From the archive, originally posted by: [ spectre ]
Montgomery McFate’s Mission
Can one anthropologist possibly steer the course in Iraq?
BY Matthew B. Stannard / Sunday, 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.”
E-mail Matthew B. Stannard at mstannard [at] sfchronicle [dot] com [dot]
Senior Fellow, Jennings Randolph Fellowship Program
December 2006-August 2007
Phone: (202) 457-1700
E-mail: mmcfate [at] usip [dot] org
National Security and Cultural Knowledge
Post-Conflict Peace and Stability Operations
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 Relationship,” Military Review (March/April, 2005).
Available on usip.org:
* The Cultural Knowledge Gap and Its Consequences for National
The Human Terrain System: A CORDS for the 21st Century
In accurately defining the contextual and cultural population of
the task force battlespace, it became rapidly apparent that we needed
to develop a keen understanding of demographics as well as the
cultural intricacies that drive the Iraqi population.1
– Major General Peter W. Chiarelli, Commander, 1st Cavalry
Division, Baghdad, 2004-2005
Conducting military operations in a low-intensity conflict without
ethnographic and cultural intelligence is like building a house
without using your thumbs: it is a wasteful, clumsy, and unnecessarily
slow process at best, with a high probability for frustration and
failure. But while waste on a building site means merely loss of time
and materials, waste on the battlefield means loss of life, both
civilian and military, with high potential for failure having grave
geopolitical consequences to the loser.
Despite these potential negative consequences, the U.S. military has
not always made the necessary effort to understand the foreign
cultures and societies in which it intended to conduct military
operations. As a result, it has not always done a good job of dealing
with the cultural environment within which it eventually found itself.
Similarly, its units have not always done a good job in transmitting
necessary local cultural information to follow-on forces attempting to
conduct phase iv operations (those operations aimed at stabilizing an
area of operations in the aftermath of major combat).
Many of the principal challenges we face in Operations Iraqi Freedom
and Enduring Freedom (OIF and OEF) stem from just such initial
institutional disregard for the necessity to understand the people
among whom our forces operate as well as the cultural characteristics
and propensities of the enemies we now fight. To help address these
shortcomings in cultural knowledge and capabilities, the Foreign
Military Studies Office (FMSO), a U.S. Army Training and Doctrine
command (TRADOC) organization that supports the Combined Arms Center
at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, is overseeing the creation of the human
terrain system (HTS). This system is being specifically designed to
address cultural awareness shortcomings at the operational and
tactical levels by giving brigade commanders an organic capability to
help understand and deal with “human terrain”-the social,
ethnographic, cultural, economic, and political elements of the people
among whom a force is operating.2 So that U.S. forces can operate more
effectively in the human terrain in which insurgents live and
function, HTS will provide deployed brigade commanders and their
staffs direct social-science support in the form of ethnographic and
social research, cultural information research, and social data
analysis that can be employed as part of the military decisionmaking
The core building block of the system will be a five-person Human
Terrain Team (HTT) that will be embedded in each forward-deployed
brigade or regimental staff. The HTT will provide the commander with
experienced officers, NCOs, and civilian social scientists trained and
skilled in cultural data research and analysis. The specific roles and
functions of HTT members and supporting organizations are discussed
To augment the brigade commander’s direct support, HTS will have
reachback connectivity to a network of subject-matter experts now
being assembled from throughout the department of defense, the
interagency domain, and academia. This network will be managed by a
centralized information-clearinghouse unit nested in FMSO. At the same
time, to overcome the kinds of problems now typically encountered when
in-place units attempt to transfer knowledge about their area of
operations upon relief in place, HTS will provide for the complete
transfer of HTT personnel together with the HTT database to the
incoming commander upon transfer of authority. This will give the
incoming commander and unit immediate “institutional memory” about the
people and culture of its area of operations.
Five HTTS will deploy from Fort Leavenworth to Afghanistan and Iraq
beginning in the fall of 2006 to provide proof-of-concept for the HTS.
If they are successful, an HTT will eventually be assigned to each
deployed brigade or regimental combat team.
Why We Need HTS-History
Cultural awareness will not necessarily always enable us to predict
what the enemy and noncombatants will do, but it will help us better
understand what motivates them, what is important to the host nation
in which we serve, and how we can either elicit the support of the
population or at least diminish their support and aid to the enemy.3 –
Major General Benjamin C. Freakley, Commanding General, CJTF-76,
The many complex and unexpected issues resulting from lack of
cultural knowledge have often been extraordinarily challenging for
newly deployed commanders and their soldiers, especially in insurgent
environments like those of OIF and OEF. To address recent challenges,
many military thinkers have independently sought answers by studying
practices and procedures from previous historical experiences.
Consequently, the writings of T.E. Lawrence and David Galula have
become standard reading for those searching for answers to the current
insurgencies.4 interest has also been rekindled in the U.S. Marine
Corps’s Small Wars Manual, a volume first published in 1940 that
outlines doctrine the Corps developed for counterinsurgency in other
eras.5 Other thinkers have reexamined the basics of more recent
counterinsurgency practices, in Vietnam and elsewhere, in the search
for appropriate and currently applicable counterinsurgency measures.6
Still others have gone back to the lessons of British imperial and
French colonial experience.7
What has emerged overall from these varied examinations of the
historical record of insurgency is a broad consensus that civil
society in Iraq and Afghanistan-as in past insurgencies-constitutes
the real center of gravity. The current insurgencies in the middle
east are manifestations of the unmet expectations and desires of large
segments of the Iraqi and Afghani populations. Disappointed by their
unrequited aspirations, the people tolerate and even support the
presence of insurgents, thereby making insurgency possible. Such
conclusions logically demand that past experience guide our
understanding of how best to meet, in a manner that supports our own
military objectives, the expectations and desires of the people at the
heart of such struggles. And, to truly understand such expectations
and desires, it is imperative to view them from the perspective of the
cultures in which the insurgencies are being waged.
Learning from Vietnam
History has shown that insurgency is a complex form of armed struggle
that can only be dealt with effectively if the counterinsurgent makes
an effort to understand the conflict from its origin, through its
evolutionary stages of development, down to its current situation.
Most insurgent wars have been inherently political in nature, and
therefore share the characteristic of having been decided by one side
or the other’s ability to finally win the allegiance of the general
civil population in the conflict area.
In contrast, however tempting it may be to advocate “draining the
swamp” by force as a solution to insurgency (i.e., denying the
insurgency support by uprooting or terrorizing the local population),
such policies have historically only increased popular resentment,
eroded popular trust, and stimulated the indigenous recruitment of
While history offers many examples of insurgencies worthy of study,
the HTS concept has been largely inspired by lessons drawn from the
U.S. Experience in Vietnam. During the Vietnam conflict, U.S. Armed
Forces essentially fought two different wars: one a conventional war
against regular North Vietnamese formations; the other an insurgency
war against guerrillas who, for a long time, moved freely throughout
the area of operations because they enjoyed the support of a
significant number of the rural South Vietnamese people. The record
reveals that U.S. counterinsurgency efforts in the early part of the
conflict were severely hobbled by a lack of understanding of, or
appreciation for, Vietnamese culture, and a paucity of cultural
skills, especially language ability.
Subsequently, among the many weapons brought to bear against the
insurgency in South Vietnam during the course of the war, perhaps the
most effective was one that involved South Vietnamese forces backed by
advisors from the Civil Operations and Revolutionary Development
Support (CORDS) program, a project administered jointly by the South
Vietnamese Government and the Military Assistance command, Vietnam
(MACV). Implemented under the Johnson administration, the cords
program specifically matched focused intelligence collection with
direct action and integrated synchronized activities aimed at winning
the “hearts and minds” of the South Vietnamese. CORDS was premised on
a belief that the war would be ultimately won or lost not on the
battlefield, but in the struggle for the loyalty of the people.8
With CORDS, intelligence collection and civil military operations were
consolidated under a single civilian head, in order to shift the focus
of military operations from defeating the North Vietnamese army and
regional communist guerrillas by direct military force, to working
with the South Vietnamese to gather human and cultural intelligence
and to develop economic and social programs. These latter programs
aimed to undermine indigenous support for the communist forces.
William Colby, one of the architects of this strategy, later blamed
the final loss in Vietnam on failure to fully implement the cords
strategy. Colby asserted that the “major error of the Americans in
Vietnam was insisting upon fighting an American style military war
against an enemy who, through the early years of the war, was fighting
his style of people’s war at the level of the population.”9 Colby
asserted that efforts to transform rural life through economic
development would create the conditions necessary to foster peace and
stability. Such development, he maintained, would counter any appeal
the terrorists might have for the people by creating local
opportunities for the people to exercise real freedoms within their
own institutions and values.10
More recent work appears to validate Colby’s assessment. Robert K.
Brigham stresses this point in a study assessing the South Vietnamese
army and its linkages to its own society-the society from which the
army had to draw its resources and its legitimacy.11 Colby’s views are
further supported by the work of James H. Willbanks. In his recent
treatment of Vietnamization, Willbanks addresses the tension between
defeating the opposing regular force and pacifying the south in the
final stages of that war (1968-1975). He underscores the linkage
between pacification and Vietnamization, and argues that the former
contributed to the overall stability of rural South Vietnam.12
Despite CORDS’ shortcomings (the overall success of the program is
still heatedly debated by historians), it is hard to argue with the
statistics from that era. Where CORDS was effectively implemented,
enemy activity declined sharply. In memoirs and records opened in the
aftermath of the conflict, North Vietnamese leaders repeatedly express
their concern about the effectiveness of the cords program in impeding
both their operational and subversion campaigns.13
A key feature leading to the success of cords was an effective
information collection and reporting system that focused on factors
essential for the promotion of security, economic development,
governance, and the provision of needed government services down to
the hamlet level. Cultural, economic, and ethnographic reports were
paralleled by monthly reports on the training, equipment, morale, and
readiness of Vietnamese Armed Forces from the separate platoon level
to the highest echelons.14 Though imperfect, the systematic collection
of such information gave both the South Vietnamese Government and MACV
sufficient situational awareness, at the granular level of detail
needed, to cope effectively with many areas dominated by insurgents.
The Major problem with CORDS appears to have been that it was started
too late and ended too soon.
Regardless, the Vietnam-era cords experience provides many important
lessons to guide the development of an effective cultural intelligence
program, one that can support tactical-and operational-level
Among the most significant deficiencies evident in the otherwise
effective CORDS program was that it had limited reachback capability.
This meant that cords operators had to rely mainly upon the program’s
own independently developed databases and sources for information.
CORDS was not structured or resourced to take full advantage of the
massive U.S. capabilities for cultural and social research and
analysis that would have enabled even greater effectiveness in dealing
with the culturally diverse environment of Vietnam. Instead, CORDS
advisory teams were left largely to their own devices to invent
collection systems and methods for storing and analyzing their own
data. HTS will not suffer such shortfalls in capability.
Why We Need HTS Today
in the current climate, there is broad agreement among operators and
researchers that many, if not most, of the challenges we face in Iraq
and Afghanistan have resulted from our failure early on to understand
the cultures in which coalition forces were working. In other words,
failing to heed the lessons of Vietnam and cords, we did not take the
steps necessary to deal appropriately with the insurgencies within the
context of their unique cultural environments. Moreover, there appears
to be general agreement that whatever notable successes we have had in
specific localities closely correlate with proactive efforts by
coalition units to understand and respect the culture. By conducting
operations that took indigenous cultural norms into account, those
units garnered support for coalition objectives.
Yet, current intelligence systems and organizations still remain
primarily structured to support commanders in physical combat. They
are engineered to collect traditional elements of information like
order of battle, enemy dispositions and estimated capabilities, and
friendly and neutral capabilities for actual combat. Generally, such
data is maintained in automated databases and arrayed on computer
screens that depict enemy forces, friendly forces, communications
nodes, key logistics facilities, and the like.
But, as the current conflicts have moved further away from combat
involving regular formations and heavy maneuver warfare, and more
toward insurgency operations with fragile stability operations
requirements, it is now apparent that the technical information
required for high-intensity conflict has diminished in importance
relative to the requirement for the kind of ethnographic, economic,
and cultural information needed to stabilize a polity and transfer
power to an indigenous government. Irrespective, today, commanders
arriving in their areas of operation are routinely left to fend for
themselves in inventing their own systems and methodologies for
researching and analyzing such data. Developing a system and processes
requires the expenditure of enormous amounts of precious time and
involves a great deal of trial and error, together with a steep
learning curve. The resulting database is generally accomplished
through ad hoc rearrangement of the staff. Nor are these homegrown
databases formally linked to other databases to allow the seamless
sharing of information or the archiving of data for broader use within
the Army. Moreover, the database and institutional memory that go with
it are not effectively transferred to relieving units upon
redeployment. As a result, new commanders entering the area of
operations usually must start again from scratch, developing their own
system for researching and analyzing cultural data.
Consequently, it is glaringly apparent that commanders need a
culturally oriented counterpart to tactical intelligence systems to
provide them with a similarly detailed, similarly comprehensive
cultural picture of their areas of operations.
HTS aims to mitigate these problems by providing commanders with a
comprehensive cultural information research system that will be the
analogue to traditional military intelligence systems. It will fill
the cultural knowledge void by gathering ethnographic, economic, and
cultural data pertaining to the battlefield and by providing the means
to array it in various configurations to support analysis and
decisionmaking. Moreover, the forward deployed brigade-level elements
upon which the system is based will have reachback capability for
research. Additionally, the whole database and institutional memory
will be transferred in total to successive commanders upon unit
rotation, providing for needed continuity of situational awareness.
A Closer Look at HTS
In its current conception, HTS is built upon seven components, or
“pillars”: human terrain teams (HTTs), reachback research cells,
subject-matter expert networks, a tool kit, techniques, human terrain
information, and specialized training.
Each HTT will be comprised of experienced cultural advisors familiar
with the area in which the commander will be operating. The actual
experts on the ground, these advisors will be in direct support of a
brigade commander. All will have experience in organizing and
conducting ethnographic research in a specific area of responsibility,
and they will work in conjunction with other social-science
researchers. HTTs will be embedded in brigade combat teams, providing
commanders with an organic capability to gather, process, and
interpret relevant cultural data. In addition to maintaining the
brigade’s cultural databases by gathering and updating data, HTTS will
also conduct specific information research and analysis as tasked by
the brigade commander.
Teams will consist of five members: a leader, a cultural analyst, a
regional studies analyst, a human terrain research manager, and a
human terrain analyst.
_ The HTT leader will be the commander’s principal human terrain
advisor, responsible for supervising the team’s efforts and helping
integrate data into the staff decision process. He or she will be a
Major or lieutenant colonel and a staff college graduate, and will
have spent time as a principal brigade staff officer.
_ The cultural analyst will advise the HTT and brigade staff and
conduct or manage ethnographic and social-science research and
analysis in the brigade’s area of operations. The analyst will be a
qualified cultural anthropologist or sociologist competent with
geographical imaging software and fluent enough in the local language
to perform field research. Priority selection will go to those who
have published, studied, lived, and taught in the region.
_ The regional studies analyst will have qualifications and skills
similar to the cultural analyst.
_ The human terrain research manager will have a military background
in tactical intelligence. The manager will integrate the human terrain
research plan with the unit intelligence collection effort, will
debrief patrols, and will interact with other agencies and
_ The human terrain analyst will also have a military intelligence
background and be a trained debriefer. He or she will be the primary
human terrain data researcher, will debrief patrols, and will interact
with other agencies and organizations. The HTT will be responsible to
the brigade commander for three deliverables:
_ A constantly updated, user-friendly ethnographic and sociocultural
database of the area of operations that can provide the commander data
maps showing specific ethnographic or cultural features. The HTT’s
tool kit is mapping Human terrain (map-Ht) software, an automated
database and presentation tool that allows teams to gather, store,
manipulate, and provide cultural data from hundreds of categories.
Data will cover such subjects as key regional personalities, social
structures, links between clans and families, economic issues, public
communications, agricultural production, and the like. The data
compiled and archived will be transferred to follow-on units.
Moreover, although map-Ht will be operated by the HTTs, the system
will regularly transfer data to rear elements for storage in a larger
archive, to allow for more advanced analysis and wider use by the
military and other government agencies.
_ The ability to direct focused study on cultural or ethnographic
issues of specific concern to the commander.
_ A reachback link to a central research facility in the United States
that draws on government and academic sources to answer any cultural
or ethnographic questions the commander or his staff might have.
Finally, as previously noted, the team and database will not displace
when a commander or unit departs upon change of responsibility.
Instead, the HTT will transfer in its entirety to the incoming
commander and unit.
To provide the reachback that CORDS lacked, an organization called the
HTS reachback research Center (RRC) will be established as part of the
Foreign Military Studies Office at Fort Leavenworth. All HTTS will
have direct connectivity with the RRC.
Initially, the RRC will have 14 researchers, all experts in the
cultural and ethnographic characteristics of the geographic area they
support. The RRC will systematically receive information from deployed
HTTs through the map-Ht system. Data will be collated, catalogued, and
placed into a central database. The RRC will also be able to conduct
additional analysis in support of forward HTTs.
The RRC’s main purpose is to help HTTs answer forward-deployed
commanders’ specific requests for information. Apart from its own
institutional expertise, the RRC will be able to access a network of
researchers throughout the government and academia to conduct research
and get answers. RRC researchers will also constitute the primary pool
from which replacements for forward HTTs will be drawn. RRC personnel
will periodically rotate into theater to serve tours as forward HTT
members. They will be designated to reinforce in-theater HTTs during
an emergency or in a surge period, as required by a brigade commander.
In addition to the capabilities the HTS offers to brigade commanders
and other decisionmakers in given areas of operation, the data it
compiles will be available for the training, modeling, and simulation
communities to better support deploying forces in their mission
rehearsal exercise scenario development. Other U.S. Government
agencies will also have access to the central database. And finally,
to facilitate economic development and security, the compiled
databases will eventually be turned over to the new governments of
Iraq and Afghanistan to enable them to more fully exercise sovereignty
over their territory and to assist with economic development.
Getting the Data
Most civilian and military education is based on unclassified or open-
source information derived from the social sciences. Similarly, most
cultural information about populations is unclassified. To ensure that
any data obtained through the HTS does not become unnecessarily
fettered or made inaccessible to the large numbers of soldiers and
civilians routinely involved in stability operations, the information
and databases assembled by the HTS will be unclassified.
Many Grounds for Optimism
To date, although our brigades have performed with heroism and
distinction in Iraq and Afghanistan, lack of cultural knowledge and
language capabilities appear to have been Major common factors
standing in the way of optimal success. With the introduction of the
HTS and its human terrain teams, future deploying brigades will get a
running start once they enter theater. They will be culturally
empowered, able to key on the people and so prosecute counternotes
insurgency as Lawrence, Galula, and other practitioners have
prescribed-not by fire and maneuver, but by winning hearts and minds.
In turn, the army, our Nation, and the people of Iraq and Afghanistan
will benefit from the fielding of this powerful new instrument for
conducting stability operations and reconstruction.
1. MG Peter W. Chiarelli and Maj Patrick R. Michaelis, “winning the
Peace: the requirement for Full-Spectrum Operations,” Military Review
(July-August 2005): 5.
2. The concept for the current Human terrain System was suggested by
Montgomery McFate Ph.D., J.D., and Andrea Jackson as described in
their article, “an Organizational Solution for DoD’s Cultural
Knowledge Needs,” Military Review (July-august 2005): 1821. Most of
the practical work to implement the concept under the title Human
terrain System was done by Cpt Don Smith, U.S. Army reserve, of the
Foreign Military Studies Office, between July 2005 and August 2006.
Under this concept, “human terrain” can be defined as the human
population and society in the operational environment (area of
operations) as defined and characterized by sociocultural,
anthropologic, and ethnographic data and other non-geophysical
information about that human population and society. Human terrain
information is open-source derived, unclassified, referenced
(geospatially, relationally, and temporally) information. It includes
the situational roles, goals, relationships, and rules of behavior of
an operationally relevant group or individual.
3. MG Benjamin C. Freakley, Infantry 94, 2 (March-April 2005): 2.
4. See t. E. Lawrence, Seven Pillars of Wisdom (New York: Anchor
Books, 1991); and David Galula, Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and
Practice (New York: Praeger Press, 1964).
5. United States Marine Corps Small Wars Manual, 1940 (Manhattan, KS:
Sunflower University Press), 1-2.
6. Lester Grau and Geoffrey Demarest, “Maginot Line or Fort Apache?
Using Forts to Shape the Counterinsurgency Battlefield,” Military
Review (November-December 2005): 35-40.
7. See, for example, Andrew M. Roe, “to Create a Stable Afghanistan:
Provisional reconstruction teams, Good Governance and a Splash of
History,” Military Review (November-December 2005): 20-26; LTC James
D. Campbell, “French Algeria and British Northern Ireland: Legitimacy
and the Rule of Law in Low-Intensity Conflict,” Military Review (March-
April 2005): 2-5; and Col (retired) Henri Bore_, “Cultural awareness
and irregular warfare: French army experience in Africa,” Military
Review (July-August 2006): 108-111.
8. See, for example, Dale andrade, Ashes to Ashes: The Phoenix Program
and the Vietnam War (Lexington, Ma: lexington Books, 1990); Ralph W.
Johnson, “Phoenix/Phung Hoang: a Study of Wartime Intelligence
Management” (Ph.D. Diss., the American University, 1985); Dale Andrade
and James H. Willbanks, “Cords/Phoenix: Counterinsurgency lessons from
Vietnam for the Future,” Military Review (March-April 2006): 9-23; and
Maj Ross Coffey, “Revisiting CORDS: the Need for Unity of effort to
Secure victory in Iraq,” Military Review (March-April 2006): 35- 41.
9. William Colby with James McCargar, Lost Victory: A First-Hand
Account of America’s Sixteen Year War in Vietnam (Chicago & New York:
Contemporary Books, 1989), 175-192.
10. Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom (New York: Anchor Books,
11. Robert K. Brigham, ARVN: Life and Death of the South Vietnamese
Army (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2006), 1-26.
12. James H. Willbanks, Abandoning Vietnam: How America Left and South
Vietnam Lost Its War (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2004),
13. Andrade and Willbanks, 21-22.
14. Ibid., 14-17.
Also available online at:
Dr. Jacob Kipp is the Director of the Foreign Military Studies Office
(FMSO), Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He has a B.S. from Shippensburg
University and an M.A. and Ph.D. From Pennsylvania State University.
Lieutenant Colonel Lester W. Grau, U.S. Army, Retired, is a military
analyst in FMSO. He has a B.A. from the University of Texas at El Paso
and an M.A. from Kent State University, and is a graduate of the
Command and General Staff College, the U.S. Army Russian Institute,
the Defense Language Institute, and the U.S. Air Force War College. He
has served in various command and staff positions in CONUS, Europe,
Lieutenant Colonel Karl Prinslow, U.S. Army, Retired, manages the
Joint Reserve Intelligence Center (JRIC) at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas.
He has a B.S. from the U.S. Military Academy, an M.A. from the Naval
Postgraduate School, and an MBA from Baker University. A former
foreign area officer (Africa), LTC Prinslow also served in a variety
of command and staff positions in the infantry.
Captain Don Smith, U.S. Army Reserve, is an action officer at FMSO.
Networds: Terra Incognita and the Case for Ethnographic Intelligence
Author’s note: What I have chosen to call “ethnographic
intelligence” might be more accurately described as “ethnographic
information,” since much of the content involved in analyzing a
hostile network will be open source. I have chosen to retain
“Intelligence,” however, to indicate the military utility of the
The proliferation of empowered networks makes “ethnographic
intelligence” (EI) more important to the United States than ever
before.2 Among networks, al-Qaeda is of course the most infamous, but
there are several other examples from the recent past and present,
such as blood-diamond and drug cartels, that lead to the conclusion
that such networks will be a challenge in the foreseeable future.
Given the access these networks have to expanded modern communications
and transportation and, potentially, to weapons of mass destruction,
they are likely to be more formidable than any adversaries we have
Regrettably, the traditional structure of the U.S. military
intelligence community and the kind of intelligence it produces aren’t
helping us counter this threat. As recent debate, especially in the
services, attests, there is an increased demand for cultural
intelligence. Retired army Major General Robert Scales has highlighted
the need for what he calls cultural awareness in Iraq: “I asked a
returning commander from the 3rd Infantry Division how well
situational awareness (read aerial and ground intelligence technology)
worked during the march to Baghdad. ‘I knew where every enemy tank was
dug in on the outskirts of Tallil,’ he replied. ‘Only problem was, my
soldiers had to fight fanatics charging on foot or in pickups and
firing AK-47s and [rocket propelled grenades]. I had perfect
situational awareness. What i lacked was cultural awareness. Great
technical intelligence…wrong enemy.'”3
I propose that we go beyond even General Scales’s plea for cultural
awareness and look instead at amassing EI, the type of intelligence
that is key to setting policy for terra incognita. The terra in this
case is the human terrain, about which too often too little is known
by those who wield the instruments of national power. The United
States needs EI to combat networks and conduct global
counterinsurgency. This paper will therefore define EI, discuss some
cases that illustrate the requirement for it, and propose a means to
acquire and process it.
According to Dr. Anna Simons of the United States naval postgraduate
School, “What we mean by EI is information about indigenous forms of
association, local means of organization, and traditional methods of
Clans, tribes, secret societies, the hawala system, religious
brotherhoods, all represent indigenous or latent forms of social
organization available to our adversaries throughout the non-Western,
and increasingly the Western, world. These create networks that are
invisible to us unless we are specifically looking for them; they come
in forms with which we are not culturally familiar; and they are
impossible to ‘see’ or monitor, let alone map, without consistent
attention and the right training.”4
Because EI is the only way to truly know a society, it is the best
tool to divine the intentions of a society’s members. The “Indigenous
forms of association and local means of organization” are hardly alien
concepts to us. Our own culture has developed what we call “social
network analysis” to map these associations and forms of organization.
5 These unwritten rules and invisible (to us) connections between
people form key elements of the kind of information that, according to
General Scales, combat commanders are now demanding. Because these
rules and connections form the “traditional methods of mobilization”
used either to drum up support for or opposition to U.S. goals, they
demand constant attention from the U.S. government and armed forces.6
Simply put, EI constitutes the descriptions of a society that allow us
to make sense of personal interactions, to trace the connections
between people, to determine what is important to people, and to
anticipate how they could react to certain events. With the United
States no longer facing a relatively simple, monolithic enemy, our
national interests are found in a confusing cauldron of different
locales and societies. Each of these has its own “latent forms of
social organization” that create networks we cannot see or map, and to
which we may very well fall victim, unless we aggressively pursue EI.7
The Threat: Three Case Studies
American national interests are affected by many societies about which
we may know very little. In the early 1960s, few Americans recognized
the importance of the terra incognita of Vietnamese society.8 In the
1990s, America either failed to develop, or failed to employ EI on al-
Qaeda, afghanistan, or Iraq.9 Today, we have little insight into which
cultures or networks may soon become threats to our national
interests. For this reason, America must seek to understand and
develop EI on a global scale, before it is surprised by another
unknown or dimly understood society or network. As a first step toward
becoming more EI-smart, we might look at three illustrative cases: the
blood-diamond cartel, drug trafficking syndicates, and Al-Qaeda.
The blood-diamond cartel. West Africa’s blood-diamond cartel is a good
example of the seemingly random mixture of networks, private armies,
governments of questionable legitimacy, and social environments in
conflict that plague the world today. At the core of the cartel are
guerrillas in Sierra Leone who have used terror tactics to control
access to diamond mines. They were assisted by the former government
of Charles Taylor in Liberia, which helped launder the diamonds in
Europe for money. Some of that money then went to international arms
dealers who smuggled weapons to the guerrillas, and some went to
finance international terrorists like al-Qaeda. War, as the U.S.
military has traditionally preferred to consider it-the clash of state
armies and navies-has given way to a mix of crime, money, and terror
executed by dark networks in league with each other and with
reprehensible governments to secure profits and export terrorism.
According to H. Brinton Milward and Jorg Raab, “Covert networks have
come together with warlords controlling access to resources to create
commodity wars. These wars are fought over control of diamonds,
petroleum concessions, coca leaves, and poppies that yield narcotics,
not for any real ideological or political reason.”10
While entities like the blood-diamond cartel have heretofore not been
deemed threatening to vital U.S. interests, and thus have not
justified the attention of significant American assets or numbers of
troops, such a presumption is overdue for reconsideration. The United
States cannot afford-nor should it be inclined to act-as the world’s
policeman, but these unholy alliances now demand scrutiny. This is
where EI enters the picture. When crime, brutality, poor governance,
and terrorist financing come together, they are so enmeshed in the
local social environment that only a detailed understanding of
ethnographic factors can provide the basis for further identification
of who and what truly threaten U.S. national interests. An
understanding of the societies in which these networks roost is the
indispensable bedrock upon which any further analysis rests.
Traditional military intelligence, in examining opposing formations
and weapons systems, does not even speak in the same terms as those
found in the blood-diamond “conflict.” In Milward and Raab’s words:
“In the period after Taylor became president, the republic of Liberia
became a nexus for many dark networks. There are linkages between
various dark networks; some are more central than others are and some
only loosely linked with the others.”11 Borrowed from social network
analysis, terms like “network,” “nexus,” and “centrality” are useful
concepts that allow analysts to better identify threats to American
It is only through extensive, on-the-ground observation that latent
forms of social organization and mobilization can be made apparent.
When those indigenous forms of social organization are exploited by
people like Charles Taylor, or become linked to external nodes such as
other networks, then EI feeds and blurs into the police style social
network analysis needed to identify and counter threats to U.S.
interests. In this way, EI takes the incognita out of the human terra
so that the United States can craft effective, realistic policy
Drug trafficking syndicates. Drug syndicates or cartels are another
networked threat that will not disappear in the foreseeable future and
that cannot be depicted effectively by order-of-battle-style
intelligence. Phil Williams has clearly articulated the ethnic
qualities that make drug trafficking a particularly opaque threat:
“[M]any networks have two characteristics that make them hard to
penetrate: ethnicity and language. Moreover, many of the networks use
languages or dialects unfamiliar to law enforcement personnel in the
host countries. Consequently, electronic surveillance efforts directed
against, for example, Chinese or Nigerian drug-trafficking networks do
not exist in a vacuum, but instead operate in and from ethnic
communities that provide concealment and protections as well as an
important source of new recruits. Some networks, such as Chinese drug-
trafficking groups, are based largely on ethnicity. They are global in
scope and operate according to the principle of guanxi (notions of
reciprocal obligation), which can span generations and continents and
provides a basis for trust and cooperation. Such networks are
especially difficult for law enforcement to infiltrate. In short, drug-
trafficking networks have a significant capacity to protect their
information and to defend themselves against law enforcement
By themselves, drug gangs might not represent a clear and present
danger to America, but they warrant study for two reasons. First, they
are increasingly moving beyond mere profit-making ventures into
alliances with other types of networks, such as the gun-runner and
terrorist networks active in West Africa, that do pose a significant
threat to the United States. Second, drug-trafficking networks provide
a relevant example of how subversive groups can exploit ethnic social
bonds and indigenous forms of mobilization about which we Westerners
remain ignorant. Phil Williams’ illustrative invocation of guanxi,
which won’t appear in any traditional military intelligence summary,
is instructive here.
A concept of mutual obligation that can endure from generation to
generation and across great distances, guanxi can be a powerful tool
in the hands of a network with evil intent. Drug trafficking can be
harmful enough to a society, but when it is lashed together with the
trafficking of weapons, money, and perhaps even materials of mass
destruction, such racketeering does become a clear and present danger
to America. A nexus of dark networks, peddling destruction in various
forms, and facilitating international terrorism, becomes inordinately
threatening when powered by traditional social practices such as
guanxi that are invisible to states that don’t do their ethnographic
homework. Williams appropriately notes that these practices, or means
of “Indigenous mobilization,” work precisely because they are embedded
in an ethnic population. This is true whether the population in
question inhabits an ethnic enclave in a culturally dissimilar host
nation or occupies its home region. In fact, under the latter
conditions, local forms of organization and means of association can
become more powerful than any written law, and therefore that much
more efficacious for the network using them. They can be
extraordinarily effective at creating local networks. However, he who
has done his ethnographic analysis stands a decent chance of
neutralizing the hostile actions of a dark network or perhaps even
turning the activities of the network to advantage.
Al-Qaeda. A third case that illustrates the need for EI is Al-Qaeda.
In 2004, Marc Sageman wrote Understanding Terror Networks to clarify
what he saw as a widespread misperception in the West about who joins
these networks and why they join.
Sageman concentrates on al-Qaeda’s sub-network constituents, mapping
the individual networks and partially filling in their foci, such as
certain mosques.14 Sageman obtained his information by accessing
documents via friendly means, but he freely admits that his
examination is limited. Sageman’s main agenda is to refute the myth
that terrorists such as those in al-Qaeda are irrational psychopaths
created by brainwashing impoverished Muslim youths. He contends that
the majority of terrorists are educated, generally middle-class,
mature adults. They are usually married, and they come from caring
families with strong values. They are also believers wholly committed
to the greater cause of global Salafist jihad.
According to Sageman, these people belong to four general groups in
the al-Qaeda network: the Central Staff, the Southeast Asians, the
Maghreb Arabs, and the Core Arabs. The Central Staff is comprised
mainly of Osama bin Laden’s older compatriots, men who heard the call
to jihad against the Soviet infidels in Afghanistan and who continue
the fight today. The Southeast Asians are mostly disciples of two
particular religious schools. The Maghreb Arabs are first- or second-
generation Arabs in France. Socially isolated, the Maghrebs have
sought community ties in local mosques. The Core Arabs grew up in
communal societies in Islamic lands, but became isolated and lonely as
they moved away to schools or jobs.
With the exception of some Maghreb Arabs, many of al-Qaeda’s recruits
have a good education and strong job skills; they have no criminal
background. Sageman writes at some length about the feeling of
isolation that led many of the expatriate al-Qaeda members to seek out
cliques of their own kind, and about the gradual strengthening of
their religious beliefs prior to joining the jihad as a source of
identity and community. He emphasizes that people join in small
cliques, and that the motivation is primarily fellowship, and only
later, worship. The cliques are not recruited as much as they seek out
membership in al-Qaeda. In the search for fellowship, some men
happened upon one of the relatively few radical mosques or became
embedded in a clique that happened to have an acquaintance in the
jihadist network. Sageman debunks the theory that al-Qaeda has
recruiters in every mosque, yet he does point out the existence of a
few people who know how to contact the larger group and will provide
directions, travel money, and introductions to clandestine training
camps. In sum, Sageman argues convincingly that our stereotypes of al-
Qaeda are dangerously misleading.
Sageman’s analysis of the al-Qaeda network has been widely quoted, yet
he himself underscores the lack of available first-hand information
and makes it plain that he used open-source documents, with some
limited personal exposure; in other words, he wrote the book without
much access to EI.15 Let us imagine what Sageman’s sharp intellect
would have found if he had had access to a full, well-organized range
of EI from each of the four subgroups’ regions. What might a dedicated
core of EI specialists have discovered about the recruitment pattern?
As an illustration, Sageman uncovered a key ethnographic point in the
bond between student and teacher in Southeast Asia.16 The active
exploration of this key example of “Indigenous forms of association”
might have led to the two radical Southeast Asian schools much sooner.
Perhaps armed with such knowledge, the governments in question could
have taken more steps against the network years ago.
Acquiring and Processing EI
To acquire ethnographic knowledge, there is no substitute for being on
the scene. For the U.S. military, the structural solution to EI could
be relatively easy. Some form of U.S. Military Group, or the military
annex to the embassy, could become the vehicle to collect EI. While
the defense attaché system is charged with overtly collecting military
information and assessing the military situation in particular
countries, there currently is no comprehensive effort to collect and
process EI. The security assistance officers attached to U.S. country
teams often obtain a fine appreciation of the cultural aspects of
their host nation, but they are not charged with the responsibility to
collect EI and may not always have a smooth relationship with the
defense attaché (if one is even assigned).17
There is a relatively low-cost way to set up a system to collect EI.
The United States could develop a corps of personnel dedicated to the
task and base them out of a more robust military annex to our
embassies. There are two key points to developing such a corps: it
must be devoted exclusively to the task without distraction, and its
personnel must be allowed to spend extended time in country and then
be rewarded for doing so.18 their work could be considered a form of
strategic reconnaissance, and in reconnaissance matters there is
simply no substitute for being physically present on the ground. Since
the ethnographic ground in question is actually a population and not
necessarily terrain, a constant and near-total immersion in the local
population would be the means to turn McNamara’s terra incognita into
a known set of “Indigenous forms of association, local means of
organization, and traditional methods of mobilization.”
While the most streamlined EI organization would probably combine the
functions of the defense attaché and security assistance officer, such
a move is not absolutely necessary.19 The most important structural
aspect is that the EI developed in country should be analyzed at the
embassy, forwarded to the staff of the geographic combatant commander,
and shared laterally with other relevant embassies. This kind of
information sharing would make for better contingency plans, and it
would create a hybrid network to counter the dark networks that profit
from blood diamonds, drugs, and terror.
A small number of Americans, usually military foreign area officers
(FAOs), are already in tune with this type of work, and some have
achieved a high level of excellence. There are not many of them,
though, and they are not organized into a truly comprehensive system
focused on the ethnographic aspects of networks. A sterling example of
the capacity that the United States could build can be found in an
officer named “David.” On a mission with a platoon of army rangers in
western Iraq to find out how foreign fighters were infiltrating the
country, David traveled in Mufti. At one village, he “met a woman with
facial tattoos that marked her as her husband’s property. As they
chatted, the pale-skinned, sandy-haired North Carolina native imitated
her dry, throaty way of speaking. ‘You are Bedu, too,’ she exclaimed
with delight.” from her and the other Bedouins, David finds out that
the foreign fighters are using local smuggling routes “to move people,
guns, and money. Many of the paths were marked with small piles of
bleached rocks that were identical to those David had seen a year
earlier while serving in Yemen.”20
David gained access and operational information by using ethnographic
knowledge. The deeper that personnel like David dig into local
society, the better their ability to assess which groups threaten the
United States and which should be left alone. If America could build a
healthy corps of people like David, based out of each U.S. embassy in
the world, then our nation could identify those networks that, in
Simons’s formulation, are “Invisible to us unless we are specifically
looking for them; [and that] come in forms with which we are not
Sadly, there aren’t nearly enough Davids in the military. The army has
about 1,000 FAOs, but most of them are in Europe. A mere 145 are
focused on the Middle east, and even that number can be deceptive
because a FAO’s duties include many things that aren’t related to EI,
such as protocol for visits and administrative duties.21 Certainly,
one solution to the growing threats from networks would be to produce
more Davids and reward them for extensive time on the ground
exclusively focused on the development of EI.
The benefits to be derived from such a corps would be tremendous.
Consider, for example, the impact good EI could have had on the war
plan for Iraq. There has been much discussion of late about how
American forces did not really understand the Iraq’s tribal networks,
a failure that contributed to the difficulties we are currently
facing. With the “consistent attention and the right training” Simons
has prescribed, knowledge like this could have been built into
contingency plans and then updated in the regular two-year plan review
cycle to insure currency. Ethnographic understanding could have
allowed U.S. forces in Iraq to use tribal networks to advantage from
the outset; they would not have had to figure things out for
themselves, as Lieutenant Colonel Tim Ryan did: “the key is a truce
brokered by the national league of Sheiks and tribal leaders and U.S.
Army Lt. Col. Tim Ryan, the 1st Cavalry Division officer responsible
for Abu Ghraib-a Sunni triangle town west of Baghdad and a hotbed of
the insurgency. Under the agreement, Ryan now meets regularly with
tribal leaders and provides them with lists of residents suspected of
taking part in attacks. The sheiks and their subordinate local clan
leaders then promise to keep their kinsmen in line. ‘They [the sheiks]
do have a lot of influence. To ignore that is to ignore 6,000 years of
the way business has been done here.”22
EI that might lead to beneficial relations with local power figures,
along the lines of the one between Ryan and the sheiks, could be
developed from each U.S. embassy around the clock in peacetime to
inform contingency plans and enable activity against the dark networks
that seek to harm America. In some places, such as pre-war Iraq or in
outright killing fields similar to a blood-diamond zone, Washington
will judge the presence of an embassy to be too dangerous, but in the
absence of an on-site embassy, personnel can be invested in the
surrounding embassies to glean as much EI as possible through borders
that are often porous.
The Broken Windows theory of criminologists James Q. Wilson and George
Kelling suggests that we might reap another benefit from establishing
an American ethnographic counter-network in surrounding, linked
embassies.23 the essence of the theory is that if a building has a
broken window that remains unfixed, then people will assume that no
one is in charge or cares; as a result, they will do whatever they
wish to the place-the broken window will invite vandalism, graffiti,
and so on. Once these acts of disorder commence, crime becomes
contagious, like a fashion trend or virus. A more robust military
annex to an embassy and a low-key, constant interest in overt
ethnographic matters would show that the United States cares and is
indeed watching. Perhaps this constant attention would serve to subtly
constrict the amount of safehaven space available for dark networks.
The overt information gathered by military ethnographers could
complement the covert work done by the Cia (and vice versa).
U.S. citizens, at least intuitively, have always recognized the
presence of networks in society, from family ties to economic
relationships, indeed, to the very structure of daily life. The law
enforcement community has long since recognized and acted against
domestic criminal and extremist variants of these networks. However,
the U.S. Government and military have had a difficult time coming to
grips with networks like al-Qaeda. It took the shock of the September
11th attacks to galvanize national attention on terrorist networks,
and the ensuing years of struggle to grasp that terror networks can be
more than ideologically motivated, and that they can flourish in the
nexus of crime, drugs, weapons trafficking, money laundering, and a
host of other lethal activities.
Terrorism can take many guises, and it blends very well into the
cauldron of dark phenomena like blood diamonds, drug trafficking
networks, and al-Qaeda. The United States desperately needs a counter-
network to fight the dark networks now surfacing across the globe.
Ethnographic intelligence can empower the daily fight against dark
networks, and it can help formulate contingency plans that are based
on a truly accurate portrayal of the most essential terrain-the human
mind. United States policymakers must not commit us ever again to
terra incognita. The nation must invest in specialized people who can
pay “constant attention” to “Indigenous forms of association and
mobilization,” so that we can see and map the human terrain.
1. Robert S. McNamara, In Retrospect: The Tragedy And Lessons Of The
Vietnam War (New York: Times Books, 1995), 32.
2. Anna Simons and David Tucker, “Improving Human Intelligence In The
War On Terrorism: The Need For An Ethnographic Capability,” report
submitted to office of the secretary of Defense for Net Assessment
3. Robert Scales, “Culture-Centric Warfare,” Proceedings (October
2004), available online at .
4. Simons and Tucker.
5. Valida Krebs, “An Introduction To Social Network Analysis,” 2006,
6. McNamara, 30-33.
7. Anonymous, Imperial Hubris: Why The West Is Losing The War On
Terror (Washington, DC: Brassey’s, 2004); Robert Baer, See No Evil
(New York: Three Rivers Press, 2002).
8. H. Brinton Milward and Jorg Raab, “Dark Networks: The Structure,
Operation, And Performance of International Drug, Terror, And Arms
Trafficking Networks,” paper presented at the International Conference
On The Empirical Study Of Governance Management, And Performance,
Barcelona, Spain, 2002, 28-39, .
9. Ibid., 28.
12. Alberto-Laslo Barabási And Eric Bonabeau, “Scale-Free Networks,”
Scientific American (May 2003): 60-69.
13. Phil Williams, “The Nature Of Drug-Trafficking Networks,” Current
History (April 1998): 154-159.
14. Marc Sageman, Understanding Terror Networks (Philadelphia:
University Of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), 143.
15. Ibid., vii-ix.
16. Ibid., 113-114.
17. Kurt M. Marisa, “Consolidated Military Attaché And Security
Assistance Activities: A Case For Unity of Command,” Fao Journal, 7, 2
(December 2003): 6-11.
18. Simons and Tucker.
19. Marisa, 6-24.
20. Greg Jaffe, “In Iraq, One Officer Uses Cultural Skill To Fight
Insurgents,” Wall Street Journal, 15 November 2005, 15.
22. Ashraf khalil, “teaming up with tribes to try to quell
insurgents,” los angeles times, 21 june 2004, a8.
23. Malcolm gladwell, the tipping point: how little things can make a
big difference (New York: little, brown, and co., 2000), 140-146.
Also available online at:
Lieutenant Colonel Fred Renzi is a psychological operations officer
currently attending the Naval Postgraduate School. He holds a B.S.
from the United States Military Academy at West Point and is a
graduate of the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College. LTC Renzi
has held various command and staff positions in Europe and the
continental United States. He deployed with the 1st Armored Division
to Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm and with the 1st
Psychological Operations Battalion (Airborne) to Haiti.