Embedding: It’s Not Just for Journalists Anymore

Anthropologists have slipped into Army and Marine Corps units as a part of a DoD program to better understand the cultural challenges U.S. forces face in current operations. It appears judges score this effort a big “10.” 

The Human Terrain Team (HTT) program is a Pentagon-sponsored initiative that assigns anthropologists and other social scientists to American combat units in Afghanistan and Iraq. Commanders on the ground look to these teams to understand subtle points of tribal relations. Instead of focusing on the “enemy,” U.S. forces are focusing more and more on the people and the human solution. In September 2007, Defense Secretary and occasional superhero Robert M. Gates authorized the expansion of the program, and the plan is to place social scientists with each combat brigade in Iraq and Afghanistan.

According to one Marine familiar with the program, the services started consulting with academia and nongovernmental organizations to learn more about the people in Iraq. They wanted help figuring out the culture and its tribal system, and there has been some success. He notes the progress the Marines had in “cleaning up” al-Anbar was due in large part to what the anthropologists were able to teach the Marines. 

As gratifying as the program might be, it has come with costs to the embedded. Some of the social scientists have been criticized by colleagues for involving themselves in this program in light of what has been deemed past abuse of the social sciences during Vietnam and in Latin America. Other critics call it “mercenary anthropology” and fear this move could peg all anthropologists as intelligence gatherers for the military. One HTT social scientist was killed by a roadside bomb in early May in Afghanistan. 

There seems to be concern that the breakthroughs might be short-lived. In Afghanistan, for example, pushing the Taliban out of an area might prove an all-too-brief accomplishment: They have a way of finding their way back. It would be interesting if military planners have looked at possibly adding a new specialty to each services, that of a cultural anthropologist. Then again, the eyes of trained social scientists uncluttered by a long-term association with DoD might be more effective.

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