Skip to content

Anthropologists and the U.S. Army, continued

17 October, 2007

News outlets continue to pick up the story about anthropologists working with the U.S. army in Afghanistan, but the tenor of the reporting seems to be shifting. Recent articles (such as this 16 October BBC story) are highlighting more prominently the Network of Concerned Anthropologists‘ circulating pledge of non-participation in the U.S. counter-insurgency, and reporting that the majority of anthropologists object to “weaponised anthropology.”

Meanwhile, one of the anthropologist members of the “Human Terrain System,” Marcus Griffin (Ph.D.!) blogs on his own website about his work with the U.S. military. Amidst his (16 October) glowing descriptions of how he got a buzz-cut and was mentored in the weight room by “highly professional soldiers,” I spotted this typo, which gave me a good chuckle:

“I’ll blog soon about an awesome research effort the other team and I brainstormed regarding how to help Internally Displaced People and reduce the damage they are causing water infrastructure and the spread of water-bourne diseases.”

As a savvy commentator over at Savage Minds has observed, Griffin seems to be marketing himself to get a book contract or perhaps a movie deal out of his work for the Pentagon. Perhaps they could call it “The Water-Bourne Conspiracy”?

L.L. Wynn

7 Comments leave one →
  1. hohoho permalink
    17 October, 2007 3:37 pm

    well, not that savvy. it was speculation, and not particularly adept speculation at that.

  2. 18 October, 2007 9:27 am

    “Water-Bourne Conspiracy” — oh, that’s good.

    Also, is anyone else disturbed by the connotations of “human terrain”? Makes it sound like the human beings in a particular war/reconstruction zone are part of the landscape. It’s as if they are a passive background, or set of obtacles, which needs to be negotiated in order to reach the desired military objective.

    It also conjures up images in my mind of army boots walking over a terrain made up of human bodies.

  3. 18 October, 2007 9:39 am

    Good point, Jovan. That’s a very vivid image of army boots stomping about over a terrain of human bodies. But yes, I think it clearly does imply that they are a passive set of obstacles to be navigated around.

  4. Michaela permalink
    18 October, 2007 2:53 pm

    Any anthropologists involved in this U.S. military operation would have to be extremely naive or, as has been stated, have their eyes set on the publication/publicity that follows the field work. Griffin states in his blog that it might help to clear some of the rubble in the poorer area so the Iraqi people can get together and celebrate Ramadan. Interesting suggestion, I imagine if he stepped out of the armored vehicle lens he stands within he might find that it not so much the rubble that is in the way of social gatherings but perhaps the fear of death. I would imagine the Iraqi people would want security, a constant supply of electricity and clean water, some movement towards a return to social order…

    “The poorer neighborhoods that have closely spaced housing compounds and no courtyards may be experiencing greater anomie because the rubble and debris on top of and around their dwellings compound their lack of communal space. This is probably acutely so now that Ramadan has started. Where can people possibly gather after dark to socialize, eat, and consider their faith after a day of fasting?”(Extracted from Griffin’s blog)

    This is clearly not a transparent operation in my opinion…

  5. El Castro permalink
    19 October, 2007 2:41 pm

    I’m a student at the school where Griffin is a professor and he admitted to us before he went that he was only going for the money.

  6. 3 November, 2007 5:44 pm

    If I may, there are some terms that may need clarification:

    The military defines by abbreviation the following critical factors in determining how to frame the conduct of a mission:

    METT-TC, which stands for Mission, Enemy, Terrain, Troops (as in available for the task), Time, and Civilians.

    The work of the Human Terrain Teams is to better understand and define Civilians, but the name “Civilian Terrain Team” does not serve to capture the concept any more than referring to them as any other kind of terrain. As an aside, I’d submit that when you put 2 million people into a 92 square kilometer space, when they all get out in the course of normal social intercourse, they become as real a physical factor affecting movement as hills, streams, vallies, mud or sandy ground (especially given the Arab world’s rather fluid sense of traffic flow on the roads). That many people out and about actually causes significant disruptions to navigation. This simply serves to point out how humans can become similar to terrain.

    What the project truly seems to serve to accomplish is helping the military understand and navigate through the complex social and cultural landscape of Iraqi society. This metaphor, social and cultural landscape, translates as “terrain” to the military mind. One could argue that we should have done this long before we committed forces to engaging (and I will leave aside discussions of whether or not this was legitimate). Our cultural awareness of the historical, social, cultural and religious dynamics within Iraq, and our understanding of the effects of removing the government at the time on that society, were deeply flawed due in great part to a lack of understanding of the Iraqi society generally, and those factors which shape it. What the Human Terrain Team concept seeks to provide is a much better understanding of the social landscape in which the U.S. and coalition need to maneuver, which will ultimately serve to help the U.S. do more to establish stability, secure and a normalization of the society, while serving also to reduce the amount of violence required to do so. If you understand the motives of a social group, it opens up a wider range of responses for conflict resolution.

    In my observation, limited to Iraq, Dr. Griffin and his colleagues efforts, if fruitful, will greatly contribute to the establishment of a stable post-Hussein regime nation, reduce the number of deaths on both Iraqi and coalition sides, and speed the withdrawal of coalition armed forces from the region. In this was, I see academic anthropology as a significant benefit to the political and military efforts in the region, and can ultimately serve to elighten Western cultures to the workings of modern Middle Eastern societies.


    Nick Psaki

  7. Shirley permalink
    8 November, 2007 10:37 am

    I think it is also essential to look at these military anthropologists as a collective just as most of us would agree that we should not generalize a society. I believe that some of these military anthropologists are intelligent individuals that will not ‘unwittingly harm the Afgans and Iraqis with whom they are speaking by sharing their intelligence information with combat commander’ (Dina Rabie, Islamonline). I am not saying that military anthropology is good or bad (which i think is a superficial level). I think that we should not treat all military anthropologists like some dumb robots used just for the US military gains. I am sure that are some that are benefiting the community and it is them that we should encourage and promote so that the ‘honor’ of anthropology will not be brought down.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: