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More on the Military’s ‘Culture Rush’: Brian Selmeski interview

19 October, 2008

There’s a culture rush going on in the U.S. military. While the Human Terrain System gets most of the media attention for being the face of the military’s sudden interest in culture, there are a whole host of other military efforts revolving around the concept of culture. For example, as we have mentioned on Culture Matters, the Marine Corps has just published a textbook called “Operational Cultures for the Warfighter” with chapters that include sections on topics such as “tribes,” “folklore,” “rituals,” and “religious beliefs.” In 2006 the US Army Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) opened the TRADOC Cultural Center which teaches soldiers about foreign cultures and languages, particularly “the cultures of Iraq and Afghanistan.” And the Air Force teaches what it calls “cross-cultural competence,” or the idea that soldiers can be taught to comprehend and act in a culturally complex environment, even without having any past experience in that part of the world.

On 3 September 2008 (actually it was 2 September in the US), I interviewed one of the driving forces behind the Air Force’s Cross Cultural Competence (dubbed “3C”) program, Dr Brian Selmeski.  He’s the Director of Cross Cultural Competence at the Air Force Culture and Language Center of Air University at the Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama. I thought it might be interesting for Culture Matters readers to hear about how one branch of the military is applying anthropological concepts in practice. He gives us information about the Cross Cultural Competence program and talks about the ethics of anthropologists working with the military.

Lisa L Wynn: Some have said that the past 5 years or so have seen a “culture rush” in the US military. Do you think this is an accurate assessment? Do you think it’s a passing fad or here to stay? And what do you think is driving this recent “culture rush”?

Brian R Selmeski: Thanks for the opportunity to talk about these issues, Lisa. Before we begin, let just emphasize that everything I say is my own professional opinion. As a professor at Air University, I have academic freedom like colleagues at other universities, but when you work for the government – especially the armed forces – it is important to make that clear right up front.

Now, as to your questions: When I accepted the position that I hold right now, at Air University, the home of the US Air Force professional military education, I already had a job. The contract was coming up on that, and my boss was being transferred to Toronto – I was in Canada at the time…

LLW: Are you Canadian? Where were you living in Canada?

BRS: I’m American, but I spent 5 years in Canada. I lived in Kingston, Ontario, right near Queens University, and I worked at the Royal Military College.

LLW: Sorry to interrupt – I was just curious because I went to school in Canada. You were saying?

BRS: When I accepted the position, there were other employment positions available, a number of other faculty positions, in fact, there were a number of employment opportunities which were not academic as well. This is sort of a long way of saying that I was the end of a journey that had started when I was an officer in the U.S. Army, and I was told that the Army didn’t need anthropologists. After that I left the service and went off to graduate school.

Then, a decade later, there was collective cry across the US military: “Is there an anthropologist in the house?” This was something that most anthropologists didn’t anticipate hearing, and a call that most weren’t interested in responding to. However, there were a number of anthropologists who worked with the US military historically, and others who have been working in this field for the past 10, 15, 20 years. So this is not brand new. But the volume of positions advertised, the interest, the number of programs, that has certainly expanded, expanded at a breath-taking rate, in fact.

Why? I can’t offer anything more than my opinion, but I’ll tell you that 5 years ago I set up a listserv for anthropologists and others interested in culture who work in the security sector. There were relatively few people who were talking about culture, “doing” culture in a security context, back then. That group has now grown to over 300 people. It’s not just a matter of getting the word out [about that listserv]; there really is a greater interest in culture within the military.

When did the growth take off? Clearly it was growing as the U.S.’ involvements in Afghanistan and Iraq proved not as short as first predicted, but I’d put the sharp increase somewhere around the bombing of the Golden Mosque of Samara. If you look at the chronology and recent history of how U.S. military operations have gone, I think you’ll see that that was a symbolic turning point – and not for the better. This is a bit outside my area of expertise; I know you work in the Middle East and I say this with some trepidation since I’ve worked primarily in Latin America. Still, my sense is that this event was an eye-opener that things which were going poorly were getting much worse. It may not have been clear to people back in the US, but I think by then the broad base of the U.S. military was beginning to understand the full scope of the challenges they had to deal with.

It is easy to blame the armed forces for this situation, but remember that militaries don’t choose when or where to go to war, especially not the rank-and-file that I’m talking about. That’s the principle of civilian control of the military that we could discuss on another occasion. As far as the military’s focus on culture, whatever the exact date or origin, increasingly there was clearly more interest, a general sense of “wow, this is really messy, how can I do my job better?” That’s something that I think a lot of people don’t grasp about military culture. The military as an institution doesn’t really have an interest in “culture” per se, they have an interest in what culture can do to help them. The military is a profession and an institution of the state. And when I say help them, I don’t mean to help them exert their force more effectively. This is not the goal of what I do.

There was an article in the Guardian about a symposium I participated in at the University of Chicago, which asked whether anthropologists working with the military were just helping them “aim better.” What I do is not about targeting, not about occupation, not about exerting military might more efficiently. I’m trying to prevent and minimize conflict. I’m responding to the military as an institution that wants to change and the members who are asking: “How can I get out of this in one piece? How can I do the most good? How can I avoid things from getting much worse?” I’ve never met any military professional who relished the idea of doing harm to others. Those people are sociopaths, not military professionals.

That was the genesis of what started slowly, first with individuals, and then took on an institutional flavor as enormous bureaucracies began to look at how to do a better job. Do I think it’s a fad? Well if I know one things about institutions, as an anthropologist of the state, it’s that things which are not institutionalized, especially things that run counter-cultural to the institution, that challenge taken-for-granted assumptions, can very easily be put aside. Do I think that will happen? Part of my job is to see that it doesn’t happen by institutionalizing our program within the U.S. Air Force. More generally, I think you’re also seeing a shifting mindset in the military. My sense is that this not an aberration, that asymmetrical conflict or counterinsurgency is going to be the norm, that working with international and public partners is becoming more common, that preventing and recovering from conflict will be as significant a task for the armed forces as fighting. All of this stuff is incredibly culturally complex. So, bottom line, no, I don’t expect that military personnel or institutions will stop being interested in culture in the near future.

LLW: Tell us about the 3C concept you’re applying in the Air Force. What are the main features, and who has been responsible for developing the concept?

BRS: Let me go back to why I took this position. It was because the objective of the Air Force Culture and Language Center is to develop a sustainable approach to cross-cultural education and training in the military. Sustainability will come when learning about culture is taken for granted by the men and women who go through military schools. Like I said before, I work at the home of professional military education for the U.S. Air Force. The military is unlike other professions, like, say, medicine, where you do your medical education and an internship, then you go off and you’re a physician. You may attend an occasional professional conference and receive some additional training here and there, but it’s pretty limited. Once you’re a licensed MD, you’re a MD. The military, though, sends people back to school throughout their careers, not to learn about liberal arts and sciences, but to learn about professional military matters. Officers and enlisted are all going through this system, and for the U.S. Air Force this is all located at Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama, rather than spread out at a variety of bases across the country.

I wanted to be part of an institutional shift, not just for officers or just one occupational specialty, but across an entire service. That’s how I ended up at Air University. The Air Force wasn’t the first to pick up this question, but they benefited from what the Marines and Army had done. Then they went out and found a couple of anthropologists, because they had one on staff, and they’re one of the few [military] schools who did. Our director, Dan Henk, did his Ph.D. at the University of Florida, he’s a retired colonel who spent much of his life living overseas, in fact he grew up overseas. He reached out to a couple of [anthropologist] colleagues to help define the problem, not operationally but in terms of professional development. I was one of the colleagues he asked. Then he had us develop a model that would adequately address that problem. To figure out what it was that the Air Force could accomplish. USAF not only accepted the results of this process, but they put an incredible amount of time, energy and institutional resources behind it.

We came up with 3C concept. How? Well, we did a massive literature review, we visited several other professional education systems, and universities. We wanted to design a developmental process that would span the entire career of every member of the Air Force. This way, they will, at whatever level of sophistication and rank they are, be able to exert some positive influence when they are on operations. In other words, they will be able to accomplish their goals when operating in culturally complex environments.

The first tendency is to think of this as helping Airmen deal with the Other – Iraqis, Afghanis, whatever. We’re interested in the Self as well. My background is in military diversity, that was my doctoral work. Not surprisingly, they’re guided by the same principles and goal, working effectively across cultural differences, be they indigenous and white soldiers in the Andes, or working with host nation personnel to rebuild their military, or on a coalition staff of Canadians, Brits, Dutch and American soldiers. The last example is a useful one, because they can all can speak English, so it’s not so much a linguistic challenge as it is cultural.

The literature we drew on to address this came from anthropology and from other fields as well. We don’t have all the answers nor do we have a stranglehold on the field [of culture] as anthropologists. Compared to what other disciplines teach and what other scholars have found to be important, anthropologists tend to emphasize cognition, I would say almost to the exclusion of other learning domains. We tend to focus on knowledge. Yet knowledge of itself is not useful to professionals – military or other – because professionals need to know how to operationalize what they learn. We figured out pretty quickly that knowing lots of facts about different peoples is not the whole solution for the military. What if you have the wrong information? Or things on the ground have changed? Or you’re missing a key piece of data? Or you get sent somewhere else on short notice?

So we decided that the cognitive knowledge component should follow a culture-general approach. Don’t just teach kinship of the Pashtun. First teach the importance of kinship more generally so they can apply these principles of kinship, gender, exchange, and so forth wherever they might be. Air Force personnel move all the time – they have the aircraft, after all. We’re not trying to make experts, we’re trying to make generalists who can learn specifics before they depart or when they arrive, then act on them. That brought us to the conclusion that we need to operationalize this culture-general approach. We need to provide skills, and the U.S. Air Force settled on three: negotiate, communicate, and relate across cultural differences.

At that point we went back and reviewed some more literature and found that even knowledge-enabled skills are not sufficient. Most of the willingness to learn the knowledge, apply it, and develop these skills is driven by attitudes. And to be frank, we suspected that groups like the Peace Corps and the military tend to have strong self-selection mechanisms, and the individuals with attitudes more closely correlated to learning and employing these sorts of knowledge and skills, well, I’ll let you guess which group [Peace Corps or the military] they tend to join more often.

What the military does have is a strong motivation to get home in one piece, to not have any loss of life on your side, to try to avoid the loss of life in whatever community you’re working in, and this is now a doctrinal principle of counterinsurgency: that whenever you employ force, you may be doing more harm than good. General Petraeus has been quoted as saying “Don’t do something, just sit there.” You know, the opposite of the old saying, “Don’t just sit there, do something.” Military people are generally action-oriented, so doing nothing is hard. So is developing empathy, open-mindedness, the ability to cognitively frame-shift, cultural relativism, things that come intuitively to anthropologists. That’s difficult to develop with people who don’t necessarily have that disposition and haven’t seen the benefit of these attitudes historically. Some members of the military clearly do, some get it, but institutionally this is an area for improvement.

We also concluded that we need to teach military personnel how to learn about particularly cultures on the fly, how to apply the general principles to figure out the cultural conditions they’re working in. We know we can’t get everyone enough and sufficiently specific knowledge before they go. Plus, given the complexity of the situations they’re going to face and number of actors involved, what we can provide may well be dated. So why not teach them to learn so they can supplement their pre-deployment training?

That’s the model we developed. It squares well with core tenets of anthropological theory and anthropological methods. It is supported by good work from the field of communications, psychology, and organizational behavior as well. The real point is that it’s not just a common sense approach. It was developed by a group of scholars, many of whom have military experience themselves, whose students have real concerns and requirements, so it’s scientifically sound and yet militarily relevant.

The Air Force adopted this model and Air University made it the centerpiece of their Quality Enhancement Plan. That’s the portion of academic reaccreditation for a university that’s not about meeting existing standards but about promoting better student learning. It is a transformative, forward-looking process, and it has tremendous support and visibility.

LLW: How extensively is the 3C program being applied? You say it’s being aimed at every member of the Air Force through ongoing training? How exactly?

BRS: First, you have to distinguish training from education. Training occurs constantly in the military, it never stops. You’re always taking some training, doing some training program. Professional military education is a different animal. It happens at different points along your career. For officers, it first happens within your first year then you come back a few years later for the next course as a Captain, then several years later as a Major, then again as a Lieutenant Colonel. Over the course of a 20 year military career you will spend approximately 2 years in professional military education. That’s a significant investment that comes after you’ve been commissioned, which entails a 4-year educational program either through ROTC or the Air Force Academy.

None of that addresses your basic question though, which I think has more to do with how big this program is – or will be. Let me put it into a timeline: the Quality Enhancement Plan we’re developing for Air University’s reaccreditation won’t be submitted until December. It won’t be approved by the regional accrediting body until senior scholars and experts in this field come and look at what we’re proposing. That will be done hopefully by next summer. Then we’ll implement it over a five-year period. We’re trying to develop something good and sustainable, not something quick and mediocre. The second thing [to consider] is what we’re doing in the interim, while the accreditation process takes shape. It’s about cobbling together the best we can do right now to address the urgent need while we’re building the long-term plan to transform the institution.

When fully rolled out, we will have basically the opportunity to touch all of the future officers in the Air Force through the commissioning programs, all officers who go through professional military education, and all the enlisted personnel who go through their school system. We didn’t add enlisted personnel as an after-thought. They’re the ones who most often have interaction with local personnel, we’re designing the program from the get-go with this in mind.

We have another anthropologist who I work with who is designing an introduction to culture course. Not exactly Anthropology 101 because it’s targeted at a professional audience, but something along those lines. It will be delivered to enlisted personnel, all done online for credit through the Community College of the Air Force. Whether it will be mandatory or not remains to be seen, but it will be available to over 17,000 students per year. That’s an enormous undertaking. Providing a course on such a mass scale is a gigantic challenge. There are serious delivery issues to consider. Unfortunately, 3C is not something that comes in a pill format. It requires reading, thought, writing, discussion, experiential learning, and structuring that for just that one course, that one group of Air Force members taking a basic intro to culture class, is a big deal.

It is just one class in one school though. We have approximately 10 other schools and programs that we’re working with as well, trying to get new material in or adjust what’s already in there, trying to provide more, and most of all, trying to synchronize the learning process so when you move from one level to the next, you are building on what you received last time. It’s very rudimentary, very commonsensical, and very difficult. When fully implemented, it will be enormous. Will we get to do everything we want to, or the way we would like to? Probably not, but we will have a scientifically sound model that the institution supports and reaches huge numbers of military personnel. That’s pretty exciting, and important.

To go back to your question, training, on the other hand, prepares people to conduct foreseeable tasks under given conditions to a set standard. We’re creating a large training program too, it will reinforce culture-general learning from education and provide culture-specific preparation before Airmen deploy overseas. My focus is on the education component, though. Education is about broad preparation for uncertainty. We don’t know where Airmen are going to be in the future, what missions they’ll be performing. It’s difficult to imagine the challenges they’ll be facing a decade from now. So the Air Force has developed this model and put institutional resources behind it, including people, hiring anthropologists and others, and grounding it in an educational system where they are taught by academics, not just by practitioners with experiential knowledge.

LLW: How do you teach “culture” in general without teaching about a specific “culture,” i.e. regional area or language or local history?

BRS: First off, we don’t expect that we’re going to develop expertise in people who take part in a professional military education system. This is not set up to develop cultural experts. What we’re trying to do is provide the general purpose force with more learning opportunities than they have right now. That sounds like a modest goal but it’s actually Herculean when you think back to the logistics of the community college course described previously. Still, you asked how you teach culture-general concepts without grounding them in a particular place. I think it could be done, but frankly that’s not what we’re proposing to do. We’re focusing on teaching basic concepts, theories, and processes first, then applying these to specific places, groups, and interactions.

No one is proposing to ignore specific cultural manifestations. We have 3 anthropologists in this Center, and I can’t imagine anyone of us would ever have signed off on that. I’m a Latin Americanist, so when I teach, my examples are often from Latin America, everyone knows that and expects that. I still teach about, culture, ethnocentrism, holism relativism and so on, though. I should also be examining the ethnographic examples in light of concepts and theories that address kinship and exchange and gender and symbols and so forth. I teach the specifics through the lens of the basics of our discipline. I suspect that most anthropologists do this. The problem is that previously, U.S. Air Force education has established very little of this foundational knowledge. Again, Air University is not a liberal arts school, it is a professional school. So, we have to start with the basics and ensure they are expanded, applied, reinforced using specific cases. And not just the cases of where Airmen are deploying – that is the focus of training, education needs to be broader.

Let me give you an example: I was talking with a class about masculinity – what does it mean to be a man, gender roles, distribution, exchange relationships, kinship implications of that, linking that all together. I couldn’t give students a holistic example of this if I were dealing purely in abstractions. So if we’re going to teach a holistic approach it must be grounded in case studies and that’s a challenge because traditional ethnographies are not particularly well suited to this group of students. In this case, I talked about my research on how the Ecuadorian Army recruits young indigenous men by respecting their ethnicity while appealing to their sense of masculine honor and duty to protect the mother-nation, demonstrate their eligibility for marriage or employment, and how this motivates them to submit to the national vision of officers and daily will of sergeants. One of the students responded that the case sounded like his unit, the Texas National Guard!

That’s precisely the point we’re trying to reach: the ability to apply general principles to specific cases and eventually compare between them to identify similarities as well as differences. It is a pretty basic goal for an anthropology department, but quite a challenge in the military educational environment. Students seem to respond to it though. They know that Iraq and Afghanistan aren’t forever. They want to prepare for the next deployment, but are concerned about being adaptable into the future as well. Of course, examples also have to seem relevant to students. So, what we’re trying to do is capture their experiences through ethnographic interviews and convey them in a way that makes clear how culture is pertinent to what they do.

A few people in the Air Force still say, “Culture, that’s something the Army and Marines have to worry about, we’re at 30,000 feet!” The truth of the matter is that Airmen are increasingly involved in reconstruction, security assistance, and similar roles. At the same time, the U.S. Air Force is moving to an expeditionary model, in which they deploy all their necessary assets, personnel and hardware, to the theater of operations. So Airmen are both helping ground forces and supporting their own deployed air forces, driving in convoys, providing medical care, patrolling outside bases, and so forth. Clearly they need greater cross-cultural competence for these sorts of tasks. Still, the primary purpose of the Air Force is to operate in aerospace, and occasionally you hear skeptics point out that English is the international language of aviation. They are right, but I remind them of Churchill’s description of the US and UK as “two countries separated by a common language.” That was his allusion to the significance of culture – despite linguistic commonalities.

Cross-cultural competence is just as applicable to individuals serving on a coalition staff, in peacekeeping operations, working with NGOs and international organizations – even if they all speak English. That resonates with military students who have had to work with counterparts in other countries as well as with members of NGOs from their own country. Sometimes I’ll ask a class whether it was more difficult to work with NGO reps from their own country or their foreign military counterparts. Usually they answer the former. Most understand that military culture helps them connect with international partners, and sometimes the biggest challenge is working with people from their own country but who see the world and their mission differently. That sort of insight opens up an entirely new discussion and gradually shifts the lens from looking at the Other to looking at the Self. This sort of introspection on military culture leads to questions about the differences between the Air Force and other services, how militaries learn about themselves, how they can better manage their image, adjust their behaviors so they don’t become or stay their own worst enemy as they try to relate, communicate, and negotiate with people.

That for me is an exciting twist, that’s where I started my research, looking at militaries, not for militaries. Now I work with the Air Force. I’m an academic, not a bureaucrat. I’m not an evangelist or missionary either, trying to convert people, save them, or sell my cultural wares to the institution. I was asked to take the position, and I thought it was an opportunity to do good. I have also had students ask for help. They know they’re getting deployed again, the truth of military life these days is that people deploy a lot. So, should we help them? I think we should. Morally I feel obliged, especially if it prevents, reduces and helps recover from conflict. A growing number of professional colleagues agree.

To return to your earlier question, is that a fad? I don’t think so. Is it going to go away? That depends on lot of things but if we get our program institutionalized then maybe in 5 years’ time, Air Force personnel will say, oh yeah, cross-cultural competence, we’ve always done that.

LLW: Who teaches the 3C classes at Air University? If anthropologists, do you think that anthropologists have something particular to offer that other disciplines don’t? Or is this something that anyone in the social sciences who is attuned to the concept of culture can teach? Where are you hiring your teachers from?

BRS: That’s a lot of questions. Let me say that much of what we are currently delivering is not provided by Center members. It is taught by faculty members in multiple schools at Air University. One challenge we have is to make sure they are up to the job, they is one of the legs of the stool our program rests on, and that requires faculty development. Let me be clear, I’m disparaging anyone. They’re good professors, but if you’re hired as a historian you teach history. Now, there are obvious places where you could look at culture, but nothing that says you have to, and most likely nobody told you to do that when you were originally hired. To help them, our Center is developing a common approach and schema, moving beyond definitions into something that is more robust and operationalizable for the classroom and beyond. We’re also developing exercises, scenarios, other pedagogical materials for them. Some of our teachers and guest lecturers are anthropologists, to be sure. Do we want to hire more anthropologists? Absolutely. Are we trying to hire more anthropologists? Yes, but it’s not easy. Hiring a professor is pretty much the same whether it is for Air University or a civilian school. It is a very, very slow process.

Second, there are obviously some concerns within the discipline about working for the military, and I understand a lot of them. My perspective is that at least I know what my students are going to do when they graduate; most who teach at university don’t! I consider myself very lucky to be able to shape an institution, influence policy decisions, teach, mold the training process, as well as teach. However, ultimately my job is much more akin to a regular university professor than anything else – albeit with heavier administrative responsibilities. I teach, I research, I do service. We’ve found some other great anthropologists who agree. We also have cordial relations with other scholars from other fields that we bring in for guest lectures and workshops. We’re trying to develop that group more.

Do I think that anthropologists have something particular to offer? Absolutely. There is no other discipline that is as good as conceptualizing what culture is and digging into the intricacies of a particular culture through the ethnographic process and understanding it holistically. Do I think anthropology has important role to play? Yes, no doubt. Do I think we could do it alone? Absolutely not. Anthropologists are not particularly good at measuring things, particularly measuring learning outcomes. That is the heart of any quality enhancement plan. Measuring things is something that comes naturally to and is a real concern for militaries. It is easy to measure learning poorly. Doing it well requires a scientific approach. So do I think we need other disciplines like psychology and education and organizational behavior to help us with these sorts of challenges? Yes! By background I am interdisciplinary, and that’s what we do with this program. We’re looking to integrate more perspectives to make sure they are contributing to our goal: cross-cultural competence.

Anthropologists are not obliged to do this, to be a part of this move to educate the military. But I’d ask anthropologists to reflect quite soberly about this. The military is one of the most powerful institutions of the state. Do we want them to be learning more about culture? I suspect the answer is a qualified yes. If that is the case, who should teach them? Some disciplines might simplify, Other-ize, objectify culture. The messiness of anthropology is its greatest strength and greatest weakness. If we do not step up and teach these students, other disciplines will, and while I think the effort should be inter-disciplinary, I’m not altogether comfortable with what it might look like if anthropology is not part of the mix.

LLW: Culture Matters is an applied anthropology blog, so I try to highlight things that can be done with anthropology degrees outside of the traditional teaching jobs in academia. One thing I’ve become aware of recently is this incredible demand for “culture” in various guises in the U.S. military, and I get the impression that a lot of the people responding to this demand are NOT anthropologists, but rather contractors who are already used to supplying services and products to the military.

For example, the organization that contracts and trains Human Terrain Team members, BAE systems, is largely an aerospace engineering firm that supplies products like “advanced short-range air-to-air missiles” and the Typhoon combat aircraft, which hardly seems like a logical choice for an organization meant to recruit and train social scientists.

Why do you think more anthropologists have not been filling the gap? Does it have to do with anthropologists’ attitudes towards working with the military, or simply a lack of familiarity with military contracting processes, or something else that I haven’t imagined?

BRS: Again, lots of questions in there. Let me start with quick overview of how the US military works with contractors. First off, the military is an enormous organization. The U.S. Air Force’s active duty strength is roughly 1/3 of a million. Add in all reserve personnel, national guard, civilian employees and it’s gigantic. Add in other services – Army, Navy, Marines – plus the agencies and it’s gargantuan. Such a large organization is inevitably bureaucratic and slow. To provide services in a timely fashion they often turn to contractors. I think there are some who do an incredibly good job at providing services. There are some that don’t.

The problem I see is this: Developing cross-culturally competent military professionals is not the same as buying “boots, black, size 9.” This is a conceptual enterprise. Those companies that are able to reach out and hire people with good ideas and the ability to do this stuff, they are providing tremendous service to government because they’re filling identified gaps. I’m not speaking of any contractor in particular, I’m saying contractors are a reality, and some do good jobs. Some of these are anthropologists, who work as contractors or subcontractors. Some of the latter are small business owners, applied anthropologists, they do tremendous work and work incredibly hard. There’s a misconception that working for the government is easy. It’s not, it’s hard. It doesn’t pay terribly well. There are earnest people who care deeply about this, not just out of patriotism but often times a sincere desire to contribute to making things better as well.

OK, so there are contractors, there are small subcontractors, and there are good results and some bad results. But if you ask one of these massive conglomerate contractors to “go out and get you some culture” – I’m exaggerating for effect because obviously I’ve never seen a contract that says “go out and get some culture” – the real question becomes who they have on staff that can do this. Usually the answer is nobody. Can they find someone who can do that? That’s where you separate the wheat from chaff. The more realistic contracting scenario is this: A realistic deliverable or service needs to be provided, so it is put out to bid. Most academics can’t compete because of the scope of the requirements. The fact that these tend to be very deliverable-oriented doesn’t help either, since anthropologists tend to not be very deliverable-oriented. Many feel, and I understand this sentiment, that this reifies culture. There are some applied anthropologists who do a wonderful job of balancing anthropology’s complexity with the armed forces’ requirement to act, but there are very few military applied anthropologists. Most in the U.S. are already employed by the government. So, other disciplines that focus more on tangible, measurable deliverables tend to be the “subcontractors of choice.”

LLW: Which disciplines?

BRS: Psychology is particularly adept at bridging the practitioner-academic divide. Organizational behavior, that’s grounded in business schools, they do this for a living. Communications is also a good example.

They bring important things to the discussion, but they shouldn’t be the only disciplines heard from. If we can provide anthropological frameworks, we conceptualize things better than anyone else, we can really flesh out the concepts. To come back to our program, here’s the neat thing: I’ve worked for really tremendous individuals from different disciplines in the past, but with this effort the anthropologists are subcontracting psychologists, organizational behavioralists, geographers rather than vice versa. That’s an exciting process to be a part of. These are exciting times to be in. Sometimes exhaustingly exciting, and sometimes frustratingly exciting. But we’re building something and I hope it’s going to provide some real examples of the work anthropologists can do, because I’ve known lots of people in grad school who said “I don’t want to teach, but what else can I do an anthropology degree?”

Here are some examples for applied anthropologists who want to work with the military: Perhaps they should look less at the contracting options. The down side to contracting is that you don’t necessarily get to set the conditions under which you work or how your work is used. A lot of people don’t care for that, including me. You can form a small business. That’s a good way to go if you have a track record, but you spend an enormous amount of time trying to learn how to bid on contracts. So it is probably a good idea to intern or apprentice first to learn the ropes. There are opportunities to work in government as well. There’s a tremendous focus on our discipline these days. The Human Terrain System is one frequently cited example, but there are many other domains in which anthropologists are also participating. Professional and undergraduate education is one example. There are also language education programs, training programs, anthropologists working on cultural resource management, policy, strategic planning. You have couple in the medical field. There was an article in the National Association of Practicing Anthropologists [NAPA] Bulletin [No. 29, Pp. 110-130], which stated that in the U.S., the federal government is the largest employer of anthropologists outside of academia. I thought the article gave a pretty narrow perspective on opportunities the military though. It’s incredibly complex. There are so many opportunities. As I’ve written elsewhere, the anthropologists I know who work with the armed forces are a very diverse and upstanding bunch of professionals.

I don’t know if you’re going to get into this at all, but I wanted to mention that I don’t know any anthropologist who works for the military who hasn’t reflected long and hard on professional ethics, in their own mind if not with others, and figured out where they will not tread. I did that fairly early, and the interesting thing for me is that I’ve never been asked to do any of the things that I considered to be beyond the pale. No one ever asked me for the sorts of nefarious support or malicious or malevolent assistance that is sometimes portrayed as a threat by a few members of our discipline. I’ve been doing this for a while. I have worked for the military in several countries. The anthropologists who work inside the system are a pretty collegial bunch. So you’d think that if there was shady stuff going on, I or one of my close colleagues – with whom I talk all the time – would be asked to do it at least once!

I understand people’s concern, from a historical perspective, but I’ve honestly never heard of that myself. I understand the concern of those who don’t like the state of the world right now. I’m a member of that group myself. But I want to do my part to make things better by working with people who because of their profession have to salute and comply. We want civilian dominance over the Armed Forces, we don’t want the military to be dominant over civilians, at least I don’t. The point is that no one has ever asked me to do anything I consider unethical. If they do, I can walk away. I think what I do can be laid out in explicit detail in front of my colleagues and I have no worries about what they would find.

I [teach] with full knowledge that my students may use what they learn for purposes other than what I intended. I know that’s a possibility, I’m not fooling myself. That possibility exists for anyone, but we tend to sweep it under the carpet. I have a sense that most of my students do not plan to use what I’m teaching them to go out and hurt innocent people. Is it possible? Yes. But it’s a risk I have to take and one I work to minimize. My reasoning does not follow a do-no-harm formula. That’s a biomedical ethical model that is nearly impossible to fully put into practice. My calculus is, does the probability of doing good outweigh the possibility of harm? I can look myself in mirror every morning and say yes. When I can’t, it will be time for a career change.

I love what I do. I really love what I do. It is not for everyone. I respect those who are critical, so long as their critique is grounded in empirical data, because I think those colleagues perform an important service to the discipline, they bring historical evidence and sometimes hypothetical, conceptual problems, and they put all of this on the table. I’m not going to engage from defensive position though. I try to listen carefully and tell myself, “That’s a really interesting point, I’ve never seen that in practice, but boy I’ll be on the lookout for it.” It’s the same multiple perspectives approach that guides our program, we need to do more of that in anthropology. A cordial and respectful dialogue, not a spiteful duel of monologues.

LLW: I know that you’ve been critical of all the attention focused on the Human Terrain System, as though it somehow represents the main effort at cultural awareness coming out of the Department of Defense. What do you see as the difference between a program like HTS, which embeds social scientists within military units to advise them, and the 3C program, which focuses on training the military in social science concepts?

BRS: I described some of the other ways anthropologists are contributing to the security sector before. Generally speaking– not specifically about the Human Terrain System – the way I look at it is: Do anthropologists want to be sole service providers of cultural knowledge or do we want to help people figure it out themselves? I obviously opt for the latter, but these are not mutually exclusive approaches. There will always be a role for specialists. We’ll always need experts. If someone were going to the places where I’ve done fieldwork, I’d want to have a chance to help them understand the place and think through the consequences of their actions. That being said, I think we also need to look at the general purpose force, the bulk of the institution, and enable them to do more and do better, to think through potential consequences before they act. Both elements are necessary.

My basic framework is this, and I speak for myself, not my institution. This is a principle that guided me through my doctoral work and applied research after that and now. It is my goal to help prevent conflict whenever possible. To help minimize conflict when it occurs. And to help recover from conflict after it erupts. So you get critiques that we’re enabling occupation, violence, these are standard critiques. I understand those, but I’m more concerned with preventing the next conflict than I am with trying to sort out a current one. Don’t get me wrong, I’d like to help minimize and recover from it. But where do I feel I can do the most good? It’s where we can help prevent conflict and violence. And from that comes my effort to help an institution transform itself, to give people the tools to think about different ways of seeing the world. And to help those going to places that are conflict torn to go and deal with that. Ultimately what we’re trying to do is create a better future. I have to explain this to my kids too, not just my students and peers.

6 Comments leave one →
  1. 31 October, 2008 12:02 am

    This echoes Ian Roxborough’s observation about Minerva in which he reminds scholars:

    “It is these people, the military intellectuals, with whom we will be in contact. They already know quite a bit about us: many of them have graduate degrees in history and the social sciences. In fact, they know more about us than we do about them. They have spent time amongst us, and we have (generally speaking) not spent much time among them. Analogically speaking, they are the anthropologists, and we are the tribe. The flow of knowledge is going largely in one direction. We cannot have a meaningful conversation if we only hold it on our territory; we need to send members of our tribe into their territory to learn more about them and engage them in locales where they set the frames for discussion.”

  2. Michaela permalink
    29 November, 2008 2:30 pm

    just an anecdotal comment on
    “And the Air Force teaches what it calls “cross-cultural competence,” or the idea that soldiers can be taught to comprehend and act in a culturally complex environment, even without having any past experience in that part of the world.”

    the air force also runs, or used to run, courses on culture and language for the spouses of air force workers, my father was in the R.A.F. (Royal airforce, british) and the R.A.A.F. (royal australian air force), before being posted to malaysia my mother as his spouse had to attend a course on the culture, language etc… my parents understood this to be a sort of orientation program to reduce culture shock, become familiar with relevant laws etc, but it also informed their ideas of the different ethnicities, where they had/ve a rigid understanding of the class structure as related to ethnicity…. so it shaped the way they and other RAAFy’s integrated or distanced themselves within the host society and landscape. I wonder if the idea of culture has been around for some time in military institutions, but the use of anthro. concepts is more recent…. or the way culture is being used or thought of has undergone change within these institutions….

  3. 3 February, 2009 12:53 am

    My observations of the U.S. military’s embrace of new understanding of culture and its support for the generation of new knowledge (research) suggest that the primary motive for a “rush” is the experiences they have endured in a new sort of engagement with an enemy in asymmetrical warfare. In both Iraq and Afghanistan, where serious combat is underway, and in an expanding arena across Southeast Asia and Sahel Africa, American forces are expected to succeed in carrying out duties that involve allied forces, friendly non-combatants and hundreds of non-govermental organizations. The operative phrase is “expected to succeed.” The military will do whatever it thinks will help it succeed – so if the mission is to provide massive aid following a tsunami in Indonesia or series of earthquakes in the mountains of Pakistan, or to win the “hearts and minds” of local villagers, or to work with fishermen to locate and intercept shipments of illegal drugs or weapons — the U.S. military will seek out and adopt the knowledge needed. That is why they now awaken to the importance of culture and cultural competence.

  4. 3 February, 2009 1:00 am

    governmental – please correct typographical ommision of the letter “n”. Thank you.


  1. Savage Minds Around the Web | TEMP Minds
  2. Savage Minds Around the Web | Savage Minds

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