March 14, 2011

Anthropological Sundays #4: The Human Terrain System & Anthropology: Is "Culture" Really the Issue?

This past Friday I had the chance to see the film "Human Terrain," which critically explores the US military's implementation of the Human Terrain System program in Iraq and Afghanistan.  This is the the program in which "anthropology goes to war," meaning that social scientific concepts--and social scientists themselves--are being recruited to make war more "culturally-sensitive" and, supposedly, less lethal.  The thing is, there aren't too many anthropologists who are actually joining this program. 

While proponents of HTS often mention the desire to win the "hearts and minds" of Afghans and Iraqis and make the war effort more "efficient" through the use of socio-cultural knowledge, detractors (many of them anthropologists) argue that the program creates serious ethical issues and conveniently sidesteps many larger political issues in the process.  Numerous anthropologists have spoken out against HTS--including the American Anthropological Association, since it was implemented in 2007.  There have been some critiques leveled at academic anthropologists for expressing open resistance to HTS.  So what's the deal here?  Are the anthropologists who speak out against HTS simply cloistering themselves in the ivory tower, or is there legitimate reason to not only be suspect of this effort to "militarize anthropology"?

First off, the mission statement from the US Army's HTS Home page states that the program is designed to:
Recruit, train, deploy, and support an embedded operationally focused socio-cultural capability; conduct operationally relevant socio-cultural research and analysis; develop and maintain a socio-cultural knowledge base, in order to enable operational decision- making, enhance operational effectiveness, and preserve and share socio-cultural institutional knowledge. 
 Many people argue that HTS is NOT an intelligence gathering operation, and that it is not espionage.  The underlying idea is that gaining an improved understanding of culture will make things better on the ground, and while this sounds quite appealing on the surface, I think it makes sense to look further into what this means.  Just to add a little more background, here is a description of HTS from BAE systems (which looks like a study abroad program page if you ask me):
In addition to the most advanced weapons systems, intelligence and personnel, there is another valuable resource for America's military. It is the ability to understand the people, culture, traditions and social underpinnings that define an area of engagement. This is where BAE Systems’ Human Terrain System (HTS) program comes in. Because better understanding leads to more powerful and lasting solutions.
So, even though proponents proclaim that HTS is non-lethal (or non-kinetic as it is sometimes put), it is still part of a larger arsenal of "resources" that can be tapped in the theater of war.  Again, as with the mission statement on the US Army's page, the BAE description of the program emphasizes the importance of cultural understanding in an "area of engagement" in order to foment "more powerful and lasting solutions," whatever those "solutions may be.  As numerous anthropologists have pointed out, one of the fundamental issues with the military's use of HTS is that it has a particularly rigid, if not completely defunct, conception of the idea of "culture" that allows the justification of this program.  Now, this may sound like an academic point, but I assure you it is not.  As David Price argues in a 2009 piece in Counterpunch,
The notion of using anthropologists and other social scientists to gather information, probe and soothe the feelings of those living in these environments, increasingly monitored and controlled by machines, strikes me as an anthropological abomination. Given what we know anthropologically about the complexities of how culture works, it also seems doomed to failure.

Simple notions of mechanical, disarticulated representations of culture can be found in the Army’s new Counterinsurgency Field Manual, in which particular forms of anthropological theory were selected not because they “work” or are intellectually cohesive but because they offer the promise of “managing” the complexities of culture, as if increased sensitivities, greater knowledge, panoptical legibility could be used in a linear fashion to engineer domination. Such notions of culture fit the military’s structural view of the world. It is the false promise of “culture” as a controllable, linear product that drives the COIN Team’s particular construction of “culture.” Within the military, the COIN Team is not alone in this folly: I’ve just finished a critique of the recently leaked Special Forces Advisor Guide (TC-31-73), and found a widespread adoption of dated anthropological notions of culture and personality theories, being selected and used to produce essentialized reductions of entire continents as having a limited set of uniform cultural traits.
In short, HTS utilizes "culture" in a way that completely disregards histories and politics, and often frames conflicts in Afghanistan, for example, as if they are the result of mere cultural differences (their version of culture fits in with a very outdated notion that dates from around the 1940s, in which entire nations were understood to have singular, unified characters or personalities.  Despite the fact that such conceptions of culture have been thoroughly critiqued over the past 60-70 years, a popular notion of culture that stems from this time period is still quite pervasive.  In this sense, anthropologists are often fighting against some of the terms they helped to define, which is ironic).  This, the argument goes, just requires a deeper understanding of cultural knowledge in order to reduce casualties.  

But is "culture" really the problem?  I think there is good reason to question the claim that the violence and upheaval in places like Afghanistan are fundamentally rooted in cultural differences, since such thinking completely elides larger social and political realities.  First of all, it's pretty important to realize that there isn't just one "culture" or cultural pattern that can explain the behaviors and proclivities of all Afghans.  Anyone who claims that there is such a thing is hanging on to an understanding of culture that is seriously warped and lacking in empirical basis.  There are numerous groups in that country, each with their own histories and particularities.  Culture--whether in Afghanistan or the US--is not just some static object or state that people inherently possess.  Instead, it's a fluid, historical, constantly shifting process through which people learn and relearn social rules, norms, boundaries, and expectations.  

Much of the HTS rhetoric sounds as if there is a singular code or pattern that needs to be learned by soldiers so that they can then understand the minds of Afghans and somehow make everything better.  This kind of static, reified understanding of culture is also reflected in the thinking of folks like the late Samuel Huntington, Lawrence Harrison, and even people like David Brooks.  Each of these authors use(d) culture as a primary explanatory framework, even if their understanding of cultural processes themselves were by no means based in any sort of data-supported reality.  Huntington often argued that the ongoing conflicts between the "west" and the rest could be understood in purely cultural terms.  Harrison has basically rehashed the old "culture of poverty" argument to explain away global inequality as mere cultural traits and predispositions.  Brooks makes an argument that is closely aligned with Harrison, going so far as to say that poverty in Haiti is due to "a complex web of progress-resistant cultural influences."  

All three of these uses of culture are egregiously ahistorical and they ultimately allow for an understanding of complex problems that completely evades political factors.  The west and the east clash not because of geopolitical power struggles over resources and territories, but because of deep cultural differences--or so folks like Huntington would have us believe.  The nation of Haiti is plagued with poverty not because of hundreds of years of political conflict, corruption, interventions, and social turmoil, but because the people themselves are resistant to progress--that's the version of culture that Brooks and Harrison are peddling.

And this is exactly the way in which proponents of HTS are employing culture.  For them, culture is a problem that needs to be addressed, so naturally they need social scientists to help them with this particular puzzle.  But it's just not that simple--the real issues behind the conflict extend far beyond cultural differences, that's for sure.  While the HTS rhetoric may sound as if it's geared toward improving conditions on the ground, the real issues exist at a much higher level.  People in Afghanistan aren't resisting US troops or refusing to cooperate simply because they have a different way of perceiving the world--such explanations completely obfuscate the fact that the people of Afghanistan are actually political aware of the situations and realities they face.  They observe the world around them, and they deal with constantly changing situations and make decisions based upon experience and judgment.  They aren't simply robots who are acting out of some supposed collective cultural mindset that magically developed over the last 1000 years.  They're stuck in the middle of a ridiculously complex--and violent--situation, and many of them are probably more worried about survival than anything else.  

What matters is attention not only to history, but also to all of the complex power relationships and political situations that pervade the region at various scales.  Many of the people are caught somewhere between the US military, the Taliban, and a pretty unpredictable set of economic and political circumstances.  Despite the glossy claims of the US military and the folks behind HTS, the problem ain't culture.  More than anything, the problems are political and economic--and no amount of superficial cultural sensitivity is going to ameliorate that fact.  It's certainly not a cultural trait unique to the people of Afghanistan to be wary, if not downright terrified, in the face of violence and warfare.  And that's an understatement.  

*Is HTS a dead issue?  Some might argue that it is.  However, just as I was getting ready to submit this post, this article showed up on one of the anthropology listservs that I subscribe to.


Conor said...

Great article Ryan. Especially your definition of culture. I remember getting an email a while back from HTS and I was perplexed at why there was not even an Arab language requirement for the position. It was ridiculous.

Maximilian C. Forte said...

Finally got a chance to read this through and, yes, it is an excellent article. I would refer my students to it in fact--added to my bookmarks and likely to be added as a recommended reading. Well done.

Ryan Anderson said...

@Conor: that's crazy. I think I remember you telling me about that email. I wonder how they got your address? From school?

Ryan Anderson said...

@Max: thanks!

Anonymous said...

Conor: There is no language requirement, because of the number of language specialists already hired by or contracted by the DOD. In addition, as you may already know, interest in foreign languages waned almost twenty years ago in this country, and finding proficient foreign language speakers who can pass security scrutiny continues to be problematic. Finally, as far as I know, HTS does not contact perspective employees. All persons recruited for the program are hired by BAE, and become term Department of the Army Civilians, upon graduation.