in Chile, where
protests forced the project’s cancellation in 1965. Five years later,
documents stolen from a university professor suggested that
anthropologists were helping the American and Thai governments study
ways to strengthen loyalty to the Thai king. Again, those involved
said their goals were salutary — studying other cultures with the
goal of preventing war.
“A less charitable way of looking at it is it was to keep regimes in
power that were favorable to the United States,” Price said. “If the
regime is being propped up by the military, those regimes are probably
not helping the peasants, which is who the anthropologists are out
That, said George Mason University’s Gusterson, points to a more
fundamental issue that arose in anthropology in the 1970s: the idea
that cooperation with the military ran contrary to the science’s basic
“You pitch a tent … among the people you want to understand, you
live with them, you catch their diseases, you eat their horrible food,
you share their joys and pains,” he said. “The thought that you would
cultivate those relationships of trust and intimacy and then … go to
the Pentagon and say ‘these are the people you should kill, these are
the people you shouldn’t kill,’ that’s extremely problematic for
people with that methodology.”
For some elder anthropologists, the discipline’s recoil had by the
21st century led to practical irrelevance.
“Margaret Mead was on ‘Johnny Carson’ more than two dozen times,” said
Felix Moos, a University of Kansas anthropologist. “Today when I ask
an audience can you name one internationally or nationally known
anthropologist, I meet nothing but silence.”
By 2005, less than 4 percent of American Anthropological Association
members surveyed by the association were working for the government.
The discipline also had become politically homogenous: A George Mason
University survey found Democrats outnumbering Republicans in
anthropology and sociology by 20 to 1 in 2004. In a largely symbolic
act that year, the association rescinded the 1919 censure of Franz
Little wonder that when the military finally started looking for in-
house anthropologists, the list of names was very short. One of them
was Montgomery McFate.
McFate met her future husband, Sean, at Harvard in 1997. She was the
daughter of West Coast hippies, he the scion of a patrician East Coast
family. But they shared an interest in Taoism, and something else: She
was an anthropologist interested in the military; he was a soldier
seeking to study anthropology. They married in December 1997.
But Sean McFate found that the military took a dim view of his
scholarly interests — when he sought to leave the service for
studies, they sent him to Germany for a three-year tour. His new bride
traded her 7-month-old law career for the life of an Army wife.
“It was a nightmare for me,” Sean confided. “Her punk rock, Ivy League
background was very potent, but did not prepare her for the Army.”
But by the end of three years, Sean said, “she spoke and understood
The McFates returned to Washington D.C.’s trendy Adams Morgan
neighborhood. A CD collection fills their entryway — Sean’s classical
collection overwhelming a small grouping of rock CDs including Nirvana
and the Sex Pistols. The remainder of the flat is filled with tikis,
boat lights and Montgomery’s collection of Orientalist art.
Despite her return to American shores, McFate found herself still
grasping for purpose until one night in 2002 when she ended a long
talk with her husband about their futures by scribbling a sentence on
a cocktail napkin: How do I make anthropology relevant to the
“It’s one of those times where you get goose bumps all over your
body,” she said. McFate set out to work her way into the national
security system: to Rand, where she studied North Korean society, then
to the Office of Naval Research, where in 2004 she won permission to
interview American Marines back from Iraq.
Some younger troops were frustrated with what they saw as Iraqi
culture of inshallah, God willing — failure to meet schedules,
reluctance to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. McFate saw
an imposition of American cultural expectations on a culture born of
“There’s a psychological legacy of living under a regime of fear. If
you stuck your head out and tried to do something good, you would be
potentially sent to prison,” she said. “Now here we come and we just
knocked over their sovereign government — dictatorship or not — and
we suddenly expect they’re going to behave like us. That’s a
But mainly, McFate found in the Iraq veterans a hunger for cultural
knowledge, one the troops had fed through Google and Barnes & Noble,
producing improvised innovations that were sometimes remarkable, if
“This young Marine captain described how he had basically got there
and been told it was his job to create a judicial system. … He went
on the Internet and found a copy of the 1950 Iraqi constitution. So he
used their system and he used their law, so it had tremendous local
legitimacy,” McFate recalled. “But he was told by the (Coalition
Provisional Authority), ‘You’re employing Ba’athists and you have to
stop now.’ ”
In November 2004, McFate threw together a conference on “national
security and adversary cultural knowledge,” the first such conference
since 1962. She expected a crowd of maybe 125. More than twice that
“The most embarrassing thing was we discovered we wait-listed a
general,” she said. “You don’t wait-list a general.”
Three years after her cocktail-napkin revelation, McFate received a
call from a science adviser to the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
“I was the only person he could find,” she said. “The basic message
was, ‘The war fighters say they want information about the society
they are operating in. … We need an anthropologist. Can you come
over here right now?’ ”
Corralling a colleague who had done field research in Iraq, McFate
came over, and soon was visiting the Pentagon almost every day. The
McFate message, as enunciated in those meetings and in a series of
essays, is that cultural ignorance is behind many U.S. problems in
Her oft-cited simple example was a gesture — arm straight, palm out
– that means “stop” in America but “welcome” in Iraq. That difference
translated into Iraqi families driving blithely toward a seemingly
welcoming American soldier at checkpoints until shot as a presumed
On a more fundamental level, McFate has argued, the entire Iraq war
was a colossal failure of cultural understanding at the highest levels
of the Bush administration.
“They assumed that the civilian apparatus of the government would
remain intact after the regime was decapitated. … In fact, when the
United States cut off the hydra’s Ba’thist head, power reverted to its
most basic and stable form — the tribe,” she wrote. “The tribal
insurgency is a direct result of our misunderstanding the Iraqi
In conversation, McFate takes the argument a step further, saying that
had the Bush administration understood Iraqi culture, “we would never
have gone to war. Not in a million years. There’s no harder case than
To the military — particularly to those long-lonely counterinsurgency
experts moving into positions of influence as the war soured — these
ideas were both obvious and revolutionary.
“These kinds of perspectives that McFate brought made instant sense to
people who had been fighting on the ground in Iraq,” Sepp said. “They
were pounding on those issues going, ‘Here’s somebody who understands
the kind of war were fighting.’ ”
These days, McFate is holding so many meetings that she is finding it
hard to write her book, tentatively titled “Cultural Knowledge and
National Security.” Her expertise has been tapped for everything from
writing part of the Army’s new counterinsurgency manual to working
with the Office of the Secretary of Defense to apply that manual to
the current “surge” in Baghdad and evaluating the military’s cultural
information needs and training programs.
Meanwhile, the Department of Defense has started a program dubbed
Cultural Operational Research Human Terrain System — based on an
essay McFate co-authored in 2005 — to embed five-member teams of
experienced military officers and civilian social scientists with
operating brigades: an anthropological brain transplant.
Heading the program is Steve Fondacaro, a Fresno native and self-
described radical who retired from the Army as a colonel after 30
years in the infantry and special operations.
“(McFate) is my political commissar. Every time she opens her mouth I
stop what I’m doing and listen very closely, and then I apply it.
Because she’s always right,” he said.
Originally, Fondacaro said, the military tried to turn McFate’s ideas
into a laptop-based tool. But he argued that field commanders needed
human experts to explain cultural conundrums.
Such as why escorting home a person arrested in error, giving his
family money and apologizing to his boss might sound polite, but will
get the person killed as a collaborator. Or why parched villages might
violently resist well-meaning efforts to dig new wells if you don’t
involve the local sheikh whose political legitimacy has for centuries
been based on control of water.
“Give him credit for designing the plan and informing the population
of what he is going to get the Americans to do, and when the ribbon-
cutting time comes, we stand in the background and he takes all the
credit,” Fondacaro said. “You (now) have an incredibly powerful ally.”
The first team arrived in Afghanistan at the beginning of March,
Fondacaro said, and another should be ready for Iraq in July –
assuming he can add to the half dozen social scientists who have so
far joined the program.
“If you’re a scientist worth your salt, and you object … to the way
military operations and military thinking ruined the quality of life
for the indigenous people we deal with … then the approach to
solving that problem in my view is engagement and education. It’s not
isolation,” he said. “It’s not because we’re evil people, it’s because
we’re stupid. And the cure for stupidity is education. And who’s going
to do that education if it isn’t you, a cultural anthropologist?”
To McFate, early success in getting her ideas implemented by the
Pentagon is a blessing. But if her work was winning her fans in the
military, it was outraging some of her colleagues in anthropology.
In 2004, Felix Moos brought an idea to his senator, Pat Roberts, R-
Kan., then chair of the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence.
“My idea really was that the military desperately needs more language-
and area-qualified people than they have,” he said. “It seems to me
that we would do much better in the world if we had a few thousand
Arabic-speaking soldiers with us at the beginning of the current
conflict in Iraq.”
The idea turned into the Pat Roberts Intelligence Scholarship Program,
which provided intelligence agencies with scholarship funds to recruit
and train students with language and cultural skills. Moos was
delighted. But the new program electrified the 2005 meeting of the
“Initial reaction … was that the AAA should weigh in against this,”
said Paul Nuti, director of external, international and government
relations for the American Anthropological Association. “(But) there
were competing voices heard from the membership that maybe that was
too hasty of a move.”
One of those voices — a loud one — was McFate’s.
“I, for one, did not know she existed. That’s been the case with a lot
of these folks that are already embedded and working for national
security intelligence entities,” Nuti said. “Montgomery and others
have really opened up discussion on the many, many different roles and
different applications of the discipline.”
Rather than take an immediate stand against PRISP, the AAA established
a commission to review its ethical guidelines and the challenges
anthropologists face in national security work by late 2007.
But at the AAA’s next business meeting in San Jose, members passed not
only the resolution against the use of anthropology in torture but
also one calling for an end to the U.S. presence in Iraq. If approved
by the full membership in May, both will become official AAA policy.
“The anthropologist turned military consultant Montgomery McFate …
(and others) are suggesting a form of hit-man anthropology where
anthropologists, working on contract to organizations that often care
nothing for the welfare of our anthropological subjects, prostitute
their craft by deliberately earning the trust of our subjects with the
intent of betraying it,” Gusterson wrote in an essay prepared for the
Prostituting the science — the same charge Franz Boas levied against
his spying colleagues in 1919.
McFate seems to relish some of the controversy — in an early
conversation about criticism of her work, she urged me to call
Gusterson with what seemed like impish glee.
But her jaw sets at some of the personal attacks in journals or
anthropology blogs — not the accusations of intellectual
prostitution, but claims that she is motivated by greed.
“I don’t like being personally attacked. I don’t mind if they attack
my writing and say I’m full of crap,” she said. “(But) if I were in
this for the money … I’d be a partner in a law firm making millions
of dollars a year.”
More academic critics of McFate’s work cite, by and large, three main
Some say her work involves a degree of secrecy that strikes them as
counter-scientific, although McFate argues that secrecy can protect
lives — troops’ and informants’ both. Others are concerned that she
is placing anthropologists everywhere under suspicion of spying — a
suspicion many say they encounter in any case — and effectively
endorsing the military’s agenda.
“The American military is being used by and large from my point of
view for geopolitical domination,” said Roberto Gonzalez, an associate
professor of anthropology at San Jose State University who prepared
the 2006 anti-torture resolution. “I think it is very problematic for
anthropologists to be involved in a system of essentially domination.”
Wilson, the childhood friend, argues that such critics fail to
“The people we grew up around labor under the idea that no war is ever
OK. (McFate), having been an anthropologist, comes from the
understanding that war is a human impulse that’s not going away. Like
homosexuality or something that is utterly normal and has always been
there — you may object to it, but there’s no point in doing so,
because it’s not going away,” she said.
“At its core — for her — I know it’s an altruistic mission. What she
really wants is a bloodless war.”
McFate displays little patience for such critics.
“Their intentional disengagement from policy process, their uninformed
unwillingness to learn about what actually goes on in Washington,” she
said, a tone of icy exasperation briefly replacing the normal warm
amusement. “There’s a blanket condemnation without trying to
understand, which strikes me as particularly un-anthropological.”
But the most common criticism of McFate’s work is that it conflicts
with the most fundamental ethical principles of modern anthropology.
“She advocates that anthropologists should cultivate relationships of
trust with those communities in order to advise the U.S. military
apparatus how to control them,” Gusterson said.
“If you want to do what McFate is suggesting, you have an obligation
to tell people in the Sunni triangle, ‘By the way, I’m going to be
going back to Alexandria and explaining all this to Robert Gates. How
do you feel about that?’ I can’t imagine many people in the Sunni
triangle are going to talk to you then.”
For some anthropologists, like Moos, that argument is grossly
“In World War II, to study the einsatzgruppen of the SS, would you
want them to be signing statements of confidentiality?” Moos asked. “I
mean, that’s ridiculous.”
But Gonzalez argues that Moos’ question is essentially correct — and
part of the reason why anthropologists should never assist the
military, save perhaps in missions adjudged humanitarian by vote of
“It’s absolutely essential to explain clearly to potential informants
– whether they are Zapotec farmers or whether those are SS officers
– any possible risks that the work might entail for them. … No
matter how distasteful we might find what it is they do,” he said.
McFate acknowledges the inherent tension in her work, and shares the
fear of the abuse of anthropology.
Anthropologists, she said, need to balance “the anthropological
interest in protecting informants and the national security interests
of acquiring valuable information and knowledge that might potentially
hurt an informant but might protect the lives of American and foreign
civilians and members of the armed services.”
“But most anthropologists … live in a pretty simple moral world.
Their only interest is the interests of their informants. That is the
sine qua non of anthropology. That is the prime directive. And I live
in a more complicated world where that is a directive, but it is not
the prime directive. Perhaps that is what they find so objectionable.”
McFate seems to respect her critics — even vocal ones like Gusterson
– for at least taking part in the debate over anthropology and
“I think Hugh is also doing a great service for the country. He’s a
dissenter. I’m also a dissenter. We’re dissenting against different
things. … I’m dissenting against anthropology right now,” she said.
“Under different circumstances, we could have been great friends.”
But those anthropologists who are sitting out the issue, she said, are
missing a great — and perhaps a final — opportunity to influence
America’s interaction with the world.
“They have stayed in the ivory tower. It’s a safe place, it’s an easy
place to be. I did a Ph.D. at Yale, so I’m very familiar with what
that looks like. I’d just like to see them get out more,” she said.
“They have a unique voice, and they have a lot more power and a lot
more authority than they think they do.”
It is that concern, McFate said, that makes her evangelize her fellow
anthropologists, that makes her giddy when amid the many fan letters
she receives from military personnel appears the occasional note from
a fellow anthropologist expressing a desire to get involved — or at
least an interest in the debate.
Because for McFate, it is not ultimately her colleagues’ criticism
that worries her. It is the fear that the entire discussion is taking
place too late.
“Dave Petraeus … is going over there. And he’s been given carte
blanche by the White House. He can have any resource he wants,” she
said that cold February day, seated on her bench across from the White
House, keeping warm with a fur coat and an American Spirit, her eyes
hidden behind oversize sunglasses.
“My fear is that … he’s going to go over there and it’s going to be
too late, and he’s going to fail. And the whole thing is going to be
delegitimized: the counterinsurgency doctrine, non-kinetic force,
delegitimized,” she said softly. “And then what’s the Army going to
do? It’s going to fall back on what it had before … technology and
“But if you can figure out how a society is wired, you don’t need to
do that,” she said. “That’s what the game is. That’s what Petraeus is
going to do. But you can’t do that if you don’t have information.”