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More on culture, the military, and “counterinsurgency”

20 November, 2007

For those of you who aren’t utterly sick of the whole topic, Sheila Miyoshi Jager, a Chicago-trained anthropologist and tenured professor of East Asian Studies at Oberlin College, has just published an essay, “On the Uses of Cultural Knowledge,” on the Strategic Studies Institute website (an army publication). Jager makes points that are not dissimilar to the arguments of Kilcullen in the New Yorker profile of 2006: essentially, divide and conquer using culture as the key way of distinguishing between enemies:

The monograph concludes by suggesting four distinct ways in which cultural knowledge can work to help redefine an overarching strategic framework for counterinsurgency.

1. Reconceptualizing the “war on terror” not as one war, but as many different wars.
2. Focusing less on the moral distinctions between “us” and “them”—a major centerpiece of the Bush Doctrine—and more on the differences between “them.”
3. Building support and relationships among both friendly and adversary states by taking into account how other societies assess risks, define their security, and perceive threats.
4. Building support for counterinsurgency among America’s civilian leaders. Especially amid the domestic acrimony spawned by the Iraq War, inadequate coordination between military and nonmilitary power will severely hamper U.S. counterinsurgency capabilities. Cultural knowledge of both military and civilian institutions is therefore vital if the coordination between them is to be effective.

But she also sees the use of ‘culture’ as part of a “gentler” army, which she opposes to “former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s heavy-handed approach to counterinsurgency which emphasized aggressive military tactics.”

The publication of Jager’s monograph reinforces the growing evidence that “culture” is the hip new catch-phrase in the military and government, but she argues that it’s only the military, not the government, that ‘gets’ culture:

The innovative insights about cultural knowledge adapted in operations and tactics by our military leaders have so far not yielded any comparable innovations from our political leaders.

Jager distinguishes between “the kinds of cultural knowledge that inform military operations and tactics on the ground—the “how-to” practical application of cultural and ethnographic knowledge” and “the forms of cultural knowledge that are needed to formulate national strategy and policy” (note the echoes of the de Certeauian distinction between strategy and tactics, though she does not explicitly refer to de Certeau) and argues for a shift in emphasis from tactical uses of culture, as in Petraeus’ Field Manual and the HTS, to the application of the ‘culture’ concept to government “grand strategy and policy” (though she does say that the two should essentially work together).

Her definition of culture is not dissimilar from that current in anthropology, as something that is dynamic and susceptible to creative transformation. Perhaps where she differs from many anthropologists, though, is in her idea that this historicized and malleable culture can or should be manipulated by a powerful occupying power for political ends, as well as in the fundamentally militarized language and metaphors she uses to talk about the ‘deployment’ of culture:

Applied to the level of strategy, cultural knowledge must therefore take into account the vital role of history and historical memory. Culture is not unchanging, nor does it entail a set of enduring values and/or ancient “patterns” of thought from which we can predict behavior. This is where the usage and understanding of culture as applied to the level of strategy differs significantly from the application of cultural knowledge at the operational and tactical levels. The uses of cultural knowledge in counterinsurgency operations emphasize the need for soldiers to understand the intricacies of customs, values, symbols, and traditions in order to be able to adapt and fight in a foreign society. It is hoped that this anthropological approach to war “will shed light on the grammar and logic of tribal warfare,” and create the “conceptual weapons necessary to return fire.”

Jager also writes about the Human Terrain System and the Counterinsurgency Manual and the “rave reviews” that the latter has received in the New York Times, but goes on to discuss the reception of these within anthropology as “decidedly cool, if not downright hostile.” She attributes this to “the disciplines’ ethical codes and also its tendency to look inward and its turn toward postmodernism and critical self-reflection,” which explains why, she says, “anthropology remains a rather insular field which attracts few readers beyond its disciplinary boundaries.” (The anthropologists that she names as leading the opposition to the use of anthropology by the military are Roberto Gonzalez, David Price, and Hugh Gusterson.) Yet from thus characterizing anthropologists as “insular” and irrelevant, she goes on to suggest that their reaction to the HTS is something like the ethical pulse of the nation:

Ultimately, however, the demands of counterinsurgency may be too great for the American public to bear, not because of the significant costs and commitments involved, but because the ethical and moral dilemmas posed by counterinsurgency may drive Americans, like Gonzales, to retreat from the world and leave the fighting to the military.

She concludes by suggesting a rather different application of culture to the military occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan: the study of the culture of the military.

“cultural knowledge of both military and civilian institutions is vital if the coordination between them is to be effective. In particular, cultural knowledge of the military, its institutional values, traditions, historical role in society, and how it operates must be explained to the American public.”

The full text of Jager’s article can be accessed at

L.L. Wynn


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